Red Rover

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I grew up on the eastern edge of the area served by London's famous red double-decker buses. Every tourist knows them, even now that the Routemasters have finally disappeared, serving famous sights like the Houses of Parliament and St Paul's. But the area they serve is many times larger than the central London known to tourists, extending into the vast suburban hinterland of Edgware, Romford, Kingston, Croydon and so on. My home was served by a very unglamorous route, the 174, which connected the largest of the London County Council's housing estates at Harold Hill with its mother town, Romford, and then went on to serve the huge Ford plant at Dagenham. I've been fascinated by travel and transport since I was tiny, and by maps too. In the glory days of London Transport, maps of the red bus system were free. My Dad used to pick one up for me every year when they were published, and I would study them avidly, dreaming of far-off places like Uxbridge and Wimbledon. That sounds funny now, when I've been to so many places (I'm writing this sitting on a Boeing 777 flying from California to Japan), but we didn't have much money and our only travel was an occasional visit to my aunt in Brixton, and our annual summer holiday to visit my grandmother on the Essex coast at Dovercourt.

The first bus map I had was in 1959, when I was six. The London trolleybus system was still at its height, the largest trolleybus system in the world by a long way, but the first conversions happened that year and by 1962 the system had gone completely. They didn't reach as far as Romford, although they came close, so I can literally remember every single journey I made on a London trolleybus. The first was when I was maybe four or five - just about the only thing I still remember from that age. We went to the speedway racing at West Ham Stadium, which involved a bus - the 174 - to Romford station, then the electric train to Stratford. From the station it was a short walk to Stratford Broadway, where dozens of trolleybuses waited to serve routes that connected the London docks, still the largest and busiest in the world at that time, with the drab working class districts of East London where the dockers lived. There were dozens of routes, each with a bus running every few minutes. There was only one route that went to the stadium, the 699, and it seemed to be one of the less frequent routes. With the hundreds of people waiting to go to the same place, the wait seemed intolerable. I remember asking why we couldn't catch the 669, which seemed to run every minute or so - after all, the number wasn't very different. The second time we went - and the last, I don't know why we never went again - it was just too long. We took the 697 instead, a very minor variant of the same route which involved a short walk across a park to get to the stadium. But to a four year old it seemed much, much longer, across the dark, damp grass, holding hands with my Dad, impatient to arrive. I don't remember either of the journeys back from the stadium, I must have been asleep.

My next trolleybus ride was a memorial. My Dad, knowing that the trolleybuses were disappearing, wanted to take me on a ride I'd remember - and it worked, because I do. We went up to London on the train one Saturday, and walked from Liverpool Street station to the bus terminus at Moorgate Square. From there we took the 615 to its other terminus at Parliament Hill Fields, on the edge of Hampstead Heath. I suppose we went for a walk there, and we must have eaten lunch somewhere, but all I can remember is the bus ride. The return journey was the last London trolleybus I ever took. I watched the decline of the system through the maps and Ian Allen ABC books, but I was too young to travel on my own to see the end of the system in 1962, in Kingston. Even so I was left with a fascination for these odd vehicles, bus at the bottom, railway at the top - the wiring has points and crossings just like a railway, and the points have to be set correctly or the electric pickups go the opposite way from the bus, which can only end badly. I've been on trolleybuses in some of the handful of other cities in the world that still use them - Geneva, San Francisco, Boston, and most memorably in Tianjin. I've no idea what Tianjin, in northern China, is like now, but when I went there in 1983 it was a filthy coal-mining town, everything covered in a greasy film of coal dust, most of the large buildings still showing damage from the Tangshan earthquake of 1976. It had - maybe still has - an extensive trolleybus network, which was just like London in its heyday. The Tianjin route 1 connected our hotel to the centre of town, and the buses ran every minute or maybe even more frequently than that. In practice this meant that as soon as one bus left a stop, another arrived.

Long bus rides were very unusual when I was small. To go to London we always took the train, a modern electric commuter train which ran from Romford to Liverpool Street station in the City of London. When we visited my aunt we would catch the 133 from there, over London Bridge and past the Oval cricket ground to her home at 22 Normandy Road, London SW9 - an address made notorious many years later, long after my aunt moved away, when an incident there involving the police led to several days of rioting. Two or three times a year, I would travel with my Dad on route 250 from Romford to another Essex town, Epping, where some elderly relatives lived. This was a long cross-country route, entirely on country lanes and through quaint English villages, passing on its way the aerodrome at Stapleford Abbots where I would sometimes be lucky enough to see a small plane rising from the grass runway. (Many years later I flew one there myself, my first experience of flying off grass, but that's another story). At first the 250 was operated by a very old-fashioned kind of bus, the TD class, a single decker with the engine beside the driver just like the double deckers. Later these were replaced by London's modern RF class, the standard single decker of the 1950s, with the entrance beside the driver and the engine tucked tidily away under the floor.

The London bus maps were printed on thin paper - they weren't meant to last very long. My first, 1959 map fell apart quite quickly - in recent years I've been very lucky to get another, in perfect condition, but I missed it for years, since it was the last record of the full trolleybus system. But I studied all of the newer ones with the same fascination. At my primary school there was a lesson set aside on Friday afternoons for "hobbies", which meant the kids could do whatever they wanted - as long as it could reasonably be called a hobby anyway. The others made things out of paper and balsa wood, but I studied my precious bus map. The teacher thought I was lazy and doing nothing - which as far as I was concerned was one of the early indications that adults were stupid. In fact I was committing every single route to memory. Most of the routes have changed now (though a surprising number are still very similar to what was shown on that 1963 map), and anyway I almost never have any reason to catch London buses, but the study still comes in handy. I still make note of my page in a book by thinking of the corresponding London bus route. Luckily I'm not keen on very thick books, because the red bus routes only went up to 299. (After that came the green buses that served the outer suburbs, whose numbers went up to the 800s with various gaps, but I never found them anywhere near as interesting). So if I put the book down at page 88, I think of the route which straggled from West London (Willesden Junction I think), through the West End and then down into South London somewhere. As you can see, I've forgotten a lot of the details but the shape of the route stays in my mind, and of all the others too - well, most of them anyway, I'm sure you could catch me out on some of the more obscure ones.

One feature of London Transport at that time was the Red Rover ticket. This cost three shillings (0.15) for a child, and allowed unlimited travel anywhere on the red bus system for a whole day. This was just within my weekly pocket money, and for months I dreamed of buying one and travelling to all these exotic places I had so far only seen on the map. And then, one day, I declared my intention of doing so. I must have been eleven or twelve. I have no idea what my mother thought of the idea. Today it would be unthinkable to let a child loose like that, but those were more innocent times. In any case I suppose my parents were used to it - at only four years old I had gone for a walk on my own and finally been taken to a police station a couple of miles away. When they showed up, no doubt frantic with worry, I was calmly sitting with a police constable identifying all the cars as they went past on the main road outside.

So, one Saturday morning I left home, my duffel bag over my shoulder containing my picnic lunch. I stopped at the tiny travel agent's shop to buy the precious ticket, a piece of red card about 1 inches by 3, stamped with the day's date to validate it, and from there round to the familiar bus stop to catch a 174 into Romford. My target was the Woolwich Free Ferry, another London institution which fascinated me. It ran - and still does run - from Woolwich on the south bank of the Thames across to North Woolwich (not very imaginative) on the north bank, and as the name suggests, it's free, for both pedestrians and cars.

I don't remember the exact details of that first journey. I think I went to Becontree Heath - if not that time, then certainly at other times. This was a rather improbable bus terminus in the middle of nowhere, where several routes terminated and others passed through. Eventually I arrived at Canning Town, in the heart of the dock area, for the last leg of my journey to North Woolwich, and a new experience. The standard London double-decker bus at that time was called the RT. Over four thousand of them were built in the early 1950s, to a design that in most respects went back to the late 1930s. They were very sophisticated for their time, with a strange kind of semi-automatic gearbox at a time when nearly all other buses had so-called "crash" gearboxes, named for the racket they made when a gearchange was made since they didn't even have synchromesh and relied on the extremely brutal forced engagement of cogwheels travelling at different speeds. London buses had something called the "Wilson Pre-selector Gearbox", in which the driver selected a gear by moving the gear-lever (a little handle on the side of the steering wheel), then actually made the gearchange by pressing a pedal where the clutch would normally be. The internal mechanism was the same as a modern automatic gearbox, but with the driver's brain and judgement replacing the automatic bit. The RT was a wonderful bus. Although the last one was withdrawn from service in London in 1978 (and the last-but-one route, the 87, served the place where my parents still lived), there are still hundreds of them privately preserved and showing up at bus rallies all over England throughout the summer.

But my choice of Canning Town was made to see something very new, the Routemaster. These had been introduced in 1959 and at this time they were still only in service on the former trolleybus routes, which they had replaced. Since Romford had no trolleybuses, the Routemasters were for me a very exotic species, occasionally glimpsed in central London on journeys to see my aunt, but never experienced. From Canning Town to North Woolwich ran route 69, replacing the trolleybus route 669 - the same one that I had asked why we couldn't catch a few years earlier. And so a few minutes after arriving in Canning Town - a damp, dismal place of run-down small houses and small shops - I was on my very first Routemaster. What a splendid vehicle it was! It seemed gleaming new - although I suppose it must have beena few years old - and had amazing innovations like a heater for the passengers. (All earlier London buses, despite their famous open platform, had no heating at all, except for the driver). What I remember most though, even now, is the unique noise they made. The engine - the AEC AV590 - made a very distinctive sort of hammering noise as it accelerated, unlike any other diesel engine ever made. The RM - the designator used in the fleet number painted in gold on the engine of every bus - was the first London bus to have a fully automatic gearbox. The driver could select a gear manually, but if he (and I do mean "he" - there were no women bus drivers in those days) left it in top gear, the gearbox would shift automatically. However it wasn't very good at it. As the bus pulled away from a stop, the engine would accelerate normally, then at some point the noise would change to a sort of strangulated sound, the bus would slow a little, and then with a tremendous "thunk" the higher gear would engage and the bus would lurch forward with a terrific jolt. While the RM was a fantastic bus, providing public service to Londoners for an incredible 46 years, the gearbox was not one of its better bits. I've since read that it took years to get it right.

After a short ride through unlovely places like Silvertown, we arrived at the ferry. This part of London is now completely unrecognisable. The docks gradually fell into disuse in the 1960s and 1970s, killed by the container trade, new ports such as Tilbury and Felixstowe, and the stubborn refusal of the dockworkers' union to adapt. When I was very small and we used to visit my aunt, the docks extended right the way up to London Bridge - the "Pool of London", the stretch of water between Tower Bridge and London Bridge, still had working cranes on the southern side. I'd stand on London Bridge with my Mum watching the boats loading and unloading. The last time I stood on London Bridge - or that one anyway - was in a very different place, its new home on the Colorado River in Lake Havasu City, Arizona. It seemed very strange, like meeting an old friend unexpectedly, far away from home. Rumour has it that Lake Havasu City, a retirement and gambling paradise in the middle of the desert, thought it was getting the iconic Tower Bridge. They must have been very disappointed when they opened the boxes - although they've made the best of things with a schmaltzy recreation of "old London" around the bridge. There's even a genuine London bus, tucked away in a parking lot behind some shops and bizarrely painted yellow. Even then they were had, though - the bus isn't an RT or a Routemaster, but one of the obscure RLH type built to go under low railway bridges and found on only a handful of routes.

So by the 1980s the London Docks were a wasteland, a mixture of Victorian brick terraces and thoroughly nasty modern tower blocks and prefabricated housing from the 1960s, with high unemployment and no hope for the future. The much-reviled Thatcher government had the inspiration of creating a whole new city there, and now "Docklands" is a metaphor of urban reconstruction. The huge warehouses have now been converted to apartments, massive new offices stand where there were ships half a century ago, and the long, straight waters of the King George V dock now hold the runway for London City Airport. But in 1964 the docks were still active, the cranes still doing what they were built for and not lined up as giant ornaments alongside modern apartments.

North Woolwich is a disappointing, bleak, windswept place, a mile or so from the docks, with only the ferry terminal and a small, old-fashioned station, terminus of the former Great Eastern branchline from Stratford. It's just a short walk from the bus down the gangplank to the waiting ferry. It isn't exactly Life on the Ocean Wave but to an urban lad it still seemed an exciting place, with its smell of seaweed and damp creosote, and boats hooting eerily as they pass up and down the river. It wasn't quite my first boat journey - that was on the ferry which crossed the mouth of the Rivers Stour and Orwell, on the border between Essex and Suffolk. That ferry has long since stopped operating, but when I was small it was one of the treats of our summer holiday in Dovercourt, to catch the green Eastern National bus from my grandmother's house down to the harbour at Harwich. The ferry took us across to Felixstowe, at that time a faded 1950s style holiday resort very much like Dovercourt itself, although it did at least have a permanent funfair. This is the same Felixstowe that killed the London Docks, now one of the largest container ports in Europe and with absolutely no remaining trace of the funfair.

I don't think anybody goes to Dovercourt for their holidays any more, either, with its promenades and its steel-and-glass Cliff Pavillion which even the 1950s was a ghostly place, waves lapping at its foundations and the structure rusting away under the constant barrage of salt water. Now it's a dormitory town for the workers at Parkeston, another container port. In the 1950s we would take the green bus on the short ride from my grandmother's bungalow to the beach, being careful to catch a "Country" bus which served the seafront and not a "Town" bus which took the direct road to the town. These Eastern National buses were very different from my familiar London buses. As well as being green, they were much more primitive. The double deckers were all so-called "lowbridge" buses, designed to shave a foot or so off the height so they could pass under low railway bridges of which I suppose there must have been plenty. They had strange holes in their engine covers, allowing a glimpse of mysterious greasy internal workings, and a strange oily green box sprouting a forest of little pipes which I suppose must have been some kind of lubricator - it fascinated me as a small child. The single deckers - of which there were plenty - had the same "half cab" design as the London TD class. Later on, a modern design appeared in Dovercourt too, the Bristol LS and MW types, but they still seemed somehow exotic. Many years later I saw an ex-Eastern National Bristol MW for sale and came close to buying it - a very narrow escape!

On my first visit to North Woolwich I just crossed over and came straight back. I didn't have time to explore the mysterious lands south of the river, not this time, although I did later. Then I took a 69 back to Stratford, sitting in my favourite seat at the front downstairs, looking out of the window behind the engine. My other favourite seat was upstairs at the front, but in those days the upstairs was for smokers and often the air up there was almost unbreatheable. I realised I was going to be very late home. I'd promised to back by 6, but a look at my trusty Timex wind-up watch showed me that it was 6 already, and I still had a long way to go. There was nothing to be done - it was still a few decades before every child would have his own cellphone, in fact my parents didn't even have a phone at home until a couple of years later. At Stratford I caught an 86 which went directly, if slowly, to Romford. The 86 was a curious route. It set out from Hornchurch, the other side of Romford, then continued along the London Road which, as the name suggests, leads directly to London. It got nearly all the way, to Stratford, and then lost heart. Instead of continuing to London it dived down a side-street and terminated ignominiously at Limehouse. This has an exotic, tropical sound to it, but I went there just once on one my trips and it was a very unlovely place, like many of London's bus termini remote from any obvious source of traffic, alongside a railway line but not at a station. Of course if you did want to catch a bus to London, there was always the Green Line route 721 to Aldgate - though not if you were travelling on a Red Rover. Green Line buses ran from all around the Home Counties into central London, mostly then continuing across London to another outer suburban destination - Gravesend to Windsor, or Luton to Reigate being typical journeys. Our 721 was unusual in running only to Aldgate on the eastern edge of the City. But I never, ever caught a 721, or any other Green Line service - the train was much quicker and I never saw the point. I guess others must have felt the same way, because the whole system disappeared quietly some time in the 1980s. At first the service was operated by normal RT buses, distinguished only by their light green livery, but in the mid-60s some special Routemasters were built for this service with unaccustomed luxuries like doors and heating.

There were other bus operators in Romford. Just one green London Transport route made it there, the 370 which ran across country to Tilbury. Eastern National, whose buses I knew well from Dovercourt, had several routes - for example the 251, which ran from an obscure north London terminus (Wood Green), across the suburbs to Romford, and then by a leisurely route through many small towns to Southend. When I was very small my parents had the idea of visiting Southend by bus, to save money compared to the train. We took an even more leisurely route, the 2A. I can remember saying "are we there yet?" for a very long time. A much smaller operator in the area called themselves Super Coaches, and operated a small fleet of retired London Transport buses from a muddy, swamp-like yard in Hornchurch which I visited a few times in my teens.

I finally got home from my first Red Rover outing maybe two hours after I was supposed to. I don't remember that anything very bad happened - I didn't find my poor mother in tears, or get yelled at, so I suppose they must have been expecting it. And they certainly didn't stop me doing it again.

Other trips took me to different places. A couple of times I took the Woolwich Ferry then walked into Woolwich to travel south of the River, taking route 51A to the oddly-named Green Street Green. Unlike a lot of London place names, which sound a lot more bucolic than they actually are, this really was quite a nice place. There was a big green where I could eat my picnic lunch, and a 1930s style pub, on the very edge of built-up London. From there I took buses across the southern fringe of the red bus area to places like Bromley, which I've never had any reason to return to since.

I never even gave a thought to timetables. For the most part the red bus routes were so frequent that you could just show up. The trolleybus routes, with a bus every minute, were exceptionally frequent, but on most routes you wouldn't wait more than ten minutes or so. I can only remember being disappointed a couple of times by having to wait a long time. Once I wanted to catch the elusive route 100. You might think that this number would be reserved for something special, and it was - but in the wrong way. It was a special workers' service for the giant gasworks at Beckton, on the river near Barking, and one of only two routes marked on the map as "irregular". (The other also ran from Barking, the 23C to the power station at Creekmouth). I waited for a while but with no posted timetable it was hopeless.

On a couple of exceptional occasions, I scraped together the money to buy a Twin Rover. This cost five shillings - twice as much - and allowed unlimited travel on the Underground system as well as the buses. It was probably when I had some birthday money or something, because I never managed to save any of my pocket money from one week to the next. Once I went to Edgware, the north-western extremity of the system, and another time to Uxbridge, on the Metropolitan Line. Uxbridge is a sort of western mirror image of Romford, and equally unlovely. These trips let me explore routes I would otherwise never have got to - a bus travels very slowly through London's urban sprawl. But there were fabled routes I never got to travel, the 84 north to leafy St Albans (and incidentally the longest route in the system), the 65 south to Chessington. I never took any interest in the actual places that I visited, which I suppose is a very anorak-y way to travel. Anoraks hadn't been invented then, or at least were still only used by Eskimos, so I couldn't actually have been one.  I can confess, at this distance in time, that not only did I tick off the numbers of the buses I'd seen in my little Ian Allen fleet book, I even at one time kept a notebook for all the destination blinds I'd seen.

At risk of being called an anorak even now, I can say that London's destination blinds were something special. Long before modern electronic displays, a blind was a handcrafted work of art made from linen and paper. It was a roll about three feet wide and, rolled up, about four inches across - unrolled they were maybe ten or twelve feet long, consisting of a series of panels each about four inches high with a destination on them. Most buses in the world simply say which town they were going to, or in towns they would have the name of a district or a street: "Docks", "Gasworks Avenue". London was pretty much unique in having a little qualifying name at the right in smaller type, small enough to allow two lines, often the name of a street or a pub. So the 174 would go, not to "Harold Hill" or "Noak Hill" (its two destinations in our direction) but to "Harold Hill (Gooshays Drive)" or "Noak Hill (Tees Drive)". Destinations without some qualifier did exist, but were less common (for example, "Romford Station", not "Romford (Station)"). Even when buses went absolutely nowhere else in a small village, this would often appear. Thus route 10, which terminated in the tiny Essex village of Abridge, said "Abridge (Blue Boar)", while the 247 had the challenging, space-wise, destination of "Brentwood (Robin Hood & Little John)". The interest of these blinds was the phenomenal number of destinations they carried that were hardly ever used. So if you watched carefully, nearly all buses on a particular route would be going to just a handful of destinations, but every now and then you'd see one going to a place you'd never seen before. Typically, these were mid-route turns used when the inspectors, important-looking chaps in dark blue raincoats and peaked caps who stood around major bus stops, decided to turn some buses back short to try and get things back to schedule. It was at times like this that you would see "Harold Hill (Myrtle Road)". Sadly, my notebooks have long since disappeared. I did once buy a used blind, from Hornchurch garage, but I think that has been lost in a series of international house moves too.

Today the London bus system has changed beyond measure. The buses are still red, after a brief, awful period in the 90s when they showed up in all kinds of strange colours, and most of them are still double-deckers, the ill-adapted "bendy buses" notwithstanding. The last Routemasters were withdrawn from regular routes three days before I wrote this piece. I find it sad, but not surprising considering their age - maintenance must have been a nightmare, given that the manufacturer (AEC, created by London Transport to build its buses just before World War I) went out of business in the early 70s. They lasted 46 years in regular service, or 51 years if you count from when the first prototypes appeared. To put that in perspective, if previous generations had lived as long, the first Routemasters would have been replacing B-type buses, famous as "Ole Bill" from World War I, with open upper decks and staircases, no protection for the driver, and solid tyres. The Red Rover ticket no longer exists as such, but there are various all-day tickets available if today's twelve-year olds wanted to repeat my adventures from the early 60s. But in today's climate I don't think Britain's nanny society would look favourably upon a parent who allowed it.