I was 16 when I first visited London for a whirl of a wind, five-hour tour during a Heathrow layover. I remember only snapshots revealed as I emerged from subterranean escalators: Piccadilly’s hypnotic lights, Buckingham Palace’s wedding cake font, and Big Ben watching over all the bustle like some staid judge. It was big and disjointed and, in my mind, the only thing that held these wondrous bits together was the vast network of trains rumbling underfoot – the Underground.
The Tube was a masterpiece to my suburban sensibilities – swiftly zipping London’s well-dressed from stylish abode to streamlined office to Soho gallery and back again. Armed with a pair of souvenir Tube-map socks and a Mind the Gap T-shirt, I resolved to one day join their ranks, and 12 years later I did just that.
Two months into an editing gig in central London, the romance had waned. Sure, the sheen wears off every big city dream at some point, but this was a short-lived loved affair by any standard.
London was meant to be fashion (!) and art (!) and history (!), but so far all I’d managed to see between home and work were miles of subway-tiles. I could never determine east from west or figure out where Bloomsbury was in relation to Chelsea. On the iciest of days I still arrived at work in a sweat after sharing an unventilated subway car with, it seemed, the rest of London, and my new city-chic heels were taking a beating on escalators and endless underground walkways. All this at a cost equivalent to $8 per journey*! The root of my discomfort was the very infrastructure in which I’d placed so much hope.
I loathed the Tube.
Then one fateful day the north/south running Jubilee Line was closed (as it often is) and it marked one inconvenience too many. Taking an alternate route meant dashing for two different connections in ridiculously stylish shoes. It was a time for last resorts. I caught a bus.
Up to this point, the Underground’s demerits were obvious (hot, cramped, overpriced, unexplained stops in dark tunnels, long walks between platforms, closes at midnight) but the merits of bus travel were still unknown. In the suburbs where I grew up, buses were the domain of grannies and crazies. They were slow and indirect, idling at rural stops for minutes at a time. This stigma had kept me off London’s iconic double-deckers. I see it in many of my North American visitors as well. The only bus they’ll brave is the open-top tourist variety. Over dinner with five other expats recently, each of them admitted to never taking the London bus, generally because they expect it to be confusing and they’ll miss their stop.
And here our plot takes a drastic turn, courtesy of Deus ex machina – God from the machine that issued forth my bus ticket after charging a mere pound. In the movie version of my London life, a beam of light shines down from heaven in this moment; I ascend to the upper deck and I am a convert. This is my revelation: in London, bus travel is not only cheap as chips, it is a cinematic experience – one I have since repeated at every possible opportunity.
From the upper deck, crossing the Thames equals any visit to the IMAX, and from the bottom deck, a drive along Oxford Street rivals a front row seat at London Fashion Week. In traffic I read the blue plaques on buildings around town, which denote which famous Brit lived where (Winston Churchill! Alfred Hitchcock! Charles Dickens!) and have a prime view of London’s celebrated street art. It is people-watching, history-marking, city-touring heaven. There are no drastic temperature changes; there is a greater likelihood and securing a seat; and when there’s a holdup, I know exactly why.
Those North American fears of missing a stop and winding up in an squalid no man’s land are entirely unfounded thanks to an automated voice that calls out each stop as it approaches. In keeping with London’s penchant for good design, easy-to-read maps at each bus stand show you where to catch your bus and every single stop it makes along the way.
The more I speak to seasoned Londoners, the more I discover that I’m not the only one with a passion for the bus. These insiders know that the bus is often more direct and rarely takes longer than the Tube.
Lindsey Clarke, editor of London’s authoritative city blog, Londonist.com, and a fellow bus enthusiast, tells me the top deck of a London bus is her preferred spot for city viewing and daydreaming. She lets me in on a handy tip: “If you’re nifty,” she says, “you can bus-hop across town in a very cunning manner – all the way to Zone 6 and back if you wish.”
Every rider has a favourite route. I like catching the 24 bus in the shadow of Big Ben and passing Trafalgar Square and the theatre district en route to quirky Camden Town and tranquil Hampstead Heath. Ms. Clarke has a particular soft spot for the 341 bus which connects trendy north London to the arsty south bank. “The 341 is a comfy double-decker that links Islington to Waterloo in 30 minutes or less, crossing the Thames at Waterloo Bridge with stunning views, handy for the City or the West End. And it runs 24 hours.”
Now, more than a year into my London life, I’ve yet to ride the bus without some fresh new revelation about the lay of the land. And ironically, my bus rides have proved just how walkable this city is. What was a 15-minute tube ride is often revealed to be a really pleasant 25 minute stroll; and if you get lost, handy maps at every bus stop will help you get your bearings as you move on to the next history-steeped spot, enjoying every site along the way.
Note for visitors:
– For riding the bus or the Tube, it is well worth buying a pre-loaded Oyster card which gives you big savings on pay-as-you go travel. It caps out at a daily max, so you get a day’s unlimited bus travel in all zones for ¬£3.30 or Tube travel for ¬£6.70 in zones 1 & 2.
– Route 10 is best for fashion-lovers, taking you from the Royal Albert Hall and Kensington Palace to the luxury of Harrod’s department store and the excess of Oxford Street.
– Route 24 is great tourist route, passing by Houses of Parliament, Trafalgar Square through the famous West End, and finally to infamous Camden and giant park Hampstead Heath.
– Routes 9 and 15 are heritage routes which let you ride original Routemaster double deckers for regular bus card fares. Route 15 passes tourist must-sees like the Tower of London, St Paul’s Cathedral, publishing mecca, the Strand and Trafalgar Square.
*¬£4 when paying per journey without an Oyster card.