British railways, although now mainly a method of packaging tired commuters into dull (unless broken-down) trains and subjecting them to hectoring announcements and mysterious pricing policies, still retain a kind of prestige denied to much more widely-used and useful British buses.
This is partly due to government vanity; even right-wing ministers who hate public spending can’t resist building monuments to their glory in the form of grand infrastructure projects, such as the high-speed link between London and the north of England (HS2), which will cost, on the think-of-a-number-then-double-it principle, £32 billion at the very least. (Incidentally, I think the word billion always deserves to be spelled out in full rather than shortened to bn, which slurs over the fact that counting out a billion pound coins would take more than 30 years, showing how very dangerous bankers can be).
Anyway, recently I visited my daughter in Peckham Rye, south-east London, which is on the No 12 bus route running between Dulwich Library and Oxford Circus and is probably the most photographed bus-route number in Britain because 12s run very frequently over Westminster Bridge, creating a scene combining the Thames, a red double-decker bus and the Houses of Parliament...and after that you’ve done your duty to London clichés (or icons, as they’re now called) and can put your camera away.
This took me back, because, in the early 1970s, I lived in Forest Hill, not far from Peckham Rye, and travelled daily on the No 12 to work in a shipping office where the directors wore bowler hats. This was in the medieval parish St Mary Axe in the City of London, which I wouldn’t recognise today because it’s been covered by a giant gherkin.
The skylines and the sociology of London have changed greatly, with shards, cheesegraters and oligarchs in places where there used to be humble shipping offices employing incompetent clerks such as myself, but the No 12, dating from 1907, carries on delivering south London worker bees to shops and offices in the money-pits of central London. The docks are gone, the factories are gone but the No 12 is still vibrantly alive and should perhaps be listed as no less a significant survivor than Lambeth Palace.
It also - travel tip for older readers – provides people with bus-passes a route which they can travel for free, but which would cost a great deal if repackaged as a ‘London experience’. It includes the great flow of humanity to be seen daily and at all hours, through Peckham, Camberwell, Elephant and Castle, Westminster, Whitehall, Trafalgar Square, Piccadilly, Oxford Circus and Regent Street, plus at the southern end, two of London’s most overlooked attractions, the Dulwich Picture Gallery and the Horniman Museum.
No central government would think to donate billions to the buses, but they are what many of us rely upon and should be better noticed. Saving half-an-hour of a self-important executive’s time, which is essentially what HS2 is about, won’t do much to help the toiling masses.
Incidentally, and only because I’m keen to get some reaction to my blog activities, I think that the No 12 used to terminate, at its northern end, at Willesden Green bus station. Reply indignantly and at great length if I’ve got it wrong.