Sometimes, it feels like there are few slower ways of getting round London than by public transport. And the bus –so often a victim of roadworks and burst water mains – can be the slowest of all. But for some, that slowness is part of the attraction. Jo Hunt (67), Mary Rees (68) and Linda Smither (64) are ‘ladies who bus’. Since March 2009, they have been taking all of London’s buses in numerical order, starting at No 1, travelling each route from one end to the other, and then writing about it on their blog. As a way to pass the time, it is a distinctively London thing to do. There are, after all, over 500 routes in London; more if you include those that start with letters, like the A10 or X68.
‘It began when I retired from my last job,’ says Jo, the head buskateer and a former teacher. ‘People asked what I was going to do. I said I’d just loll about or play computer games, but then I decided I’d get every bus in London.’
From that moment of whimsy came a plan, which became a blog and has now evolved into something like a mission. Jo, Mary and Linda have acquired matching sweatshirts with their blog address on it – these proved to be handy in winter when one bus’s central heating was broken – and they have printed business cards to hand to drivers at the end of journeys to explain what they are up to. Online, they have built up a following among London nerds and bus enthusiasts.
Jo got the idea when she got on a bus and saw it was terminating at Ponder’s End. ‘I thought, “Where’s Ponder’s End?”’ and elected to find out. ‘Then I thought if I was going to do one, I should do them all, and if I was going to do them all, I should do them in the right order.’ Linda and Mary were both ready for retirement as well, so – armed with their Freedom Passes –they agreed to come along. Jo’s son created a blog, and 200 buses later we are now travelling by bus from Brixton to Mitcham on one of the hottest days of the year.
And here I must make a confession. I also spent a couple of years on the buses, writing a weekly column for Time Out about exactly this topic – taking every bus in London in numerical order, from end to end. Well, it started as a weekly column, but soon lethargy took over, the column became fortnightly and then monthly and in the end I never made it further than the low 60s. Jo, Linda and Mary have persevered, resolve stiffened by each other’s company – and by Jo’s determination to complete the task. ‘Jo is the leader,’ confesses Mary. Jo plans each route a week in advance, working out how they are going to get to and from the stops that bookend the route, and she and Linda take turns writing them up on the blog.
But they are clearly enjoying themselves as well. There is much to appreciate about a lazy morning spent taking a bus for no other reason than the sheer fun of travel, watching London knit together while everybody outside rushes about their daily business without time to stop and absorb the city around them. As we slip languidly through south London streets, the trio note familiar landmarks and reminisce about other routes that have passed this way. They are also able to recall what an area was like 5, 10, 20, even 40 years previously. ‘It’s evocative,’ says Linda of the experience of revisiting old haunts. She also comments on how they have watched London change in the two-and-a-half years they’ve been doing the routes. When they began, the Strata Tower at Elephant & Castle was a building site – now it’s one of the tallest buildings in London. A rapid transformation, observed at leisure.
They are fascinated by London’s arcane history of– such as the Balham estate we pass that was reported to be Hitler’s choice for a home if he successfully invaded Britain – but also by the present, especially in Tooting, as South Indian restaurants slowly give way to West African clothes shops and Mary contemplates hopping off to pick up three crates of mangoes for £10.
London as seen by bus is a city of delights and surprises. ‘I’ve been surprised at how good the drivers are,’ says Jo. ‘I’ve really enjoyed being able to understand how London ties together. And sometimes you’ll be bumbling along and then suddenly you are in the country, surrounded by green. It’s like you’ve reached the end of the world.’ Or the end of London, which sometimes feels like much the same thing.