Routemaster: Take the number 15 to nostalgia

The last rites were said, and London's old Routemaster has been well and truly mourned. Hang on, says Kieran Falconer. I see two coming along right now ...
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The Independent Travel

The London Routemaster was an essential part of my childhood. We couldn't afford a car, but thanks to Red Ken (yes, he was around then) we had cheap or free travel and a bus we could hop on or off, usually without paying. It may seem strange to anybody outside the M25 to have nostalgia for buses but - if I can get the professional Londoner bit out of the way for a minute - Venice had its gondolas; we had the Routemaster.

And we still do. Though they were finally withdrawn from normal service on 9 December when they stopped running on route 159, you can still board one on the central London sections of routes 9 and 15 (called "heritage routes", which does nothing for my ageing ego).

Routemasters made their appearance in the mid-Fifties and continued to be manufactured until the late Sixties. Sturdy beasts, and with such up-to-date features as aluminium frame and power-steering, they were intended to replace the capital's trolleybuses. Only 2,876 were built, mostly for London, and now there are only 10 working daily in the capital.

Usually Londoners only become nostalgic about the price of drugs, but although the Routemaster's image might be considered to have been slightly tarnished by its associations with Cliff Richard (in fact, the bus in Summer Holiday was the Routemaster's predecessor, the RT).

"It's insane," said one ticket inspector I met in Trafalgar Square. "London is black cabs, red telephone boxes and the Routemaster. There should be more routes for it and [with a snarl] there should be no bendy buses."

A trip on one of the Heritage Route buses confirms the widely held view that London is best viewed from the top deck. The No 9 starts at Prince Consort Road (Albert Hall), takes in the sights and shops of Knightsbridge, passes the statue of Eros in Piccadilly Circus and the lions of Trafalgar Square, breezes into the Strand and finishes around 25 minutes later by the Aldwych theatre, currently pulling 'em in with Fame: The Musical.

I caught driver Nadir Bonini (who originally came from Italy) and his conductor Rachid Ferroudj (originally from Algeria) during their lunch-break. "I love it," said Nadir of his charge, "because the driver can concentrate on driving." "I love it," said Rachid, "because I can talk to people all day. And people love to be on these buses."

As if on cue, an ancient man, looking like Ian Carmichael and sounding like Mr Cholmondley-Warner, dithered between boldness and hesitation before finally getting on the bus. "I say, I thought they'd got rid of all these?"

"You're obviously living on the wrong side of town, sir," said the conductor. "There are still some left."

"Good, good. Great show, keep it up."

Then, within 10 minutes, an elderly lady with more plums in her vowels than an orchard expressed the same sentiment. But it is not just the homies of ghetto South Kensington who are rattling their bling in triumph. On both bus routes I hear: "Oh, how wonderful; I thought they were all gone", again and again, accompanied by that same child-like wonder.

That sense of wonder is due to rarity but I remember the day- to-day buses I had to use to get to school. It was a straightforward route from Roehampton to Barnes, where my abiding memory is having to wear shorts in winter and trying to find some area of the bus which didn't have a wily draught. Another bus I used was mercurial. Having run yourself into a stitch to catch it outside Putney station, the driver might slope off for a cup of tea. Then it would face the gradient of Putney Hill as if K2 had hoved into view, and the driver would mysteriously disappear.

Eventually we would get to the Green Man, where the driver would get out his cheese sandwiches (white bread of course) while the conductor got the tea from a little booth occupied by a hobbit who, as a child, I always thought lived in there. Then, depending on their audience they would hold court on the topics of the day: three-day weeks, Jubilee bus tickets, Bullseye "this is what you could've won", unions and Unlucky Jim (Callaghan).

Philip Joseph (aka P) probably remembers all of that. He tells me more as he conducts on the Heritage No 9. Coming from Dominica in the 1960s, he started on the Routemaster in 1968, on a route through Oxford Street. Being a new boy he was a stickler for the rules. Regulations said only five standing. Once he repeatedly asked a large Irish labourer off, explaining that there was one too many. Large Irish labourer picks P up, drops him on the pavement and rings the bell. Bus goes off, P jumps on a No 6 to follow it and discovers that the man went only one stop. "I'll write my memoirs one day," he says.

A big new square-topped No 9 bus follows us almost all the way but interestingly punters in the queue ignore it and cram on to the Routemaster. "People love, love, love these buses. If you charged them a £100 a time, they'd still come on," says P.

The second Heritage Route covers part of the No 15 route from Paddington station to Blackwall station. The Routemaster No 15 starts in Trafalgar Square and rolls down the Strand (past The Coal Hole and the Lyceum Tavern) before ongoing pub crawlers fall into The Tipperary and Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese in Fleet Street. Then it wobbles up Ludgate Hill (past St Paul's Cathedral), into Cannon Street then by Monument, Eastcheap and finally into the tourist-infested Tower Hill - where there are no good pubs.

The decision to get rid of the Routemasters was based on one or two tourists taking an early dive out of the open door and the inaccessibility to the elderly and disabled. But it was also because the buses have conductors - so two salaries instead of one. The Heritage routes will have the last bus conductors in the developed world.

Conductors may be expensive (although poorly paid) but there is nothing better than dealing face-to-face with someone who knows their stuff and is willing to chat. "One lady told me," said Rachid Ferroudj, "that I should have a blue badge because I'm such a good tourist guide." It is, in fact, that social element that is mostly absent from modern transport. Did people talk in Dickens' day? In his essay on omnibuses, he wrote: "On smooth roads people frequently get prosy and tell long stories, and even those who don't talk, may have very unpleasant predilections." No change there then.

The Routemasters are now tourist buses essentially but purists ought to realise that they always were. As a kid on the No 22 passing by the flares of Chelsea I remember one exasperated American couple. She: "But where are we going, Bradley?" He: "It doesn't matter - we're on a big red bus baby and we're in London!" She: "But we don't know where we're going!"

I'm sure they got there. You always did - eventually.

Heritage Routemasters run every 15 minutes between 9.30am and 6pm. No 9 runs from the Royal Albert Hall to Aldwych and No 15 from Trafalgar Square to Tower Hill. All valid bus tickets and Travelcards accepted. For further information go to www.tfl.gov.uk

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