Real life

Don’t get on the Clapham omnibus; you might never get off

My first words to my Aussie airbnb customers were: ‘It is really really important that you do not get on a bus.’

21 November 2015

9:00 AM

21 November 2015

9:00 AM

I got on a bus. Well, I wasn’t to know, was I? I just saw a bus stop by the Science Museum and thought, ‘I know, I’ll get on a bus.’ That’s how long it has been since I’ve ventured on to the London roads.

Since driving became unfeasible due to congestion charging, I’ve been getting the Tube. I’ve thought about buses, but before credit card swiping the drivers would never let me on. I suppose I shouldn’t refuse to get an Oyster card because I don’t want the state to know where I am. It’s a foolish protest, but it’s my protest.

However, the other day I was suddenly possessed by the urge to travel above ground. So when I saw a stop on Exhibition Road advertising a location in south London not far from my home, I placed myself by it for the purpose of catching the Clapham omnibus.

If I had known the epic journey I was about to embark upon I would have taken a flask of something hot and fortifying; a sleeping bag; a map and compass; trekking trousers; some matches to light a fire; and some kind of defensive weaponry for when I had to abandon ship and fight my way through the wilds of Lambeth in the pitch dark.

You’ve read The Incredible Journey? Well, what I went through on that bus — or rather those buses, because one bus kept leading to another bus — easily outdoes the two dogs and a cat who ventured 300 miles through the Canadian wilderness. Those pets had it easy.

Transport for London claims the journey time from Kensington to Balham by bus is 37 minutes. When I say it was more than three hours and 37 minutes I mean it. I can produce witnesses who will swear they telephoned me several times that day and I was continually on a bus from 2.30 p.m. until well past 6 p.m.

At one point, I sent a text message telling a friend: ‘I am trying to remain hopeful. But I have to face facts. I think it unlikely I will ever get off this bus.’

At 3.30 p.m., having sat in solid traffic from Kensington to Pimlico, dozens of screaming schoolchildren got on and two of them sat on top of me, screeching Adele songs into my ear.

Just after 4.30 p.m., in solid traffic somewhere near Vauxhall, and feeling the urgent need to leave instructions on how my estate was to be divided in the event of my death, for I hadn’t made a will, I phoned a close friend and begged her to tell me cheerful tales of good things happening elsewhere in the world so that this horror might not be my last memory.

At 4.43 p.m., a blonde, power-suited City girl came down from the top deck and shouted, ‘Get off your phone, you idiot! You’re annoying everybody!’

I looked around me to see only three depressed looking Pakistani ladies, all on their phones too. When scary woman got off the bus, I went upstairs to investigate and there was no one there.

At 5.15 p.m., somewhere near Clapham Junction, I wandered around the bus to stretch my legs but went too near the driver’s cubicle and was barked at by an angry disembodied voice to ‘Stand behind the line!’

‘Where am I?’ I thought. ‘And what is it all about?’

I remember the bus running out of being a bus in a part of Clapham that was nowhere near the bit I had anticipated and then running down Northcote Road looking for another bus that would go to Balham.

I was running aimlessly when a bus crawled past me bearing the legend Telford Avenue, which sounded vaguely familiar, so I started to run faster and just made it.

Shortly after 6 p.m., when that bus ran out and declared itself terminated on Streatham High Road, I calculated it was a half hour walk to my flat. I was trudging through dark, wet streets when I remembered…

There followed a similar scene to the one in Cast Away when Tom Hanks, floating hopelessly adrift on his makeshift raft, all but collides with a passing cargo ship.

I wept tears of joy as the Volvo loomed over the horizon, sitting where I had parked it that morning on the borders of Streatham and Balham, so as to avoid the parking charges outside my flat. ‘Vernon!’ I cried.

My Airbnb customers were on the doorstep when I got home. The nice Australian couple watched me slam the car door and run towards them panting, my hair standing on end, clothes dishevelled.

Inside, after gulping some water, I gasped, ‘Welcome to London. Can I just say that it is really, really important that you do not get on a bus.’

They nodded.

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  • Ngaire Lowndes

    Ah, you encountered the female version of the Statutory Nutter, of which there must by law be at least one on every omnibus. Since conductors were removed from buses, they have become mobile asylums and refuges from the cold, wet streets for the indigent and homeless. Only in the very centre of London do people apart from mystified tourists and beggars actually use the buses.

    When I moved to London in 1976, I bought a pocket A-Z, and every lunchtime walked the streets around wherever I was temping at the time. I learned that it is perfectly possible to walk from Exhibition Road to Clapham Common in less than an hour, and very much less stressful than taking any form of public transport. A pied! A pied!

    • Todd Unctious

      Also only use the tube if going three or more stops,otherwise it is as quickly to walk.

  • The Laughing Cavalier

    If you buy and recharge an oyster card with cash the state may trace your journeys but it won’t know who you are.

  • Graham

    The 345 bus goes all round the back streets and is very slow.

  • Builder boyfriend

    Jesus!,Melissa kite getting on a Bus with the right on leftys of London,your be voting Labour next and putting a poster of Muller Corbyn in you window. You need to come back from the light and remember you are a Tory!,so no more Bus trips just use a Quality 4by4 in London it drives the leftwing Muppets crazy haha xXxX,ps tell cydney I miss her,woof.

  • Charlie Angel

    Not that I want to pour cold water on an amusing piece like this but just in case any visitors to London do read it…no Londoner would get on a bus in Kensington and expect to be whisked to Balham in an instant. That’s not the point of buses at all. They are there for the hop on hop off type journeys in the bits between tubes as it were. And for that, they can actually work really well. You just have to know the knacks and spots.

    Living in central London, I’m lucky to never have to use the tube but the bus is a boon for those slightly too far to walk locations.

    But Balham? In my experience wherever you are, that’s always too far 😉