Who The Hell Catches An Open-Top London Bus?

Who The Hell Catches An Open-Top London Bus?
By James FitzGerald

The next stop-off on our journey through the London Things That Londoners Never Actually Do is a surprisingly well-established institution which has spawned imitators from Cape Town to Chicago.

London’s Original Tour claims to be the world’s first open-top bus attraction, with origins in the 1951 Festival of Britain. (An event also credited with regenerating the South Bank – not a bad legacy.)

A ticket which cost half a crown in post-war money will today set you back around £30. Roofless in its innovative design, but ruthless on the wallet – is the original open-top bus worth the cost?

By James FitzGerald
Scoping out the city - Kevin and Anne-Marie. By James FitzGerald

"I loved that our guide was a bit outspoken with his politics."

Kevin and Anne-Marie, from Germany, say they’re on their second bus of the day – having hopped on and off several yesterday. By now, they can even recount favourite tour guides. They’re fans.

“It’s been our way of seeing all of London,” Anne-Marie explains. “And then saying to ourselves, ‘OK, yes, we’ll come back to see more of this and more of that’.”

That’s easily done given that the Original Tour is not just a solitary circuit, but an extensive network of buses comprising five separate loops. And remember, this is only one of a number of tour operators competing for your cash.

On a tight schedule - Simone, Reinhold, and Romana. By James FitzGerald
By James FitzGerald

There’s a thrill in figuring out a whole new London transport system. It’s like looking at the city with fresh eyes – making navigational mistakes that take you back a few years.

Of course, that isn’t why most hop on the open-top bus. Rob, who’s visiting with Caitlyn from North Carolina, tells us it’s all about the personalities. “I loved that our guide was a bit outspoken with his politics. Nothing worse than someone just telling you to get on and off.”  

While for Germans Simone, Reinhold, and Romana, the appeal of the open-top bus is having a little flavour of everything during what is an all-too-brief visit to the country. “We have to go and see Stonehenge, Oxford, Windsor Castle…” they say, unfurling map after map after map.

“We use open-top buses everywhere we go,” beams enthusiastic Spaniard, Xavi, from Barcelona. “We’ve even been on one in Barcelona. I love seeing the tops of buildings from them.”

While the Original Tour caters for 11 languages, Xavi points out one more application of the English guide we had never anticipated. “We choose the English commentary so my daughter can pick up new words in the language,” he says. “So she doesn’t just have the bad words like ‘shit’.”

Choosing the English option - Xavi (second right) and group. By James FitzGerald
By James FitzGerald

"We couldn’t believe just how much land the Queen owns"

Whether it’s new linguistic skills or mostly pointless London trivia, it’s the learning that people seem to like about the open-top bus experience. Not for them the base thrills of getting a tan, feeling the wind in their hair, or getting that perfect snap of M&M’s World.

Who can be hard on a product that tries, first and foremost, to inform? Especially if it’s one which happens to remind you along the way that our city is obviously the most amazing on Earth.

“We’ve learned from it that London has all this wonderful greenery,” say Mr and Mrs Fowler from Leeds. “The parks here are huge. That was really unexpected.”

“It was a surprise how many nice war memorials you have here,” according to Stacey and David from Alabama – a couple who tell us they’re visiting “to buy a scotch egg”.

“We couldn’t believe just how much land the Queen owns,” say Jackie and Sean from New Zealand.

By James FitzGerald
Hasn't got out much - Yi. By James FitzGerald

Sure, there’ll always be plenty to learn on an open-top bus for anyone who’s never been to London before. But why are there so many people on board who you’d expect to… well… know better?

Christine and John hail from near to London and are familiar with its sights already. “But we want to see how the open-top bus compares to Paris,” they say. “That one was a bunfight to get on with people not queuing properly.”

Meanwhile Yi, a student from China, has had four years to find his way found the city. But he admits he’s not really got out much until today. “I haven’t found London as convenient as China,” he explains. He’s on board taking in the sights in one final pre-graduation hurrah. FOMO and all that.

If actual Londoners are among those hopping on and hopping off, perhaps we’ve long been underestimating the esteem that the open-top bus is held in locally.

We certainly learned some fascinating tidbits that any nerdy Londonista could benefit from. Who knew that the British Library has 400 miles of shelves? That the Ritz has its very own tea sommelier? Or that the ‘Tooley’ in Tooley Street gets its name from a bizarre corruption of ‘St Olave’?

By James FitzGerald
Not sure about value for money - Sharon. By James FitzGerald

Better value than the tube?

Jane and Gail, two nurses who live in Bristol, think it’s nice but rather overpriced. Jay and Veni from India reckon it’s a nice way to go around and worth every penny. As for Sharon from California – well, it’s not bad, but your money goes further on an open-top bus in Italy.

There’ll never be an agreement on value. You should expect to pay a premium whenever you do a London Thing That Londoners Never Actually Do, and you can take away from the experience what you will.

But consider that the open-top bus tour is not merely an attraction but one that can move you from A to B at semi-regular intervals. During peak season, services on the Original Tour’s yellow route come every five minutes. A frequency which puts the tube’s own yellow line – the Circle – to shame.

By James FitzGerald

In fact, for a three-day London sightseer, the price of a 72-hour Original Tour bus pass (currently £46 online) compares quite favourably with the closest TfL alternative (a seven-day, Zones 1-2 travelcard is currently £34.10). And the bus tickets include optional river cruises and walking tours, too.

While there’s no comparison between the level of flexibility both options offer, it turns out there are those who are actually content to be led along on the rigid pathways of the open-top bus network.

Initially, we are astonished to find Canadians Anne and Alison using the vehicles as “a proper method of transport” from Great Portland Street to Victoria station. It sounds like a rookie error – but at rush hour, it might not be so naïve at all.

Using it as proper transport - Anne and Alison. By James FitzGerald
By James FitzGerald

"The only respite from the car horns is the bus’s thudding Eurobeat musak"

The greatest concern for any would-be tour bus commuter is perhaps not the cost, but the quality of life they would enjoy on top deck. Copious sunblock and an umbrella are obvious essentials - but dust masks are not inadvisable on certain, fume-filled stretches of the network.

Because a traffic jam is a traffic jam whichever angle you experience it from.

Marylebone Road, Edgware Road, Park Lane: many of inner London’s most horrendous streets feature prominently no matter which bus route you take. On these slow stretches, the only respite from the car horns is the bus’s thudding Eurobeat musak as the commentary waits to move on.

It’s the human tour guides that really make the wheels on the open-top bus go round and round. Often esoteric - and always strangely obsessed with talking about Boris Johnson and local property prices - these guys steer their monologues in all kinds of unexpected directions.

The premise of Gogglebox and the opposition to a third runway at Heathrow are among the thematic diversions we are taken down during these otherwise entirely formulaic loops of London.

And it’s no surprise many of the drivers act like they have to make the same 2mph journeys day after day. Who can blame them?

By James FitzGerald
By James FitzGerald

Nonetheless, London’s rush hour suddenly seems perfectly remote and quaint when viewed from the lordly vantage point of a sun-soaked top deck. As exciting new vistas and architectural details come into view on this leisurely crawl, it’s easy to forget your troubles down at ground level.

Late-running commuters, Deliveroo cyclists, charity-muggers, and the rest of ‘em all go into battle with each other as usual. Let them. Up here in the clouds, everything’s breezy.

By James FitzGerald

Overheard on the open-top bus

“It was interesting to hear about the plague here in the year 19-something.”
“Over to your left, you’ll see the turret of the Tate Modern.”
“The buildings here are just a lot shinier. I think Brits just care more.”
“There are more streets named after Cromwell than anyone else in the country. Although Mr High may disagree.”
“This building is where the inquest over the sinking of the Titanic happened. The ship was trying to set the record for the fastest crossing of the English Channel when it went down.”
“That terrible block of concrete is the National Theatre.”
“We’re looking to buy a scotch egg. Do you know where we can find one?”

Last Updated 10 July 2018