Living in the capital can be a jarring experience at times. From outside my window in New Cross comes the constant hum of simultaneous chatter I'd ordinarily expect to hear only on a Friday night in the tap rooms of my provincial past. This is compounded by the constant ebb and flow of London's incessant traffic, punctuated by beeps, screeches, and the regular cacophony of ear-piercing emergency sirens.
It's loud out there.
I'm not loaded, so I have flatmates. Like most Londoners I’m surrounded by people. People in my flat, people on the bus, people on the narrow pavements, the human sardines on the tubes, people at the office. This might appear misanthropic, and I must emphasise that for the most part people are great, but then you can always have too much of a great thing.
When life got too hectic back in Manchester I would often get on a bus — what I called a zen bus — and ride into the Pennines. The clean air and windswept moors were a welcome reprieve from the concrete, red bricks and fumes of the inner city.
Recently I've tried to find a similar escape route from my new home in New Cross. Of course, there's a distinct lack of mountain ranges near London. Another problem is finding a relatively empty bus.
I'd almost given up on finding my zen bus — that's until I found myself at a loose end one morning. To kill some time I decided I would get on the first bus that stopped outside my flat on New Cross Road, and I would only alight when it reached its final destination. That bus transpired to be the 321, a double-decker en route to Footscray, and its 24-hour Tesco. I had no idea where Footscray was, or even what direction we would be going in. But, anyway, the destination was handy enough. I could pick up some shopping when I arrived.
The 321 starts its service at New Cross Gate station, but if you ever decide to get it yourself, you might want to wander a hundred yards down the road and start at the Marquis of Granby. Before you embark you can kick things off with a drink outside, and marvel at the facade; I stand corrected, there is now a mountain range in London.
When I embark I'm treated to the typically awkward affair of finding a portion of standing room, where I can grab hold of a rail for dear life and attempt to avoid at all costs, making contact with other passengers. It's a difficult task, since London buses seem to have been kitted out with the same suspension as Fred Flintstone's 'footmobile'.
Just before the town centre we encounter a shop with a scattershot collection of furniture stacked up precariously on the stores facade, accompanied by a motley crew of mannequins including a pirate, a native American, an exasperated chef, and what appears to be James Dean perched on the roof. I'm looking at Aladdin's Cave, winner of Time Out's Best Shop Award in 2013.
As we approach Lewisham Shopping Centre, I consider getting off; there are better and more comfortable ways to kill time than having your organs slowly compressed. I should probably make better use of my membership with the multicolour panelled Glass Mill Leisure Centre, which lies along the route (like that's ever going to happen). But then something happens: most of the passengers alight at the town centre, leaving a bus that was almost empty.
Have I found my zen bus after all?
I trundle up to the top deck where it is entirely empty, and find myself two empty seats, one for me and the other for my rucksack. Usually it sits on my lap whenever I'm fortunate enough to secure a seat on a bus, but this time it has the chance to spread its straps and enjoy the ride.
The next happy occurrence is when I notice a Turkish barbers on Lee High Road; gents haircuts for £5. I've been looking for a cheap haircut ever since I arrived in the capital, and exhausted all avenues on Google to find a cut for under a tenner. Not long after this bus odyssey, it becomes my new barber. This trip is already paying dividends.
Once out of Lewisham it's not long until you arrive in Eltham, and you may be forgiven for thinking you had fell through a time warp. On the high street there's a Mr Simms Olde Sweet Shop, and other blasts from the past including a Wimpy. I don't see any cobblers on the high street, but I heard from a "reliable" source that they still call Snickers bars Marathons here. Luckily I had used a payphone to call home that morning, and had several Fisherman's Friends in my pocket to remind me that I'm a child of the 20th century.
The next high street we arrive at is Sidcup. I'm worried we still haven't managed to escape the time warp; one of the first things I spot is a Blockbuster store on the corner. (Dear millennials, Blockbuster was an international chain of video rental stores, where you would go to rent a video out for a week, then inevitably forget to return it on time and end up paying more than what the video was worth in the first place. P.S. A video is a...oh forget it.) Alas the Blockbuster shop had been closed for a while; the council haven't got around to removing the sign yet.
Sidcup is your typical blue collar English high street; the architecture a mixture of prefabulated 60s eyesores mingled in with Georgian terraces — or they could be Edwardian or Victorian (I'm not an architect). Instead of burning a hole in your pocket you can work on tightening up those arteries and get your MSG on, as the trendy, pop up, improvised, authentic, tacotastic, chapati cheerful, falafel friendly eateries in central London have all made way for typical high street fare such as Greggs and Maccie D's.
As the bus meanders further into London's outer boroughs, the repetition of chicken shops, off licenses, and phone repair shops — the ones that sometimes make you feel like you're living inside the backdrop of a cartoon chase scene — are gradually replaced by traditional bakers, butchers, and charity shops. The pavements become increasingly empty, clusters of trees are becoming less of a rarity, and the houses begin to boast driveways and in some cases gardens. I begin to feel a sense of quiet washing over me and I'm able to put the stress of the city behind me.
OK, it's not the Pennines, but then the Pennines doesn't have a massive Tesco.
Speaking of which, as we approach Footscray I begin to get thirsty. And right on time that giant Tesco is waiting. I can almost see the can of Coke Zero (other carbonated soft drinks are available) in my hand. Like this:
It's probably a bit sad that with all the abundance of choice in London, and all the iconic stacks of stone lying around, that a 24-hour Tesco is my promised land.
But then, London has many hundreds of promised lands, depending on which bus route you take and which way you take it.
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