"Thank you driver". "Cheers mate". "Thanks driver."
Not what you expect to hear on a London bus route, but that’s exactly what's repeatedly uttered on the 347, from Ockendon to Romford. This is London's least frequent bus route.
The service runs four times a day, Monday to Saturday — a bus every two hours, 9am till 3pm. That's just 24 buses a week. By comparison, the most frequent buses in London — like the 12 and 38 — run every 4-6 minutes during the busiest periods. By 9am on a Monday, these routes, and many others, will have already run more services in one morning than the 347 does all week.
The 347 actually starts outside Greater London; Ockendon station is just across the boundary in Essex. The station used to have its own barbers, but they’ve recently got the chop ahead of planned refurbishments to the building.
"If he's elated to see another human besides the bus driver, he doesn't show it"
I'm the only passenger on board as the journey starts and it's a few stops before another joins me — a smartly dressed middle aged man. If he's elated to see another human besides the bus driver, he doesn't show it. Perhaps I've scuppered the joy he usually feels about having the entire bus to himself.
We cross the border back into London, travelling along the quiet Ockendon Road. On first appearances, this sleepy lane, with its assortment of small scale housing and large open fields, doesn't look like anything special. However, this small community of North Ockendon is a one-off; the only part of Greater London outside the M25. The London boundary dates from 1965, while construction on what became the capital’s orbital motorway only started in 1973. Everywhere else, the motorway either follows the London boundary or is well beyond it. Due to this anomaly, there were proposals to transfer North Ockendon to Essex in the early 1990s but these were shelved after vociferous protests from locals who wanted to remain Londoners.
"Soon they're asking after each other's relatives"
London's most easterly pub, The White Horse, is also located here; I visited it and its huge beer garden back in 2016. Too early for a drink this time though. Another bus travels part of the way along this lane; the 370, which is much more frequent and runs every 20 minutes for most of the day. The bus then travels beneath a flyover carrying the M25 — one of only a handful of London routes passing the motorway.
We sail on past all advertised stops until reaching Winchester Avenue, on the outskirts of Upminster. Finally — have some new passengers! A whole four other people climb aboard — two apparently retired couples — and in fine spirits. Soon they're asking after each other's relatives; unheard of on London transport.
Closer to the centre of Upminster, we're greeted by the familiar sight of chain restaurants, alongside independent shops like Natural Balance: Chinese Medicine. The first passenger alights and (yes) thanks the driver. As we reach Upminster station, a few more get off, again uttering their thanks. Our numbers are swelled here by six — it's the most popular stop on the route.
"We could almost be in Suffolk"
We pass by Upminster’s Tithe Barn Museum of Nostalgia, housed in a building dating back to 1450. It's only open on selected weekends, and the chances of aligning both its opening and the 347 passing by is akin to a sighting of Halley's Comet.
Having swotted up on the route map before setting off, my theory was that most people would use this bus to get to the gargantuan Tesco at the gruesomely named Gallows Corner Retail Park. This theory takes a bit of a hit as our two friendly retired couples exit the bus over the course of the next two stops at the edge of Upminster. The first to leave wave to their bus buddies as they depart. Thanking the driver at the same time, obviously.
Now departing Upminster, the landscape returns to open country and we speed past stops without picking up any passengers. This gives an almost unprecedented sight from a London bus; flat, open countryside with only the site of hulking great electricity pylons breaking up the empty landscape. We could almost be in Suffolk.
"Has he been walking along the A12, and decided to hop on the first bus he sees?"
We pass Harold Wood station but still no new passengers. From here, we head onto the busy A12 and our plucky little single decker bus is holding its own. It's here of all places — a small section of pavement running alongside the dual carriageway — that we pick up our next passenger. He boards the bus quickly and sits down. It leaves me wondering, where exactly has he walked from to get to this stop? Has he just been walking along the A12 for ages, finally had enough and decided to hop on the first bus he sees? Given how infrequent the 347 is, he's a very lucky man. He's got his headphones on. Maybe he was listening to Goldfinger.
The next stop is Gallows Corner, home to both that Retail Park and eye-wateringly large Tesco. It's also a notoriously unpopular road junction. As the name suggests, this area was previously the site of public executions. It's still home to many an injury. My earlier theory about people using the bus to get to
the Tesco is roundly trounced, as not one soul gets off, and we only manage to recruit one solitary passenger.
"To my disappointment, I discover it wasn't one of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles"
With the Gallows receding from view, we return to suburban housing as we approach Romford. The bus passes through the edge of Raphael Park. To my disappointment I discover it was named after a local MP, rather than one of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. The final stage of the journey sees us pass Mercury Gardens, a local shopping centre, where we acquire our 19th and final passenger, a middle aged woman, for the final two stops before terminating just past Romford station by a sizeable Lidl. I hope she hasn't been waiting specially for the 347, as the walk between that stop and our end point is less than 10 minutes. In total six people depart at the final stop.
What did I discover from my journey on the 347? For one, it’s got a very polite set of passengers. London's politest, probably. It also confounded my expectations of simply ferrying people to the big retail park, although that must be different on a weekend.
The demographic is skewed towards the older passenger, but there is still a fair representation of the working age population, including our A12 walking friend. While TfL continues to feel the financial heat, I hope they can keep the 347, and its clientele, on the road.