The Routemaster bus was a staple of London’s roads for over 50 years. But by the time the last one was phased out in 2005 — excluding the heritage service that bit the dust during lockdown — plenty had gone on to live weird and wonderful lives all over the globe, usually as everything but a bus. Here are a handful of places you’d be shocked to stumble upon a Routemaster.
1. Squamish, Canada
For most businesses that buy buses, it is the culmination of meticulously planned strategy. For Kyla, one of the co-owners of Vancouver based vegan eatery Buddha Full, it was because she had a dream about one transformed into a food truck. She tracked one down a few hours drive away — Canada is curiously awash with Routemasters — and made her dream a reality. The Buddha Full (sounds like "beautiful" when said with a Canadian accent) bus serves plant-based fuel to skiers in the winter and mountain bikers in the summer in Squamish, British Columbia.
2. Ghost village in Wiltshire
The concept of Imberbus needs rather a lot of backstory. The once peaceful and bucolic village of Imber on Salisbury Plains, was requisitioned by the army during the second world war, so the Americans could train there ahead of D-Day. At the conflict's close, the locals wanted to return home, but the Ministry of Defence wanted to hold onto the land. The government won a much publicised court case, but the ruling made clear that civilians must be allowed access a few days a year.
Decades later a few transport professionals were down the pub, discussing where the strangest place to run a bus service might be. "…A place you can’t normally go and where nobody lives," decided Sir Peter Hendy, now chairman of Network Rail. That’s how they settled on Imber. So one weekend a year in late August, Routemasters carry a mixture of bus enthusiasts and history buffs round the uninhabited town.
3. Russian Circus
There's a romantic trope in which people leave their dead-end town and run away to join the circus, hopping onto an open boxcar. But in Russia, you can hop onto the rear open platform of the circus's Routemaster. RM23 doesn't serve any purpose during the show — one doubts it could even fit under a big top. Instead, its main role seems to be that of the circus' herald, drawing eyes to the runaways' arrival in each new town.
4. German McDonald's
Play buses used to be all the rage in the UK. Many Routemasters found second lives as activity pens for children's birthday shindigs, though these have since faded in popularity (I blame Kidzania). However, they're still going strong overseas — a franchise of McDonald's in Germany and Austria owns six. On board there's an eating area for the littl'uns to tuck into their Happy Meals, and a slide from the upper deck to down to a ball pit beneath. The best-known one is in Kolbermoor, which often gets snapped by surprised tourists because its dwelling spot can be seen from the road coaches take on their way to and from Munich.
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Partybussar in Sweden also hosts birthday parties, but these are of a rather less PG persuasion. This is an in-demand venue for student graduation parties and stag dos. These two events have one thing in common: drinking — and people won't just be having one innocent tipple. I reckon the bus has seen more spilt drinks than any other Routemaster in the world, especially considering the vehicle's upstairs dance floor where guests can sway from side to side while carried between party and club.
6. Sri Lanka
British buses have a storied history in Sri Lanka, as London often sent its used vehicles over as part of development packages. It's believed 1,500 buses have made the journey, of which 41 were Routemasters. Most of these buses have long since given up — their carcasses can be spotted in regional depots, one of which has been converted into a cricket scoreboard. However, one still survives in a city called Kandy, running a service to the Royal Botanical Gardens. The bus doesn't look to be in the best of health, but like the proverbial tortoise, it never stops going.
Everyone knows about planes and ships mysteriously disappearing in the Bermuda Triangle, but what about a Routemaster? OK, this one hasn't vanished, but it's certainly not where you'd expect to find a Routemaster with its blinds set to 'Greenford, Red Lion' — a pub in Ealing. Like a fair few global Routemasters, this bus trades in tours for visitors, but with a difference. See, you don't see the island from the bus, rather on a Segway: this is just the tour operator's (air-conditioned) head office.
This is just a taste of the unusual afterlives of Routemasters. Find out much more in Routemasters of the Universe, published by Safe Haven Books at £12.99, available now.
Additionally, Harry is giving a talk on the book at Stanfords on 30 November, where he'll dive even further into the world of Routemasters. Tickets are £5 and include a free glass of wine.