"The thing I really love about this was it was probably designed on a table with matchsticks and weights. There was no computer technology. But 70 years later, here we are."
I'm staring up at the yawning grey concrete span of Stockwell Bus Garage with its General Manager, Peter Russell. We could be in the belly of a whale (that's somehow swallowed a load of London buses), although from outside, the garage looks more like a monstrous clam shell.
Frankly, you could look at Stockwell Bus Garage standing on your head, squinting through a plate of jelly; it'd still be mesmerisingly gorgeous. I've got a framed print of it at home. And a mug.
Peter Russell might be one of the garage's countless groupies, but the difference is he gets to work here day in, day out. He started out as a bus driver when he was 21 (back then you had to be 21 to drive a Routemaster): "I used to love those old film On the Buses. So I thought 'you know what, I'll have a go.'"
One or two of the old Routemasters are still parked up here, among their contemporary counterparts.
"It's very physical driving an old Routemaster," says Russell, "They have this quaint old handbrake, a bit like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang."
On garage heritage days (and hopefully there'll be a bumper one for its platinum anniversary in April 2022), visitors are invited to mingle with these 1950s icons, while admiring Stockwell's ceiling, another masterpiece of that pioneering decade.
'The most important building in London'
Will Self over-egged the plaudit pudding when he praised Stockwell Bus Garage as 'the most important building in London', but you can see where he was coming from.
Pillar-less, curvaceous, vast, it opened in 1952, and has been a local curiosity ever since. Incredulously, it can fit up to 201 buses, though you'll rarely see that many squeezed in here at once. The lofty ceilings are also designed so that fumes dissipate upwards.
Some strokes of genius are born out of serendipity and necessity. Large houses had stood on this spot, just around the corner from Stockwell tube station, until the second world war, when it was desecrated by bombs.
Transport for London chose the bomb site to showboat its mantra of modernisation; this was a time when the Central line had just been stretched out east and westward like a red rubber band, and prototypes for the Routemaster were being drawn up. It was full speed ahead.
One snag: there weren't any bricks. Despite the endless rubble scattered across London, whole bricks were in such demand, there was a black market for them.
The shortage is partly to blame for the unsightly rash of tower blocks across London now, but it also nudged a fresh cohort of architects into designing buildings that made major use of concrete, and could be shaped in ways so audacious, as to almost appear alien.
Enter Adie, Button and Partners — a firm who'd designed the controversial Charters mansion in Sunningdale near Windsor. They worked with Thomas Bilbow, a London Transport architect who'd designed Central line stations including Grange Hill, Hainault and White City. Their powers combined to magic up something quite extraordinary. William Morris himself would agree that Stockwell Bus Garage is as beautiful as it is practical.
What makes it all the more special is that not many postwar garages like this were ever created. While tube nerds (rightly) fawn over other modernist masterpieces, like Charles Holden's catalogue of tube stations, Stockwell is one of a kind.
A working bus garage
I'm guilty — as I'm sure are plenty of others — of peering in through the gaps when passing the garage, to get a glimpse into its inner sanctum. Only when you're inside do you get a real gauge for its size. It's like standing in Wembley Arena. Buses that seemed bulky and lumbering out on the road are shrunk down into mere toys as they drive in and park up.
For Russell and his staff, though, there's little time to stop and gawp. Just as Westminster Abbey is still a working church, Stockwell is still a functioning bus garage.
Stockwell Bus Garage is run by Go-Ahead, one of eight bus agencies in London. As the city's largest operator, it's in charge of 25% of London's bus services — and 15 services (11 day services and four night) from Stockwell itself. Early morning, the garage springs into life, with drivers picking up their vehicles (they're generally allocated one route, but sometimes swap around for efficiency), and taking them out on the road.
A small amount of vehicles trickle back into the garage throughout the day for scheduled maintenance, but from 6pm-7pm, post school run and commute times, Stockwell's garage begins to fill up again. Drivers check for lost property, say goodnight to their bus, then a 'shunter' refuels it, sweeps it, and drives it into the bus wash, before putting it to sleep — ready to run early again the next day. (Of course, because of the night bus schedule, the garage never properly sleeps.)
In decades gone, inspectors would stand at the side of the road, manually ticking off buses as they shuttled in and out, but now it's all done electronically. That's a real boon, says Russell, who seems to value technology and heritage equally.
Buses are given a thorough check-over every 28 days or so by Stockwell's team of 35-odd engineers. That's where Lewis Margrave, Stockwell's Engineering Manager, come in. He presides over the engineering team, working in six bays that are essentially larger versions of those used to give your car an MOT. Among the reassuring aromas of oil and background radio noise, wheels and tyres are replaced, dents are ironed out and electronic gremlins corrected.
That's why it's a pretty rare sight to see a London bus being dragged away by a tow truck.
"All people see is the red bus"
Whenever you hear the announcement: "This driver has been instructed to hold the service", that call has been made manually, from a control room like the one at Stockwell.
Sajid 'Ziggy' Chaudry is Area General Manager for Performance at Go-Ahead Group; from Stockwell's control room — operating 24 hours, every day except Christmas Day — he manages a team of supervisors whose job it is to watch over the operator's 250-odd buses here.
"A lot of the time people don't realise how difficult it is running the bus service. All people see is the red bus."
Each supervisor watches a screen covering the two to three routes they're in charge of. It's all about making sure the buses have the right gaps between them — not too long, not too short. Supervisors are in constant contact with their driver, so it's like having them in the cab. They are, in essence, guardian angels.
When a gap needs to be widened between buses ploughing the same route, drivers don't pause at one stop for three minutes, because that'd feel an awful long time to passengers. Instead, they eke it out over a few stops: "As a professional driver you can kill 30, 40 seconds just opening up the front door and the back door, putting the indicator on, without anybody realising it," says Chaudry.
The control room might appear chaotic, with its constant drone of chatter and clacking of keyboards, but Chaudry's supervisors have everything in hand. From the State Opening of Parliament to Trooping the Colour, they know every planned event that'll affect traffic. Of course, they can't predict everything. The most challenging days are when there are demos in the streets, and the team has little or no intelligence from TfL or the police.
Reacting in real time is a knack: recently six or seven buses got stuck in a jam at Vauxhall Road; the drivers in those cabs needed to be relieved, so Stockwell's control room had to send for backup.
"Always put yourself in the driver's shoes," says Chaudry.
Indeed, 99.0% of the controllers are ex bus drivers, including Chaudry himself.
The first bus garage in London to go fully electric was Waterloo, and the man who helped make it happen was Richard Harrington, Go-Ahead's Engineering Director.
Now, he's setting his sights on decarbonising Stockwell Bus Garage's fleet within 10 to 12 years. But it's not all that simple.
While Sadiq Khan and TfL plan to have every London bus service battery or electric powered by 2034, there are challenges to enacting such change, while respecting Stockwell's Grade II credentials. It's not the kind of place you want to start knocking through walls and building extensions.
While Waterloo was a clean sweep of conversion, Stockwell has to be done piecemeal, making the changeover harder. Electric charging points have to go in the right place; you put them in one corner of the garage, and it might look neat and tidy, but when you need to get your electric buses out on their route, you've suddenly got 10 hybrid buses blocking them in. Its' all one big jigsaw puzzle.
"You've got to say to yourself what's it going to look like in 10 years time?' and then work backwards," says Harrington.
And charging up a bus isn't as simple as plugging in your phone. There's inductive, conductive, overnight, opportunity, and fuel cell hydrogen charging to choose from. "No answer is right for anyone," says Harrington.
That said, he's confident Stockwell will hit its eco-friendly targets, and even has ideas for sharing the charging facilities with other road users: "If you start talking about electrifying the whole of London's fleets, and I'm talking about things like the Royal Mail, waste disposal sites, Amazon, ambulances and police," he says, "there isn't enough power for everyone. What we need to start doing is sharing that power"
Could, for instance, refuse trucks charge up in a bus garage, while the buses are out on their routes during the day? It sounds like a sounds plan, and Harrington is already having those conversations.
"The world is changing and we need to keep up with it. In fact we don't need to keep up with it, we need to be leading it," he says.
And with those words, I start to wonder... maybe Stockwell Bus Garage really is one of the most important buildings in London.