Weetabix and Braces

Hi.

An itch, an irritating niggle, weedling away at my brain, telling me I’m missing something. It’s been there for a few weeks and as much as I’ve resisted admitting it, the itch is, of course, this place. My tiny little corner of the Internet where I get to ride on buses around London and write about it.

Remember when I began and I wanted to complete all the routes in London before the Olympics? Yeah, me too. Ridiculous. The best progress I’ve made in the last 12 months is forgetting about targets or deadlines. Just do them when I can. Don’t let the project become a chore.

I took that to its logical conclusion at the end of last year and put the whole thing to bed for an indefinite period. There were several reasons for this, outlined in the posts below, but I feel like it’s the right time to continue what I started.

It’s been a productive six months away from the blog. I finished the first draft of a novel and Thomas can expect a brother in August, but the one thing about slaving over a book on your own is the lack of feedback and encouragement that you get with blog. Instead it’s all loneliness and relentless, crippling self-doubt. It takes its toll.

However, the draft is in the drawer for now and I’m ready to step out again. I won’t make any promises about how often I will be on the buses – I’ve made that mistake before – but I will perhaps expand the remit of the blog, to include some of the other stuff that stops me getting out more often. I may even put a couple of extracts from the book up.

But for now, I just wanted to say hello and serve notice of my intention to saunter up the steps to the top deck once again.

As recompense, here’s a picture of me holding a snooker cue wearing a Weetabix t-shirt and some braces. About 1984 I reckon.

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So here I am…

I pointed someone towards the blog today. Then I looked at it and realised I haven’t updated it since August; just abandoned it without a ‘by-your-leave’. So, here’s the thing. The project is officially in cold storage. There are a couple of things I really want to complete (a novel that I’ve been working on for five years being one of them) and my commitment to the buses over the last three years has obviously delayed them.

I need to finish something. So, I’m going to finish the book. I’m not ending this, it’s just in stasis while I give my writing the full attention it needs.

So consider this an explanation. Hope that’s okay. I do miss blogging though. Oh, and I’m @seldomseenben on Twitter now.

So here we are

It’s been a while. Anyone who follows me on twitter will have witnessed my wobble today. I pondered quitting this blog. The idea of it lying dormant for weeks as I struggled to find the time to get out on the buses has been troubling me.

There is a simple reason I have not been out. Thomas starts school in September and so I have been making the most of the weekdays when I am not at work by spending as much time as possible with him. When he starts school, that won’t be an option. What I will say is we have spent the vast majority of our days getting the train from Worcester Park into London. He now has a regular place to eat his packed lunch (next to a fountain in Nelson’s shadow) and I am fitter than ever having walked tens of miles with a 4yo on my shoulders. It’s been a wonderful time. Given the last few weeks, London doesn’t need me to tell you what an amazing place it is.

So I’m sorry about it being so quiet on here. By way of proof, and to kick start the blog once more, here are the photos of him in front of all the Wenlock and Mandeville statues that we have found so far.

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Brussels Route 48

Sarah Clarkson (@taikodrum) is the second of my guest bloggers. Having ticked off Milwaukee courtesy of Andy C (@capitalgull), Sarah brings a flavour of Brussels to the site. I hope you enjoy – it’s a fantastic piece. Thank you Sarah.

Having spent three years as a London-based public transport geek, I moved to Belgium in 2009 and have now spent almost three years as a Brussels-based public transport geek.

Brussels is an odd city. I often find myself telling people that it is a pretty rubbish city to visit as a tourist, but a great city to live in as a local. In terms of its public transport, the network is operated by a company called STIB in French, or MIVB in Flemish.

Which brings me nicely onto one of the most notable oddities of Brussels: it is bilingual by law. Although French is by far the majority language in Brussels (over 60% of the Brussels population), Flemish is also spoken in the city and is in fact the majority language of Belgium as a whole (about 60% of the Belgian population). This divide between the population is not just linguistic, but also cultural. Both of the linguistic communities have their own education systems, media, political parties and so on. Many a political conflict has been caused by this division, including the failure to form a government for an incredible 541 days in 2010-11 – a world record.

The tensions and sensitivities that exist between the Belgian people have meant that all public services in Brussels must be bilingual, including the transport system. Hence the not-so-catchy double name of STIB/MIVB. Confusingly for tourists, this also means that most stops on the metro, trams and buses have two names (with some exceptions, such as stations named after people).

Bilingual Brussels: bus stops and road signs must be in both French and Flemish

Bilingual Brussels: bus stops and road signs must be in both French and Flemish

The STIB/MIVB network operates 6 metro lines, 15 tram lines and 51 bus routes – all of which are numbered between 1 and 98 and all of which are also assigned a colour – a nice touch in my view which London lacks. The route I completed for Ben’s blog is bus route 48, my usual bus to work.

Route 48 (assigned colour: dark green) runs from Anneessens in the city centre to Uccle Stalle/Ukkle Stalle in the very south of Brussels. I chose to do this route not only because I use a chunk of it each day on my commute, but also because it passes through a real mix of different areas of the city.

Bus route 48’

Bus route 48’

The handy real-time route map on board every bus

The handy real-time route map on board every bus

The starting point Anneessens can be found right in the city centre of Brussels, near some nice pub-style bars and fashionable shops. We started off our journey in true Belgian fashion with a couple of beers at Moeder Lambic – definitely go if you’re ever in Brussels, much better than the over-touristy Delirium which the guidebooks always tout.

Pre-route beers in Moeder Lambic

Pre-route beers in Moeder Lambic

Once on board, the bus quickly winds out of the city centre, passing through the Marolles district. Traditionally a district where the city’s North African population lived, it has become somewhat ‘trendy’ in recent years. The centrepiece of the area is the daily flea market on Place Jeu de Balle (all packed up by the time we went past). Here you can buy everything from antique crockery to original Game Boys circa 1990.

The Marolles district: street art, a skate park and the ‘Chapelle

The Marolles district: street art, a skate park and the ‘Chapelle

The 48 quickly leaves the city centre and enters the St Gilles commune (a commune – or gemeente in Flemish – is the Brussels equivalent of a London borough). This transition is marked by the imposing Porte de Hal – the only surviving original city gate from the 14th Century. After standing derelict for many years, it was restored in 2007 and now houses a rather good museum, as well as providing a panoramic view of the city from the battlements’ walkways.

The St Gilles commune (Sint Gillis in Flemish) can be best compared with Camden or Kentish Town in London (although it is actually twinned with Tower Hamlets – my fun fact for the day!). It is extremely multicultural and has a large population of both students and artists; many of who can often be found loitering in the area’s many hip café bars. This is also the first point where the route intersects with a couple of the city’s tramlines.

St Gilles: a local café bar, the Porte de Hal, tramlines towards Brussels-South station and the Barriere roundabout

St Gilles: a local café bar, the Porte de Hal, tramlines towards Brussels-South station and the Barriere roundabout

After hurtling round one of the scariest roundabouts you may ever witness (the Barriere de Saint Gilles, where seven major roads meet and where the ‘give way’ policy seems to be based on the relative levels of driver aggression), the 48 crosses into the next commune it visits: Forest (or Vorst in Flemish).

Forest does not contain a forest. However, it apparently does contain one of the only parks in Brussels with naturally occurring trees (as opposed to planted ones) in a park unimaginatively called Forest Park. The commune also contains an absolutely huge Audi factory and Brussels’ biggest concert venue – Forest National. It is also where I live so this is the usually the point where I get off the bus, making the rest of the journey a novelty for all of us!

The bus suddenly starts its ascent towards the highest point in Brussels, aptly named Altitude 100 (guess how many metres above sea level it is) where a rather foreboding church is located. It then crosses over into the fourth and final commune it passes through – the rather well off Uccle (or Ukkel in Flemish).

Forest: the edge of the Forest Park and the 48 going in the other direction

Forest: the edge of the Forest Park and the 48 going in the other direction

Forest: Altitude Cent and the St Augustine Church

Forest: Altitude Cent and the St Augustine Church

Uccle is as close as Brussels gets to South Kensington. It a leafy and calm part of the city, but still only 25 minutes by public transport to the city centre, or 20 minutes to the EU Quarter (Uccle is popular with the Eurocrat expats). It is instantly obvious you have entered the commune the minute that the 48 route enters it. The route winds through peaceful, tree-lined residential streets before terminating at the rather quiet Uccle Stalle railway station, through which passes the line connecting Brussels to Charleroi – a rather poor, post-industrial city in Wallonia (the French-speaking region of Belgium), which is now largely known only for its low-cost airport.

Uccle: leafy streets and a very quiet railway station

Uccle: leafy streets and a very quiet railway station

The total journey time on the 48 bus route was under 45 minutes – not bad for a route which starts at the heart of the city and finishes right at its southernmost edge, passing through 4 communes as it does so. In fact, the border of Brussels with Flanders (the Flemish speaking region) is a mere 15-minute walk from the route. In a highly federalised country, regional borders matter a great deal here and can be seen from the change in paving on the pavements, as well as the switch from bilingual street signs in Brussels, to Flemish-only signs in Flanders (truly a complicated country).

The Brussels-Flanders border: clearly marked by signposts and a change of paving

The Brussels-Flanders border: clearly marked by signposts and a change of paving

We finished our journey by briefly visiting Nemo 33, which is just round the corner from the end point of the 48 route. Nemo 33 is a diving centre which is home to the deepest indoor swimming pool in the world (confusingly, it is 34.5 metres deep, not 33…). The pool itself contains numerous windows looking into the centre’s café and restaurant, so it was certainly an interesting place to have our end-of-route coffee.

Nemo 33 – who potentially have a sponsorship deal with Smart car…

Nemo 33 – who potentially have a sponsorship deal with Smart car…

I hope the 48 bus route on the Brussels transport system has made for interesting reading! Although I miss London’s transport network, especially for its shorter waiting times (generally speaking of course) and for the sheer scale of it, I have developed a certain fondness for STIB/MIVB.

The Tram Experience

The Tram Experience

This positive impression of the network was further added to in recent weeks, thanks to a special event called Tram Experience. STIB/MIVB have teamed up with the organisers of Brusselicious – the city’s year-long food festival – to provide a dining experience like none other. A tram has been specially converted into a sleek restaurant, serving food designed by Michelin-starred chefs while you travel along some of the most scenic tramways in the city. As well as being a transport geek, I am also a keen foodie, so I am sure you can imagine how much I enjoyed my evening! I would certainly recommend it to anyone visiting Brussels soon, although it is proving extremely popular, so do buy tickets well in advance. And if you are visiting Brussels, please don’t hesitate to contact me on twitter (@taikodrum) for some local tips. As I said at the start, Brussels is unduly underrated by most tourists, and so I would be very happy to help out anyone who wants to share in some of the local Brussels love!

Me on the 48!

Me on the 48!

Milwaukee Route 90

This is the first in what I hope will be a series of reports of bus routes from around the world. I’m very grateful to Andy for doing this and being the guinea pig for a part of the site that I’d love to grow and become a repository of bus routes from all over the globe. I have reports from Brussels and Florida also lined up in the coming weeks. So, if you’d like to contribute your local route, whether it be Sheffield or Manhattan, please do get in touch via twitter or email.

This section won’t replace my London routes – I’m going to continue to do them as often as possible – but merely add an international flavour. Anyway, here’s Andy’s trip on route 90 in Milwaukee as he makes his way to a baseball game.

I’ve got used to spending the first couple of weeks of April in the USA over the last few years; you see I am one of those weirdos who really enjoys ice hockey (like Mr 1-499 himself), baseball and basketball and that’s not going to change anytime soon. The most recent trip took me to Chicago, Minneapolis, St Louis and the subject of this little article – Milwaukee.

It’s not all that popular a holiday destination – no golden beaches, no glitz or glamour and the highlights – and the MillerCoors Brewery and Harley Davidson Museum might not thrill anyone, but it’s a cracking place to visit. Who can really argue with sunshine, beer, baseball and more beer?

I’d visited the MillerCoors Brewery (free tour with samples, albeit piss-weak, carbonated shite) the day before I made my second trip to Miller Park (they dominate the city with their sponsorship deals) on Route 90.

It’s not a long trip, it’s not a particularly inspiring trip in terms of visual beauty, but it does its job – Downtown Transit Center to Miller Park, home of the wonderfully named Milwaukee Brewers.

The stop was right outside my hotel, possibly down to me planning it that way or maybe just blind fortune, and within 12 minutes I was standing outside Miller Park gazing over the widest scene of Opening Day tailgaters I had ever seen.

Hot dogs and burgers were being grilled, beer (this will be a repeated theme) was being guzzled and many were playing the Brewers Tailgate Toss. I’ll leave out the three hours of baseball (Milwaukee lost 11-5) but fair to say it was good fun (for those who like the sport), much beer (shit, over-carbonated and now very expensive) was imbibed and the players were booed mercilessly for not winning despite there still being 161 games left to redeem themselves.

Among the highlights – the Klements Sausage Race and Bernie the Brewer diving down his theme park style chute to celebrate the Brewers only home run in the ninth inning. (You had to be there to appreciate their highlight status!)

I was heading back into downtown for a basketball game in the evening, so it was back on to Route 90 soon afterwards – no tail-gating for me – and it was nice to see buses queued up waiting to go back. American public transport may not always be frequent but it’s well planned when it comes to big events like this.

The talk on the bus had changed from looking forward to the season positively to bating the under-performers, but the main focus was on a huge plume of smoke coming from the south of the city.

I thought it looked remarkably close to where my hotel was (it wasn’t) but was quickly assured it was a fire at a tyre warehouse. It’s hard to take your eyes off something dominating the skyline and many people were quiet and thoughtful heading back into the city – thankfully it turned out no-one had been hurt and it had burned out by the time I came out of the Bradley Center three hours later.

But there were some interesting characters aboard, most notably the guy sat in the opposite back corner to me.

He regaled us (by that I mean he was quite shouty and I heard every word of his conversation) with tales of this being his 40th Opening Day, dating back to the days when the Brewers were the Braves and playing at the old County Stadium that was replaced by Miller Park in 2001.

You had to feel sorry for him really – they haven’t had much success and last season’s National League Central title was their first championship of any kind since 1982.

He enjoyed some fine banter with a couple of St Louis fans on the bus (they won the World Series last season) and there were times when I thought one of them was going to turn around and give him a slap, but I then realised it was the USA not the East End, and it would all end in smiles. (or gunshots – ed)

Sadly I had to get off before the end of the route on the way back, but it was with fond memories that I sat down and wrote this, hopefully the first in a series of tales from the US public transport system. Now who’s going to pay for my next trip?

London images 20: Venturing north

Route 107: Edgware to New Barnet

Route 107: Edgware to New Barnet

Route 107 isn’t the furthest north I’ll be going on the buses – there are a couple which cruelly run beyond the M25 – but given I live in south-west London, close to the southern end of the Northern Line, this route felt a relatively long way from home. As September rain fell, spirits were not at their highest as we crossed the M1 towards Barnet – the northern tip of the Northern Line – ahead of a long tube journey home.

London images 19: Attack the Block

Route 161: Chislehurst to North Greenwich

Route 161: Chislehurst to North Greenwich

This is taken somewhere near the Royal Artillery Barracks in Woolwich, close to the end of route 161, which runs from the village of Chislehurst in Kent up to North Greenwich. I’ve got loads of photos looking up at ominous tower blocks. I just like the sky with this one really. Reminds me of Attack the Block, for some reason.

London images 18: Harvey Nichols

Route 74: Putney to Baker Street - Harvey Nichols

Route 74: Putney to Baker Street - Harvey Nichols

Route 74 is one of my favourite routes so far, helped because I did it at dusk in July last year. I haven’t done many at that time of day, but the softer light contrasts with the lights of the city and London feels very different, with people on their way out for the night or making their way home from work. This was a Saturday night and there was a lovely buzz about town after what had been a very hot day. Harvey Nichols is on Knightsbridge on the south side of Hyde Park and the 74 is heading east here towards Hyde Park Corner.

London images 17: City on the horizon

Route 247: Barkingside to Romford - City on the Horizon

Route 247: Barkingside to Romford - City on the Horizon

There are some routes where, even if only for a mile or two, you can feel so far away from London, surrounded by countryside. As the 247 wended its way towards Romford, I caught a glimpse of The City’s taller buildings on the horizon. There is a similar view when you drive south down the M11. It comes well outside the M25, but you can definitely make out Canary Wharf in the distance and it always makes me feel like I’m nearly home, despite the fact I’m still a good hour away. This one’s probably worth clicking through to get the maximum resolution.

There is a dark place, but I’m not going there

My long-suffering Twitter followers will be aware I’ve been in an obscenely good mood for a while now. I can’t pinpoint when it started and I have no idea why, but I’m fairly sure it’s incredibly irritating to live with. So, a day on my own on the buses seems the most sensible way to spend today.

The plan is two routes – The 42 and 201 – which are to ferry me from the gates of Moor, Bishops and Ald in The City to the Hills of Denmark, Herne and Tulse south of the river. Combined with a brooding London sky, they sound almost Tolkeinesque.

The 42 opens up in a little side street around the back of Liverpool Street station, and one train and two tube journeys after dropping Thomas at nursery, I emerge from Moorgate station ready for the 10-minute walk to the start of the route.

I begin through Finsbury Circus – much of this area is fenced off for Crossrail construction

Digging for Crossrail

Digging for Crossrail

- before Liverpool Street station brings this delightful little police call box.

Police call box at Liverpool Street station

Then it is a walk up Bishopsgate, an area of London where over 46,000 people work yet only 48 people live #wikifact. The street itself was the first in London to be gaslit (c.1810) and the first in Europe to have automatic traffic lights.

Today it is a curious mix of bankers, insurance business bods, travellers bound for Liverpool Street and – down the occasional side street – overflow from nearby trendy Shoreditch. The 42 is there when I arrive and quickly sidles back down whence I came on Bishopsgate before nipping through a couple of quieter streets to Aldgate. Tower Bridge follows, but my first official bus business on this world-famous landmark is hindered by the fact the 42 is a gruff little single-decker with grimy windows. Combined with the angry sky, London is no mood for niceties.

Tower Bridge

A gloomy Tower Bridge

So, over the bridge we rumble – City Hall passing to my right – and into Southwark. This part of south London is equal measure

A Southwark estate

A Southwark estate - laden with satellite TV

and

Grand Kennington

Grand Kennington

East Street arrives, at the opposite end to the market I visited when I did the 468 before turning onto Camberwell Road. There is the now-obligatory driver change at Camberwell Green and we soon pass King’s College Hospital, where my Mum recently spent one of the more worrying weeks of her life. Still, the superb NHS care gave us a chance to fully appreciate such a glorious institution before Cameron’s shameful dismantling.

Although advertised as finishing at Denmark Hill, the 42 actually ends nowhere near the station, but in a small road called Sunray Avenue. It’s as close to Herne Hill as it is to Denmark, so I walk to the former to pick up the start of the 201, which is to pick me up opposite Brockwell Park and ease me south and west to Morden.

Spots of rain begin to fall as I begin the 15-minute walk through some quiet suburban streets to Herne Hill, which features both odd-shaped trees and quaint little shops -

The odd-shaped trees of Herne Hill

The odd-shaped trees of Herne Hill

The odd-shaped shops of Herne Hill

The odd-shaped shops of Herne Hill

- but the rain holds off just enough for the 201, another single-decker, to swish into view. The first thing to be said about this particular version of the 201 is the extraordinarily comfortable seats with ample-leg room. I let out a sigh of contentment as I take my seat at the back, like a Grandfather falling asleep in his favourite armchair.

The route begins by Brockwell Park, which always seems to be under a canopy of cloud whenever I pass and the early part of the journey can be summed up by ‘blossom and prep schools’. In short, Herne Hill, home of a fellow buskateer in @peter_watts is lovely.

However, this cannot last and after circling the rather more abrasive Tulse Hill and a brief flirt with the south circular, we are on Streatham Hill. Now, I have a real problem with Streatham. I can’t really say why – I ‘m not sure it’s ever been sunny when I’ve been here – but there is something about the place I don’t get on with. Perhaps it’s the children with no faces.

"Where the children have no facial features..."

"Where the children have no facial features..."

There are far bleaker places in London, but perhaps because they’re so obviously bleak my expectations are met. Streatham just leaves me cold. I probably shouldn’t say this. A friend of mine has just moved to the area and I’ve yet to see his new house. I’ll have to be very polite.

The traffic is blissfully clear though and spirits remain high as Mitcham passes, complete with its attractive cricket green, although @KeithDJackson did tweet me to tell me of the time he saw a batsman run over going out to bat as the pavilion is across the road from the ground.

It’s then a short hop to Morden at the arse end of the Northern Line, where I pick up the 93 home and witness a brief postscript as fire engines and ambulances scream past and clog up a junction on Stonecot Hill to deal with an accident. We look to have arrived a couple of minutes after the incident. There is a busy junction, a learner car and a bike laying in the road. You do the math.

Accident on Stonecot Hill

Accident on Stonecot Hill

Here are your maps:

Route 42: Bishopsgate to Denmark Hill

Route 42: Bishopsgate to Denmark Hill

Route 201: Herne Hill to Morden

Route 201: Herne Hill to Morden