Traffic Hell up Oxford Street
- Routes 139, 268, 13 (2hrs 39mins)
Curse you London, you nearly broke me today.
After an early trip to the hairdresser and an earnest debate about the death penalty – Angela has been cutting my hair for five years and we are close to sorting all the world’s woes, just urban foxes and nuclear Armageddon to go – I hotfoot it to the station, eager to get going before the full Hell of the heat.
But this is not to be my day. I have made a basic error, involving the words Oxford Circus.
Already one of the busiest parts of the city, the area is currently undergoing redevelopment ahead of the 2012 Games to make pedestrians’ lives easier when trying to cross the road. Oxford Street is closed to normal traffic – only buses, taxis and suicidal cyclists are permitted – but with the current works, it is a ball-ache of the highest order.
According to the European Urban Knowledge Network:
Based on crossings in Tokyo, the new design will stop all traffic in all directions, and allow people to cross diagonally as well as straight ahead. Street clutter and barriers at the junction of Oxford Street and Regent Street will also be removed.
Oxford Circus is one of the most popular destinations in the world, with more than 200m visitors a year. The redesign will double the amount of pavement and more space will be created around the exits to Oxford Circus Tube station. As part of the works more than 500m of both Regent Street and Oxford Street are being redesigned with wider pavements and new lighting.
Which all sounds very grand but in the meantime, until November, the place is a bitch and I have chosen the hottest day of the year to make not one, but two journeys on the affected stretch of road.
The 139 is my first route of the day. It begins outside Waterloo station and heads over the river before winding north-west to West Hampstead. Only we are barely halfway over Waterloo Bridge before things grind to a halt. Roadworks on the Strand are backing traffic up and we are reduced to jostling for position with an open-top tourist bus as we inch towards the opposite embankment. Australian tourists taunt me with the access to fresh air. I silently curse them, praying for revenge when the Ashes start next week.
In the meantime, Somerset House dominates the scene as I wilt. There is an ice rink in the courtyard for a few weeks every winter and Kellie and I wobbled our way around there two days after our wedding, but that freezing day in December feels a world away now.
Built between 1547-50, it was the site of the first Renaissance palace in England and given various roles, such as hosting the peace conference between England and Spain in 1604, before being demolished in 1775. Sir William Chambers was given the task of designing the new building and the grand house has since housed the Royal Academy and Inland Revenue among others. Today, set against the deep blue sky, it is a worthy component of the impressive skyline that stretches both ways from Waterloo Bridge.
Finally, beaten by the tourist bus, we crawl onto the Strand, but Trafalgar Square, Regent Street and Oxford Street offer no respite to the gridlock. I’m melting. Why don’t my fellow passengers get off and walk some of the way? At least there is air out there. I would, only I’m not allowed because some buffoon made up the rules that he now has to stick by. Fair play to the driver though, he fights for every inch and when the wide tree-lined avenue of Gloucester Place mercifully appears to take us north, he lets rip, ducking and weaving his way up to St John’s Wood.
He is determined to make up for lost time, to the point where we barely stop on Abbey Road, giving me no time to look up which zebra crossing I am supposed to be looking out for. I shall be back with a more serene driver one day and I’ll bring three friends with me to recreate the Beatles cover.
Then the road narrows again and as the pavements close in, so the gradient steepens, West Hampstead arrives and I am deposited onto the antithesis of Oxford Street. Delis and dental surgeries abound. West Hampstead is working very hard at cultivating the ‘village’ feel. I cut down to Lymington Road and towards the start of the 268 – a hopper north to Golders Green – and am hit by the smell of apples and freshly-cut grass. A lady with an umbrella to shield her from the sun overtakes me as men with far more expensive haircuts than I walk the other way. Polite tennis matches can be heard behind high hedgerows and talk is of aqua aerobics and nursery fees.
Then Lymington Road gives way to Finchley Road and the mood changes once more. Suddenly its cement mixers and angry horns. This is obviously a major thoroughfare, but I must head south, search for a large Sainsbury’s where I hope the 268 shall be waiting. I am not disappointed. It sits at the bottom of the hill like a faithful dog, waiting for me to board before pulling away.
However, once again there is a delay, albeit a rather ridiculous one, as a photographer insists we wait as he takes several photos of an Audi that he has parked across the middle of the road. The elderly lady at the front of the bus offers to go outside and ‘tell him off’ but before the driver can decline, the photographer is scampering out of the road, ignoring our incredulous stares.
With motor-paparazzi out of the way, the 268 is over before it begins, skipping down the ugly Finchley Road before swooping up the far more attractive Belsize Park towards Golders Green, which was essentially a series of large fields until the Northern Line popped up for air in 1905, prompting an immediate explosion of building and the area is now almost completely built-up.
I ponder looking around but the 13, which is to return me south to Aldwych, is right there. Golders Green has plenty of routes criss-crossing it so I put off my exploration for another day, when the pavement doesn’t feel like it’s about to melt beneath my flip-flops. Did I mention it is hot?
So, straight onto the 13 it is, a route which is remarkably similar to the 139, but runs down parallel roads. While Gloucester Place takes traffic north, so Baker Street brings us back south before dumping us back onto Oxford Street for more torture. A gum-toting teenage girl jabbers into her mobile next to me so I search for music to keep me cool and get me to Aldwych. The Bees, The Beach Boys and The Beta Band do the trick. Not that I intend to listen to them all but the return trip down Oxford Street is worse than this morning.
By the time Piccadilly arrives, I can barely bring myself to look around, much less take any photos. I want out, and when we fail to make it through a set of lights for the fourth time, I twitch to get off and walk. It takes the willpower of a genuine idiot to remain seated all the way to Aldwych. There’s plenty to look at around here, but a cold bath is all I can think of.
Still, I may be an idiot, but as I walk back over Waterloo Bridge for my train home, I overhear a girl with an estuary accent (that’s Thames Estuary) ask her boyfriend, ‘so, this is the Thames is it?’ and suddenly I don’t feel so stupid.