I experienced all things Routemaster recently as – by sheer coincidence – both days of a weekend saw me riding on versions of the famous bus for the first time in years. The vehicle was officially withdrawn from London’s streets in 2005 and it now only operates on one route, the number 15, or more accurately the 15H, ‘H’ standing for heritage, running between Tower Hill and Trafalgar Square.
Yet there will always be a Routemaster running somewhere and the National Trust London Project, which aims to promote knowledge of London’s architectural history and sites, runs tours on a green-liveried version at various times during the year. We were lucky enough to get on board for the final summer tour of 2014 with our charming and genial host, the television presenter and architectural historian Dan Cruickshank.
A long-time resident of east London it was only right that Dan took us on a tour of the area and we started in Whitechapel Road, directly opposite the place of my birth, The London – now Royal – London Hospital, the magnificent 18th century building currently boarded up for redevelopment. An obligatory visit to the site of Jack the Ripper’s first murder in 1888 in Buck’s Row, now Durward Street, also took in the house in Fulbourne Street where a Bolshevik congress was held at a socialist club in 1907, those present including Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin.
Then our RMC 1453 Routemaster, built in 1962 for London Transport’s Green Line country service, took us further east to the House Mill at Bromley-by-Bow, thought to be the largest tidal mill still in existence in the world. Built in 1776 to mill flour it also served the gin distillery next door on Three Mills Island. As an East Ender by birth, I have to shamefully admit that I knew nothing of this place until a recent mention of it on the London Historians’ website and the visit was an eye-opener. Escorted by resident volunteer guides, we were taken though the various milling processes and the plans for the continuing restoration of the site and its works.
The building needs to raise millions more for its maintenance and repair as you can see on the House Mill site itself.
Then we headed westwards to St. Anne’s Church, Limehouse, built between 1714 and 1727 as one of the Commissioner churches on the order of Queen Anne to combat non-Conformism. Another Hawksmoor design like Christ Church, Spitalfields, it was consecrated in 1730 and still has an active congregation.
St Anne’s has a long-standing connection to the Royal Navy and its current Rector is the service’s honorary Chaplain. Being so near the River Thames, and with many maritime links, Queen Anne permitted the new church to fly the ensign of the second most senior Admiral – the White Ensign – which it still does to this day.
Our tour finished at Wilton’s Music Hall, one of the very few surviving music halls anywhere in the world and opened by John Wilton in 1859. A survivor of the Blitz and the threat of demolition in the slum clearances of the 1960s, it is now undergoing a major refurbishment, while continuing to run as a multi-media arts centre. Dan’s persuasive manner managed to gain us entry to the auditorium, a true wonder of the Victorian age and yet another (shameful) first for this East Ender.
Dan was his usual mine of information throughout, reading from the horrific descriptions of the East End by the writer Jack London who was supposedly being sympathetic and generally being the same Dan Cruickshank we see on television, a thoroughly engaging personality. We fetched up back at the National Trust’s London HQ in Victoria after being driven across town by Joe Kerr, a driver of Arriva’s Heritage Fleet of vintage Routemaster buses who I also met the next day to celebrate the bus’s 60th anniversary.
Joe was driving RM 5 on this occasion – “built the year I was born” – and I won’t spare his blushes by revealing that was 1959. He still drives one day a week for Arriva from the Tottenham bus garage but most of his bus duties now are taken up with the company’s Heritage Fleet. He also has another career as a head of department at the Royal College of Art where he teaches history and theory to students in the Architecture and Vehicle Design programmes.
The first Routemaster prototype was built at London Transport’s Chiswick Works in 1954 and introduced to the capital’s roads two years later. A total of 2,876 were built altogether, the last in 1968, and almost half are still in existence. It has been London’s favourite bus for all of those 60 years, made by Londoners for Londoners, and to celebrate its Diamond Anniversary, a gathering of the vehicles was organised by the Routemaster Association in Finsbury Park, north London. In total, 136 attended, more than the previous celebration ten years ago. There was even a converted Routemaster driven from Germany and the site of so many of the vehicles lined up the full length of the park drive was spectacular.
“It’s funny,” he says, “but people always ask me how stressful it is driving a bus in London traffic, but it’s much more stressful these days working in the academic field. Give me the road any time.”
Although Joe says that most people prefer a red-liveried Routemaster when they hire a vehicle from the fleet, I noticed people stopping and staring when he drove the green bus across London on the Saturday. For some it was a glimpse of the past, for others something new, but as the pictures show, it was and remains a fine piece of engineering and an important part of London’s history.