From Gravesend to Dorking
Thursday 12th August 2021
OK, I realise I’m a year late, but just like the Tokyo Olympics, due to the uncertainty of Covid restrictions this project couldn’t happen in 2020, but now, better late than never (just like a Green Line coach was for much of the time in the ‘old days’), here it is.
As a fitting tribute to the formation of the renowned bus operator London Country Bus Services in January 1970, myself and a bunch of intrepid friends from the bus industry are undertaking a grand tour of that former company’s extensive operating area; checking out how it looks fifty (one) years on.
I obviously can’t cover fifty years of history in one (or even four) blogpost/s and indeed there are a number of excellent books available which chart the history of that period (for example Green No More by Peter Aves) but a bit of a warning for readers – this post is slightly longer than usual to try and cover the salient points. Readers with no London and the Home Counties interest may like to look away now.
We’re beginning in the south-east quadrant and travelling clockwise around the ‘Polo mint’ shaped network that ringed London and which, along with the Green Line network became a subsidiary of the National Bus Company which had itself been formed only a year earlier in January 1969.
The ‘rule’ for our task is to travel along former London Country bus routes and try snd visit many of the outer termini of the Green Line network as existed in 1970 without doubling back on ourselves.
It’ll take us a fairly leisurely four days spread over a number of weeks to complete the mission and we’ll be working to a civilised schedule including stops for refreshments along the way. We aren’t trying to establish any record breaking time to complete the circuit – we’re all too old for that kind of malarkey, although it would have been great fun in our younger days.
We began our expedition on Tuesday morning in Gravesend to journey around the south east quadrant of the ‘Polo mint’ and we’ll finish at the end of the fourth day some time next month in Tilbury having completed the north east quadrant directly north of our starting point across the River Thames. To properly complete the circuit we plan to end by travelling back to our starting point in Gravesend on the passenger ferry across the River from Tilbury.
So after that preamble let’s begin.
Gravesend was a border town where London Country met Maidstone & District (M&D). The former had a bus garage in nearby Northfleet, which is still operational today by Arriva Kent, while M&D had a bus garage in Gravesend itself, which has long closed.
Gravesend was the eastern terminus of Green Line routes 701 and 702 to Ascot and Sunningdale respectively as well as the 725 which cirmcumnaviatged south London to Windsor taking a route very similar to today’s TfL route X26 between Croydon and Heathrow Airport.
London Country was split into four geographic quadrants in preparation for privatisation in the late 1980s and the South East company, renamed Kentish Bus, was sold to Proudmutual, the management owners of Northumbria (renamed from part of the old United bus company in North East England). That team sold on to the acquisitive company called British Bus which in turn was bought by Cowie and subsequently renamed Arriva. British Bus also bought out the management owned Maidstone & District in 1995 and along with London Country South West which they’d bought much earlier (and eventually North West and Luton & District) meant Arriva had a swathe of operations stretching from Luton and Hemel Hempstead around to Slough and Windsor in the west to Ashford in the east. Quite a network.
Fast forward to today, and Arriva’s comparable operating area has shrunk considerably but south of London still includes bus routes from Dartford and Gravesend over to the Medway Towns, Maidstone and Tenterden together with an outpost in Guildford, Surrey.
Our first challenge was the difficulty in devising a route from the Dartford to Gravesend corridor south to Sevenoaks along former London Country bus routes. We failed at this very first hurdle. In the erstwhile London Country days the trunk route 401 ran from Dartford to Sevenoaks and would have been just the job, but that route has long since ceased and the only viable option to replicate it would be two routes now operated by Go-Coach Hire.
Route 429 from Dartford to Farningham (which continues on to West Kingsdown) then change in Farningham to route 2 which starts in Swanley then operates via Farningham to Sevenoaks. Sadly these two infrequent routes miss each other by eight minutes in Farlingham meaning a two-and-a-half hour wait there. Nice place though Farningham is, we didn’t fancy such a frustrating start for our expedition so instead opted to skirt around the outside edge of London Country’s network and take Arriva Kent’s route 308 from Gravesend to Sevenoaks via Meopham, Wrotham and Borough Green. The route taken by the 308 is part of the long route 122 from Gravesend which ran all the way to Brighton – a joint service between M&D and Southdown.
South of Borough Green comes the village of Ightham from where the 122 continued south to Tonbridge, but our modern day 308 heads west to Sevenoaks which was formally route 9, another M&D route.
We caught the 10:30 journey from Gravesend to Sevenoaks. It’s an eighty-one minute run including a couple of loops around residential areas in Istead Rise and Vigo Village (the little deviations shown on the above map) but sadly we didn’t see many passengers on the entire journey.
Aside from ourselves, the maximum number on board at any one time was seven, with about that number leaving Gravesend as well as entering Sevenoaks, but for much of the journey there were just a couple of passengers on board along with us, so not a busy run. The route runs every ninety minutes Mondays to Saturdays. You can see why. The bus was an ADL Enviro200.
Our first connection in Sevenoaks was a bit tight with just five minutes between the 308 arriving at 11:51 and our next bus, Go-Coach Hire’s route 1, leaving at 11:56 for Westerham. Thankfully it all worked like a dream and we even had enough time for a quick toilet stop in the Go-Coach Hire run ‘bus station’ in the town.
We are now in proper London Country territory and in the 1970s we’d have travelled on either route 483 or the more prestigious Green Line route 705 between Sevenoaks and Westerham. Going back further in time instead of the 483 it would have been the longer route 403 which ran from Wallington via Croydon and Chelsham then Westerham and Sevenoaks to Tonbridge because back in London Transport Country Bus days, they liked long routes heading up to Croydon from towns in Kent and Surrey.
My learned friends reckoned the frequency between Sevenoaks and Westerham would have been at least half-hourly which makes today’s Covid inspired four journeys a day timetable on route 1 something of a come down, although in better news this is increasing back up to seven journeys a day from the end of this month.
Go-Coach Hire is one of many small independently owned bus companies that now dominate the former London Country operating area not least in Sevenoaks. In addition to route 308, Arriva Kent also operates the 402 to Tunbridge Wells but otherwise the other former LCBS routes in and through the town are covered by Go-Coach Hire’s bright yellow and purple coloured buses. Quite a change in fifty years.
It was another lightly loaded bus with about half a dozen other passengers four of whom came with us all the way to Westerham.
We arrived at the delightful village green in the centre of Westerham a couple of minutes late at 12:22 and although not yet two hours since setting off it was time for some lunch (I said it would be leisurely) which in view of the glorious weather meant lovely alfresco dining on the green itself.
At 13:33 it was time to continue our travels by taking Southdown Buses route 236 from Westerham via Edenbridge to East Grinstead.
We could have taken a more direct trajectory westwards via Godstone, Reigate and Redhill to Dorking along the A25 passing by LCBS’s long standing head office in Bell Street, Reigate but instead decided to tick off some more outer Green Line termini on a more southerly route via East Grinstead, Crawley and Horsham.
Fifty years ago route 485 ran two-hourly from Westerham to Edenbridge and on the other hour route 464 connected at Crockham Hill with a 465 to Edenbridge which had come from Holland (not the Country) and Oxted where the 464 headed. M&D had a small bus garage in Edenbridge and from there we’d have taken London & Country’s route 434 via Marsh Green and Dormansland to East Grinstead.
Today’s route 236 operates just four journeys a day with a fifth in school holidays. It was another lightly loaded journey with around half a dozen passengers. Resurfacing had closed the road at Marsh Green so we had to take a diversion via Haxted and double back to serve Dormansland from Lingfield before getting back on to our proper route.
This Southdown is not, of course, the famous NBC subsidiary of that name but a more recent incarnation set up by the founders of Metrobus after they’d sold that company to Go-Ahead in 1999. Like Go-Coach in Sevenoaks, Southdown has carved out a niche by operating tendered routes in this part of Surrey and West Sussex with respectful standards and a quality service. Our bus was a Dennis Dart with East Lancs Myllenium body which was originally purchased as part of the Surrey County Council ‘Ride Pegasus’ school bus initiative. It gave a very comfortable ride.
It was good to see printed, up to date, timetable books on board for passengers to pick up. The only printed timetables we saw on our travels. Well done Southdown.
Our 19 minute connection in East Grinstead had been eaten into by a late arrival after the scheduled 14:20 due to the diversion but we comfortably got our next bus to Crawley as well as another toilet stop.
East Grinstead was the terminus of Green Line route 708 which crossed London to Hemel Hempstead as well as having a very small London Country bus garage which ran the eight former London Transport XF class Fleetlines on route 424 to Reigate, famous for becoming one man operated with the top deck sealed off in the evenings and on Sundays.
We’re now into former London Country South West land which traded as London & Country towards the end of its life with a very smart livery – definitely the best of the four former LCBS fleets – before succumbing to the Arriva branding.
One of the oddest decisions taken by the management of Arriva in the early 2000s was to sell its Crawley based operations to the Go-Ahead Group in 2001 which two years earlier also had bought out the independent and well respected Metrobus company which had carved out another niche for itself in this part of LCBS’s territory as well as gaining a number of TfL (formerly LRT) tenders.
Go-Ahead arranged for Metrobus to run all the former LCBS/London & Country/Arriva routes including the next three routes we travelled on – route 291 from Tunbridge Wells via East Grinstead to Crawley; route 23 from Crawley to Horsham (then continuing south all the way to Worthing – well beyond LCBS territory) and route 93 from Horsham to Dorking, the latter route being part of a further retrenchment by Arriva in 2009 when the Horsham based operations were sold to Go-Ahead.
We caught the 14:39 from East Grinstead which would normally be double deck operated but due to another diversion somewhere along the route was using single decks on Tuesday including a dual door Scania OmniCity originally purchased for route 1 in Crawley.
Route 291 runs hourly and was by far the busiest route of the day with lots of passengers getting on and off as we passed through Crawley Down and Copthorne – a route previously served by LCBS routes 409, 424 and 434 over different sections back in the 1970 era.
LCBS buses also ran between the towns via Turners Hill and Rowfant (route 473) as Metrobus does today with the less frequent route 84
Crawley was the terminus for Green Line routes 710 (to Amersham) and the pioneering ‘727 Express’ via Gatwick and Heathrow Airports to Luton and was also a border town with Southdown who had a bus garage running some of the town routes as well as routes south into Sussex. Once LCBS became an NBC subsidiary it made sense to rationalise this situation as also happened in Gravesend with M&D. Southdown closed its garage and London Country took over its town routes.
It also built a new bus garage in the town, still in use today by Metrobus, at Tinsley Green next to a Central Works which had been built following the split from London Transport in 1970, when Aldenham and Chiswick could no longer be used, but which has long since closed.
We arrived in Crawley at 15:22 and after grabbing a quick coffee left the town’s bus station at 15:35 on the hourly route 23 across to Horsham. Thus was another busy route leaving Crawley through Bewbush as well as calling at a new housing development being built at nearby Kilnwood Vale, off the A264, which pending roads being completed involves the bus making a reverse turn into a side road. We picked up two passengers and took a good number into Horsham arriving on time at 16:22.
We had time to wander through the pedestrianised shopping streets from the impressive little bus station with its attractive flower displays to visit the Carfax where London Transport Country Buses, Southdown and Aldershot & District buses once met and jointly ran a Travel Shop which we spotted in its current use as part of an Oxfam shop although there was some doubt whether it was the unit under the dentist or the one next door with the awning. It turns out, according to a website, the shop relocated from the former to the latter in the 1930s.
Sadly there wasn’t time to visit the site of the former Southdown bus garage in the town which closed in the early 1980s.
Back at the bus station we caught a smart looking Enviro200 on the 16:50 route 93 up to Dorking.
For a peak time bus this carried a disappointingly small number of passengers – three or four – until we reached the outskirts of Dorking where we headed off both sides of the A24 doubling back on oursleves to serve a new development in North Homewood (another reverse turn into a side road) and Goodwyns which in early LCBS days had a separate local service, route 449.
In London Country days route 414 plied the A24 between Horsham and Dorking before continuing on via Reigate and Redhill to Croydon. However, Metrobus’s 93 terminates in Dorking where London Country had a lovely garage at the junction of Horsham Road and South Street which as well as country buses provided Green Line buses for routes 712, 713 and 714 from the town to Dunstable and Luton.
But for us, it was the end of an enjoyable day recreating those wonderful days of green LT and LCBS buses in Kent, Sussex and Surrey. We’ll be heading off again on Part 2 of our tour in a couple of weeks time taking us from Dorking around the rest of the south west quadrant and up through Berkshire into Buckinghamshire.
I used to run a bus company but in retirement am a full time passenger travelling all over Britain enjoying its splendid scenic delights by bus and train. Currently social distancing at home.