From A to B (Amersham to Bishop’s Stortford)
Saturday 25th September 2021
Friday of last week saw the LCBS Tour Gang reconvene for our wander through the third quadrant of the company’s Polo mint operating area as our mission continues to mark last year’s fiftieth anniversary of London Country by recreating that much missed bus company’s heyday.
Part 1 took us from Gravesend via Sevenoaks, East Grinstead, Crawley, Horsham and Dorking; Part 2 from Dorking through Guildford, Woking, Staines, Slough and High Wycombe to Amersham and our latest adventure therefore began where we left off at Amersham station and headed first to LCBS’s furthest north western outpost of Aylesbury.
Our tour party now numbered seven having been joined by Peter Bradley who worked for TfL for many years as well as some time with Hertfordshire County Council.
First up we caught the 09:40 Red Rose Travel operated route 55 running hourly from Amersham via Great Missenden and Wendover to Aylesbury skirting round the north western edge of the Polo mint exactly as LCBS route 359 had done, but only into the early 1970s. By the mid 1970s the 359 had been cut back to Great Missenden so fifty years later it’s interesting the link is restored and running hourly too.
And even more exciting we had a double decker for the journey – albeit a 19 year old East Lancs bodied Volvo, which frankly was not in its prime.
We picked up a few passengers in Amersham, another one in Great Missenden and three more in Wendover all travelling to Aylesbury indicating the restored through route is useful for the small number using it.
Red Rose Travel is one of a triumvirate of Red named bus companies (along with RedLine and Red Eagle) in this part of Buckinghamshire and Hertfordshire which have gained ground as tenders have been awarded over the last decade or two.
I wrote about the recent expansion of RedLine to the Aylesbury and Oxford corridor earlier this month particularly its smart comfortable buses. This is a welcome development as generally the image portrayed by bus fleets in Aylesbury is not to a very high quality.
But it’s not as bad as the image portrayed by the bus station which is just simply awful. Awful. Awful. What more can one say?
However, there are one or two positives: there’s an enclosed seated waiting area and a coffee stall that’s open, as well as displays of up to date timetables (well done Buckinghamshire County Council) and a feed from the railway station showing upcoming train departures.
Electronic displays for scheduled bus departures in the waiting area and at each departure point are also in place but of course these aren’t reassuring when they disappear off the screen and the bus has yet to appear, or are removed completely.
The bus station is certainly a strong contender for the End Of Tour Awards in the Worst Bus Station category that’s for sure (although there’s another contender coming up in Part 4 which will give it stiff competition!).
Aylesbury was where London Country met United Counties. As well as route 359 from Amersham, London Country’s other bus route into Aylesbury was the trunk route 301 along the A41 south eastwards towards Tring and Watford/Bushey together with Green Line route 706 which continued across London to Croydon and Westerham (see above map).
We headed off down the A41 on today’s successor to routes 301 and 706: Arriva’s route 500 which now runs every twenty minutes between Aylesbury and Watford.
We just saw the 10:35 departure leave – an Optare Solo on what is normally a double deck route and caught the next departure at 10:55 (a Scania single decker past its best) which left at 1103 as the driver was helping a family of four passengers needing information about a connection.
We left with 13 on board (aside from us seven) – our busiest bus of the day. It wasn’t the most salubrious of buses with worn seats and in one case not attached to the rear panel meaning it rattled loudly for the whole journey.
Interestingly for an inter-urban trunk route eight of the passengers alighted within Aylesbury, four alighted in Tring and the last got off in Berkhamstead. Four boarded in Tring, three of whom travelled to Berkhamstead where two got on for Hemel Hempstead.
In the early London Country days route 301 was operated by Hemel Hempstead and Tring based RTs succumbing to Leyland Nationals (SNBs) in May 1975. Fridays experience showed a whole variety of different types of buses from double deckers to Optare Solos including a MAX branded single decker advertising routes 34/35 between Guildford and Woking.
London Country’s small Tring bus garage closed in 1977 and as we passed by what we thought was it’s location could see no trace remaining.
In the old days routes 301 and 706 by-passed Hemel Hempstead’s town centre and carried on down the old A41 past London Country’s bus garage at Two Waters. Looking back now, that was quite extraordinary and not very helpful for passengers from Tring and Berkhamstead wanting to get to Hemel Hempstead.
This time our bus on route 500 took us to the town centre into the Marlowes shopping street much of which is now pedestrianised. Hemel’s bus station has been closed for a few years now, and Arriva’s stand-alone travel office sited in the Marlowes and launched with much fanfare just a few years ago has also now closed and disappeared.
It was time for a lunch break.
From Hemel Hempstead we could have taken LCBS’s main spine west-east route across Hertfordshire through St Albans, Welwyn Garden City and Hertford but as in the southern area where we avoided the main spine through Redhill, Reigate and Dorking, we decided to head on north to take in the furthest reaches of London Country’s operating area through Luton and Hitchin and across to Bishops Stortford (as the northern equivalents of East Grinstead, Crawley and Horsham which we visited down south).
In early London Country days the direct route between Hemel Hempstead and Luton was operated by Court Line using the number 46. That company’s associated airline went bust in August 1974 and it was hoped the bus business comprising a number of rural routes in Herts and Beds could continue as they were reportedly profitable. But it wasn’t to be with the bus operation suddenly ceasing in December 1974 when the Traffic Commissioner revoked Court Line’s licence with United Counties stepping in to run route 46.
Today’s equivalent is operated by CentreBus and takes the same number as used by Court Line and United Counties – route 46 – and now runs more frequently – every hour. But that’s because it’s more an amalgam of former London Country routes including route 307 to Redbourn, route 343 to Markyate and route 364/A to Luton.
We caught the 12:56 from Hemel Hempstead with five other passengers one of whom got off as we left Hemel and three alighted In Redbourn with two boarding and two more near Flamstead all going to Luton and all young people, which was refreshing to see.
The route includes a small piece of bus priority to protect Redbourn from through traffic diverting off the A5183 close to the M1 junction.
Route 46 terminates in Luton at Park Square where a number of other bus routes stand, rather than continuing on to the “Interchange” next to the railway station. We arrived on time and walked through the shopping centre to the Interchange for our next journey.
Route 364 linked Flamstead and Markyate with Luton before continuing to Hitchin through some lovely hamlets including Tea Green and Breachwood Green and our next journey from Luton would be today’s equivalent of that section of route – Centrebus route 88.
Luton was the northern terminus of Green Line route 714 (which we last saw as we passed through Dorking) as well as Airport route 727. A recast of Green Line routes in 1977 led to the introduction of new routes 707 and 717 which coincided with the closure of London Country’s small bus garage in the town.
The vehicles and staff were accommodated in the garage further south in St Albans. Luton Corporation, the municipal bus operator in the town sold out to United Counties (which also had a garage in the town) in 1970 making the town pretty much a United Counties stronghold with London Country’s routes coming in from the south and exceptionally northwestwards to Hitchin on routes 364/A.
London Country withdrew route 364 in July 1973 and it’s thought Court Line took it over until their collapse the next year when it passed to United Counties who originally gave it route number 81 before changing to 88 which Centrebus still use and operate the same level of service with just five journeys a day (four on Saturdays).
Our 14:30 journey began what would turn out to be a very quiet afternoon for passengers through this rural part of Hertfordshire.
Much of the route is very rural indeed and it must have been wonderful to take a ride on an RF on the 346 back in London Country days along the narrow lanes.
No passengers were carried until we reached the village of Preston (not the Lancashire town), 39 minutes into the 50 minute journey and where we picked up three travelling the remaining 11 minutes to Hitchin arriving 15:20. It was almost our first zero passenger journey.
The bus’s return journey to Luton starts at Hitchin’s Priory School at 15:45 and presumably carries many more than three students otherwise you wonder why the journey exists in the timetable.
Hitchin’s Market Square was the northern terminus for Green Line route 716 – we passed it’s southern terminus in Chertsey in Part 2 and bus routes to St Albans, Stevenage, Hertford and Letchworth.
From Hitchin we took another delightful rural route across to Buntingford and Bishops Stortford – route 386 which replicates much of the same route as it was in London Transport green bus and London Country days. In the ‘old days’ route 386 ran only three days a week and began in Hitchin then ran via Stevenage to the village of Cottered. Today’s route does the reverse and starts in Stevenage before reaching Hitchin then takes in Letchworth and Baldock and then continuing as it used to do from Cottered through the villages of Buntingford, Puckeridge, Standon and Little Hadham, although it misses out Wellpond Green and Hadham Ford.
It’s operated by TrustyBus, now known as Central Connect with Galleon Travel the formal ‘O’ licence name.
In the old days Letchworth was served by a separate route 384 which ended up in Hertford and London Country never ventured as far north as Baldock on its network map except when it gained an evening and Sunday tender so extended route 384 to the town from its traditional terminus in Letchworth.
Like route 88 earlier in the afternoon our journey leaving Hitchin at 16:10 (one of just four journeys a day on the route) was very quiet, arriving from Stevenage with just one on (who got off) and picking one up at Hitchin station who travelled to Buntingford where another boarded who travelled to Bishops Stortford. So just one on the bus at any one time; another almost zero passenger journey.
The diversion to serve Letchworth Garden City and Baldock proved worthless although it did give us a tour of the former’s well laid out streets thanks to Ebenezer Howard’s forward thinking and the UK’s first roundabout from circa 1909.
Had we made this journey yesterday, rather than on Friday of last week, we could of course have summoned up our own personal luxury seated Mercedes Sprinter to ferry us from Hitchin to Stevenage as part of the new HertsLynx DRT.
So now, the 386 has a competitor for its small pickings of passengers.
Despite poor passenger support and a driver who wasn’t hanging around our journey got significantly behind schedule due to some temporary traffic lights at roadworks for the Little Hadham bypass under construction and busy peak hour traffic as we entered Bishops Stortford where we arrived around 17 minutes after our planned 1721 arrival.
Luckily we didn’t have any onward connections other than to head home as Bishops Stortford brought us to the end of Part 3 of our travels for the day.
We’ll be back for our fourth and final part of the Anniversary Tour next month.