Sunday 17th October 2021
A surprise ending
And so to the fourth and final quadrant of our London encirclement commemorating last year’s fiftieth anniversary of the much missed London Country Bus Services.
We’d journeyed from Gravesend to Dorking; Dorking to Amersham and Amersham to Bishops Stortford and Friday saw the circle completed by travelling from Bishops Stortford through Harlow, Epping, Ongar, Brentwood, Romford, Lakeside and Grays to Tilbury ending with a wonderful surprise before crossing the Thames on the small passenger ferry back to our starting point in Gravesend.
We were delighted to be joined on this final quadrant not only by Bill Hiron the man behind Rochford based Stephensons and sister company Wickford based NIBS, but also the much respected Roger Bowker whose distinguished career in the industry included managing director of East London Buses during its original ownership by Stagecoach before overseeing a number of exciting projects for Sir Brian Souter. Editor of Buses Worldwide, the much travelled and knowledgeable Malcolm Chase, also joined us. So we were quite a crowd.
Bishops Stortford was the north eastern outpost of London Country where routes 350/A arrived from Little Hadham in the west along with the 386, which we journeyed in on to end Part 3, and routes 396 and 397/A from Harlow to the south as well as Green Line route 720 from Aldgate.
Routes 350/A were wonderful Hertfordshire bus routes reaching as far south as New Barnet where they terminated alongside the railway station with routes 303/A from Hitchin and 306 from Watford and Leavesden. Sadly only Metroline route 84 to St Albans and truncated TfL route 107 to Edgware now recreate that once green north London terminus.
Today’s route network in Bishops Stortford owes much to the popularity of nearby Stansted Airport opened in 1991, which obviously didn’t feature in the LCBS 1970s era.
Our first journey was on Arriva’s 508/509/510 which take three different routes between the airport and Bishops Stortford but then provide an attractive ten minute frequency between Bishops Stortford via Sawbridgeworth down to Harlow. We’re pretty sure that’s much more frequent than in LCBS days.
The four year old Enviro200 buses used on the service were introduced in the days when Arriva still embraced route branding and come with rather unusual panels on the roof, which I’m not sure many people take note of, but it probably seemed like a whacky idea at the time.
We caught the 09:13 departure from what’s called ‘Bishops Stortford Interchange’ but is actually a bus stop and shelter opposite the station exit with incomplete departure information including a complete lack of any reference to Harlow bound buses. Luckily Roger Bowker had asked a bus driver on a previous journey and got confirmation of where to board.
It was a busy journey with around 25 passengers admittedly including the nine of us, as well as a wheelchair user and buggy and youngster.
At 09:45 we reached Harlow. Harlow became an important town for London Country being one of the growing post war New Towns and sported a complex town bus network and bus garage which is still used by Arriva. Green Line route 718 started here on its cross London journey to Windsor and the already mentioned route 720 passed through, while orbital route 724 still begins its journey to Heathrow Airport here.
I’m going to spare you the gory details of the dire state of the town’s bus station this time, as I’ve covered this in previous blogs, but suffice to say even though Aylesbury put up a sterling effort we’ve awarded Harlow top prize in the Most Uncared For Bus Station award category of our Tour. I’ll explain why in another blog, another time.
For now, let’s just say 25 minutes was plenty time enough to get depressed at the sheer awfulness of it all and we were soon on our way on our next leg, taking TrustyBus Central Connect branded route 420 via Epping to Ongar.
In those heady LCBS days fifty years ago, this journey would have been in the hands of route 339 and would have taken us onward as far as Brentwood. Indeed from Epping to Brentwood the route still gets to see green RTs and RFs operating as route 339 with the London Bus Company’s timetable in conjunction with the Epping Ongar Railway (see earlier photo). Sadly they weren’t on the road on Friday so we had to make do with the 420.
It’s been a hotly contested route over the last decade or so of unstable bus competition in the Harlow area but this now seems to have subsided with the route now running every half hour between Harlow and North Weald (numbered 420A) and hourly extensions to Ongar (numbered 420) with extra journeys in the peaks to make for an almost 20 minute frequency between Harlow and North Weald. We pretty much doubled the number of passengers on board our journey as far as North Weald and then had exclusive use of the bus.
There was a bit of a problem with the driver refusing to accept those in our group with an Essex Day Saver ticket purchased on the Arriva 509 bus with an adamant insistence Arriva tickets weren’t valid on TrustyBus. We stood our ground explaining equally forcibly they were valid and I’m pleased to say he realised the weight of insistence of who was right was not on his side.
We’d caught the 10:10 from Harlow being a former London United Scania and travelled on it via Epping all the way to Ongar where it was time for a prolonged refreshment stop to fortify ourselves for an intense afternoon’s travelling with minimal breaks between journeys.
Ongar of course was famous not only for being the north eastern most outpost of the London Underground with the famous shuttle to Epping on the Central Line closing in 1994 (now wonderfully preserved as the Epping Ongar Railway) but also the northern terminus of LT Central Area red bus route 175 which ran (albeit in sections) all the way to Dagenham until modified in 1973 and after renumbering (as 247B) and cut back to Romford and then to three days a.week, was finally withdrawn in 1982.
The southern section of former route 339 between Ongar (or to be more precise Chipping Ongar as it’s officially called) and Brentwood is now in the hands of the already mentioned Wickford based operator NIBS.
We caught the 13:01 from Ongar which took us via Kelvedon Hatch, site of the famous Secret Bunker, now open to the public and a fascinating visit it is too, to Brentwood’s High Street.
It was a very smartly turned out former Alexander Dennis demonstrator Enviro 200 expertly driven and with a supply of bright coloured timetable leaflets for routes operated in the Brentwood area by NIBS .
Route 21 is a commercially operated hourly ‘one bus in steam’ route rounding nicely in an hour (traffic conditions permitting). We outnumbered the half a dozen passengers taking the ride with us down to Brentwood.
Slow moving traffic into Brentwood meant a tight connection on to our next journey but thankfully the Stagecoach operated TfL route 498 pulled out from its terminal point at Brentwood’s Sainsbury’s just behind us as we passed by so we managed a slick transfer at the next stop in the High Street.
This next section of our Tour between Brentwood and Romford was famously always marked with a dotted line on the old London Transport Country Area bus maps as there were no green bus routes between the two locations and passengers were advised to either catch “Central Bus routes 87, 287 or Green Line Coach route 721”.
Route 721 was famous for being one of the busiest and most frequent Green Line routes between Brentwood and Aldgate and LCBS inherited a fleet of RCLs (Routemaster Coach Long) from London Transport to operate it. However the parallel electrified railway effectively killed it off and the other route which ran regularly between Brentwood and Romford, Eastern National’s 351, suffered a similar fate.
Today’s equivalent “Central Bus route”, TfL’s route 498, effectively replaced route 351, being introduced unusually on Boxing Day 2005, and now runs every twenty minutes between Sainsbury’s in Brentwood and Romford’s Queen’s Hospital. It was a busy journey but our driver made good progress once he’d left the traffic choked Brentwood High Street …
…. and we arrived in Romford in good time for our six minute connection on to our next journey.
Romford was regarded as an LT Central Area town and had a large garage in North Street which Stagecoach still use today. But LCBS also had a presence having inherited the small garage in London Road which exclusively provided buses for Green Line route 721. It closed in 1977.
From Romford we caught another TfL route which pretty much replicates the former London Country route 370 and still uses that same number running through Hornchurch, Upminster, North Ockendon and South Ockendon to Lakeside, although in LCBS days that retail emporium wasn’t even a glimmer in a land developer’s eyes so the route continued on to Grays and our ultimate destination, the Tilbury Ferry, although it was cut back to Tilbury’s Asda in August 1985. The following year, in June 1986, the 370 was rerouted on leaving Romford (running via Gidea Park and Emerson Park rather than Hornchurch Road) and didn’t do a double run to serve Upminster Station as it does now, having been introduced in September 1990, by which time it had been cut back to Grays from Tilbury. (I did write “it pretty much replicates”!)
Today’s route 370 runs every 15 minutes and is in the hands of Arriva based at its bus garage at Europa Park, Grays. We caught the 14:07 departure which was another busy journey with plenty of passengers boarding with us at the first stop at Mercury Gardens in Romford and lots of ons and offs as we continued through busy Friday afternoon traffic, especially through Hornchurch, to Lakeside.
For a time in LCBS days the route was uniquely operated with full height Bristol VRs operating from its Grays bus garage, which closed some years after LCBS’s demise, in 1993. Today’s vehicles are Wright Gemini 2 buses.
On our journey we noted the closer we got to Lakeside the more TfL’s bus stop plate route number displays were out of date which sadly is all too typical of the sloppy presentation that once proud organisation now offers especially in the outer reaches of its network. It would never have happened in our team member, Peter Bradley’s, time at the helm in TfL.
After a very quick coffee and toilet stop at Lakeside (which, following closure of Debenhams alongside the bus station, now involves a longer walk to enter the shopping centre) we continued eastwards towards Grays and Tilbury on our final two legs of our Tour on Ensignbus operated route 73, leaving at 15:20.
The bus station at Lakeside is dominated by the smart blue and grey buses of the award winning and much admired Ensignbus alongside TfL routes 370 snd 372 (to Hornchurch via Rainham).
We were lucky to have a brand new ‘71’ plate Wright StreetDeck – one of a batch of more than a dozen buses now in the Purfleet based operator’s fleet. It gave a very smooth ride on what proved to be an incredibly busy journey with both shoppers, workers and a large number of school children travelling home boarding and alighting throughout the journey.
We reached Grays bus station along the route just a couple of minutes down but heavy post-school-turning-out-time traffic and a very long traffic queue at a set of traffic lights in Chadwell St Mary saw us get significantly delayed on the next section of route.
We’d been impressed to see a full timetable book available to pick up as we’d boarded which complete with coloured route diagram enabled us to keep check on our journey’s progress with concern mounting whether we’d make our 18 minute connection to our last journey of the Tour, route 99 from Tilbury’s Civic Square to the ferry pier.
As already mentioned Grays was home to an LCBS bus garage as well as a small network of routes which linked neighbouring Rainham and Tilbury and was the eastern terminus of Green Line route 723 to Aldgate which sadly withered on the vine before withdrawal like the 721.
Ensignbus came to the local bus scene from their base at Purfleet, famous in the industry for its huge bus refurbishment and sales business as well as an amazing collection of much loved vintage buses and an involvement in previous decades in London’s sightseeing business.
Run by the ever passionate and business astute Newman family with Dad Peter still enthusiastically at the helm as Chairman together with sons Ross and Steve, they spotted a gap in the local bus market not being served properly by Arriva and the rest, as they say, is history. Arriva are long gone from the local network and Thurrock residents enjoy an award winning bus service.
It’s typical of the kindness and thoughtfulness of the Newman family that they’d been tracking our Tour progress on Friday and knowing the 15:20 route 73 journey from Lakeside we caught gets a canning from school kids and traffic congestion to say nothing of the imopact of delays on the nearby Dartford Crossing and M25 …
… they laid on a special back up treat at Civic Square to take us to the ferry.
As our brand new ‘71’ plate route 73 pulled into Civic Square 18 minutes late at 16:14 we needn’t have worried about catching the 16:14 departure on route 99 as, waiting to greet us, was Peter Newman, son Steve and other Ensignbus staff with their wonderfully preserved Green Line liveried RT3232 ready to take us down to the ferry rather than the normal branded Enviro200 used on the route.
It really was a wonderful surprise and provided a very fitting climax to our LCBS 50th Anniversary Tour, enabling us to complete our Polo mint travels on one of the finest bus types to operate in that Company’s fleet.
The RT was superbly driven and followed the normal service bus …
… via the Town station where we bid farewell to Bill Hiron and then via the large Asda in Tilbury where some stand time is taken before arriving at the ferry precisely on time at 16:35.
There was just enough time for a commemorative photo with Peter Newman to mark the occasion and express our grateful thanks for his family’s characteristic generosity ….
…. before catching the 16:42 ferry across the River Thanes and back to our starting point in Gravesend.
It’s now time to reflect on how things have changed in the former LCBS area compared to fifty-one years ago – for the better and for the worse – and I’ll write about such thoughts in a future blog based on our travel experiences over this four day Tour.
Mean time thanks for reading these Tour write ups, thanks to my fellow travel companions, and thanks again to the legend that is Peter Newman and sons Steve and Ross (who despite being on holiday had a major hand in inspiring Friday’s surprise).
I used to run a bus company but in retirement enjoy Britain’s splendid scenic delights travelling by bus and train, and commenting along the way.