Time’s Wheeled Routemaster

Andrew Marvell, Machiavellian parliamentarian with the honeyed pen, would have us believe that time has wings.

“At my back, he tells a mistress; “I always hear time’s winged chariot hurrying near;
And yonder all before us lie deserts of vast eternity.”

I could hear Time behind me all right, as I walked around London this week. But like traffic on a motorway, time travels in different lanes: a slow lane, where time travels from the inception of the planet to its demise; the middle lane, which chronicles the history of a land and its people; and the fast one, my own personal timeline, hurtling at 90 miles per hour.

But in the style of the cars on the autobahn, timelines draw level with each other on their travels. As I walked round the Tower of London with Maddie and Felix, I passed Historical Time in a cab in the middle lane.See that, he chuckled: 1066, the first bricks were laid. I’ve supervised men for almost a thousand years, adding bits and taking away bits, glorifying and belittling, crowning and beheading.

After a slap up lunch near the Tower we put out our hand for a bus. And what should come round the corner but one of those original London Routemasters.

A scarlet double-decker bus built by the Associated Equipment Company in 1954, the Routemaster is a front engined, back-loading vehicle, seating just over 64 people. It is as much London as red telephone boxes and penny farthings and pea soupers: embedded into the city’s programme, anchored to an era. Just a very few of the original Routemasters run on the popular tourist trail, from Trafalgar Square to the Tower and back. It glories under the number 15.

We were all overjoyed to be met at the bus stop by an icon, and queued to climb the little spiral stairs to the top deck, to watch London pass by with a commentary by Phil.

Pudding Lane, the Bank of England and Mansion House, St Paul’s, The bounds of the old city,  Fleet Street;  haunt of hacks eternal, El Vino; The Law Courts, King’s College and the LSE, and The Savoy, and a glimpse of Nelson on his column before alighting to potter off to Covent Garden: and the London Transport Museum.

Time was close in attendance.

Because London Transport charts an essentially modern era with a modern perspective: a time when the problems presented by the growing hordes of Londoners were being solved by visionary engineers. Its story starts with the old horse-drawn omnibus and chronicles the growth of comparatively small local train lines and motorised buses which would move people from here to there across a vast city.

We watch the visual language change, sure: but the basic tenets – the tunnel shape, the familiar forms of the vehicles- they stay hauntingly familiar. We stepped inside an underground train carriage from 1890; a tubular carriage with padded seats which earned them the name ‘padded cells’. They are not so very different from the carriages today; they have bench seats, and dimmer lights, but the same shapes.

And yet these things were pulled by locomotives which had engines which were not always strong enough to tackle the hills, deep down there in the City and South London Railway. They would sometimes falter and stop all together: whereupon the unfortunate driver must back up, quite blind, in the inky black of the tunnel, and have another go at the hill.

Nothing has changed: and yet everything has changed.

Time stood indulgently watching as my husband stood on the platform at the back of every bus in the museum, clowning: doing that iconic wave you see in all the old photographs and movies.

And Time watched one of his newest recruits in the simulator, driving a tube train into a state-of-the-art station complete with perspex screens between platform and train. Felix sat there as if he had been driving tube trains all his life. Perhaps, Time mused thoughtfully, he will do just that.

My gothically minded daughter lay in front of a tube train exhibit as she was invited to do. She observed the hypothetically lethal effects of lying in the path of a tube train with wicked delight not one, but six times. Every time there was a spare moment she popped back to end it just one more time.

Here in this great metropolis, Time’s winged chariot is a little outmoded.

Time here travels on wheels, which have changed with each engineer’s draughtsmanship. It rattles down tunnels and stops at signals; it loads  people and roars off, away from the milestones of life, and a leisurely pace, so that one might see the sights.

Time, here, travels on a wheeled Routemaster.

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32 thoughts on “Time’s Wheeled Routemaster

  1. I spent a great deal of my time on the red double decker buses (growing up in North London) – through the 50s my friend and I traveled around on them almost daily – to the libaries, swimmingpools, pictures (cinema) shops, up into the heart of London to all the mueseums – upstairs was best -either very front or very back, standing on the platform, jumping of while it was still moving – being shouted at by the conducter if seen! jumping on was difficult but managable if one was quick and nimble- I regarded my rickity ankles just then as I said that:(

    The whole of London was ours with those buses. The only time they would fail us was during the pea soupers when even they had to cease from lack of sight and we would be turfed out to navigate our way home through the murk.

    Time as you say – your post this morning flew me back – supersonic time – to a life so very different, a City beating with a different pulse than today – I stood, a child, next to your children watching your husband on the platform doing what I had done, watched you watching us – I was there with you and for a moment Time was laughing with childish delight and all the mixtures.

    Thanks again – your blog. my first coffee starts my day on its way wonderfully.

    1. Alberta, what an enchanting comment, thank you so much- it adds to our understanding so much hearing a first hand account of a regular London Bus passenger. Fancy them chucking passengers off the bus in a peasouper! Thank you again. You never fail to add something to our post- post chat 🙂

      1. it wasn’t so much ‘chucking off’ as the buses really could not run in those smogs- literaly you could not see hand in front of face – they had to stop or risk going on the pavement – the last pea souper I remember, I left the bus at Southgate Station and had a mile to walk for home – I had walked that straight road hundreds of times in my life and there I was groping all the way – scared silly (was about 13yrs) and wanting so much to be home – what usualy took me 12 mins or so took about 40, feeling, with my toes mostly, where roads were, my hand on garden bushes /fences – Mum was waiting at the gate – she hadn’t dared come any further in case we missed each other but she was there to make sure I didn’t miss our driveway! So pleased to see her.

        Hundreds died from the pollutants in the smogs, especially the very old and very young – it was dangerous to go out in them. When they threatened, schools would close and send us all home – my misfortune was that I lived 5 miles away from school and so I didnt get back in time.

        The Clean Air Act was so needed and worked so well – those smogs were a thing of the past, in no time at all it seemed. They never get it quite right in films – too much vision, just a fog, but I guess not much point to a film with no vision:)

  2. Kate, you know I love stories of time travel! This one is amazing!
    I like your autobahn metaphor, but sometimes I feel as though I’m in all three lanes at once (and travelling in two drections!!!). And the Routemaster – although old now, they do have a classic look, like, as you say the telephone boxes and even the old pillar (post) boxes. I can’t think of any modern thing that has the same ‘appeal’ that that type of bus has.
    Oop – time’s caught up with me again now… must fly! 😀
    Have a great Saturday, Kate.

  3. Truly mouth agape at how you are able to weave the multiple concepts of time with a heart warming recap of a family romp in the museum. First, I am considering the physics of time and Einstein’s theorems and then enjoying the antics of young Felix and the old soul of Maddie enjoying their adventure. Oh yes, I didn’t miss the little aside of brother Phil offering commentary while watching London pass by.
    The lovely Miss TK and I spent a day touring London three years ago and your recap sure brought back wonderful memories, we loved every second of the day.

  4. I remeber being taken to the London Transport Museum. Not my thing, I thought. I was pleasantly surprised. Facinating.

    The stylised map of the undergound, the one we are all so used to, compared with the original realisitic representation was an eye opener for me

      1. These links are characteristically great, Pseu, thanks! I loved the exhibit where they animate the introduction of each line so you can see what happened in any given year….think it goes from 1839 through to 2012! Fab stuff.

  5. What a lovely little holiday on wheels. Yet another small regret from my London trip. I never did make it aboard one… But I am having my Oolong in a transportation museum mug reading “Mind the Gap.” What a fun spot.

  6. How I, we, would love this museum. The Chicago History Museum has the elevated train used to transport visitors to and from the 1893 Columbian Exposition. I loved sitting in the seats and imagining . . .

  7. I have no idea how I let the Transport Museum slip off my to-do list when my wife and I were in London years ago. Actually it was probably one of those things she crossed off after my one-too-many visits to automotive landmarks. But we must come back and do it. Well, after the damnable Olympics have vacated maybe.

  8. It’s wonderful that your children are so interested in these things, Kate, and you make the effort to go out abd explore the history and wonders if your country as a family – precious

  9. It is always a gift to see London through your eyes, Kate. The Transport Museum sound fascinating. The picture of Phil waving from the backs of the cars is hilarious, as is Maddie lying out front. You must’ve laughed your way through time.

  10. We would have loved the Transport Museum…my husband in particular. The red double-decker bus is indeed so iconic that I think I have had them pictured in probably ridiculously abundant numbers. I am sure the children will never forget this trip into London and all these wonderfully enriching experiences. I hope you took lots and lots of pictures! Great memories. Debra

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