London's Heritage Routemaster Buses - routes 9 and 15
London's much-loved Routemaster buses were a major feature of the capital from the mid 1950s until 2005. So great were the protests when these 'symbols of London' were retired from service in December 2005 that a small renovated fleet was quickly re-introduced on sections of two tourist-friendly central London bus routes.
Today, tourists and nostalgic Londoners can still enjoy the bumpy but fun experience of riding an iconic red double-decker Routemaster between Tower Bridge and Kensington on two linking 'heritage routes', number 9 and number 15 (information correct as of Summer 2012).
A shiny red Routemaster bus: one of London's enduring symbols
The number 9 service runs between Kensington High Street and Trafalgar Square, and the number 15 service runs between Trafalgar Square and Tower Hill. Both services run approximately every 15-20 minutes, daily between 9:30am and 7pm. The entire route - between Kensington and Tower Bridge - is about 6 miles (10km) and can be travelled, with a change at Trafalgar Square, in around 60 - 90 minutes.
Standard Travelcards and Oyster Cards are valid on the heritage routes, as are standard bus tickets purchased from the bus stop ticket machines. You can also buy your ticket from the conductor, just as used to be the case in the Routemasters' heyday. NB: Try to have the right change for your fare as the conductors are generally unable to change anything larger than a £5 note (and sometimes not even that). Also, you don't pay as you enter the bus: instead the conductor will come to your seat once the bus is moving.
Routemasters in 'the good old days'
The open rear platform is one of the main features of the iconic Routemaster buses
Despite the Routemasters' fame, and the misty-eyed memories of many Londoners, the buses probably had as many bad points as they had good ones. The open platform at the rear was great for jumping on and off between stops (particularly on congested Oxford Street, where they are greatly missed!), but wasn't very safe. It also encouraged fare dodgers who could leap off as soon as the conductor approached them. What's more, the high step up onto the platform, coupled with the narrow aisle and lack of luggage space, made Routemasters completely impossible for wheelchair users. They were also extremely problematic for anyone with mobility issues, and a nightmare for parents with young children in buggies (which had to be both fully foldable and small enough to fit into the tiny under-stair luggage cubby hole).
Routemasters were also noisy, often rather smelly, and offered a bumpy and none too comfortable ride. Overcrowding was a constant problem as the open back meant that it was difficult to limit access. The staircase to the upper deck, coupled with the open rear of the buses, was frankly dangerous - over the years we witnessed several nasty accidents. Nevertheless, there could be something rather wonderful and uniquely 'London' in the experience of speeding down a London street (Routemasters have surprising acceleration) while clinging to the pole on the crowded open platform!
The refurbished Routemasters
Don't attempt the Routemaster's stairs without holding on tight to the handrail - especially if the bus is moving.
The buses used on the Heritage Routes have been refurbished with nicely upholstered seats, modern environmentally friendlier engines, improved lighting and sealed windows (the old crank handle windows were awkward to use and created terrible draughts in colder weather). Still, the buses retain much of their atmosphere, vibrations and shaky ride. It's wise to keep hold of something at all times, and especially while standing!
Boarding is still via the open platform at the rear of the bus, but these days the conductor is unlikely to let you stand on the platform while the bus is moving. If you're only going a few stops then you may prefer to stay downstairs, but most people - of course - head up the stairs to the upper deck. Do take extra care when you go back down the stairs to get off, especially if you're with children. Hold on to the handrail the whole time you're on the staircase: the buses can jerk quite violently when they brake. It is safest to press the 'stop' request button, then wait until the bus has actually stopped before venturing down the stairs. If you're worried that the bus will move off before you've had time to get off, call to the conductor who will signal to the driver.
Incidentally, the conductors are generally much more friendly than they used to be before the Routemasters became a tourist attraction. And not only are the drivers tolerant and patient about people taking photos of the buses, they're often happy to pose for you too.
There's usually competition for the front seats on the Routemaster's upper deck
There's always a scramble for the four seats at the front of the upper deck. Children especially love sitting here, as it's the best place to pretend to be driving the bus! From this position it's always a surprise to see how very close buses pull up to the vehicle in front when at traffic lights or in heavy traffic. There's often no more than a few inches between you and the bus in front!
Just as in the past, today's Heritage Routemasters are not wheelchair accessible, and they're as tricky as ever with buggies and pushchairs. However, the Heritage Routemasters run on routes 9 and 15 in parallel with modern accessible London buses, so wheelchair users and families with buggies can still travel the same route.
Highlights of the Heritage Routes
Paintings galore along the perimeter of Green Park on Piccadilly
Travelling west from the Tower of London, the Heritage Route first passes through the City of London. The banks, offices and shops are overwhelmingly modern, but the street - Poultry - retains its medieval name. The sharp-eyed will spot names on the narrow alleys to the left and right of the route that hark back to earlier times, including Bread Street, Milk Street and Shoe Lane. If you're riding the route on a weekend when the traffic is light, the bus can get up quite a speed on this stretch. For those seated on the upper deck, this can be slightly (though usually enjoyably) alarming, coupled with the bumps and vibrations of the historic suspension. St. Paul's Cathedral soon comes into view, then Fleet Street and the Royal Courts of Justice. Keep a look out for the River Thames, which runs roughly parallel to this section of the route, and can be glimpsed from time to time down lanes and cuttings between buildings.
The view from the Routemaster's upper deck approaching Trafalgar Square
From the Strand, the bus lurches past Charing Cross Station and its reconstructed Eleanor Cross, and around Trafalgar Square. It then goes up to Piccadilly Circus, past Fortnum & Mason and the Ritz Hotel, and along the edge of Green Park. Here passengers on the upper deck have a good view of the hundreds of paintings (many of them pretty awful, but with the occasional good one) that set up daily on the park's perimeter railings in the hope of sales.
The bus then goes around Wellington Arch past the wall of Buckingham Palace's gardens - sadly the garden's trees and shrubbery mean that even if you're seated on the upper deck you won't see much. The route continues along the length of Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens, past the Albert Hall and the startlingly golden Albert Memorial, to its terminus on Kensington High Street. This is a good spot for a bit of shopping, or you can take a tube from Kensington High Street Station. Alternatively you may like to double back a few hundred metres and go into Kensington Gardens to visit Kensington Palace, have afternoon tea at the elegant Orangerie, or - if you have children with you - spend an hour or two at the wonderful Princess Diana Memorial Playground
While we wouldn't go so far as to say the Routemaster Heritage Routes are 'must dos', it's a fun way to get across London, and much less stressful than taking the tube. And, of course, anyone with an interest in public transport will be proud to say that they rode on an iconic Routemaster!
The upper deck on a Routemaster - a bit bumpy and shaky and rather cramped... but fun!
A number 9 Routemaster on route to Kensington High Street