My Magic Bus

Peter Batten lives in Brighton but remembers his magic childhood in London…

I grew up in the London Borough of Southwark. My home was in a notorious area of the borough called Bermondsey. During World War II it was very dangerous because we were between two important railway lines and less than half a mile from the river Thames. The Germans knew that any bomb landing in our area could cause serious disruption. My family moved out to Essex for the worst of the Blitz, but I still lived for most of the war in a danger zone.

My travel was restricted during the war by the danger of bombing, but by the summer of 1945 I was 12 years old and keen to explore London. By chance, the Number 1 bus stopped outside our house. If I boarded a bus I could go south to the Surrey Commercial Docks, a huge centre for the import of wood, where my father worked for the ship repair company, Harland and Wolff. Going further I could pass through Deptford and arrive in Lewisham, an excellent shopping centre with two department stores and three cinemas. (I read in my newspaper today that in 2012 it had the highest crime rate in the UK). On Sundays I could go on to Catford or even Bromley.

This was a wonderful opportunity for exploration. But what if I crossed the road and took a bus north? The Number 1 went up to the Tower Bridge Road, crossed the Old Kent Road and, in about ten minutes, reached the Elephant and Castle. There I would find two large cinemas which I had already visited with my parents. But even more important, I could change buses and make the short trip to the cricket ground at the Oval, home of Surrey County Cricket Club. From the summer of 1946 I spent a large part of my summer school holidays there.

London Bus
The next major stop was Waterloo Station, which was to become my departure point in future years for many trips to South-West London and beyond. It was also the stop where I would alight for my first job, with the London County Council at County Hall. Then my magic bus went on, over Waterloo Bridge, and entered The Strand. On its return journey it would travel round the Aldwych. This famous street has lost some of the glamour which it had for me in those post war years, but it still offers several theatres and some attractive shops. Next Charing Cross Station and then Trafalgar Square. To my young imagination it was the centre of the World. Not only was there the attraction of the crowds and the pigeons around Nelson’s Column, but, in those days, the bus stopped outside the National Gallery, where I would spend quite a few hours as I grew older.

Next, the Number 1 turned north into the Charing Cross Road. Here, it gave me access to several more theatres and a whole collection of bookshops. When I became a jazz fan in the 1950s, I could get off outside the Hippodrome – by then ‘The Talk of the Town’ – and go to several jazz clubs around Leicester Square. Another important stop was by the Palace Theatre, which still dominates Cambridge Circus. The route led on into the Tottenham Court Road, but first it provided a very useful stop at the eastern end of Oxford Street, with its huge range of shopping opportunities.

At the end of the Tottenham Court Road, the bus turned west into the Marylebone Road. Here it gave me access to Regent’s Park, where I spent many pleasant summer Sundays with my parents. The next stop was Madame Tussauds, with its famous waxworks before the route ended for me at Marylebone Station. It actually went on to Willesden, a borough I never explored.

But there was one last treat. In my first summer of exploration, in 1945, my father pointed out that if we got off by Tussauds, at Baker Street, it was quite a reasonable walk to the home of cricket at Lords. He took me there for a Victory Test Match that summer. In my late teens I sometimes made the trip when there was no cricket on offer at the Oval.

During the years from 1945 to 1958 the Number 1 bus gave me access to all these attractive, interesting, fascinating places. Yet I took it for granted. It is only now, when I look back, that I realise how lucky I was that the Number 1 stopped outside my front door.

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