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Buses open up a whole new view of London

Special to The Times

THERE’S nothing like a red double-decker bus zipping down the wrong side of the street to let you know you’re in London. I’ve always loved London’s cheery behemoths but only as a symbol. When it came to getting places, I used to be strictly an Underground gal.

Even before my first trip to London in the 1960s, when I met my teenage pen pal Diana for the first time -- ours is a rare instance of youthful correspondence blossoming into real friendship -- London’s Underground, or Tube, was linked in my mind with romance.

Diana’s early letters were peppered with evocative references to it: “I was standing on the platform at Wood Green when I spotted a lovely bloke.... He kissed me goodbye at Finsbury Park, but it was gone midnight and the Tube had stopped running.”

On subsequent visits to Diana in student digs and shares and, later, her house in Islington, which she rescued from mildew in the 1980s, I took the Tube everywhere. I marveled at its efficiency and never tired of comparing it favorably to the subway trains in my hometown of New York: the soporific “shhhuuussshhh” versus the hair-raising “screeeeeech”; corduroy-cushioned seats in place of scratched plastic; and those thrillingly oversized, tunnel-shaped movie posters across the platform, well beyond the reach of defacers.

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The bus was something I took only to get from Diana’s place to the nearest Tube stops at Angel or Highbury & Islington, and it always seemed like a punishment: walking several blocks to the stop on Balls Pond Road, often in the rain, then waiting 15 or 20 minutes for a bus, just to get to the place where I would start my journey.

Recently, my husband, Jeff, and I went to London for the first time in eight years and found positive changes everywhere, from South Bank development to a slew of good restaurants. But for me, the most significant change was the bus.

Shortly after we arrived in London, I offhandedly mentioned taking the Tube to Diana. Her reply was swift. “Oh, no! You’ve got to take the bus.”

The bus? Who had time to wait for buses? And was it really worth trying to figure out all those confusing routes and numbers for a two-week stay?

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Our soft-spoken friend had become a bus Nazi. “Forget the Tube,” she insisted. “Everyone uses the bus now.”

In the last few years, Diana told us, Mayor Ken Livingstone had worked wonders on the formerly chaotic bus system. A “congestion charge” keeps private cars out of central London; exclusive bus lanes have been established; commodious “bendy buses,” their segments connected by accordion folds, have supplemented the beloved but vertiginous double-deckers.

But her most convincing point was the savings over expensive Tube fares: A week’s unlimited use of the vast bus system would cost only about $17.50.

The next morning, Diana marched us to a news agent to buy our weeklong bus passes. We were heading to the Camden Passage flea market in the heart of Islington, a neighborhood roughly comparable in ambience to New York’s Greenwich Village. By the time we had walked four longish blocks to the news shop and another block and a half to the nearest bus stop, I thought I could make out one of central Islington’s leafy squares up the road ahead.

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“Aren’t we halfway there already?” I asked her. “Why don’t we just walk?” She glared at me. Londoners don’t walk. They take the bus.

Like clockwork

IF you miss a bus in London, no worries. They come along with assembly-line frequency. There are even constantly updated LED signs at many stops, telling when the next bus is expected.

The 205 to Paddington would be along in two minutes, one sign said. It soon changed to “one minute,” and then to “Due.”

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“Look, here it comes!” I exclaimed, glancing from sign to road. A woman at the bus stop waved her hand dismissively. “Don’t pay any attention to those. They’re terribly inaccurate.” Still, we were impressed.

We quickly became bus mavens, aficionados of the double-deckers’ top deck. From coveted front-row seats, which generally became available if we patiently stalked them, we sailed alongside the treetops of London’s parks and squares, enjoyed close-ups of architectural detail and had a bird’s-eye view into the Temple of Mithras, a 3rd century Roman ruin revealed by a World War II bomb and excavated in the 1950s.

Had we been riding the Underground, we certainly would not have spotted James Smith & Sons, umbrella and stick makers (est. 1830), as we did from the No. 25 on New Oxford Street. We hopped off, feeling spontaneous, and spent an hour choosing from among the most extensive and exquisite variety of umbrellas we’d ever seen.

Seen anew

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AFTER a few days on London’s buses, I began to understand things about the city and its geography that had eluded me for decades. I never had the faintest clue where Alfie’s Antiques Market in Marylebone was in relation to Victoria Station, for example, except that it was six stops on the Bakerloo line, then three on the Circle or District.

Now I know that, once past an uninspiring stretch of chain stores on the Edgware Road it’s gold coast all the way: past Marble Arch, along the elegant rim of Mayfair, skirting Green Park near Buckingham Palace and into the tidy corner of Belgravia where straight-laced Westminster becomes creative Chelsea.

Thanks to the buses, I’ve noticed that new galleries and restaurants are taking over formerly unremarkable Hoxton and that the vintage pubs of Clerkenwell still fill with workers from the City at the end of the day. I know exactly where Samuel Pepys, the 17th century diarist, went when he wrote of walking to Lincoln’s Inn fields.

I also discovered that Diana doesn’t really live in Islington. She’d been pretending. She lives in less-upmarket De Beauvoir Town, near Dalston Junction, a vibrant section of shops, market stalls and ethnic restaurants I had no idea existed during the years I was oriented toward arty, ivy-covered Islington and its two Tube stations.

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One Sunday, Jeff and I broke the rules and took the Tube, just to experience it at least once on this visit. Everything was as I remembered but with a grim new cast: the long line to buy tickets, the posted notice about three of seven lines being out of service, the deep, steep descent into the Earth, the claustrophobic tunnels, the unsmiling passengers, the featureless ride. (This was before terrorists detonated bombs on the transit system in July.)

London’s buses are not perfect. Cellphones ring constantly. You can’t always get a seat, let alone a preferred one. And rush hour can still be miserable. On our last night in London, stuck in traffic and trying to read in the greenish light of a bendy bus, I eavesdropped on two young men discussing their options.

How about we get out here and take the Tube from Liverpool Street Station? Nah, that’ll cost 2 quid. Walk the rest of the way? That’ll take as long as sitting here, and it’s starting to drizzle. Change for the 149 up Shoreditch High Street and catch a 38 or 56 at Kingsland Road to Angel?

My thoughts exactly. It may have taken a few decades, but with my newly acquired bus expertise, I was finally beginning to know this town.

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