Friday 9 December 2005 10.33pm
I wrote this as a blog entry, after my day out today...
The plan was simple: take my faulty iPod back to the Apple store, and jump on one of the last Routemasters along the way. At about 11.00am, I'm waiting on the south side of Westminster bridge - waiting to board a global icon, about to do one of its' iconic things - cross the Thames with Houses of Parliament neatly framed behind it. Just over an hour later, that will never happen again.
On the bus the conductor is being asked the same question over and over. "So what are you going to do now?". It must be the hundredth time that day - he smiles and says he's being made redundant. Locals and bus enthusiasts chat. Yes, there will be the heritage routes, but "it won't be the same" is the sentiment shared by everyone. The adoration comes from a mix of people, the notepad wielding spotters outnumbered by everyday passengers. A young couple insist on riding on the back all the way, the woman hopping off every few minutes to take pictures, then jumping back on.
We turn up Regent Street and the quickly the bus is filling up with fans, almost everyone with a camera. It's little compacts at first, but soon it's starting to feel like a rolling paparazzi shoot. A man at the back is rapid firing with a high end Canon, shooting the Routemaster behind as if it were a rarely seen Hollywood star. I forget all about the Apple store.
At the front of the bus are a group of enthusiasts talking loudly. One of the younger men is explaining how he hopes to work on the heritage service one day. I think to myself that his dream might stay just that. With only 10 or so running, those are probably going to the be the most prestige bus driving jobs in the world. A bit like the brakemen on the San Francisco cable cars. Mini celebrities of city transport.
At Marble Arch, I go to join the queue at bus stop L. It's London's largest ever bus queue I'm guessing - hundreds are in line, hoping for the chance to ride one of the very last Routemasters, a 159 to Streatham. Near empty 159s drift by as people hold out hope to be on the last one. After a while a number of us decide to cut our losses and run for one as it passes by. I smile to myself as, for the last time, I jump on the back of a Routemaster going down Oxford Street.
Upstairs we get a grandstand view of the public. For the next hour I am about to feel like a celebrity. Crowds at every junction are armed with cameras, all snapping furiously as we roll by. As we leave Regent Street there is a 30 person wall of photographers on the island, all in a tidy line, clearly professionals. Why there I wonder? And then I realise - it's the classic shot. The Routemaster with Eros and Picadilly Circus in the background.
And so it continues. Even after we leave London's immovable icons behind, our four wheeled one is still being photographed at every junction, at every bus stop. The journey is sedate, but the stops are characteristically brief. No hissing of doors and the slow-crawl of Oyster card beeps as people enter - just a quick change over of a few people and then the familiar ring of the bell.
At the other end is Brixton Bus garage, in a non-descript area just short of Streatham. It's where the last three Routemaster will end, as a steady stream of shiny modern characterless double deckers flow out of the garage, feeding the 159 route back to into town. Thousands of people crowd the pavements and central reservation. A pair of rather grubby Routemasters arrive, but noone seems to mind their neglected state. A thousand digital photos happen at once.
Finally, they come. Three - not quite at once, as everyone was of course expecting - but near enough. The police up until this point had been barking at people to stand back from the traffic, but they finally relented. An officer shouted "You've got two minutes to take photos", and with that the road immediately filled.
Then came a gold painted one, and then finally an immaculate red Routemaster. People patted it, stroked it, shook hands with the bus driver and filled their cameras for the last time. As it started to move into the depot, the man next to me started crying. "Don't take it away" he said. I recognised him. He was the man on the 159 earlier, who said he wanted to drive one on the heritage service.
I hope his dream comes true. He'll be the happiest bus driver on earth. As for me - well, I still have a faulty iPod.