On The Buses With Colin O’Brien
The restored prototype RT1 of 1939 in Piccadilly Circus
A magical time warp appeared to manifest itself in London, when Saturday shoppers were surprised by buses of past eras – many more than sixty years old – arriving unexpectedly, as if conjured from the ether, to whisk them away to the West End. In fact, it was a celebration of seventy-five years of the classic RT London bus organised by the London Bus Museum, in which fifty vintage vehicles returned to service for one day, offering free rides to all.
The buses gathered at the Ash Grove Depot next to London Fields before departure, so Contributing Photographer Colin O’Brien & I put on our anoraks and joined the happy throng of enthusiasts, mesmerised by the return of these beautiful historic buses, polished to perfection for this special day.
Unquestionably, the star attraction was the original prototype of the RT1 which first entered service on route 22 between Putney Common and Homerton on 9th August 1939, just weeks before the outbreak of World War II. The RT1 marked the culmination of a programme to design the ultimate London bus, featuring the latest in construction and engineering for passenger and crew comfort. Now fully restored to its former magnificence, it led the fleet from the depot out into the London streets yesterday.
Colin & I hopped aboard and made our way upstairs, and we discovered that we were upon a trip into memory. The checkerboard velvet upholstery, the wind-down windows, wooden floors, the cream paintwork, the “Push Once” bell and the “Do Not Spit” sign were all powerfully evocative of another time. But before we could contemplate further, the bus departed with that once-familar ding-ding of the bell and we enjoyed a smooth ride with just the occasionally rocky patch, whenever the bus lurched round corners, swinging around like one of those stage coaches of old.
Our great delight from the top deck was to observe the expressions of wonder and joy appear upon the faces of vaguely-bored Londoners at bus stops, astonished at the unexpected arrival of these glossy chariots from another age, skinnier and with rounder corners that our contemporary buses, and embellished with colourful advertisements from the past.
At Piccadilly Circus, we hopped off again and positioned ourselves strategically upon a traffic island so that Colin might photograph the old buses as they came through, standing out with decorative flourish like swans upon the river. We waited for hours, searching the distant traffic expectantly to capture the trophy shots you see below.
In spite of all the changes, these charismatic buses still looked entirely at home upon the streets. Held in great affection by Londoners, they are interwoven with the identity of the city itself and their descendants still ply the same routes every hour of the day and night – but we were overjoyed to see the return of the much-loved ancestors, reminding us of our collective past and reclaiming their old routes for a day.
Photographs copyright © Colin O’Brien
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