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On The Buses With Colin O’Brien

August 30, 2014
by the gentle author

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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11 Responses leave one →
  1. Julie permalink
    August 30, 2014

    I really love those green buses, I knew about the red ones but not the green ones.

  2. August 30, 2014

    What wonderful pictures and description and memories ~ the RT1 was born five days after me (4th August 1939)! Thank you gentle author and Colin O’Brien. SMcA XX

  3. Greg Tingey permalink
    August 30, 2014

    Two of the green-painted RT’s run a regular service on Saturdays & Sundays, between Epping & N Weald (For the Epping-Ongar Railway) They often go on to Ongar as well.
    One is in the old “London Country” livery & one is ex “Green Line”
    Well worth the trip.

  4. Peter Holford permalink
    August 30, 2014

    Great memories especially as the number 22 features so prominently. That was the bus we used to catch from near our home in Putney. I also caught it when I went to school in Hammersmith. We had a competition with the driver to see if we could jump off the back as it went round the corner into the terminus. Some drivers definitely took the corner as fast as they could and not all of us could make the jump. Health and Safety? Our mothers would have had a fit if they had known. And the conductor wasn’t bothered! It seemed to be one of our rites of passage along with falling out of trees on the adjacent common.

  5. August 30, 2014

    What a pity that I couldn’t be in London to see all my Childhood-MATCHBOX-Dreams come true … — A very good photo story about those asymmetrically designed lovable veteran buses. Thanks a lot!

    Love & Peace

  6. David Cantor permalink
    August 30, 2014

    I took a ride on an old bus recently with the bench seats facing. From St. Paul’s to Charing Cross, a passenger who lives in Australia and now long retired, claimed to have been the youngest driver on a London bus. His conversation with the lady conductor, yes one of those too, was magical as they compared then and now. The new buses are probably more cost effective, less polluting but so much less fun too. Good memories.

  7. Ian permalink
    August 30, 2014

    Some might think I’m barmy but I find (and for as long as I can remember, found) old buses beautiful and majestic. As a child I used to get the Bus Annual for Christmas, and would spend happy hours leafing through over and over again, scouring the photographs for details I may have missed the first time. These photos serve as a reminder that they are vehicular works of art, and also highlight how homogenised and generic most modern vehicles have become. Thanks for sharing them.

  8. Classof65 permalink
    August 31, 2014

    Why were some of the buses red and others green?

  9. Brenda permalink
    August 31, 2014

    I love the old buses. They always look like they’re winking at you when you view them head on!

  10. steve clarke permalink
    September 2, 2014

    Mr Gentle

    Any idea why some of the Routemasters were Green ?

    I notice the No 22 for instance, which still runs in East London through the City was Red in some pictures and Green in others.


  11. Paul permalink
    October 5, 2014

    Re. Green Routemasters…

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