Lon­don’s Route 139 — a real-world city bus tour, with­out nar­ra­tion and head­phones.

The Washington Post Sunday - - TRAVEL - BY GWYNETH KELLY travel@wash­post.com Kelly is a free­lance writer.

I have loved many buses. The one I loved most was the Cat­bus from the Ja­panese anime film “My Neigh­bor To­toro,” which, sadly, I have never had the plea­sure of en­coun­ter­ing in real life. Trans­port for Lon­don’s Route 139 is a close sec­ond.

I love the panoramic view from the front seat of the up­per deck. I love the bright lights that make the bus feel like a safe haven when it picks you up from a cig­a­rette-strewn street at 3 a.m. I love how it trans­forms my sim­ple com­mute into an ap­pre­ci­a­tion of the in­ter­lock­ing won­ders of the city. Rock­et­ing through the Lon­don on the Un­der­ground might be faster, but gaze out your win­dow on the Tube and you’re met only with your own tense re­flec­tion star­ing back.

The 139 starts (or ends, depend­ing on its di­rec­tion) in West Hamp­stead, snakes down past Kil­burn, passes mon­strous highrise flats (one with the de­light­ful name “Snow­man House”) and then glides down Abbey Road. That’s the Abbey Road, where en­tre­pre­neur­ial types in high-vis­i­bil­ity vests wave at the buses and cars to slow down so they can charge tourists to be pho­tographed in end­less it­er­a­tions of the Bea­tles’ iconic cross­walk shot.

The pro­ces­sion of fans at Abbey Road Stu­dios rarely slows the progress of the 139, how­ever, which rolls through St. John’s Wood, then goes down Baker Street, where at the ap­prox­i­mate lo­ca­tion of 221B a man cos­tumed in deer­stalker cap and cape herds chaotic lines of tourists into some sem­blance of or­der.

Next, the art­ful win­dow dis­plays and colos­sal col­umns of the mam­moth depart­ment store Sel­fridges welcome you to the shop­ping bo­nanza (and air-pol­lu­tion night­mare) of Ox­ford Street. Dur­ing rush hour the red buses are packed bumper to bumper. The grid­lock is ex­ac­er­bated by pedi­cabs, whose driv­ers spend 80 per­cent of the time yelling at pedes­tri­ans to try to con­vince them to take a ride and 20 per­cent mov­ing at a crawl­ing pace

di­rectly in front of buses full of an­gry com­muters, who silently will the driver to just go ahead, give in, squash the stupid pedi­cab.

Rid­ing a dou­ble-decker bus makes you feel like an ur­ban ma­hout. From your perch on the 139 you see swarms of peo­ple walk­ing down Ox­ford Street, all of whom ap­pear to be mov­ing faster than you are. School groups, ex­tended net­works of fash­ion­istas, el­derly ladies pulling rolling shop­ping bags, ba­bies swad­dled in strollers con­structed of more pro­tec­tive Kevlar than mil­i­tary trucks.

And this is just on a reg­u­lar weekday: Dur­ing the Christ­mas sea­son (which in Lon­don starts in Oc­to­ber and isn’t fully purged un­til half­way through Jan­uary) the seas of hu­man­ity grow so dense that it is dan­ger­ous even to at­tempt for­ward mo­tion on foot. Yes, there are rea­sons to visit Ox­ford Street dur­ing Christ­mas, when the depart­ment stores put up daz­zling dis­plays, trees are hung with elec­tri­fied ici­cles, and orbs of light are strung sparkling across the street. All of that is glo­ri­ous, spirit-lift­ing and def­i­nitely best seen from the rel­a­tive safety of the up­per deck of a bus.

The 139 turns away from Ox­ford Street at Ox­ford Cir­cus and pro­ceeds along Re­gent, a con­tin­u­ous curve of neo­clas­si­cal arches, to Pic­cadilly Cir­cus, where peo­ple sit un­der the blink­ing neon signs, ex­hausted and over­whelmed af­ter queue­ing for hours to get tick­ets to “Les Miz.” Even­tu­ally the bus rounds a cor­ner and, mirac­u­lously, Trafal­gar Square ap­pears. Even though the Na­tional Gallery and Nel­son’s Col­umn are em­bla­zoned on a mil­lion Tshirts, tea tow­els and tchotchkes, it’s still an ex­cit­ing jolt to re­al­ize they’re just there. All the time. For you to pass ca­su­ally, on the bus, on your way to some­where else.

With Trafal­gar Square re­ced­ing into the dis­tance, the 139 trav­els down the Strand and crosses the Thames at Waterloo Bridge. There are­many bridges in Lon­don, plenty more fa­mous than Waterloo Bridge, but it is Waterloo Bridge that I think of­fers the best views. To the west you can see the glass pods of the Eye turn­ing slowly, the spiky fig­ure of Westminster, and Big Ben gleam­ing at night like a sec­ond moon. To the east, there’s the dome of St. Paul’s Cathe­dral and all the glit­ter­ing sky­scrapers that sig­nal the new­est era in Lon­don’s an­cient and en­dur­ing history.

When you fi­nally ar­rive at Waterloo Sta­tion it­self, there is the en­tirety of the South Bank, with its the­aters, used-book stalls and pop-up restau­rants for you to ex­plore.

Or you can get off, cross the street, and get back on the 139 in the other di­rec­tion.


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