Thursday, 25 March 2010

The Number 63 Route

Forest Hill Tavern to King’s Cross

Wednesday March 24th 2010

[Oh, the honour, oh, the responsibility – the first guest blogger, the first male blogger to gatecrash the domain of the ladies who bus, and for such an important route… The 63 is a big deal for those involved in this project – it effectively links the North London participant with her two south-of-the-river colleagues, it is the bus that I, the husband of one of the latter and self-styled ‘63 regular’ on the list of followers, use for my daily commute, and it was the bus that our son used in his school days. This is not an entry to be undertaken lightly – can I possibly do it justice?]

The bus starts outside Camberwell Old Cemetery, near the small area looked after by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission which is the resting place of Albert McKenzie VC (whose story is well worth reading). Linda and I boarded at 9.33, finding the bus quite busy considering the time of day and the fact that there was a 363 just ahead. Forest Hill Road soon took us past the house with one of this part of London’s very few blue plaques, marking the birthplace of Henry Pratt, or Boris Karloff as he is better known, and on past the building site where the new Harris Boys' Academy (East Dulwich) is rapidly going up on the site formerly occupied by Waverley Girls’ School.

With spring at last underway, the daffodils on the Peckham Rye verges were coming into bloom with almost audible sighs of relief. One of the things about travelling a route that has been familiar for three decades is that you notice things that are no longer there as well as things that are – in this area, the ghosts of Austins the second-hand furniture store and the old Co-Op rattle their chains. Rye Lane, Peckham shows its fantastic diversity in the wide range of groceries, cosmetics and religious options available to locals; the last stretch towards Peckham Pulse is in the throes of extensive roadworks, the final purpose of which is not yet clear. The wriggle round Hanover Park and Clayton Road evoked two further ghosts: the site of the former Peckham Leisure Centre (known in the family as the Leis-re Centre from the long period when the ‘U’ went missing), now a block of key workers’ flats with Swordfish Masquerade, a striking piece of public art, by Nigerian-born artist Sokari Douglas Camp outside it, and the very blue ‘Gaumont House’ keeping no more than the name of a former cinema and bingo hall.

Turning right off Peckham High Street into Peckham Hill, we admired in rapid succession the Manze Eel and Pie House, Peckham Library, ‘Underexposed’ – a roadside photographic portrait gallery of black actors including Idris Elba, The Wire’s Stringer Bell – and the first glimpse of the Strata tower block at still-distant Elephant and Castle. This stretch of the route goes over an unmistakable canal bridge which seems well out of place until you find out you have just crossed the route of the Grand Surrey Canal, absorbed surprisingly recently into Burgess Park.

Joining the Old Kent Road, we were again just one of many bus routes. The ‘Thomas a’Becket’ pub has a Southwark blue plaque recalling that boxer Henry Cooper trained there, and we noted that the opening of the ‘Premier by Eurotraveller’ hotel would make life easier for fans of the Monopoly board (when Tim Moore explored London board in hand for ‘Do Not Pass Go’ it was one of his major challenges). The Old Kent Road has already lost many of the pubs for which it used to be famous – think of the book and the film of ‘Last Orders’ – and we were sad to see ‘For Sale’ signs on ‘The World Turned Upside Down’ whose pub sign we used to enjoy.

After the flyover, the 63 takes you to Elephant and Castle, past the Heygate Estate which this project has mentioned several times already. Top-deck passengers get a good view of the pile of rubble that is still all there is behind hoardings bearing Oakmayne’s promises of completion in 2006 or 2007. Round the E&C roundabout, the stop across the road from the South Bank University is where my commute usually stops, so from here on the view was marginally less familiar. The bus picked up a lot of travellers at this point, since there are no other routes that head up past Clerkenwell to King’s Cross. Blackfriars Road was empty and fast moving, but not even the ability to sail past it quite quickly reconciles us to the LDA building, which we find one of modern London’s least attractive additions.

As we crossed the Thames the sun came out and there was a lot of work going on for the new ‘on the bridge’ Blackfriars railway station. We duly noted the bus stop claimed as ‘mine’ 20 years ago by our school-commuting son, and worked out that our trip under Holborn Viaduct would be the last by the Bus Project, as 63 is the highest number that does that. Farringdon Road railway station is undergoing further redevelopment: it feels to us that it has only just finished the previous revamp, but perhaps it was longer ago than we realise.

Being on the top deck, we could see the massed post office vans behind the Mount Pleasant sorting office – a view you don’t get from a car or the lower deck. In King’s Cross Road we spotted and photographed a very eroded stone identifying Bagnigge House, which seems to have links both to Nell Gwynne and to an 18th century rural spa. Turning into Grays Inn Road meant the journey was nearly over: we passed the offices of the Terence Higgins Trust and the Royal National Throat Nose and Ear Hospital and – one last ghost – the shell of the long-departed Mole Jazz, now just another shop awaiting redevelopment. And there we were in York Way and ‘this bus terminates here’. The whole journey had taken 55 minutes – 10 minutes less than the time forecast by TFL – and provided an interesting opportunity to take a new look at a lot of familiar sights. We must also say, having now travelled this route in both directions at many different times of day and night, it is an impressively frequent, regular and reliable service.


  1. Well done Roger. I think you acquitted yourself admirably in your role of guest blogger.

  2. Excellent blog 63regular I think you deserve to be an official member of the team :)

    Sigh, long wait till you get to either of 'my' buses - 176 or P4

  3. Not many know this....but the 63 bus was introduced to provide a service in place of the railway line from London to Crystal Palace High Level station - a magnificent building now sadly demolished. Vandalism! Traces of the old railway can be seen in Sydenham Hill Wood - a nature reserve.

  4. High standards maintained Roger - I enjoyed that!

  5. Fellow regulars on the 63 (or 363) will have noticed earth works in the corner of Burgess Park between Trafalgar Avenue and Waite Street during July 2010. This has been the Museum of London's 'Community Dig', investigating the site of a V2 hit on Valentine's Day 1945. There is a very good day-by-day blog of their progress at

  6. and many thanks for mentioning my great uncle Albert McKenzie VC !