South Woodford Station to Loughton Station
Monday February 4th 2013
Positively spring-like sunshine found three of us assembling at South Woodford Station: two regulars and a guest traveller, another retired history teacher hoping to qualify as a Blue Badge London Guide. If you didn’t already know it the training and examination is pretty rigorous and this bus probably not the most testing of preparatory routes. We had arrived early for a once-an-hour service and therefore had time for a quick coffee. We went into ‘Creative Biscuit,’ a local café where you can also paint ceramics, which have been fired to the ‘biscuit’ stage’ but not glazed. The glaze was chipping off my mug slightly but the coffee had an excellent perk to it and we practically vaulted onto the small single-decker when it rolled up.
The bus had a slightly musty smell, doubtless due to weeks of damp and rain, and there were never more than half a dozen passengers at any one time. Our first job was to leave South Woodford with its still surviving High Street shops clustered round George Lane. The Anti-Aging Clinic seemed a bit aspirational, we decided – did it mean they botoxed you back to a younger you or attempted to treat the onset of dementia? Both probably. ‘Bright & White’ was decidedly less ambiguous.
Round a couple more corners and there we were back at Charlie Brown’s Roundabout The name has its origins not in the depressive Peanuts character but the landlord of a famous Limehouse Pub who like many successful East Enders moved further East to the fresh air. His last pub was on this corner which is now a major road junction between the North Circular and M11. ‘Fettucine Junction’ said our fellow traveller, looking at the ribbons of roads unspooling around us. Since we were last round this way Taylor Wimpey have bought up some land with intentions to develop. Talking of East Enders made good we were reminded of the 'Birds of a Feather' sitcom, featuring some of the original Essex Girls, who had hung out in nearby Chigwell.
Once past the junction the bus route follows the course of the River Roding for a while – it certainly looked to be pretty high, so it is not altogether surprising that the Environment Agency was warning of floods. Many of the properties round here, probably dating from the Thirties and later Forties, have not only replaced older windows but also replaced their front gardens with harder standing, not always the best solution for a flood prone area. It is difficult to establish why the main roads which the bus follows at this point are called Snakes Lane – yes it curves a bit but is not as sinuous as some and I can hardly think prosaic Essex was home to exotic snake species, so a mystery it may remain.
Since leaving South Woodford we had passed almost exclusively through residential areas of differing vintages and sizes, but with very few shops or businesses of any kind, so passing ‘Lunch 4 U’ (yes in Comic Sans) came as something of a surprise but that and a nail bar were just about the sum total of retail opportunities. The 549 is very much the only bus along here and first we had the Hillside Avenue residential area – each short close named Fairway or Greenway. Though the bus passes close to Roding Valley Underground Station (apparently the least used on the whole Tube network) it does not call in there, saving its energy for the detour to Buckhurst Hill Station, which looked suitably cottage-y in the semi-rural setting, retaining character from its railway origins. The London transport Roundel sits loud and proud on the main road and this Zone 5 station also offers access to the London Loop Walk.
Buckhurst Hilll looks pleasant and expensive with large and detached houses set well back from the road and good views over the countryside from the ‘hill’ of its name. There seems to be an outbreak of small prep schools housed in older large Victorian homes, not to mention the Palmerston Veterinary Hospital – my travelling companions, former history teachers both, could not think of any connection between Palmerston and pets or Palmerston and Epping. Definitely not one of Queen Victoria’s favourites, but he had a long parliamentary career and was twice Prime Minister which led I suppose to having roads named after him.
The Green at Buckhurst Hill feels very much as if it has been carved out of Epping Forest, which embraces this route from here on: the little ponds, the Beware Cattle sign and remnants of farms indicate the rural history of this patch – Epping Forest has been managed by the Corporation of London since 1878 when it was entrusted with its upkeep and to preserve it from too much development. St John’s Church by the Green is quite dominating and actually a late addition following the few homes that were allowed to be erected here.
Once through further stretches of Epping Forest, passed too quickly for acceptable photos, the bus turns right down the hill past a busy Sainsbury’s (I’m not surprised, the first food shop for ages) and comes to a halt in front of the more prosaic Loughton Station. (The Clock Tower of nearby Roding High School caught our eye too) The trip could have been three stops on the Central Line but was an altogether more congenial 25 minute journey through the Essex borderlands. With this number the 549 has been operating for about 10 years but possibly has been reincarnated from a former 254 route. The fact that it serves as dense suburbs as it does makes one forget that this area was for a long time a Royal Hunting Forest. And that just about wraps up the 500 route numbers – all four of them!