The end of the bendies

So much prettier than a bendy

I went shopping on Saturday afternoon. On Oxford Street, to be precise – hardly my favourite place in the world but that’s where John Lewis is, and, well, needs must. And then I caught the number 73 home. Normally this is not something I’d choose to write about, but this was a special occasion. This was my first time on the no-longer-bendy 73 – now the super-duper new hybrid double-decker 73.

You’ll have to forgive my excitement, but when you live in Stoke Newington – total number of tube stations: zero – buses are important.

There are many buses that go through Stoke Newington, but there’s something about the 73, though, that makes it different. Maybe it’s the fact that it used to be a Routemaster. Maybe it’s the fact that so many people use it – in fact, it’s one of London’s busiest routes. Maybe it’s the route it takes – through Angel, down to the West End. I don’t know. But it seems to me that people seem to care more about the 73 than they do about, say, the 149.

So it’s not surprising that, before the 73’s bendification in September 2004, there was a vigorous – and ultimately futile – campaign to ‘Save the 73’. Despite having only lived in the area for less than a year at the time, I, too, cared enough to sign the petition. I even bought a postcard featuring the local icon (see above).

Not that it did any good. The Routemaster’s days were numbered, and the 73 had to change along with the rest of them. What I’ve never understood, though, is why we had to have a bendy bus.

When the bendies were launched, we were promised a sleeker, quicker, more enjoyable travelling experience. But did we get it? No, of course not. Being so big, they were slower. And even if they weren’t, when you had to stand all the way home – because most of the seats had been eschewed in favour of cramming as many people on board as possible – they certainly felt slower. And they got so crowded. I lost count of the times I found myself shoved up against someone’s back – or worse, armpit – as more and more people piled on.

At least you didn’t have to pay for them. Because, of course, fare dodging on the bendies was notorious. Not that I would do such a thing myself (oh no, of course not – I couldn’t possibly…) but it was incredibly easy to get away without paying. No-one checked if you’d touched in with your Oyster card – except when the ticket inspectors got on. And then, as long as you were standing by the doors, you could easily jump off before you got caught. No wonder the 73 got nicknamed the ‘seventy-free’.

But, as unpleasant as travelling on the bendy 73 was, it’s not the real reason I hated them. I didn’t have to catch the 73 – there were always other options. Like another bus, or even getting the Tube. Or cycling.

Or cycling. Yes. Much better to be out on the open road than stuck inside a packed bendy, right? Except that bendies never seemed to travel alone. All it took was two 73s and two 38s – bendies, both – and you had a veritable conga line of buses heading down Essex Road. It was a cyclists’ nightmare. I’d hear people warning against overtaking bendies – but with so many of them, I had no choice. One bus at a time was actually pretty easy. Two was usually OK – just make sure they’re slowing down or stopped, and you’re going at full steam. Three was really pushing it – but four? Five? Six? It could get pretty hair-raising. Let me tell you, bus drivers don’t always check their mirrors before pulling out.

(I’d tell you the story of what happened when one bus pulled out while myself, a motorbike and a taxi were still overtaking it, but I wouldn’t want to scare you. I’m still here to not tell you the story, and that’s all that matters).

Anyway, getting back to Saturday. Given all this, my first ride on the new-style 73 was never going to be just another journey home. Or was it?

Actually, it was. I got a seat straightaway, sitting upstairs. I plugged my headphones in to drown out the noise of teenagers behind me. I read my book, and was barely aware of time or the streets passing, until I reached my stop. It was all perfectly pleasant. A bit of a non-event, really.

The same goes for cycling along Essex Road these days. Now that it’s bendy free (the 38 having been de-bendied sometime earlier this year) it’s just like cycling along any other road in central London. It’s wonderful (relatively speaking, anyway).

There’s just one problem. What am I going to find to complain about now that the bendies have gone?

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