Sometimes when you plan a visit to an exhibition, you get rather more than you expected. Today was such a moment, as a visit to a small – and frankly, not worth the effort – exhibition about past and future transport resulted in a totally unexpected trip on a very important vintage bus and a visit to a mystery location, described as a piece of overlooked post-war architecture.
The bus we were invited to join for a free bus trip to the mystery location, which looks like a Routemaster to my untrained eyes, but is formally an RT bus, and indeed, the rather special as it turned out RT 1702.
Built in 1950, this was one of four special promotional buses that were not fitted out with seating as usual, but were designed to travel around Europe on a promotional tour for the 1951 Festival of Britain with the interior laid out as an exhibition space.
In a convoy, the buses travelled through eight countries, covering over 4,000 miles. The only significant problem being that double-decker buses were not in common use on the mainland, so tram lines designed for single decker height had to be lifted to let the London buses pass by.
Returning to London in October 1950, the buses were then fitted out as normal buses and in May 1951, they were used as tour buses on “Route J”. This was the forerunner of the Round London Sightseeing Tours which are a familiar sight in London these days. For two shillings and sixpence you could spend two hours on a circular tour taking you “Around the town for half a crown”.
The trip we were to take today was also marked on the destination board as “Route J”, although we were off to a different location from the original tourists 60 years ago.
After the festival, they entered normal bus service.
In July 1972, the bus was retired, but then bought by a group of enthusiasts, who have kept it in running order ever since.
Of the other three touring buses, it is thought that one one remains, and is not in a roadworthy state – so we were in for an unexpected trip on a really quite special bit of road heritage.
Like a lot of the vintage tours I have been on in the past, half the fun is being in something old, and half the fun is seeing the pleasure it causes to other people to see the old thing out and about.
A vintage red double-decker bus is not significantly different at a quick glance to other red double-decker buses, so the reaction from bystanders wasn’t as extreme as say when an old tube train runs along the Underground, but there were still people who stopped, stared and pointed.
One obviously delighted lady taking a photo when the bus stopped for a traffic light was called over and handed an information sheet about the bus. From the look on her face, seeing the bus made her entire day.
In addition to being a vintage bus, with an interesting history, they are also the only London Transport buses to carry a GB sign on the back, as they needed it when leaving the UK. No other LT buses have ever done that sort of trip since.
If you want to take a similar trip to the mystery location, then there will be two more trips tomorrow (Sunday) at noon and 2pm. Both are free – although a donation box by the back step will appreciate coins – and last about 45 minutes.
Buses depart from just outside the Museum of 51 at the South Bank (map link).
Tomorrow I’ll tell you about the mystery location.