An ode to the great London night bus — ‘it could get feral after dark’

·4-min read
Decks and the city: above, a night bus on Tottenham Court Road back in 1998 (Ewen Spencer)
Decks and the city: above, a night bus on Tottenham Court Road back in 1998 (Ewen Spencer)

Solo journeys on the night bus always made me oddly emotional. The white noise of the road beneath the tyres, streetlights refracting through rain-spattered windows, too many wines and too much time to ruminate on the tragedy of having no one to snog. ‘I always felt self-pitying on the night bus,’ agrees a friend. ‘But then I’d put my headphones on and pretend I was in a music video which always cheered me up.’

I consider offering this advice to the young woman who’s quietly crying on the top of the N29 since she got on at Camden. ‘I’m fine,’ she says, when I ask how she’s doing. I tell her I’ve lost count of the times I’ve cried on a night bus. ‘My boyfriend broke up with me,’ she says. The man in front of her turns around. ‘He’s not worth it, love. Trust me, you’ll find a better one and be able to laugh about this. I’m an old man, I know these things.’

For a while I thought scenes like this were a thing of the past. It’s not just the fact that the pandemic consigned many of us to our homes. Even before 2020, cab apps and the brief (but glorious) reign of the Night Tube had made 3am bus journeys a rarity for many.

Recently though it seems that the night bus has been making a comeback. Taxi apps have struggled to meet the demands of party-starved Londoners and although the Night Tube is returning from November 27, it’s only on the Central and Victoria lines.

“People feel nostalgic about the night bus because it’s a rite of passage”

A few weeks earlier, stranded in Soho as one taxi after another cancelled on me, I got chatting to 34-year-old Zoeh. ‘I smoked nine cigarettes while trying to get a taxi to Hackney — two hours and nothing. I’ll have to get the bus for the sake of my lung health.’ On the way east (via the N253) we reminisced. ‘People feel nostalgic about it because it’s a rite of passage,’ she said. ‘No one could afford black cabs in their early 20s so it was the night bus or nothing. Everyone locked in together, enduring one another,’ she laughed.

Every Londoner has a night bus story. Some are wholesome. Jack, 31, had a Before Sunrise-style romance when he got chatting to a woman at a bus stop. ‘We ended up talking and kissing, riding the same route back and forth,’ he says. ‘Unfortunately it turned out she had a boyfriend. I walked her home and said goodbye.’

But most tales seem to involve vomiting, drugs or pilfered takeaways. Like the time a friend fell asleep with a foot-long Subway in her hands, only to wake up as a man was taking a bite from it. Tony, now 42 and a bank manager, quit the bus driving job he had in his 20s after just six months. ‘It could get feral after dark. When I told one guy with no fare that he couldn’t get on, he put his penis over the barrier and weed on my lap.’

‘ Night buses have proven to be a lifeline for some’ (Alamy Stock Photo)
‘ Night buses have proven to be a lifeline for some’ (Alamy Stock Photo)

On the N29, the girl who’s been dumped — 24-year-old Lottie — is in better spirits. A few other passengers have offered advice. It is this kind of camaraderie that in 2015 meant the route got its own Channel 4 TV show, The Night Bus. I once lived at the top of Caledonian Road and spent my 20s experiencing its highs (the entire bus singing ‘I get knocked down, but I get up again’ when a drunk guy tumbled on the stairs) and lows (a woman once hit me with a crutch).

Night buses have proven to be a lifeline for some. They recently became embroiled in the row when Met police boss Cressida Dick suggested women flag down a bus if they felt unsafe at night. ‘It was quite a confronting thing to read,’ a female friend says. ‘A man once grabbed me in the middle of the night. I flagged down the first thing I saw, which happened to be a bus. The driver stopped even though it wasn’t in a designated bus stop then helped me call the police.’ Since Sarah Everard’s murder, she’s been having flashbacks. ‘The advice obviously missed the point, but now I keep thinking what would have happened if the driver hadn’t stopped to help me.’ Still, she’s one of many people I know who now refuse to take public transport after dark. According to research from YouGov, 55 per cent of women and 21 per cent of men have been subjected to unwanted sexual behaviour while on public transport in London.

Lottie waves goodbye at Wood Green. She says she’s never felt unsafe on the bus. ‘Waiting at the stop at night, maybe, but then you see the bus coming and it’s all lit up. It feels very comforting.’

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