In John Le Carré’s third novel, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, published in 1963, Liz Gold, asks Alec Leamus, the spy of the title:
‘Alec, what do you believe in? Don’t laugh – tell me.’ She waited and at last he said:
‘I believe an eleven bus will take me to Hammersmith. I don’t believe it’s driven by Father Christmas.’
In 1963, the number 11 bus ran from Shepherds Bush, through Hammersmith, both in west London, and across central London to Liverpool Street Station in the City. The conversation between Gold and Leamus takes place in Gold’s flat which is somewhere in west London. Leamus could just as well have used the number 9, 27, 73 or 91 bus as all travel through west London from Hammersmith. So was Le Carré’s choice of the number 11 bus arbitrary?
I have long had a memory of the number 11 bus. I took the bus many times in the mid-1950s to get to and from my primary school in Fulham, again in west London. My recollection was of waiting for the bus at Lillie Road Recreation Ground, frequently for quite a while, to get back to school after lunch, getting off at the Salisbury Pub stop in Dawes Road. All of a sudden, one, two, three, four, five, six or more number 11 buses would tear around the corner of Fulham Palace Road and Lillie Road on their way from Hammersmith across central London to Liverpool Street Station. It happened so often.
Which bus in the convoy would stop at my bus stop was unpredictable. Most of them of course were quite empty, and the first buses would be those that had previously overtaken other number 11 buses that had stopped at earlier stops, and they didn’t want to stop. Fortunately, one bus would stop, and it would then roar away from the stop so as to keep up with the others, or so it seemed to me. I also thought that there was some sort of arrangement or understanding amongst the drivers as to which bus would stop and where.
Why so many number 11 buses came together I had no idea. But though my memory may have exaggerated the number of buses that regularly travelled in conveys, I do remember a joke made by someone ‘Bananas are like the number 11 bus, they come along in bunches’. This joke can of course be applied to many situations. So was the bunching of the number 11 bus legendary?
Some twenty of so years later, I don’t have a date, I came across a letter in the ‘correspondence’ pages of a national newspaper, again I don’t know which paper, but it was so intriguing that I cut out the letter and I still have a copy of the cutting. The letter read:
Sir – I see they are still trying to explain the peculiar way some London buses have of travelling in ‘”convoy” (the official view seems to be that it is all an optical illusion). It all brings back to me a host of twanging memories, grave and gay.
The No.11 bus, travelling between Hammersmith (I believe) and Liverpool Street Station (I think) has long been notorious for this practice. I well remember the “Old No.11,” as we used to call it affectionately, behaving in just the same way in (I think) 1908, just after the change from horse-drawn buses to (as I recall) steam.
I used to travel quite often from my home in (I believe) Fulham to Liverpool Street Station, which was then, of course, a music hall (shades of Jim Intrator, “The Demon Juggler”, Dee Wells, the popular lady ventriloquist and one-string fiddle player, and many other old time “stars,” now, alas, departed!)
I well recall (I am told) waiting at a No.11 omnibus halt for over five hours in (I remember) about 1910 and then seeing no fewer than 150 No.11 buses arrive in “convoy,” with a cheery “Hullo there!” from the leading driver! The comments of some of my would-be fellow passengers had to be seen to be heard!
Incidentally, my grandfather, now dead, once told me that even as far back as the 1860’s when Hammersmith and Liverpool Street Station were still no more than tiny villages, he could well remember the old No.11 horse-omnibuses already plying between them – in convoy, of course!
Despite the correspondent’s own doubts, scattered throughout the letter, as to the reliability of his or her memory, I thought it plausible until I got to the arrival of 150 No.11 omnibuses! There is no Simferopol Road in London, nor a SW56 postal area. Simferopol is the capital of the Crimea in the Ukraine, though incidentally London does have a Balaclava Road, an Inkerman Road, and a Sebastopol Road, all named after battles of the Crimean War in 1854. But it’s a funny letter.
The letter seems to have been prompted by a previous article or letter from someone ‘trying to explain the peculiar way some London buses have of travelling in convoy’. The experience of buses in cities travelling in convoys or in ‘bunches’ is well-known, and there is an established theory of how it occurs.
Bunching happens when a bus that is only slightly late will, in addition to its normal load, pick up passengers who would have taken the next bus had the first bus not been late. These extra passengers delay the first bus even further. The bus behind the late bus picks up fewer passengers than it would have done otherwise, and begins to run ahead of schedule. Sometimes, the effect of random conditions such as traffic congestion, traffic lights, and the number of passengers waiting at stops, is cumulative, and more than two buses end up bunched together. Further information about bus bunching can be read here.
This doesn’t seem to explain however the bunching of buses that I experienced in the mid-1950s. After all, many of the occasions were at lunchtime. The streets of Fulham were relatively quiet at the time, and there were not many people waiting at bus stops. But perhaps my memory is not that reliable.
However during a debate in the House of Lords on 15 March 1977 about bus services in central London, bus bunching was referred to many times. Lord Kinnaird said ‘My Lords, is the noble Baroness [Steadman] aware that I live in Chelsea and that this morning six – I emphasise, six – No. 11 buses went by, five of which were empty?’ My memory is vindicated.
Today the route taken by the number 11 bus is shorter. It still runs to Liverpool Street Station, not from Shepherd’s Bush or Hammersmith, but from Fulham Broadway, which is closer to central London. It passes many tourist attractions, and has been described by the Daily Telegraph as one of ‘best routes for sightseeing on a shoestring’. The route passes the Bank of England, St Paul’s Cathedral, Fleet Street, Strand, Trafalgar Square, Whitehall, the Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey, Victoria, Sloane Square, and Kings Road in Chelsea.
The route had a cameo appearance in the 2005 film The Da Vinci Code, where the protagonists take a number 11 bus from near Temple Church to get to Chelsea Library, though they get off at Westminster Abbey, but it is the same route as that taken by the real bus.
In 2014, the London Bus Museum, which regards the number 11 as ‘London’s best bus route’, operated a fleet of RTs (the predecessor to the Routemaster bus) on Sunday 2 November along most of the original route, with some buses terminating at Hammersmith!