Photos by Justinas Vosylius
This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
There are plenty of iconic things about London. The big clock tower in Westminster, the gaudy wall of adverts in Piccadilly Circus, the Queen's house, the phone boxes that nobody actually uses unless they're posing for a photo or taking a piss. However, none of these symbols represent the city as well as the one with wheels: the highly practical, often delayed, red double-decker.
There are currently 8,765 of the things carting people around the capital, from front doors to desks; from house parties back home. Millions of us ride the bus every month, and while the majority of these journeys are pretty uneventful, you do get a few glimpses of humanity sitting on their ugly patterned seats: post-nightclub PDA, rowdy school kids, furious young men walking straight through glass doors.
The top deck is also one of the best ways to see the city. Unlike the tube, you aren't teleported underground; you're witness to every step of your journey, elevated enough from the street that you can see the kind of things you wouldn't otherwise. Those weird spiky things on top of bus stops, say, or that guy who walks around Hoxton in a Speedo and flip-flops as soon as the sun comes out.
I recently rode around on one from early morning on a Friday to first daylight on a Saturday, hoping to learn more about the city and its people.
Of all the routes I could have taken, the 453 seemed like one of the most representative of London as a whole. Starting in the moneyed streets of Marylebone, it heads south through Soho and past Parliament, into the blossoming luxury development hamlet of Elephant and Castle; down the Old Kent Road, one of the most multicultural areas in the city; past New Cross's chicken shops, art students and porn cinema; and finally into Deptford Bridge, home to a college, a $1.5 billion development hoping to turn the area into the "Shoreditch of the south," and a market where you can sometimes buy your stolen bike back from whoever nicked it.
Importantly, it also turns into a night bus come midnight. This was vital, as I was going to be on it past midnight.
I board the 453 at Piccadilly Circus as it heads south towards Deptford Bridge. Passengers throw their heads into their laps as soon as they sit down, beating the rush hour, but still sitting on a very loud bus while they could be hitting the snooze button.
Each leg of this trip takes just shy of an hour. Nobody's actually ridden it for the entire length, except Abdul, who's been hustling his CVs from Florence Road in New Cross up to the boutique hotels of Marylebone.
Abdul's story is the same as many passengers' throughout the day; post-recession, there are jobs available, but the vast majority are posted in the City, or central or South West London. If Abdul's CV is accepted anywhere, this bus journey is going to become painfully familiar—the first stretch of a long commute to a job that probably won't pay very well, or provide any real sense of professional satisfaction. Still, it's something to do with the days.
For anyone not desperately trying to keep their eyes shut, reading material consists exclusively of crumpled copies of the Metro. Until one man boards, that is, and takes out a book called The Servant: a Simple Story About the True Essence of Leadership, which looks a lot like a self-help manual for aspiring Patrick Batemans.
The shoutiest passengers speak German, French, Mandarin, and Japanese, with the only words I recognize being "Elephant and Castle." This is where most of them get off, leaving the bus half full as we continue down the Old Kent Road.
The loudest languages here switch to English, Arabic, Swahili, and Yoruba—that last one unsurprising considering the large Nigerian population in the area, particularly down towards New Cross, where everything from ex-industrial buildings to former bingo halls have been converted into Pentecostal churches with names like "Mount Zion, the Dwelling Place of God."
From Marylebone to Elephant and Castle, the colors have all been shimmering silvers and the blue of the sky bouncing off them. Tall, anonymous buildings reflecting the city rather than adding anything particularly recognizable to the landscape.
Past Elephant's huge roundabout—the one everyone used to say Aphex Twin lived in—the roofs become lower and browns start to dominate the pallet, a reminder that whoever makes Monopoly very much needs to update their board: in 2015, a two-bed flat along the Old Kent Road will set you back at least $440,000.
Gentrification is a constant along the journey, from the vanillafication of Soho to the demolition of swathes of public housing in Elephant and Castle to make way for "a better class of people," according to something the former regeneration "guru" at Southwark council actually said out loud.
So it's refreshing, heading down the Old Kent Road and through New Cross, to see that the area looks much the same as it has for years. What used to be a Stella and sticky-floors boozer might now be serving stone-baked pizzas, and there's someone making artisanal Mexican cheese under a railway arch near the Aldi, but at least these are independent ventures, allowing the area to retain some of its character rather than sand-washing it with foreign capital and multinational sandwich chains.
End of the line for the first time is Deptford Bridge, where I see a pub landlord scrubbing his windows and a building offering "friendship, help and advice," which is nice. The bus driver fancies a break, so the photographer, Justinas, and I alight and catch the next one heading north.
Driving into town the bus is more crowded. Babies wail and tourists staying in hostels south of the river start to wander on board. Looking out the window, there seems to be more community and camaraderie down south: old men play draughts while their friends have their hair cut, while in town people keep their heads down, charging from Itsu back to the office. Going north, passengers tend to travel alone; going south, they band together in teams, perhaps a symptom of the fact so few people can afford to live in Zone 1—housemates and friends local to one another heading home from their trips to waxwork museums, or the M&M's souvenir store, or any of the other inexplicably expensive stuff you can only do in central London.
For around two hours now I've been constantly surrounded but incredibly lonely. Anyone who's lived in a large city will understand the notion that it's probably easier to feel alone in the most densely populated place in the country than any remote Lake District hideaway. I get my first neighbor at Malt Street, but fumbling in her bag she makes it clear she doesn't want to chat. A double seat frees up and she quickly moves across.
We pick up plenty of tourists between Westminster and Oxford Circus, all of them staring wide-eyed at the monuments I've already soaked up twice this morning. Up in Marylebone, two American men gossip about the Kardashian sisters and their exact proportions (Khloe is apparently eight inches taller than Kim, in case you were wondering).
The remainder of the morning rolls on much like this—a hum and a lull as the bus fluctuates between moments of chatter and calm.
Turns out early afternoon is the best time to take the bus. It's warm on a spring day—probably helped by the lack of opening windows on the 453—and tranquil before the school kids jump aboard and the commuters crush themselves in.
Later, crumpled morning Metros turn to crumpled Standards, and as it darkens outside passengers open up a little more. One girl, Leilah, tells me to stay off the top deck in the early hours. She recalls being afraid of the gangs of boys she used to see rushing up the stairs of the N38, before hearing strange noises from above.
It's 7 PM by the time the first pre-drinker arrives. A man in a spiky leather jacket boards somewhere near New Cross and necks a can of Skol, nattering on the phone all the way to Elephant and Castle. Soon after, a gaggle of teenagers who've clearly been getting on it for a while come and sit near me.
"By the time I'm 20, I'll be working in a Michelin star restaurant," says one. "You gotta work harder—that's like playing for Chelsea, blud," replies another.
Later, I get chatting to a Romanian catering worker as we amble through W1. "If they put me in work tonight I will hang myself—too much, too much," he says.
Just then, a Megabus starting its ten-hour journey to Amsterdam overtakes: a depressing reminder that, in that same amount of time, all I've done is cross over a big brown river a bunch of times.
Sirens start shrieking not long after 8 PM, and they don't really stop, regardless of where in the city we are. Out the window a cyclist has been knocked off his bike opposite New Cross Station, looking dazed on the pavement as passers-by help him out of his helmet. As we swing back around via Deptford Bridge, I'm glad to see he's back on his feet.
King's College student Craig tells me he's spotted people pissing into water bottles on their trips back home. His friend Ellie adds that she once took the night bus to St. George's Hospital in Tooting after cracking her head open, making me feel the scar. Not that long ago passengers were edging away from me, but now they all seem keen to tell me their stories (which may or may not have anything to do with all the booze they're drinking).
A girl called Katie moves next to me. She reckons she once saw a couple consummating their 3 AM pull on the back seat. Based on what I've seen, I'm inclined to believe her. I observe only two types of late-night romance: couples fiercely screaming into each other's faces, or sucking each other's mouths for the best part of the journey, apparently oblivious to everything around them.
For the first time—but not the last—a pack of mopeds swarm the bus, weaving around it and overtaking, dancing with the double decker like it's the fat old uncle at a family wedding. As a rider with L plates revs at a traffic light, his engine splutters and stalls, causing most of the bus to erupt in laughter and patronizing pointing.
New Zealanders Naomi and Jamie are heading to a party in an old church, but aren't quite sure exactly where they're going.
"My friend Paolo organizes these things," Naomi says, suggesting I come. "You're on the night bus, something bad is going to happen to you," warns Jamie.
I wonder whether I should tell him he's being paranoid, but before I get the chance the pair are up, following a man with dreadlocks who they assume is going to the same spot as them.
"Find some Italians," they yell, confusingly, hopping down the stairs. "They party the hardest on the night bus."
Until now, I wasn't aware that any nationality had a monopoly on getting drunk on buses, but at 2 AM I finally meet my Italians, and I see what Naomi and Jamie were talking about. On journey number 12, a group of them harmonize surprisingly well to "We Will Rock You."
(A quick word on post-night out snacks here: please eat them in the street, not near other humans. At one point an elderly man climbs on, carrying a tuna pizza. He gets off after a few stops, but the smell lingers for an hour.)
Sometime after 3 AM I'm joined by maybe the least subtle drug dealer in the history of people trying to sell drugs without getting caught. He's visibly swaying and brandishing fistfuls of very conspicuous, very green ziplock bags. He doesn't share my fascination for buses; he's just "too fucked to drive." Somewhere around the Toys R Us on Old Kent Road he starts muttering about how he's been a "bad friend" to his customers, presumably because he's using quite a slow bus to drop off their drugs.
It's nearing 4 AM and I fully comprehend what Burial meant when he said he was making music for the night bus mafia. The 14 bodies surrounding me are bitterly sobering up. Everything's come full circle: heads are in laps and eye contact is averted. It won't shock you that everything starts looking a little desolate around this point. For the final two hours until the sun comes up, the bus crawls along in dreary silence. The central streets that would be filled with screaming protesters in just a few hours are deathly silent.
Everyone I spoke to after my journey was quick to tell me their own mythical night bus story. The 24 from central to Haringey is apparently full of coke fiends; the 51 from Camden to Kilburn is supposedly the best route to take if you want to make friends and/or get laid; and the N253 is 100 percent definitely the bus you should board if you're hoping to see someone freebase crack cocaine in public.
And of course all of that happens. If London's streets are its arteries, then buses are its red blood cells, oxygenating the city route by route. They play host to millions, all of whom have their own lives and a varying propensity to make out with complete strangers. Also, my Oyster was only checked once by a ticket inspector in the entire time I spent aboard, so it's no surprise so many people bunk the fare.
Riding the 453 for about 20 hours straight, I saw the city and its people gradually shift around me. Right in line with everything the world already thinks about the British, my fellow passengers seemed staunchly opposed to interacting with anyone until they'd given their liver a bashing, coming to life from behind their papers before dropping into them once more.
The city never really sleeps, but it does suffer a muted, bleary-eyed comedown as the sun rises and the first of the day's workers start clocking in.