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In the Superloop: London’s southbound express bus

Dirty old river? Thames and City of London from the upper deck of bus SL6 crossing Waterloo Bridge at sunset (Simon Calder)
Dirty old river? Thames and City of London from the upper deck of bus SL6 crossing Waterloo Bridge at sunset (Simon Calder)

Simon Calder, also known as The Man Who Pays His Way, has been writing about travel for The Independent since 1994. In his weekly opinion column, he explores a key travel issue – and what it means for you.

The best view in London is yours for £1.75: from the upper deck of a bus heading south over Waterloo Bridge.

At this time of year the journey is best made close to sunset. To the east, the sky and river are mirrors of silvery blue while St Paul’s Cathedral casts a spiritual glow amid the gleaming City skyscrapers. To the west, the London Eye and Palace of Westminster are silhouettes; the horizon is blurred by clouds turned to melting honey by the dwindling light.

Waterloo sunset is, indeed, a moment of paradise.

Any old bus will do. The front seats are best if you can grab one. But for many more thrills for your money, I commend London’s southbound express: the supercharged SL6, destination the deep south of the capital.

Each afternoon, a dozen or so specially branded buses depart from Russell Square in central London, destination West Croydon.

“SL” stands for Superloop, Transport for London’s big idea to improve links around the capital – literally around the capital, in all cases except the SL6.

From Bexleyheath in the southeast, a series of linked limited-stop buses connects (going clockwise) Bromley, Croydon, Heathrow, Harrow, North Finchley, Walthamstow and the Royal Docks in east London. The SL6, which runs arterially not orbitally, is an outlier. And all the better for it, I concluded at the end of the 95-minute journey.

Buses in the capital are relatively cheap: board as many as you like within an hour for that £1.75. But they are painfully slow. Frequent passenger stops add to the chronic heavy traffic and ponderous traffic-light sequencing designed to rob motorists of the will to drive.

Express buses are services with most of the passenger stops cut out. The SL6 pauses six times in central London after setting off from Russell Square – but upon leaving Waterloo station passengers are scheduled to be on board for the next 33 minutes (more like 40 in reality). So if you need to get to the straggle of suburbs in the deep south of London, it is a reasonable choice. And, unlike a Tube or train, you benefit from 360-degree views.

Being high above pedestrians and traffic, you get a close-up of the magnificent terracotta facade of the Fitzroy Hotel. You notice sights that would be missed from the pavement, such as the Holy Door of St Anselm and St Cecilia Catholic church on Kingsway. A minute later: a striking sculpture of wreckage bursting from the wall of an LSE building on the corner of Sardinia Street.

The Waterloo Bridge widescreen wonder drive fittingly ends with a downward slope to the Imax – simultaneously the UK’s biggest cinema screen (inside) and advertising hoarding (outside). It occupies the roundabout outside Waterloo station, the busiest in Britain – and the final stop for the next five miles.

Limited stop: the last bus stop before West Norwood (Simon Calder)
Limited stop: the last bus stop before West Norwood (Simon Calder)

The SL6 leaves fewer buses in its wake. We purred past dozens of them, consigned as they are to pausing at every stop the public requests. Bus lanes in south London – and elsewhere in the UK – are piecemeal. Along Brixton Road the excellent driver stayed out of the bus lane – it was simply too full of buses. But even he could not bypass the roadworks.

Russell Square to Brixton took 42 minutes, an average of about 7mph. Going by Tube it would take half as long, even with a change at Green Park.

The Victoria Line ends here, with the biggest roundel I have ever seen above Brixton station entrance. And a moment later, a giant Bovril “ghost sign” pops up on the side of a house.

The vehicle is hybrid, which means about half the time it glides effortlessly – but rather too often the engine cuts in with the kind of insistent rumble that, I imagine, puts a lot of people off buses.

Soon we were threading through a semi-detached suburban utopia. The first passengers were allowed off at West Norwood exactly one hour after the journey began – adjacent to a cemetery with a magnificent entrance. Then we start to climb to cross the ridge of highlands (well, by London standards) standing between us and Croydon. At Grecian Crescent, London SE19, my altimeter showed 95 metres – over 300 feet, even taking into account the extra height of the top deck.

By now night had arrived, meaning stunning vistas were thin on the horizon.

At the moment we were due in at West Croydon, the SL6 passed Selhurst Park, home of Crystal Palace FC. Into extra time: and a study in hospitality geography. One moment it’s wall-to-wall craft beer, five minutes later fried chicken takeaways dominate.

The French are fond of the term dernier virage – final turn. Ours took place at what is surely the slowest set of traffic lights in the world, with no priority given to buses – even those as superior as the SL6. Despite being brilliantly driven, we were 13 minutes late arriving at West Croydon bus station; I sense the timetable is slightly optimistic.

Eighty-two minutes – the published time for the SL6 – from central London will alternatively get you to Lille in France on Eurostar.

Some say the capital of French Flanders is a more exciting destination than Croydon. But a ticket will cost you many times more – and the views are better on the SL6.