Some South Woodford scribbles from DD, our resident diarist, commentator and observer of all things local
You get wonderful glimpses into other people’s lives from there. But it doesn’t seem to be intrusive. Certainly not voyeuristic. I’m talking about the upper deck of a bus. I’ve been making joyous wide-ranging use of my Travelcard recently, when the rules permitted. I rediscovered the Isle of Wight. Such an endearing and unpretentious island: sensibly-sized houses happily tended and enjoyed but not swaggeringly shown off to the passing world with pillared porches and chandeliers and high, burglar-proof electric gates “which can cause serious injury or even death”. Old-fashioned in the very nicest sense. Your friendly appreciation is accepted. Almost invited. Perhaps the residents are thinking: “You’re just visiting. We’re lucky. We live here. We’ll have it all to ourselves again once the season is over and you get back on the ferry.”
I always looked up to my parents and to my grandparents. But following these months of lockdown, I find I am now, quite suddenly, looking up to my grandson! Or perhaps I’m shrinking. At least on the upper deck of a bus I can feel I’m really on top of things. There’s someone pegging out the washing; someone doing a spot of weeding; tying back some wayward foxgloves; fast asleep in a deck chair in the shade, open book in hand looking likely to slip off onto the lawn. Little gasps can be heard when the bus enters one of those many wooded areas on the island with trees arching low over the road. Their branches batter against the windows, excitingly close to the passengers. The view down into Ventnor is precipitous as the bus begins its careful zigzag descent into the town. You almost feel you have to hang on tight. As you leave Shanklin and Sandown, you have unimpeded views across the wide sweep of the bay: games of beach cricket in progress. If you’re lucky, you witness a challenging catch and the embarrassed smile of the victorious young fielder. Swimmers and paddle boarders. Mum handing around the sandwiches and trying to avoid getting sand mixed in with the coronation chicken.
There are very few parking places in Eastbourne. If you’ve procured one, you leave the car there all week for the amazingly modest fee reserved for hotel visitors. It’s so much more fun on the buses. Views across the green expanse of the South Downs as you head towards Brighton. “We used to have a dip there when we were kids. Beyond those trees, there’s a nice sheltered inlet!” It was a nostalgic voice from a few rows back. Roedean School certainly lives up to its ‘inspirational location’, sprawling confidently across the cliffs above the coast road, with its warm stone buildings and jolly red roofs. No doubt plenty of jolly hockey sticks as well, but not visible from our Number 12 bus. “Look, Miriam. I boarded in that wing over to the far right. I was brilliant at cricket!” Another nostalgic commentator enlivening our tour. Soon, the Brighton Marina came into sight below us. I suppose I anticipated something more romantic as the setting for the host of colourful yachts of all sizes; they were crammed together in what looked like a huge hangar of ugly iron scaffolding. If we had been nearer, we could have heard that magical sound of the breeze in all the rigging to soften our impression. The architect had included no echo of the curves of the hulls or even of the rolling waves outside. Truthfully (admittedly in my ignorance), it looked like a structure marked down for early demolition.
Next day, we were off via Pevensey Bay and Bexhill: clusters of fishermen, some angling from a favourite breakwater, others further out in little boats. Fishing seems to be a silent, even contemplative sport. Companionable, but rarely a time for swapping jokes. We were moving into more sophisticated territory: close-up glimpses into the first-floor rooms of the wonderfully preserved, high, elegant Victorian terraces along the promenade at Hastings. A thoughtful child on a balcony, sitting with his legs dangling through the wrought-iron railings. He didn’t see me watching, but I saw him thinking. Perhaps contrasting this rather exotic summer holiday-let Mum and Dad had found on booking.com, with their modest semi-detached habitat in London, E18.
It’s some time since I boarded a bus near here, single or double-decker. Could anything local be as engaging as the drop down into Ventnor or the grandeur of the South Downs? Shortly before lockdown, I was on a 179 to Ilford. At Beehive Lane, I observed a small girl, about five, waiting to board with an elderly lady. Moments later, young footsteps climbing the stairs. She emerged, stood stock still at the front and made a beaming announcement: “I’m going shopping with Grandma. We’re going to buy a present for Mummy. It’s her birthday tomorrow.” Then she took her seat. I wondered if the astonished passengers would applaud. They certainly smiled. Children don’t just get on a bus. They set out on an adventure.
More recently, I was returning from Loughton on a 20. Had I chosen the wrong time to travel? Soon, the top deck was swarming with schoolkids. Talking at the tops of their voices. Exchanging news, I think. But I’m not sure: they were using a sort of teenage dialect. Lots of “likes”, of course, but also a sort of grammar-free, fast and furious rollicking torrent of words. Mind-blowing but delicious really, even for me with my BA Honours English. Then suddenly, a space beside me. One of the older boys sat down; settled his books on his lap. “A good day at school?” I asked. Politely-like. He turned and smiled and started to speak. I understood every word. This was the language he would be using for college interviews. He was bilingual! He poured out how sad he was: his grandmother had just died. He had loved her very much. We talked all the way to the Waterworks Corner.