What would you do, if you found yourself posted to strange cities for years at a time? How would you get to know them? How would you explore?
You could visit all the famous bits, but that probably wouldn’t take you very long. You could work your way through the various cultural treasures listed in the guidebooks, and thus get a view of the city unrecognisable to anyone who actually lived there.
Or, then again, you could travel on every bus route in the city’s transport network, in rough numerical order. That’s also a thing you could do.
It is, as it happens, a thing that the head of press at the German Embassy in London has been doing since he got here four years ago. “I’ve just got to number 155, and there are 499 in all,” Dr Norman Walter tells me when I phone up to ask him about this hobby of his. “I’ve also done a few others, like the 452, which run near where I live. But I’m not sure I’ll make it before I get back,” he adds, with the wry understatement of someone who is quite sure that he won’t.
And then, just in case you thought we were dealing with an amateur here, he starts enthusing about route 465, which runs from Kingston to Dorking, “the farthest point you can get on your Oyster card”.
Route 465: the queen of Surrey.
CityMetric has love in its heart for anyone who enjoys a good bit of urban transport geekery, and Dr Walter very kindly took a few minutes out from a Brexit-packed schedule to talk buses. Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation.
Jonn Elledge: So, er: why do you spend your time doing this?
Norman Walter: It’s an idiosyncrasy, I guess. Some people collect stamps; for me, it’s this. My wife thinks it’s completely crazy, but she’s been married to me long enough that she’s used to it.
I did in several cities where I was posted before, but in London it’s simply unique. I love to go up to the upper deck, just to go through the streets and “be there”, you know. I did the underground first – but as the name says, you don’t see that much. Buses are the best way to discover the city.
JE: Which other cities have you explored by bus?
NW: I did some in Belgrade, but that was 30 years ago. I did Bucharest, but didn’t get very far. I did Vilnius – and in Moscow, I did a fifth or so of all the bus lines.
But in London it’s actually a real pleasure to do it – the upper deck’s a real incentive, it gives you the feel of the city.
JE: How does London’s bus network compare to those of other cities? It has more routes to cover, right?
Certainly that’s the case, though Moscow has more underground lines. But the [London] bus lines are quite well organised, I would say. You mostly have at least two or three bus routes which run parallel for a while and then diverge, like the 19 and the 38. So if you just have a short trip, you can take either one of them, and you have a bus every three or four minutes.
JE: It must be getting harder though – most of the suburban routes don’t run that frequently.
NW: Yes, I was rather quick in the first 100 or so, but the farther out I go the longer it takes. When I took the 468 to Croydon, I took the tram and then the underground back, so it can take several hours.
Normally I have to get up rather early, so on a Saturday morning I’d do two or three – but I’ve been rather lazy the last couple of weeks.
JE: I heard you’d had some difficulty locating route 5.
NW: Yes, it took me at least a year to make sure there is no number 5. There’s a night bus, but-
JE: But there is a route 5 – Canning Town to Romford. It’s the suburban route with the lowest number.
NW: That’s amazing! There’s an N5 that goes up to High Barnet, so I looked for a number 5 around Holloway, but I couldn’t find one, so I assumed it didn’t exist.
Route 5: nowhere near Holloway, or route N5 come to that.
JE: Do you have a favourite route?
I like the buses which come every three minutes – the one I really like is the number 38. It runs near our embassy [in Belgravia], and when I go to Piccadilly I can always catch one of them. It’s also one of the Boris buses, which has a conductor and where the rear door is open – I like that very much.
Route 38: simply the best.
When I first saw the 38, I noticed that it normally goes to Hackney Central, but some go on to Clapton Pond. So I thought, there can’t be a pond there, can there? So I went to check, and I found out that there was! It’s still a sweet memory.
JE: When do you finish your posting?
Probably next year, I’ve around 300 more days. I’m glad the foreign office gave me an extension – certainly, the only reason they did that is to help me complete the bus lines.
JE: And will you keep exploring by bus wherever you end up next?
I’d love to, but it always depends – I might end up in a small town in Africa, where there aren’t too many buses and it’s too hot.
Or there’s a risk I’ll get called back to HQ in Berlin. But perhaps I could start there, too – they only moved the capital to Berlin 15 years ago.