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I grew up in a village in rural Oxfordshire: there wasn’t a lot of traffic and there was a lot of walking. There were buses, which went into town two or three times an hour, but they weren’t a big part of village life. I don’t even remember if they were double decker buses or not, which probably means they weren’t, given the passionate reaction most most children have to ride that top deck.

And they weren’t red. The classic British routemaster bus, with the driver at the front and the mounting board entrance/exit at the back, overseen by a friendly conductor, is a city bus, and the city it is most closely associated with is London. So on school trips to the Natural History Museum, or the Royal Festival Hall, we’d take our cameras out and snap away at the first sight of a routemaster bus, because even though we lived in Britain, this most British of vehicles was as foreign to our lives as a New York taxi cab.

Not foreign in appearance though. We knew all about the red double decker bus. It was the star of Cliff Richard’s film Summer Holiday, it appears whenever you see stock news footage of London, there are talking buses in children’s TV shows, and this is because it’s a really friendly vehicle to look at. The two windows at the top look a bit like eyes, then there’s a radiator grill mouth, and look, he’s put a little man in his cheek, just like a hamster.

Let’s not linger on what that makes the bit at the back where people can hop on and off. That would be gross.

Sadly the routemaster is close to extinction these days. It’s too costly to pay a conductor AND a driver, and that means you can’t leave the back end open and unattended or people won’t pay. New buses have emerged which do the same job beautifully and are just as red, but somehow they’re not as iconic.

Although, when you come from a small village, anything big and bright and colorful is automatically impressive. Not a lot of neon in rural Oxfordshire, is what I am saying.

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Filed Under: Iconic British Things
By Fraser McAlpine