The Green Line

For some years at the end of the Fifties, I went to school on the Green Line bus. The Green Line, publicly owned like all London buses in those days, was a division of London Transport providing long-distance bus connections across London, typically starting out in a country town twenty to thirty miles outside the city and terminating in a comparably distant town on the opposite side of London. The bus I used, the 718, was routed from Windsor in the southwest to Harlow in the northeast, halfway between London and Cambridge.

The Green Line was distinctive in a number of ways. It was green, of course, not just on the outside but in the livery and finish inside as well. The buses were typically single-decker, in contrast to the conventional London buses of the day, and they had folding electric doors that closed with a swish. This feature also distinguished them from the open-backed double-deckers of central London and gave the Green Line buses a cozy, reassuring, and rather warm feel. Because they covered such long distances for a regular bus line—the typical Green Line route entailed a trip of over three hours end to end—these buses did not stop at most of the standard bus stops but only at occasional interchange points. Despite going no faster than the average London bus, they were thus nevertheless an “express” route and could charge a little more for their services.

The color and nomenclature of this service was not fortuitous. The Green Line buses invoked and illustrated a long-standing principle of London’s urban planning: their terminuses were strategically located athwart or beyond the “Green Belt” established around London in the early decades of the century. The latter constituted an early exercise in environmental preservation as well as in the provision of open space for public leisure and pleasure. The British capital in those days was thus carefully contained within a belt of open land: variously parks, common land, old-growth forests, undeveloped farmland, or open heath, all of it inherited from earlier royal or municipal or parochial property left in place so as to assure the preservation of the countryside of southeast England, perennially under threat from the unconstrained expansion of the Great Wen.

Despite the helter-skelter ribbon development of the interwar decades, and the even less appealing public and private housing projects of the 1950s, Greater London had been more or less contained within its belt of greenery; sometimes no more than a few miles deep, but enough to distinguish the city from the country and to preserve the identity and particularity of the towns and villages on its farther side. The Green Line buses thus reflected in their name, their routes, and the distances they covered the largely successful aspirations of a generation of planners.

I, of course, knew nothing of this. But I think I instinctively grasped the implicit message of these buses and their route managers. We, they seemed to say, are the moving spirit and incarnation of…

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