THREE YEARS AGO I did a circumnavigation of London using overland rail services. Except it wasn’t a complete circumnavigation. I had to cheat and use trams for the portion of the circle that had yet to be finished.
At the time the Overground had just taken over the old East London Line and linked it up with the North London Line with a brand new bit of track between Dalston and Shoreditch. I was unashamedly smitten with the result, writing rather pompously of how the Overground was “a real asset to the city, and all the years of investment and redevelopment have utterly paid off.”
But I ended on a wary note. It was one month into the life of the coalition government. Would there be money for this sort of thing from now on? I also accused Boris Johnson of trying to bury all these kind of schemes “deep enough in his waste paper basket so Ken can’t find them come 2012.”
Anyway, the final bit of the Overground did get built, and has been open since before Christmas. A few days ago I finally got round to going round.
In one sense – a boring, literal one – it’s a trip of extreme pointlessness. You’re not arriving anywhere. You’re merely ending up where you started, as the photos above show.
But in a far better, more imaginative sense, it’s a trip with much to recommend. It’s an all-too-real (and lengthy) application of the idea that travelling is more important than arriving. It’s a sequence of passing flings with London’s ever changing landscapes and hues. It’s something to master, like Mount Everest, because it’s there. It’s also, and here’s where you’re free to snort in disbelief (if you haven’t already done so), a lot of fun.
I did the journey with my friend Robert. We travelled clockwise from Highbury and Islington, and weren’t bothering to try and get round in the quickest time or using the fewest trains. There were no rules and it wasn’t a race. A complete indulgence, a total whim, an idle fancy, a geeky folly: you name it, it probably applies.
We even deliberately slowed things down by breaking the journey at Wapping to have a nose around, during which I performed A Good Deed (helping a woman with a pushchair) but failed to find anywhere in the vicinity to get a nice cup of tea. If you don’t own or aren’t looking to buy a riverside apartment in the neighbourhood, you’ll wonder why you bothered stopping by. In fact, there’s more to excite inside the station than out. Like standing at the edge of the platform and watching a train from across the Thames rush up and out of the tunnel, ignoring whatever withering looks are on the face of the driver:
Or staring downwards at the dazzling double-helix-style procession of staircases.
You can’t get round the Overground on one train. You have to change at Clapham Junction, and usually at Willesden Junction as well. We did both. Neither are nice places to wait. I’ve always found Clapham Junction more bemusing than confusing, and have learned to let its commotion (and, hey, locomotion) wash over me. Willesden Junction, however, is a place I will never learn to endure. Unwelcoming, isolated, ugly… I hate it, it’s as simple as that.
During our circumnavigation we both spilled hot chocolate down ourselves, though at least Robert got away with doing it on a platform. I did it on the train in front of everyone. Thankfully nobody took a blind bit of notice, withdrawn as they were – and is the unspoken law on London public transport – into cocoons of self-absorption.
I also did my best to act the ideal host and guide, pointing out to Robert things of enormous interest (at least to me), such as the almshouses behind Hoxton, the Ken Adam-esque hangar you glide into on approach to Shoreditch High Street, the old Motorail terminus by Kensington Olympia, and the most expensive allotments in London between Hampstead Heath and Gospel Oak.
But I’d like to think we were both properly intrigued by the stretch of line that recently closed the loop and made the circle complete. It’s an incredibly rare experience in Britain to travel on a brand new piece of railway line. Yet here it was, if only a tiny bit of track, connecting up Surrey Quays with the old South London Line. As our train trundled along it, we both fell quiet, either out of reverence or because we were checking our respective phones. Yes, I’m afraid we conformed to every possible stereotype.
Such is the way of the world these days, Angela Merkel owns half of the Overground. If the German chancellor
should ever wish to inspect her acquisition, perhaps in the form of a grand, 360-degree tour, I’d be only too happy to accompany her. Or if she’s up for it, suggest we both set off in opposite directions from Highbury and Islington and see who makes it back first.