Our house backs onto a railway. Although the line runs above ground the traffic consists almost entirely of District Line Underground trains. Only once in a long while does a stray overground freight train, the Orient Express or a commuter train pause by the back fence.
The map you pick up at any station – Transport for London’s Tube map – also elides the distinctions between overground and underground, between Tube lines (the deep ones) and cut-and-cover underground lines (the ones that came first), and between all of those and the Docklands Light Railway and the true Overground lines. That last group has recently become easier to identify. Outside the stations of what used to be called the East London Line, which has just reopened after extensive improvements, the blue bar that runs through the red circle of the Underground logo says OVERGROUND. The other Overground lines circle and reach out beyond Central London. The best loved is probably what was called until this rebranding the North London Line, which curves around the city from Stratford in the north-east to Richmond in the south-west, never penetrating Zone 1 of the Underground. But this new section of the Overground, with its spanking new stations and rolling stock, and with the promise of an extension to Highbury and Islington and the wider connections that would bring, is a fine thing.
The line itself is not new. It began when a section incorporating Marc and Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s Thames Tunnel, which runs from Wapping on the north bank to Rotherhithe on the south, was opened in 1869. It now runs south from Dalston Junction via Haggerston, Hoxton, Shoreditch, Whitechapel, Shadwell, Wapping, Rotherhithe, Canada Water and Surrey Quays to New Cross, or – on another branch – to New Cross Gate and on to Crystal Palace and West Croydon. On the platform at Wapping a man asked his wife: ‘Who would want to go to New Cross? It’s rubbish.’ The line, I’ve heard said elsewhere, is a waste: ‘It doesn’t go anywhere nice.’ And it’s true that the first thing the list of station names brings to my mind are dark scenes from English fiction: ‘The wheels rolled on, and rolled down by the Monument and by the Tower, and by the Docks; down by Ratcliffe, and by Rotherhithe; down by where accumulated scum of humanity seemed to be washed from higher grounds, like so much moral sewage, and to be pausing until its own weight forced it over the bank and sunk it in the river.’ Give a dog a bad name.
In the rush hour trains I took on the first day of full operation, usage was very moderate. No one had to stand. As the carriages are joined by concertina links, the interior of the train reads as a single long corridor. The instinct that makes strangers sit as far as they can from one another had spread the passengers pretty evenly along the whole train. At one change I shared a lift with a man wearing an orange-striped London Overground tie (orange, the line’s colour on the map, is also used for station names and for the handrails of stairways). He said there hadn’t been much publicity.
If I had got out at Whitechapel that morning I would have caught the demonstration by the RMT union at the station entrance. A Transport for London spokesman, offering reasons for the privatisation the protest was about, said the upgrade had ‘created a one-off opportunity to improve transport links in some of the most socially deprived areas of London’. Waiting on clean, near empty platforms, blessed by late spring sunshine, did make one aware of the contrast between the settled assurance of the new line and what surrounds it. At Dalston Junction I watched the market being set up and wondered if the new line would change the tone of street life. I wondered too what use the tall brick warehouse which, between 1868 and 1948, housed Reeves Artists’ Colour Works is now put to – the name is still there in tiles on a gable end high above the street. The building stock, easy to inspect from the train, is mixed in age, state of repair and style. The street population is polyglot.
The line runs above the street – some of it over high brick arches. The windows let you see into the upper floors of buildings, the kinds of view you get from the top deck of a bus. At one point you pass over the Grand Union Canal. At Hoxton you look down into the formal gardens of the Geffrye Museum. When you look down the line you see that it curves away from the towers of the City, a distant mountain of glass where, it seems, the Gherkin will soon be competing with other nicknamed architectural logos – the Cheese Grater, the Telephone, the Shard and so on.
I got off at Wapping and took a short walk on the Thames Path round Shadwell Basin. I shared the view of that expanse of water with a single angler. A sign said the sport was private and no night fishing was allowed. I took a seat by the river at the point where it begins the deep curve of Limehouse Reach. Although you are on the north side of the river it winds so steeply round the Isle of Dogs that the towers of Canary Wharf to the left look to be on the opposite bank. The City, I knew, was on my right, but invisible, upriver beyond St Katharine Docks and the Tower. The new train line will work some kind of transformation, as other Underground lines have done. Just what kind isn’t clear. This won’t be new Metroland, but the skyscrapers of the Isle of Dogs and those of the City, standing like castles to east and west, give you the feeling that they will soon extend their battlements into the mixed use, medium-height, Jane Jacobsish streets. Art, a common harbinger of change, has now been in Hoxton long enough for its transformative influence to have put property there beyond the means of artists looking for first footholds. Much of what you see from the train windows is housing – some public, some pleasingly strange (two underground carriages, it looks like, on the top of one building). The conversion of riverfront warehouses into loft apartments looks to be almost complete.
Travelling on this line you can feel like a tourist on the first boat to an isolated backwater. Bits of what you see are bleak or decayed, but when you think of the fate of Covent Garden you begin to cherish the confusion and the ordinariness. A few days before I took the train I walked down the Thames Path to Rotherhithe. We drank a pint in the Angel – no music, a view across the Thames to the river police building. The Brunel Museum, close by, was a pump house when the tunnel was being dug. St Mary’s Church – an 18th-century building, but claiming a tenuous connection with the Pilgrim Fathers through a memorial to Christopher Jones, captain of the Mayflower – is close by, surrounded by trees and a tiny, green churchyard. It was all very quiet, rather slow and village-like.