Broad Street station itself was closed in 1986 to make way for the unloved an unlovely Broadgate complex (now facing redevelopment). It was the down at heel, along-the-houses’-backs nature of the railway that appealed to Bejeman and over the years it became even more shabby. The abandoned bits around Shoreditch and Hackney rotted away, unredeveloped, and a skeleton railway, often vandalized just about survived on subsistence level. By the turn of the Millennium it was on its last legs.
The came the new Greater London Authority and its Mayor. One of the sad things about modern Britain has been its can’t do attitude. Fifty years after nationalisation and subsequent privatization, most of Britain’s railways still ran along the old pre-nationalization company lines, The idea of joining them up was anathema. There then came Thameslink, linking North and South London, and the new GLA had the idea of joining up some abandoned tracks to create Overground. By next year this will provide an outer rail ring linking Stratford, Richmond, Clapham, West Croydon and points in between. Overground have also taken over the local line to Watford Junction and the network is a major new resource for the capital. I’ve just travelled from Camden to New Cross Gate for the first time and the new railway is a joy. Like Betjeman I’ve always loved what used to be the North London Line. Researching my last book, I used to take it to get to the National Archives at Kew. It is a genuine urban railway, displaying the individual character of the city’s precincts and also knitting them together.
The engineering and design are very fine. There are many new stations and the architecture is nothing fancy but crisp, clean modern metal and concrete architecture, rather like the Jubilee line but without the extravagance. The service is generally 4 to 6 trains an hour on most routes so it is almost but not quite Tube-like – you certainly only have to turn up.
One of the joys is the way it is opening up Hackney and the old East End. Some of the East End stations have wonderful murals by Sarah McMenemy, an artist in the line of David Gentleman of Charing Cross Tube Staition fame. Unlike Charing Cross, though, McMenemy's murals are devloped form water colours. (Why hasn't the Underground attempted anyhting like this in its huge station revamp programme - there is no original artwork at all.)
The new Overground is already very popular and it should become even more so when the final link is completed. It is fast, avoiding the crush of Central London, and there is scenery. The trains are much airier too. In case you hadn’t quite got the message, I am totally smitten. It is a triumph of the practical imagination.