When he first appears, I think I’ve drunk too much coffee this morning. Surely it’s at least seven minutes until the next train – one of peak time’s busiest, and sweatiest, collection of carriages, in which I can enjoy the heady fragrance of other people’s armpits, and see absolutely nothing, on account of my glasses steaming up like pub windows?
But, this morning, he appears like a ghost way beyond the far end of the platform: a wet-nosed, yellow-faced creature with a bright blue chin, a train that knows he shouldn’t really be there, but has been told to turn up anyway. Or even a train that has got lost, I think, fancifully, before imagining for a moment that he is an errant little character from a Reverend W. Awdry story. Perhaps one who has made an awkward – and illegal – diversion from the Great Eastern Line, which crosses under this very same route, between the parks of Woodgrange and Wanstead.
I try to shake away the caffeine buzz, and look again. No, that’s a train, alright. It’s slowly advancing westwards in the morning’s heavy mist. And then I look at the sign on the platform to find out if the 8.14 to Gospel Oak is due to arrive on time. Something else is there instead. The 8.08 to Hampstead Heath.
In a way, I knew that this day would come. The Gospel Oak to Barking Line may be a fairly reliable transport route, but it’s always been a rather odd one. It is the only line in London that seems utterly unconcerned by the existence of Zone 1, for instance, being happier to wallow in the hinterlands of Zone 3. It also doesn’t take a long time to travel the length of its route – little over half an hour, in fact. I always begin my days on it travelling from east to west, imagining how it set off rather flashily from the Ilford postcodes of Barking, before making its way, more chuggingly, more genteelly, towards North London proper.
But, today, something even stranger is happening. I go to the London Overground timetable. The 8.08 doesn’t appear on the timetable. I look again and, in small letters, the truth is revealed: an extra train will come each morning shortly after 8 o’clock, one that will not stop at Barking, or even Gospel Oak.
A Gospel Oak to Barking Line train that will not stop at Gospel Oak or Barking. I look up the platform again: there it is, finally passing the red signal. This train starts at Woodgrange Park, near the edge of the vast expanse of Wanstead Flats, and eventually it will bypass its usual terminus. Hell’s bells, it doesn’t just do that – it pretends that its terminus doesn’t exist, it moves on, it goes further. Nor does it care for the wishes of passengers who’d like to change at Gospel Oak for the Richmond-Stratford Line – what a tawdry route that is, you imagine it huffing and puffing, with all that common-as-muck Zone-2 brass and brio. Come with me instead, the train says. Go and find the edges.
It’s coming now, the yellow face looking brighter, more determined. Instead of stopping where it should, stopping where we would expect it to, this train finishes its journey at platforms at the gates of North London’s grassiest, greenest high-point. It is as if this train, and this train only, wants to get us away from the usual monotonous interchanges, away from the central things in our lives, and go instead to the places that make us who we are.
Or maybe it’s just a train to reduce the congestion in the busy morning hours. The orange doors open, I get on, and my glasses frost. I make a note to drink more coffee and, one morning, keep going.