There are three railway lines that run through Greenwich and Bexley Boroughs. Each runs east to west, or west to east, if you prefer. They run parallel, near enough – the Greenwich line to the north, Bexleyheath line in the middle, and the Sidcup line to the south. So, it isn’t that easy travelling north to south, at least if you wish to go by train.
But it is not impossible. To the east, as each line approaches Kent, there are loops of track. I’m guessing these were originally in place to ferry train stock from Slade Green railway depot to each track. But the tracks are also used to move trains in service, although this ihasn’t always been brilliantly publicised. If you know the right time and the right train you can start on one line and follow the loop around to end up on another. I’ve seen a few posters about this lately, but for a long time I’m sure many people didn’t realise.
I’m guessing not everyone spends time waiting on a platform scanning the timetables, seeing where trains might end up. I’m not yet a trainspotter, but I can see the appeal. I’m sad enough to think I cracked the system the first time I saw these loop trains were in service.
The journey around the loop is a funny one. It stops feeling like commuting as normally everyone has got off the train. Often you can find you are the only person in your carriage, which is novel, freeing and a tad scary. The train lurches and then stops. At this point I wonder if I’ve misread the departure board, misheard the announcements, and will now end up stranded in the sidings or the depot. Stuck forever neither here nor there.
The loops are right on the edge of London. Look out the carriage to one side and there is suburbia. Rows of houses, gardens you can see if you peak through the overgrowth by the sides of the tracks. There is a huge aerial protruding from one property. It might be the home of a radio ham. They might have just been very eager to get Channel Five. Someone eager to communicate with the wider world, someone wanting to listen in on the world. Maybe both. I can’t tell.
Look out the other side of the carriage and there is the near-wilderness. The marshes that lead up to the Thames. The loneliness of Littlebrook Power Station. The Dartford Bridge thrusting toward Essex. There is even a farm, with a selection of outbuildings. Well, I think it is a farm. There are animals milling about. It is caught right in the loop, tamed by the railway.
And in between are the in-between places, stuck between town and country. There is the old railway depot, surprisingly handsome and elegant, still the original structure. There are the industrial estates, the graduated blues of a warehouse muddling with the graduated blues of the sky. Older industrial units, faded, sort of falling apart. It is hard to tell if they are still in use or long-abandoned, either seems feasible.
The train moves on, starts a new journey, heads back into London. It is a practical, if slow, solution to making my way around this part of London. But it is also a glimpse into the edges, the cracks, the bits we forget, pass through, don’t realise exist.