diamond geezer

 Friday, June 01, 2018

New York's High Line has been an overwhelming success, causing other world capitals to consider whether they too might have a disused elevated railway they could turn into a urban greenspace. London has numerous railway viaducts, but very few that are unused, and a decent length, and somewhere vaguely interesting.

A couple of years ago Ollie O'Brien reviewed a dozen of the likeliest candidates, and concluded that a viaduct alongside the Overground in Camden had the likeliest chance of success. Digital publication Kentishtowner noted the outcome in a front page splash, which came to the attention of the local business district, who launched a speculative crowdfunder, which paid for preliminary investigations, which confirmed the feasibility of success, hence the project is officially nudging forward. You can tell the Camden Highline is getting serious because someone's now made a wooden model.

The route runs from Camden Town to King's Cross, near enough, and if completed would be about half a mile long. It follows disused railway land alongside the Overground, mostly to the east of Camden Road station, on a thin shoulder of elevated viaduct eight metres above street level. The area in question was once part of the railway, but is currently either overgrown or used for trackside infrastructure. It's never going to be an uptown nirvana, because all along one side is a live railway which would need careful screening throughout. But the space does have genuine potential, and could be a cracking resource, if only several millions were available to effect the transformation. [Google map]

Last week the Camden Highline team organised four walking tours, alas not at high level but instead a close meander along the ground. It's a walk I can imagine project manager Adam has done several times with interested partners and potential contributors, stopping off at each major bridging point to tell another chapter of the story. And it always starts at the western end, in Camden Gardens, at the northern tip of the Camden one-way system. This pocket park is split in two by a line of brick arches where the Overground crosses Kentish Town Road. Some of these arches might ultimately be filled in to create marketable spaces to provide a source of income, but Adam emphasised the aim is not to turn the viaduct into a garish commercial space.

I've stood here before without ever noticing that the tracks are much wider right up to the edge of the road, then half of them suddenly terminate because there was no need for the sidings to go any further. It's here that the Highline would begin, requiring steps and undoubtedly a lift of some kind, and maybe an extra footbridge across the road to improve the connection. Camden Market is tantalisingly close, but not yet directly accessible, so it'd increase potential footfall massively if a link could be made through the new Hawley Wharf development.

It doesn't take long for the Highline to reach Camden Road station, indeed if you stand on the eastbound platform it's possible to see the disused section immediately behind. A lot of it is seriously overgrown, and currently the only potentially accessible section lies behind a chained gate. The ultimate plan is that this will become a new high level gateline, ushering passengers straight out onto the Highline, perhaps to walk to Camden Market or simply to enjoy the new resource. Network Rail are certainly on board, and even though they might need the land back for other projects in the future, a 25-year lease is being discussed.

That bit is Phase I, the easiest to turn into reality. The next bit's harder because the bridges have decayed somewhat, and at present can only be crossed via a narrow maintenance walkway slung above a slatted void. It looks damned pretty from underneath, especially if the sun is shining through the gaps, but a whole new floor is going to be required, first over Royal College Street, then Randolph Street and finally St Pancras Way.

The further east the Highline goes, the less gentrified its surroundings become. The first set of backstreets had cobbles and some desirable villas, but by this stage it's a little gloomier with lock-up yards and infill flats, and further ahead we'll be entering full-on abandoned car territory. If New York is anything to go by, the Highline has the potential to drag this peripheral area somewhat upmarket, which is of course a double-edged sword... and it would (for example) be ghastly to see Castle's pie and mash shop swapped for some bland chain selling chai and churros rather than spotted dick and custard.

By the time the Highline reaches the top end of Camley Street, its environs are distinctly less salubrious. A dozen abandoned vehicles lurk in a dip under the railway bridge, graffiti scrawled into the grime on their windscreens, while a generator pumps away on behalf of one of the minor industrial units alongside. This area reminded me very much of parts of Stratford before the Olympics came, and we all know how that turned out. But adjacent redevelopment plans could also increase possibilities for better connections, because someone else might end up paying for the necessary ramps and lift.

Camley Street is also where Adam ended the walk, even though the final section of the proposed Highline is already partly walkable. A narrow metal staircase leads up to an existing path over the Midland mainline - a veritable mugger's paradise - with a vague connection through to the back of the Maiden Lane estate. I didn't linger, because the two gentlemen drinking the day away in this secluded spot were every bit as unsettling as Adam's description had suggested. But it proved simple to peer through the rusty railings on the far side, and to see the messy strip alongside the Overground littered with gantries and other railway clobber, and to conclude that a trackside walkway might not be such an appealing possibility after all.

Unless a very substantial amount of funding can be sourced, the Highline will probably grind to a halt here, a few hundred metres early, at the top of Camley Street. The project blurb may therefore be technically correct when it says the Highline "would link Camden Town to King's Cross by a 10-minute walk", but that's not the King's Cross you're probably thinking of. Instead it's almost a mile down Camley Street to the entrance to the station, and not even especially close to the burgeoning redevelopment zone to the north. If you want a shorter walk from Camden Market to King's Cross St Pancras there's already a safe and direct route, at low level, following the towpath of the Regent's Canal. Perhaps that'll placate the cycling lobby when they discover the Highline won't be allowing them in.

For the time being the best way to get an idea of what the Highline might look like is to ride an Overground train from Camden Road to Caledonian Road & Barnsbury and look out of the window. There it is, a strip barely three metres wide in places, far broader elsewhere, with considerable leisure potential if only money is forthcoming. The Camden Highline team would be only too pleased for your contribution, anything from 50p upwards, to help inch the transformation forward. Alternatively you might want to go on one of the next set of explanatory walks, in late July... or keep your fingers crossed you'll eventually be able to enjoy the genuine experience, when it's finally high time.

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