Some commuters have all the luck - or do they? The North London Line links many of the capital's most well-known locations, but passengers in a hurry should develop a certain sang froid

We all have friends like it - people with a reputation for lateness and unreliability, someone who you wouldn't want to rely on in a crisis but are strangely fond of in spite of all the times they've let you down. That Londoners are still on reasonably good terms with the errant North London Line, is one of the capital's mysteries.

The old chestnut about travelling more in hope than expectation was, I am sure, dreamt up on one of the NLL's 28 stations by a passenger waiting for one of their elusive once-every-20-minutes trains.

The central paradox of this section of London's railway is this: its route reduces to a matter of minutes journeys between such nearby places as Hackney and Camden, or Acton and Hampstead, which could take an hour or more using Tubes or buses. Moreover, as the capital's only long-distance lateral railway line, it allows Londoners to travel from Richmond in the west to Woolwich in the east in only 65 minutes. However, despite this unique infrastructure, service in the past has been patchy, to put it kindly, with some trains failing to arrive at all. To make things worse, these non-events often go unnoticed by the station announcers who failed to announce their unscheduled non-arrival.

But, in spite of everything, NLL passengers are an optimistic bunch who are chuffed to bits (if and) when a train rolls up but are unperturbed if one doesn't. This "village" attitude is accentuated by the gentle pace of travel and some of the rural beauty along the trackside. Richmond lies at the start/finish of the NLL and its many attractions (the Richmond and Orange Tree theatres, parks, river walks) have been comprehensively catalogued elsewhere. Much the same can be said of Kew Gardens, whose overpriced admission charges are a good reason to stay on the train. Further along the line, the glorious cemetery at Kensal Rise is worth a (completely free) visit - one of London's so-called magnificent seven, its internees include such notables as Wilkie Collins and Thackeray.

Brondesbury and West Hampstead are among the theatrical stops on the NLL, the former being a convenient stop for the Tricycle Theatre, the latter for the Hampstead Theatre. A couple of stops later comes Hampstead Heath itself, this being by far the most convenient stop from which to explore. A path leads from almost outside the station onto the heath and up to the blowy heights of Parliament Hill. Striding down the incline, to the left of the athletics track, you reach the marvellous open-air Lido at Gospel Oak, from where you can recommence your journey.

A mere two stops further on lies Camden Road, a handy hopping-off point for lovers of trendiness and litter. Caledonian Road is next, useful for those with friends or relatives in Pentonville Prison, and Highbury and Islington follows swiftly, a 10-minute walk from Upper Street. The next stop, Dalston Kingsland, is across the road from Kingsland Road market, a place best visited at about 4.30pm on a Saturday afternoon when mountains of fruit and vegetables can be snapped up for next to nothing just before closing time. The 24- hour bagel bakery is worth popping into as is the Rio Cinema further up Kingsland Road.

The Hackney Empire is a couple of minutes from the next stop, Hackney Central, while the Theatre Royal Stratford East is a short mince from Stratford.

The North London Line (now part of Silverlink Metro and owned by National Express) was built piecemeal by various companies from about 1846 with the intention of linking the London-Birmingham line with the docks at Poplar. An hour's journey along its length provides a genuine cross-section of all that London has to offer.