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A return journey to John Betjeman’s Metro-land, 50 years on from his traditional TV documentary | Day journeys



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Here’s a plan for a time out on the Metropolitan line of London’s underground, though we’ll at no stage be below floor, and can journey 25 miles from London. First, nonetheless, a bit historical past.

In 1863, the Metropolitan Railway (Met) constructed the primary subterranean railway – from Paddington to Farringdon. 5 years later, the Met, an formidable and stressed outfit, added to this an above-ground northern prong, from Baker Avenue to St John’s Wooden, within the hope of capturing commuter site visitors. As this prong, often known as the Extension Line on the time – and nonetheless known as that by one endearingly affected pal of mine – bifurcated and stretched into Middlesex, Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire, the Met constructed houses adjoining to it within the nostalgic Tudorbethan model. Between 1915 and 1933 (when the Met suffered the indignity of turning into a mere “line” of the London Underground), these had been marketed as Metro-land.


Fifty years in the past, John Betjeman (JB) – who’d just lately been made poet laureate – wrote and offered a BBC documentary known as Metro-land – and, sure, it’s on YouTube in addition to DVD. In his biography of Betjeman, AN Wilson known as it “an ideal telly-poem”, the script being partly versified, and the entire thing very lyrical. The producer, Eddie Mirzoeff, recollects: “Because it got here collectively within the chopping room, it grew to become one thing exhilarating. I knew John preferred it as a result of he began to carry his pals in to see it.”

Sir John Betjeman in 1973, at Grims Dyke, Harrow Weald.
Sir John Betjeman in 1973, at Grim’s Dyke, Harrow Weald. {Photograph}: BBC

What follows is partly a retracing of the journey JB takes within the movie, partly an itinerary for visiting the prettier Metro-land spots alongside the primary strand of the Extension Line.

We start at Baker Avenue, unofficial HQ of Metro-land. Above the station is a Twenties block constructed by the Met, Chiltern Courtroom, the place well-known rail lovers have lived, together with HG Wells and the quizmaster Hughie Inexperienced, who had an enormous mannequin railway in his flat. Chiltern Courtroom as soon as boasted a restaurant and JB begins there, reflecting on how Metro-land wives, “from Pinner and Ruislip, after a day’s buying at Liberty’s or Whiteley’s”, would take tea at Chiltern Courtroom, earlier than using the Extension dwelling. Scenes virtually as genteel unfold round JB as he speaks in 1973. That restaurant is immediately the Metropolitan Bar, a Wetherspoon’s pub that opens at 8am (9am on Sundays), which is both very civilised or very uncivilised. One particular plus is that it’s full of Met Railway memorabilia.

We will disregard the early a part of the Extension Line, which saved being rationalised to get trains out of London sooner. Its stations between Finchley Street and Wembley Park, as an example, at the moment are served by the Jubilee Line. We would disembark at Wembley Park to view some Metro-land houses. Within the documentary, the digital camera tracks alongside Oakington Avenue, whereas Betjeman chants home names: “Rusholme, Rustles … Rose Hatch, Rose Hill, Rose Lea …” Each “barely completely different from the following” and constructed on fields as soon as “shiny with buttercups”. There’s a sure acidity right here. Whereas JB had an affection for Metro-land, he’s haunted by the “gentle dwelling counties acres” destroyed to make manner for it.

Our practice, by the way, is without doubt one of the S8-stocks, specifically constructed for the Extension run, with some transverse seats (side-on to the window), to echo the compartments of the previous Met carriages. After passing the Metro-land property at Northwick Park, we alight at Harrow-on-the-Hill.

Within the adjoining bus station, we board a Watford-bound 258. Because the bus rolls alongside Station Street, the half-timbering of the gables above the trendy store facades betrays Metro-land origins. Step by step, the homes skinny out; in addition they increase, turning into what the Metro-land brochures known as “homesteads”.

Directors and engineers of the Metropolitan Railway Company inspect the world’s first underground line in May 1862.
Administrators and engineers of the Metropolitan Railway Firm examine the world’s first underground line in Could 1862. {Photograph}: Hulton Archive/Getty Photographs

Alighting after about quarter-hour at leafy Clamp Hill, we flip left alongside Previous Redding, with the woodland of Harrow Weald on each side. Harrow Weald, one of many bigger inexperienced areas to outlive the event, shaped a type of gap in the course of Metro-land. On the right-hand facet, we come to the wooded grounds of Grim’s Dyke, which is immediately – and was when JB visited – a resort. Grim’s Dyke was constructed as a non-public home in 1872 by Norman Shaw. “I’ve at all times regarded it as a prototype of all suburban houses in southern England,” says JB, marvelling at its numerous facades. It additionally appears the prototypical Metro-land dwelling.

On his go to Betjeman encountered, in a convention room, the apparently all-female Byron Luncheon Membership (Byron attended Harrow College). I sat within the cosy bar – the woodlands misty past its leaded home windows – alongside a person attempting to promote an AI app to a businesswoman. He saved saying issues like, “Let’s ask the bot the query, lets? I’ve actually no concept what it’ll say!”

The menu supplied grilled halloumi and Bombay avenue meals, however I judged pumpkin soup and a cheese sandwich extra in line with Metro-land. After lunch, I wandered out into these misty woods, to search out what JB calls the “gloomy pool” the place, in 1911, the librettist WS Gilbert – who owned Grim’s Dyke – died whereas rescuing a younger lady from drowning. So Gilbert by no means noticed what JB calls “the rising tide of Metro-land”. If he had performed, it may need made a very good topic for certainly one of his (and Sullivan’s) satirical operettas.

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