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Literary London

A Walk in Metroland

Simon Goodall

Inspired by three great British authors and an unfulfilled childhood ambition, Simon Goodall takes a trek into deepest Metroland

My recent discovery of Iain Sinclair and his adventures in and (literally) around London have reinvigorated my enthusiasm for urban exploration on foot. Anyone who can make a millennium eve spent without friends in an all-you-can-eat roadside Chinese in Waltham Abbey seem a clever and interesting choice is more than capable of providing the inspiration necessary to engage in even the dullest-sounding day trip. A mid-winter walk from Amersham to Chorleywood might reasonably be counted in this category.

As it happens, it has been a long-held desire of mine to visit Chorleywood in Buckinghamshire. I’m not entirely sure why though it has the obvious claim to the attention of any map-studying Londoner of being the first stop on the underground to escape the perimeter of the M25. I think there was an attempt made when I was about fourteen that ended with a delayed service at Wembley Park. Certainly my interest predates any greater knowledge about Metroland and the escape from London it represented for inter-war city dwellers. 

This came when my friend Simon introduced me to Julian Barnes’s debut novel Metroland. In part a celebration of the infinite wonders of the underground system and the possibilities it affords for a young person with a one-day travelcard in their pocket, it is also a celebration of suburban lifestyles and the Metropolitan Railway Line.

We fancied ourselves as the protagonists, philosophising endlessly on the dull lives of the adults around us. Simon even bunked off school to travel the length of various tube lines. When I asked him about it recently, his only memory of these adventures seems to be disappointment at how dull Morden was.

So Simon, myself, and my regular walking companion and flatmate Alex set off in the midst of pre-Christmas winter weather that was causing travel chaos across the country. Our journey on the semi-fast service was by comparison untroubled (minor delays on the Metropolitan line).

Getting out of the tube at Amersham and heading into the high street you are greeted by a truly Metroland scene: a mixture of Mock Tudor and white weatherboard-clad frontages, all fairly squat and unimposing, the look of countless Home County towns. We didn’t linger but marched under the tube line, through snow-covered woods and then out on to a sparkling open land sloping gently towards Old Amersham nestling in the valley below.

As several children sped past us on toboggans, Simon struggled to keep his footing, confirming our fears that his choice of a light leather loafer for the journey was going to seriously threaten progress. At least waterproofing was solved by a trip to the edge-of-town branch of Tesco. (The rural Tesco standard particularly at home in Metroland is a warehouse disguised with sloping roof and red bricks to look like an oversized suburban house.) Simon felt sufficiently far from home not to mind having two plastic bags wrapped round his feet, though, as it turned out, this arrangement would have passed with less comment in his native Finsbury Park than it did in one afternoon in deepest Buckinghamshire.

Amersham’s division into old and new is unusual and fortuitous, at least it is for Old Amersham, a market town in the valley, which remains compact and unspoiled. Far-sighted local gentry kept the tube station a mile up the road and thus most development in the last 120 years (Tesco aside) has been in Amersham-on-the-Hill, a mini green belt of estate separating the two.

Straight out of Tesco and the pathway across the street takes you out into open country along the Misbourne Valley. We were soon envying Simon his improvised waterproofing as the snow was ankle deep. Before long we felt completely removed from civilisation, trekking in the tundra, no signs of life apart from heavily blanketed horses out on the broad Chiltern Hills. We were left to ourselves all the way to Chalfont St Giles where we slid down the hill, and straight into the most congenial-looking pub.

The pre-expedition viewing had been Metro-land, the 1973 BBC documentary by Sir John Betjeman, one of several narrated and scripted by the poet. If the DVD notes are to believed this one was his favourite. Much of the content is musings on architectural styles and the associated lifestyles as he travels the line out from Baker Street to Amersham and beyond, reading from his poem ‘Middlesex’: ‘And all that day in murky London Wall / The thought of RUISLIP kept him warm inside’. 

The Metropolitan Railway Company started selling the dream of Chorleywood and countless suburban towns like it over a century ago. A dreamer selling to dreamers, the original company chairman Sir Edward Watkin had plans to extend his railway all the way to Paris via a channel tunnel, and even started building an English Eiffel Tower at Wembley (like Julian Barnes, clearly a Francophile). In the early twentieth century the company’s annual brochure Metro-land sold for three pence, but its numerous colour plates depicting pretty suburban houses in rural settings cost much more to produce. A sound investment for a company that not only benefited from every new commuter to and from north-west London, but was also a big property developer in its own right. It was an offer that many a smog-weary Londoner pursued.

But too many for the dream to survive. Walking round the Capital Ring suburban footpath the previous year, the north-west portion stood out for its drabness. Washed-out winter skies are a hard backdrop to look good against, and bar an island of prettiness in Harrow on the Hill, there was nothing to lift the spirits along the course of the River Brent, past Wembley and down through Hendon and Finchley (though I’m sure Iain Sinclair could have waxed lyrical had he accompanied us). 

George Orwell’s 1939 novel Coming Up for Air conveys a sense of the devastation the Metroland housing boom also represented at the time. Within a decade, vast stretches of rural landscape had been obliterated in a relentless stream of criss-crossing linear developments. The misery and hopelessness of man trapped in the city ‘sweating his guts out to pay twice the proper price for a brick doll’s house that’s called Belle Vue…’ prompts the protagonist George Bowling to go on a forbidden journey to rediscover his genuine rural home, only to find that the ceaseless tide of comely bricks and mortar has engulfed his village as well. The ‘sham-Tudor colonies’ are a sad pastiche of the rural life he remembers before the war. His childhood sweetheart sitting in amongst it all, fat and gossipy, not even recognising her balding disappointed customer.

If you make it to Chorleywood, things are different. Chalfont & Latimer and Amersham are the only other underground stations that lie outside the M25. Aside from the curiosity value, it means that you can get out of town for three pounds, two if you cycle to Finchley Road and start your journey there. It is also the only part of the Metropolitan line where the dream of a rural existence within an hour’s journey of the city survives, thanks largely to those early town planners and the green belt that, pre-M25, fixed a London boundary. Sir John calls Chorleywood ‘the essential metro-land’ and it is the first stop where if you step off the train and walk in a straight line for twenty minutes, chances are you’ll be in a field.

In the pub the locals are talking in semi-rural accents about the weather, glancing disapprovingly as I hang my damp socks on the grate. One was overheard to comment ‘Look at those three contemplating life and not a drink on the table’. That’s the stuff!

Unfortunately, by the time we’d recovered our senses we found the darkness was drawing in. Consulting more locals in the deli next door we ascertained that none of them had ever walked to Chorleywood along the public footpath that crossed through their village. Estimates as to how long it might take us varied wildly in consequence, but all held that we’d be crazy to set off on such an expedition at that time of night. With feet still wet we let ourselves be persuaded, and once again I was denied the sight of Chorleywood’s suburban charms.