Friday, February 18, 2005

Imagining the past

One hundred years ago the Metropolitan railway began running through to Uxbridge. Commuting into London from the hitherto isolated villages of Ruislip, Pinner and Eastcote began. It is hard to imagine what my predecessors might have experienced. Waiting for a through connection on a dark evening at Rayners Lane, one has to wish away the surrounding houses and the lights, envisage ploughed fields stretching away on either side of the railway and hear the clank of the locomotives working in the goods yards at the side of the station. There must have been piles of coal used by householders and the railway alike, perhaps freight wagons standing idle overnight, railway workers holding lanterns checking the track or doing maintenance. The 1930s Art Deco station vanishes, replaced by a simple square brick booking office perched alone on the bridge over the railway. All the buildings on the skyline vanish - perhaps a couple of cottages in the distance with smoke rising from the chimneys and lights glowing behind the curtains. And the sounds - no cars, very few people - imagine horses whinnying as they were led back to their stables, dogs barking across the fields, birds roosting in the trees and hedges. This must have been a very dark world after sunset. The station lights (Gas lamps?) would have provided the traveller with some comfort and would have made the surrounding fields seem even darker and remote. Rural Middlesex was reaching the end of its long life, the fields were being sold to builders, the plots marked out, the great wave of incomers were on their way. Fifty years later my parents were to join them.

I would dearly love to wander through that green and quiet landscape of the near past. Traces remain, including the parks and open land that runs along much of the railway today, making it possible to imagine the rest. But those days when the railway was the lifeline, and the horse and cart (and the bicycle) the only alternatives, ah, those days we shall see no more. At least not until the oil runs out.

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