Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Metroland revisited

It’s funny but now I am travelling on the Metropolitan, a lot of the frustrations I experienced during my eight years taking the Piccadilly from beautiful Ruislip to Hammersmith have dissolved into a mist and floated off into the autumnal twilight (getting poetic again, must have been drinking: Ed.) The Met has the comfortable feeling of an old jumper. It may be out-of-fashion, grubby and unravelling, but it fits. I am a veteran of this line. I rode it from Preston Road to Northwood Hills for 7 years as a schoolboy, then commuted to work in the City throughout the 1970s, and much of the 80s. And my memory goes back further, as a child with my mother visiting friends in Pinner in the mid 1950s. I recall the brown, slam-door carriages, with the overhead baskets for luggage and the heavy leather straps for opening the windows. The maps displayed inside the carriage went up to Aylesbury. We never went so far – had we done so we would have experienced the pleasure of being steam-hauled north of Rickmansworth, for the electrification of the line had gone no farther since 1925.

But my imagination was always captured by the remoteness, the almost legendary quality of those distant stations along the way – Great Missenden, Wendover, Stoke Mandeville, and fabled Aylesbury itself. It might have been a continent away to me, for whom the 5 short stops up to Pinner was an adventure in itself. Even today, when we drive up the A41 and reach these places in well under an hour, they seem to be in some foreign land where Londoners must carry passports and phrase-books, and frequently consult the map. To think that one could take a tube train from central London and alight in Aylesbury, a market town surrounded by empty fields in the heart of Buckinghamshire.

From 1890 to 1936 (and between 1943 and 48) the Met went even further, out towards Quainton Road  (now a superb heritage centre) and Verney Junction, with a strange branch line to Brill. You can find photos and histories on the web. God knows who commuted from there – I suspect nobody did, all the traffic was local and to those people coming down from the villages on the Oxfordshire border to shop in Aylesbury, the thought of going on down to London must have been as strange to them as their travel arrangements now seem to me.

John Betjeman’s wonderful documentary Metroland captures some of this lost glory and is heartily recommended.  Images from this film blend in my mind with the reality of today as I pass the site of the Wembley Tower, the estates of Preston Road, Northwick Park and Harrow, and the junction with the Grand Central railway. It was this “new route” from Neasden through Ruislip and Denham that ended the ambitions of the Met’s directors to run a train service from the midlands right through London and onto the Channel Tunnel.

Somehow the Piccadilly, chugging slowly on its meandering route to Ealing and Acton, has none of this magic. It is just a way to get to work.

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