Saturday, June 01, 2013
As a child of Metroland, I've ridden the purple line hundreds of times before. I've also blogged about it in depth, back on the centenary of Sir John Betjeman's birth. But is that going to stop me from going back and spending another month on the Metropolitan line? Hell no, there's nothing quite like going home.
Steam trains ran on the Metropolitan line last weekend as part of the Underground's 150th birthday celebrations. Four journeys between Harrow-on-the-Hill and Amersham, some single, some return, with those in the outward direction hauled by steam. Tickets cost up to £45, which seems a princely sum for the opportunity to end up precisely back where you started, and all without being able to see the locomotive on the front. A cheaper option was to stand on a platform as the train went by, so long as you were in the right place at the right time, and so long as no bloke with a camera stepped out in front of you as she passed. The far end of the Met was crawling with enthusiasts soaking up the sunshine and taking the opportunity to snap history. At Chorleywood and Chalfont they waited, one eye on their watch, the other on the distant tracks. At Moor Park the thundering approach of a diesel caught some out, but they rallied in time to capture the steam loco bringing up the rear. Some may even have stared at the train without attempting to record its passing in some way, but they were in the minority.
At Amersham, shiny old and shiny new coexisted in a peculiar way. In pulled the steam train to disgorge its complement of heritage riders, while a toot from the siding signalled that the next S Stock was preparing to enter the platform alongside. On platform 3, there was stuff for sale. A table was laid out with copious Tube 150 goodies, of the sort you can normally buy miles away in the London Transport Museum. A smaller table was laid out with leaflets from the Epping Ongar railway, reminding their target audience to come to Essex later this month to ride the same train considerably more cheaply. Meanwhile the Buckinghamshire Railway Centre had a stall in the Waiting Room, hoping to entice enthusiasts to a Tube 150 event in August. They're responsible for restoring Met Loco No. 1, which puffed through central London tunnels in January, and which appeared on several semi-reasonably-priced souvenirs.
For those who could tear themselves away from the station, there was a treat at the top of Hill Avenue. An old toyshop has been taken over, for just three weeks, by a special pop-up museum. The protagonists are the local experts at Amersham Museum, and the theme is the birth of Amersham-on-the-Hill. The town has an entirely split personality, both in age and in character, entirely due to the coming of the Metropolitan Railway. The old market town in the valley appears in the Domesday Book and is proper Buckinghamshire lovely. Local landowners at the end of the 19th century were intent on keeping it that way, and campaigned successfully to keep the new-fangled railway out of the town. Instead the tracks were built across the common on the hill, where a halt was opened to little effect.
It took a decade or two for the Met to realise the potential of the surrounding farmland for housing, at which point suburban avenues curled inexorably across the landscape. A new sub-town was created, this being Amersham On The Hill, luring in city workers in search of a better class of home. Hundreds of aspirational houses and bungalows were built by the Metropolitan Railway Country Estates Company, none of them cheap, but still wilfully affordable by modern standards. To the south of the station was the Weller Estate, with its grand oversized cottages set in spacious gardens, much of which is now a conservation area. Lower down the hill is High Over Park, the location of various Mediterranean-white Sun Houses and the Y-shaped High and Over. The latter is a modernist home in ocean-liner style, much drooled over by Betjeman in his Metroland documentary. A lot of Amersham-on-the Hill has been somewhat downgraded by residential infill, with all sorts of lesser homes built in what used to be the MRCE's gardens. But it's still a green and very pleasant place to live, and entirely worthy of a special exhibition.
The commuter town's history is duly aired in a series of display boards around the perimeter, augmented by railway mementoes and a model station. Above a 1930s sitting room is a row of Metroland brochure covers sewn, yes sewn, by an enterprising and creative local. In the other half of the shop is a collection of Bayko, the plastic construction toy that allowed interwar children to play at architects, and a model railway layout lined by tin houses. Those last two might only have been present last weekend, I'm not sure, but the curators won't have left the room empty. It's the pop up exhibition's last day today, not that it's big enough to merit rushing, you understand, but I'm glad I was around to pop in.
At all other times, Amersham Museum opens every Saturday, Sunday & Bank Holiday Monday (2.00 – 4.30pm) from March to October, and additionally on Wednesdays and Thursdays from May to September. Admission £2. Hunt down the Tudor house in Old Amersham High Street, and enjoy.
Talk: The Development of Amersham-on-the-Hill - Wednesday 5th June (Julian Hunt will explain the development of shops and housing in Amersham-on-the-Hill since the station’s opening in 1892)
Talk: Metroland - Wednesday 3rd July (Oliver Green will talk about ‘Metroland’ and compare Amersham’s Metroland housing with other developments along the line)
METROPOLITAN: Up the line
It's time to take an end-to-end journey on the Metropolitan line. From Aldgate as far as you can go, which is currently Chesham, a journey of just under 30 miles in just under 100 minutes.
Aldgate station just about fits within the eastern edge of the City of London, isolated along with St Botolph's church in the centre of a gyratory. It still says Metropolitan Railway in the tiling above the main entrance, or at least it says M.R. which was good enough at the time. The station lies in cutting beneath a vaulted glass roof, with a series of open staircases leading down to platform level. Best check the ancient Next Train Indicator before you descend, because there's bugger all down there to indicate when the next service is due and where it's going. That's not too much trouble on the two Metropolitan line platforms because all the trains are travelling to at least Harrow and most passengers aren't going that far. But for the suited City gent returning to Bucks after a hard day's high finance, grabbing one of the limited number of seats on the correct train is crucially important.
The lights go off beside the door and we depart, with another train already queueing to slip into our vacated platform. Around the curve is Liverpool Street, where the rear of the train comes to a halt just off the end of the platform. "The rear doors will not open here", announces the disembodied voice, while the red 'Door not in use' sign lights up above the offending portal. And, I notice, also above the opposite door which was never going to open anyway, which is typically inconsistent. Few enter the train at the rear end here, but rather more do at Moorgate, including a gaggle of foreign tourists and a bloke immersed in a book. Barbican still has platform numbers from the Network South East era, and a disused signal box at the Smithfield end of the station.
Farringdon's a mass of scaffolding at the moment in preparation for Crossrail, which at one time was due to take over the line to Chesham but that never materialised. Instead we plod on, still over an hour to go, and plenty of time to complete the Evening Standard crossword. At King's Cross St Pancras several passengers stand back and let us pass because they want Paddington, they don't want to go our way. The same at Euston Square and Great Portland Street, two more stations that are too short for these long trains. We queue erratically to proceed, as the line attempts to keep to its strict published timetable. And finally we curve off beneath Chiltern Court onto the Met proper.
Ah, Baker Street, gateway to the northwest. You don't sense the grandeur of the surrounding buildings from within, not even from the far end of the platforms where the sun streams in. City trains roll in along the central tracks, while lesser services to Herts and Hillingdon wait patiently to one side. The tunnels ahead dip for a couple of miles beneath St John's Wood, rising only to slink over the Regent's Canal and back down again. There used to be three additional stations along here, including one at Swiss Cottage that was once the terminus of the line. The most obvious of these is Marlborough Road, where the cut and cover opens out and gaps alongside for platforms are clearly seen. Modern safety signs have been affixed to the walls, and a metal staircase runs down for staff access, or in case an emergency evacuation is ever needed.
Outbound trains emerge into daylight at Finchley Road, alongside a switch on the wall marked 'Tunnel lighting'. Change here for the Jubilee line, calling at intermediate Brent stations, or stay aboard for the seven minute dash to Wembley. We run alongside a giant shopping centre on one side and fading blossom on the other. Here the Chiltern lines join us, creating a six-lane superhighway to the suburbs. The viaduct at Kilburn offers a brief glimpse across the rooftops towards distant Ealing and the heights of Hampstead. When I was little, riding the train up to town, this was always the special moment where it seemed the whole of London was laid out below, impossibly large, undeniably alluring. It still sets me slightly aquiver. And then back to tree level and the backs of houses, from Zone 2 to Zone 4 in a single leap.
Past the depot at Neasden comes Wembley Park, close but not that close to the looming white arch at the national stadium. Here many of the passengers alight, with rather fewer staying on board for the trek further out. Preston Road and Northwick Park are quieter stations with island platforms, as we start to pass those Metroland staples of pebbledash and cricket. Northwick Park has semi-overgrown raised beds, suggesting that staff here once used to enter the Underground in Bloom competition but no longer bother. Then at Harrow-on-the-Hill the in-car announcement states categorically that the back doors will not open, except they do. Thankfully that's the last we'll hear of this sub-optimal system as the journey progresses.
The Uxbridge branch veers off past a sign announcing 'Morrisons Harrow Now Open'. We've entered a world of allotments and avenues, and weatherboarded platforms above century-old shopping parades. North Harrow has nice tubs while Pinner boasts well-kept borders, plus a newsagent on the down platform sponsored by The Times. Backing onto the line are a succession of semis and bungalows and graffitied flats, most with gardens offering zero privacy from passing trains. The northbound platform at Northwood Hills is mostly advert-free, while at Northwood a suspicious number of the southbound posters are for local public schools. It feels like a real railway out here, running between woods and golf courses, but then we are in Hertfordshire now.
Moor Park serves a community of three-car households, hence the station is lightly used. It's also no longer the key spot for Watford branchers to switch onto a fast train, what with fast trains being an endangered species in the latest timetable. Across the Common Moor and the Grand Union we go, another favourite view, dropping down from four tracks to two as we approach Rickmansworth. With a signalbox and sidings one can well imagine Betjeman pausing here, although his 1972 documentary skipped right over. It's less glamorous up ahead where the M25 rides roughshod over the wooded cutting on concrete stilts, before the Common restores rurality. And someone's recorded "The next station is Chorleywood" with completely the wrong emphasis, which annoyed me, twice.
Only on the next stretch does the countryside finally open out to rolling fields, becoming more built-up again on the approach to Chalfont & Latimer. This used to be where you changed for the Chesham shuttle, but no longer, and mini-platform three is now out of service. Ahead is the longest gap between stations on the entire network, that's 3.89 miles, or twenty times the distance from Leicester Square to Covent Garden. The single-track branch line veers off before an industrial estate, past, hang on, isn't that a field of alpacas? The view down across the Chess Valley should be one of the finest on the Underground except, oh, TfL are currently erecting a silver metal fence along the perimeter of the track despoiling any attempt to enjoy the panorama unobstructed.
There follows a gentle descent into Chesham at rooftop level, crossing the fledgling river and pulling into the town centre at the foot of a hill. The station's charming, with a long sinuous platform one, and platform two long ago converted into a prize-winning garden. Locals know not to travel in the rear carriage because that means a longer walk at the end of the journey, probably passing the driver walking back up the platform to change ends. Exit is through a tiny lobby, formerly the ticket hall, now well stocked with local leaflets. We're as far away from London as the London Underground ever gets, in a pleasant Buckinghamshire town (walk straight ahead, turn left). No other line can boast so great a contrast at its extremities, but that's why I love it so.
METROPOLITAN: The Chess Valley Walk
How long does it take to walk three stations down a tube line? When you're following the Metropolitan it can take four and a half hours. That's via the Chess Valley Walk, a ten mile stroll from Chesham to Rickmansworth following a shallow chalk stream. I've walked the eastern end of this particular route many times, ever since I was a small child, but I've never tracked any of the western half before. And it's lovely, not least because the railway stayed beyond the ridgetop, so almost all of the Chess Valley has survived without major residential development. An ideal summer day out. [map]
The Chess Valley Walk leaflet describes the journey heading west from Rickmansworth to Chesham. I planned to head in the opposite direction, which is always a bit dangerous, but I assumed you couldn't get too lost following a river. I got lost straight away trying to work out where the path went after leaving the station. I wandered the pedestrianised High Street for a bit before working out I was meant to be on the other side of the main road in Lowndes Park. Cheshamites were lounging on the grass in the sun, or hunting for the pike in Skottowe's Pond, or being loudly hissed at by broody geese. Step back. Church Street in the old town is lined by a characterful collection of houses, which is a bonus because it's almost the only street I'll be walking down. Cue the river.
The River Chess begins in a pool half a mile up the road, but we're not going there, so it's fortunate I've been before. Instead we follow a quiet path round the back of a car park to the least ostentatious 'Town Bridge' in any town in the country. All chalk streams are shallow, so the bridge barely needs to lift off the ground. Chalk streams also always run clear, so the gravel on the bed is clearly seen, along with any weeds and tiddlers flapping thereon. Ahead is Meades Water Gardens, where the river's recently been allowed to spread out on the site of a former millpond. The remains of the sluice gate can be seen beyond the wetland in a pleasantly shady spot. Bring your pushchair, rest awhile.
Onward beneath the railway, where trains rumble infrequently overhead, to the playing field on Chesham Moor. The floor of the valley opens out a little here, and stays that way, creating a zone where housing would be inadvisable. But some of the cottages backing down onto the Chess are a delight, especially during wisteria season. In the woodland ahead are the remains of a larger mill, or at least its gushing weir, where children can dangle their legs in the water while their parents wait patiently for them to tire. I got lost again ahead, following the path halfway round a large lake before I realised there was no way on. At least that meant I got to encounter several more broods of flapping waterfowl - it's duckling season in the pools of Bucks.
It's not all Elysium, however pretty the valley looks from the railway line above. The path slinks on through the midst of an industrial estate, a very minor one, before emerging onto a ratrun lane. Chesham Council have built their Household Waste Centre out here, not that it smells or anything, but mind the traffic. In the stream nearby is one of those boards used for checking the water level, invariably barely a few inches, but the scale rises ominously to "now try your brakes" height. But that's the only tedious bit. The next field is a buttercup meadow full of horses, entered through a gate in loving memory of Evelyn Stevens. If you lost your mp3 player here the weekend after Easter, they're keeping it safe for you in the farmhouse.
At last we're out in open country, striding along the edge of a gently sloping field. There are lush hedgerows and verges of cow parsley, proof positive that the Green Belt works wonders. The path then climbs along the edge of some woodland, the only substantial effort on the walk, with the last of the spring bluebells as payback. That and the view from the top, which is panoramic. It seems impossible that any valley this close to London could be so green and unspoilt but, like I said, the railway never came this way. There's clear sight down to the largest lake on the Chess, Great Water, which spreads out like a blue finger courtesy of Capability Brown's landscaping. Somewhere on the far side is the site of a 1st century Roman Villa, but you'll have to take that on trust, there's zero evidence from here.
The big Tudor-style mansion above the path is Latimer House, in its previous incarnation briefly a prison for King Charles I. During WW2 the house and grounds were used to hold captured German pilots and U-boat crews - now it's a conference centre where delegates sit out on the terrace with drinks and stare back bemusedly at ramblers. So large is the temporary population of part-time students that the neighbouring hamlet of Latimer is completely outnumbered. A triangle of 17th/18th century cottages nestle round a miniature village green, most with dazzling gardens (and a lot of parked cars)... and that's all there is. Latimer must be the tiniest settlement to be namechecked on the London Underground map, which is only fair because the nearest station is a good fifteen minutes' walk down and over the valley.
You can break the walk here and head back to the Metropolitan at Chalfont & Latimer. But we're not even halfway yet.
After the delights of the hillside walk below Latimer, the path heads back down to valley level. I say path, but the going gets a little harder beyond the scary sign. "Dogs seen worrying livestock are likely to be shot without warning" screams the local farmer in big red letters on the fence. You can tell he hates having to open up his land to public access because the gate into the next field is firmly locked while the stile alongside leads walkers directly into a quagmire. If it's like this in early summer, best come prepared with resilient footwear after damp weather.
Somewhere off to the right of the track are the remains of Old Flaunden church, abandoned two centuries back when the entire village moved a mile up the hill to avoid flooding. I missed that. I also missed Chenies, the ridgetop village on the other side of the river, where the manor house and gardens look to be well worth a visit. In Frogmore Meadow I passed a group of very tired looking five year olds, and their parents who'd taken them out on a perhaps over-ambitious country trek. I'm not sure they made it as far as the bluebell wood, nor the nature reserve where the water vole allegedly still thrives. I stared awhile into the waterside undergrowth from the observation platform, but saw nothing small and furry.
The Chess Valley has long been famed for its watercress. I say this as a local lad, it's part of the mythology of the area, handed down to me from my grandparents. But this is the first time I've ever seen a watercress bed in the flesh, with long parallel flooded channels covered by a carpet of leaves. Even better they've got a tiny shop for the benefit of passing ramblers, where you can buy a bag of fresh watercress for £1.50 (or an ice cream, I bought a tub). I'd also never before been to Sarratt Bottom, despite it being part of the village nextdoor to where I grew up, although many's the time I'd sniggered at its name. It turns out almost nobody lives here, apart from a scattering of wisteria covered cottages at the foot of a lonely lane.
There is a reason why this isn't called the River Chess Walk, and that's because sightings of the river can be few and far between. The valley floor is fairly flat, so the meandering river is easily screened by a wood, a fence or even a hedge. You take your opportunities when you can, for example where a teensy-narrow footbridge carries a footpath from Church End across the water. The field ahead has very distinct terraces, called lynchets, believed to date back to the 9th century. These days the buttercup slopes are grazed by cattle and picnicking locals - I took a deep breath and walked straight past, and they chewed obliviously on.
Beyond Sarrattmill Bridge the path enters the Chorleywood House Estate. Its 160 acres of meadows and parkland were once the grounds of a Regency mansion, but were later sold off to the council when nobody wanted to buy it as a golf course. You don't see much of the estate on the walk through, unless you decide that this is the point to end the walk and head up the hill to Chorleywood station... but be warned that's well over a mile away. The river wiggles through woodland, past a dilapidated wheelhouse, before slinking in culvert beneath the M25. Meanwhile the Chess Valley Walk follows Solesbridge Lane over the top, then hairpins back along the foot of the motorway embankment along a very narrow passage. On and on it goes, with no means of stepping aside, so best pray it's not been raining.
Horses are the next wildlife on view, with the local stud most keen on shielding their prize mares' faces behind masks. And then we enter Loudwater, quite the poshest place to live, with secluded houses up private roads all around Troutstream Way. Secluded that is apart from those whose gardens back onto this public right of way, which is how I got to peer through the hedge at a family dining al fresco and scraping their plates clean under the gazebo. Tracking this gloomy alleyway always makes me feel like an unwanted interloper, and the occasional barking guard dog agrees.
It's a relief to emerge alongside the water meadow at Loudwater Farm, and even more of a relief when the river finally makes a reappearance after a couple of absent miles. We're in the lower reaches of the Chess now, in the valley below Croxley Green, which makes this the closest bit of river to where I grew up. Many's the time I've fished for tiddlers from the riverbank, or sat dangling my legs from the footbridge, or at least stood frozen in terror as some yappy dog ran shaking from the water. This is still a favoured spot for canine exercise, and easily the best place along the entire walk to get up close and personal with the natural river. Lucky me when I was young, I say.
The path bears off before the River Chess reaches its end. It's destined to run alongside the sports ground and past the restaurant in a former watermill, to enter the River Colne beyond the railway viaduct. Instead we're heading for Rickmansworth town centre, because that's where the station is, which means a diversion around the edge of the Royal Masonic School grounds. The last patch of green is the elevated plateau of Rickmansworth Park, which I've always found oddly artificial, before returning to civilisation with a bump beside a mega-Waitrose. Ten miles all told, from station to station, with the river probably visible for less than half that distance. But this has been the Chess Valley Walk, remember, and the valley is a proper unspoiled treat.
My Chess Valley Walk gallery
There are 25 photographs altogether. [slideshow]
METROPOLITAN: Headstone Manor
The oldest timber-framed building in London, well, Middlesex, is hidden away in North Harrow. More than that, it's not anywhere central, but up a residential street in the middle of a recreation ground. More than that, it's not the tithe barn straight ahead with Harrow Museum inside, that's only the aperitif. Try the cottagey-looking place across the moat - oh yes, it's got a moat - beyond the securely locked gate. That's Headstone Manor, parts of which date back to 1310 and haven't fallen over yet. And on weekends in spring and summer, if you turn up at 3pm, you can take a look inside.
To find your tour guide, start in the tithe barn. You can have a look at the exhibition if you like, currently a celebration of all things Harrow-on-the-Hill, although that may not take you very long. Or wander over to the cafe counter where they serve cups of tea and general sustenance to users of the surrounding football/cricket pitches. It's not the most engaging museum in London, to be fair, although there are plans to change that, of which more later. Instead just revel in the fact you're standing beneath a 500 year-old beamed roof, in a space which (following renovation in 2014) will become the council's newest event/wedding venue. £3.30, thank you, step this way.
The moat keeps most unwanted visitors out, and the padlock on the gate does the rest. They don't allow the public onto the island without supervision, let alone inside the house because it's not entirely stable. Two great jacks embedded in the lawn help to support the oldest part of the house, while the other end isn't quite as ancient as that. Headstone Manor was built as a residence for the Archbishop of Canterbury, somewhere to stay to the northwest of London when the King was holding court nearby. His lodgings were on the south lawn - ground radar has been used to trace the foundations - but are long gone now. From here you can see how the manor evolved considerably over the centuries, first an extension built after Henry VIII sold the place to a favourite, then a brick farmhouse-style end from the 1770s. Headstone Manor is a complete history lesson in one building.
Inside too, once the tour guide's unset the alarm, is just as much of a mishmash. In the heart of the building, under the stairs, is a medieval food store with a wine cellar extension. The bedrooms upstairs have peeling floral wallpaper from when this was still a private residence, right up to the 1980s. And the Great Hall isn't so great any more, after 80% was sliced off leaving only a sliver. A century ago this former ecclesiastical dining space was being used as a farmhouse kitchen, and several tweaks they made to the walls didn't really enhance the building's legacy. But the lofty beamed roof is an unlikely treat, and the room does still have a splendidly practical tiled floor.
But watch your step. Various rooms are taped off because the floor is unstable and at risk of collapse. Behind the front door all the floorboards have had to come up because English Heritage insisted on not laying an anachronistic damp course, and now the damp has proven them wrong. It's going to take another lottery grant to bring this building back to life, which could take several more years, but then the plan is to move Harrow Museum in here and use the space for displays. It'd certainly be a special place to visit, with a warren of rooms and back staircases to explore. In the meantime these weekend tours are the only way to cross to the island and take a look inside this medieval survivor, and that comes recommended.
METROPOLITAN: Betjeman's Metro-land hideaway
Sir John Betjeman's most obvious connection to the Metropolitan railway is the documentary he made for the BBC in 1972, alas one summer too early for me to have been one of the supporting characters. Metro-land celebrates the joys of the quintessential suburban railway, from Baker Street out to the Buckinghamshire countryside, and has been the subject of much discussion on this blog before. But what's perhaps less well known is that for the two decades leading up to the documentary's broadcast Sir John's local Underground station was on the Metropolitan railway. That station was Aldersgate, now better known as Barbican. And Betjeman's flat was in Cloth Fair, a medieval street literally round the corner from Smithfield.
Cloth Fair's not a long street, but it packs a lot in. A meat market at one end, almost, a Poet Laureate's residence in the middle and a 900-year old church alongside. You'll have heard of St Bartholomew's Church, or the Priory Church of Saint Bartholomew the Great to give it its proper name, or St Bart's, being the major hospital nextdoor. It's just like Sir John to want to live opposite a great Anglican place of worship, so close that each peal of bells would punctuate his day. Highly appropriate too because the Chapel of the Imperial Society of Knights Bachelor was inside, and Sir John became one of those while living here. The church would have been free to enter in his day - obviously as a member of the congregation it still is, otherwise now you pay £4 for the privilege.
One end of Cloth Fair is rather narrow, the other rather wide, which is an after-effect of that medievalness I mentioned. It made sense to keep the entrance from a cattle market narrow, although I suspect the many taxis which now use the street as a short cut wish there was two way traffic. The wider end had an important role for many centuries as the focus of the Bartholomew Fair, one of London's greatest charter fairs held annually on and around 24th August. This started out as a cloth sale in the 12th century, extending gradually to become a major international trading hub, then a massive pleasureground with sideshows, and eventually a debauched piss-up (which in 1855 got the whole event cancelled). Up until 1910 the street was still gated, this being one of the independent liberties of London in which St Bart's church ruled supreme. Now only the name survives as a reminder of the area's former fame, and you can't buy anything here, let alone a roll of cloth.
John Betjeman moved into 43 Cloth Fair in August 1954. The flat belonged to the aristocratic architect who lived next door, in what's reputedly the only house in the City to have survived the Great Fire of London. Betjeman rented from Lord Mottistone for the sum of £200 a year, for which he got the run of two rooms stacked above a shop on the corner of an alleyway. A side door led inside, then right up a flight of stairs to the perfect poet's hideaway. Here Sir John had space enough for the writing of more fine verse, while his secretary tapped away in response to correspondence. Her carelessness led to a fire caused by an overheating reel to reel recorder, which forced Betjeman out to live in Rotherhithe while the interior was restored. Sir John moved out for good in 1973, first to Chelsea, then to Cornwall where he died in 1984.
If you fancy a look inside Sir John's former home you can, because it's hired out as a holiday home by the Landmark Trust. You'll have to fork out £805 for three nights in September, which is about 500 times the rate Sir John paid, but that does include access to the roof terrace through the first floor kitchen. The property's been kept with as many original fixtures and fittings as possible, including a William Morris wallpaper called Acorn, which is no longer made in lurid salmony-pink, but has been reprinted specially. The shop below evolved into a wine bar called Betjeman's, but that's since been taken over by London's first vegetarian organic Italian restaurant.
The restaurant stays firmly closed on Sundays, and Saturday daytimes, which is entirely in keeping with this sleepy City neighbourhood. The only people I bumped into were another photographer snapping Cloth Fair, and a man in a red-lobster motif suit* who parked up a Mini bedecked in flowers outside the church and then wandered off. I like to think Sir John might have noticed him out of his sitting room window and maybe written a brief verse. I doubt he'd have been quite so pleased by the Coke can left on the windowsill beside his front door, but he'd have approved of the blue plaque above. There are no rows of semi-detached homesteads here, but this remains an unsung corner of Metro-land.
*Lobster Man turns out to have been the designer Philip Colbert, turning up at St Bart's for his wedding to Charlotte Boulay-Goldsmith. (Thanks @sharktastic)
It's not your typical Underground station. Here are twenty interesting facts about Barbican station. You wrote the last four, thanks.
1) Barbican station serves the very southern end of the A1, otherwise known as Aldersgate Street. Aldersgate was one of the five original gated entrances to the Roman City of Londinium.
2) Up until 1968 the station appeared as Aldersgate on tube maps. You'd have to be over 50 to remember that... or 48, and an extremely precocious three year-old.
3) Officially the station had been called Aldersgate & Barbican since 1924, previously Aldersgate only, but had opened as Aldersgate Street in 1865.
4) The station has four platforms, two for the Underground and two formerly for Thameslink services to Moorgate. Platforms 2 and 3 still have Network South East style platform numbers. [photo]
5) Thameslink services ceased in 2009, severed by extended platforms at Farringdon. In the last years of Thameslink service trains called at platform 3 on the way into Moorgate, but didn't stop at deserted platform 4 on the way out.
6) One of the roundels on platform 3 has been removed to leave an iron skeleton facing the unused side of the station. [photo]
7) The old Thameslink tracks are desolate and somewhat overgrown. You can't run trains through here because there are fences at each end. [photo]
8) The station's open to the sky, built in a deep trench backed onto by unlovely office-type buildings. Tall brick alcoves rise impressively up both sides of the cutting. [photo]
9) The station was bombed in 1941, and the upper floors were removed. Heavy bombing nearby is how the Barbican development came to be built opposite.
10) Originally the chasm above the platforms was spanned by an 80ft glazed arch, but its bomb-damaged frame was removed in 1955. Local resident John Betjeman wasn't at all impressed...
Monody on the Death of Aldersgate Street Station (John Betjeman)11) Message to younger readers: buffets used to be sit-down cafes serving tea, meals and nice cakes. In today's world of coffee shops and gum-selling kiosks, it seems almost impossible that Barbican station ever merited such everyday luxuries.
Snow falls in the buffet of Aldersgate station,
Toiling and doomed from Moorgate Street puffs the train,
For us of the steam and the gas-light, the lost generation,
The new white cliffs of the City are built in vain.
12) The current entrance, down from Aldersgate Street and the Barbican walkways, dates back to the 1990s. Architecturally, it's an award loser. [photo]
13) Until about five years ago there used to be a very out-of-date enamel line diagram at the top of the stairs [photo]
14) At the far western end of the main platform is an old signal box that somehow hasn't been demolished yet. It will be soon, because major development is afoot here... [photo]
15) Crossrail stations are so long that the western end of Barbican will form the eastern exit to Farringdon station. Moorgate and Liverpool Street will be similarly coupled. It's going to look a total mess on the tube map.
16) Up until the 1990s, Barbican station had restricted opening hours on a Saturday and was closed on Sundays. With Crossrail's arrival, this peaceful outpost is about to get a lot busier.
17) The station was also bombed in 1897. One passenger died, and the perpetrator was never caught. "The gas on the Metropolitan side of the station had been put out by the explosion, and, standing in the semi-darkness, the wrecked carriage, still attached in its original position to the train, looked a remarkable object." [Thanks Lee]
18) Someone's recently added a "Way out" sign on platform 4, despite the fact this platform will never see a train again. [Thanks Andrew]
19) The newest part of the Metropolitan Line is the section between Barbican and Moorgate, diverted onto a new alignment in 1965 to allow construction of the Barbican Centre on the old alignment. [Thanks Tim]
20) There is a memorial plaque to Pebbles the station cat on a column in the booking hall. [Thanks Marc]
METROPOLITAN: Ruislip Lido Railway
In the outer reaches of London, between the mainline and the Uxbridge branch, the Metropolitan has competition. A private railway runs in the Ruislip suburbs, transporting thousands of passengers a year, even though Oyster is not accepted. I picked a decent day for a trip and ventured off to the water's edge for a ride.
If you're visiting for the first time, Ruislip Lido may surprise. A 60 acre lake surrounded by woodland, it may at first look natural but is nothing of the sort. In fact it's a reservoir, first flooded in 1811, for the express purpose of feeding the Grand Union Canal. That runs not terribly close by, so a feeder channel was built to carry water all the way down to Hayes. If you stand in the southwest corner of the lake you can peer in through the grating at the outflow, and if you're feeling especially keen you can trace its path for seven miles through Hillingdon estates. Fear of flooding means that water levels in the lido are kept deliberately low, and the local sailing club disbanded in 1991 for lack of depth.
The biggest surprise is probably the beach. It must be the biggest sandy beach in London, which perhaps isn't difficult given our lack of coast. A sprawl of sand covers the southern end of the lake, and that in turn is covered by cheery families when the weather's right. Buckets and spades aren't common, this is more a place to relax while junior plays, safe in the knowledge that the tide will never come in no matter how long you rest. A new Woodland Centre and Catering Facility is under construction alongside, and is nearly complete. But don't consider wandering into the water, because that's still "no swimming, no paddling" until the council's happy with the water quality.
It's at this southern corner that you'll find Woody Bay station. This is where the Ruislip Lido Railway began in 1945, with a looping route into the trees, just one of the many attractions that drew postwar crowds to these shores. In the 1950s electric replaced steam, then in 1978 came a nasty accident which caused the railway to be closed. That caused the Ruislip Lido Railway Society to be created, and they're still going strong today with an increasing number of locomotives. If you fancy joining them to volunteer to guard, drive, fix or sell, they'd be very glad to have you.
The carriages are only little, but there are plenty of them, enough to deal with a summer rush. Some are open but most have a roof, while one truck is for buggies and strollers which goes down brilliantly with the target audience. Tickets cost £2 single or £2.50 return, which is considerably cheaper than the cablecar, and the journey's longer too. Trains run at weekends from Easter to November, or every day during half terms and school summer holidays. You need to time it right because there's a 40 minute gap between services, but rest assured you can just about walk round the lake to the other end of the line in the ten minutes before the train gets there.
I was a little nervous queueing for the train as the only adult without a child (or gaggle of children) in tow. Would I get suspicious looks? Thankfully I was able to sit at the back in a carriage all of my own, while the serious parents and grandparents grabbed the front seats. One lucky youngster was allowed to wave the flag to set us off, and then the guard hopped in behind me for the duration. Someone aboard started doing Thomas impersonations, with "choo choo"s to make their toddler's day complete. We curved round the lawn and engine sheds, past Lido-goers peering through the fence. And then into the woods.
Ruislip Woods are fabulous, and substantial in extent. Indeed they form the largest block of ancient semi-natural woodland in Greater London, with oak and hornbeam the dominant foliage. Maybe once you're off the train and you've "done" the Lido you could go and explore, you could be wandering around for hours. Enjoy the ride through the woodland as the train nudges towards the lake round a loop, then bends back to rejoin the main track. Don't expect to see much of the water on the way round, indeed this might better be called the Ruislip Woods Railway because I don't think I spotted the Lido once through the trees.
The second station is called Haste Hill, and at one point was the terminus of the line. It's more a halt than a station, to be fair, merely a strip of tarmac with a single blue sign alongside. You can only request to get off there, never on, and even then only when trains are travelling in an anti-clockwise direction. The train'll undoubtedly carry straight on without stopping, to cross the only level crossing on the entire route. That's important because the railway tracks form an otherwise impenetrable barrier between the lake and the surrounding woods, so you either cross here or face a lengthy detour.
The last run heads down the western side of the Lido, along the edge of Poor's Field, with further chances to wave at passers by. The line ends at Ruislip Lido station, which is scheduled (sometime) to be renamed Willow Lawn because the current name is geographically vague. Here you can watch the driver and guard spin the loco on a turntable before nipping to the other end of the train ready for the return journey. If you're not going with them, it's a short walk to the swans by the water's edge, and the car park, and the number H13 bus. Plus the pub (now a carvery), built on the site of a much nicer Art Deco cafe (incinerated by arsonists in the 1990s). Even after all these years Ruislip's Lido and miniature railway are still a proper day out.
The METROPOLITAN and St John's Wood Railway
Heading north out of Baker Street, the Metropolitan burrows non-stop beneath the streets before emerging at Finchley Road. But there used to be three stations inbetween, opened in 1868 as one of the Metropolitan's earliest branch lines, the Metropolitan and St John's Wood Railway. They closed after the Bakerloo line opened alongside in the 1930s, creating the express route we know today. But those three former stations are still there, if you know where to look, either viewed from the train or spotted above ground. I did the surface level walk.
Baker Street → Lord's
Winding your way up on Baker Street, mind your step for tourists. They queue in stupid numbers for Madame Tussauds and, in the direction we're going, outside Sherlock Holmes' house. It's not his house really, there is no 221B, but they wait patiently outside the museum anyway to have their photo with an actor dressed as a policeman. They might head on into Regent's Park, but they don't veer left up Park Road to follow the Metropolitan. This is the A41, the main road from London to Birkenhead, so mind the traffic. The apartments start early, some like brick ocean liners, another with a drive-in florist at its foot. That's the London Business School on the right, and later the golden dome of the London Central Mosque. A small rotunda cottage guards the posh entrance to Regent's Park, ambassadors this way please. Pause awhile where the road crosses the Regent's Canal and look across to the west. This is the brief section where the Metropolitan surfaces into the open air, forced up by the passage of the artificial waterway. And it's also the site of our first lost station...
They only called it Lord's for the last five months of its life, for the final cricket season before WW2 broke out. The station opened as St John's Wood Road, later shortened to St John's Wood. But if you want to spot it don't follow St John's Wood Road off the roundabout, take the turning beforehand which is Lodge Road. A minor shopping parade leads down to an iron bridge, with old lamps and blue-painted walls. If you look over the edge here you'll see, if you're tall enough, the railway tracks where Metropolitan and Chiltern trains rise into the open. The Metropolitan runs closest, with this bridge the point where trains head back underground into the cut and cover tunnel. That's where the old platforms were, with a few supporting stumps still sticking up like rocks on a wave-lashed beach. The station building's long gone, demolished in the 1960s so that a massive brick-podium hotel could be built on the linear site. The Danubius Hotel is a utilitarian pile that one can only hope looks better on the inside, and not even a couple of layers of leafy foliage can rescue it. But of greatest interest is the mysterious locked door at the foot of the steps, just below the twin flagpoles. This is the emergency exit from Lord's station, still present, still maintained, in case an unexpected event ever requires the Metropolitan to detrain here. "Keep clear Exit from emergency escape route" says a blue sign, beside a door otherwise marked only by the serial number IP6.
Lord's: abandoned stations.org.uk, disused-stations.org.uk
Lord's → Marlborough Road
Had it stayed open, Lord's station would have been wonderfully convenient for cricketgoers. The hotel faces the Nursery End, more particularly the Portland Stone sculpture in the site's SE corner depicting a procession of thirteen sportsmen and women. I would have taken a closer look, but an entire youth cricket team appeared to have descended on the site so that their parents and guardians could take group photos of their assembled smiles. The railway rumbles north past the Wellington Hospital, the largest private hospital in the UK, and then the first of St John's Wood's grand apartments. They call them terraces or courts, even in some cases mansions, whereas really they're well-proportioned aspirational flats. Part way along is St John's Wood station, now on the Jubilee line, opened to replace the last Metropolitan line station and the next. Here the well-to-do mix with tourists hunting the Beatles at Abbey Road, maybe grabbing a cappuccino at the Beatles Coffee Shop behind the semi-tropical flowerbed.
Station number two is a couple of blocks north, where Finchley Road widens and veers right. That white-painted building on the corner of Queen's Grove is the former station, still pretty much intact above ground level. Until recently it was heavily disguised as a Chinese restaurant, where you could dine inside the former ticket hall and knocked-through offices. That was kicked out in 2009 as part of the Metropolitan line upgrade so that the building could be used instead as an electricity substation to support greedier rolling-stock. You'd never guess from the outside - nothing hums, and there are absolutely no signs anywhere on any wall or door - but its former station-ness is very obvious. On the opposite side of the road is a tiny narrow house numbered 12½, and a brief cutting open to the sky surrounded by a brick wall. Look over (or more likely point your camera), and there are the former platforms of Marlborough Road, very partially intact but still potentially available as an escape route for detrained passengers.
Marlborough Road: abandoned stations.org.uk, disused-stations.org.uk
A Metro-land diversion
Marlborough Road, the road, has since been renamed Marlborough Place. Follow that behind the American School and you'll find Langford Place, another site visited by Sir John Betjeman for his Metro-land documentary. He related the tale of a Gothic house owned by the 'Clapton Messiah', John Hugh Smyth-Pigott, but without ever mentioning precisely where it was. Thankfully Google's improved since 2006 - the last time I went looking - so I've finally managed to discover not only its location but also that Vanessa Feltz now lives here. That would explain the pink ribbons tied to the front gate, and the perky Mini convertible parked outside. The house looks amazingly out of place, like a slice out of some Transylvanian manor, but softened by a lush garden and the promise of something rather more modern behind. Charles Saatchi used to live here, when he was with the wife before Nigella, so who knows what secrets number twelve holds. [photo]
Marlborough Road → Swiss Cottage
North of the former station, the area becomes a little less exclusive. There are fewer private apartments, and a few more council flats, as the road crosses from Westminster into Camden. Apart from the herd of goats at Quintin Kynaston Academy, loose on site and nibbling the grass, there's not much to excite the urban rambler. It's not long before the Swiss Cottage one-way system intrudes, and there at its apex the chalet-style pub after which the area is named. It's not the original, that was a much smaller building formerly the dairy of a local farm, but that didn't survive the arterial onslaught of road widening in the 1960s.
The Metropolitan line station was located immediately alongside the Jubilee line station, formerly of the Bakerloo when it opened in 1939. Connections were possible, but wartime service wasn't conducive to much passenger traffic and the Met shut down less than a year later. It's not at all far from here up to Finchley Road, a much better cross-platform interchange, so no keen loss was felt. The ticket hall for the Jubilee is located beneath the eastern side of the road junction, whereas the old Metropolitan entrance was to the west. If you head for exits 4 and 5 via the subway, that's sort-of where. On the surface a skylight still exists, long and thin above the former platforms, surrounded by a brick enclosure. A metal grille covers the top so that passers-by can't throw bottles onto the track below, and a line of rampant plantlife discourages anyone from climbing up. The buildings alongside are woefully ugly, including a nightclub with the pretentious name of D'Den Legacy, and an office block called Station House. That's another clue, obviously. And this used to be the terminus of the line, the end of the St John's Wood Railway, until an extension to West Hampstead was built in 1879. Three of the first twenty Underground stations, opened with high hopes, are long closed to passenger traffic. But keep your eyes peeled, be that above or below ground, and clear traces remain.
Swiss Cottage: abandoned stations.org.uk
METROPOLITAN: Rayners Lane
The advance of suburbia across the fields of Metro-land is well exemplified by the area around Rayners Lane station. A halt opened here in 1906, seemingly pointless, as the only settlement nearby was a single farmstead on a country lane. This dirt track was called Bourne Lane, but the Metropolitan Railway decided instead to name the station after the owner of the farm, that's Mr Daniel Rayner. His farmhouse and fields are long gone, but that simple choice means his name lives on. It took more than 20 years for the housebuilders to move in, having initially thought the area too remote [aerial photo]. Eventually Metropolitan Railway Country Estates Ltd grasped its potential and bought up 187 acres of farmland with the intent of building hundreds of new homes. They called it Harrow Garden Village, and stuck up posters advertising this as "A Good Move".
21 minutes from Baker Street. Houses of varying type built by well-known builders available at popular prices. Liberal open spaces, tennis courts, etc. Excellent sites for houses and shop plots in commanding positions. Full particulars from H Gibson, General Offices, Baker St Station NW1. Cheap tickets from all Metro stations on Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays to Rayners Lane (for Harrow Garden Village) adjoining estate.It's intriguing seeing tennis courts used in that advert as an incentive to householders, alongside the none too subtle hint that there'd be no shops here when they arrived, only plots. Slowly the first avenues were driven through the fields and the early foundations laid [aerial photo], as a residential grid spread row by row across the valley [aerial photo]. Some of the roads were named after what they destroyed - Farm Avenue, Hawthorn Drive, Highfield Avenue - but mostly the area was recast anew. The developers even tried to change the name of the station to Harrow Garden Village, but the local council weren't having it so Rayners Lane (without an apostrophe) duly stuck.
In 1938 the village halt was upgraded to a proper Underground edifice. Charles Holden did the design, and came up with a monumental high brick ticket hall reminiscent of Sudbury Town down the Piccadilly line. Stripped windows on each face of the cuboid bring light within, and a low slung net keeps pigeons out of the loftier internal spaces. Two symmetrically placed roundels face the road outside, each perched on a curved kiosk sticking out horizontally. One now houses a bog standard minimart, the other a less ordinary shoe repair shop [photo]. It's an imposing composition, one you'd not immediately guess from down on the platforms, although these have a pleasing retro-symmetry all of their own [photo]. Grade II listed, the station makes a bold statement of modernity at the highest point on the high street. [photo]
Those "shop plots in commanding positions" now form a long parade, much longer than you'd think the area deserved. One recessed block has a brick tower, while almost all have narrow steps which lead up to a balcony of residential flats on top. But it's the former cinema which draws the eye, in a "what the hell is that?" kind of way. Builders T F Nash built this Art Deco monster to serve the new housing estate they were laying out to the south. A mix of convex and concave curves rise high above the canopy, with a bold concrete trunk scrolling down the centre, a bit like the neck of a violin. It must have felt like Hollywood had landed here in 1936 when the Grosvenor opened, and the interior didn't disappoint either. The golden age lasted precisely 50 years, after which a nightclub moved in. More recently the building was purchased and renovated by the Zoroastrian Trust, and now serves as a place of worship and their European headquarters. [photo]
And Rayners Lane itself still exists. It wiggles through the grid of avenues following its ancient line, along hedgerows and around fields long extinct. And it's very long, running a full mile to the south of the station and another mile to the north. I walked north, past Tudorbethan hairdressers and a selection of minor restaurants, to explore the homes of Harrow Garden Village. Unsurprisingly they're lovely, brought even more to life by the wealth of summer in bloom all around. Some, like The Croft, cluster in a long crescent round a central flowerbed. Others, like The Close, surround what might almost be a village green were it not a baseless fake. But most run in pairs down cosy avenues, spacious, well tended, and so much more than the entry level homes the Met built.
At the foot of the hill, by the sponsored mini-roundabout, the Yeading Brook crosses Rayners Lane. It's about the only place you can stop and (almost) imagine how the countryside might have looked a century back. Harrow Council maintain a pleasant linear park along the riverside, then ruin the image somewhat by planting signs at each entrance warning you to make sure you know where the exits are in an emergency. They're also withdrawing all the dog mess bins across the borough to save money, a poster said so, so best mind your step in the borough's parks in future. Meanwhile the lane rises up the hill beyond, past former front gardens paved over for storing cars, though many still with their original low walls and hedges. Rayners Lane eventually draws to a close on the edge of Pinner, the final semi-detached being numbered 664... the perfect place to stop.
METROPOLITAN: The Croxley Rail Link
The next new bit of the London Underground won't be in London, it'll be in Hertfordshire. A closed British Rail branch line is being appropriated between Croxley Green and Watford, and the current Metropolitan terminus closed, allowing trains to run instead into Watford town centre. As a local lad, I can't tell how exciting it is that the railway link promised at the bottom of my road when I was a child is finally coming to pass. So let me give you an on-the-spot update. A tale of seven stations.
It's one of the ten least used stations on the Underground. This surprises me, in a 'village' of ten thousand people, although I guess few of them want or need to travel where the Met could take them. Instead this station survives the upcoming reformation, whereas Watford up the line will be summarily beheaded. I like Croxley station, although that may be bias from using it so often. With its triple gabled dormers it looks like a Metro-land house, deliberately so, designed by Charles Walter Clark in the mid-1920s to help inspire the surrounding suburban development [photo]. Four symmetrical chimneystacks top off the "rural vernacular" look, and apparently there's a flat above the ticket hall, which sounds like a special place to live. The stairs and platforms aren't quite so lovely, although the heritage lampstands add character and there are proper waiting rooms. Didn't quite merit a Grade II listing, but its future is assured.
It may have closed ten years ago, but a fading BR sign still hangs beside the Two Bridges roundabout. In truth the last train to Croxley Green ran in 1996, with the ensuing connection a replacement bus, or later taxi. I used the line throughout the summer of 1983, when there was a choice of rush hour trains to ride, but Croxley Green's demise is an archetypal tale of decline. Having had so many years to decay, there's not much of the station left. An information board offers a "Welcome to Network South East", but there's a gap where the timetable used to be. A set of decidedly rickety stairs ascends the embankment through a curtain of trees to where the wooden platform used to be, but that's decayed and has recently been removed. The gate at the bottom's locked, as you'd expect, but there is a very obvious rip in the fence to the left if you fancied squeezing through [photo]. As urban break-ins go, this is low level stuff. I considered it, tentatively, only to bottle out when a police car chose that precise moment to circumnavigate the roundabout.
The Metropolitan line passes by a very short distance away, hence the long-standing desire to create a link between the two [photo]. Now that link is at the planning stage, with construction of a viaduct due to begin maybe next year. It'll veer off at the foot of Baldwins Lane, devouring some of the Croxley Car Centre's forecourt [photo], then plonk a pier down in the grounds of a building contractor and curve across the dual carriageway [photo]. A laminated poster by the "Welcome to Croxley Green" sign warns that there's a compulsory purchase order on a stripe through the playground, so the families I saw there at the weekend don't have much longer to recreate. And then the viaduct will sweep in towards the old BR line, crossing the Grand Union Canal parallel to the existing lattice bridge (which'll survive) while wiping out some of the picturesque moorings below. The old station won't be needed, it's being bypassed, so maybe someone'll finally come along and demolish it. As for the viaduct, I've had 40 years to imagine what it'll eventually look like, but I still can't quite picture this childhood vista despoiled.
There are two Ascot Roads, one a wiggly lane, the other a stonking dual carriageway built in 1996 to provide access to the industrial estate beyond. The first new station on the old line will be built between the two, firmly on the Watford side of the border [photo]. The area's historically known as Cassio Bridge, and there are strong hints from Mayor Dorothy that this'll be the new name appearing on the tube map in 2016. Don't come rushing. Alongside is a forlorn looking clocktower, sans clocks, rising from a patch of wasteland [photo]. This belonged to Sun Printers, at one time Watford's largest employer, off whose presses Woman's Own and the Sunday Times magazine used to roll. Robert Maxwell and the march of innovation did them in, and now a storage company, a Premier Inn and hundreds of flats stand on the site. Only the clocktower, with its green-tiled roof and punched-out S U and N, stands as a reminder of the glory days. It's being renovated, according to a sign on the exterior, to create a most unusual office to let. Wait a few years and it'll have excellent connections.
The old branch line runs up the back of the Sun Printers site, fenced off from bedrooms whose owners currently get a good night's sleep. It continues round the back of Watford Launderers, a 100-year-old company whose tumblers and steam presses still fill the air with the smell of detergent. And at Tolpits Lane it reaches the site of what used to be the main station, Watford West. Like Croxley Green you might think it was still open because a BR sign still hangs outside [photo]. Only when you turn to face the arched entrance would you spot the barred gate, blocking access down to the platforms. But there is another strong clue, which is the tops of trees sticking up above the edge of the bridge. The tracks have been abandoned for so long that what used to be wayward saplings have grown to great height, and a lot of hacking will be required before trains can run through here again. But they won't be stopping. Alternative locations are planned for stations on the Metropolitan, so Watford West's overgrown platforms are scheduled to be demolished. [photo]
They were going to call it Watford Hospital, because that's the main reason for building a new station here. But because it's located on the road to Watford Football Club, Mayor Dorothy thinks Vicarage Road would be a much better recognised name. She's probably right, although the site's otherwise most peculiar. The station'll be built where a single track road (controlled by traffic lights) crosses a hump backed bridge over the railway [photo]. Nobody lives here, not quite. To the north is a recreation ground, to the west some allotments, to the south a huge humming electricity substation, and to the east a primary school. It's the first two of those whose land will be trimmed to fit in a station, and not a 'proper' station either. Expect something more like the DLR than the Underground, no architectural wonder, no ticket office, just a place to wait to be carried away. The costs on this project had to be trimmed to pass the Chancellor's guillotine, so TfL's usual design panache will likely pass this spot by. [photo]
On the eastern side of Vicarage Road, hidden from view by an out-of-control tree, is a minor disused station. It was opened (by Elton John) in 1982 to ease the flow of spectators into Watford's Division One football ground. Special trains ran on matchdays only, allowing fans to be ushered off the featureless platform round the back lanes, avoiding real people's houses. When the football club were relegated so were the train services, and one opportunity to revitalise the line quietly faded away. But the platform is still there, and you don't need a season ticket to visit.
Along the alleyway between Stripling Way and Cardiff Road, near the old railway bridge, there's a very obvious gap in the fence. A well-trodden path leads up into a patch of woodland to reach... ooh, the trackbed of the original railway [photo]. It being midsummer you'd expect the tracks to be overrun with growth, indeed mostly impenetrable, and yet this is not the case. The rails and sleepers are suspiciously free of obstruction, at least compared to the jungle either side, and a clear path leads off in both directions. Head west and there's evidence that local children have made dens up here, including mattresses and a very soggy soft toy. But head a little further west and very soon you walk out onto the site of Watford Stadium halt [photo]. Best climb the ramp to the platform, because that's clear and the tracks below are a sea of green. It's a long one - those football trains sometimes had six carriages - but up top only a single red-painted lamppost remains [photo]. Best not attempt this safari on a school day, because the Laurance Haines playground looks straight across. And if you continue down the other side, minding the detritus chucked from the Vicarage Road bridge above, you reach the site of the new Metropolitan line station [photo]. Last weekend the only waiting passenger was a fox.
Or you could have walked east from Stripling Way, across the tracks onto the bridge itself [photo]. It's only wide enough for a single track, so TfL have some serious engineering to do here before the line can open to two-way traffic. But three old rails survive, and almost all the sleepers, though worn and cracked and rusting. Follow these and you're on a proper adventure into the past. The embankment curves round to another bridge, this one across an outpost of the River Colne, then onto a large and fairly remote island. However overgrown it looks there's always a comfortably wide path to follow, sometimes along the tracks and sometimes alongside, as if someone has deliberately carved a way through what was recently jungle [photo]. Further evidence of human intervention are some taped-off areas labelled with signs that say "This area contains nesting birds, do not enter" [photo]. The zig-zag path hasn't been cut willy-nilly, it's been traced with environmental priorities in mind.
Off to the right is the Ebury Way, a disused railway swinging in from Rickmansworth, again with easy access up the embankment. Where the two lines meet, or met, selective tree cutting has opened out a much larger clearing than elsewhere [photo]. One lonely signal still stands, or at least the metal post and ladder remain with an empty cage on top [photo]. Another bridge crosses the River Colne, again low and narrow, again in need of upgrade [photo]. It's like walking through your own private nature reserve, until the backside of an industrial estate intrudes. All this fresh-mown accessibility can only be because surveyors and planners have been walking the line, trying to work out precisely what needs doing when work starts on the Croxley Rail Link (probably) next year. This won't be any place for a stroll then, nor anywhere along the former branch line to Watford High Street. But before the diggers move in, and the trains return, a surprising amount of this forgotten hideaway is strangely accessible.
A mile away, on the edge of Cassiobury Park, another station is in terminal decline [photo]. Watford Met, as it's fondly known round here, will be closing for good once the new link opens [photo]. The good folk of the Cassiobury Estate will need to find another way to reach their jobs in the City, which'll probably mean a longer walk and some more angry letters to the Watford Observer. I was expecting to see more obvious signs of potential closure, like a poster somewhere, but instead the passengers at this peaceful outpost can blot its imminent demise from their minds. You have to pity those who moved into the new flats alongside the station especially to be near a decent train service. But the sacrifice of the few is deemed appropriate for the benefit of the many, when the Croxley Rail Link finally (FINALLY) comes to pass.
My Croxley Rail Link gallery [slideshow] [map]
There are 38 photographs altogether (20 from 2013, 17 from 2011, 1 from 2005)
» Croxley Rail Link (official site) (Environmental statement - pdf)
» Five pages from Abandoned Stations (working down the disused line)
» Old photos of the Croxley Green branch line (1982-2012)
» My previous report (May 2011)
» ...and one more METROPOLITAN post: III Manors