Saturday, 13 June 2009

Further Adventures in Metroland

My sister got married in the late 1960s and her new father-in-law was the eminent poet, critic and Professor of English, William Empson. The union between Suburbia and Bohemia was celebrated with a reception in the lovingly manicured garden at my parents’ house on the Cedars Estate, built by the Metropolitan Railway alongside the tracks between Rickmansworth and Chorleywood. William and his wife, Hetta, had guided their elderly Alvis (Hetta at the wheel) all the way from Hampstead via the badlands of Harrow and Pinner to arrive in a place that could hardly be further from their comfort zone. I was quite impressed that the author of Seven Types of Ambiguity (a book that formed part of the English syllabus at school) and a close acquaintance of George Orwell was taking a turn, drink in hand, around our garden. It must be conceded that the flow of conversation between the two tribes was far from unstoppable and in an unusual move for him, William filled an awkward silence by observing, in a clipped but genial tone, “Well, here we are in Metroland!”

Again, I was impressed. I hadn’t been aware that the untidy and tediously familiar ribbon of ancient small towns and overgrown villages tied together and developed by the Metropolitan Railway was in any way deserving of a collective noun. At the same time I realised that the journey of William and Hetta from the sophistication of NW3 to the social conformity of Outer Suburbia may have been short in miles but in cultural terms it was positively inter-galactic. There are two directions in which this could proceed. One would take us deeper into the adventures of William and Hetta in Suburbia, the second would take us further into an exploration of Metroland.

On balance, I favour the second option. The concept of Metroland was an inspired invention of the Metropolitan Railway Company, a marketing device to persuade the nation’s captains of industry to settle in the Metropolitan corridor and patronise the commuter trains that would transport them to the City of London with the minimum of fuss. The picture painted in the publicity was intensely pastoral in tone, replete with purple prose descriptions of the rustic delights in store for the newly arrived citizen of Metroland. If the thought of living alongside village smithies, dairymaids and shepherds had lured our captain of industry, he would have a strong case for being the victim of a false prospectus. The winding country lanes, lined with rampant hawthorn hedgerows and the patchwork of pastures smothered beneath carpets of wild flowers existed more in the imagination of the advertising copywriter than in reality.

Nevertheless the neat lines of semi-detached dwellings on tree lined roads, the half timbered parades of shops and the larger detached homes, hidden in their own grounds carried more than an echo of the Arts & Crafts tradition of domestic architecture. Incomes increased with the distance travelled from Baker Street and a migratory pattern emerged as Metrolanders relocated from Wembley to Pinner and all points north-west as they climbed the corporate ladder. The lucky few would make it as far as Wendover or Great Missenden before retirement. This version of Metroland is the one that John Betjeman mythologized in his 1973 television documentary. With distance lending enchantment, Betjeman’s Arcadian vision of an agreeable mixture of innocent English eccentricity and anachronistic architecture became fixed in the public consciousness. This was the high point in the reputation of Metroland, in another 10 years the M25 would be complete and create a new vector that would bisect Arcadia and open up new opportunities for travel along its north-south axis.

The last few decades have seen a massive increase in population and vehicle traffic. Planners have had to consent to a wave of destruction of substantial homes to free up space for multi-dwelling developments. Owners of green-field sites have fought tooth and nail for residential approval. Agricultural land has given way to stables, kennels and catteries, garden centres and hobby farms. All the lethally contaminated water retrieved from the site of the Buncefield oil terminal explosion and fire at Hemel Hempstead is in storage in Rickmansworth waiting for science to come up with a viable detoxification process. Despite all this, the outlines of the original Metroland dream are still there to be seen, a fading memorial to an ingenious marketing experiment. And there remains a small band of enthusiasts who keep the dream alive.

No comments: