Lines to the city

7th July 2006 at 01:00
Chris Fautley retraces Sir John Betjeman's travels on the London Underground to see how times have changed

Next month marks the centenary of the birth of Sir John Betjeman, champion of English architecture, observer of human foibles, and much-loved Poet Laureate: in England, you are never too far from something that caught his attention.

London featured regularly in his work - possibly because here, in abundance, were causes that lay close to his heart: railways - he made Metroland almost his own - Victorian architecture, and slumbering City churches. Fifty years or more later, some places are barely recognisable; others more so.

The encroachment of London's suburbs into the countryside is nothing new.

Betjeman would have been only too aware of it when writing The Metropolitan Railway: Baker Street Station Buffet (1954). After all, it was a process started by the very railway about which he was writing.

There, he refers to Preston Road and "the last green fields". The only fields now are parks, or attached to schools. Yet further out, Pinner, it is easy to imagine, has changed little. "Leafy lanes", yes, and neo-Tudor architecture - of which Betjeman appeared to disapprove. High street names, with their blatant 20th-century frontages, seem slightly uncomfortable sitting beneath equally blatant neo-Tudor flats.

So, how pleasing to find the real McCoy here - the 16th-century Queen's Head pub. Even Pinner's station has an air of genteelness, smartly painted, with elegant canopy and facilities such as Waiting Room that are long vanished (or vandalised) elsewhere. The trend continues until the end of the line, at Amersham - "beechy Bucks" as he called it in his verse autobiography, Summoned by Bells (1960). In it, Betjeman painted the portrait of a typical mid-20th-century Metroland station with adjacent estate agent and coal merchant: "Goldschmidt and Howland (in a wooden hut Beside the station)I Charrington's for coal".

At Amersham, the coal yard is now a car park; the wooden hut beside the station has been replaced by a brick office complex. (Goldschmidt and Howland, meanwhile, trade from Hampstead and St John's Wood.) The neo-Tudor shops which he observed still remain.

Elsewhere in his autobiography, he refers to secondhand bookshops in Essex Road, Islington. Now there are cafes, bars, a fishmonger, convenience stores, greengrocer... Walking its seemingly interminable length, one is spurred on by the thought that there might just be a bookshop shoehorned amid them all.

Back in the Metropolitan Railway's central London, there are changes, subtle, and not so subtle. "He bought a dozen plants of London Pride" from a stall at Farringdon. There is still a flower stall: chrysanths, lilies, tulips, gerbera... but no London Pride (a variety of saxifrage). Adjacent Farringdon Road where, in his autobiography, he bought a book of lithographs from a bookstall, is distinctly red: red route, red road, red lines, red buses... At Baker Street station, the Metropolitan Railway's ostentatious headquarters, the "many-branched electrolier" has vanished; the "fine woodwork" - rich, polished panels - partly remains. On the buffet, a chiselled sign reads: "Luncheon Tea Room". ("Restored 1987", reads another, adjacent.) Its entire frontage (perhaps where once was the "stained-glass windmill") is wedged full of ticket machines.

Metroland also received the Betjeman touch in Harrow on the Hill. The poplars are still at Wembley, albeit now trembling in awe of the new stadium. Harrow on the Hill, topped by its fine church, is every bit "a rocky island". The view of it from a London-bound Metropolitan-line train must be one of the capital's most under-rated. The "click and kissing of the trolley buses hissing" has been substituted by the inevitable bus station next to the even more inevitable shopping precinct. "H10: Wealdstone, High Rd"; "223: via Kenton" read the destination blinds.

Other suburbs feature in Middlesex, where rurality is not entirely vanished amid the retail parks and dual carriageways. During spring, "the scent of mayfields" still wafts across Greenford. However, the "red electric train"

from which Elaine daintily alighted at Ruislip Gardens is now red, off-white and blue; the "concrete station" (a reference to its modernist gull-winged canopy), has been replaced by a steel structure.

Metroland again appears in "Civilized Women", although these days Oxford Street's clientele is of a more international nature. "The women who walk down Oxford Street" surely "suffer a lot from nerves and heat" more than ever. The prospects of finding anywhere selling everyday commodities such as "Brighto", "Righto" and "Moovyerdirt" are remote. The "plate-glass walls" remain, although many have given way to smaller, niche retailers.

Whether "the colourful bustle of Oxford Street" is worth the "weary feet"

is as debatable as ever.

Betjeman was also a champion of London architecture, instrumental in saving several icons, including that brick and terracotta masterpiece, St Pancras Station. The area is currently an enormous building site, with the station undergoing extensive redevelopment and expansion as the terminus for Channel Tunnel trains. Whether the smooth lines and elegant curves of the sleek architecture of the 21st century will be entirely at ease with their altogether more ornate and intricate 19th-century cousins, remains to be seen. What Betjeman might have thought of it all is anybody's guess: relief, probably, in that at least the Victorian station survives.

Of all the capital's stations, he is said to have particularly liked Liverpool Street, although possibly not in its present guise with prerequisite stainless steel and glass shopping mall and gleaming floor.

However, the magnificent steel-girder train shed soars majestically above it all, while the Great Eastern Railway memorial to fallen in the Great War solemnly supervises proceedings.

It has a sanitised feel: the soot-encrusted girders, work-worn, grimed-in atmosphere - the very things that breathed life into the place, have vanished. However, that well-used aura may still be found within the City.

In Summoned by Bells, Betjeman wrote of "Huge office-doors, Their granite thresholds worn by weekday feet." They are still there, amid the sparkling, modern offices.

The City churches have changed least of all. "St Botolph this, St Mary that", he wrote in his autobiography, a reference, perhaps, to St-Botolph-without-Bishopsgate and St Mary Abchurch, Cannon Street. St Botolph, with polished wooden pews, has a gorgeous time-worn feel; St Mary Abchurch, with a noticeboard pronouncing it open Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, is an enormous, blackened brick edifice. St Olave, Hart Street (the burial place of Pepys), he likened to "a country church" - a view at odds with Dickens, who, in The Uncommercial Traveller, renamed it St Ghastly Grim. It is a fussy, compact, intricate little church with grimy stone vaulting and whitewashed interior walls.

In "Monody on the Death of Aldersgate Street Station", Betjeman was drawn to St Michael Paternoster Royal (burial place of Dick Whittington), that "would take me into its darkness from College Hill". On a sunny day, the interior is anything but, its stained glass emitting a warm radiance.

Similarly, he mentions the ruined Christ Church, Newgate Street. Now a rare place of tranquillity, only the tower and a wall remain - guardians of the garden it has become.

As for Aldersgate Street station, it was long ago renamed Barbican. Traffic roars past, beneath the Barbican's enormous grey concrete tower blocks; a health club lies opposite. No longer, "toiling and doomed", do trains puff from Moorgate Street.

Betjeman's Metroland

Middlesex (extract)

Gaily into Ruislip Gardens Runs the red electric train, With a thousand Ta's and Pardon's Daintily alights Elaine; Hurries down the concrete station With a frown of concentration, Out into the outskirt's edges Where a few surviving hedges Keep alive our lost Elysium - rural Middlesex again.

The Metropolitan Railway: Baker Street Station Buffet

Early Electric! With what radiant hope Men formed this many-branched electrolier, Twisted the flex around the iron rope And let the dazzling vacuum globes hang clear, And then with hearts the rich contrivance fill'd Of copper, beaten by the Bromsgrove Guild.

Early Electric! Sit you down and see, 'Mid this fine woodwork and a smell of dinner, A stained-glass windmill and a pot of tea, And sepia views of leafy lanes in PINNER,- Then visualize, far down the shining lines, Your parents' homestead set in murmuring pines.

Smoothly from HARROW, passing PRESTON ROAD, They saw the last green fields and misty sky, At NEASDEN watched a workmen's train unload, And, with the morning villas sliding by, They felt so sure on their electric trip That Youth and Progress were in partnership.

And all that day in murky London Wall The thought of RUISLIP kept him warm inside; At FARRINGDON that lunch hour at a stall He bought a dozen plants of London Pride; While she, in arc-lit Oxford Street adrift, Soared through the sales by safe hydraulic lift.

Early Electric! Maybe even here They met that evening at six-fifteen Beneath the hearts of this electrolier And caught the first non-stop to WILLESDEN GREEN, Then out and on, through rural RAYNER'S LANE To autumn-scented Middlesex again.

Cancer has killed him. Heart is killing her.

The trees are down. An Odeon flashes fire Where stood their villa by the murmuring fir When "they would for their children's good conspire."

Of their loves and hopes on hurrying feet Thou art the worn memorial, Baker Street.

Civilized Women

The women who walk down Oxford Street Have bird-like faces and brick-like feet; Floppity flop go 'tens' and 'elevens'

Of Eesiphit into D.H.Evans.

The women who walk down Oxford Street Suffer a lot from nerves and heat, But with Bovril, Tizer and Phospherine They may all become what they might have been.

They gladly clatter with bag in hand Out of the train from Metroland, And gladly gape, when commerce calls, At all the glory of plate-glass walls, And gladly buy, till their bags are full, 'Milton' cleaner and 'Wolsey' wool, 'Shakespeare' cornflour, a 'Shelley' shirt, 'Brighto', 'Righto' and 'Moovyerdirt'.

Commerce pours on them gifts like rain; Back in Metroland once again, Wasn't it worth your weary feet - The colourful bustle of Oxford Street?


The Metropolitan Railway opened in 1863, running 3.5 miles between Paddington and Farringdon. It steadily grew until largely resembling today's Metropolitan line on the London Underground, albeit extending a little further Northwest than now.

The company was unique in that it also entered into housing development.

Its surplus land and additional purchases were put to good use in building properties and housing estates in what then were outlying areas such as Pinner and Rickmansworth. For Londoners accustomed to the grime of the capital and its more immediate suburbs, the attractions were obvious: modern, affordable housing, in countryside seldom more than 30 minutes'

journey from work. In 1915, the Metropolitan's publicity department coined the word Metroland to describe the concept; and, in 1919, a separate company was established to handle its property dealings. Thus was born a doubly lucrative venture - selling homes to the middle classes, who then became season-ticket holders.

Between 1915 and 1932, the company produced Metroland - an annual guide extolling the area's virtues. It was packed with information about, and advertisements for, the towns and villages served by the company. Hence, in 1924, "detached residences" on the Chorley Wood Common Estate, ("bracing air... soundly built of brick"), were offered by Messrs Economic Estates, Ltd, at pound;1,450 freehold. The irony was, of course, that the building programme was slowly suffocating the very rurality the Metropolitan sought to promote.

Metroland seemed to occupy a big place in Betjeman's heart, perhaps because he was fond of trains and railways. It featured in several poems, most famously "The Metropolitan Railway - Baker Street Station Buffet".

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