A return trip to John Betjeman’s Metro-land, 50 years on from his classic TV documentary

Here is a plan for a day out on the Metropolitan line of London’s underground, although we will at no stage be under ground, and will travel 25 miles from London. First, however, a little history.

In 1863, the Metropolitan Railway (Met) built the first subterranean railway – from Paddington to Farringdon. Five years later, the Met, an ambitious and restless outfit, added to this an above-ground northern prong, from Baker Street to St John’s Wood, in the hope of capturing commuter traffic. As this prong, known as the Extension Line at the time – and still called that by one endearingly affected friend of mine – bifurcated and stretched into Middlesex, Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire, the Met built homes adjacent to it in the nostalgic Tudorbethan style. Between 1915 and 1933 (when the Met suffered the indignity of becoming a mere “line” of the London Underground), these were marketed as Metro-land.

Fifty years ago, John Betjeman (JB) – who’d recently been made poet laureate – wrote and presented a BBC documentary called Metro-land – and, yes, it’s on YouTube as well as DVD. In his biography of Betjeman, AN Wilson called it “a great telly-poem”, the script being partly versified, and the whole thing very lyrical. The producer, Eddie Mirzoeff, recalls: “As it came together in the cutting room, it became something exhilarating. I knew John liked it because he started to bring his friends in to see it.”

Sir John Betjeman in 1973, at Grims Dyke, Harrow Weald.
Sir John Betjeman in 1973, at Grim’s Dyke, Harrow Weald. Photograph: BBC

What follows is partly a retracing of the trip JB takes in the film, partly an itinerary for visiting the prettier Metro-land spots along the main strand of the Extension Line.

We begin at Baker Street, unofficial HQ of Metro-land. Above the station is a 1920s block built by the Met, Chiltern Court, where famous rail enthusiasts have lived, including HG Wells and the quizmaster Hughie Green, who had a big model railway in his flat. Chiltern Court once boasted a restaurant and JB begins there, reflecting on how Metro-land wives, “from Pinner and Ruislip, after a day’s shopping at Liberty’s or Whiteley’s”, would take tea at Chiltern Court, before riding the Extension home. Scenes almost as genteel unfold around JB as he speaks in 1973. That restaurant is today the Metropolitan Bar, a Wetherspoon’s pub that opens at 8am (9am on Sundays), which is either very civilised or very uncivilised. One definite plus is that it’s stuffed with Met Railway memorabilia.

We can disregard the early part of the Extension Line, which kept being rationalised to get trains out of London faster. Its stations between Finchley Road and Wembley Park, for instance, are now served by the Jubilee Line. We might disembark at Wembley Park to view some Metro-land homes. In the documentary, the camera tracks along Oakington Avenue, while Betjeman chants house names: “Rusholme, Rustles … Rose Hatch, Rose Hill, Rose Lea …” Each one “slightly different from the next” and built on fields once “bright with buttercups”. There’s a certain acidity here. While JB had an affection for Metro-land, he is haunted by the “mild home counties acres” destroyed to make way for it.

Our train, incidentally, is one of the S8-stocks, specially built for the Extension run, with some transverse seats (side-on to the window), to echo the compartments of the old Met carriages. After passing the Metro-land estate at Northwick Park, we alight at Harrow-on-the-Hill.

In the adjacent bus station, we board a Watford-bound 258. As the bus rolls along Station Road, the half-timbering of the gables above the modern shop facades betrays Metro-land origins. Gradually, the houses thin out; they also expand, becoming what the Metro-land brochures called “homesteads”.

Directors and engineers of the Metropolitan Railway Company inspect the world’s first underground line in May 1862.
Directors and engineers of the Metropolitan Railway Company inspect the world’s first underground line in May 1862. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Alighting after about 15 minutes at leafy Clamp Hill, we turn left along Old Redding, with the woodland of Harrow Weald on both sides. Harrow Weald, one of the larger green spaces to survive the development, formed a kind of hole in the middle of Metro-land. On the right-hand side, we come to the wooded grounds of Grim’s Dyke, which is today – and was when JB visited – a hotel. Grim’s Dyke was built as a private house in 1872 by Norman Shaw. “I’ve always regarded it as a prototype of all suburban homes in southern England,” says JB, marvelling at its diverse facades. It also seems the prototypical Metro-land dwelling.

On his visit Betjeman encountered, in a conference room, the apparently all-female Byron Luncheon Club (Byron attended Harrow School). I sat in the cosy bar – the woodlands misty beyond its leaded windows – alongside a man trying to sell an AI app to a businesswoman. He kept saying things like, “Let’s ask the bot the question, shall we? I’ve really no idea what it’ll say!”

The menu offered grilled halloumi and Bombay street food, but I judged pumpkin soup and a cheese sandwich more in keeping with Metro-land. After lunch, I wandered out into those misty woods, to find what JB calls the “gloomy pool” where, in 1911, the librettist WS Gilbert – who owned Grim’s Dyke – died while rescuing a young woman from drowning. So Gilbert never saw what JB calls “the rising tide of Metro-land”. If he had done, it might have made a good subject for one of his (and Sullivan’s) satirical operettas.

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Grim’s Dyke Hotel – “I’ve always regarded it as a prototype of all suburban homes in southern England, said Betjeman.
Grim’s Dyke Hotel – “I’ve always regarded it as a prototype of all suburban homes in southern England,” Betjeman said. Photograph: Adrian Seal/Alamy

After riding the 258 back to Harrow-on-the-Hill, we continue north on the Extension, to Moor Park station. This serves the Moor Park Estate, described in a Metro-land brochure of 1925 as “perfect modern homes in a fine old timbered park”. I once walked through Beverly Hills, until ejected by an LAPD patrolman (“Nobody walks here, pal”), and Moor Park is the nearest thing to it I’ve seen in the UK. In the documentary, a commissionaire at a traffic barrier is shown being sycophantic to a resident, before brusquely ordering a stranger to go back whence she came. Today, the traffic barriers rise automatically, but your car registration is photographed, and the rule is “access only”. But anyone can walk through the streets of giant white villas, silent except for the occasional Porsche going at twice the 20mph speed limit.

Moor Park is also the name of the adjacent golf club, and a public footpath traverses the course (search Moor Park on Insofar as a golf course can be beautiful, Moor Park is, partly because buggies aren’t allowed. The path gives views of the neo-Palladian mansion that stands ghost-like beside the fairways and is now the Moor Park clubhouse. JB penetrates the stunning interior, which mere footpath walkers are not allowed to do. Surveying the painted deities, he says, “What Georgian wit these classic Gods have heard/Who now must listen to the golfer’s tale …”

There are half a dozen golf courses within walking distance of Moor Park. They – and many others – were depicted on Metro-land maps as little red flags. Also highlighted were stations and roads, which the Met considered no threat, believing cars would only ever be used for leisure, not commuting.

High and Over, also known as the Airplane / ‘roplane House Amersham.
Built in 1931, the modernist High and Over, Amersham, is a reproof to the cosy homesteads of the area. Photograph: Arcaid Images/Alamy

Continuing north – over the most countrified stretch of the Extension – we come to Chorleywood, a harmonious assembly of cottagey Metro-land houses, mainly west of the station; to the east lies the 80-hectare (200-acre) Common, which is both surprisingly wild and threaded with footpaths. JB liked Chorleywood: “Much trouble has been taken to preserve/ The country quality surviving here.” In 2004, an Oxford University survey named Chorleywood as the happiest place in the UK. I thought of this when joining the crowd of commuters waiting to “tap out” of the station with their contactless cards – a slow process because of everyone saying, “After you”, “No, after you.”

Onwards to Amersham, whose Metro-land houses are around the station, but Old Amersham High Street is the draw, with its select shops and buckled pubs, and for this we must take a 15-minute walk down another Station Road. When JB came this way, he paused to view “a concrete house in the shape of a letter Y”. This – just off Station Road – is High and Over, a severe modernist statement of 1931, and perhaps a reproof to the cosy homesteads of the area. A few smaller modernist houses stand on the slope below it, as though to give moral support.

The 15th-century Kings Arms, whose wattle-and-daub exterior is so warped that it looks like a reflection of itself in water.
The 15th-century Kings Arms, whose wattle-and-daub exterior is so warped that it looks like a reflection of itself in water. Photograph: Greg Balfour Evans/Alamy

In Old Amersham, I dined on posh fish and chips at the 15th-century Kings Arms, whose wattle-and-daub exterior is so warped that it looks like a reflection of itself in water. This, perhaps even more than Grim’s Dyke, is the real prototype of Metro-land houses.

Afterwards, there was nothing for it but to return to town (and a three-quid glass of wine in that Baker Street ’Spoons), because Amersham is the terminus. Beyond it, JB observes, “Grass triumphs. And I must say I’m rather glad.”

Andrew Martin is the author of Death on a Branch Line (Faber & Faber, £9.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at Delivery charges may apply