Ah – the Metropolitan Line! The oldest, the biggest, the one ‘most like a regular railway’, and the one from which every other ‘Metro’ system in the world, even the Paris Métro, gets its name. Though actually it doesn’t anywhere go properly ‘underground’ – which perhaps feels a bit of a cheat!
Travelling on the Metropolitan Line will turn your mind purple – from the handles in the carriages to the upholstery on the seats, and finally to the colour on the map, the Metropolitan takes its brand identity seriously. Technically it’s ‘Corporate Magenta’, Pantone 235, RGB 751056 – but we’re going to call it ‘purple’. It’s not always the case that a Line is defined by its colour – the Jubilee Line in particular is a distressing mess inside the carriages – but it certainly seems to work for the Metropolitan. Running through the sunshiny hills of Hertfordshire it seems to signal something rare, unusual and exotic; at other times in the dark and in artificial light it seems to induce a weird other-worldly gloom.
Like most of the others, the Metropolitan Line has had a varied history, partly due to its not being able to decide whether it’s an urban underground route or a suburban commuter railway. The answer is largely the second, with the run to Amersham and Chesham going further out than anywhere else on the Underground – it’s Zone 9, which only really exists for these two stations. And in the past the line ran even further – to places like Great Missenden, Wendover, Stoke Mandeville and Aylesbury. It also stopped at other stations near Baker Street, so it must have taken forever to make the journey – which explains why most of its 20th century development was concerned with speeding things up. This was done in three ways: (a) reassigning the further-out stations to proper rail services which run into Marylebone; (b) building more lines and tunnels to avoid the congestion around Baker Street; and (c) handing the slower parts over to the Jubilee Line and operating a fast service which rushes straight past stations like Swiss Cottage and St John’s Wood. Even now, there are proposals to re-route the more remote ends like Croxley and Watford; and at the eastern end there’s a move to grab the Hammersmith & City route and run trains out to Barking.
This point about Barking illustrates an oddity of the Metropolitan Line: like the Bakerloo, it really only has one end in the suburbs. Despite its various branches, everything basically goes to the City (the bottom right-hand corner) and dumps people off there for a day’s work, then picks them all up again in the evening and takes them home. There’s no eastern branch to run out into the delightful suburbs of Essex, though the Barking proposal would change this. It’s hard to see it coming about, though: I suspect the wealthy folks out west would see this as just too good an opportunity for profitable days out for the bad lads of the east.
For the moment we’ll start our journey at Watford. It’s not the absolute furthest you can go, but that extra bit out on the Chesham spur is a very long way and, more importantly, the train I got on at Baker Street happened to be destined for Watford. So short of losing another 40 minutes the choice was made for me.
I confess to an innate distaste for Watford, on two counts: as a Londoner I naturally despise towns like Epping, Cockfosters and Amersham which cluster round the edges of the metropolis; and a Geordie I despise Londoners for thinking the north starts at Watford. It’s true – they really do; but then we Geordies think the south starts at Gateshead, so perhaps it evens out. And at least we can agree that the rest of the country in the middle is rubbish.
Watford turns out to be nicer than I’d expected: not a rat-infested hell-hole, but an ordinary little town with decent houses, a big park and the Grand Union Canal. This isn’t quite the whole truth, though – in reality Watford Tube Station is a long way from the town centre and one hardly sees any of the town at all. Get just down the road, and Cassiobury Park and the canal are all the “action” there seems to be around here. In fact the remoteness of the Tube Station has long been recognised as a problem: the original intention was to run the Line into the centre of Watford, and even now there’s a plan to re-route trains from Croxley to Watford Junction Station. But nothing seems to be happening quickly.
Meanwhile the main town of Watford seems to be much what you’d expect: football team, shopping centres, couple of churches, nice bits and bad bits, local theatres and the like. Perhaps worth a return visit some day, but for the moment we’ll stick what I actually saw when I visited.
Watford Tube Station
Lots and lots and lots of ordinary British houses
With the obligatory dull pictures of the houses and the park out of the way, we can focus for a little while on the Canal. But we need to get psyched-up for many miles of houses like these on the Metropolitan Line: some better, some worse. There are always little twists – odd little Circles and Closes, small alleyways through to the next street, little variations in how grand the entrance porches and the “third bedrooms” are. It’s fascinating to observe how the 1930s builders, all working to essentially the same pattern, made endless variations to convince their customers they were buying something a bit special. Nowadays, of course, they also sport hundreds of ugly and exotic “extensions”.
And so to the Canal. The Grand Union is the backbone of the British canal network, built to link the industrial Midlands (particularly Birmingham) with wealthy consumers and the ports in London. In their heyday the canals were the motorways, the Interstates, the Grand Midland Railways, of Britain: they teemed with trade, people, animals, filth, crime and congestion. Nowadays they have a gentler existence as holiday routes and homes to just a few, and they also make wonderful cycling routes. There are terrific rides round the whole London Canal Network, but for the moment the canal happens also to be the best route for following the Metropolitan Line to Rickmansworth. We’ll pick it up at Cassiobury Lock, a quiet spot but with everything a lock should have: namely four gates and a bridge to observe it all from.
Cassiobury Lock Bridge
Croxley or Croxley Green? This little place seems to value the cachet of its name, and its situation, though on the whole it struck me as a bit characterless. Why does somewhere like this warrant a Tube station when others don’t? I guess it all comes down to accidents of geography and history, just as it did in canal days. There are two churches and a local dramatic society, but the best claim the place has these days must be its good links to London and the peaceful calm of the canal. Oh, and the proposed Croxley Rail Link to connect directly to the centre of Watford. I bought sandwiches here at the slowest Shell garage in the world, which perhaps coloured my view a bit.
More ordinary houses
A pub or two
The lovely canal
The station itself…we’re recognising a style by now…
…and down on the platforms
After Croxley we join the Amersham/Chesham branch: I didn’t get that far out, so we’ll pick it up at Rickmansworth and hope to go back to the very end some other day. There is, however, a note about bread as we pass Chorleywood…
More to come…
More to come…
Chalfont & Latimer
More to come…
More to come…but I do have something to say about Chorleywood and Bread:
How do you make bread?
Who can be bothered to wait around for hours while it rises?
Is there a way you can make bread quickly, cheaply, efficiently, using poor flours, and without too much regard for what chemicals you put in it and what it tastes like?
Ah, you need the Chorleywood Process!
British bread companies in the 1960s faced a considerable problem: the wheat available at that time didn’t contain much gluten, which meant it was temperamental in its rising, took an awfully long time to get there, and even when it got there it tended to be solid and crumbly. (Gluten is basically elastic, so it creates structure, allowing the bread to stand up with lots of air in it rather than just sit there in a lump.) Trying to feeding a growing population well, and doing it cheaply, was a real challenge – so along came the Chorleywood Process, which uses chemical improvers, solid vegetable fat, high quantities of yeast, and intense high-speed mixing to heat the dough up and get air into it.
“Solid vegetable fat” could mean best butter, but it doesn’t: usually it means dodgy hydrogenated fats with unpronounceable names. “Chemical improvers”, likewise, include emulsifiers E471 and E472 to make the fat stick to the flour, vinegar and fungicides to stop the bread going mouldy, and double the amount of salt used in traditional recipes. But the real fun is in the mechanics of the process: the dough is chucked around at 400rpm (yes, 400 revs per minute!) and then “stretched” in a semi-vacuum to make the air holes bigger.
All this malarky means the critics have had a field day: among other things, the process gets blamed for gluten-intolerence (Coeliac’s disease), yeast intolerance, irritable bowel syndrome, thrush, wind, bloatedness, heart disease and high blood pressure. Some of this may be true, but I doubt that we could seriously go back to 1960: that bread itself was probably full of nasties, it would cost three times as much as what we get from this industrial process, and lets remember it would still come out solid and crumbly so no-one would want to eat it. On the other hand, though, I’ve certainly opened packs of bread and thought “this smells very yeasty” or “this bread tastes very salty”. And I’ve also wondered why bread keeps so long these days.
We apparently have much better flour available now, but the Chorleywood Process still produces bread at such speed that we seem to be stuck with it unless we’re prepared to pay a lot more. 80% of British bread is made this way, and according to Wikipedia the process has spread to Australia, New Zealand, India, France, Germany, Spain, China and many other countries. The US isn’t named in the list, supposedly because American flour is high in gluten anyway: though from my experience of what American industry does to food I doubt that their bread is any more healthy in general than the British stuff.
Here’s the Wikipedia Article on the Chorleywood Process if you can stand any more!
Life in Rickmansworth may put it in the top 10 neighbourhoods in Britain (or so the town claims in its Wikipedia article) but I have to confess it seemed a bit smug, middle-class and ultimately rather dull. Definitely a place that would have an annual “Ricky” festival with civil war re-enactments and Morris Dancing; while the top end of society had a myriad of Golf Clubs to join. At 14,000 people it does rather well to boast the Watersmeet Theatre, while the Anglican church is obviously well looked after and maintains an “intellectual Christian” kind of library; there are clearly also some prosperous local non-conformists. The one disappointment – and it’s a huge one – is the station, which desperately needs knocking down and replacing.
The Baptist Church seems well looked-after, but I don’t think it looks very nice – it seems to embody the very best “scary Baptist church” style. By contrast St Mary’s, the Anglican church, is big but ultimately friendly: I even managed to pinch a book from their church library (I don’t think anyone will ever miss it…it’s Don Cupitt’s “Sea of Faith”, a classic of liberal theology and parodied as “All at Sea”.)
The tower is 16th century; the rest is standard Victorian, though none the worse for that – unusually it has a cross-beamed roof on top of large clerestory windows. There’s evidently enough money around to look after the place, and they seem to have spent it well on good windows, a new organ, decent furniture etc etc. And a huge modern parish centre next door.
A very standard, effective, Victorian interior…
…with good stained glass…
…and a nice lighting effect on the day I visited
My only real criticism (well, apart from the fact they haven’t sold the whole lot and given the money to the poor) is that, being St Mary’s Church, they’ve taken a stylised form of the letter M and rather overused it – on the church sign, on various doors, and even as a model for their light fittings. Is this brand identity, or just a bit silly? Worse, when I look at the wooden altar table I see an unfortunate anatomical reference. Those wooden feet on the bottom of those droopy bits…ooh, surely not…but once you’ve thought it, could you ever stay focussed on worship with this in front of you?
Doors to the lady chapel
Light fittings – a great trap for dead flies!
Church sign board
touches of it here too – and a bit more?
Let’s hurry quickly on to the town itself and its horrible railway station.
Lots of this in the town centre
The ghastly main entrance…
…though inside it’s respectable enough
Rickmansworth is exactly the sort of place you’d find a canal museum – and lo, here is Batchworth Lock! It looks very attractive and is clearly a place where people go just to sit and enjoy the view or to make phone calls. I didn’t visit the museum but I did hang over the bridge for 10 minutes and play with my camera – hence the shots here of people just, er, doing what people do…
Older couple larking about
Man on phone 1
Man on phone 2
And now it’s off to the most preposterous housing I’ve ever seen in Britain…
Wealthy people need places to live, of course, just like poor people; and I guess if they want to live on private roads on gated estates we can’t stop ’em. And when they have big families perhaps it makes sense to put them all in one house and live as an extended community. This is exactly what’s happened in Moor Park, with the added factor that many of these families are immigrants from the Asian sub-continent who’ve made it good and have no desire at all to live in Brixton or Southall. The practice of Indian families buying up substantial 1930s homes for £1M, then knocking them down and putting up £5M homes with prayer rooms and other culturally-specific features, has even been commented on in the national press – and it seems here to stay.
Some of these houses are beautiful, if big; others seem simply to have stuffed more and more windows and rooms in as they’ve grown, rather like bodybuilders who develop extra muscles where you wouldn’t expect to see them. Happily I only managed to photograph a few, and they tended to be the better ones (I’d love to suggest the neighbourhood watch threw me out, but the reason was more to do with the angle of the light and the fact that everything’s hidden behind trees…!)
One of the smaller more restrained houses at Moor Park
Just in case you need telling
Moor Park Tube station is a cheerful little affair, if a little flimsy-looking: it feels more like a cafe in the park than somewhere where millions of commuters pass through every day. But I suspect it isn’t millions – I guess most people round here travel by car…
Moor Park Station
Northwood is just a step down from Moor Park, but not much: the roads are generally “public”, but basically it’s an awful nice place where very well-healed people live. The place is full of lovely houses, it has a fine selection of charity shops on the main street, and it has a very high proportion of thriving churches. It has all the signs of a strong local military (officer) presence, and this is indeed so. Sadly it has yet another awful station, so we’ll record that quickly and rush on…
The people of Northwood are clearly very religious, judging by the number and size of their churches. But I confess both St Matthew’s Roman Catholic Church and St John’s United Reformed Church left me cold as pieces of architecture, so I didn’t bother photographing them. Northwood Methodist Church inspired me rather more, and then I came to Emmanuel. Emmanuel is an Anglican Church but it doesn’t quite fit the norm: its website explains its “one church with several congregations as well as church plants in Hillside School and Eastbury Farm School”, and its theology seems to embrace both Christianity Explored and Alpha…which I read as partly charismatic evangelical, but prepared to allow for other approaches and perhaps not forcing the charismata down your throat. Probably a “jolly good church” in my book, though architecturally it’s just gob-smackingly awful.
Picturesque Northwood Methodist Church
Ghastly Emmanuel Church
More evidence of religion’s place in the local scene is the presence of London Bible College, now known as the London School of Theology. Theologially uniform it certainly isn’t – it’s basically a conservative evangelical foundation – but it sets out to engage seriously with the world and is certainly academically credible, achieving accreditation and awarding degrees through the University of London. Pity about the rather dull buildings, though the site is pleasant enough…
London School of Theology – Chapel
I hope the teaching inside is more exciting than this
Let’s leave Northwood with another of those nice houses we’d so much to live in…probably a million quid’s worth…
Good living in Northwood
Leaving Northwood the houses get just a bit more normal, and – oh joy! – there was even a Citroen 2CV on show. I did a little dance of joy round it and took lots of photos…
Northwood Hills Station, looking like a game of skittles
Church of St Edmund the King
A rather nice window by Michael Farrar-Bell
…but a rather spooky interior
From Uxbridge to Rayners Lane everything is duplicated by the Metropolitan Line. I haven’t surveyed it either, but at least we can add the line’s purple colour here while they run alongside each other.
Hillingdon station was rebuilt in the 1990s and should have been a much better job than it is. It’s ended up a windy, peeling structure perched atop the A40 where none of the doors and gates seem to go the right way. Useful enough as a place to park if you want to ride the train – slowly – into London, but apart from that it’s well worth giving it a miss!
The sort of place that seems to invite vandalism to its road signs, in the manner of Kickenham, Pickenham, etc. I’ll leave you to work out the ruder ones, like at Uckington near Cheltenham.
“There has to be more to Ruislip than this”, and indeed there probably is. For the moment, my photos of everything from Ruislip to Rayners Lane are drawn from a trip I made primarily to scope out the Central Line, but where I had the brilliant idea that by cycling up the Piccadilly and Metroplitan Lines first I could knock off a few more stations. It worked, but it wasted most of the afternoon – and I’m left with a feeling I really must go back and do these places in more depth some day. After all, Ruislip has a mediaeval village centre; it has many franchised coffee houses, fast food outlets, restaurants, hairdressers, bakers and supermarkets; and it’s served by no less than five London Underground stations (Ruislip, Ruislip Manor, Ruislip Gardens, South Ruislip and West Ruislip.)
Where did I learn all this fascinating stuff? From the desperate to prove it’s interesting Wikipedia page on Ruislip, of course – whose last throw amounts to “Ruislip is part of the only parliamentary constituency in London with no Night Bus”. As a Wikipedia author myself I’ve been slapped in the past for writing less irrelevant stuff than this, so I’m not impressed.
For the moment, here is typical housing in Ruislip, and the Station looking every bit like a toy one. Could I face living here? Well, actually I think I could.
St Martin’s Cottages, Ruislip
Ruislip Station with a Piccadilly Line train
Platform looking westbound
Ruislip Station from the road
No, we’re not out of Ruislip yet. Three of its Underground stations are on the Central Line, but Ruislip Manor is on the Piccadilly and the Metropolitan, so here goes…and apart from Uxbridge itself this is the first of Charles Holden’s “normal” stations we encounter on this branch. It doesn’t look like one of his best, but I don’t think that’s his fault – these stations that are sort of “wrapped under” the railway line don’t give much scope for free expression, though he did a decent job at places like Eastcote, Greenford, Alperton and here. One thing that is worthy of note (though only marginally) is the new platform, recently rebuilt and resplendent with its rumble strip and a generally “cleaned-up” appearance. In fact all the station platforms out this way have been re-worked like this, and though we take them for granted it’s good to see things are being looked after.
Ruislip Manor station
Spanking new platform surface
My intention on this trip was to get to the Central Line before dark, but by the time I’d got to Ruislip Manor it was already 3.30pm; I was fair tuckered out and desperately in need of a coffee. Thinking “I must support local business” I wandered up and down the main street looking for somewhere likely. It seemed there was plenty of grotty instant coffee on offer, and a couple of places that called themselves “bakeries”. In the suburbs this seems to mean one of two things – either an enlighted bread shop selling healthy food and good coffee, or a sickly hangover from the 1950s selling sugary concoctions like cream horns and doughnuts, always overheated and smelling of fat, and staffed by rather limited young women. Ruislip Manor seemed to have plenty of the latter, but it took a while to find a middle-eastern restaurant that looked like it could rustle up a good coffee.
I marched in and demanded a large double-shot cappuccino…then when it arrived I found I had no money to pay for it. “No problem,” said the man, “have it anyway.” So I sat outside feeling very guilty, slurping away and playing with my camera. (And the coffee was indeed very good.) At that point a large man at the next table started up: “Nice camera…” and we got talking. He’d apparently spent a life in software engineering but maintained an interest in photography…and I felt an overwhelming urge to sneak a photo of him. I told him I was shooting his strawberries and cream, but as you can see I got one of him as well, knowing I’d tell the tale someday.
Eventually I took my cup back and asked the server where the nearest bank was, making a fuss about being determined to pay up. He told me, and I went in search. It turned out to be a lot further than I’d expected, but I got some notes. Then had to turn them into change, so I stopped at a newsagents to buy some chocolate and a banana. After about an hour it was back to the restaurant to drop a pound generously on the counter, with much thanks and smiles. Then I cycled off, thinking “at last I can escape this place and stop looking a complete twit.”
Half a mile up the road I realised I’d lost my map somewhere. Retraced my tracks…which led me all the way to the restaurant…where they hailed me with “you left your map on the seat, sir”. Groaning with embarrassment as “they must think I’m a complete incompetent by now”, I thanked them and ran…
Large man at the next table…
…tucking into his strawberries & cream
All told, I’d spent nearly two hours in Ruislip Manor just going up and down the main street, and it made me think I owed my new home town some proper respect. So I photographed two churches on the way out…neither was very inspiring, but as usual they seemed to be the only really significant buildings. I’m sure both are thriving in their ways, but to the slightly jaded traveller they both seemed to ooze a deep indifference.
Ruislip Baptist Church
Roman Catholic Church of the Sacred Heart
Eastcote has a certain historic interest, but there’s little to say here about Eastcote at present: these days it seems just to be yet another decent place where ordinary people go about their lives, many of them commuting into London on the railway. It brings the first sighting on this branch of a “standalone” Charles Holden station with a “box” ticket hall, but other than that I find I have have nothing to say here.
Harrow on the Hill
Despite its name, the station is nowhere near Harrow on the Hill – but since it sounded rather better than calling it “Arrer”, the more up-market name prevailed. Harrow on the Hill is an exclusive little community to the south, where the famous Harrow School is located – and well worth a visit if you can find anywhere to park or if you like walking up steep hills. But the station is most definitely in Harrow itself, which has all the usual charm of bad 1980s shopping redevelopments.
More to come…
St John’s Wood
Great Portland Street
Kings Cross St Pancras
St Pancras Hotel & Station
Museum of London
St Botolph’s, Aldgate