The Thought of Ruislip

E.S. Turner

  • Metro-Land: British Empire Exhibition Number by Oliver Green
    Southbank, 144 pp, £16.99, July 2004, ISBN 1 904915 00 0

In Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall the society woman who ships girls to Rio is called Lady Metroland. Her husband, Viscount Metroland, takes his ‘funny name’ (as Paul Pennyfeather sees it) from a fantasy fiefdom of the London Metropolitan Railway, an advertising man’s conceit which tickled the imagination of the public in the 1920s. Metroland was the commuter catchment area for the line running north-west from Baker Street station through a string of ‘unspoiled’ arcadias and ancient pocket boroughs into the Chiltern Hundreds and the Vale of Aylesbury. The originators of successful brand names deserve to be remembered. According to Alan Jackson’s London’s Metropolitan Railway (1986), the name Metroland was the inspiration of James Garland, a copywriter in the company’s publicity department, who was laid up with flu but leapt out of bed in high Archimedean excitement when the name entered his head. The public first heard of Metroland in 1915, when the railway used it in a penny booklet listing country walks. The ultimate intention was not merely to attract rail passengers but to encourage residential building in areas cannily retained by the company’s Surplus Lands Committee. However, 1915 was hardly the time to embark on grand building projects. As a schoolboy at that time I played in half-built houses abandoned, with ladders and unemptied privies, by their builders, in whose homes window cards proclaimed: ‘This House has sent a Man to fight for King and Country.’ Those who came back from the wars were promised ‘homes for heroes’, but all too few heroes could afford to live in the sylvan recesses of Metroland, where ‘jaded vitality and taxed nerves’ were soothed away by pure air, and (as a song said) hearts were lighter and eyes were brighter.

For a decade and a half the image of Metroland was vigorously promoted, but in 1933 the Metropolitan Railway – which in 1863 had been the world’s first underground railway, linking Paddington and Farringdon – was merged with London Transport. Officially Metroland ceased to exist, but an obstinate nostalgia industry thought otherwise. In Julian Barnes’s first novel, Metroland (1980), which opens in the 1960s, the clever-clever sixth-former who says things like ‘J’habite Metroland’ in his orals is riding lawlessly in first class when he becomes the captive audience of an ‘old sod . . . dead bourgeois’ who gives him a rundown of the distinguished history of the line. One of its finest achievements, the boy learns, was to lay on two Pullman coaches (Mayflower and Galatea) for its more affluent commuters. The lecture includes a tribute to the Metropolitan’s great Victorian, Sir Edward Watkin, who dreamed of the company’s tracks forming part of a single line under a single management running from Manchester through London to Dover and then under the Channel to the Continent. It was Watkin’s men who began excavating a tunnel near Folkestone in 1881, only to be warned off by the Court of Chancery for infringing the Crown’s foreshore rights. This discouraged him from pursuing a proposal to link Scotland and Ireland by tunnel. Instead, he conceived the idea of a gigantic viewing tower, higher than the Eiffel, at Wembley, already a proud stop on his line. Begun in the 1890s, Watkin’s Folly had reached only a fifth of its proposed height when the money ran out and it was pulled down in 1907. The site was fated to support triumphalist structures. The twin-towered Wembley Stadium was erected there and is now being rebuilt with a lofty Foster Arch, which with luck will not become Foster’s Folly. Watkin died before Metroland was conceived, but he would have made an ideal viscount.

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