Magazine article The Spectator

Another Country

Magazine article The Spectator

Another Country

Article excerpt

William Cook has moved to Metroland. He contemplates John Betjeman's vision of it.

Gaily into Ruislip Gardens runs the red electric train. . .

Near the end of the Metropolitan Line, where London dwindles into woods and meadows, stands a Tudor manor house, built within the moat of a motte-and-bailey castle. Now a quaint museum, charting the history of the farms that once surrounded it, this modest landmark shares its name with the local Tube station, Ruislip Manor. A century after they built it, the railway that runs through here still feels out of place. There are fields on one side, suburban semis on the other. Welcome to Metroland, the bizarre no-man'sland between town and country, created by the Metropolitan Railway, which celebrates its 150th birthday this year.

The Metropolitan Railway is best remembered as the enterprising company that built the world's first underground railway, between Paddington and Farringdon (opened in 1863 and still going strong today).

Yet the Met's other innovation was arguably even more influential. When the company expanded into Middlesex, laying new lines across virgin countryside, it bought up the adjoining farmland and covered it with mock-Tudor housing estates. Has there ever been an architectural style less prestigious, yet so attuned to British tastes? As green and pleasant Middlesex became a labyrinth of cul-de-sacs, Metroland spawned a new aesthetic, and a new way of life. These codbucolic conurbations set the standard for 100 years of British housebuilding. Today, Britain is awash with modern versions of Metroland.

Two years ago, I moved to the heart of Metroland - Ruislip, to be precise. It was the usual story. With the proverbial wife and two children to support, I'd been priced out of central London. Less than ten miles from my old home in Hammersmith, Metroland felt like another country. It felt like the England I remembered from my childhood - humdrum and discreet. Nobody in their right mind would call it beautiful (Ruislip's five Underground stations have buried the original medieval village beneath an avalanche of crazy paving) but between the privet hedges a few traces of rural England survive.

Tube trains rattle through fallow fields, past rows of tidy bungalows. 'In the country but not of it, ' as the novelist Leslie Thomas put it, it feels familiar yet incongruous, like the landscape of a dream. For trendy Londoners this is nowheresville, but wherever you live, it looks as though we're going to have to get used to it. As our politicians urge developers to build on so-called 'boring' fields, Metrolands such as Ruislip will become an increasingly familiar model for the way we live today. In another 100 years, will all of England look like this?

Metroland was an intrinsically English invention, selling a cut-price version of that Edwardian nirvana - the country cottage with honeysuckle round the door. Balladeers wrote songs about it, with whimsical titles like 'My Little Metroland Home' ('I know a land where the wild flowers grow').

While Continental architects built huge high-rise blocks intended for mass habitation, Metroland's house style was nostalgic and individualistic, English Conservatism writ small. These proud new owner-occupiers were urbanites, but the lifestyle they aspired to was pastoral. 'Charming country houses, built of All-English materials, ' promised the brochure. Yet Metroland was an artificial construct, as synthetic, in its own way, as the futuristic fantasies of Fritz Lang's Metropolis. …

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