diamond geezer

 Tuesday, August 29, 2006

  Metro-land revisited
  High And Over


"Steam took us onwards
through the ripening fields ripe for development
where the landscape yields clay for warm brick, timber for post and rail
through Amersham for Aylesbury and the Vale."

John Betjeman at Amersham ("Metro-land", BBC, 1973)

No other 'Underground' line reaches as far out into the Home Counties as the Metropolitan [photos]. The railway's ambition extended up the Chess Valley to Chesham and Amersham, more than 25 miles (but still less than an hour) from central London. But the landowners of ancient Amersham didn't want new-fangled rail scarring their stately views, and so forced the tracks to pass to the north of the old town. And that's why there are now two Amershams - one old beauty in the valley and one new suburb on the hill.

Old Amersham is a genuine throwback to the past - a well-preserved coaching town situated one day's ride out of London. The broad High Street is lined by a hotchpotch of antique buildings, many dating back to Tudor times. Cottages and coaching inns jostle with inglenooked townhouses and half-timbered terraces - precisely the olde worlde architecture that the remainder of Metro-land seeks to emulate. At one end is the turreted Market Hall [photo], once bustling every Tuesday with traders, but all that I found beneath its brick arches was a bored lady failing to sell leather handbags to a trickle of passers-by. If you've ever seen Four Weddings and a Funeral then you'll have seen the crooked exterior of the King's Arms Hotel [photo], and also the interior of The Crown. This really is picture postcard stuff - or would be were it not for the cars parked absolutely everywhere. So wide is this historic High Street that rows of vehicles are parked not just along each edge but also down the middle of the road. Every tourist who arrives by car corrupts the very scene that they have come to view [photo].

the brilliantly-detailed amersham.org.uk website
a potted history of the town; a pictorial tour; Amersham museum
a walking tour of Old Amersham
tons of detail about Amersham station and the Met line

High & OverBut Betjeman came not to see the old town, nor the model dormitory town on the hill, but the one jarring architectural note struck between the two. In 1929, on what was then a bare hillside above the River Misbourne, was built the startling white Y-shaped house which "scandalised Buckinghamshire". High and Over was Britain's first Modernist home, based on the architecture of Le Corbusier, with three wings radiating from a central hexagonal hall. The first owner was university professor Brian Ashmole, later director of the British Museum, who moved in despite vehement local opposition (1929 cost £3000). In 1962 the house was divided in two, partly to stave off the threat of demolition, but the place is considerably more desirable today. High and Over is now the sort of special property which the Times and Daily Telegraph run a double-page feature about every time it goes on the market (2003 guide price £675000; 2005 guide price £995000). Be jealous, be very very jealous.

High and Over is much harder to spot these days. Trees have grown up on all sides, so you now have to approach rather closer to get a half-decent view. Just up from Tesco, along Station Road, turn off up the hill into the cul-de-sac called Highover Park. Two more bright white houses guard the entrance, tall and sleek like neighbouring pavilions at a 1930s lido [photos]. These are the "Sun Houses" [photos], built in the shadow of High and Over and equally shocking in their day. A third Sun House nestles in woodland further up the close, resembling the top of a submerged ocean liner [photo]. Keep climbing, trying not to be disappointed by the surrounding development of some very ordinary 70s residential infill. And there to your right, down a high-hedged driveway, is a narrow glimpse of High & Over [photo]. From the pavement you can only see one 120 degree segment, with barely-windowed white walls leading up to a second floor roof terrace. Two pert conifers stand guard by the front door, behind a low dribbly fountain surrounded by a swoosh of gravel. And that brown and white lump to the right is the family hound, who by now will have woken up and intends to bark urgently until you withdraw. High time you were leaving. Over and out.

"Goodbye High hopes, and Over-confidence."
John Betjeman at High & Over ("Metro-land", BBC, 1973)

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