diamond geezer

 Monday, August 28, 2006

  Metro-land revisited
  The Orchard

  Chorleywood


"Large uneventful fields of dairy farm,
slowly winds the Chess, brim full of trout,
an unregarded part of Herts awaits its fate.
And in the heights above, Chorley Wood Village - where in 89
the railway came, and woodsmoke mingled with the sulphur fumes
and people now could catch the early train to London,
and be home just after tea."

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

Betjeman described Chorleywood as "quintessential Metro-land", and it still is. Here, beside the border to beechy Bucks, London's wealthier commuters found themselves a new home in the Chiltern foothills. Lucky them. The place retains a leafy rural air to this day and, in a recent Government survey, beat 32481 other locations to be named the neighbourhood with the UK's highest quality of life. Chorleywood has proper shops with hanging baskets, and cricket on the common, and a picturesque river valley, and league-topping schools, and very little in the way of crime. The village is quartered by the M25 [photo] and the Metropolitan railway [photos] - a short drive round to Heathrow or just three-quarters of an hour down to the City. Easy to escape from, but even easier to bolt home to.

From the station I set off south in search of Sir John's first quarry, a house up Shire Lane named "The Orchard". Here the architect Charles Voysey built himself a ground-breaking home in cottage style - with steeply pitched roofs, bold chimneys, high eaves and the occasional porthole window. Betjeman found the place without any problem, but I had only a postcode to guide me. A steep climb beneath tree-capped skies led me into the heart of the Chorleywood estate, past grand detached homes each with a seven-digit "guide price". Two jodphured girls trotted past on horseback, while the heavily-laden local paperboy trudged repeatedly up and down consecutive driveways delivering his stash of Mails, FTs and Telegraphs. As in so much of Metro-land, many houses appeared to be named after the rural feature they had replaced - "Beechcroft", "Oakland", "Glenwood". But nowhere "The Orchard", which hid stubbornly from view behind some unidentified hedge. There's a limit to how long you can spend hanging around a Neighbourhood Watch area, camera in hand, before starting to feel uncomfortable. After the second twitch of a net curtain I abandoned my search and retreated back down the hill, closely followed by two speeding police cars. No wonder the crime rate round here is virtually nil.

"Oh happy outdoor life in Chorleywood
in Daddy's swim pool, while old Spot looks on
and Susan dreams of super summer hols
whilst chlorinated wavelets brush the banks."

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

On the other side of the railway lies Chorleywood Common [photos], 200 acres of former grazing land now shared by horseriders, golfers and great crested newts. I braved the roaming dogs and rambled from the station to the cricket ground, only mildly yapped-at along the way. Beyond the motorway I came, like Betjeman, to the exclusive Loudwater estate. The first houses here sold (slowly) for £1300 a time - now they cost a thousand times more and the residents have retreated behind iron gates to protect their investment. I followed signs for the Chess Valley Walk, which on paper looked like a charming stroll beside a rippling trout stream, but turned out instead to be a hemmed-in footpath down a canyon of wooden fences. Occasionally the sweeping back gardens of Loudwater were clearly visible, their pools and paid-for privacy invaded by a public right of way.

At last the houses faded away and the path opened out into the corn-gold Chess Valley. All was silent, bar the buzzing of a few indistinct insects and the cooing of a distant pigeon. I slowed as a curious rabbit hopped patiently along the path in front of me, but a startled green woodpecker seemed in more of a hurry to get away. After half a mile I reached the flat wooden footbridge [photo] where I'd often come as a child to paddle in the shallow waters and fish for tiddlers using a small net on a stick. Thistledown floated into the sky as as butterflies and dragonflies darted across the surface of the stream. Back in the 70s the riverbank used to be packed every weekend with picnicking families but on my visit, mid-afternoon on a sunny summer Sunday, it was nigh empty [photo]. Where have all the children gone? I guess today's Chorleywood kids prefer to be sat at home X-boxing instead, or else have been dragged off to some crowded Mediterranean beach to learn how to waterski. But I'm glad that this spot still survives intact and unspoilt, and that not all of Metro-land has been destroyed beneath a carpet of brick, lawn and concrete.

Betjeman also visited Len Rawle, who owns (and still plays) the 'Empire' Leicester Square Wurlitzer in his Chorleywood home


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