One of the most memorable scenes in Metro-land occurs when Sir John Betjeman visits Grim's Dyke[photo]. Here, in a quintessentially English house topped with chimneypots and half-timbered gables, he stumbles across a grand luncheon of the Byron Dining Club. The not-so-merry wives of Harrow have gathered in the wood-panelled dining room to preen and gossip over a very splendid three course luncheon. Almost everyone is "beautifully be-hatted" beneath some monstrous mound of millinery, perhaps topped off with a ribbon, flower or brooch. They wear sturdy navy jackets with cream lapels, accessorised by pearls and bulbous gold earrings. The look is perfectly artificial and, to modern eyes, damned by obscene daintiness. Most reprehensible of all, despite the fact that one of the finest poets of the 20th century is standing in the doorway, they prefer to listen to a blandly fawning speech from Mrs Elizabeth Cooper instead. You could never fill a room with uptight middle-aged ladies such as these in 2006.
"Merrie England outside, haunting and romantic within... tall brick chimneystacks, not hidden away but prominent and part of the design, local bricks, local tiles, local timber - no façade is the same, gabled windows gaze through leaded lights down winding lawns." John Betjeman at Grim's Dyke ("Metro-land", BBC, 1973)
As I discovered when I tried to visit, Sir John had twisted geographical reality by calling in at Grim's Dyke. The house is located in Harrow Weald on the very border of London, nowhere near any station on the Metropolitan Railway. But Norman Shaw's design is still an undeniablystriking piece of architecture [photo] and was well worth a detour. This late Victorian homestead is a glorious cross between a cottage and a castle, well shielded from any modern interference by deep oak woodland. The building's now a hotel, seemingly frequented by old couples and beefy golfing chums. I skulked around the undergrowth behind the closely-manicured lawn, in the perhaps false belief that this was a public right of way. And discovered here, beside the not-quite-visible Saxon earthwork which gives the house its name [photo], a particularly poignant spot. Grim's Dyke was once owned by WSGilbert (of "and Sullivan" fame), and it was here in an ornamental lake[photo] that the great man died. He'd invited two local girls to come swimming with him in the lake (er, right) but, in attempting to rescue one of them who'd got into difficulties, suffered a heart attack and drowned. Some safety do-gooder has since erected a sign reading "WARNING DEEP WATER" beside the lake, although sadly it came nearly a century too late.