It's time to take an end-to-end journey on the Metropolitan line. From Aldgate as far as you can go, which is currently Chesham, a journey of just under 30 miles in just under 100 minutes.
Aldgate station just about fits within the eastern edge of the City of London, isolated along with St Botolph's church in the centre of a gyratory. It still says Metropolitan Railway in the tiling above the main entrance, or at least it says M.R. which was good enough at the time. The station lies in cutting beneath a vaulted glass roof, with a series of open staircases leading down to platform level. Best check the ancient Next Train Indicator before you descend, because there's bugger all down there to indicate when the next service is due and where it's going. That's not too much trouble on the two Metropolitan line platforms because all the trains are travelling to at least Harrow and most passengers aren't going that far. But for the suited City gent returning to Bucks after a hard day's high finance, grabbing one of the limited number of seats on the correct train is crucially important.
The lights go off beside the door and we depart, with another train already queueing to slip into our vacated platform. Around the curve is Liverpool Street, where the rear of the train comes to a halt just off the end of the platform. "The rear doors will not open here", announces the disembodied voice, while the red 'Door not in use' sign lights up above the offending portal. And, I notice, also above the opposite door which was never going to open anyway, which is typically inconsistent. Few enter the train at the rear end here, but rather more do at Moorgate, including a gaggle of foreign tourists and a bloke immersed in a book. Barbican still has platform numbers from the Network South East era, and a disused signal box at the Smithfield end of the station.
Farringdon's a mass of scaffolding at the moment in preparation for Crossrail, which at one time was due to take over the line to Chesham but that never materialised. Instead we plod on, still over an hour to go, and plenty of time to complete the Evening Standard crossword. At King's Cross St Pancras several passengers stand back and let us pass because they want Paddington, they don't want to go our way. The same at Euston Square and Great Portland Street, two more stations that are too short for these long trains. We queue erratically to proceed, as the line attempts to keep to its strict published timetable. And finally we curve off beneath Chiltern Court onto the Met proper.
Ah, Baker Street, gateway to the northwest. You don't sense the grandeur of the surrounding buildings from within, not even from the far end of the platforms where the sun streams in. City trains roll in along the central tracks, while lesser services to Herts and Hillingdon wait patiently to one side. The tunnels ahead dip for a couple of miles beneath St John's Wood, rising only to slink over the Regent's Canal and back down again. There used to be three additional stations along here, including one at Swiss Cottage that was once the terminus of the line. The most obvious of these is Marlborough Road, where the cut and cover opens out and gaps alongside for platforms are clearly seen. Modern safety signs have been affixed to the walls, and a metal staircase runs down for staff access, or in case an emergency evacuation is ever needed.
Outbound trains emerge into daylight at Finchley Road, alongside a switch on the wall marked 'Tunnel lighting'. Change here for the Jubilee line, calling at intermediate Brent stations, or stay aboard for the seven minute dash to Wembley. We run alongside a giant shopping centre on one side and fading blossom on the other. Here the Chiltern lines join us, creating a six-lane superhighway to the suburbs. The viaduct at Kilburn offers a brief glimpse across the rooftops towards distant Ealing and the heights of Hampstead. When I was little, riding the train up to town, this was always the special moment where it seemed the whole of London was laid out below, impossibly large, undeniably alluring. It still sets me slightly aquiver. And then back to tree level and the backs of houses, from Zone 2 to Zone 4 in a single leap.
Past the depot at Neasden comes Wembley Park, close but not that close to the looming white arch at the national stadium. Here many of the passengers alight, with rather fewer staying on board for the trek further out. Preston Road and Northwick Park are quieter stations with island platforms, as we start to pass those Metroland staples of pebbledash and cricket. Northwick Park has semi-overgrown raised beds, suggesting that staff here once used to enter the Underground in Bloom competition but no longer bother. Then at Harrow-on-the-Hill the in-car announcement states categorically that the back doors will not open, except they do. Thankfully that's the last we'll hear of this sub-optimal system as the journey progresses.
The Uxbridge branch veers off past a sign announcing 'Morrisons Harrow Now Open'. We've entered a world of allotments and avenues, and weatherboarded platforms above century-old shopping parades. North Harrow has nice tubs while Pinner boasts well-kept borders, plus a newsagent on the down platform sponsored by The Times. Backing onto the line are a succession of semis and bungalows and graffitied flats, most with gardens offering zero privacy from passing trains. The northbound platform at Northwood Hills is mostly advert-free, while at Northwood a suspicious number of the southbound posters are for local public schools. It feels like a real railway out here, running between woods and golf courses, but then we are in Hertfordshire now.
Moor Park serves a community of three-car households, hence the station is lightly used. It's also no longer the key spot for Watford branchers to switch onto a fast train, what with fast trains being an endangered species in the latest timetable. Across the Common Moor and the Grand Union we go, another favourite view, dropping down from four tracks to two as we approach Rickmansworth. With a signalbox and sidings one can well imagine Betjeman pausing here, although his 1972 documentary skipped right over. It's less glamorous up ahead where the M25 rides roughshod over the wooded cutting on concrete stilts, before the Common restores rurality. And someone's recorded "The next station is Chorleywood" with completely the wrong emphasis, which annoyed me, twice.
Only on the next stretch does the countryside finally open out to rolling fields, becoming more built-up again on the approach to Chalfont & Latimer. This used to be where you changed for the Chesham shuttle, but no longer, and mini-platform three is now out of service. Ahead is the longest gap between stations on the entire network, that's 3.89 miles, or twenty times the distance from Leicester Square to Covent Garden. The single-track branch line veers off before an industrial estate, past, hang on, isn't that a field of alpacas? The view down across the Chess Valley should be one of the finest on the Underground except, oh, TfL are currently erecting a silver metal fence along the perimeter of the track despoiling any attempt to enjoy the panorama unobstructed.
There follows a gentle descent into Chesham at rooftop level, crossing the fledgling river and pulling into the town centre at the foot of a hill. The station's charming, with a long sinuous platform one, and platform two long ago converted into a prize-winninggarden. Locals know not to travel in the rear carriage because that means a longer walk at the end of the journey, probably passing the driver walking back up the platform to change ends. Exit is through a tiny lobby, formerly the ticket hall, now well stocked with local leaflets. We're as far away from London as the London Underground ever gets, in a pleasant Buckinghamshire town (walk straight ahead, turn left). No other line can boast so great a contrast at its extremities, but that's why I love it so.