diamond geezer

 Saturday, June 01, 2013


As a child of Metroland, I've ridden the purple line hundreds of times before. I've also blogged about it in depth, back on the centenary of Sir John Betjeman's birth. But is that going to stop me from going back and spending another month on the Metropolitan line? Hell no, there's nothing quite like going home.

Steam trains ran on the Metropolitan line last weekend as part of the Underground's 150th birthday celebrations. Four journeys between Harrow-on-the-Hill and Amersham, some single, some return, with those in the outward direction hauled by steam. Tickets cost up to £45, which seems a princely sum for the opportunity to end up precisely back where you started, and all without being able to see the locomotive on the front. A cheaper option was to stand on a platform as the train went by, so long as you were in the right place at the right time, and so long as no bloke with a camera stepped out in front of you as she passed. The far end of the Met was crawling with enthusiasts soaking up the sunshine and taking the opportunity to snap history. At Chorleywood and Chalfont they waited, one eye on their watch, the other on the distant tracks. At Moor Park the thundering approach of a diesel caught some out, but they rallied in time to capture the steam loco bringing up the rear. Some may even have stared at the train without attempting to record its passing in some way, but they were in the minority.

At Amersham, shiny old and shiny new coexisted in a peculiar way. In pulled the steam train to disgorge its complement of heritage riders, while a toot from the siding signalled that the next S Stock was preparing to enter the platform alongside. On platform 3, there was stuff for sale. A table was laid out with copious Tube 150 goodies, of the sort you can normally buy miles away in the London Transport Museum. A smaller table was laid out with leaflets from the Epping Ongar railway, reminding their target audience to come to Essex later this month to ride the same train considerably more cheaply. Meanwhile the Buckinghamshire Railway Centre had a stall in the Waiting Room, hoping to entice enthusiasts to a Tube 150 event in August. They're responsible for restoring Met Loco No. 1, which puffed through central London tunnels in January, and which appeared on several semi-reasonably-priced souvenirs.

For those who could tear themselves away from the station, there was a treat at the top of Hill Avenue. An old toyshop has been taken over, for just three weeks, by a special pop-up museum. The protagonists are the local experts at Amersham Museum, and the theme is the birth of Amersham-on-the-Hill. The town has an entirely split personality, both in age and in character, entirely due to the coming of the Metropolitan Railway. The old market town in the valley appears in the Domesday Book and is proper Buckinghamshire lovely. Local landowners at the end of the 19th century were intent on keeping it that way, and campaigned successfully to keep the new-fangled railway out of the town. Instead the tracks were built across the common on the hill, where a halt was opened to little effect.

It took a decade or two for the Met to realise the potential of the surrounding farmland for housing, at which point suburban avenues curled inexorably across the landscape. A new sub-town was created, this being Amersham On The Hill, luring in city workers in search of a better class of home. Hundreds of aspirational houses and bungalows were built by the Metropolitan Railway Country Estates Company, none of them cheap, but still wilfully affordable by modern standards. To the south of the station was the Weller Estate, with its grand oversized cottages set in spacious gardens, much of which is now a conservation area. Lower down the hill is High Over Park, the location of various Mediterranean-white Sun Houses and the Y-shaped High and Over. The latter is a modernist home in ocean-liner style, much drooled over by Betjeman in his Metroland documentary. A lot of Amersham-on-the Hill has been somewhat downgraded by residential infill, with all sorts of lesser homes built in what used to be the MRCE's gardens. But it's still a green and very pleasant place to live, and entirely worthy of a special exhibition.

The commuter town's history is duly aired in a series of display boards around the perimeter, augmented by railway mementoes and a model station. Above a 1930s sitting room is a row of Metroland brochure covers sewn, yes sewn, by an enterprising and creative local. In the other half of the shop is a collection of Bayko, the plastic construction toy that allowed interwar children to play at architects, and a model railway layout lined by tin houses. Those last two might only have been present last weekend, I'm not sure, but the curators won't have left the room empty. It's the pop up exhibition's last day today, not that it's big enough to merit rushing, you understand, but I'm glad I was around to pop in.

At all other times, Amersham Museum opens every Saturday, Sunday & Bank Holiday Monday (2.00 – 4.30pm) from March to October, and additionally on Wednesdays and Thursdays from May to September. Admission £2. Hunt down the Tudor house in Old Amersham High Street, and enjoy.
Talk: The Development of Amersham-on-the-Hill - Wednesday 5th June (Julian Hunt will explain the development of shops and housing in Amersham-on-the-Hill since the station’s opening in 1892)
Talk: Metroland - Wednesday 3rd July (Oliver Green will talk about ‘Metroland’ and compare Amersham’s Metroland housing with other developments along the line)

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