Metro-land (or Metroland) refers, broadly speaking, to the suburban areas that were built to the north west of London in the counties of Buckinghamshire, Hertfordshire and Middlesex in the early part of the 20th century, and were served by the Metropolitan Railway, an independent company until absorbed by the London Passenger Transport Board (LPTB) in 1933.
The Metropolitan Railway began as the world's first underground line in 1863. The word, métro
, used in Paris as an abbreviation for its own Chemin de Fer Métropolitain
, which opened in 1900, has since been adopted around the world. Metro-land
was coined as a brand name
by James Garland, of the Metropolitan's publicity department, to promote what the company first called its "extension" line, and later its "main" line. The term was used in advertisements and promotional publications from 1915 to 1934, although the railway itself was popularly known as "the Met" (rarely the "Metro").
The extension line
The extension line ran initially from Baker Street
to Swiss Cottage
(1868), reaching Harrow
in 1880, Rickmansworth
in 1887, Chesham
in 1889 and, stretching ever deeper into the Chiltern Hills
in 1892. At Aylesbury it connected to the former Aylesbury and Buckingham Railway over whose tracks express trains ran from Baker Street to Verney Junction
beginning in 1897. From 1899 the Metropolitan operated the line from Quainton Road
(between Aylesbury and Verney Junction) to Brill
, Buckinghamshire. There were further extensions to Uxbridge
(1925) and Stanmore
By the time the Metropolitan was taken over by the LPTB, over half of the line between Baker Street and Verney Junction was outside the geographical area covered by the Board . Ward Lock's Guide to London informed visitors to the British Empire Exhibition, held at Wembley in 1924-5, that "Baker Street is the terminus of what must perforce be called the "country" lines of the Metropolitan Railway" .
The Metro-land guide
An annual guide, also called Metro-land
, was published by the company from 1915 to 1932. This replaced the Guide to the Extension Line
, which first appeared in 1904. Metro-land
encouraged leisure travel and also published facts and figures for the commuter
and would-be resident. The 1924 edition featured the British Empire Exhibition, at which the Metropolitan had its own stand in the Palace of Engineering. The exhibition and the new Empire Stadium
, which was first used for the Football Association Cup
final in 1923, were served by the refurbished Wembley Park station
guide insisted that Metro-land was "a country with elastic borders that each visitor can draw for himself". Indeed, to the extent that the principal features of Metro-land were not unique to the Metropolitan, it has been invoked more generically: for example, by Kathryn Bradley-Hole writing about Gunnersbury Park
. Even so, Metro-land
was quite firm that, so far as the Buckinghamshire Chilterns were concerned, its "Grand Duchy" was confined to the hundred
: "the Chilterns round Marlow
and the Wycombes
are not in Metro-land".
The architect Hugh Casson regarded Harrow as the "capital city" of Metro-land , while Arthur Mee's King's England described Wembley as its "epitome" .
Slogans and references
The Metropolitan’s terminus at Baker Street was "the gateway to Metro-land" and Chiltern Court, which opened over the station in 1929 and was headquarters during the Second World War
of the Special Operations Executive
, was "at
the gateway to Metro-land". In similar vein, Chorley Wood
& Chenies, later described by John Betjeman
as "the essential Metro-land" , were "at the gateway" of the Chiltern Hills (of which Wendover
was the "pearl") .
Literature and songs
Before the end of the First World War George R. Sims had incorporated the term in verse: "I know a land where the wild flowers grow/Near, near at hand if by train you go,/Metroland, Metroland". By the 1920s, the word was so ingrained in the consciousness that, in Evelyn Waugh’s novel, Decline and Fall (1928), the Hon Margot Beste-Chetwynd took Viscount Metroland as her second husband. Lady Metroland re-appeared in Vile Bodies in 1930. Metro-land further entered the public psyche with the song My Little Metro-land Home (lyrics by Boyle Lawrence and music by Henry Thraile, 1920), while another ditty extolled the virtues of the Poplars estate at Ruislip with the assertion that "It's a very short distance by rail on the Met/And at the gate you'll find waiting, sweet Violet" .
"Live in Metro-land"
In 1903 the Metropolitan developed a housing estate at Cecil Park, Pinner
, the first of many such enterprises over the next thirty years. Overseen by the Metropolitan's general manager from 1908-30, Robert H Selbie, the railway formed its own Country Estates Company in 1919. The slogan, "Live in Metro-land", was even etched on the door handles of Metropolitan carriages.
Some stations, such as Hillingdon (1923), were built specifically to serve the company's suburban developments. A number, including Wembley Park, Croxley Green (1925) and Stanmore (1932), were designed by Charles W. Clark (who was responsible also for Chiltern Court) in an Arts and crafts "villa" style. These were intended to blend with their surroundings, though, in retrospect, they arguably lacked the panache and vision of Charles Holden's striking, modern designs for the Underground group in the late 1920s and early 30s.
The demise of the Metropolitan company
By the time the Metropolitan disappeared as a separate company, the economic climate had begun to apply some brakes to the pace of residential development that had already submerged large areas of countryside. For a time, the LPTB used the "Metro-land" tag: "Cheap fares to Metro-land and the sea" were advertised in 1934. But the era of Metro-land as such was over and, indeed, the outer backwaters of the "Grand Duchy" beyond Aylesbury, such as the Brill branch and the line to Verney Junction – their sleepy features described in A G Macdonell’s England, Their England (1933) – were closed to Metropolitan trains by 1936. In that year London Transport introduced new, rather deadpan slogans which tended to emphasise excursions, rather than residential opportunities: "Away by Metropolitan" and "Good spot, the Chilterns".
Steam traction continued to be used on the outer sections of what had become the "Metropolitan Line" until 1961. From that date Metropolitan trains ran only as far as Amersham, with main line services from Marylebone covering stations between Great Missenden and Aylesbury.
Nearly 70 years later the Chilterns Conservation Board was advertising "Chilterns Country – countryside walks from rail stations" (2004). Drawing no doubt on Metro-land, a guide for ramblers, published by British Railways Southern Region shortly after the Second World War, referred to the "Rambleland" stations of Surrey and Sussex .
The spirit of Metro-land
The sentimental and somewhat archaic prose of the Metro-land
guide ("the Roman road aslant the eastern border ... the immunerable field-paths which mark the labourer's daily route from hamlet to farm" ) conjured up a rustic Eden – a Middle England
, perhaps - similar to that invoked by Stanley Baldwin
, Prime Minister three times between 1923-37, who, though of manufacturing stock, famously donned the mantle of countryman ("the tinkle of the hammer on the anvil in the country smithy, the sound of the scythe against the whetstone" ). As one historian of the London Underground put it wrily, "the world of Metroland is not cluttered with people: its suburban streets are empty ... There are, it seems, more farm animals than people" .
Town v. country
With similar ambiguity, Metro-land
combined idyllic photographs of rural tranquillity with advertising spreads for new, though leafy, housing developments. Herein lay the contradictions well captured by Leslie Thomas
in his novel, The Tropic of Ruislip
(1974): "in the country but not of it. The fields seemed touchable and yet remote". Writer and historian A. N. Wilson
reflected how suburban developments of the early 20th century that had been brought within easy reach of London by the railways, "merely ended up creating an endless ribbon
... not perhaps either town or country". In the process, despite Metro-land
's promotion of rusticity, a number of outlying towns and villages were "swallowed up and lost their identity" .
The influence of Country Life
Wilson noted that the magazine Country Life
, which had been founded by Edward Hudson
as Country Life Illustrated
in 1897, had influenced this pattern with its advertisements for country houses: "If you were a stockbroker or a lawyer's wife ... you could perhaps afford a new Tudorbethan
mansion, with an oak staircase and mullioned windows and half-timbered gables, in Godalming or Esher, or Amersham
or Penn" . Of the surrounding landscape, Country Life
itself has observed that, in its early days, it offered
a rose-tinted view of the English countryside ... idyllic villages, vernacular buildings and already dying rural crafts. All were illustrated with hauntingly beautiful photographs. They portrayed a utopian never-never world of peace and plenty in a pre-industrial Britain .
Precisely the same could have written of the Metroland guide.
The growth of Metro-land
By the 1930s the availability of mortgages with an average rate of interest of 4¼ per cent
meant that private housing was well within the range of most middle class and many working class pockets . This was a potent factor in the growth of Metro-land: for example, in the first three decades of the 20th century the population of Harrow Weald
rose from 1,500 to 11,000 and that of Pinner from 3,000 to 23,000 . In 1932 Northwick Park was said to have grown over the previous five years at the rate of 1,000 houses annually and Rayners Lane
to "repay a visit at short intervals to see it grow" .
In the mid 20th century, the spirit of Metro-land was evoked in three "late chrysanthemums" of John Betjeman
(1906-84), Poet Laureate from 1972 – Harrow-on-the-Hill
("When melancholy autumn comes to Wembley/And electric trains are lighted after tea"), Middlesex
("Gaily into Rusilip Gardens/Runs the red electric train") and The Metropolitan Railway
("Early Electric! With what radiant hope/Men formed this many-branched electrolier") . In his autobiographical Summoned by Bells
(1960) Betjeman recalled that "Metroland/Beckoned us out to lanes in beechy Bucks".
Described much later by The Times as the "hymnologist of Metroland" , Betjeman reached a wider audience with his celebrated documentary for BBC television, Metro-land, directed by Edward Mirzoeff, which was first broadcast on 26 February 1973 and released as a DVD 33 years later. The critic Clive James, who judged the programme "an instant classic", observed that "it saw how the district had been destroyed by its own success" .
To mark the centenary (2006) of Betjeman's birth, his daughter Candida Lycett Green (b. 1942) spearheaded a series of celebratory railway events, including an excursion on 2 September 2006 from Marylebone to Quainton Road, now home of the Buckinghamshire Railway Centre. Lycett Green noted of the planning of this trip that among the fine details considered were which filling to have in the baguettes on the train through Metro-land and how long it would stop at Ruislip Gardens so that the poem Middlesex could be read over the tannoy . The event was in the tradition of earlier commemorations of "Metro-land", such as a centenary parade of rolling stock at Neasden in 1963 and celebrations in 2004 to mark the centenary of the Uxbridge branch.
Metro-land (notably west Hertfordshire) formed the backdrop for the 1960s ABC TV series The Avengers, whose popular imagery was deployed with a twist of fantasy. The archetypal Metro-land subjects (such as the railway station and the quiet suburb) became the settings for fiendish plots and treachery in this series and others, such as The Saint, The Baron and Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased), all of which made regular use of locations within easy reach of film studios at Borehamwood and Pinewood .
Some abhorred Metro-land for its predictability and sameness. A. N. Wilson observed that, although semi-detached dwellings of the kind built in the inner Metro-land suburbs in the 1930s "aped larger houses, the stockbroker Tudorbethan of Edwardian Surrey and Middlesex", they were in fact "pokey". He reflected that
as [the husband] went off to the nearest station every morning ... the wife, half liberated and half slave, stayed behind wondering how many of the newly invented domestic appliances they could afford to purchase, and how long the man would hold on to his job in the Slump. No wonder, when war came, that so many of these suburban prisoners felt a sense of release .
By the end of the Second World War architects in general were turning their backs on suburbia. When the editor of the Architectural Review
, J M Richards, wrote in The Castles on the Ground
(1946) that "for all the alleged deficiencies of suburban taste ...it holds for ninety out of a hundred Englishmen an appeal which cannot be explained away as some strange instance of mass aberration", he was, in his own words, "scorned by my contemporaries as either an irrelevant eccentricity or a betrayal of the forward looking views of the Modern
Movement" . John Betjeman admired John Piper
's illustrations for Castles on the Ground
, describing the "fake half-timber, the leaded lights and bow windows of the Englishman's castle" as "the beauty of the despised, patronised suburb" . However, as the historian David Kynaston observed sixty years later, "the time was far from ripe for Metroland nostalgia" .
Julian Barnes: Metroland
Valerie Grove, who conceded that Metro-land was "a kinder word than 'suburbia'" and referred to the less spoilt areas beyond Rickmansworth as "Outer Metro-land", maintained that "suburbia had no visible history. Anyone with any spirit … had to get out of Metro-land to make their mark" .
Thus, the central character of Metroland (1980), a novel by Julian Barnes (b. 1946) that was filmed in 1997, ended up in Paris during the disturbances of May 1968 - though, by the late 1970s, having thrown off the yearnings of his youth, he was back in Metro-land. Metroland recounted the essence of suburbia in the early 1960s and the features of daily travel by a schoolboy, Christopher Lloyd, on the Metropolitan line to and from London. During a French lesson, Christopher declared, "J’habite Metroland" ["I live in Metroland"], because it "sounds better than Eastwick [the fictional location of his home], stranger than Middlesex".
In real life, some schoolboys had made similar journeys for more hedonistic reasons. Betjeman recalled that, between the wars, boys from Harrow School had used the Metropolitan for illicit excursions to night clubs in London: "Whenever the police raided the Hyprocrites Club or the Coconut Club, the '43 or the Blue Lantern there would always be Harrovians there" .
Social mobility: Tropic of Ruislip
Between Metro-land’s heyday before the Second World War and the end of the 20th century, the proportion of owner-occupied
dwellings in England, already rising fast from the mid 1920s, doubled from a third to two-thirds . In Tropic of Ruislip
, Leslie Thomas’s humorous account of suburban sexual and social mores
in the mid 1970s (adapted for television as Tropic
, ATV 1979), the steady flow of families from council housing on one side of the railway to an executive estate on the other side served to illustrate what was becoming known as “upward mobility
”. Another sign was that, by the end of the book, "half the neighbourhood" of Plummers Park (probably based on Carpenders Park, on the outskirts of Watford
) had moved south of the River Thames
or nearby Southfields
. This was put down to the "attractions of Victoriana
", which, like suburbia itself, championed at the time by Betjeman’s Metro-land
, was coming back into fashion; however, it appeared to have just as much to do with couples following each other round in order to maintain extramarital affairs.
Another glimpse of Metro-land in the 1970s was provided by The Good Life, the BBC TV comedy series (1975-8) about suburban self-sufficiency. Though set in Surbiton, Surrey, the programme was filmed in Northwood, an area reached by the Metropolitan in 1885.
Note on spelling
The form Metroland
is now in common use, but the "brand" was hyphenated as Metro-land
. Evelyn Waugh, John Betjeman and Julian Barnes all dispensed with the hyphen (though it was inserted by the BBC for Betjeman's documentary of 1973).