Metro-land

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Metro-land is a manufactured London borough; an area that established the notion of the suburban idyll. The Metropolitan Railway Company coined the term ‘Metro-land’, producing a guide to the beautiful countryside, safe from the confined and crowded city. North-west London was served by the Metropolitan Railway from the mid-19th century.

The Metropolitan Railway Company (MRC) served London between 1863 and 1933, from the city to the heart of rural and suburban Middlesex. Travel infrastructure had developed rapidly during this period; icon of the industrial revolution, the steam locomotive would transform industry and social life. The Metropolitan Railway Line would eventually connect the railway termini of Paddington, Kings Cross and Farringdon via Baker Street, ‘the gateway to Metro-land’. The railway was built beyond London, extending to Verney Junction in Buckinghamshire, where services would venture from 1868 until 1936. Though not lasting, this building allowed the MRC to be consumed by the sweeping London Underground.

The MRC were in a privileged position that allowed them to retain and develop the swathes of fields that surrounded their tracks. The railway company paved the way for a separate business to be formed that would manage housing; the conception of the Metropolitan Railway Company Estates Limited was delayed by the First World War. When instated, the company was prepared to oversee an imminent housing boom. As the railway grew, so too did demand for homes. Estates were built for the railway workers in Wembley and Neasden. Formerly referred to as ‘The Met’, the company changed tack. Metro-land would better describe the railway and accompanying housing estates that were arising from Baker Street, through to Buckinghamshire.

Neasden Station, photographed in the late 1990s

In 1915, the MRC marketing department released a handbook; the ‘Guide to the Extension Line’ was a glossy catalogue aimed at walkers, visitors and house-hunters. Promoting leisure travel from the city, it was presumed that the pamphlet would stimulate an interest in relocating to the new, rural developments; ‘live in Metro-land’ was etched onto the pages of the book. The guide heralded the health benefits of ‘fresh Chiltern air’ and promised ‘tremulous green loveliness’. Their words were sufficient in sparking a middle-class migration from London. In the post-war period, the aforementioned housing boom was underway. In the 100 years that have passed, the image of rurality has given way to suburbia. Regarded perhaps as an improvement on city dwelling, but no longer bestilling the benefits of village life. Suburban settlements rapidly developed and their populations vastly increased; when the Metropolitan Railway Company was absorbed by London Transport in 1933, the marketing behind Metro-land ceased, but many Londoners had already made the move north west.

The historic Metropolitan Railway line was reduced to one of London Transport’s seven underground lines in the mid 1930s; the iconic advertising that promoted the rurality of Metro-land ceased. After just two decades, Metro-land had lost its company status, though the ideals it promoted would be lasting. It would become a source of inspiration for poets such as John Betjeman and novelists like Julian Barnes. The scene of the ‘red electric train’ running through the once remote stillness of Harrow-on-the-Hill; the mundanity of life for the suburban housewife, amongst the privet hedgerows and detached homes of Pinner. The decades passed and Metro-land continued to develop in the consciousness of those who inhabited it.

Gaily into Ruislip Gardens

Runs the red electric train,

With a thousand Ta's and Pardon's

Daintily alights Elaine;

Hurries down the concrete station

With a frown of concentration,

Out into the outskirt's edges

Where a few surviving hedges

Keep alive our lost Elysium -

rural Middlesex again.

Wembley Stadium, pictured from Gladstone Park, Dollis Hill

Well cut Windsmoor flapping lightly,

Jacqmar scarf of mauve and green

Hiding hair which, Friday nightly,

Delicately drowns in Drene;

Fair Elaine the bobby-soxer,

Fresh-complexioned with Innoxa,

Gains the garden - father's hobby -

Hangs her Windsmoor in the lobby,

Settles down to sandwich supper

and the television screen.

The capital of this new London; Wembley was inundated with residents. Infrastructure was improved markedly thanks to the British Empire Exhibition of 1924; the image and economy of the Empire was projected onto the landscape of Wembley. The vast resources of the Empire were on show in grand buildings for all to see. A ‘great national sports ground’ was to be built for the exhibition, and would later become the home of association football in England. The exhibition was estimated to cost over £10,000,000; elements of the Empire were miniaturised to give the anticipated 25 million visitors - the final count was closer to 17 million - a comprehensive geography lesson. From the palaces of Industry and Engineering, displaying the industrial successes of Britain, to the ‘walled city’ that depicted West African life and highlighted the evident racial divides throughout the Empire, the exhibition was a spectacle comparable to that of the Great Exhibition of 1851. Wembley became a household name.

Gentle Brent, I used to know you

Wandering Wembley-wards at will,

Now what change your waters show you

In the meadowlands you fill!

Recollect the elm-trees misty

And the footpaths climbing twisty

Under cedar-shaded palings,

Low laburnum-leaned-on railings

Out of Northolt on and upward

to the heights of Harrow hill.

The marketing of Metro-land had excelled in attracting prospective homeowners. Between the years of 1921 and 1931, the population of Greater London grew by 11%; growth in the north west suburbs was significantly higher than elsewhere. Wembley, Harrow and Ruislip all experienced uplifts in their population of more than 50% during this period. The railway company retained a focus on ticket sales throughout their extensive building schemes. The building of thousands of new homes had established the commuter culture that is synonymous with London today. Ticket sales rose as season ticket schemes became a popular means of reaching the city centre. At all stops along the Metropolitan Railway Line, ticket sales vastly increased.

Northwick Park and Kenton illustrate the successes of Metro-land, prior to regulation on the amount of building afforded to the MRCE. Under 10 miles from the City of London, photographs make it evident how rapidly the landscape changed. A remote farmhouse and accompanying barns gave way to expansive estates. Close to Harrow School, these homes had large gardens and an adjoining golf course. These features upon the landscape have been lasting. The park that gives Northwick Park its name remains untouched, a large green space safe from future development; the attached pavilion, once labelled ‘attractive’, is in dire need of renovation.

Parish of enormous hayfields Perivale stood all alone,

And from Greenford scent of may fields

Most enticingly was blown

Over market gardens tidy,

Taverns for the bona fide,

Cockney singers, cockney shooters,

Murray Poshes, Lupin Pooters,

Long in Kensal Green and Highgate

silent under soot and stone.

– 'Middlesex' by Sir John Betjeman

British Empire Lithograph Exhibition Map from 1924

Metro-land was a short-lived project, delivered rapidly and with great success. By 1930, a few years before London Transport would consume Metro-land, the economic uncertainty of 1929 was still wreaking havoc. Even in the prosperous south, the number of commuters fell and the suburban developments that had been erected so rapidly became monotonous. The country charm of places such as Rickmansworth and those stops stretching into Buckinghamshire, are examples of the few places that retained their rural identity. The likes of Northwick Park and Rayner’s Lane were different. A new suburban reality could not be escaped. Metro-land was swallowed by London. The idylls gave way to sprawling concrete.

By the outbreak of the Second World War, development within Metro-land had been curtailed by increased planning regulations. The suburbs have sat for close to a century, virtually unchanged from the glory years. Its longevity has led to buildings taking on listed status, and green spaces remaining untouched. The merits of Metro-land’s infrastructure are clear; the mock-Tudor facades are both celebrated and neglected. Proximity to London, in the age of rapid public transport, has had negative effects on the housing stock in some instances. Unaffordable rents and desperate tenants have moved to the north west of London seeking economic respite. Little has changed in public desire for homes with ample living space and access to green space. The unique allure of suburban Metro-land continues to attract prospective homeowners to this day.