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Metro-Land (1973)


Warning: screenonline full synopses contain 'spoilers' which give away key plot points. Don't read on if you don't want to know the ending!

Sir John Betjeman reminisces about 'Metro-Land', a concept marketed by London Transport between the first and second world wars to promote the use of the Metropolitan Line from Baker Street to Buckinghamshire. Footage from 1910 shows how different the landscape was prior to the purchase of the surrounding land for redevelopment as housing for City commuters.

Above Baker Street station, Betjeman dines at the Chilton Court Restaurant, the gateway between London and Metro-Land. He examines a brochure that shows what it looked like in 1913, and speculates on how wives from Pinner and Ruislip would sit there after a day's shopping, awaiting their husbands and listening to bands playing the thé-dansant prior to taking the train home.

Betjeman visits the remains of Marlborough Road station, overlooked by a house owned by the poet Thomas Hood. Now, the old booking hall is an Angus Steak House, though the suburb of St John's Wood remains. Betjeman visits the house of the Reverend John Hugh Smyth-Pigott, whose congregation declared him to be Christ, and marvels at its threatening and restless atmosphere, where someone always seems to be looking over one's shoulder.

Betjeman goes to Gladstone Park, the start of the Neasden Nature Trail. He talks to its founder Eric Sims, who says he intended to provide an opportunity for north Londoners to appreciate the beauty of nature in general and its bird population in particular. He says that he's seen 92 different species of bird within half a mile of his home.

Further up the line is what used to be an unimportant hamlet, Wembley. Betjeman pays tribute to the visionary Sir Edward Watkin, chairman of the Metropolitan Railway. Inspired by the Eiffel Tower, in 1890 he decided to commission a similar attraction in London, 150 feet higher. But it only got as far as the first stage, just above the trees, before the money ran out, and the site was dismantled in 1907 to make way for Wembley Stadium.

Betjeman also recalls Wembley's British Empire Exhibition of 1924, the Palace of Arts, its basilica displaying the best church art of the time, though today it's used to house pantomime props. The pleasure park was, Betjeman claims, the best thing about the exhibition. The remains of the various temples are still there, though derelict and decrepit, overlooking an empty warehouse site. But since then, a whole suburban commuter belt has sprung up, and Betjeman praises the individuality of the houses, the occasional outcrop of eccentric architecture, and the still extant impression of the countryside.

At the foot of Harrow Hill, Betjeman examines the local amenities and listens to the Harrow School song before explaining how commuters went about purchasing the local villa-style houses with their distinctive stained glass front windows. He visits Grim's Dyke in Harrow Weald, designed by Norman Shaw, where he finds a session of the women-only Byron Luncheon Club in progress. In the grounds, Betjeman reminisces about the death of W.S. Gilbert, who died of a heart attack in the pond when rescuing a woman from drowning.

Further north, the stations look more countrified: Pinner, with its traditional village fair, the now defunct Sandy Lodge, Moor Park in Rickmansworth, with its upmarket golf course and lavish clubhouse with Venetian trompe l'oeil ceilings.

The traditional Croxley Green revels involve marching bands and beauty contests. The newly crowned queen, Jenny Garwood, reads a eulogy to the region. Near Chorley Wood, Betjeman visits the architect Charles Voysey's house and admires its personalised decorations. By the river Chess, he muses on the lure of Metro-Land: its peace and quiet, before visiting Len Rawle's house to admire its reconstructed Mighty Wurlitzer organ, originally built for the Empire cinema in Leicester Square.

The present Metropolitan line ends at Amersham, where Betjeman visits High and Over, Amyas Connell's then groundbreaking Y-shaped concrete house, then the last word in modernist architecture. Betjeman then follows the original route, beyond Aylesbury to the now derelict Quainton Road and Verney Junction, the latter a planned gateway to the North that never came to fruition. But, given the beauty of the now overwhelmingly rural surroundings, Betjeman is ultimately relieved that it didn't.