Wednesday, 20 January 2010


To London yesterday - not a chance journey, but a planned one. As I sat on the train on the inward journey I had plenty of time to reflect on possible approaches to my project, but as the train approached its destination, I found myself increasingly distracted by the vision of the London suburbs flashing past the windows - that vast unknown territory spreading for mile upon mile with its rows of semi-detached houses and parades of shops, the scrubby gardens backing on to the railway line parting occasionally to offer a tantalising glimpse of streets, closes and crescents, stretching as far as the eye can see. This is the London I am not very familiar with and for some reason, long to penetrate and discover its secrets.

As I alighted (I love that almost archaic word - it conjures up visions of trans-continental railways and exotic destinations) at Marylebone Station, I began to make my familiar route around the parts of central London that I know well and once again was struck by how conditioned we are by routine and familiarity. Why take one particular path when there are alternatives? Because we are always in such a hurry to fit in so many things into the day, watching the clock, timing our business before we move on to the next task or deadline. Today was no exception.

The main purpose of my trip was to visit the London Transport Museum to see Suburbia - an exhibition which shows how transport has shaped the growth and identity of the London suburbs This was followed by a talk on Metroland - that area of NW London and beyond where London's boundaries extended into the countryside following the expansion of the Metropolitan Line in the 1920s. Metroland has long been associated with the poet John Betjeman and with a particular vision of leafy Middle England - one where the streets are clean and safe, the air is pure, and every Englishman can own his own home with its strip of lawn and hedge, where privacy and safety are assured.

In Betjeman's poem The Metropolitan Railway the phrase "the morning villas sliding by" reminded me of my journey into London earlier in the day, and the repetition of the station names illustrate just how evocative of place these words are:

"Smoothly from HARROW, passing PRESTON ROAD,
They saw the last green fields and misty sky...

And all that day in murky London Wall,
The thought of RUISLIP kept him warm inside;

And caught the first non-stop to WILLESDEN GREEN,
Then out and on, through rural RAYNER'S LANE
To autumn-scented Middlesex again."

Betjeman himself was well-known for his love of London and the railways, and recounted a tale of his youthful journeys on the London Underground with a friend, travelling on every single Underground line and getting out at every station. Probably beyond the scope of my project, but what better way of exploring London than on the Tube - emerging every so often into some unknown location - virgin territory to explore?


  1. I'm impressed with your words- you described wonderfully how you was passing the suburbs, and your enumeration gives a feel of that you saw passing by- I remember those endless rows of walls, windows...while you slowly are nearing the central station of a city- mostly we see the less beautiful, not made-up, grey face of the city...I find it often very interesting to explore a city on a bus or tram or on the tube - because of the people who are sitting vis- a-vis or rushing to all directions. I remember some fascinating metropolis- texts in German- full of fugitive impressions, thoughts, and images... literature and film can capture the transient moments at the best I think, whereas photography can freeze and stop the moments (the Dutch language has a wonderful word for that: verstild moment) like you have done: a still moment on an empty, quiet metrostation, touched by some sun-rays, built in former years, but witnessing of modern life (advertisings), before the situation may change when a lot of people will be streaming out of the train, rush hour, busy life, noise... I like Betjeman's poem, and your combination of text of words and pic ist very fine!

  2. Yes, you are right about the difference between film and photography, though a sequence of stills can also give an impression of motion and time passing. This station is Harrow on the Hill - a beautiful example of Art Deco architecture. It always makes me think of John Betjeman who wrote a poem with the same title. It begins:
    "When melancholy Autumn comes to Wembley
    And electric trains are lighted after tea..."