Collected Journalism

Metroland, 100 Years On

metro

This piece appeared in The Guardian in September 2015.

Planners, architects and builders are not the only ones who create cities. The suburban landscape of north-west London owes its existence, largely, to the imagination of the Metropolitan Railway’s marketing department.

One hundred years ago, in the summer of 1915, the railway’s publicity people devised the term “Metroland” to describe the catchment area of villages stretching from Neasden into the Chiltern Hills. The railway had bought up huge tracts of farmland along this corridor in the decades before the first world war, and it was ripe for development. All they needed was a sales pitch.

The first Metroland booklets were filled with illustrations of idyllic cottages and dainty verses about “a land where the wild flowers grow”. A semi-rural arcadia was offered to Londoners sick of crowded conditions in the city. The campaign proved a roaring success. After the war, the white-collar workers who sought space and greenery flocked to the north-west of the city.

Over the next 20 years, the railway’s development company and its building partners unrolled commuter estates from Neasden out into Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire. Fields were filled with endless avenues of mock-Tudor “country” villas: semi-detached dwellings with steep roofs, bay windows and half-timbered gables. The Metropolitan’s PR people had accidentally invented English suburbia.

Metroland today is very different to the vision once conjured up by the railway’s brochures and posters. Open countryside has long since been engulfed by the ubiquitous semis, and there is now no obvious delineation between the old village centres. In recent years, there has been a steady drip of stories about overcrowding, slum landlords and “beds in sheds” . The noisy high streets of Brent and Harrow now look indistinguishable from much of inner London.

To mark the 100th anniversary of the Met’s great marketing drive, I wanted to discover what has become of London’s quintessential suburbs.

To read on, go to The Guardian…

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