Back near the beginnings of London’s underground transport system (which is mainly overground) the Metropolitan Line came into existence. Part its success was the genius idea to buy up the land around London through which the line was about to be extended and build houses on it, selling these to what would become the commuter classes (with the promise of green open spaces which were quickly built on to provide more housing to sell…). Thus grew London, and with it, serving and driving it in a positive feedback cycle, the Metropolitan line running through what became known as Metroland, suburbia writ large.
One important point of the original Met was that the entire thing was run by steam power (including the inner city underground sections—locos were fitted with not entirely successful condensing equipment to desperately reduce the amount of smoke). So it was that Heather and I entered the wilderness of conformity to reach the end of the Metropolitan line (and Oyster Zones—zone 9!!!) to relive those days at Amersham The Met used to run even further out into the countryside, but Amersham is the line these days
We’d arrived a bit early due to the vagaries of train timings but, after a browse around the little shop set up on the platform, didn’t have to wait long for the joy inducing arrival of Metropolitan No 1. No. 1 is a squat little tank engine, looking perfectly at home pulling into the underground station. That’s not surprising given that it’s been around since 1898 and happily served the the Met line back then. Indeed, No 1 worked the last steam-hauled London Transport passenger train as late as 1961!
The veteran of the Metropolitan Line wasn’t alone however, arriving double headed with the slightly longer and more business like looking tank engine 9466. Actually, they were triple headed with a heritage diesel behind the two steam locomotives—because why have one train when you can have more. Another diesel brought up the other end of the train, ready to haul us one way of the return trip.
Before setting off there was time for a closer look at the locos, pressing through the scrum of others also trying to grab photos. It was also an opportunity for the crews to grab some lunch—sandwiches made with bacon cooked on the shovel. In between staring at the train and drooling over the bacon was the chance
to watch the bemusement of people arriving on actual tube trains on finding a steam loco or two gently puffing on the adjacent platform. Soon we were climbing aboard the 1950s ex-British Rail carriages, sinking into the soft bouncy seats before the Class 20 diesel at what was for now the front pulled us away.
To be honest, apart from the comfort of the seats, the journey down to Harrow on the Hill was a little like being on a modern fast train—nice flashes of countryside out the window but ultimately not too exciting. It was more exciting in the brief break on the platform seeing the locos sat there as there very modern descendants buzzed through the adjacent lines. It was also fun watching the delight of those unexpectedly finding them. The journey back up the line was different though. The journey back up was behind steam.
Besides the sound, and the wonderful smell, of being being a steam locomotive there is something fundamentally different to the motion. It is a mechanical thing, each little jolt and spring of imperfect rods and pistons somehow transmitting through to a deep physicality. The whole blends—the motion, the sound, the writhing smoke, the odour of soot. It was the same countryside passing by along the line we’d very recently run up and down but now it had a twinkle of magic. There was a great loud beast (or two) at the front, alive with fire and metallic sinew. As we went through stations or past other trains a great cacophony of whistles and horns went up for the sheer joy of it, and grins couldn’t help but spread across our faces.
It was over too soon, pulling back into Amersham and breaking the spell. We’d prebooked for vintage afternoon tea, thinking it would be a nice way to round off the afternoon. Sadly we were a bit mistaken on that point. The tearoom was set up in the open on the platform, and the rain was beginning to come (nobody seemed in any hurry to put up the parasols though). I got a lukewarm cup of tea but Heather doesn’t like tea which left the staff scrabbling around to find her something to drink (one would have thought that rather than one of the four or five varieties of tea they might have had the foresight to offer coffee). The cake and scone weren’t particularly brilliant either, and the only really vintage thing was a bit of bunting and old, mismatched china cups. We wouldn’t have sat there so long if we weren’t waiting to see the train depart again, with that chorus of whistles as it went by.
We started trying to find a pub in Amersham afterwards, but there isn’t one in view of the station and then realised we could escape the increasing rain on our train home, so left. A disappointing end then, but let that not detract from the magic of the steam.