Zone 9

Over the hills and far awayWhen it comes to untamed nature, I’m with Terry Scott in Carry on Camping:

“Funny thing about dirty, stuffy old London. I can walk for miles and miles without ever getting bitten, stung or stepping into something. That’s more than I can say for the country.”

Or rather, the ill-kept, uncolonised country. The best kind of rural is when a railway runs through it. It’s a mark of progress. No matter how remote you feel or how abandoned you seem, you’ll always be reassured in the countryside when you hear the sound of a train or catch a glimpse of some tracks. It means others have come this way. It means civilisation.

The Underground does this to the otherwise unsettling wilds of Buckinghamshire. The line from Chesham to Chalfont & Latimer runs around the hem of the Chilterns, but doesn’t dare venture up its skirts. This is just as well. Any further out of London and you’d be in Tring, the sort of place so typical of Middle England that Instant Sunshine wrote a song about it.

At just under four miles, this is the longest stretch of Underground between two adjacent stations on the entire network. It doesn’t feel that long, however, because of its novelty. A ride between Highgate and Archway can feel twice as long as this, thanks to the unending blackness and occasional unexplained halt. At least if you get held up out here, you can watch the wild rabbits and buzzards.

Furthest point from Charing CrossThe novelty begins right from the off, when you board your train at the furthest point on the Underground from central London. The only sense that you are in any way connected with the capital comes from the maps inside the carriages. The Victorian water tower and flower beds compound your disorientation. Then you’re off, sneaking beside gabled mansions, Baptist community centres, indoor swimming pools and – for heaven’s sake – rivers with watercress in them, before arriving in open countryside:

Taking a Chil-turn for the betterSingle tracks run almost all the way to Chalfont & Latimer, which heightens the novelty yet further. For all its pastoral pretensions, however, you’re never far from cultivation. A couple of feet at best, in fact. The line is very well maintained, and has just had a load of new fencing installed. For some – i.e., me – this is the best of both worlds: a taste of the country, but not on its own terms.

There’s no direct way to follow the course of the line on foot. A stroll between stations will take you meandering through farms and woodland, across new housing developments and along minor roads with no pavements but dozens of hidden bends. People with metal detectors or dog-walkers with half a dozen beasts may greet you with a polite but slightly clipped pleasantry.

Latimer-boundThere’s no such place as Chalfont and Latimer. The station services a number of villages, including the plum sitcom punchline of Chalfont St Giles. But any location that shares a name with Nigel Havers and Tony Britton’s characters in Don’t Wait Up can’t be all bad.

You arrive through a sequence of meadows and business estates, joining up with the mainline to Aylesbury just outside the station. Nowadays the Metropolitan trains continue on to central London, a far better service than the previous shuttle that ran this far and no further. And there’s more countryside to come, from the vast tracts of greenery outside Chorleywood to the congregation of trees at Moor Park. But none quite so agreeably sprawling as that through which you’ve just passed.

You can go for miles and miles through London without ever getting bitten, stung or stepping into something. The same goes for the country – so long as you stay on the Underground.

London train

AmershamdyIn the top left-hand corner of the Underground map, the short, stubby branch lines that run to Amersham and Chesham sit there like a two-fingered salute to the empty space beyond.

You think we’re going to come any further into Buckinghamshire, they pout. Well ha ha, we’re not. You’re going to have to come to us. We’re not coming to you.

Our loyalties and life support lie south-east, in the metropolis, not north-west, in the middle of nowhere. We’ve planted our toes beyond your boundaries, and we’re not budging. So there. Cue enormous raspberry.

But this – adopts Adam Curtis voice – is a fantasy.

Trains do run beyond Amersham, despite it appearing on the map as the end of the line.

They run deep into Buckinghamshire, albeit not under the purview of Transport for London. They do, however, run on tracks that once belonged to the Underground – tracks that caterpaulted out of the city in the hope of one day becoming part of a hilariously ambitious uber-network that would link northern England with the continent.

Now look at it.

Red hat not picturedThat’s the very last roundel passengers on the mainline get to see.

No longer does the Metropolitan sneak its way up to Aylesbury. That ended in 1961. It used to puff its chest out even further, stretching the elasticity of the system to breaking point in order to poke a smoke-filled nose into Verney Junction. That ended in 1936.

I like the way things are now.

I’m taken with the frontier feel of Amersham – a place, before I moved to London, I knew only as the one and only sighting of the dreaded Red Hat of Pat Ferrick.

It’s just far enough out of London for the Underground to venture and still allow you to sense the faint pulse of the city. It has a rather attractive trace of desolation that never threatens to develop into full-blown abandonment.

Travelling up the Metropolitan line, you’ve unwound your ball of purple wool as far as it can go, threading it all the way from Baker Street through Wembley, Harrow, Pinner and Rickmansworth.

Now the wool has run out. But one tug of the strand and you can find your safely way back home again.

British Rail lives onSure, there’s always platform 1, with its bittersweet invocation of British Rail above its promise of the faintly exotic-sounding Great Missenden and Wendover.

But platform 3 is where London begins, and where the Underground devotee can affirm their love affair all over again.

You can stare all you like at the countryside beyond the buffers. But “in those wet fields the railway didn’t pay. The Metro stops at Amersham today.”

In those wet fields the railway didn't pay

Snow place like itLike dangling an arm out the window of a hot car, the Underground occasionally swaps its default environment for one that is far fresher, if fleeting.

It does this by throwing a tentacle so far from the centre of London that it unfurls not only to the municipal boundary but beyond. Welcome to Buckinghamshire, home of red-faced anti-HS2 brigands, a stand-in for the headquarters of the United Nations, and this: Chesham station, Grade II-listed Victoriana a-go-go, and the most distant point on the network from the King Charles statue at Charing Cross.

Highlight of the place for me is the water tower, a relic from the 1880s. It’s wonderfully uncompromising, sitting like a sentry at the far end of the platform. A squat wodge of nostalgia:

Water way to have a good timeAnother relic of the 1880s is the body of opinion that values this piece of public transport infrastructure, but hates another. I adore them both. It’s great that this water tower survives, but it’s just as great that, while Chesham’s links with Greater London are continually revised and improved, so the same is happening with the south-east and the rest of the UK. Or will do, providing reason prevails over nonsense.

There’s plenty of time to mull these things over when you come to Chesham station. You can’t treat this place like you would the rest of the Underground. There’s no point turning up expecting a train to arrive in the next two or three minutes. Carriages trundle up the single branch line from Chalfont and Latimer every half hour, resting in the platform for a good 10 minutes or so before returning whence they came.

But like Bob Monkhouse and his ever-wonderful Full House, their doors are always open for you, which is extra fortunate if you happen to find yourself in the middle of a snow storm.

The best kind of shelterI’ll return to this corner of the Underground map again, for there’s much to enjoy, even if you have to endure a long ride through lesser parts (Harrow-on-the-Hill, I’m looking at you) to reach it.

Best of all, the Metropolitan line being now wholly-served by a squad of brand-new, uber-slick,  all-in-one bendy trains, the journey is more comfortable than it’s ever been.

If certain attitudes stand still in places like these, at least time doesn’t.

Winter wonderland