Travel: Metroland - Trainspotting with a difference

If the Metropolitan Railway had had its way, the Buckinghamshire countryside would have been lost forever...
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The Independent Culture
The clues were there, hidden in the woods and scattered across the rolling pastures of Buckinghamshire. That band of trees, all shorter than their neighbours, that grassy cutting grazed by cattle, were evidence of a great industrial enterprise that came to nothing.

There were clues also on the map that I carried as I walked through the soft autumn landscape. There, deep in the heart of nowhere, was a speck of a place that bore the name of a railway town - Verney Junction. Elsewhere, near the hilltop village of Brill, was a place called Tramway Farm. Between the two, Quainton Road, which, to judge from the lines on my map, marked a "dismantled railway", radiating from it, was the Clapham Junction of a fossilised transport system.

These places mark the outposts of a once great empire: that of the Metropolitan Railway, the company which, before its absorption into the nationalised Tube network in 1933, industriously ran its tracks out through the virgin countryside to the north west of London. It filled the land through which it passed with great blankets of houses that were sold as an Englishman's semi-detached castle in the country. They called it Metroland, and even John Betjeman sang its praises.

Today, the tracks end at Amersham, but in the heyday of the Metropolitan Railway they forged on to the north west, out through Wendover and Aylesbury to Quainton Road, where the lines divided. One branch went north to Verney Junction. The other used an old tramway built by the Duke of Buckingham, to reach Brill.

A hundred years ago, through trains were introduced from Verney Junction to Baker Street. Today, the rails are long gone, but these frontier posts of Metroland are linked by footpaths, including a stretch of the North Buckinghamshire Way, and to visit them makes for an exhilarating day's hike through a stretch of unspoilt countryside.

If the Metroland master plan had been completed, the village of Brill, where I began my walk, would have stood like an 11th-century castle above a mock-Tudor sea, and a great swath of Buckinghamshire would have been for ever suburbia. But a recession meant it was not to be.

A barometer set into a wall in the main street indicated change, but nothing is likely to alter Brill now. It's big on history. Edward the Confessor built a hunting-lodge here, in which he and five subsequent kings stayed. The parish church, All Saints, was once the King's chapel. Today, it is full of children's drawings.

Brill is a Trumpton-ish sort of a place, so quiet that I felt as conspicuous as one of those strange individuals everyone remembers in a Crimewatch reconstruction. I couldn't help feeling guilty as I slipped behind the church and took the footpath through Chinkwell Wood to the line of the old Brill tramway. It was one of those warm autumn days which, after a clutch of wintry mornings, made me feel pathetically grateful. It was clear enough to enjoy the magical view north over the vale of Aylesbury and the blue Chiltern hills.

At the entrance to the nature reserve in Rushbeds Wood I came across a narrow bridge that once took the tramway across another railway line and on to the hamlet of Wotton Underwood.

This is little more than a farm and a 14th-century church - narrow and dark like a coffin - serving the grand Wotton House. But great events can have their roots in little places. Buried in his family vault within the church is one George Grenville, who was prime minister in 1763 and introduced the American Stamp Act, which obliged the American colonies to pay for their own defence: a law which led to the War of Independence. America's freedom has its roots here.

I had the place to myself. But a burglar alarm ringing in the old rectory made me feel like a prime suspect again, and I hurried on my way over a meadow and along an old railway track, skirted an airfield, crossed the main A41 and took the lane to Quainton Road.

The station has now become the Buckinghamshire Railway Centre, and is home to a huge range of old locomotives, including a tram that, when it last ran, was destined for Brooklyn. To north and south, the paths of the old routes to Brill and Verney Junction can be seen curving away over the fields. The line that remains is used only for freight, including the rubbish train which takes London's refuse to the clay-pits at Calvert, five miles up the line.

Quainton itself was another silent village, dominated by a windmill. From here I picked up the North Buckinghamshire Way, which took me to Verney Junction. Until a few years ago, there was a pub here called the Junction Arms. But, after being rag-rolled and stencilled, the sign now declares that this is the Verney Arms Country Bistro.

It was an unlikely oasis to encounter down an English country lane, but it proved a perfect place to rest after a full morning's walk.

After lunch, I took the footpath on the other side of the lane, which led me to the old junction. The line to Quainton Road, and another to Buckingham, were gone, but the solitary freight line from Milton Keynes to Bicester was still there, the final surviving piece in a grand Victorian plan to take trains from Manchester, via the Metropolitan line, to London and on through a Channel tunnel to Paris.

Clearly, it was a scheme almost a century ahead of its time. But as I looked around at the rich and unspoilt countryside, I breathed a sigh of relief.

The Verney Arms Country Bistro, Verney Junction, Buckingham (01296 712784); Buckinghamshire Railway Centre, Quainton Road Station, Quainton, Aylesbury, Bucks (01296 655720)

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