Simon Calder: North-west passage to the twilight zone

The Man Who Pays His Way
  • @SimonCalder

Volleyball, like Morris dancing and tonsilitis, has never impinged on my life – until Thursday, when I went along to Earl's Court Arena in London for the women's semi-final between South Korea and the USA. Like the chap I met a week ago at Waterloo station – who had just been to watch a bunch of bouncer-like central Asians wrestle each other to the podium – I felt I should attend at least one Olympics event, and this was the only ticket I could get. Along with the precious ticket came a one-day Games Travelcard. Intriguingly, this unlimited-travel ticket covered all the Underground zones, from 1 to 9.

If you are unfamiliar with the Tube fares system in the capital, it comprises concentric rings. The majority of tourist attractions are in Zone 1; Greenwich and Hampstead look leafy and lovely in 2; the Olympic Park and London City airport reside in 3, and so on. Many travellers have ventured to Zone 6, because it includes Heathrow. But thereafter the system goes funny, and exists only in the extreme north-west of the Tube map. Beyond even Rickmansworth and Watford, Zone 9 is the Pluto of the Underground solar system. And at the outer limits you find the mysterious twins of Amersham and Chesham.

Normally it costs big bucks to visit Bucks: the cash fare is £15 return from central London, and £4.30 from Chesham to Amersham (change at Chalfont & Latimer). So armed with my Games Travelcard, I set off for the twilight zone. Before the 3pm kick off, bully off or shove off (or however a volleyball match begins), I wanted to unlock the north-west frontier of the Underground.

The thing about the Metropolitan Line is that, while it is officially part of the Underground, almost all of it is above the surface. The outbound train quickly shrugs off the city, carving between the benign semis of Metroland. Chalfont & Latimer – the sole Tube stop in Zone 8 –resembles a rambling English garden with an Underground station attached. Deeper into the Chilterns lies Chesham: a country halt where you expect a Railway Children-type locomotive to puff along, rather than an Underground train from Aldgate.

Beyond the station lies a tranquil English town. At Bulldog News I asked the proprietor, Nick Thakrar, if Olympics ticket holders have been turning up in their Chiltern hundreds and thousands for a peep at Zone 9. He looked perplexed: "I haven't seen any strange or unusual faces around here." As my face fell, he quickly added: "That's not to say your journey has been wasted – Chesham's a lovely place. Take a walk down the High Street and see the Clock Tower." I also found the 16th-century George & Dragon, and Chesham Museum – open only on three days a week, none of which is Thursday.

Capital comparisons

Like Paris, Chesham has a bois. But while the French capital makes do with the Bois de Boulogne, Chesham boasts a Great Bois Wood that spreads south from the town along the road to Amersham. I pedalled along part of the Chiltern Heritage Trail, where the beech and birch reached for the skies as the sun dappled through the leaves. Appropriately for an Olympic journey, I followed the tracks of the record-breakers – the people who race around all the stations on the Tube network in a single day. Ian Robins, a civil engineer and one-time holder of the record, explained: "You must arrive at or depart from every station , but you are allowed to use buses between termini. The bus from Chesham to Amersham helped us get around in under 18 hours."

Like Athens, Amersham is a tale of two cities: high and low. The Bucks equivalent of the high city, the Acropolis, is Amersham-on-the-Hill. And while the Greek capital may boast the Parthenon at its peak, Amersham's height is a fast-food emporium called Bellybusters, whose logo shows a cartoon figure with all the delicate grace of a Belarusian shot-putter. "We've seen more people because of the Olympics," reported the owner, Colin Eggleston. "They've been calling in because our prices are so much cheaper," he added as he sold me an 80p cup of tea for the long and winding journey to Earls Court.

Star performance

South Korea had less luck than pluck; the USA won in straight sets. I shall not take up volleyball, but the event was great fun. Only one thing was missing: North Korea's flag. You may recall the kerfuffle at the women's football match between "DPR Korea" and Colombia when the South Korean flag was shown in error. Thursday was the chance to compensate by flying the red star of the North – arch-enemy of the South, and founder member of George W Bush's "axis of evil".