Simon Calder: North-west passage to the twilight zone

The Man Who Pays His Way

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".

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

Voices
On the last day of campaigning before the polling booths open, the SNP leader has written to voters in a final attempt to convince them to vote for independence
scotland decidesIs a huge gamble on oil keeping the First Minister up at night?
Arts and Entertainment
Rosalind Buckland, the inspiration for Cider with Rosie died this week
booksBut what is it like to be the person who inspires a classic work of art?
Life and Style
techApple has just launched its latest mobile operating software – so what should you do first?
News
A male driver reverses his Vauxhall Astra from a tow truck
newsThe 'extremely dangerous' attempt to avoid being impounded has been heavily criticised
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Messi in action for Barcelona
filmSo what makes the little man tick?
Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: An undercooked end (spoiler alert)
News
i100
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding
musicThe singer said 'the last thing I want to do is degrade'
Sport
Cesc Fabregas celebrates his first Chelsea goal
footballChelsea vs Schalke match report
Arts and Entertainment
Toby Jones (left) and Mackenzie Crook in BBC4’s new comedy The Detectorists
tvMackenzie Crook's 'Detectorists' makes the hobby look 'dysfunctional', they say
Life and Style
fashion

Olympic diver has made his modelling debut for Adidas

News
i100
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    IT Administrator - Graduate

    £18000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: ***EXCELLENT OPPORTUNITY FO...

    USA/Florida Travel Consultants £30-50k OTE Essex

    Basic of £18,000 + commission, realistic OTE of £30-£50k : Ocean Holidays: Le...

    Marketing Executive / Member Services Exec

    £20 - 26k + Benefits: Guru Careers: A Marketing Executive / Member Services Ex...

    Sales Account Manager

    £15,000 - £25,000: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has arisen for ...

    Day In a Page

    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week