It is easy to associate the London Underground with deep lying tunnels; with the whistle and the rattle of busy trains carrying commuters and travellers through the heart of a densely populated urban environment, underneath the maze of streets found on the surface of the city. After all, these are the factors that provide the etymology of the network – the simple undeniable fact that The Tube is located in London and, well, it runs under the ground.
But does it? This belies a sometimes overlooked characteristic of the railway. Only a total of about half of the ‘underground’ network actually comprises of railway tracks that actually run through tunnels. Perhaps a surprising 55% of the tracks are found at ground level, emerging into the open air from the darkness of the central Zone 1 areas to radiate out to the outer lying suburbs.
One of these lines is the Metropolitan line (the magenta coloured line on the map), and is the oldest underground railway in the world. Originally constructed in 1863, steam powered trains connected the termini of mainline railway stations between Paddington and Kings Cross, including Euston and St. Pancras. As the line was extended gradually further out from the centre of the city, it led to the rise of a growth of suburbia known as ‘Metro-land’. These areas of surplus land were used for residential development in the counties of Middlesex, Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire that lie off to to the northwest of the city centre.
Some twenty five miles out from the centre of London you’ll find the market town of Chesham. It’s the terminus of the line as it runs through the large areas of inter-war development and out into the open countryside, transporting you from hustle to tranquillity in just under an hour. Then, just a few minutes walk from the centre of this small market town, you enter into a world so different from the urban metropolis you have just left behind.
With a recent flurry of snow on the ground of the gentle hilly landscape, I set off on a cold Saturday morning for a walk, armed with my Oyster card and my walking boots, taking this ‘underground’ line through the countryside to discover the Chiltern Hills.
Huge clumps of snow were falling to the ground around the train, as we looked outside the windows to see the outer reaches of London temporarily transformed into monochrome. Having departed from Baker Street station underground, Liz and I were now passing through the open air, emerging from the tunnels just after Finchley Road station. I had never been this far out on the tube before, despite having lived in London for four years, and in the region for all but seven years of my thirty. My knowledge of the area – despite being born in the town of Harrow, one of the many stations on the line – stemmed only from reading.
I had always been fascinated by a quirk on the London Transport map, with the majority of the network being comprised of six zones, increasing in number out from the core of the central zone 1. However, one corner of the map contains what appears to be an anomaly. A compression of multiple fare zones are squeezed into the top left corner of the map above ‘zone 6’, reaching a 9th zone at the end of both the standard line to Amersham, and the branch line to Chesham. These outer lying areas can still be reached using the London Underground ticket system, meaning that I could travel from my home in Wimbledon, out to Chesham in Zone 9, tapping in and out using my Oyster card, all for a bargin sum of £4.
Our walk mirrored the dreams and aspirations of the ‘Metroland’ advertising that drew in news crowds to the area; Christian Wolmar describes in his book ‘The Subterranean Railway’ how the advertising of the then independent Metropolitan ‘waxed lyrical about the way these extensions created the possibility of rural trips’, quoting the leaflets with their publicity “opened up a new and delightful countryside to the advantage of picturesque seekers; ancient houses and old-world ways.” This is a practice that clearly hasn’t stopped today.
Ironically, it was largely because of this idyllic setting, mostly fuelled by the arrival of the railway itself, that saw a morphing of the inner countryside surrounding London into the mass sprawl of housing. Chesham itself was transformed from a small village to a gateway to the countryside by the arrival of the railway. We were following – literally – in the footsteps of countless urbanites before us.
By the time we arrived into Chesham, the snowfall had now stopped, leaving a light sprinkle of white that seemed to be melting by the minute. After passing through a park, following a row of trees in a muddy and grassy field with a slope that warped your perspective, we joined the Chiltern Link – an ancient trade route connecting the town with another town, Wendover, some eight miles away to the west. At a junction of paths, opening up in front of us after passing through a gap in the hedgerow was the first views of the small range of hills, a patchwork landscape of fields, paths and covered with trees bare of leaves in the midst of winter. We were less than ten minutes walk from the town, only an hour from London, and already had the area almost to ourselves.
Heading up through a shallow valley known as Herberts Hole, the path crossed a road to join a tree lined bridleway, a muddy track that gained height above the lower ground. I’m utterly captivated by these ancient trackways and paths; the highways and byways of yesterday, the primary routes of transportation from a pre-industrial age; ones that criss-cross the English countryside.
Walking on the pathway was surprisingly hard work. The ground, still in a semi frozen state from the cold of the preceding night, was covered with the tracks of a large farm vehicle, presumably a tractor. The combination of the two meant there was little flat area, and as our feet were larger than the tracks, we stuttered and jinxed along this section for about a mile before reaching a charming cottage on a country lane, with black smoke rising from the chimney.
We paused on the steps of a wooden cricket pavilion in the small village of Chartridge, eating our lunch in the glare of the low sun across the field from us. Shortly after, we were passed by a couple of locals out walking their dogs, quickly saying hello to one another in that semi-polite way you do when surrounded by greenery.
It always fascinates me behind the etiquette of the simple but human touch of giving a greeting to a stranger – highlighted between our daily lives in London and the current location in the green countryside. In London, it is very rare for a person to walk past you on the street and pause to say hello. Maybe it is the significant higher population levels, or just an avoidance measure to save time in reaching a destination? Imagine how long it would take to walk down Oxford Street if you said hello to everyone? I would consider it odd to be greeted by a stranger walking along a pavement to my office.
In the countryside, walking along the other worldly maze of footpaths, a social transformation occurs. It would be now be strange and odd for a person you pass not to say hello, and there is a unwritten country code that you must say a quick hi to passing footpath pedestrian traffic. Perhaps it is unavoidable, with two people walking towards one another on a single, narrow track? I would like to think it runs deeper than that; the quick hello being not only a single act of quick kindness, but a sly nod and appreciation to a shared enjoyment of the countryside. Where the line between the unofficial London rules and the greeting of people in rural areas begins, I’m really not sure. There isn’t a boundary marker at the end of Zone 6 (or Zone 9 in this case), or a large sign saying ‘Thank you for leaving London, you can talk to people’.
Having not planned any specific route, we enjoyed the flexibility of the day, roughly taking a circular route looping around the north west of Chesham. Marked with a green dotted line indicating a footpath on our OS map, there were plenty of options. We decided to drop down from Charteridge, through a small valley in a recently cropped field, and then quickly up again to reach the small road running through the village of Asheridge, for a quick beer in a nice country pub, The Blue Ball, a pub where the smell of good food wafted through from the kitchen, and where dogs seemed to nearly outnumber humans. The landlords border collie being as social-able and friendly as you would expect a dog living in a pub to be.
Refreshed with a quick beer, we eventually joined another bridleway, running and bending while following around the perimeter of a field, picking our way through a tunnel of overhanging trees, with the tracks of the previous and mechanical users ground into the route beneath our feet. Sometimes the track was impassable with mud and deep, dark puddles blocking the way, forcing us to take a quick detour through the scrub-land and dead branch filled overgrowth that run alongside the track.
‘That looks like an emu’, said Liz, spotting a group of large birds in the field opposite the track, each one individually kept in a relatively small pens with a small wooden shelter. One of the birds came closer, walking towards our position up until it reached a fence and couldn’t come any closer. ‘Oh, an ostrich!!’. It was an unlikely sight in the English countryside, seeing a large flightless bird, capable of reaching speeds of over 40mph in the wild, picking its way slowly and tentatively through a small green field covered with small patches of snow. The enclosed pen was probably the complete opposite of their natural savannah habitat on the plains of Africa, and it was hard not to feel something for the animal when purely comparing the natural and farm habitats, but on reflection, and by detaching the emotion of the situation, this was a farm. An unusual farm for the UK, sure, but still a farm. The animals were clearly well looked after and free-range, and we had to look at the farm in the same way you would do for one with a flock of sheep, or a herd of cows.
Reverting back through more traditional farms, we looped back around an area known at ‘the Vale’, a small valley with a road running through the lowest point. There was a path the other side of the hedge, and we took this path running alongside the road, stopping to say hello (as you do in the countryside) to a few of the horses. A few voles or shrews nipped across the path in front of us, and we then joined back onto the world of tarmac, through the outskirts of the town of Chesham – the development of the town following the roads out like spokes on a bicycle wheel. We had timed the end of the walk well, covering perhaps ten miles over the course of the day. It was just getting dark as we tapped back into the Transport for London network with our oyster cards and climbed back abroad the train back to the centre of London, and back to urbanity.