Sir Edward Watkin has perhaps single-handedly made more difference to North London and the northern Home Counties than anyone else. He was a fully paid up, Elon Musk style, bulldozing megalomaniac entrepreneur from the days when railways were tech stocks.
|Sir Edward Watkin
Our Ed liked to think bigly big, as a much less endearing businessman turned politician might say. His grandest vision was to create a rail network stretching from Manchester to Europe around the spine of a ‘Great Central Main Line’. A 'Channel Tunnel' would make the connection and in 1880 around a mile of that was actually built. It came to ‘nowt as he might have said at home; Parliament were insufficiently impressed by the submarine champagne parties arranged to promote it and got windy about the security implications. Theirs was the nightmare of Gallic Dragoons marching on the Ashford Designer Outlet. But a stretch of the tunnel survives and its entrance can still be seen at Abbot's Cliff near Dover.
In 1887, sadly and nothing if not farsighted, he said: 'While Europe is becoming more and more one country by the breaking down of old fashioned ideas of exclusion we, in England, are becoming more and more isolated'. Amen to that.
His railway got further heading north from Marylebone Station and reached Verney Junction, a lonely corner of Bucks. But laying track wasn’t the limit of his ambitions. In 1891, in order to draw customers to it, he decided to bless Wembley, a convenient but rural village on the route, to a Victorian style Disneyland, which would be dominated by a tower bigger than Eiffel's in Paris.
He invited alternative ideas and got some truly bonkers proposals. Check out this post on the 'Parisian Fields' blog: Link Wembley Tower But Watkins really just wanted to out-Eiffel Eiffel, and having wasted everyone's time on Victorian takes on Gothic, Aztec, Steampunk and Sci-Fi designs, decided to simply do that.
Sadly, in his wish to 'move fast and break things', he did break them. After only one level of the Tower was complete, it began to tilt and sink into the marshy ground under its own weight.
The tower was demolished in 1904 and twenty years later the site was used for a new national stadium. That stadium has itself now been replaced, but the foundations of Watkin’s tower still lie beneath the pitch. If you want to know what happened to the demolished debris from the original stadium, when driving out of London on the A40 between Greenford and Northolt, look out for the rather strange circular mounds necklaced with footpaths on the left hand side. They cover the rubble.
What does a bloke like this do in his spare time? Well, he turned Grimsby into the biggest fishing port in Europe and Cleethorpes into a resort for it. He earned a Knighthood for his role in forging modern Canada including kick-starting the Canadian Pacific Railroad. He beat Boris Johnson by years in promoting a Scotland-Ireland tunnel, and was similarly successful in persuading others that it wasn't a bonkers idea. He was an active politician supporting votes for women and the great liberal cause of getting rid of the Corn Laws, a curse on bored history students. And finally, when you take the Watkin path up Snowden, the first designated public footpath in the UK, remember the bloke whose idea it was and whose name it bears.
Dear reader, at this point I will do you the courtesy of assuming that you are not a railway history buff and skid over the events that saw Watkin’s legacy morph and truncated into what is now the Metropolitan Line.
One of Watkin’s more canny moves, was to secure rights to the land around the new line, to build homes for people who might then want to travel on it. A decade after his death, the Metropolitan Railway line (which it had become) coined 'Metro-land' as a natty marketing label for the new suburbs springing up on the land it now owned, along its commuter routes out of London Marylebone.
Today the line ends in Amersham but the original route through rural Buckinghamshire can be followed.
Although a political liberal and a catholic, he seems to have been critical of both doctrines. Beyond that, a biography portrays him as the image of one of the Victorian elite; proper, and charming when it suited him and a 'flexible' approach to his marital relationships. He shared this at least, with the other Marquis of Metroland, his later nemesis John Betjeman, who the famous cartoonist Osbert Lancaster said 'was the only person he knew who managed to be married, have a mistress and live the life of a bachelor all at once'.
Isn't he worth a memorial? There is a small plaque at Marylebone Station. Beyond that there was a pub in Wembley it was called ‘Watkin’s Folly’ until it recently got caught between the pincers of regeneration, Covid and the £6 pint. So he might not have approved anyway. So there’s another problem to sort out…..
My Metroland cycle route takes you past the locations of the old stations in rural Buckinghamshire. Little remains of them now, but it isn’t all train spotter stuff and if you want real thrills you can visit a Well attributed to an Iconic Saint who was purportedly responsible for the 'Jack in a Box' figures, find out a bit about Spaghetti Trees and find out why the Rothschild’s beautiful house on their Eyethrope Estate has no bedrooms. Want to see the what’s left? Got a bike? Try (link) Metroland Cycle Route