Dispatches Pints

The Life of Reilly

In search of Betjeman’s arcadia

In 1973, Sir John Betjeman produced a memorable BBC documentary, entitled Metro-Land. The concept of Metro-land was concocted in 1915 by the advertising poindexters at the Metropolitan Railway Country Estates, as a means to both promote their train line out into The Chilterns and entice potential homeowners to the developments that were springing up around it. ‘Live in Metro-land’, the posters proclaimed, and escape the city smog to your very own house in a meadow, complete with a brook babbling in your back garden and children frolicking amongst the wildflowers. It was to be just like the imagined glory days of Merrie England – all morris dancers, maypoles and mild occultism. 

Metro-land’s scope was broadly defined by the line’s route out from the city: taking in a cheese-shaped wedge of suburban London from Baker Street, through Neasden and Wembley; Harrow and Pinner; and then finally into the countryside of Rickmansworth, Chesham, and Amersham. Today, it’s rather more indefinable: arguably the identikit 1930s estates of Uxbridge or Edgware should also be included in the definition – and besides, most of the land smushed between the A40, M1, and M25 is so built-up and homogenous that it all sort of blends into one anyway.  

The interwar demand for housing across London led to a rapid expansion of these areas (and, on the opposite side of the capital, in Becontree and Dagenham), as tens of thousands of semi-detached mock tudor or pebbledashed abodes sprung up in a vast suburban sprawl. The density was low, the snobbery was great, and by the time Metro-Land first went out, the rus in urbe dream had largely dissipated, with the location now a byword for boredom, cars and small-c conservatism. 

But as the housing situation in London throbs and swells at the seams once again, the councils of Harrow, Brent and Hillingdon are green-lighting infill development and the construction of taller, higher density properties. Metro-land is now the realm of unlicensed HMOs (House of Multiple Occupancy), with more than 10,000 dwellings classified as overcrowded in Harrow in 2023. The bucolic dream – ‘a rural arcadia’ as the 1932 edition of the Metro-land Guide put it – has become a populous, new-build reality.

I wanted to find out what it was really like today, 100 years after its heyday – and there’s no better way to get to know the soul of an area than by drinking lots of pints in its public houses. So, on the sort of drab and drizzly Saturday afternoon better suited to a spot of half-arsed DIY or staring forlornly out of a condensation flecked window, I met my usual ragtag coterie of hungover dreamers at Euston and, after a swift one at the newly opened Eversholt Street Wetherspoons, boarded the commuter train out to the sleepy land of privet hedges and tarmacked front gardens.

The first pub on our list was to set the tone for the rest of the trip: Barretts Freehouse [sic], opposite Harrow & Wealdstone station. The shop conversion Irish pub is a curious fixture of this part of London, being as they are located solely on the high streets and art deco promenades between Northolt and North Finchley. Wards. Houlihans. Hennessys. This type of possessive-apostrophobic boozer started springing up in the 1980s and proliferated as the Irish population of Counties Kilburn and Archway was pushed out to the suburbs. 

Blarneys. The Crock of Gold. Róisín Dubh. Smugglers Cove, Erins Hope, The Shanakee. That these bacchanalian drinking dens now exist almost exclusively in an area originally designed for a Middle England once notorious for its ‘no blacks, no dogs, no Irish’ signs is a delicious anomaly. They are, in many ways, the future of boozing: in a London where getting pissed is no longer the raison d’être of socialising, shop conversion pubs are more intimate, more unhinged and much cheaper to run than the grandiloquent gastro palaces you find nearer the city. 

Barretts at half-past-five on a Saturday belied its rowdy reputation, however – with just a handful of older drinkers at the bar half-eyeing the horse racing, and a group of younger, Eastern European lads chatting closely in a booth. We ordered three pints of Guinness (almost every one of these newer Hibernian hooch-holes does an excellent pint of it, if you’re the sort of supercilious person who thinks Guinness quality exists on some sort of quantifiable sliding scale, as opposed to being just ‘good’ or ‘bad’) and sat down to assess the scene. Like many of these establishments, Barretts is narrow, carpeted and adorned with all manner of Gaelic paraphernalia. Maps of Ireland. Rustic signposts to Donegal or Dingle. Numerous photos of hurling champions from years gone by, each as alien to my Barclays-sozzled brain as Stig Inge Bjørnebye would be to a Basset Hound. The olde-worlde Emerald Isle schmaltz means they’re easy places to fall in love with, and really I could have stayed in the warmth and comfort of Barretts the whole evening, harmoniously guzzling pints with abandon and trying to figure out the rules of the hurling. But we had uncharted pavement to travel.

Walking from Barretts, you get a real sense of the cultural melange that Harrow is today. A Chinese acupuncturist. A Turkish ocakbaşı. Sam’s Chicken. A Polish butcher. An Afghani bakery. And then, The Three Wishes, very much the Wetherspoons of the Irish shop conversion world. The owner, businessman Terry O’Sullivan, has eight other sites across Metro-land, all also called The Three Wishes, and each with largely the same vibe: exposed brick and wood; strange, coloured glass bottles on the wall; and a clientele as varied as the high streets on which each pub sits. In 1971 Wealdstone South, The Three Wishes’ ward, had an 84.1% white British population. By 2021, that had fallen to 36.1%. Although the amount of Irish in the ward has stayed largely the same (5.8% in 1971 versus 5.4% in 2021), the grogholes of Wealdstone South today are now supplemented by the Polish, the Romanians, the Bulgarians, the Turkish, the Greeks, the Indians, the Nigerians, the lost, and the lonely. During the afternoon, they attract an older, hoary crowd – much like the one that greeted us at The Three Wishes – but when darkness falls, these drinking dens become vibrant pockets full of packet and plotting. 

It was this dark heart that we sought to find. Hangovers by now a distant memory, we decided to walk east to Belmont Circle, a weirdly isolated island of shops located between Harrow and Stanmore. There used to be a large 1930s pub on the roundabout here called The Spanish Arch (The Belmont Hotel), which shut in 2008 and became a curry house, that other great night economy of North West London. No matter. Two shop conversion pubs had popped up in its place, where we could reliably get a round of brandies in and quickly forget about having any dinner: The Belmont (which stays open until 3am) and the Life of Reilly, the latter of which we tried our luck with. We were immediately greeted with an entire packed room’s worth of stares. As their entrances pretty much always face into the room, there’s nowhere to really hide in a boozer that used to be a baker or butcher. For this, they’re often accused of being unfriendly or aggressive, but it was mainly the sight of three half-cut blokes better suited to Islington or Soho bursting into a pub closer to Watford than Westminster that sent curious glances our way. 

Although the Life of Reilly clientele was as mixed as The Three Wishes, there was a noticeably younger and more feminine energy to the crowd, with the customary sea of Guinness now flecked with islands of Prosecco buckets and alcopops. I couldn’t help but be cheered by the mise en scène before me. Here was drinking in Britain at its most pure: a room full of people trying to cheaply escape themselves for the evening, set to a backdrop of Sky Sports post-match analysis and club classics. Blokes played pool, while women hung back on the banquettes talking animatedly and half-dancing in their seats. Even the few remaining older geezers seemed happy to be there, serenely sipping their halves of mild as different groups of twenty-somethings flirted and flitted about each other. These pubs fulfil an escapist function for the young people of the area: places to dream and scheme amongst the lilac blossoms. And as the population of Metro-land grows, so business will surely boom for these pint-sized pubs – The Three Wishes opened their latest branch in Pinner towards the back end of last year. 

We left the Life of Reilly, and wandered once again through the quiet suburbia as the drizzle turned to rain. We headed towards Canons Park – a station whose car park has been earmarked for the construction of 118 affordable homes in a six-storey complex – and stumbled onto a Jubilee line train back to the city. If Metro-land was already a ‘lost Elysium’ by the time Betjeman was lamenting it in 1954’s Middlesex, then today it’s even further from its supposed idyllic origins. Yet in many ways, the area now – with its diversity, new builds, bungalowed cul-de-sacs, and penchant for sinking six to eight pints in as quick a time as possible – is more quintessentially English than that intangible feeling of Deep England the original settlers here grasped at. As a nation we’ve been romanticising a lost Albion since the mediaeval days of Cockaigne. You get the sense that, once the new developments here have finally sprung up in every last gap of green; once the brown brick and bustle of the city has completely ruptured the Green Belt, we’ll look back misty-eyed at the ataraxy of Betjeman’s Metro-land. Time passes quickly, and the relentless march of progress continues apace. The only thing for it, then, is to get your round in. 

You've reached the end. Boo!

Don't panic. You can get full digital access for as little as £1.66 per month.

Get Offer

Register for free to continue reading.

Or get full access for as little as £1.66 per month.

Register Free Subscribe

Already a member? Sign In.