Tag Archives: West London Air Terminal

Beside the Cromwell Curve: 1985

This week’s post is a kind of sequel to the one about the West London Air Terminal which has proved to be enormously popular and attracted comments from many people who remembered a building I dared to call forgotten. Regular readers will be aware of the photographs of Bernard Selwyn, a surveyor who worked in west London who left the Library in his will a large number of photos he’d taken during the course of his work. He had time to indulge his own interests in London history and he frequently had access to vantage points not everyone could visit. This was in June 1985, well after the Terminal had closed, but before some of the development in the area around it.

The big change was the arrival of Sainsburys in 1983 which would then have been the biggest supermarket in the area.

Sainsburys Cromwell Road 30 jun 85 -10

Selwyn seems to have got inside the space above the supermarket, either in the main structure or the parking/lift tower beside it. Either way he found a few spots well above ground level, looking down on the Cromwell Curve, that point where railway lines coming from Gloucester Road, Earls Court and Kensington High Street meet just below ground level.

Hotel Cromwell Road 30 Jun 85 - 36A

There is the point where the tracks go underneath Cromwell Road to get to Gloucester Road Station. In the background is the Penta Hotel, later the Forum and now the Holiday Inn. On the left are houses in Emperor’s Gate. You can see some extensive undergrowth by the side of the tracks which extends onto a then vacant area. It’s built on now but in 1983 there was a curious sight.

Buttressed house 30 jun 85 -18

One of the buildings has some serious buttress work. It almost looks as though wooden arms were stretched out, frantically trying  to keep the building standing. in the background you can see what was then a church of the Russian Orthodox Church in Exile which took over a building which had been a Baptist, then a Presbyterian Chapel. the Russian Orthodox Church was there from 1959-1989. Later it became a church hall for St Stephen’s Church, Gloucester Road.

Rear of houses near track 30 Jun 85 -15

This view shows the track heading north towards High Street Kensington Station. The buildings next to the track belong to the Underground. You can see them more clearly in the picture below which also shows  what look like ramps for cars.

Rear of houses near track and side of car park 30 Jun 85 -17

It’s always curious to see the rear of these comparatively tall residential blocks.

 

Cromwell Road with view of Gloucester road station 30 jun 85 -25

There are the twin tunnel entrances heading under Cromwell Road, and a neat little staircase leading up that odd little overgrown space. Across the street you can see the site where the Gloucester Arcade was built and beyond, the station platforms which were covered over by the development. I don’t know what the white building was. Anyone? [Update Thursday afternoon – see the comments section below for the actually quite obvious when you look answer, provide by an eagle-eyed reader.]

Selwyn was obviously taken by the view towards Emperor’s Gate. See the signs for the Genesta hotel?

Genesta Hotel 30 jun 85 -30

Now he swivels back to the closest rear view, of Cromwell Road itself. These buildings follow the curve of the track and because of that some of them are surprisingly narrow.

Rear of buildings 30 jun 85 -35

I always imagined that this could be the spot in the Sherlock Holmes story, “The Bruce Partington Plans” in which a body is dumped on top of the roof of a train and carried away for miles before discovery at Aldgate. (Holmes works it out of course with his keen knowledge of the the then modern railway system). But  Holmes experts have determined that it was actually further west. You can see how close the windows are to the tracks though. The rear configuration of the buildings is surprisingly varied.

Rear of buildings 30 jun 85 -34

Look at the complex set of  fire escape in the next couple of pictures. Is there a train coming?

no train 30 jun 1985 -22

Yes.

Train 30 jun 1985 -24

And Selwyn can’t resist taking a picture as  one passes.

This (almost) final picture takes us back to the start with that heavily scaffolded building next to the tunnel entrance for the tracks to Earls Court.

Cromwell Road with scaffolded building 30 jun 85 -28

That coach, or one very much like it is still parked on the pavement.

Of course, when you’ve got a camera in your hand there’s one thing you’re always going to take a quick picture of:

Blimp and tower 30 jun 85 -31

Who can resist a blimp? Note the remaining tower of the Imperial Institute poking up above the skyline.

Postscript

In a previous Selwyn based post I included my personal tribute to the late Glenn Frey. By coincidence there was another recent death in the music world which saddened me. Sandy Pearlman was not a performer. He wrote lyrics for the Blue Oyster Cult, managed them and produced many of their albums. BOC were a strange hybrid of heavy metal, psychedelia and that glossy hard rock of the early 1970s. Pearlman contributed to the atmosphere of the occult in many of their songs, but his main claim to fame is as a producer. Albums he produced had a unique guitar sound, whether it was the Dream Syndicate (the only time I ever bought an album because of the producer), the Dictators (their album Manifest Destiny contains my personal theme song, “Sleeping with the TV on”). Pavlov’s Dog (featuring the bizarrely high voice of David Surkamp) or most famously the Clash whose second album Give ’em enough rope was produced by Pearlman in an attempt to break the band in America. Someone on the  radio called it the best guitar album ever made. I wouldn’t go that far but if you’re not convinced play the first three tracks on the album (or just the third,”Tommy Gun” ) and you’ll see for yourself. After you’ve recovered try “Astronomy” by the Blue Oyster Cult, one of my favourite songs ever.

Thank you and farewell, Sandy Pearlman.

Postscript to the postscript

In the days of film cameras you always used to use up the film with a few unrelated pictures at the end. Selwyn was no exception to this rule. In this pack of photos there were a few of St Paul’s Cathedral and a couple of this building, which I’m sure one of you London experts will immediately identify.

unidentified building 30 jun 85 -7A

No prize, but it would be quite nice to know.

 

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Forgotten buildings: the West London Air Terminal

This forgotten building still exists, at least in its physical manifestation as a 1960s tower block overlooking the Cromwell Road. In all other respects it is forgotten and when I wander around the extensive interior of Sainsbury’s Gloucester Road I never think of what was there before, or of the original purpose of this strangely sited structure. Because this building served a purpose which could now be regarded as obscure and archaic. It was British European Airways’ West London Air Terminal.

WLAT vehicle entrance

[A Rover 3.5 litre coupe, a car much favoured by managers in the 60s heads to the car park bypassing the ramp to the departures area on the first floor.]

The idea of an air terminal away from the actual airport it served goes back to the days when Croydon was London’s Airport. It had a remote terminal at Victoria Station. In the period after the war Heathrow was in the ascendant so the search was on for a site in West London. The airport authorities settled on an area in Kensington already occupied by another form of transport: the Cromwell Curve where the District and Circle lines came together and tube trains from Gloucester Road, High Street Kensington and Earls Court passed each other. It was decided to build a concrete raft over the train lines and construct the new terminal above them.

The need for the terminal was so great that they couldn’t wait to build a full scale versionl. A temporary two storey terminal was completed in 1957.

WLAT K61-474 first terminal

This is a truly forgotten building, barely recalled at all I should think except by those who used it.

WLAT K61-475 first terminal showing Cromwell Curve

This picture has something for everyone: some unusual buses, a glimpse of one of the demolished towers of the Imperial Institute and a view of the Cromwell Curve still in the open air, before the concrete platform reached its full extent. Although temporary, the first terminal was celebrated in print as this cutaway diagram from the Illustrated London News shows:

WLAT first terminal 1957 K61-476

The first terminal’s time was limited. In a few years the new version was under construction.

WLAT K63-924 construction

The new tower rose and the platform was extended to accommodate a second entrance.

WLAT K64-13 east entrance

This view of the east entrance shows the other end of the ramp and the lift tower. That lone pedestrian looks like he’s taking his life in his hands.

Here at the west entrance an early photo shows some minimal signage for BEA.

WLAT K64-183 west entrance

Inside was a modern concourse with flight information displayed on actual television sets.

WLAT K64-8 interior

It looks a little under-populated but that may be what the photographer was asked to produce.

Down in the restaurant it looks lively enough with people sitting around some bar style tables.

WLAT K64-9 interior - resturant

At this point I have to ban the word modern from any further use.

The idea in case I haven’t spelt it out was that you checked in for your flight here and then you and your luggage were transported to Heathrow in special airline buses.

WLAT K64-12 interior

I tried to explain to a younger person why this might have been thought to be a good idea but I didn’t succeed. It is enough to say that for many years the airline and its passengers agreed that it was.

The Cromwell Road location, a short convenient distance up the road from Gloucester Road Station meant that when the time came to fly you could put on your sheepskin coat, walk down some stairs, put your case in the coach and be on your way. On the way back the airline deposited you back in Central London.

WLAT K64-10 interior

They even had a baggage carousel, with uniformed porters on hand to help. It doesn’t look too busy.

Copy of WLAT K64-11 interior

I suspect the whole arrangement was something to do with the relative novelty of regular air travel and once people were used to the idea of going to airports, and there were plenty of options for getting there, it was just as easy to make your own way.

So the exciting days of air travel were over.

WLAT pedestrian entrance

Nice dress, Madam.

And as I said the actual building, now remodelled under the name Point West is still with us. Look at this aerial view:

WLAT K65-108 aerial view 1965

The curling ramps are gone and the building is clad in an inoffensive colour.

As always with aerial photos you can spot some interesting detail you can’t see from below. That light well in the centre for example. What does it look down on these days? An ornamental garden, or a sports field?

Next time you travel on the tube between Gloucester Road and High Street Kensington you can look for the steel girders holding up the concrete platform you are travelling beneath. You can also look all the way up, and wonder what the view all the way down looks like to residents.


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