Tag Archives: Westway

Before the Westway: a North Paddington skyline

This week we have the long awaited return of my occasional co-blogger Isabel Hernandez who grew up in the area  sometimes called North Paddington and has many memories of it as it changed in the years around the building of the Westway. Like myself she has been looking closely at the photographs of Bernard Selwyn.

 

The city skyline changes over decades much as mountains change shape over centuries. Our small local areas, places we call home, or used to call home, places we are familiar with, are no different. These urban cityscapes seem to undergo a makeover every fifty years or so. From the overcrowded terraces of the Victorian period to the later concrete brutalism of the 1960’s, we are now witnessing the era of glass and mirrors built in angular shapes in what is now contemporary modern architecture.

Still, the shadows of the past remain in photographs and to continue with my study of the Westway (Paddington-side) I thought I would share with you a few more images of this corner of London before the infamous Westway motorway was built.

Below is a panoramic view of North Paddington bordered by North Kensington at the top. You can see the Kensal Gas Works and the St Charles’ Hospital tower, formerly the Marylebone Infirmary. [Click on the image to see a bigger view]

The Great Western Railway to the left cuts unimpeded through the built-up area.

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This is the same view a a short time later. The second tower block – Oversley House – is under construction.

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Below,a closer view. In the background you can see Ladbroke Grove bridge more clearly, connecting North Kensington to Paddington. If you look closely there is also a footbridge on the left that appears to have a tree growing out of it. Obviously it isn’t, but from this angle the bridge resembles a horizontal chute. It wasn’t a very appealing crossing, but it was a shortcut through to Westbourne Park and North Kensington. I made use of it many times, sometimes late at night, probably not a very wise thing to do with hindsight, but it saved time. The dilapidated Victorian houses, a stark contrast to their taunting new neighbours, await the bulldozer. Nowhere was there a more densely packed neighbourhood than in this part of Paddington.

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The houses come down and a temporary wasteland is created, with the exception of these houses in the foreground. They do seem a little grander than the terraces behind them and I wonder why they are still standing at this point when their neighbours have been demolished

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The strange case of the solitary houses. I suspect they were slightly more upmarket than the usual fare in the area. There is also the interesting feature of the residents coming and going as has always been their routine perhaps; shopping or simply getting from one place to another. The lady (left of the house) probably had no idea she was being included in a photographic survey.

 

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If you like trains, then the Great Western Railway before you would have been a spotter’s delight. Below is possibly Alfred Road or Torquay Street in the pre-redevelopment period. There is a builder, or certainly a very brave man,who appears to be intently prodding the side of a roof with a stick. By contrast an elderly gentleman with a walking stick is passing by, perhaps studying the changes in his area. Although there is a lot of pixilation when studying photographs at close range, when they are enlarged there is still enough to intrigue us.

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The juxtaposition of the concrete towers to the dilapidated, slum terraces is a striking image – like two Lego blocks strategically placed inside of a crowded moat. Although you cannot see it, running parallel to the two tower blocks is the Grand Union Canal.

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Below is a composite image of three photos showing the lower end of the Harrow Road. None of the shops seen here along the length of the long street now exist. Many have been replaced by the various convenience stores and take-away outlets you see today. On the corner of Bourne Terrace the Stowe Club was opened, now a doctor’s surgery and offices I believe. Many residents within Paddington and North Kensington did a lot of their shopping along the Harrow Road.

Westbourne Grove, by contrast (to digress a little), was more the Bond Street of the area with William Whiteley identifying the road as having future potential once the underground railway opened in 1863 and many more transport routes being opened up. He opened a small drapery in the area, tentatively doing what is essentially market research and gaining experience before expanding to what later became the department store, Whiteley’s of Queensway, attracting and catering for the wealthier clientele residing around Bayswater and Hyde Park.

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Here is another image of the same area, magnified a little to give us more detail. If you look closely you will see the ‘Tardis’, a police box, no doubt placed there to keep an eye on things whilst the area was undergoing its concrete revolution. A billboard to the left advertising glue is almost comical given the toy-like remodelling we see from this perspective

 

 

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In the picture below, the Post Office Tower, the highest building in London at the time, can be seen in the distance. It is almost impossible at this point to imagine the Westway being a part of this landscape. The Harrow Road here is clearly seen under an open sky. Within a few short years all of the buildings on either side of the Harrow Road in this image were demolished, and the Harrow Road itself partially covered by the huge motorway above it. Engineering ingenuity in the name of progress or engineering folly – a question that is still debated today.

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Another composite image I pieced together looking north:

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I had to include this one as it’s my old address – Gaydon House. I lived there for about 26 years. That is a long time to be anywhere. The rather forlorn, gothic-looking tree in the foreground appears in quite a few of the photographs before it was unceremoniously cut down to make way for more flats and other younger saplings ready for the next generation. All remnants of what came before, almost vanished within a ten year span.

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Below is Westbourne Park Villas. It runs parallel to the Great Western railway on the other side of the tracks. The spire of St Matthew’s Church can just be seen to the right of the image and in the middle you can just about make out the dome of Whiteley’s. A little behind that is the dome of the Royal Albert Hall. On the left, along Bishops Bridge Road, are a series of buildings that make up what was known as The Colonnades up until recently, before Waitrose took over. Further back, (I had to really expand this image), you can make out the four chimneys of Battersea Power Station. After being derelict for many years, and a few investors later, it is now undergoing a major redevelopment: the usual combination of luxury flats and shopping outlets so typical of London now.

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Here’s another view of Westbourne Park on the other side of the tracks, looking further west towards Notting Hill and Kensington – an interesting mixture of modern flats and late 19th century villas.

 

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And finally, a colour image of the Harrow Road most likely photographed by Selwyn from Wilmcote House, the first tower block to be built of the six now in existence. Two buses (probably the number 18) can be seen making their way north. Interestingly there existed along the Harrow Road a 2 ½ mile track from Amberley Road to Harlesden around 1888 for trams. These were replaced around 1936 by trolleybuses and later still (1961-2) by motorbuses such as the ones you see in this image.

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As always Selwyn’s wonderful collection of photographs fails to disappoint. Dave and I have posted a number of them now on the blog knowing that you will probably appreciate them as much as we do. Or at least we hope you do. The posts I have written thus far about this part of Paddington are obviously a trip into a past that pre-dates my tenancy there, but in my view, still feels so very familiar and nostalgic. Now, not having lived in the area for a few years, I feel more like an outsider looking in with an abstract knowledge of a community I was once a part of. What I realise when I look at historical photographs, is just how temporary everything is, and how changeable. The only forever in these instances are images such as these frozen in time. Perhaps this is why we always find them so appealing. A record of a slither of time that we witness much as a fictional Time Lord in a Tardis would. Except we do it without having to travel very far.

 

Postscript

Thanks to Isabel for another fascinating post. I particularly like the panoramas she has created, something Selwyn himself used to do using the medium of sellotape. Once again, if anyone knows an easy way of adding an author in WordPress I’d be grateful.

I will spend my week off working on some new posts in an unhurried languid sort of way and return next week with some of the usual stuff.

Dave.

 


The Westway in colour: 1971

A friend of mine once defined psycho-geography as walking around and thinking about what you see. By that definition we’re all psycho-geographers at one time or another. So although Bernard Selwyn had no notion of psycho-geography when he took these pictures, he was on a psycho-geographical tour into new territory. This  week’s post takes us north of the Latimer Road areas we’ve been looking at recently to look at the almost new Westway in full 1970s colour.

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A concrete island, with high rise blocks of flats on the Silchester Estate.

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It looks remarkably pleasant doesn’t it, even if you discount the bright tone of film processing in those days? A garden space with newly planted trees, above which interlocking curves of concrete soar in a harmless fashion. In the distance bright airy towers bring modernity and convenience. The residents lived in the sky, where once they had to huddle in crowded streets. Well, that was the idea anyway. The high rise living concept was optimistic, but already tinged with misgivings even by 1971.

Construction work was still going on when Selwyn passed by.

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This is the point where the Westway met the giant roundabout which connected with the West Cross route, which we’ve already seen in Selwyn’s pictures. One of those towers is Frinstead House, Selwyn’s vantage point for some of his pictures, although the one that looms largest in the picture may be Markland House and the far distant one to the left Dixon House.

Those two drums caught his attention more than once.

There is little traffic as yet on the road above, and that van looks like it barely belongs in 1971.

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What’s that in the middle of the road. Some kind of roller?

This view looking more or less east.

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A single resident crosses the new space. Here she is again.

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This view is looking south. You can make out the towers of the Edward Wood Estate and signs of life beneath the concrete decks.

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Behind the chain link fence wagons, possibly belonging to totters or market traders.

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The chimney is another landmark, on the Hammersmith side of the West Cross Route.

Now we head south.

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Beneath the shadow of the slip road we head back towards the streets we already know.

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The building in the foreground is a school, labelled Thomas Jones School on the 1971 OS map but later I think, known as Latimer school. It became a referral unit. In the gap between is the Phoenix brewery and then the Harrow Club glimpsed in the previous Selwyn post, formerly Holy Trinity Church. In front of that, the yellow painted building, formerly a pub, was the Ceres Bakery.

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The classic  late 19th/early 20th century school design, tall and imposing with large windows for enlightenment.  It makes an interesting contrast  with the tower behind

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Here, Selwyn took a look back.

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The slip road runs into the West Cross rout. In the emptiness the lights, the gantry, the grass and the saplings wait for whatever comes next.

Later there was a a BMX track here.

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The fence on the right conceals the West Cross Route heading south to Shepherd’s Bush.  If we follow around the corner….

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we come to the point where Bard Road gives up the ghost. We’re now looking directly south.

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A train crosses above the road. In the foreground the steps lead up to the former Harrow Mission, the oldest building in the immediate area, a precursor of the Club. The entrance is bricked up but that was just a temporary measure. then but not now. The building beyond is the rear of the steam cleaning company seen in the previous Selwyn post, later demolished  and now one of those large storage facilities with identical silent corridors.

All these pictures come from 1971. A picture from 1988 shows the Westway after more than a decade of use.

Silchester Estate 1988 003 - Copy

There you can see Markland Tower with the full sweep of the roundabout and the interconnecting roads behind it, a gasometer in the distance an a view looking down at the school building in the foreground. That may be the BMX track behind it.

I can’t say what Selwyn’s feelings about this new landscape were. But there are some more pictures on this roll of film which provide an addendum to this post.

Latimer Road had like Bard Street been truncated by the new road but if you follow its path north on older maps, it comes to a junction with North Pole Road. In that vicinity you find Wormwood Scrubs, then as now an open patch of land.

I can’t place these photos exactly. Perhaps they’re on the west side of the Scrubs. Old Oak Common, Acton and Park Royal have all been suggested to me. Selwyn was evidently up here to record some activity connected with scouts or cadets.

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So in contrast with the new development further south, here’s an idyllic patch of land with some small scale activity going on.

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A couple of men in suits walk through an quiet landscape heading home.

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For those of you who know the area this picture should provide a good clue.

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Any suggestions are very welcome.

Postscript

My thanks to Maggie and Barbara for their help identifying buildings and general orientation. This is the last Selwyn post for a while but we’ll definitely see him again.

We’ll be doing more on the Westway this year so watch out if you’re a fan of concrete.


Dreams of the Westway 3: The view from the high rise

This week features the return of guest blogger Isabel Hernandez who has subjected our recently acquired collection of pictures of the construction of the Westway to close scrutiny.

 

Below are a few images taken from a set of photographs I have been working on showing the construction of the Westway from the Paddington perspective. Quite a few of the photographs were taken from the roof of my old home (Gaydon House) which certainly was of personal interest as I looked through them.

As a child growing up with the Westway in close proximity perhaps I should feel some sort of affinity for it. I certainly never thought it attractive. It was just always there: a city structure, part of the landscape…the truth is, I never gave it much thought. Such edifices are often described as eyesores for the most part – much like electricity pylons are along country fields – it was to me a modernism that (literally) passed me by. The Westway was a fixture I grew up with. I knew nothing of its history or the controversy surrounding its construction, let alone the disruption and the displacement it caused. It was simply concrete: imposing and strangely pragmatic. It was many years before I really got to know the story behind one of London’s more contentious projects.

The image below shows the south of the Harrow Road, opposite Lord Hill’s Bridge being filled around 1966. The middle building directly behind the corrugated iron is Gaydon House with the Victorian school, Edward Wilson, next to it. The difference in size is evident. The school is not a small building and yet it is dwarfed by the 21 storey block. Many of the aerial views for the area during the project were taken from the roof of this high-rise block.

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In some ways I am a child of the concrete era, when Brutalist architecture, as it was known, became the progressive force in the construction business. Laing was one of seven major construction companies responsible for much of the redevelopment in the Great Britain of the sixties and seventies. It was in their interest to champion “the strength and simplicity of concrete” (White Heat: A History of Britain in the Swinging Sixties 1964-1970 ~ Sandbrook). It was considered the answer to the ailing, defunct, overcrowded Victorian slums that were being cleared as the redevelopment boom took hold in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Concrete was the new emperor, running roughshod (as perceived by many) over history and traditional Britain like a lava flow. But I was oblivious to all this. By the time most of this had happened I was already a part of this infamous megastructure: I resided in a tower block on a housing estate with a massive motorway next door – you can’t get more concrete than that!

In this photograph we see the beginnings of an area in transformation. A large section of what will become a part of the Warwick Estate is being prepared to hold the materials and moulds for the soon to be motorway that will run parallel to the Great Western Railway. The white arches (top left corner) are part of Paddington Station with the Westbourne Bridge just before it.

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Here we have an image of the Harrow Road at ground level facing west a few months later.

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This view (below) would have been a familiar one from my balcony, except it predates me by several years and the Westway has yet to appear. I suspect some form of long lens was used here to photograph this section of the Harrow Road with Lord Hill’s Bridge just off it. You can also see Royal Oak Station serving the Hammersmith & City line on the left of the bridge. Today it remains largely unchanged with the staircase leading down on to the platforms. Now, with the Westway present, you cannot really see it this clearly anymore from the lower floors of Gaydon House.

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Three months later and we see the beginnings of a subway. This served pedestrians who wished to cross the busy Harrow Road over to Lord Hill’s Bridge that leads on towards Porchester Road and Queensway. In subsequent years most of us residents would still risk the busy road rather than venture below deck, so to speak. But to be fair it was never threatening or particularly dangerous during my time living in the area. Occasionally the compulsory graffiti would decorate the dirty, dull walls, but overall it was thankfully devoid of harder criminal activity. It is only in recent years that it was decided to seal off the subway for safety reasons. Not so much because of its insalubrious elements, but more to do with the fact that people preferred the more direct route on ground level, risking life and limb.

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Below, looking east towards Paddington. This is the route of the Westway. The Great Western Railway and the Harrow Road follow on either side of it. In the distance you can just about make out the spire of, what I think was, Holy Trinity Church on Bishops Bridge. The church itself was demolished around 1983/84 but the spire was taken down earlier C. 1972. There are now some unremarkable flats built in its stead called (to rub salt in the wound) Trinity Court.

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Here you see Bourne Terrace in June 1967 (bottom right) leading on to the Harrow Road. Anyone who has read my previous blog called Familiar Street: A Paddington Estate might recognise some of the streets. Many old streets were abolished and new ones created. This aerial view is taken from Gaydon House (my old residence) pre-Westway with construction underway all around the Warwick and Brindley (soon to be) Estates. The Westway has yet to parallel the rail track of the Great Western that will encroach from the west. Up ahead is Westbourne Park Road which you can reach over a pedestrian bridge walkway. It’s the first bridge you see by the wasteland. An area that is now the Westbourne Green sports complex. North Kensington is in the distance. If you look closely you might be able to make out the tower of St Charles’ Hospital (extreme top right).

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At first this picture confused me. I thought I was looking at the foundations of what would become part of the Westway. But on further study I realised this was actually the precast yard for the motorway (where large sections of concrete would be moulded) as well as being a storage area for all the heavy materials and machinery that would be used for this section of it.

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A closer view. Note the crane on tracks.

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This view faces south with the spire of St Mary Magdalene and Princethorpe House in the background (one of the six sibling tower blocks in the area).

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Below, Brinklow House in construction and to think that double-glazing was never even considered with the Westway looming next door. I can remember listening to the motorway traffic whizzing by. Eventually it became background noise along with the trains, the planes and the automobiles. The sirens too get a special mention. When the towers were eventually refurbished around 2004/5 double-glazing was put in. I had left by then.

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March 1968 and here we can see the beginnings of the motorway rising up off the ground. If you want perspective take a look at how small the cars are, driving along the Harrow Road.

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The Westway encroaching from the west. By April 1968 the Paddington section was rising fast.A diesel train heads towards Paddington Station and behind that, blocks of flats along Westbourne Park Villas adds to the strangely linear synchronicity of the whole image.

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I can only describe this as chaos.

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But somehow, eventually, the engineers manage to bring a semblance of order to the scene.

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The Westway is taking shape as the traffic below continues to ebb and flow as normal. The chaps on the motorway, probably inspecting sections of it, look like they’re exploring a playground. It was not unusual to find workers of the period (depending on their assignments) not wearing the required hard hats or safety gear compulsory today. Below left you can also see a number 18 routemaster heading west towards Harlesden, possibly Wembley. It still continues on a similar route to this day.

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See the caption on the picture below. What is an epox pipe you may ask yourselves? The truth is I have no idea. But I think it has something to do with a strong, protective coating that can be used on piping or bars in concrete to reinforce it. All those dials and conducting cables make me think of physics lessons. It was a science that flummoxed me. As do epox pipes.

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Here is my own blurry photograph of the Westway taken in the early 1990’s during the autumnal season. It was taken with one of those incredibly daft 20th century inventions – the throw-away camera. I snapped this from my balcony, which incidentally, boasted one of the best views of London. The small park below – once a slum, then a wasteland converted into a temporary building site – gives this particular corner of Paddington a lighter, less congested feel, hinting back to its former rural history and remarkably, the Westway, despite its initial ugliness and awful connotations, actually doesn’t look so out of place here. Not anymore. Something natural to balance out the progressive, intrusive advance of technology seems to be the secret here. Concrete used unwisely is a monster. But, temper it with an intelligent creative flair and you could be looking at a masterpiece. Love it or hate it, the Westway is here to stay.

Westway, Gaydon House view early nineties

Postscript

Despite the fact that I’ve had plenty of time to prepare for this I still haven’t managed to work out how to add an author on WordPress. Anyone?

My thanks to Isabel for another excellent post.

 

 


Frestonia: the past is another country

Once upon a time in a galaxy far, far away (the past) a brave person of restricted growth and his staunch companions threw off the bonds of oppression and created their own magical land…….

Well, perhaps that’s not the way to tell it. North Kensington, once called by Michael Moorcock “the most delicious slum in Europe” was once a hotbed of community activism. Barricades were built, protests were made, community newspapers were published, councillors were locked in meeting halls. In the days before social media and citizen journalism, people made theselves heard with all the means at their disposal. One of those means was the creation of the Free Republic of Frestonia.

The building of the Westway cut through North Kensington leaving some parts of it a bit stranded. Latimer Road was truncated, Walmer Road was bisected (see this post, which has many interesting comments from former residents) and the area south of Latimer Road was full of empty houses and industrial sites earmarked for development.

Cover of planning document

[View looking south]

This vacuum was filled in the 70s by squatters who gradually built their own community in the empty houses and vacant sites.

House in Freston Road

[photo by Tony Sleep]

In 1977 the GLC (the Greater London Council, now just a memory but then an economic and social entity which was itself the size of a small country) decided to clear the area for industrial use.

But the inhabitants were prepared to fight back, at first in the usual way.

Freston Road poster HT photo by SS

[photograph of poster taken by Sue Snyder]

But these were ambitious, even visionary squatters who decided to create a new form of protest by declaring a small part of the area an independent republic in a move reminiscent of the film Passport to Pimlico.

Frestonia appliction cover

The members of this collective all became ministers of the government.

Frestonia page 4

And as you can see by this list they all added the suffix Bramley (after Bramley Road) to their names, apparently so they would appear to be one large family who in theory would have to be re-housed together.

When you’re sitting a few miles south of the scene of these events and more than thirty years later, looking at scraps of ephemera, cuttings and photographs  trying to piece them together it’s hard to see what’s serious and what’s ironic. But from what I’ve read and heard although it took the form of a prank Frestonia itself was both real and serious.

Frestonia map

There was an adventure playground:

Omar in Frestonia Garden

And an art gallery:

Carbreaker's Gallery 1979

[Photo by Tony Sleep]

A People’s Hall:

People's Hall

[The People’s Hall sometime in the 1970s, judging from the graffitti]

The hall hosted a National Film Theatre of Frestonia (Passport to Pimlico was one of the first films shown).

And more mundane activities.

Frestonia second hand sale

[A second hand sale. Photo by Tony Sleep (?)]

As you can see from the application to the UN the Foreign Minsister of Frestonia was the charismatic actor David Rappaport, probably most famous for his role in the Terry Gilliam film Time Bandits and his appearances in the last series of Tiswas, although I remember seeing him at the National Theatre in Ken Campbell’s production of the Illuminatus Trilogy. He had something of a gift for generating media interest.

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[article from Kensington News and Post 04 November 1977. And yes, I wondered about that spelling error]

The publicity generated by the declaration of independence served its purpose. The then (penultimate) leader of the GLC, Sir Horace Cutler was in direct touch with the government of Frestonia. (Cutler was a flamboyant character but his fame has been eclipsed by that of his successor.) There was a public enquiry which ultimately supported the creation of a mixed use area providing living and working space. Nicholas Albery (Minister of State for the Environment in the government of Frestonia) in his account of his country in Inside Notting Hill (2001 edition) says: “Frestonia was eventually rebuilt…. with foreign aid from Great Britain channelled via the Notting Hill Housing Trust”

Some demolition took place:

Notting Dale Community Law Centre early 80s HT

[The Carbreaker’s Gallery and the Notting Dale Law Centre awaiting demolition. Is that Henry Dickens Court in the background?]

Many years later the area looked like this, still an area where people live and work. There have been more developments since this picture, taken sometime in the 1990s I think.

Freston Road area - modern photo

(Note all the instances of graffitt visible from this angle, one of which is above a Paint Shop. I should also just draw your attention to the housing block with the rounded shape on the left of the picture, known as the Ark by some of its inhabitants.)

Postscript

As I hinted above this is a sketch of Frestonia loosely pieced together from what I could lay my hands on, rather than any kind of definitive account. I had to employ a certain amount of guesswork about dating. If there’s anything you’d like to add please use the comments section. I’d certainly like to hear more about Frestonia and its residents.

Most of the pictures this week come from the HistoryTalk collection. I’ve identified the photographer if the information was available. The photographer Tony Sleep has a website with many more images at: http://tonysleep.co.uk/frestonia

For further reading take a look at Inside Notting Hill and Melvyn Wilkinson’s Book of Notting Hill.

David Rappaport died in Los Angeles in 1990.

Postscript to the Postscript

Notting Hill Housing (funded by Norland Ward Councillors for City Living Local Life Initiative) are having some History Walk and Talk sessions on Frestonia on 29th April and 6th May at 5.15pm (both days). Photographs taken on the day will be exhibited in a further session on May 27th. Contact Resa on 07931 523607 for further details.


Dreams of the Westway 2: Desolation Row

Here is one view of a street called Maxilla Gardens and how it might have looked after the completion of the Westway.

Landscape Prop Maxilla Gardens

You could derive any number of ideas about the assumptions in this idealised view of happy shiny people. But this week we’re going back to the reality of that location before any building began.

Maxilla Gardens was a small street which curved between Cambridge Gardens and St Mark’s Road under the shadow of the Metropolitan Line railway to Hammersmith.

Here is a view from 1908 showing one arm of the curve looking from St Mark’s Road:

Maxilla Gardens (PC1123) - Copy

It looks as though there’s some kind of debris on the pavements, perhaps an omen of the destruction to come. The writer of the card says, in French, that he or she is living in a quiet area.

But not as quiet as this 1966 view:

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I can’t quite explain its relationship to the postcard image. St Mark’s Road  ran more or less across the foreground of 1908 image. The garden walls visible in the front belong to housse in St Mark’s Road. In the 1966 view St Mark’s Road is behind the fence running under the railway bridge

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The cleared site was full of interesting debris like this wooden spindle which once held cable or wire.

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Or these inexplicable objects which looked like the bisected hulls of small boats, or the discarded carapaces of a giant urban insect unknown to biology.

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Derelict open spaces like this often attract unwanted chairs and sofas. The broken section of wall gives easy access.

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And the usual ocean of tires.

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Behind the trees I think, you can see the rear view of the houses in Cambridge Gardens.

Visitors occasionally come to the site possibly to examine the odd holes and random bits ot twisted metal.

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In close up these walls could be somewhere else entirely and behind the wall there could be an isolated garden and a  ruined house.

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Although this clearer view indicates that the wall may be part of the railway viaduct – you can see part of an arch.

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The picture below though shows the other end of the site. Beyond the undergrowth is a well kept lawn with a wooden bench. Again the impression is of pastoral (bucolic/rural/arcadian- other ntonyms of the word urban) decay and seclusion rather than urban destruction.

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There’s room for a bit of garden archaeology. What purpose did this set of steps formerly serve?

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Here is the archaeologist himself at work, contemplating the last days of the sylvan scene.

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Somewhere in his vicinity a random pile of rubbish threatening to spill over into somebody’s garden.

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I actually had the idea for this post while watching the Imagine documentary on Anselm Kiefer (8 more days on the BBC iPlayer – highly recommended by me at least) which featured piles of industrial debris turned into art, installations of concrete piles covering acres of land and derelict buildings turned into exhibits. Would it be going too far to see the whole Westway project as a giant art installation in concrete and steel rising from urban demolition?

I was going past the new development at the Commonwealth Institute on a bus this morning. The old central building has been stripped of its glass cladding (temporarily I assume) and surrounded by three new residential blocks. I thought back to the images of the Institute before the development and proposed an alternative museum dedicated to the imaginative world of J G Ballard (him again) which would have left the dilapidated interior as it was, just adding some crashed cars, an empty swimming pool, and sections from some concrete road supports. Which gets us back to the Westway again.

And just for art’s sake:

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Another pair of holes.

Postscript

Sharp-eyed readers will have spotted that there is now a Search box on the blog, which will enable you to find things more easily. It was slightly easier to install than I thought.

No more Westway for a while. Your Christmas treat is nearly ready, but I haven’t worked out what I’m writing next week.


Dreams of the Westway 1: Concrete Gothic

I last did a post on the building of the Westway in 2013. A reader of the blog had sent me some pictures of the construction work probably originally taken for Laing, the company that built the elevated motorway. There were 50 or so photographs. Recently another reader contacted me to say he had acquired a similar collection of pictures, probably from the same source. Rather generously he scanned them all and let me have copies. There are more than 2500 of them. For a local studies librarian this is the equivalent of opening Tutankhamun’s tomb. Well, perhaps not quite. More realistically if you like it’s the equivalent of getting copies of the pictures from the Whitelands May Queen scrapbooks thanks to the generosity of  the archivist at the College.

The sheer number of pictures means it will take a while to identify locations and backgrounds, especially as the pictures extend across the borders into Paddington and Shepherd’s Bush, which are both outside my official area of expertise. There are so many pictures I can’t manage to view them all in one go. There may still be some I’ve barely looked at. You can expect me to come back to this topic from various angles for a long time.

It shoud also be remembered that the pictures are about the work. That is why the photographers took them. Like the street photographs of Ernest Milner, which formed a legal record for a railway company, the Westway pictures are a record of construction. Their value to history is incidental.

So is their aesthetic value. There are pictures of empty lots, overgrown wastelands. Eyesores at the time probably but scenes of 20th century industrial gothic now. Images of the steel and concrete structures that make up the mot0rway are also forbidding towers, dark cathedrals, lonely tunnels, inexplicable tangles of steel, bleak vistas of churned up mud and tiny figures engaged in enigmatic tasks.

You get my drift. “All right if you like concrete I suppose” somebody said. But I do. Concrete was the great building medium of the age. When I was growing up I had an idea of modern London – the South Bank Centre, skyscraper office blocks, soaring elevated roads, all concrete.

85172There are awe inspiring views here such as  where one the concrete supports hold the new roads aloft above the newly created wastelands. In a certain light the curve of the road looks almost beautiful.

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As the supports are built they look enigmatic,their purpose not quite clear.

W576The views of unfinished portions makes the whole structure look fragile, full of empty spaces.

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Beneath the concrete the steel skeleton.

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The growing road spans older industrial forms.

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Concrete monoliths rise out of the ground as if newly discovered rather than built.

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Dark tunnels already have an ancient look about them.

W2843Look at the shadowy figures at the end of the tunnel.

What was the purpose of this lone pile?

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Below the road it almost looks like an archaeological dig rather than a construction project. Perhaps they’re unearthing something.

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Close up the work takes on an almost abstract quality.

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The hidden parts of the road reveal a complex infrastructure.

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Layers of steel beneath the concrete.

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Beneath the road the raw concrete shapes form a dark wood over bare ground as the project moves from this:

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To this:

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Okay, maybe I allowed the gothic thing to get out of hand. I’ve been watching some of that Gothic season on BBC 4 . And I’ve been trying to read a couple of Ann Radcliffe novels (but I keep putting them down and returning to Jeff Noon’s Vurt, which I haven’t read since the 90s – another kind of gothic) . But I did almost get to the end of this post without mentioning J G Ballard.

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Postscript

As I’ve said this collection of images is hard to grasp in its entirety . My colleagues and I will be researching the backgrounds for months, so this is what you might call an impressionistic taster.  I’ve deliberately ignored the social and historical context – the clearing of a vast swathe of housing, the scarring of a huge section of west London – in favour of the aesthetic angle. But this is just the beginning.

Once again many thanks to Mr AT for his kind donation of these pictures. Now that this blog has its own history I see that the contribution of readers who send me pictures or make comments is as much a part of the blog as the posts I write. So thanks also to all of you.

I’ve been busy with the London History Festival this week so apologies if this post looks like it was thrown together at the last minute. Obviously it was. But while writing I got the idea for another post about the underbelly of construction which you may read soon.

 


Building the Westway 1966 – 1971

Very few  stretches of motorway have any kind of cultural significance  outside their own locality. You might cite the M25 whose psychological and geographical resonance was investigated at book length by Iain Sinclair. When you’re thinking of new roads in west London generally, J G Ballard’s work might come to mind. There must be others. But none of them are quite as resonant as the Westway, that stretch of road which bisected north Kensington in the late 1960s.

I wrote a piece about the new landscape created by the motorway earlier this year, and afterwards one of my readers sent me some scans of pictures he owned. I knew I would use them on the blog one day and as I was looking through them last week I thought they would make a good contrast with the rather decorative images you’ve seen in the last few weeks. As the man who writes the words I often look for an angle when I select pictures for a post. But these images don’t require much in the way of commentary. They come with a built-in set of impressions and ideas. Obviously I won’t be able to stop myself adding a few words…..

002 walker 11 1966

Normally I crop images and straighten them out before putting them up but with these I think it looks better if you see them as I first saw them, with their typed or hand written captions. The pictures look like they come from an album put together by a contractor as a record of their firm’s work. You can see something similar here in a post about Chelsea Bridge. Before digital cameras and data storage this was common practice on big construction jobs. Equally commonly images like this end up being lost or destroyed.

1966 was the year of demolition. Streets were cleared, and areas of derelict land expanded, revealing the detritus of urban living or just providing a place among the churned mud and rubble for all kinds of abandoned stuff to accumulate.

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In the background the houses and housing blocks look like they’re half concealed behind a layer of mist. (That may be the weather of course, or the photographs themselves).

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Abandoned vehicles look like discarded toys. Below, a pair of cars look like they are sinking in a sea of tires, barely corralled behind a fence.

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Behind another corrugated iron fence one of the few people visible in these pictures, a surveyor working for the main contractor.

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The cars below look stranded as if by a sudden subsidence.

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Behind them the fence is collapsing and  you can see a partially demolished  or crumbling building.

Below a group of boys find a quiet spot for exploration and play near a railway footbridge.

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Some semblance of order has been imposed as a site is prepared for clearance.

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By 1967 this process continues as some of the demolition sites were ready for construction.

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In the background a Metropolitan Line train passes over the empty scene.

Below the first signs of the road construction to come, with two column bases.

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Several photos were taken from this vantage point on Whitstable House as the work progressed. The photo above was taken in April 1967.

The one below is from December:

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In March 1968:

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A smoke or dust cloud rises from the ground on the right of the picture like steam.

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Further west the road is starting to take shape.

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Here is the view from Whitstable House four months after the previous picture:

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Progress was steady rather than rapid . This view from February 1969 shows how close the emerging road was to housing that was still in full use:

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There are no pictures  from 1970 in the set so there is a sudden jump to the completed motorway which looks clean and empty.

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The last image was taken early in 1971. It takes us back to the beginning of Walmer Road, now separated from the rest of the street.

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The Latimer Arms which used to sit at the start of Walmer Road, now also isolated.

The Westway was about to become a physical and psychological feature of North Kensington and of London in general. There were many positive aspects to it as an advance in the transport infrastructure of west London. These pictures show how it began as a kind of scar on the urban landscape of the area, unavoidable perhaps but undeniably traumatic.

Postscript

My thanks to the reader who sent me these pictures, for which I am very grateful.


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