Friday, November 01, 2019

Miles west from central London

The centre of London is generally taken to be Charing Cross, specifically the statue of Charles I in the middle of the roundabout. I've visited the points one mile due west, then two miles, then three miles, all the way up to ten miles, to see how London changes the further west you go.

ONE MILE WEST: Audley Square, Mayfair
(on South Audley Street, behind the Dorchester)

Mayfair is a different world. Its streets are old and narrow, and plied by a better class of vehicle. Five consecutive taxis drive towards me along South Audley Street, which I suspect isn't in any way abnormal. One drops off a headscarved woman outside The Embassy Of The State of Qatar, where the doorman checks she has appropriate business to be allowed inside. Across the road is a Merc with diplomatic plates, and another with the personalised registration QTR 1 (the first letter of which must've involved some high-level string-pulling). Yet another Merc is parked up round the corner with a chauffeur at its wheel, awaiting the call to action.

Most of the men who walk by are middle-aged, wearing suits in fractionally different shades of blue. One couple are carrying a property portfolio. The handsome sandstone building at number 2 Audley Square, with the cornucopia relief, has been owned by the University Women's Club since 1921. A Union Jack is wrapped several times around its flagpole. The sash-windowed townhouse nextdoor at number 3 is perfectly presented, and conceals a luxury 5-bed dwelling with knockthroughs and basement swimming pool behind its flawless facade. But number 4 is missing, as are the former 5, 6 and 7, because the remainder of Audley Square is a levelled demolition site behind a wall of blue hoardings.

What's been taken down is a public multi-storey car park inserted in 1962 and the disused petrol filling station behind, to make way for "the finest residential apartment building (and facilities) ever built in Mayfair and in the wider London area". The billionaire speculator making this massive boast is John Caudwell, former owner of Phones4U, whose snail's pace project was only given the go-ahead when he agreed to build some affordable housing three streets away in a former street-sweeping depot. He bought the site for £155m, but hopes to flog the three penthouses for £100m each, which should make the lower 27 apartments pure profit. One mile from the centre of London, a whole lot of shenanigans are going on.

TWO MILES WEST: Kensington Gardens
(on the banks of the Long Water)

Here's a lovely spot in Kensington Gardens you might just know, the first waterside vista to the south of the Peter Pan statue. Kensington Palace is to the west, on a sightline behind the Physical Energy statue, while Henry Moore's 37 ton Arch lies immediately across the lake. You may know it as the Serpentine, but officially this end is the Long Water. Pleasureboat-free, it's the sanctuary waterfowl prefer. One gull has perched on each of the wooden posts along the water's edge. Two swans glide by. A moorhen disappears with a ripple.

The footpath is busy, with tourists and hire bikes and over-bellied joggers. One well-prepared party pauses to scatter crumbs on the ground, which is the signal for avian scrutineers to hotfoot over. The air is briefly full of ducks. Several geese hop out of the water. All but three of the wooden posts are now empty. The crumb-sower whips out his phone to grab the photo he wanted, beaming to camera, than quickly walks on. The geese progress further onto the lawn, where an entwined couple are finishing off a treat from the Hummingbird Bakery, surrounding them on two flanks. I hope they looked carefully at the grass before they sat down.

A long bench runs down to the water, one of its wooden slats uncomfortably missing. I grab a seat at the far end after a retired couple have departed, and just as a single yellow leaf floats down and lands beside me. The green box which is supposed to contain a lifebelt appears to be empty. Two Peroni bottle caps lie on the tarmac. A rustic-looking sign urges "No bathing, fishing or dogs permitted in this lake". Most of the ducks and geese have had enough of waddling and have returned to the lake. The trees across the water look splendid. Nobody else is here because of the precise distance it is from Charing Cross, but sometimes following the numbers pays off.

THREE MILES WEST: Kensington Place, Notting Hill
(at the junction with Hillgate Street, W8)

Kensington Place runs a couple of streets back from Notting Hill Gate, sloping down towards Kensington Church Street, and is nowhere the hoi polloi would normally go. One side is perfect pastel terraces with sash windows, basement steps and prices approaching three million apiece - ideal for purchasers who want reconfigurable internal space with hardly any garden to fuss over. The other side is a school playground, colourfully marked, and a block of brown flats built on the site of a garage on the site of a disused reservoir. The street could have traffic both ways, but folks need to be able to park their Mini Coupés out front so it has to be one way only.

A kid from the flats speeds down the pavement on his silver scooter, and thanks me ever so politely for stepping to one side. Two floppy haired blonds with brogues and Barbours walk down the middle of the road, confident of not being run over. Some terribly nice vases are on show on parlour tables, unless the shutters are down because there's nothing, or too much, worth ogling. Someone in the unpainted stretch has got the scaffolders in. The primary school offers weekend classes in Family Yoga. A copper-spired church on Campden Hill dominates the top of the street. The display of autumn colours at number 30 is currently stunning. What a difference a mile makes.

FOUR MILES WEST: Westfield London
(i.e. Shepherd's Bush, not Stratford)

Four miles west of Trafalgar Square delivers us to Europe's largest shopping mall, within the confines of the retail maelstrom that is Westfield London. The specific spot is along the promenade linking the central atrium to the upmarket 'Village', where the shops that would never thrive in Stratford are clustered. It's lofty, it's spacious, and because I've turned up on a Sunday afternoon it's quite busy. Those in their 20s and 30s generally have carrier bags in their hands, those in their 40s more likely small children. Triangular skylights reveal the outside world shoppers aren't meant to notice. Private security personnel keep a careful eye on proceedings.

Up on Level 1 the mall passes between Zara and a boarded up unit, new retailer (hopefully) coming soon. In the centre of the aisle is an 'outdoor' overspill for Pret, plus a sushi vendor with fewer, shabbier banquettes. Oud Milano are offering 50% off their selection of oriental beauty products, this small kiosk their only outlet this side of the Alps. A lowly operative wheels over her trolley to empty the litter bin, which is mostly full of empty cups. Wave your phone at the QR code on Zara's shop window for exclusive details of sales promotions within. The music pumping out from somewhere overhead is so mainstreamly modern that I recognise none of it.

Downstairs, or rather down-escalator, the units are smaller and more fashionable. Armani, Versace and Calvin Klein are amongst the famous names bedded in, the latter exclusively for the sale of underwear. I worry that Tory Burch might be a political faction's HQ, but instead its gold shelves are sparsely dotted with not many handbags. One young couple pause to look over the watches and Ray-Bans slotted into a mid-aisle display. A very patient-looking dad pushes his offspring forwards inside a hired red miniature sports car. Another family have hunkered down on some benches and unleashed the kids' packed lunches, spilling crisps and Haribo onto the carpet. Westfield is their day out, Sunday is no day of rest, and once more round and then we'll go home.

FIVE MILES WEST: Ollgar Close, W12
(where Shepherds Bush meets Acton)

Here's dull. We're on the Uxbridge Road one mile west of Westfield, at the point just before Hammersmith & Fulham morphs into Ealing. Ollgar House is a 1980s-looking development of three redbrick blocks of flats, the shorter two poking out at right angles from the longest to create square landscaped gardens. It was designed to make better use of the open space behind the shops on the main road, now demolished, and is a resolutely private affair. Gates into the estate are padlocked, signs warn interlopers away, and the only access for non-residents is the access road round the back. Fortunately for this post, and unfortunately for the reader, that's where the exact five-mile marker falls.

Ollgar Close starts between a very modern school for autistic children and a tiny cottage offering French polishing expertise, then progresses past a row of lock-ups and a fence covered with obviously fake-foliage. Before long it reaches the ugly backside of the longest block of flats, where a handful of parking bays are labelled with signs telling visitors not to park here unless they want a £100 fine. I was trying to work out how on earth residents get up to their flats, there being no stairs, when a lift door opened and the caretaker emerged with a mop and bucket. He wandered off to the plant room, a rumbling chamber of grubby machinery, and I carried on walking towards the shrubbery at the far end like I had some reason to be here. The capital's fourth fatal stabbing of 2018 occurred here when an argument on Instagram escalated and a male model was fatally wounded, his killers subsequently jailed for life. Private places always look more appealing from the front.

SIX MILES WEST: Cromwell Close, W3
(Acton, off the High Street)

Acton's smart and dapper, at least in the slice between Churchfield Road and the High Street. Desirable Victorian terraces cut through, conveniently located for shops that sell craft beer, vintage clothes and farmhouse cheese. Turn off Grove Road halfway down to find Grove Place, and turn left off that to enter Cromwell Close. Its residents would rather you didn't because they've slapped Private Property signs everywhere in an attempt to deter unwanted parking, and in the vain hope that pedestrians won't discover it's a cut-through. These flats are rather newer, the central block resembling a converted mill whereas it's absolutely nothing of the sort. Before 1971 this was the site of Acton Technical College, in its later life a campus of the fledgling Brunel University, whose demolition left a hole ripe for redevelopment. No Cycling. No Ball Games. No Dumping. CCTV In Operation. And lots of space for parking.

Through a gate on the far side is Locarno Road, a brief cul-de-sac connecting to the High Street. As well as being packed with Pizza Hut delivery bikes it has two tiny shops, one a barbers and the other an entirely unbranded cafe with space for four chairs outside on a scrap of astroturf. The streetsign high on the wall behind a drooping cable is headed 'Borough of Acton'. Looming across the main road is the clocktower of redbrick Acton Town Hall, as was, deemed surplus to requirements by Ealing council and sold off as a valuable asset. The building's now emblazoned with signs advertising 58 luxury apartments, and its marketing suite and showhome are open seven days a week. Ealing's housing register contains over 12000 applicants, but priorities post-austerity are somewhat skewed.

SEVEN MILES WEST: Ealing Common, W5
(Gunnersbury Avenue, aka North Circular Road)

When you think of the North Circular you think of a drear dual carriageway, but here in Ealing it's a narrow tree-lined avenue. No planner ever dared encroach upon the common, or deprive the villas along Gunnersbury Avenue of their front gardens. These have highly decorated gables crafted with overlapping terracotta tiles, and intricate arched porches that plead with you to come inside. The two houses guarding the entrance to Crosslands Avenue even have turrets. They're built on the site of Ealing Common Farm, and the estate beyond used to be its orchard. Today's residents perch pots of pansies on their gateposts, and drape hosepipes across their front lawns to refresh their rosebushes, and park their Mini Countrymans beside their BMWs, and live out an idyllic Thirties suburban dream as if in a quiet corner of Chorleywood but in zone 3.

The corner of the common that abuts the North Circular is closed to all traffic but bicycles. One bright orange steed has been left propped up beneath a sycamore, this one of the Chinese-funded Mobike fleet that still attempts to eke out a dockless living across Ealing. The common bristles with rich vegetation, grassy stalks and scattered wildflowers. Follow the sandy track to a bench where you can watch the delivery lorries go by, or spy the tower of the local parish church, or flop back with a podcast and a wrap. Close scrutiny of the horse chestnuts reveals clusters of tiny spiked green cases preparing autumn's conker harvest. Beyond the treeline the Eid In The Park festival is getting underway. Best not rush ahead to eight miles too soon.

EIGHT MILES WEST: Waldemar Avenue, W13
(at the corner of Lyncroft Gardens)

And briefly to West Ealing, a stone's throw from Walpole Park, amid a web of bucolic Edwardian avenues. This is prime middle class territory, mixing palm-fronted properties, redbrick villas and 4-bed semis with the twiddliest of external features. An old garage has been left to fall apart behind a broken fence. Gnarled roots erupt repeatedly from the pavement. LED bulbs droop from original fluted lampposts. Number 10 has thrown several chunks of their back garden into a set of skips. The inaugural Ealing Art Trail takes place next weekend, please take a brochure. Sorry, there's little to say about life hereabouts, other than it looks like a lovely place to live.

NINE MILES WEST: Maunder Road, Hanwell, W7
(off Boston Road)

Hanwell's a lot older than it looks, and used to be important until Ealing overwhelmed it. At its heart is the Uxbridge Road, and off that a triangular one-way system, and off that the brief dogleg of Maunder Road. It's been here since Victorian times when it ran down to some fields, whereas now it merely dodges the back of Lidl. One of its corner shops is occupied by a beauty bar, which is smart by local standards, although looking around that isn't hard because the gentrification whirlwind has yet to hit. The other corner shop belongs to some solicitors, while across the road is a shuttered unit called LookingForBargain.com, a website which probably never existed (and probably never should).

Maunder Road is "Unsuitable For H.G.V.S." according to its street sign, partly because parked cars make it too narrow but mainly because of the sharp bend at the end. Twenty terraced houses have been squeezed in along its length, each with barely any garden front or back but still boasting a half-million price tag. Only proper hanging baskets grace their frontage, there'll be none of those cheap topiary globes here. Most of the houses have a single attic skylight in the centre of the roof, but number 7 has had the builders in to give their extra bedroom some decent width. Only one resident has a Garage In Constant Use, and only one a Driveway In Constant use, neither of which I saw being used. It's all delightfully ordinary, and ever so convenient for Crossrail.

TEN MILES WEST: Great Western Industrial Park, Southall UB2
(at the bend in Dean Way)

If you know the Uxbridge Road, or indeed the Great Western Railway, we're by the Iron Bridge. The quirky Three Bridges, where Isambard Kingdom Brunel slotted a road bridge above an aqueduct above a railway line, is close by. In 1927 this site was chosen by Associated Daimler Co Ltd for their new factory, and it's where A.D.C. (soon renamed A.E.C.) spent the next half century manufacturing commercial and passenger vehicles. They specialised in chassis for buses and lorries, plus the occasional artillery tractor, and are perhaps most famous for turning out classic Routemaster double deckers. In the 1960s A.E.C. was the largest employer in Southall, with a labour force exceeding 5000, but in 1979 British Leyland closed it down and the flattened site is now an industrial estate.

Great Western Industrial Park is a Screwfix, Topps Tiles and Carpet Town affair, plus a large Matalan to help draw the crowds. But drive fractionally further in and the large grey sheds are less public, mostly warehouses, freight depots and factories for the processing of food. Up Dean Way, where we're heading, two statuesque elephants guard the entrance to Noon Foods, the heart of a Southall entrepreneur's ready meal empire. If you pinged a chicken tikka masala in your microwave during the early years of convenience food it may well have come from here, and the Waitrose lorries parked out front suggest business is still hot. Across the road we find Delifrance, automated manufacturers of artisan bread, whose factory is flanked by tall metal silos and a row of red, white and blue flags. And at the end of the road trains to Cardiff can occasionally be seen rushing by, but that's One Hundred And Thirty Miles West and I am very much stopping at Ten.


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