Sunday, January 27, 2008

Random borough (15): Hounslow

Time once again for me to take another random trip to one of London's 33 boroughs. Brent, at the heart of northwest London, is the only local authority in the UK to have a majority of its residents born overseas. Communities and high streets around Wembley and beyond now boast a diverse mix of cultures, religions and cuisines. It wasn't always this way. A century ago Metro-land carved a genteel domestic swathe through the heart of the area, where once were only fields and villages. Suburban semis still rule, but the place is changing fast. Yesterday I attempted to catch up.

Somewhere to begin: Brent Museum
I doubt that the old Brent Museum had many visitors. It was situated in a converted stable block in the middle of an extremely busy roundabout, just off the North Circular, in the middle of Neasden. Not a location especially conducive to major tourist influx. So the council moved the entire collection, a couple of years ago, and plonked it inside the brand new Willesden Green Library. And what do you know, when I visited on Saturday morning, I was the only person there. Not one other visitor, nor even a single member of staff on duty. Now that's my kind of museum. And I was unexpectedly impressed by the contents. It's not an enormous gallery, but the curators have crammed in all sorts of aspects of Brent-ian life, as it was lived then and as it's lived now. Enough to get you interested, if not deeply satisfied. Read about the world's first speaking clock, and the old Guinness brewery, and Graham Young the schoolboy "Teacup Poisoner". See Neasden FC's Cup Final appearance commemorated on the front cover of Private Eye, and learn about the political homeland of Rhodes Boyson and Ken Livingstone. There's quite a bit about the history of Wembley Stadium, as you might expect, including an actual Olympic torch from 1948. Oh, and in the "special exhibition" room nextdoor, a special exhibition about saris. No really, it was a lot more interesting than it sounds. As I would have told the curator on the way out, had they existed.
by tube: Willesden Green  by bus: 52, 302

Somewhere random: Chamberlayne Road
Chamberlayne RoadFew natural events are more random than a tornado. One minute you're sitting at home in your dead ordinary terraced house, and the next the wind is ripping your roof off and hurling tiles through your bedroom window. That's what happened to the residents of Chamberlayne Road in Kensal Rise on the morning of 7th December 2006. You must remember, it was big news, and surely not only because the tornado touched down within two miles of BBC Television Centre. So how are the residents coping now, just over a year later. Very well, by the looks of it. Most of the damaged houses look completely back to normal, although there are still a well-above-average number of roof repairs being carried out along the western side of one short section of the street. For at least the next few months the path of the tornado is still just about traceable, in scaffolding photos. And take a closer look at the side of the house at the junction with Whitmore Gardens photos. The exterior wall appears to change from new brick to old brick two-thirds of the way down, because this is the house that had its side completely ripped off by the T4 twister. The poor owner returned home after work that fateful Thursday to find a gaping hole in the side of her largest investment. But time, and insurance, heals all. A very ordinary wind whipped down Chamberlayne Road yesterday, and nobody seemed particularly concerned.
by train: Kensal Rise  by bus: 6, 52, 302

Somewhere pretty: Kingsbury
Shortscroft, Roe GreenThe great majority of modern-designed homes are routine identikit boxes with limited character. But in Kingsbury, to the north of the borough, a couple of architects once went out of their way to give local residents somewhere really special to live. The aircraft industry came to this part of rural northwest London during World War 1, and workers had nowhere to live. Sir Francis Baines was commissioned to rectify the situation. He designed a compact "garden village" of 270 flats and houses, just over the road from the de Havilland works on Stag Lane, and Roe Green Village was the result. There are a variety of charming buildings, some timber-faced and others plastered, each divided up into two, three or more dwellings photos. The homes were cutting edge at the time, though perhaps a little small by later standards. Roads on the estate are narrow and homely, clearly not designed for the motor car, and a sense of rural community still remains. The aircraft industry has long since moved away, of course, but these houses remain an aspirational enclave for those who want to live somewhere with real character.

Highfort CourtAnd then there are Ernest Trobridge's houses on Buck Lane. Oh boy. Whatever was he thinking when he created this handful of eccentric residences? Up on the hilltop, around a single crossroads, are a small cluster of striking individual castellated follies. Some merely have round towers and gothic staircases photos, but one is a full-on white-painted castle with battlements photos. John Betjeman came to pay homage to Highfort Court in his Metro-land documentary, you may remember. These bizarre creations all look like they've seen slightly better days, but it must be a joy to live in one of these houses or maisonettes today. Trobridge's other fascination was grand detached cottages, and there are a fair few of these dotted around the area too. He was a firm believer in the importance of social housing, as was Sir Francis down the road, and in modern Kingsbury it's easy to see where their special influence stops and the "ordinary" interwar semis begin.
by tube: Kingsbury  by bus: 204, 302

Somewhere retail: IKEA Wembley
IKEA WembleyBecause Brent Cross isn't actually in Brent. Who'd have thought. So I travelled instead to Brent Park in Neasden to visit that other retail colossus - the big blue IKEA on the North Circular Road photos. Me and thousands of others of northwest Londoners, all spending our Saturday in Swedish furniture purgatory. It's possibly the slowest, least efficient form of shopping anywhere on the planet, but that never seems to stop us turning up in search of yet another lampshade or cheap bookcase. Why did I go, why?

IKEA Wembley doesn't exactly welcome those who turn up by public transport. The walk from Neasden tube is long and tortuous, involving dubious road crossings and a seriously mucky footbridge. Even by bus you're directed through the murkiest, dampest corner of IKEA's multi-storey car park. Only car drivers are welcomed with bright shiny blue and yellow frontage, because only car drivers can drive away with three sets of flatpack furniture in their boot photos. Come on in, but only if you have two hours to spare.

At the top of the stairs there's a choice of a trolley or a big flappy yellow bag. Please, take neither. You won't need the trolley on the first floor, this level is full of furniture that can only be collected downstairs. And you don't need that bag either. The management sprinkle candle holders and coathangers amongst the fitted kitchens and bunk beds, just to tempt you, but they're all available downstairs too. The rest of us will find it much easier to negotiate our way around the tortuous winding pathway if you're not blocking the way with a huge metal basket on wheels. It's bad enough trying to walk past toddlers in pushchairs, and dithering wives uncertain quite which shade of wardrobe would look best in their bedroom, and bored shoppers sitting on every comfy sofa like they're part of the exhibit. Come on, where's the shortcut?

who lives in a house like this?Don't divert into the cafe/restaurant. The queues are terrible, the table-clearing service is non-existent, and you don't really like meatballs anyway. Head back down to the ground floor, into the Market Place, to be faced by a dazzling range of cheap household goods graced by a variety of obscure foreign names. And this is where IKEA's marketing brilliance kicks in. You weren't really planning on buying very much, but look over there. You need a storage jar like that, don't you? And that mat would go nicely by the back door, and you don't have enough dinner plates, and don't those pillowcases look jolly, and all at such reasonable prices. By the time you reach the exit you'll almost certainly be carrying more "essentials" than you expected.

Next it's time to be confronted by shelf upon shelf of wood-in-a-box, as you pass through the vast interior of the flatpack cathedral. And then the pace slows, and the throng of customers ahead grows deeper, as you approach the interminable inefficiency of the checkouts. There are 38 checkouts at IKEA Wembley. On Saturday afternoon, one of the busiest times of the week, fewer than half of them were open. Be warned, they're staggered in two rows, so the queue that looks shorter may actually turn out to be longer. I waited 15 minutes in my queue while the shoppers in front slowly unloaded and paid for a motley assortment of unnecessary consumer goods. The lady behind me caved in and sent her kids off to the "Bistro" to buy 35p ice creams to keep them quiet. Their queue was longer than ours.

And then the final indignation - having to pay for your own carrier bags. Obviously it's great not to be littering the environment with unnecessary plastic landfill, but it's also an expensive pain if you've forgotten to bring sufficient receptacles with you. I'd not planned ahead before leaving the house so I ended up with a weeny 15p carrier, whereas most other people were purchasing (and filling) several 30p sacks. And I got a very funny look from the cashier, and the surrounding shoppers, when I unloaded my handful of purchases onto the conveyor belt. I'd waited just over quarter of an hour to buy almost nothing, for less than a fiver. But then you can never have enough tealights, can you?
by tube: Neasden  by bus: 92, 112, 206, 232, 316, PR2

Somewhere sporty: Wembley Stadium
Wembley Stadium from One Tree HillObviously. Where else. But I've written about Wembley Stadium several times on this blog before. Of Watkin's folly (1896), and the Empire Exhibition (1924), and the Olympic Games (1948). But I've never yet written about the revamped rebuilt stadium (2007). So here goes.

After a long hiatus for redevelopment, it was good to stride up Wembley Way on Saturday afternoon amidst a crowd of expectant spectators. They poured from the tube station, past the hot dog stalls and the ice cream van, heading south towards the epicentre of English football. But quite a strange crowd to be attending a big match, I thought. Almost all female (with just the odd bewildered husband tagging along), most over 50 or under 15, and not a stripy scarf in sight. So I wasn't entirely surprised when we reached the twin ramps up to the stadium and they continued onward at ground level and around the corner towards Wembley Arena. To attend the matinée performance of Strictly Come Dancing Live, as it turned out. The strictly macho stadium remained mostly untroubled by visitors, bar a few of us curious souls keen to view the arched wonder up close.

Bobby Moore statueThe wind whipped round the elevated concrete promenade. Up on level two the bronze figure of Bobby Moore stood watching over the stadium approach, a large St George's flag fluttering limply behind behind his right shoulder photos. Every 15 minutes or so a group of paid-up tourists emerged from the glass doors of "Club Wembley" to stand at his feet as their guide related the tale of our glorious 1966 World Cup victory. I understand that the rest of their £15 tour included rather more exclusive locations such as the Royal Box, the changing rooms and the Wembley Stadium Tour Cafe. Plus, of course, the official shop where you can purchase a souvenir tankard, a teddy bear or a patch of turf to remember your visit. Not for me. I held back for a few minutes to attempt to take a photograph that didn't contain a shaven-headed fan gawping in excited adulation photos. And then I continued on my free circumnavigation of the giant glass bowl. Which was closed.

The stadium has several entrances, all of them securely fastened with impregnable shiny metal doors when no event is underway. A long list of regulations informs spectators what they can and can't bring inside photos. No darts, air horns or explosives (obviously). No cameras, radios or umbrellas (good grief, I wonder how many unwitting visitors get those confiscated when they attempt to attend a concert or match). And no balls. One hopes that the England football team aren't required to abide by that last one.

Wembley Arch and Gate DWhat you can see from the outside of the stadium is the curved glass wall that rises up several storeys into the sky photos, and the great white arch above. Ahh, the Wembley Arch, a simple enough idea but so magnificently realised. It rises out of the walkway on opposite sides of the stadium, bolted into the ground with a big concrete plug, and launches into the sky in a sweeping white-piped curve photos. You don't really get a sense of its enormity from up close, but you do get some excellent arch-y reflections in the building as you walk round the perimeter photosphotos. And you get some mighty fine views out across the surrounding area, just as they can see right back towards the arch even from several miles away photos.

Time your visit right and you might end up sharing most of your walk only with a couple of bored-looking security guards. Or time your visit right and you might end being swept along by a crowd of jubilant spectators celebrating a glorious national victory. It's all or nothing at the New Wembley.
by tube: Wembley Park  by bus: 92, PR2

Somewhere historic: Grand Union Canal
[A three mile walk from Harlesden to One Tree Hill, Alperton]

Whenever I explore a random borough, I always attempt to go for a long walk. Ideally a long walk that the local council has flagged on its website. Good old Brent Council provided a choice of four, each supplied by the London Ecology Unit. Excellent, I thought, I'll have one of them. So I printed out the map and instructions and prepared myself for a delightful three mile stroll along a 200 year old canal. "London Ecology Unit", eh? I should have spotted the clues before I set out.

McVities, AlpertonI haven't been to Harlesden for almost 25 years, back when I was doing a summer job on the Park Royal trading estate. If you bought any Marks and Spencer clothing during the latter half of 1983, I probably helped to produce the little hole-punched swing ticket that hung from the label. So I subconsciously recognised the first part of the walk from my teenage commute. Right out of the station, round the McVities factory (mmm, Harlesden smells nice) and down onto the towpath. Then past the tied up barge and westward, towards Alperton. My printed pdf advised me to look out for a purple bellflower, some blue tufted vetch and a patch of red campion. Not a sign. All I could see was a grassy green verge with no flowering vegetation at all. I should have guessed that a guided walk produced by the London Ecology Unit would be rather heavier on flowers than on history. And that perhaps such a walk was better suited to July than January. Never mind, ever onward.

Next I was advised to enjoy the "pleasant smells" nearby, probably emanating "from the Heinz factory" on the opposite bank. Erm, there was no Heinz factory on the opposite bank, just a long row of shiny white warehouses containing various non ketchup manufacturing businesses. I was sure I remembered an oppressive grimy factory last time I was here, with big pipes and sheer grey walls. And yes, as it turns out, I was right. But the Heinz Factory closed down in 2000 and the site has since been comprehensively redeveloped. My printed walk was seriously out of date... and with good reason. The London Ecology Unit also breathed its last in 2000, absorbed into the new Greater London Authority. So, I was following a walk that was at least eight years old, and already historically obsolete. Never mind, ever onward.

Grand Union Canal, AlpertonTwo pages of A4 description later and I'd seen almost nothing of what was being described. Just a lot of Park Royal industrial units and a few ducks. There was, however, a bit of a treat ahead as the canal passed over the North Circular Road on an aqueduct. Because aqueducts are cool. But unfortunately the view from this aqueduct was of a stream of rushing traffic and a very modern Travelodge. Even the aqueduct itself photos, with a magnificent Middlesex Coat of Arms lodged inbetween the twin channels, turned out to be nothing more than a 1993 replacement. There were a few highlights ahead. A couple of quietly puttering narrowboats photosphotos. A modernised footbridge being well frequented by locals. An extraordinary tumbledown old shed-like building beneath a Piccadilly line rail bridge photos. A swan photos. But on the whole this was a canalside walk where the canal was the only thing worth seeing, and not the stuff to either side. Never mind, ever onward.

The walk ended away from the canal, just before the scenery got good. My printed guide apologised for the detour, but the pretty stretch beneath Horsenden Hill was in Ealing, not Brent, and therefore off limits. Instead I was diverted along a busy road and up a lesser hill on the outskirts of Alperton, with semi-screened views over west London and the City. One Tree Hill, as it was called, boasted more trees than strictly permitted under the Trade Descriptions Act photos. Wembley Stadium was perfectly visible from the single bench at the summit photos, as were the stone pinnacles of an astonishing Hindu temple under construction at the foot of the hill photos. This was certainly the high point of the journey, in every way, but not a true peak. It had been more an anachronistic stroll than a historic walk. Never mind.
by tube: Harlesden → Alperton  by bus: 224

Somewhere un-famous: Sudbury & Harrow Road station
Harrow Road, SudburyLondon's most useless railway station is in Brent. It has fewer paying passengers than any of the other 300-or-so stations in the capital. According to official statistics it's used by only 2500 passengers a year. It's no remote halt in the middle of a field, it's in a proper urban location on a busy high street. It's served by trains only during the weekday rush hour, and then only in one direction at a time. It has just nine trains a day - four into town in the morning and five back again in the evening. It is a sorry apology for a station and owners Chiltern Railways clearly treat it with complete indifference. It is Sudbury & Harrow Road. And yes, of course I had to pay a visit.

I wonder if it's a coincidence that the number 18 bendy bus terminates on the Harrow Road precisely outside the entrance to this forlorn station photos. Catch the nasty evil articulated bus from here and you could be in Marylebone in less than an hour. Wait for a train and you could be waiting for up to three days. A lone British Rail sign and a tiny purple nameplate mark the station entrance for any would-be passengers. There's no ticket office, just a "Permit to Travel" machine and a pair of freshly-installed Oyster readers photos. I suspect that just the one reader would have been sufficient. The bike rack has just four spaces (don't all fight at once). Turn left to enter the dark concrete passage beneath the railway embankment. In a busier station this might smell of urine and sicked-up curry, but not at Sudbury & Harrow Road. I stepped inside, and headed up the central staircase to the station proper photos.

Sudbury & Harrow Road stationThere are two parallel platforms, a few metres apart, with the top of the stairs forming a small island between the two. If it's raining you can hide beneath the red arched plastic roof, or maybe take a seat on the single central bench. There's room for two, maybe three if you squeeze up close. To the right I spotted a padlocked cupboard containing "Adverse Weather Equipment", and to the left a yellow box labelled "Passenger Help Point" (singular, not plural). Oh, and also a couple of TV display screens transmitting flickering information from Chiltern HQ. These informed me that, not only were there no trains stopping today, there were also no trains running due to planned engineering work. Fantastic, I had this entire remote outpost completely to myself, with no interruptions.

I took a silent stroll from one end of the station photos to the other photos. Each platform was little more than a long wooden boardwalk, about a metre off the ground, with a spiky slatted fence rising up behind. Between the two lay a forgotten grassy trench, littered with discarded bottles, cans and the odd deflated football. A handful of thin blue lampposts broke the emptiness, on which were stuck scrappy stickers warning the occasional patron not to smoke photos. From Platform 1 I had a fine view down into the back gardens of Sudbury, towards rickety sheds and washing lines pegged out with damp undergarments. And down in Harrow Road were scores of people rushing around, buying this and that, rushing hither and thither, and queueing to catch a bus to somewhere else.

It's a shame that so few local residents look up to the embankment for a means of escape, but perhaps not surprising given that this station merits such a pitifully irregular service. 45 trains a week is no way to build up a regular clientèle, and so the vicious underfunded circle of transport decline continues. "The next train to London Marylebone will depart in 2500 minutes." I headed back down the stairs to the bus stop, and the station returned to timetabled hibernation.
by tube: Sudbury Town photos   by bus: 18, 92, 182, 245

 Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Amy Winehouse exclusive

ohmigod it's AMY WINEHOUSE. she has the voice of an ANGEL but she is not pure. she is always being seen with the powder and the rocks, sometimes in her car and sometimes up her nose. she is in the gutter oh yes, like a dirty woman. and she is MY NEIGHBOUR! well, sort of. i live in bow in east london and what do you know she lives IN BOW TOO! it is, like TOO EXCITING! and a scandal, obviously.

amy is an E3 girl now. she bought a pad here last month up by the river canals, and now she is never away from the place. well, it is dead convenient for the local magistrates court, innit? i was walking past the court on the bow road the other week and there was paparazzi ALL over the pavement waiting for amy to turn up. they had cameras and they had notebooks and they had those little ladders that they stand on to get a better photo of a lady's head. but there was no amy around yet. i should have waited to watch the scarlet jezebel shambling up the steps into the court to plead for her dipsy husband but instead i went home. but hey i was WELL CLOSE to fame and misery.

the omega works, fish island, bow e3amy lives in these posh flats beside the river lea, on the corner where it meets the hertford canal. the area is called fish island, which is appropriate because she drinks like one LOL. amy lives inside a big modern apartment block made of shiny glass, behind a security gate which helps to keep the tabloids out. she probably has wooden floorboards and a balcony and a large open space pretending to be a loft. i bet she has a cracking time there, know what i mean. and her place directly overlooks the olympics, so she'll have a great view of the basketball stadium in 2012, but only if she's still alive and hasn't dropped DEAD of evil overdoses.

because i live in bow i could bump into amy AT ANY TIME. if i go to the corner shop i could easily find amy there buying vodka and rizlas. if i go to the mcdonalds drive-thru i could see amy lolling beside the pay window guzzling an egg mcmuffin. if i go out up the A12 after dark i might come face to face with her scrawny red bra and scruffy tattoo flesh. and if i stand on the canal towpath i might be able to sell her a bag of lemon sherbet which she will take home and snort in a crazed POWDERBINGE. so i keep my eyes peeled for a dazed blonde waif wandering the bow streets, or staring blankly through a car window with pinhole eyes. i haven't seen her yet, my e3 sister, but it can only be a MATTER OF TIME.

 Sunday, January 20, 2008

Temple Open Weekend 2008

Inner TempleOn the western edge of the City of London, tucked out of sight behind Fleet Street, are two of the capital's great Inns of Court. One is the Inner Temple, the other the Middle Temple, and together with the Law Courts over the road they form the nucleus of legal London. Temple's hidden precincts are the stomping ground of barristers and other legalfolk, and have been since 1608 when King James I granted a Royal Charter to the land and buildings on this site. Which makes 2008 the 400th anniversary of the great founding event. Any excuse for a festival.

You can gain restricted public access to the Temple complex on weekdays, and some of the buildings within are open occasionally, but this is the first weekend in 400 years when the gates have been flung wide to the public. A shame that the weather's been rather drizzly, and a pity that the award winning gardens don't look anything like their best in January, but this is still an opportunity not to miss.

Middle Temple HallMiddle Temple is the older of the two Inns of Court, but only because most of it wasn't destroyed by bomb damage during WW2. The main Hall is a magnificent Tudor construction, all wooden panelling and hammerbeam roof photos, with golden shields along each wall and stained glass ablaze in the windows. It was filled yesterday with helpful volunteers waiting to be asked questions, choral groups performing acapella Grensleeves, and wandering visitors gawping down from the gallery. Outside the hall you'll find a network of terraced rooms, gardens, courtyards and passageways, very much like an Oxbridge college, and clearly a delightful location in which to work and study. Inner Temple is slightly less special, comprising mostly postwar replacement buildings surrounding a town-hall-like main hall. But the sense of tradition and ceremonial is strong, and there are fine views across the gardens down towards the Embankment and the Thames beyond.

Temple business takes place inside countless legal chambers across the site, a few of which were open to the public yesterday for a bit of a look around. The most interesting of these were the chambers in Crown Office Row, where I joined a small group on a short tour led by a smiling QC. We were taking into the meeting rooms where barristers discuss cases with their clients behind soundproof doors, and got to meet the junior clerks who'd come in on their day off. (Hey kids, if you have a minimum of qualifications but still fancy a really well-paid job, then solicitors' clerk sounds just the ticket) On through the glass security door to glimpse the privileged world of the barristers beyond. Crammed into tiny offices with overflowing piles of red-ribbon-wrapped legal files, each representing a different courtroom case, it's not quite the glamorous world depicted in This Life.

Temple Church, from Hare CourtAnd then, one of the highlights of the day, a chance to peer inside Temple Church photos photos. The round Norman church is a national rarity, founded by the Knights Templar in the 12th century, and was once part of a monastic compound. There are ten marble effigies at the centre of the circular nave, each depicting a knight reclining in deathly repose. These feature in chapter eighty-something of Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code, so this historic church has become a bit of an international literary tourist mecca. The church's vicar loves to speak on the subject, although the crowds who arrived to hear his talk yesterday were treated more to a sermon than a history lesson. They packed out the slightly more modern end of the church, known as the Oblong photos, and no doubt flocked to buy his book (only £5) on the way out.

There's one more day of the Temple Open Weekend today, should you be tempted to attend. Pick your time of arrival carefully. Temple Church doesn't open until 1pm (it being a Sunday they're holding Choral Mattins at 11:15), while Inner Temple Hall is closed for lunch (and lunch preparations) until half past three. Otherwise there's plenty to see, including theatricals, guided tours and police dog demos, from half past ten onwards. Even better, they're holding mock trials in the Royal Courts of Justice across Fleet Street, and if you (and your camera) have never been inside that great Gothic building before then you're in for a treat. Be warned, this is the first Temple Open Weekend for 400 years, and you don't know how long you might have to wait until the next.

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