Sunday, 29 May 2011

Is the Westway Sexy?

In 1964 a monster came to London. It clawed and chewed its way  from White City to Paddington leaving a broad ribbon of grey behind it like an elongated concrete worm cast. The Westway  was making its presence known. The background story to the Westway is really quite simple. Even in those far off days, the problem of increasing traffic was an issue. The A40 was, and indeed still is, one of the major roads into London from the West, carrying traffic from the Thames Valley and beyond.  It thundered Eastwards, squeezing past White City Stadium,  before finally emptying into Wood Lane and that is where the problems really began.

 It should be pointed out that the A40 wasn’t the road that it is today. There were none of the underpasses and flyovers that we are now familiar with. All of the major junctions were roundabouts and congestion was already a problem, but all of this paled into insignificance compared to that final junction at Wood Lane.

This was a T junction leading South towards Shepherd’s Bush and North, ultimately, towards the Great North Rd. The real problem was the railway. Running parallel and to the East  of Wood Lane are both mainline and underground tracks, effectively blocking any easy way through to Central London and the East.

None of the existing routes from there were suitable to carry the ever increasing weight of  traffic so it seemed that the only way was up!

To be honest the plans were much more ambitious than this. London was to become a network of ring roads with links to the motorways and trunk roads radiating from it. Ultimately, very little of this was actually built but the Westway and its companion the West Cross Route did eventually make it off of the drawing board and into reality.

Construction began in 1964, working its way Eastwards until it linked up with the, independently planned,  Marylebone Flyover which was opened in 1967. The 2.5 mile (4 km) Westway itself was formally opened by Michael Heseltine in July 1970.

Like most locals, I suppose, I have mixed feelings about the Westway. Despite the protests of  the residents,  a great swathe of  North Kensington, Notting Dale and Paddington was cleared, homes and businesses were lost and communities were destroyed. I regret what was lost, despite the fact that  much of it was considered to be slum housing. On the other hand, many residents found themselves living in the new tower blocks that sprung up adjacent to the new road, which at that time were a vast improvement on their former living conditions. The irony is that the lost housing would now be considered highly desirable though, in all probability, way beyond the means of its former inhabitants.

To a large extent, the Westway has done what it was supposed to do, but it’s doubtful that anyone back then could have conceived just how many vehicles would be on the road by this point in the 21st century. We still suffer from traffic congestion and it’s likely we always will. I am a driver and, almost by definition, that makes me a hypocrite. I complain about traffic  congestion, whilst simultaneously being part of the cause of that congestion………I am not alone! The simple fact is that there are just too many cars on the road.

Today, the Westway is home to a whole range of activities. Lurking in its vast shadow are all manner of things from garages to naughty knicker shops. From health clubs to skateboard parks and from pop up galleries, restaurants and bars to riding stables. So it seems that the communities of the past have been replaced by those of a different sort.

Anyway, that’s the background out of the way. I return to my original question. Is the Westway sexy?

For the pedestrian, the central section is a little boring and, to a large extent, inaccessible (with the exception of the wonderful sweep out over the Grand Union canal). The Eastern section, close to Little Venice and Bishop’s Bridge Rd, if not sexy, is at least alluring. With its roundabout and its proximity to Paddington Basin, it certainly holds the attention.

However, it is really at its best at the Western end. Take a walk under the Northern Roundabout, where the Westway links with the West Cross Route. Here, among other things, you will find a sports centre and the riding stables but ignore these and just look up. The main road itself and the various access roads sweep and swoop around over your head. Thrusting out from the roundabout  are the spurs of the unbuilt section of road which was intended to force its way Northwards and the roadway at this point has a deep central spine which adds to the sinuous nature of the construction. Ignore the raw concrete and just enjoy the shapes.

So, is the Westway sexy……………hell yes…………but then again, maybe I should just get out more!

Check it out for yourself.

Saturday, 14 May 2011

The Festival of Britain

Visitors to the LondonSouth Bank between May and September this year will be able to enjoy a series of events and displays, relating to the 60th anniversary of the Festival of Britain.

The original Festival was conceived as a "Tonic for the Nation designed to boost the spirits of a nation still suffering the after effects of the Second World War.  London at that time was still blighted with bomb sites and a ruined infrastructure. Major redevelopment and reconstruction was urgently needed and it was hoped that the Festival would be the catalyst that would drive this forward. Additionally, it was seen as a way to promote Britain worldwide as a a leader in design, manufacturing and the arts. All of this from a country that was to continue rationing sweets until February 1953 and meat until July1954!

Conceived by the Labour government in 1947 and timed to coincide with the centenary of the Great Exhibition of 1851, a team of forward looking young architects, headed by Hugh Casson began transforming the site  located between Waterloo Bridge and County Hall in 1948

The Festival was opened by King George VI on the 3rd May 1951 and went on to be a great popular  and financial success. It should be remembered that although the events were centred on the South Bank, there were other associated Festival sites in London and throughout the country. It closed, as planned, in September of the same year having had over 10,000,000 paid admissions to the main sites in 5 months.

Despite the Festival’s popularity, or perhaps because of it, Winston Churchill and his newly elected Tory government loathed the Labour conceived Festival and almost the first act of that government was to order the clearance of the site (the Royal Festival Hall being the only being the only significant survivor).

There are a few fragments still to be found away from the main site, the largest being the Lansbury Estate in Poplar, conceived as a “live architecture” experiment in the spirit of the Festival. Battersea Park still has the remains of the Festival Gardens though, sadly, there is nothing left of the fun fair which soldiered on, in a progressively dilapidated state, until 1974. I’m pleased to say that I was taken to the Fun Fair several times during its prime period in the mid to late 50’s. There are reminders too in Oxford St 

and White City.

Of course, the Festival was only ever conceived as a temporary show, but some of the constructions could have been saved. I know that I’m not the only person to wish that the  Dome of Discovery and the Skylon were still there for us to enjoy.

This was never intended to be an in depth history of the Festival. For those interested in learning more you could do far  worse than starting here and here. Rather, this was to mark an important point on my own personal timeline.

The Festival and I are almost the same age. When my parents visited the Festival of Britain in the Summer of 1951, my Mum was already pregnant with me! I was born a little over 3 months after the  event finished. I wish that I'd seen it. I know I would have enjoyed it.

It’s a sad truth that there can never be another FOB. It just wouldn’t work in the modern world. I think we are all to savvy and cynical these days. Technology, in particular, is racing ahead at an alarming pace but it is there, in your face, all of the time, and of course, we haven’t just been through the nearly six years of global conflict which so coloured the views and the attitudes of  the late 40’s and early 50’s.

There are some things we should be grateful for!