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.