Ladbroke Grove: a glance at history

London

We have a friend whom we’d never have met if she hadn’t started following and commenting on my blog, years ago when Malcolm and I were in France. But we’d never visited her home in London. The other week, with our London family in school, nursery or at work, we put that right and travelled to Ladbroke Grove, where we had an interest -packed day illustrating so well why while I no longer wish to live in London, it’ll always be a city I love.

Take her street for example. It was built in the late 19th century by speculative builders hoping to sell to the monied middle classes who could afford live-in servants. There were gardens, front and back, and both had one or more carefully chosen trees, which gave a pleasing unity to the street. Trees grow, as we know, and now the roots of many of them are presenting problems.

Almost every other builder in some parts of London was in on the speculative building, so the houses failed to sell. They were carved up in different ways into apartments, right from Day One. They found a ready market following the building of the Hammersmith and City Tube line, which first went from Farringdon to Paddington but then was extended both east and west. This created an immediate client base in urgent need of somewhere to live.  These were workers in the City, clerks mostly, on relatively lowly salaries, some single and some with families, who could for the first time take cheap and reliable public transport into the City rather than walking. So the houses were hastily subdivided into flats and rooms, where the tenants probably shared the bathrooms that were originally built for the house as a whole, usually two per house.  The subdivisions were probably very basic, maybe with curtains sometimes rather than walls. Now the street has spacious and gracious apartments in the main but there’s a real social mix. Apartments can change hands for over £1 million, while other buildings belong to Housing Associations who let out their premises on more modest rents.

Street view from our friend’s window

The whole area reflects this trend. From her bedroom window, our friend can see the shell of the notorious Grenfell Tower, scene of the disastrous fire of June 2017 in which 72 people died. The residents of 129 flats lost everything and were rendered homeless and deeply traumatised. We left her flat and began our walk on the social housing estate it formed part of, Lancaster West.

Grenfell Tower

Discreetly sleeved as investigations continue, it overshadows the area, actually and metaphorically. Tributes, graffiti – the angry, the political, spiritual – seem to gather in certain spots: in a memorial garden; under a flyover; round closed-because-of-Covid small workshops.

A small part of a memorial graden

Almost randomly, a few rows of once-humble terraced housing remain: no longer humble, but commanding large prices: perhaps because they’re traditionally built, with a small garden on an individual, human scale.

We were on our way to once notorious areas of poverty – the Piggeries and the Potteries. Well, the Piggeries are no longer there – they’ve been flattened to make an attractive urban park. The Potteries are represented by one single remaining pottery kiln, which used to turn out the simplest of wares for the working population. Here it is:

And it’s close by something else that no longer exists: the Hippodrome Racecourse. Built in 1836, it was intended to rival Ascot or Epsom. But what with its crossing old-established rights of way, the heavy clay ground being prone to water-logging for much of the year, and any number of smaller disputes, the last race was run in 1841 and the owner declared bankrupt. All that is left to commemorate it are a couple of street names: Hippodrome Mews and Hippodrome Place. These have very narrow pavements. Best that way – the area was notorious for pick-pockets, so squeezing them out seemed a good idea.

Cheek by jowl are houses that were and are intended for the well off. Through the gates of one, we glimpsed a quirky statue. Then on again, past graceful terraces, This part of the neighbourhood has a few shops, but ones more likely to sell must-have accessories for dogs than a late night pint of milk and pack of digestives.

An intruder? No, this figure has definitely been invited.

We were off now to the market areas – Portobello Road has long been famous, but a victim of its own success, is something of a tourist trap, so we passed it by in favour of Golborne Road. On the way we passed a former monastery, now the Instituto Español Vicente Cañada Blanch, an international school using the Spanish curriculum for children from 5 – 19. The Portuguese, among many other nationalities, have also colonised this area, and we wanted to lunch at the Lisboa Patisserie for a slice of Portugal in London. No luck. Already too full, under Covid regulations. Instead we went to Café O’Porto, also Portuguese, but full of Moroccan customers. Toasted sandwiches had of course to be followed by pastéis de nata.

As we walked homewards after lunch, we had a glimpse of Ernö Goldfinger’s 31-storey Trellick Tower, built as social housing in the style of Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation, is a well-known and well-documented brutalist building, and loved and loathed in equal measure since it was built in 1972.

Trellick Tower

And that was almost that. Time for home. There was just time to take in a little street art. This:

And the featured photo shows – not actually street art, but a work composed entirely of bottle tops – which we saw earlier in the day.

And this, by Josephine Hicks, aka Hixxy. It was painted for the London Street Art Festival, and features Claudia Jones, founder of the West Indian Gazette, London’s first major Black newspaper.

I haven’t done justice to our friend’s tour of her own neighbourhood, partly because I was still lacking my camera, and my phone battery seemed unreliable. But this post is written for me as much as for my audience, to preserve memories of a rather special day.

42 thoughts on “Ladbroke Grove: a glance at history

      1. Exactly! There was no other way in which our paths might have crossed. Or with you and others too. Verdict: keep blogging – though like you, I’m going to take a break from this weekend. Have a sunny day!

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      2. Thanks, hon! Cremation day so I’m diverting myself to pass the time. I’ll be so glad when this one is over. Enjoy your break 🙂 🙂

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    1. Fair enough. For me, one of the things that I value the most is the cultural and ethnic mix so absent from our own home areas. But after a good dose of vibrancy I do need to return to being a Country Mouse.

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  1. I know this area very well having lived in West Kensington for 20 years (before repatriating in 2019) and wandering these streets enroute to The Electric cinema in Notting Hill via the Potteries.

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      1. I did! I haven’t missed London at all (I thought I would) but reading this and seeing your lovely pics brought back many happy memories and made me feel a teeny bit homesick for the first time.

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  2. How lovely to have an opportunity to meet up. I used to live nearby when i lived in London over 15 years ago. I too would never return to London, or UK for that matter. I feel much more at home in France.

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  3. Nice to see a slice of London I probably wouldn’t have otherwise. Intriguing fact that houses were carved up when they failed to sell, I’d always have thought they would have been lived in as single homes and divided at a later date, maybe post WW2. Guess it goes to show there has always been a bit of a disconnect between what developers dream and real people want/can afford!

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  4. Once upon a time I thought city life would be exciting, but I am a suburbanite at heart (and wallet). My dad and step mom lived in London for a few years in the 70s before relocating to Reading. In the early 80s they moved to Paris for the remainder of his working life and he retired in 1998. The neighborhood looks interesting and full of flavor and diversity. It looks and sounds like you enjoyed your outing and are happy to be home. Thank you and have a wonderful day. Peace.

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    1. Yes, sometimes the suburbs, carefully chosen, can provide access to both worlds. I’d forgotten you knew England quite well. Hope the end of term is going well, and that you’ll enjoy your summer break when itcomes.

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    1. Now there’s a thought. I have a friend who ran a couple of holiday lets. She lived in every apartment for several days to test the beds, the layout, what was on offer in the kitchen etc. on the basis that if anything didn’t work for her, it wouldn’t be good enough for her guests either.

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      1. Yes. We stayed in a cottage in Warkworth on many occasions and the owner, or one of her family, stayed in the property for a week each year. It was reflected in the quality of the accommodation.

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  5. There’s nothing quite like a local taking you on a wee tour of their manor is there? Lucky you. I was surprised that you mentioned tourists re Portobello Road, where are these people flying in from???? It is still shocking about Grenfell Tower even though they’ve attempted a cover up in more ways than one. My daughter lived on the other side of it from Ladbroke Grove in Shepherd’s Bush for a year with the blackened, skeleton the view from her room before they hid it away behind the ‘protective wrapping’.

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    1. No no, that’s my fault. There probably weren’t many tourists that day. But their presence has altered the shift of the market from being a local presence to being a tourist-trap, apparently.

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  6. Thanks for sharing this Margaret – really interesting those bits of history with some remnants remaining still – old cities have such interesting layered histories if one knows where to look, so thanks for being a guide to this part of London.

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  7. One of the peculiar things about London is its mixes, for better and for worse, and you’ve caught that so well. If you could go back through time, there’d be even more layers. The flowery street art caught my eye – flowers somehow have extra weight in the city.

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  8. That was a nice walk around an area I thought I knew reasonably well, but you still managed to teach me something new. I love that every part of London has such an interesting history. It really is too bad, that I am reading other people’s posts about London, I ought to write something myself.

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    1. I love London’s history too. All these tales from individual parts of the city add up to a fascinating whole. One day you’lldo your own post, I’m sure. But the time has to be right.

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