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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.