Walk 8: WILLESDEN JUNCTION walk to WEST BROMPTON
A train line opened in 1844 between Willesden Junction and present “Kensington (Olympia)” station in order to provide access to a canal basin linked with the Thames. Due to planning mistakes such as a level crossing with the Great Western main line, the line was unreliable and closed after a few months. When the canal basin itself ran into financial difficulties due to competition from more convenient basins along the Regent’s Canal, a consortium of train companies bought the ground and used it for a new train line all the way through to Clapham Junction, providing an extremely useful bypass line linking the Midlands with the Channel ports. The line has a checkered history where passenger services are concerned, but goods traffic was and still is very significant.
Routing note: This walk connects in Willesden Junction with Euston network walk 2 and with Overground walks 7 and 18. It will connect in Kensington (Olympia) with London Underground District line walk 7. Finally, it connects in West Brompton with Overground walk 9 and will also connect there with London Underground District line walk 4.
The original Willesden station was built further west in 1841 on the main line from Euston and remained in use until 1962. When the Overground line via West Hampstead opened in 1860, Willesden became a junction. An additional junction was added in 1863 towards Clapham Junction, also using Willesden. It was sensible to join the Hampstead line with the Clapham line, which was done in 1869 and provided a bypass line for freight services around central London. The present Willesden Junction station opened therefore in 1869 on the viaduct of this bypass line and was called for technical purposes “Willesden Junction High Level”.
The station itself was rebuilt in 1956 and shared a common building with the Low Level station from then on. The Low Level station itself was rebuilt later on, so that the former common building can be considered now as the actual High Level station building. It is a functional brick house with a steeped roof and has no pretence to architectural interest, being mainly a functional interchange and much less a destination where a landmark building would make sense.
Exit the station into a public footpath towards the Hythe Road industrial estate. The footpath runs along the train viaduct.
The footpath ends in Salter Street. Cross under the railway line
Salter Street merges into Hythe Road.
The road turns immediately L and crosses again under the railway line
A large part of the industrial estate belongs currently to a large company dealing in used cars as you can see easily on my picture. The area was already associated with cars before as this was the site of a subsidiary of Rolls Royce where cars were prepared for delivery. I am not sure which company had the proud factory on my picture built, but it was obviously in the first half of the 20th century. The Greek motives are more Edwardian but concrete and massive columns with subtly smaller crowns are more Art Déco, so that I am not sure.
The present owner does not need so much land so close to central London and the good train connections make the land very valuable for developers. I expect there will be hundreds of luxury flats overlooking the canal soon (south-facing with views towards a large open space to boot – just ignore the busy railway line at the back !). If the development goes ahead, the developer proposes to fund part of an additional train station called Hythe Road, an arrangement that was commonplace in the 19th century as it obviously enhances the value of the flats to be built.
R Scrubbs Lane crossing over the canal and again under the railway line
The canal is the Paddington Arm of the Midlands Canal, opened in 1801 to bring products from the Midlands closer to the consumers in London. The canal banks became lined with heavy industrial premises that only closed in the 1960s with the de-industrialisation of Britain. Leisure traffic is also quite scarce as there is no large marina on this canal arm. This makes it a quiet, rather isolated location, explaining the pretty mural of a canoe on the railway bridge head. There are nice landscaped landings at intervals such as the one just below the bridge; as there is very little housing in the vicinity for the time being, they are nice, quiet picnic places.
The road bridge over the canal is nothing special, but it is followed by a rather impressive rusty iron bridge over the Great Western main train line. The bridge is riveted according to the traditional Victorian method and this is becoming rare. Engineers will note that the bridge has no pillars because of the underlying railway tracks; the very long span needed could only be bridged by a riveted bridge with arches to bear the strain. The colour scheme that was in place at the time of my picture was rather strange.
R on a footpath into Wormwood Scrubs Open Space
This really large area of grass with occasional hedges and few trees has an interesting origin. It was bought by the Government in 1879 in order to have sufficient space close to the central London barracks for military exercises. As the land was not needed constantly, it was declared a common with the special provision that the Army could close it off when needed. Although it is hardly ever closed off for maneuvers nowadays, the Army still owns it and can use it. This explains why there are no amenities that might make it more of a park or nature reserve. There have been many attempts over the year to discuss developments in some areas, but campaigners have been able to defeat nearly all of them.
Crossing the open space is a special experience because it is indeed one of the largest unlandscaped open spaces in London along parts of Epping Forest and areas in Northolt. There are occasionally isolated gentlemen wandering about with no apparent purpose and I have been wondering whether they are plainclothes policemen checking that no one is having inappropriate intentions regarding the inmates of the nearby prison.
Turn half L and aim for the west corner of the football stadium, then for the space between the stadium and the prison
Linford Christie stadium, named after the most popular runner of the local athletics club, was built in 1967. It shields Wormwood Scrubs from the large hospital built just south of it starting in 1905. The prison is older as it was built in the 1870s by forced labour (you had to make use of this free workforce now that it was not possible to deport them to Australia any more). Like Pentonville prison, it was considered a model establishment incorporating newest thoughts about safety and security.
The prison has a listed gatehouse that I did not bother to have a look at. Again like Pentonville, the buildings are now too old to be really appropriate to modern treatment of prisoners. After shocking reports about brutality and filth in the 1990s, the situation improved significantly, but has apparently deteriorated again recently. The prison has a significant section specialising in prisoners needing addiction treatment, a unit which is unavoidably not easy to manage.
Ahead Artillery Lane along the prison wall
R Du Cane Road
L on a marked public footpath under the Underground tracks
R Primula Street, turns L towards a highway
Cross the dual carriageway using the subway
You exit the subway facing the dome of the former local library.
The library is now called The Wormholt Centre and seems to be a kindergarten. It was an unusually impressive building for a local public library and was meant as the centrepiece of a garden suburb landscaped in the 1930s by the borough. The entrance portico is typical of public construction of that period. There was a fashion for Greek majesty with columns and straight architraves. The style came under somewhat ill repute on the Continent later on because grand colonnades were very popular with dictators like Mussolini and Hitler.
The dome is very unusual for the 1930s and reminds much more of baroque country pavilions. The proportions are rather well chosen in the case of this specific building and can be compared nicely with renowned, typically baroque properties such as Hôtel de Salm on the bank of the Seine in Paris (now a museum opposite Musée d’Orsay).
Take the road L of the library, called The Curve
Walking along this road, you do get a clear feeling of what was meant in the 1930s under a garden suburb. Curving roads between strips of lawn, a number of trees planted at crossroads, buildings of moderate height and submitting to a common design of façades, gardens to the back.
At the end, the road turns R as Erica Street
Ahead into Wormholt Park
The park opened in 1911 on land offered by the Church as compensation for being allowed to develop its land holdings in the neighbourhood. It was upgraded significantly in the 1930s when the new garden suburb was developed. It boasted a lido, a bandstand and a bowling green, the typical amenities considered essential for a suburban park at the time. As in many other locations, budget problems forced the borough to convert the park to a more easily manageable plain grass space in the 1980s. Except for a few struggling rose bushes, the park had little to offer. It is currently being redeveloped.
Exit the park at the Southeast corner near the leisure centre
L Sawley Road
R Bloemfontein Road
L South Africa Road
Shortly after Batman Close, take the inconspicuous paved entrance
R into Hammersmith Park
The park contrasts strongly with Wormholt Park as it is in the middle of a heavily urbanised area with many council estate buildings while Wormholt Park was planned to cater to the lower middle class expected to live in a garden suburb. You will certainly notice many men sitting idly on banks in Hammersmith Park, a testimony to the scarcity of jobs available to poorly qualified people in Britain. I think many of them also have no choice but to socialise in a park: there is no room to do so in flats where the family needs room for the small children and pubs are too expensive.
This being said, the park has significant attractions. It was landscaped on ground left over after exhibition buildings from the 1900s were pulled down after World War II. Most of the ground was used for council estates and a park in the middle was essential. It was also chosen in order to preserve a small Japanese garden set up in 1910 on occasion of an exhibition at a time when anything Japanese was the absolute not-to-be-missed attraction. The garden was neglected later on but not destroyed and volunteers tried to restore it in the 1980s. You will notice some Japanese plants and the usual interesting combination of closely cropped lawn with well pruned bushes, but the water features are modest compared to the major show garden in Holland Park.
The other attraction in the park is an abstract steel sculpture by artist Tim Fortune called “Three Arches” for rather obvious reasons. The borough chose to set the sculpture among low bushes, which is an excellent idea as there is an interesting aesthetic opposition between organic shapes and the steel curves.
Exit the park at the South end into Frithville Gardens
L Uxbridge Road passing under the Underground tracks
The road passes on the right the greenery of Shepherd’s Bush Common, then on the left Westland Shopping Centre. The station is a little left just after the shopping centre
The common is officially called Shepherd’s Bush Green and is a noisy, triangular patch of grass lined by beautiful alleys of mature trees. There are a few monuments on the green but they are not particularly interesting. What is definitely interesting is a spectacular entertainment venue called “Empire”. It had to be conspicuous because it was built in 1903 as a music hall venue for an Australian impresario. It was used by the BBC as a recording studio from 1953 on but was sold in the 1990s to a corporation organising clubbing events and gigs.
The architect was Frank Matcham, the best known specialist for such buildings at the time. He had an uncanny ability to build each theatre with a spectacular, individual façade that you would remember, and loved in particular towers with rounded tops. The Shepherd’s Bush tower is peculiarly fat; the red sandstone crowning has a faint Art Nouveau influence, possibly from Vienna, while the top lantern has a faintly oriental style. Weird but fun.
A train station opened in 1869 very close to the present station. It was called Uxbridge Road and was used over the years for a number of different infrequent services but traffic was low due to the more convenient connections with central London via other lines. In the end, World War II bomb damage provided a convenient excuse for closing the station in 1940.
The present train station opened in 2008 on the existing line, one of the most recent train stations to be opened in London. It was funded by the developer of the huge adjacent shopping centre. There is no direct connection with the Underground stopping nearby, which is understandable as this particular train line is not catering much to commuters from the outer suburbs.
The station building is a rather impressive construction with the roof overhanging quite far in front of the glass façade. The materials are very standard and there is no attempt at decoration, it is just the shape that is imposing.
You need to cross Uxbridge Road, which is extremely cumbersome. The best solution is to go back some 100 yards towards Shepherd’s Bush Common and to come back along the road on the other side.
L over the railway tracks
R Hansard Mews directly along the railway line
I didn’t take a picture of this lovely little street graced with cobblestones. Unusually, houses have only one upper level. I suppose this is due to a conservation area status. It is easy to imagine that back streets such as this one were only meant for deliveries and for servants bringing the horses and carriages at the back of the properties. I also suppose in this case that the houses along the street were the lodgings for the groom.
R Addison Gardens crossing the railway line
L Sinclair Road
My picture shows the back of the terraced houses on Sinclair Road. The most interesting item for me is the doors with balconies on the first floor. They were apparently ubiquitous in Georgian houses but I am not sure what they were needed for. Possibly for the cook and the deliveries to get access to the kitchen without using the stairs inside the house, although this implies outside stairs that I have not seen often.
At the end of the road L for
A train station opened here in 1844 as the end of the spur line from Willesden Junction but service ended after a few months. It was reinstated in 1862 when the line was extended to Clapham Junction, rebuilt and renamed Kensington (Addison Road) in 1869. Passenger traffic from Willesden Junction remained very limited despite the train company also running trains to a convenient interchange at Earl’s Court. After war damage in 1940, the station was therefore closed. It did reopen in 1946 under the present name, but only as the terminal for a minor London Underground line from Earl’s Court with very limited services.
An attempt was made in the 1990s to offer long-distance services as trains linking the Midlands with the Channel ports passed the station anyway, but success was limited and these trains do not stop here since 2008. Local trains running between Willesden Junction and Clapham Junction were reinstated in 1994, reviving the station.
The present station building is a low, rather nondescript brick shed that probably replaced the original building in the 1960s when it became sufficient after most services were withdrawn.
Continue along the railway line on Olympia Way
R for a few yards, then cross Hammersmith Road into Avonmore Road
At the end R, then directly L on Lisgar Terrace
R Matheson Road, merges into North End Crescent
L North End Road
At the corner of North End Road with minor Gunterstone Road, you can see the rounded corner of a small park a few yards to your R. Gwendwr Park is sandwiched between Gunterstone Road and Gwendwr Road and I suggest you include a short detour to see it. The land was given to the borough by a local landowner and named after his estate in Wales. It opened in 1949 but it is surprisingly one of the purest examples of Art Déco gardening in London. The central sunken garden is particularly striking with its symmetrical geometry and its stone walls, things that were anathema in Victorian gardening. The current planting is pleasant enough but of less interest.
Continue on North End Road crossing a major road and the Underground tracks
The road turns afterwards slowly to the L, then again R
Routing note: I recommend walking across an estate rather than along the main road, but this makes the description rather complicated. If you are worried about this, you can keep to North End Road until you can turn L onto Lillie Road, avoiding all the estate.
Before the bend of North End Road to the right, leave the main road ahead for Mund Street (marked as a dead end).
R Ivatt Place
When the street reaches the middle of the estate, it runs along a narrow open space with grass and a paved footpath. Switch to this footpath keeping the same direction until you can turn R and reach the dead end of an other estate street (Marchbank Road)
My picture is taken from the place where you leave Ivatt Place for the footpath and shows a skyscraper in the background . It is one of several tall buildings erected in the borough of Hammersmith in the 1960s; this trend stopped after the 1973 oil crisis because construction methods of the time did not pay sufficient attention to insulation and caused horrendous heating and air conditioning bills. The building is called the Empress State Building in an obvious but somewhat pretentious nod to the well-known New York skyscraper.
It was originally planned as a hotel (like the one at Hyde Park Corner) and the roundel at the top was a revolving structure used as a private club, a very hip contraption in the 1960s. The location was not very popular with business people as a hotel and it was soon taken over by government. It is currently used by the Metropolitan Police and was refurbished in 2003. The overall shape is rather pleasant to look at, a thin curve being more interesting than a rectangular block, but is not very economical in terms of ground space, requiring for example emergency staircases at both ends and not only in the middle.
Follow the estate street out
When you reach the building marked Desborough House, continue ahead on the footpath along the building (the street turns L here)
At the end of the footpath L Thaxton Road
R Lerry Close
There is a footpath at the end of the close towards the main road
L Lillie Road
The station opened in 1866 on the train line built three years before but passenger services were withdrawn in 1940 following bomb damage and the station building was demolished. Passenger traffic was reinstated in 1999. As the new platforms were linked directly with the Underground station that existed here throughout since 1869, no new station building was needed.
Nonetheless, there is railway-specific equipment I could use for the station picture. The platform access lifts use shafts built in a style referring somewhat artificially to 19th century railway buildings with arches and glazed tiles.