Walk 18: WILLESDEN JUNCTION walk to GUNNERSBURY
2 3/4 hours
The train line was first built in 1853 from Willesden Junction to South Acton, the aim being to link the different main lines and to bypass central London. This was planned primarily as a freight railway although a number of different passenger services were tried with limited success as the area was very rural. The line was extended in 1869 from South Acton to Gunnersbury and Richmond, providing a link to an additional main line.
Routing note: This route connects in Willesden Junction with Overground walks 7 and 8 as well as with Euston network walk 2. It connects in Gunnersbury with Overground walk 19 and will also connect there with London Underground District line walk 3.
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 through the access road passing the Underground station building
L Old Oak Lane (going south)
Cross the canal and then go directly L down the stairs to the Canal towpath
The canal is the Paddington Arm of the Grand Union Canal, built around 1800 to provide a link between industry in the Midlands and the consumers in London. The original canal joined the Thames where the water flow was uncertain and tidal, so that the Paddington Arm enabled easier transportation to central London. It was used both for goods traffic and for passengers until much faster railways made canal boats only sensible for less urgent bulk goods. The canal remained extremely busy until the 1950s because it connected to a canal bypassing central London on the way to the Docklands. It is now an extremely quiet backwater, even more so than Regent’s Canal or the Lea Navigation.
The canal bisects an ancient common, Old Oak Common, and Parliament sacrificed over time other large chunks of it to railway sidings as it was conveniently located near both the Euston and Paddington main lines. Part of the depot is now used for Eurostar trains, but most of the depot is now derelict and surplus to requirement. A slice of land near the canal was left to develop as a small nature reserve with a very nice birch wood.
Natural birch forests are rare in London because this is a pioneer tree growing on rubble, dry land where it accumulates soil until is it replaced by long-term trees like oak and beech. Birch is not particularly attractive to birds and insects but it is important in the succession of natural landscapes.
Train companies kept to unused sidings forever because they have been heavily polluted at the time of steam locomotives, so that either the train company as the seller of the land or the developer as the buyer faces unknown and potentially dismal cleaning-up costs. Development of the Old Oak area may become attractive if the Crossrail project goes through with a station in Old Oak as developers could attract affluent City of London buyers to luxury flats on the former rail depot site, the large number and high price of such flats paying probably for the cleaning-up costs.
Follow the canal towards the east (towards the train line bridges) to the next road bridge
There are only few boats moored along this section of Paddington Arm, primarily because there is no segregated basin and no convenient road access. This is likely to change if the one or other former factory can be converted to luxury flats.
R up the stairs on Scrubbs Lane
R into Wormwood Scrubs Park
This really large area of grass with occasional hedges and few trees has an interesting origin. As the rest of the former Old Oak Common, 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 kept 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 with 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.
Follow more or less the train line until you reach the end of the common
L Old Oak Common Lane
R across the Underground line using the subway
R Long Drive (not Brunel Road !)
L The Bye
The short road ends at a regular open space called imaginatively “The Green”. It was the centrepiece of a suburb developed in the late 19th century, East Acton. The streets surrounding the green are all pleasantly leafy with some open grassy spaces, which makes it a forerunner of the garden city movement. There are no remarkable houses or monuments along these streets, but the going is pleasant and traffic keeps to a few main thoroughfares.
Ahead across the green into St. Andrews Road
Ahead across the dual carriageway into Glendun Road
Ahead Bromyard Avenue
The road runs between allotments and an estate from the 1920s called Perryn House after the manor that stood here in the 19th century. On maps, you can see that the borough kept large chunks of land for sports grounds and allotments when the suburb was developed. This foresight was unusual, particularly compared to developments around Wembley, Leyton or Dagenham. Nonetheless, you don’t really see all the open spaces because there were no public footpaths across them, so that they are enclosed and leased to private operators or included in fenced school premises.
Bromyard Avenue divides at one point but both arms come together soon afterwards. Afterwards, you cross a section of Acton set aside in the 1920s for official housing. Bromyard House directly along the avenue is a particularly austere example with a mighty entrance porch and no other ornamentation whatsoever; this is understandable as it was built for the staff of the Ministry of Pensions and not for the open market. It was later used as military headquarters and finally sold to a developer. Because of the unassuming outside, flats actually sell for a halfway affordable price.
R Beech Avenue (following the small sign to “The Vale Community Centre” as there is no road sign)
Go at the end to the main road keeping the same direction
R into Acton Park, cross the park diagonally to the North-West corner exit
Acton Park is not very large, but it is one of the most enjoyable smaller borough parks in London. Part of it was originally a common until the borough enclosed it to prevent further digging for brick clay, a very common problem in the mid-19th century. The main part was the garden of a property replaced by almshouses in 1811.
The park opened in 1888 keeping the mature trees from the garden, explaining why there are less boring plain grass expanses than in many parks built on farmland. The park had all the usual Victorian attractions such as ponds (filled in for security and maintenance reasons in nearly all parks nowadays), a bandstand, a rhoodendron dell, a bandstand, a bowling ground with a pavilion, an elegant lodge for the warden and of course ornamental flower beds.
The borough has been able to keep or renovate a significant portion of these attractions. When I took the pictures in 2009, the borough had a competition to beautify trees and the results were quite amusing.
A larger tree sculpture in a corner of the park is a memorial to an old elm tree, the tree having fallen victim to the elm plague.
The present rhododendron dell is modest, the bushes being too small to be impressive yet.
The formal garden is interesting in terms of design, geometrical beds reminding a lot of Art Déco gardening in the 1930s, while the planting is dominated by low-maintenance grasses and evergreens rather than by flowers. This makes me recommend the park in winter, when the park appears pleasantly less bare, rather than in summer, when you miss the colours.
The café is the former bowling pavilion and is a rather nice cottage; it also dates back to the 1930s and was fortunately not replaced by some ugly concrete structure.
On the road along the north side of the park (East Churchfield Road), you can see from the park a long brick building on both sides of an elegant chapel building in the middle with a rounded portico and a royal coat of arms. As a somewhat conspicuous inscription says, this was built by the guild of goldsmiths in 1811, making use of a bequest by Mr Perryn, whose name we saw before with Perryn House. The building was a set of almshouses and part of the present park was its garden. In line with expectations in the early 19th century, the residents were supposed to be ostentatiously religious, going to church twice on Sundays.
Cross the train line for
The station opened in 1853 together with the train line under the simple line “Acton”. The name was changed to the present version in 1925 because of confusion with other Acton stations (on the Paddington main line and on several Underground lines). The station has a few peculiarities such as having changed fare zones (it is now in zone 3 but was originally in zone 2).
It is also one of very few stations in London where the trains have to switch from overhead power supply to third rail power supply, implying a longer time in the station and occasionally a short power outage in the carriages. The reason for the different power supply is that the line beyond Acton Central was electrified in 1880 using the system of London Underground (at the time just a suburban railway that intended to send trains to Acton Central) while the section north of Acton Central was electrified later with the system used on the main lines in order to enable seamless goods traffic.
The original station building has been converted into a restaurant, but it is still easy to recognise. It was a substantial Victorian building with neo-medieval arches and a small baroque balustrade at roof level. The style is quite typical for the time if you compare for example to Greenwich train station. The station has also kept its original platform awning with an ornate valance.
Continue on Churchfield Road going West
Towards the end of the road, you pass the parish burial ground, now a sort of nice little, quiet park since Parliament forbade burials in churchyards in the 1880s in order to limit what was thought as health risks, in particular groundwater contamination. The parish church itself is a little further on the other side of the market place. It is a standard Victorian building and I did not bother taking a picture or visiting.
At the end of the road L along Market Place/Road before reaching the parish church
Ahead Church Road
The baptist church for Acton located on this road had a lovely white and baby blue front. The clearly neo-classical architecture makes me think it might have been built in the early 19th century, but I found no details on this.
R Avenue Road
L Park Road East entering South Acton estate
L into the parking lot past Ludlow Court and Barwick House, continues as a paved path. The path should merge into Strafford Road
South Acton estate is a large council estate built in the 1960s in the form of towers and bars. Like many other estates, it declined in the 1980s when industries closed, laying off many workers and giving immigrants from the Empire no jobs. The government started to worry seriously about crime levels, drug gangs and ethnic strife after incidents in the early 2000s and finally gave the boroughs the authority and some funds to redevelop the estates. Wikipedia amusingly mentions that previous antisocial behaviour linked to drug and alcohol abuse has been partly replaced by “illegal sex orgies”. I have not read of this particular problem in other estates.
Like in many estates planned in the 1960s, the high-rise buildings enabled a large network of interconnected green spaces and playgrounds at ground level. Now that policing of estates improved significantly, walking through estates can therefore be quite pleasant and green compared to boring Victorian terraces. The borough intended to demolish and redevelop most of the estate, this being financed by additional buildings set on car parks and former garages, but progress has been slow.
R Bollo Bridge Road
soon L Palmerston Road crossing the train line
The station opened in 1880 on the train line linking the Acton Central bypass line with the Richmond main line. As the operators clearly intended to keep the bypass line as a pure freight line in order not to lose passengers, South Acton was served by a branch of London Underground District Line. Passenger services to Richmond only started in 1905 and the District line gave up its own services in 1959.
The original station building was the one for the District line and has been demolished. There was no need afterwards for a real station building in this minor station but the nice platform awning and valance in the style of those in Acton Central are still to be seen on the northbound platform.
Very soon after the footbridge over the train line R into Weston Road
R Bollo Lane crossing the first train line
L Stanhope Way, the access road into a private office centre called Chiswick Business Park.
This particular business park is a flagship development set on the site of a former bus depot. It was designed by a leading urban planning company belonging to the Richard Rodgers group and is indeed more elegant and interesting than most business parks in London. The particular selling point is the landscaping with an extensive water feature in the middle.
The individual buildings are rather low rise and are not the usual boxy glass cubes as they have canopies that can be used to lower the impact of the sun in summer and therefore to use air conditioning less often. All these characteristics come at a price and the business park caters to upmarket tenants in industries like IT and media. The business park can be crossed but it is private and you might be asked by security staff to refrain from taking pictures. I asked permission from the public relations officer. Since 2014, the property is owned by a Chinese investor.
Walk past the ornamental pond to the south exit of the business park
R on the main road and very soon L past the office building for
The station opened in 1869 on a train line that was built with two spurs, one joining the present District line and one continuing to Acton. A third spur enabled connections towards Brentford via Kew Bridge. The first spur became a branch of the Underground District line in 1877, the second spur is the present Overground line although passenger services did not start before 1905 and the third spur closed in 1932. The station was called “Brentford Road” at the start but the name changed to Gunnersbury already in 1871.
Gunnersbury is one the very few stations in London where suburban trains and Underground carriages use the same platform. This is normally not very sensible because Underground trains have different power and braking requirements; in addition, they run much more frequently and this makes train services difficult to include without causing delays.
The original station building looked much like the one in Acton Central but was demolished in the 1960s in order to build the ugly office building that towers above the gloomy entrance of the present station, a plain block of concrete hidden behind the office building.