A Walk Through…West London
Making sense of London’s boroughs and working out how they all fit together can sometimes be a challenge. The western part of central London always gets overlooked, partly because there’s no special reason to visit a mainly residential area, partly because of the bewildering roads and bridges that mark out the territories from Paddington to Kilburn.
The mystery starts with the nomenclature; it’s not really West at all – that term should be reserved for Hammersmith, Chiswick and beyond. There’s more confusion at Paddington Station, which has two tube station entrances a considerable distance from each other, and although they look the same they go to different places. The signposts both read the same too, but if you look at the small writing on them you’ll see that they use the same lines going in different directions, marked ‘Victoria’ and ‘King’s Cross’. Wouldn’t have it been easier to label them East and West?
Then there are all the odd spots you vaguely know but couldn’t point to on a map, like Lisson Grove, Royal Oak, Brook Green and Westbourne Park. Paddington recreational ground isn’t in Paddington but in Maida Vale – obviously – and the whole area darts back and forth across its most major barriers, the Westway flyover and the railway lines heading out of London to the South-West.
So I decided to take an easier route and simply follow the Regent Canal, starting in King’s Cross and passing through St John’s Wood. On a sunny Sunday the first obstacle is predictable: Camden. Unbearably crowded, chaotic and reeking of skunk. Happily you soon emerge into the graceful section that goes through the London Zoo and Regent’s Park, where you pass beneath Lord Snowden’s aviary and the backs of the rather grand grace and favour houses of the park.
After this you hit two obstacles; private moorings. The first is open to the public but the tenants of houseboats have made it as tricky as possible to walk through by co-opting the towpath as gardens. The second is completely closed, which means you have to go up and round. The biggest closed section is at Little Venice, a picturesque spot at this time of year, especially where the canal splits around an island, one arm forming an attractive cul-de-sac.
In June London is almost absurdly fecund, and in the wealthy neighbourhoods of St John’s Wood and Maida Vale, the mature trees almost obscure the houses. Plants, grasses and trees seem to spring up everywhere. Maida Vale, bisected by the Edgware Road, has always struck me as rather characterless but on a sunny day you notice how so many of the houses look more like Mediterranean villas, and even terraces appear to belong in Dorset or Devon rather than London. I was taken with the row of shops below with stepped frontages, but they’re not neighbourhood shops anymore – this is prime real estate; they’re houses now.
The Prince Alfred pub is one of two with the same name in the same area – obviously – so there’s more confusion. The one we fetch up in, now that the eccentric Windsor Castle has closed its doors, is West London’s best kept secret. It’s a listed building because it has a feature most pubs once had, but which were torn out in the anything-goes seventies, back when people thought it was a good idea to drink Watneys Red Barrel.
Class. It was all about keeping the classes separate. Pubs were split into the saloon, public, snug and private bars. Sometimes they had boxing rings at the back. The areas were physically divided with partitions but often had ‘snob screens’ which turned on a central spindle and allowed one to spy on the lower orders. Complicating matters was the fact that you could more from one bar to the next only by opening a very small door in the partition and climbing through. The Alfred has all of these still intact.
Chelsea, Hampstead, Belgravia and Mayfair were affluent residential neighbourhoods housing diplomats, civil servants and bankers but also artists and writers. Now they’re too expensive to house Londoners at all. The West London area is also affluent but more mixed, so for grubby Kilburn there’s fancy St John’s Wood (the home of Sephardic Jews for two centuries) and for Paddington there’s elegant Maida Vale, named – obviously – after a boozer, the Hero of Maida inn, which used to be on Edgware Road near the canal.
Paddington Basin was regenerated elaborately and expensively, but the developers got the mix wrong. Whereas the King’s Cross development put infrastructure in first, adding art colleges, recreation areas and families, Paddington allowed corporations into glass office boxes first then tried to make it look habitable. The result is disastrous and deserted.
These wards remain less explored by visitors, and although there are pubs and cafes lining the waterways, they seem to attract a fairly local crowd. It’s an amorphous, puzzling chunk of the city that’s worth taking more time to explore.