Where Shall We Go This Afternoon?



A million families say it in a Saturday. But what turns an area into a destination?

Paddington Basin was developed in a public-private partnership. The area was run down, light industrial, largely inaccessible land before the works started. The ground was contaminated with industrial waste, the waterways clogged and polluted, and a network of overhead power lines prevented piecemeal development.

It became a grand scheme, replacing derelict buildings with, well, lots of indifferently designed offices. To individualise this dead area some unusual bridges were put in across the canal, including one that rolls up, and some dreadful corporate statuary was added. One, comprising a series of green glass blocks, was already badly chipped when I walked past it. At the weekends the only people you see are security guards. There’s something askew here; it feels derelict, lonely, depressing. Nobody goes there unless they absolutely have to. You could be anywhere.

Then there’s King’s Cross, built on slum land – one of the poorest areas in London – now incorporating an entirely new postcode of streets, again with the emphasis on offices. This time the developers added play areas, 1,080 water spouts lit in rainbow colours, terracing that is greened and packed most sunny days. It helps that it’s full of arts school students but local kids love to play in the fountains – and miraculously, nobody stops them. The gas-holders are now being returned, theatres and swimming pools, galleries and a market have populated the area at weekends so that it never feels dead. You’d go there for a walk. It feels Londony.


London has always been littered with places that died out. Clare Market, Limehouse, Norton Folgate, Horselydown (once known as ‘London’s Larder’), Ratcliff, (‘Sailortown’) and White City were not places where most people wanted to be. Lee Valley kept its mix of countryside areas, lakes, trails and sports centres covering an area of over 10,000 acres. You’d go there on a Saturday.

But of course families also go to M&M World at the weekends, although God knows why. In any town where I appear at a public library or an event space you can bet a tiny handful of people will attend to do something they see as cultural while the rest will be mooching around identical pedestrianised streets full of chain stores.

I think people don’t like to be told they will enjoy something. It’s human nature to want to explore and discover for yourself. Finding that balance is the crucial trick. Right now too much of the old explorable London has gone. The developer that builds in a pointless alleyway, a peculiar folly or weird, purposeless bit of grass gets my vote.

9 comments on “Where Shall We Go This Afternoon?”

  1. Vivienne says:

    There’s an alleyway near me that, on old maps, is called Dead Dog Alley. Currently closed as a Big yellow storage place or similar is going up. Hope our alley reappears: I walk it just to keep it in use.

  2. Wayne Mook says:

    Next to Levenshulme train station in Manchester the was a local alley known as The Street With No Name, they eventually got round to putting up a road sign, it says ‘The Street with No Name.’

    Small parks in city centres are lovely, sadly in Manchester we are destroying them. Plus are fountain no longer works, so much for modern technology.


  3. Helen Martin says:

    Crossing False Creek on the Barge during Expo in 1986 (Are those enough incomprehensible references?) Someone made the comment that we were like a herd of cattle being moved to market whereupon we all started mooing and continued till we docked. Funny how much everyone enjoyed that.
    Everyone thinks they need to show off new technology and design when there is a chance for a “major development and yet we all know the phrase about reinventing the wheel. Why not look at sites where things are working and work toward that? Or is that too simplistic?

  4. Jan says:

    A few,weeks ago went on an organised walk round Kensal Green Cemetery. You know that at the rear of the cemetery on the other side of the Grand Union there’s those gasometers? Well as,you probably know that land belonged to Kensal Green cemetery and they flogged it to the,gas co about a,century ago.
    Now the gasometers are to be demolished and they are wondering how to use the land.
    It’s a vast site. In terms of London the value should be off the chart. But take a look on Google earth. The sites a nightmare. Very restricted access – how to get vehicles on and off? Drain the canal. Well they did that temporarily to create Paddington basin (which is actually much nicer than the Fowler would have you believe) build bridges?. A massive area for housing commercial development but how to proceed. Will be an interesting one which might have to wait for the right project to come along. Like Bow back rivers and the Olympics

  5. Helen Martin says:

    You mean the Fowler is not a completely unbiased commentator, Jan? Bridges would seem to be an answer, but it depends on what they would connect with. I would hope there would be some actually affordable rental housing, but that is probably asking far too much.

  6. Jan says:

    Bridges would mean new roads and the space for getting new roads in just isn’t there at present. There’s,a Sainsbury superstore that could be relocated a bus station that could be resited but this ultimately puts more pressure on the Harrow,road and,the,Westway . Not that easy.
    And Kensal Green itself which pretty much resembled an Eastern European war zone back in the seventies when I knew the place far too well is now chi chi beyond belief.
    Suppose being on the doorstep to Notting Hill Bayswater and God help me Kilburn is,paying off

  7. Jan says:

    Affordable housing will be part of the answer. I think 10% of any substantial new development still has to be social housing. But am very out of touch with that sort of stuff now.

    It is an interesting problem this one and it’s such a big space. Maybe they’ll relocate the Scrubs there and build on the site of the old place. Helicopter everyone in and out.sort of of like Escape from New York …except on the other side of the Grand Union there will be,all these trustafarians, international bankers and socialites.
    Maybe they will build a sort of mega big brother house……

  8. Helen Martin says:

    Oh, Jan, one can only hope. Surely all neighbourhoods should be a mix of population.

  9. Matt says:

    Our little town hasn’t caught the bug yet and much of it remains as it was. Investment for us means a new Leisure centre, not a new shopping mall. We have a strong selection of independent shops and although people do do the mooch there are many more that favour the parks and Beaches along with our little Harbour. We still have those little hidden spots too that are lovely to discover.

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