Yesterday evening I went out for supper in West End Lane, West Hampstead for certainly the first time in a decade, and possibly even longer than that. In fact, I lived just off it two decades ago, and continued to live off it, on and off, for eight years. But there is a cold feeling in the bones when you are girding yourself to rock on up to an old London district these days, and that cold feeling is solely due to the onslaught of changes that you will be forced to reckon with that are a result of the Blistering Boom. During the Blistering Boom swathes of London have remade and remarked their territories whilst not giving a backward glance and – as if we need further reminders that we are all getting older – turning up in a neighbourhood you thought you knew is an alarming thing to do. Great swathes of picket fence white estate agent signs illuminate previously hellish suburban streets where the homes of the Victorian lower clerk class robustly push the £1million mark and a Costa Coffee appears where before there was a local grocery store. It’s the smooth, granite slickness of everything that sits badly. The past, razor thin, has slipped beneath the paving slabs and everything looks as if it makes, breathes, sweats and spins money. Well, West Hampstead has bucked the trend and seems to have missed the boat so completely I thought I’d got off the Jubilee Line in 1993.
West End Lane is a bottled up, diesel rich thoroughfare that celebrates a riot of transport networks. You can get anywhere in London from West End Lane. The Jubilee will take you through the West End and out to Canary Wharf, the Thameslink promises the delights of Luton Airport and Borehamwood, there is the Overground London line that spools up from Richmond Park, out through Willesden Green and then on to Highbury and Hackney Fields, and there are about 5 bus routes, the most useful being the 328 that cuts it’s essentially useful path from Golders Green to Chelsea, which no tube line does. Because of this, even in dire economic circumstances, the received wisdom was that any investment in this area was a good investment. This idea held true during the last recession of the early 1990s, when this district was one of the few in London that had rising values.
So, they continue to rise – so far so normal in London – to these catastrophic heights we keep reading about on the news. But the central artery from which all the veins flow, West End Lane, remains a sluggish, despondent place. The tarot shop next to the tube station has – bizarrely – stayed open all this time, and raven-haired women in the 40s descend upon it hoping to find hope and solace amidst the dusty silver trinkets in the window for at least twenty years now. Caspian Travel still sits on the bridge, dispensing travel advice and booking air fares. This in itself is bizarre : surely the one species relegated to extinction the moment the internet was founded was the travel agent? Not in West End Lane. Travel agents sit, perkily slurping instant coffee, arranging holidays that cost more than TripAdvisor to a generation of people who are scared of the t’internet and the ludicrously cheap holidays it promises. The Bridge Cafe is still there, presiding over the ever weak bridge (the bridge used to be constantly closing due to efforts to strengthen it) and doling out food directly from 1985. Travis Perkins’s soulless yard sits where it always did, next to Wickes. The only change in the first parade of shops was the absence of Cafe Rouge which, in the 1990s, looked faintly exotic in an aspirational, Parisienne sort of a way.
The flats above the shops remain stuck in the 1980s – gruelling stairs, blackened windows, chipped paintwork and a lady, resplendent in a onesie and a towelling dressing gown, climbing out from the window onto the miniscule fire escape to smoke a fag. The properties are long term unloved, and poignant with unrealised potential. Someone should do them up and rent them for a song in a district like this. Landlords are greedy and open to opportunity. Why in the boom years has no one done this? The smoke from the lady’s fag billows up and out until it hovers over the new gleaming Thameslink building down on the West Hampstead platform.
If the landlords ever did want to get themselves sorted out and develop these properties in this district, they’d treble their rents. Plus they’d have no shortage of people to help because the one thing the West End Lane has bred more of in the last two decades is estate agents. Behind the main avenue are the real deal monied flats: late 19th century red brick mansion blocks at exorbitant prices, these swoop up and over to Finchley Road in two directions – one towards West End Green and the other to South Hampstead. They are packed, preened, painted and pretty. West End Lane sits like a plain sister at a wedding who no one is asking to dance. Tesco Metro has cropped up since I left (of course) and a Sainsburys Local, but the road is congested and blatantly refuses to take part in anything. This is not simply about gentrification, this is also about things looking nice. A shop can look nice without selling gentrified products, but it is alarming how hopeless West End Lane feels. The restaurants are changed a little, but La Brocca remains, with its televised football bar and its mind-boggling toilet provisions. West End Lane Books still trades – although I forgot what a small book shop it is – and whilst the cafes have changed their names, the manner of the clientele and the shabbiness of the menus appear to have defied time.
If I appear a little bit attached, its because too much of this lane – the lane that was so quiet in 1815 it was said you could hear the guns of the Battle of Waterloo whilst standing in it – runs through my blood. My grandparents met here, grandpa renting a flat at the time in West End Lane, shortly before being taken off to the war that would kill him, my parents courted off Iverson Road, my own brothers and me descended on the area like a rash in the mid-1990s and stayed until we were priced out, and our great great grandpa lived in Brondesbury Park, just down the road, in the 1870s. So often in London we are visited by the shining gleam of the new rich, the mindless pursuit of money having challenged many of the neighbourhood eccentricities that not only do we hold dear, but show that once we passed this way. I was depressed, frankly, that West Hampstead had so alarmingly and with such apparent visceral intent, missed the boat. It’s odd to return somewhere you used to live, and find that you are changed, but London has not. Usually its the other way around. I wouldn’t mind so much if West End Lane was stuck in a slightly more pleasant timewarp. Perhaps its destiny to be dreary is attached to the very thing that makes it a desirable location in the first place – the railway. But this was a depressing sort of discovery that here there is so much wealth and so much care pouring into the homes in the district, but next to nothing pouring into the local thoroughfare and the flats above the shops. This is a loveless, lovelorn street, and its report card for this term sounds much like my school reports card twenty years ago – it really must try harder.
Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this. This blog is updated every other Thursday so we look forward to seeing you on Thursday 6th March. Thank you