There is far more to Wembley than simply soccer!
During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the construction of London’s local railways, notably the Metropolitan Line, improved access between the centre of the city and places that were open countryside before the rails were laid. The builders of the Metropolitan Line kept hold of land along it which was surplus to the construction of the railway lines. This extra land was developed for housing purposes, thus ensuring a supply of passengers who would need the Metropolitan to commute to and from their workplaces. To sell housing, the railway company developed the concept of ‘Metro-land’, which was to promote the idea of living in idyllic rustic surroundings close to London. However, as Oliver Green writes in his introduction to a modern (1987) facsimile of the promotional literature “Metro-land, 1932 edition”:
“The notion of Metro-land as a ‘rural Arcadia’ certainly no longer matched the suburban reality of Wembley Park or Rayners Lane…”
In the late 19th century, the concept of the ‘Garden City’ and the ‘Garden Suburb’ was developed following the ideas proposed by Sir Ebenezer Howard (1850-1928). In brief, his idea was to create communities in which homes, workplaces, and nature were perfectly balanced. This resulted in the creation in London of, for example, Hampstead Garden Suburb (initiated 1904), which is both visually entrancing and well-blended with greenery. This ideal was abandoned later in the 1920s when many of the suburbs contained in ‘Metro-land’ were developed. Architectural variety gave way to mass-produced buildings based on very few patterns, many of which looked identical; and the balance between urbanisation and greenery became minimal. The resulting suburbs, of which most of Wembley is a good example, became lay-outs containing streets lined with houses that were barely distinguishable from one another – a featureless sea of suburbia.
This piece includes an exploration of what, if anything, is left of ‘rural Arcadia’ in the vast suburban sea that covers Wembley and its surroundings.
Stonebridge Park Station is close to both the North Circular Road and the River Brent, which flows besides it. The name ‘Stonebridge’ is derived from the stone bridge over the river at this location, built between 1660 and 1700, see: http://www.brentmuseumandarchive.org.uk.gridhosted.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/Stonebridge.pdf). It was considered unusual at that time because most of the crossings of the Brent were wooden. In the 1870s, developers started erecting villas for professional men and their families in an estate called ‘Stonebridge Park’. By the late 19th century, houses were being built in the area for people with lower incomes than the professionals in the estate. The station stands surrounded by desolate landscape that includes the busy circular road as well as a few high-rise buildings, some of which look derelict or unused. From the station, there is a good view of the soaring arch that spans the not-too-distant Wembley Stadium. In addition, there are plenty of streets lined with two-storey residential building of barely any architectural merit.
Point Place leads from the station to the Harrow Road - a thoroughfare that has linked Paddington and Harrow for several centuries. Point Place crosses a short narrow channel lined with concrete walls.
This contains a small stretch of Wembley Brook, a tiny tributary of the River Brent. After crossing Harrow Road, it is a short distance to Brent River Park, also known as ‘Tokyngton Recreation Ground’. Tokyngton means ‘the farm of the sons of Toca’ (see: http://www.brent-heritage.co.uk/tokyngton.htm). The name was first recorded in 1171, and in mediaeval times it was the most populous part of the parish of Harrow.
The long narrow park contains a stretch of the River Brent, which winds through it. By the entrance near to Monks Park Gardens, there is a sculpture in the form of a stone with carvings on it. This is near a well-equipped playground. When I visited it, most of the children playing on it were young girls wearing Islamic head-coverings.
There is a substantial bridge across the Brent close to the playground. A path snakes its way northwards, often quite close to the tree- and bush-lined river banks. Another bridge crosses the river about halfway along the length of the park.
This bridge, smaller than the southernmost one, is close to a clearing which contains something that could easily be mistaken for an abstract sculpture by Anthony Caro.
This was built in 2012. It is: “A pavilion which outlines the dangers of climate change while offering residents a place to shelter … The pavilion, which was suggested by the Friends of Brent River Park, has a sustainable urban drainage system for when the park experiences flooding … The structure can also be used by Brent schools as an outdoor classroom for pupils to study and understand climate change and environmental issues in a natural setting.” (see: http://www.kilburntimes.co.uk/news/environment/pavilion-which-is-an-outdoor-classroom-is-unveiled-in-wembley-park-1-1333284). Although only a few years after its inauguration, now in 2017, heavily oxidised, it looks as if it is past its best, but it makes for an intriguing sculptural form.
Walking through the park, it is at times difficult to believe that this rustic-looking area is so very close to monotonous rows of suburban residences. A short walk from the pavilion, and you are plunged into neat suburban streets. The local roads are narrow, reflecting the paucity of traffic during the inter-war years when they were laid out. Then, car ownership was low compared to today. The long Oakington Manor Drive (mostly built between 1914 and 1932; there was an ‘Oakington Farm’ marked on both 1761 and 1873 maps), like all of the residential streets nearby, is lined with houses, many of them decorated with fake half-timbering on their facades. This artifice, according to Michael Robbins writing in “Middlesex” (first publ. 1953), was: “… to inform the observer that the house was not built by a local council…”, but, instead, was paid for by its owner. Several houses had strings of faded bunting above their front doors. Maybe, these were the homes of Hindus who often decorate the entrances to their homes with ‘thoran’ (these are often also in the form of leaves or small dried fruits or peppers). Oakington Manor Drive leads towards the centre of Wembley, where many people with origins in the Indian subcontinent reside.
A short lane leads from Oakington Manor Drive to Sherrins Farm Open Space, a large triangular grassy area on the south facing slope of a hill. This is in the place marked as ‘Oakington Farm’ on maps drawn before WW2. ‘Oakington’ might well be phonetically related to ‘Tokyngton’. The two names are used interchangeably to denote the same area. ‘Sherrins’ was the name of the farm during the last few decades of its rural existence (see: http://hidden-london.com/gazetteer/tokyngton/).
It is a good place to get a view, unobstructed by construction cranes, of the exterior of the new Wembley Stadium. Within sight of the stadium, there were young boys playing football on the small park. Maybe in the future some of them will be playing in the nearby world-famous stadium. The Open Space also provides good views of central London.
Oakington Manor Drive meets the Harrow Road just before it becomes Wembley High Road. Near this point, stands the tall brick-built tower of St Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church. Designed by Reynolds and Adrian Gilbert Scott (1882-1963; grandson of Sir George Gilbert Scott), it was built between 1955 and ’57. Its interior is very dramatic. Arches straddle the nave, and between them there are circular concavities, like the interiors of domes.
A main road, Wembley Hill, begins opposite St Josephs. A pedestrian way leads off this road at an acute angle, passing over a modern suspension bridge over the railway station (Wembley Stadium Station) beneath it. Beyond the bridge looms Wembley Stadium. The current building designed by Norman Foster’s architectural firm was completed in 2007. Its distinguishing feature, which can be seen from many points in north London is a steel arch: a lattice of criss-crossing steel rods that spans the stadium like a rainbow. Its purpose is to support the weight of much of the stadiums roofing.
The present stadium stands on the site of a much older one built in 1923, which was demolished by 2003. The older stadium, which was first named ‘British Empire Exhibition Stadium’, was built as part of the British Empire Exhibition of 1924–25. When, to many people’s dismay, this much-loved landmark in the world of British and International soccer was demolished, the rubble was collected together and used to construct four artificial grass-covered hills next to the A40 road near Northolt. These hills, the burial mounds of the old stadium, form the ‘Northala Fields’ country park.
Ealing Road begins on Wembley High Road a few bus-stops west of St Josephs. Sanghamam vegetarian restaurant sits at the union (‘sangham’ in some Indian languages) of Ealing Road and the High Road. It offers what in India would be described as ‘multicuisine’ – that is food from a variety of widely differing gastronomic traditions (in Sanghamam’s case, this includes Gujarati, Punjabi, Sri Lankan, and Chinese). The restaurant’s signage is in several scripts including English, Hindi, Gujarati, and Tamil. A short way down Ealing Road, is the first of many jewellery shops along this street. A display of gold necklaces is in the window above some words in Tamil script.
The Wembley Central Mosque complex on Ealing Road is housed in buildings that have features typical of the Arts and Crafts style popular at the beginning of the 20th century. The building with the clock-tower, now the mosque, was built in 1904, designed by Thomas Collcutt (1840-1924) and his apprentice Stanley Hamp (1877-1968). It was originally St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church (see: https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1335084). In 1993, the local Muslim congregation acquired into this church, which had stood empty for almost fifteen years. They moved here from an earlier mosque that they had built in 1985 in a semi-detached house on Harrowdene Road. The current mosque and its annexe can accommodate 1250 worshipers (see: http://www.wembleycentralmasjid.co.uk/about-us/).
Yet another manifestation of Ealing Road’s ties to the Indian Subcontinent is a branch of the Indian ICICI Bank, which is housed in a semi-detached Victorian house at number 49. The other half of this building is currently occupied by JM Amin, a firm of solicitors. Further along, stands Ealing Road Methodist Church, a brick neo-gothic building with a polygonal tower topped with a tiled steeple.
South of the Methodist Church, Ealing Road becomes a busy shopping centre. There are large shops selling clothes made in the Indian styles: kurtas, saris, salwar kameez, bridal wear, lenghas, chania choli, and traditional Indian sub-continental menswear. There is no need to fly to India or Pakistan to be properly kitted out. You need go no further than Ealing Road!
There is no shortage of jewellery shops supplying high carat gold jewellery in traditional Indian designs. At the other end of the price scale, there are vast fruit and vegetable stores, well-supplied to satisfy even the most demanding of vegetarians. And, there are many vegetarians living in this area, many of them of Gujarati heritage.
If you are keen on South Indian vegetarian food, there are several eateries, where you can have your fill. One of these, which I have visited frequently, is a large local branch of Sakonis. Before my first visit to India in 1994, my then future wife used to dine with me at Sakonis to help me become acquainted with South Indian food, such as I was going to encounter when I accompanied her to Bangalore, where we got married. It was at Sakonis that I ate my first ever dosa (a crepe-like pancake made with rice-flour) and delicious ‘mogo chips’, which are deep-fried strips of cassava. The inclusion of the latter on the menus of Sakonis and other vegetarian restaurants in the area reflects the fact that many of the Indians in Wembley have come to the UK from Uganda (expelled by Idi Amin in the 1960s), Kenya, and other regions of East Africa.
If you wish to cook your own food, then everything you need in an Asian kitchen is available at Popat Stores, which has been purveying kitchenware since 1972. ‘Popat’ is the Hindi word for ‘parrot’, but it can also mean to ‘goof-up’ (see: http://www.samosapedia.com/e/popat). Nearby, there are many shops with display stalls out on the pavement in front of them. They sell everything from shoes to devotional objects, but not books.
Amidst the food shops, jewellers, clothing stores, sweet shops, paan shops, bangle shops, and so on, stands the small Wembley Gospel Hall, which was opened in 1924. The congregation moved there from an older hall close to Alperton Station, which they had used since the 1890s. Notices on the building include texts in Gujarati script, reflecting the fact that there are speakers of this language amongst the Hall’s congregation. Within the Hall’s fence, there is a bilingual sign (English and Guajarati) exhorting people neither to drop litter nor to spit.
Next door to the Hall, there is a branch of the VB & Sons chain of supermarkets, which have been in existence for more than 20 years. VB’s stores, which are especially well patronised by the Gujarati community, offer a wide range of foodstuffs - from rices to spices - required for both Gujarati and South Indian cuisines. These stores can supply ingredients in anything from small family amounts to huge industrial catering sizes. This is the place to go if you need several gallons of pickle or huge sacks of lentils or other pulses.
Just south of the shopping arcade, but north of Alperton Station, stands the Alperton Baptist Church. This simple brick building with five windows just beneath its roof was built before 1932. It is adorned with the Union Jack and flags from seven different countries including India and Pakistan. It is a dramatic contrast to the Hindu temple that it faces across Ealing Road.
The Shri Vallabh Nidhi Mandir (‘Mandir’) is a decorative oasis in the desert of dull suburbia surrounding it. Located on land where a school once stood, this Mandir is an exciting riot of fine ornamentation. It is built using ochre-coloured stone from Jaisalmer (in Rajasthan, India), as well as various types of marble. Like much older Hindu temples in India, the surface of the building is rich in intricately executed religious carvings as well as scenes from Hindu legends such as the Mahabharata, Ramayana, and others. The Mandir was opened in May 2010 with a special ceremony. This eye-catching, attractive building’s appearance easily rivals that of the much-visited (by Hindus and non-Hindus alike) marble Neasden Temple, which is not far away.
So many of the residential houses were built around Wembley during the 1920s and’30s, the period when ‘art-deco’ flourished. Yet these homes, which were built at the same time as the Chrysler Building in New York, the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill-on-Sea, and many superb cinemas in London, are, to put it politely, unimaginative and dull to look at.
However, London Transport built many of the stations that serve the Piccadilly Line in this style. Alperton Station is no exception. The original station was opened in 1910, and then demolished by 1931. It was replaced by the present, elegant art-deco station designed by Charles Holden (1875-1960), who designed many other stations for the Underground as well as buildings such as the Senate House (built 1937) of the University of London and Zimbabwe House (built in 1907-8, originally for the British Medical Association its façade includes sculptures by Jacob Epstein) on the Strand.
Alperton Station is next to Alperton Garage, a depot for buses. Soon after this, Ealing Road makes a right angle turn and then continues south-eastwards instead of south-westwards, as had been from its start at Wembley High Road. Immediately, after turning the corner, the road crosses the Grand Union Canal - Paddington Branch (aka ‘Arm’), which flows for about 13 miles between Paddington Basin to Bull’s Bridge (on the main Grand Union Canal network) near Hayes Road in Hounslow. Near Paddington, the Arm joins with the Regent’s Canal to its east. The latter continues eastwards to Limehouse, where it connects with the Thames. The Paddington Arm was opened in 1801.
As it was a pleasant sunny afternoon, I decided to walk east along its well-maintained towpath. The towpath is lined with vegetation along its length between Ealing Road and Acton Lane. Along this stretch, the canal, which is close to a number of industrial units, passes through residential suburbia, but one is hardly aware of this. Linking parts of west London with central London, the towpath is used by many commuters on bicycles. Despite numerous signs exhorting them to give way to pedestrians on the path, most of the cyclists travel at high speed, as if they are training for the Tour de France. In addition to these thoughtless cyclists, there are many pedestrians, many of them with non-European features.
The canal, which was originally designed to transport goods, is not empty. I saw a steady stream of long canal boats (‘narrowboats’) travelling in both directions. Many of the helmsmen ‘steering’ these often colourfully decorated craft were quenching their thirst with cans of beer. The water is filled with water-fowl: families of swans, ducks, and moorhens, some of which were sitting on their nests. They swim amongst the waterweed and discarded bottles and cans floating on the surface.
At one point, the canal crosses high above the River Brent, which seemed to be lost in the dense vegetation growing on its banks.
Immediately east of this point, the canal is divided into two lanes by an island, which has two identical concrete-topped brick cubes, each bearing the coat-of-arms of the County of Middlesex. This island spans the length of a bridge (an aqueduct) that carries the canal high over the busy North Circular Road. The original aqueduct was built at the same time as the North Circular in the early 1930s. It was strong enough to repel bombs placed at either end of it by the Irish Republican Army in 1939 (see: https://www.alpertonhistory.info/the-canal-aqueduct/). In the early 1990s, when the North Circular was widened, the original aqueduct was replaced with the present longer one.
East of the aqueduct, there is more industrial land usage than west of it, where there is more ‘Metro-land’ type of residential estates than industrial occupation. The Grand Junction Arms is a pub next to the Acton Lane bridge over the canal. With canal-side outdoor seating, this makes a pleasant refreshment stop. The pub was first opened as a ‘beer house’ in 1816. From 1861, it was known as the ‘Grand Junction and Railway Inn’. In the 15th century, Sir John Elrington (died 1483), the Lord of Twyford and sometime Member of Parliament, had his manor house near where the bridge is today. The parish of Twyford, whose name derives from ‘Tueverde’ meaning ‘two fords’, covers about 280 acres of the southwest of modern Willesden.
Across the canal, facing the pub, there is a modern café, with an open-air terrace overlooking the water. Many of the outdoor tables were occupied by women wearing bourkas. For, they were about to enjoy Lebanese food in this establishment named ‘Beit el Zaytoun’ (meaning ‘House of Olives’), which appears to attract reviews varying much from ‘great’ to ‘awful’. Unlike the pub across the waters, this place does not serve alcohol.
This ramble has taken us through areas of London rarely visited by tourists (except soccer aficionados), and, probably, with good reason. Viewed from a bus, car, or train, there is little to tempt the passer-by to stop in Wembley and its environs. I hope that what I have written in this chapter demonstrates that what, at first sight, looks dull, really deserves closer examination