Gates of the West

18 Jan

This is the West Cross Route at the Shepherds Bush Roundabout, a 1970s planning disaster and the de facto frontier between Central London and the inner suburbs of the West. It was built as part of the GLC’s “Box” scheme, a plan first dreamed up by urbanists as early as 1943, intended to bring London into the 20th Century.

As anyone who’s ever been in a car at rush hour will know, London isn’t a great place to be a motorist. By comparison to many other Western cities, it evolved almost organically, sticking to the illogical street plans of the various towns it swallowed up over the course of the 19th Century. In the late ’50s, as it became increasingly clear that the age of the automobile had arrived, the GLC began to take the plans of architects who had previously been written off as fantasists seriously. It was at this time that work was begun on the Périphérique (ring road) that now encircles Paris, defending it from the suburbs just as the city walls that predated it had (unsuccessfully) defended it from the Prussians. Motorways were officially IN.

Had the Box been built, I would not be sitting here now; my street would have been bulldozed out of existence to make way for a new elevated highway. Much as I love the Westway in all its present-day Ballardian state of rot, it’s easy to understand why these people weren’t too happy about it. As the film in the link shows, the plan was dropped by the Labour Governmant in 1974, and not even Thatcher’s lot dared take up the issue again. What was left was a sporadic punctuation of flyovers and extra lanes that tapered back in as suddenly as they’d sprouted out. The effect is just as schizophrenic as you’d expect; The half-completed Shepherds Bush section directs southbound traffic to Holland Road, a normal street shouldering six times more traffic than it was designed for, which means it is almost always at a standstill. The section in the photo is my favourite part of the Box. The towers of the Edward Woods Estate (to the right of the image) have always reminded me of Thunderbirds, which, frankly, is as good a reason for liking a building as I can come up with.

The area to the right has another significance in West London mythology; quite apart from being home to the narrator of Colin MacInnes’ novel Absolute Beginners, in 1977, it briefly became an independent country. The story is as bizarre as you’d imagine; the buildings around Freston Road had been pencilled in for demolition, and the squatters who occupied them immediately declared their separation from the United Kingdom. Although attempts to secure United Nations protection as a safeguard against the GLC failed, Frestonia (as it became known) was recognised and encouraged by no less a figure than Geoffrey Howe, and incredibly lasted until 1984 when its inhabitants agreed to be collectively re-housed on favourable terms. Apparently the Clash even recorded an album there. Bramley Road, Frestonia’s other thoroughfare, was featured in a scene in Franc Roddam’s (he of Masterchef fame) Quadrophenia, in which a mod gets beaten up by a gang of rockers. While it may not be a pop cultural Mecca, it’s at least a damn sight more rewarding as a tourist spot than that tree in Barnes where ghoulish Marc Bolan fans hang about.

Freston Road is now lined with offices, and is about as clinical a street as you’ll find in W10. For better of for worse, the ruins of Frestonia have been sterilised. What amazes me most is not any of this stuff, but how much shite I can squeeze out of a single photo without the aid of Wikipedia. Perhaps the blackout has been a good thing- maybe after all, THERE IS HOPE!

Mind you, seeing as I’ve spent the entire day waiting for tomorrow so I can find out the population of the Falkland Islands and the typical diet of an ocelot, I really shouldn’t get too excited. The sole reason I’ve written this drivel is to soak up the time I’d normally spend reading this sort of forgettable trivia on Wikipedia. May you rot in hell, Jimmy Wales, may you rot in hell.

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