Delight and Willesden Junction station do not sit easily in the same sentence. Terrifying and bleak might spring more naturally from the tongue. Especially after midnight when I have to embark on the long, long, lonely walkway – used to be rat-infested, has improved – towards Harrow Road. It is frightening. I have been known to run the entire distance. In the daytime, it’s more urban desolate. Ugly graffiti, derelict buildings, imposing wire fences, detritus…
However, since I’ve been visiting more often as part of this project, something unexpected has happened. I’ve started to see beauty and intrigue where once I only saw an onerous means to a transport (hopefully) end. Taking the time to look more closely has widened my vision. Literally and aesthetically.
And Willesden Junction station is hugely significant in the development of Harlesden. Demographically and historically. Initially as a station in the 1830s, it allowed City workers to travel into town and then build their rather grand villas in the countryside (yes, Harlesden). There were also trains going to Birmingham on the London and Birmingham Railway and trains going to Bristol on the Great Western Railway, which was built by none other than Isambard Kingdom Brunel. It became a junction in 1844, and gradually trains transported more and more immigrant workers (especially Irish) to the area, which slowly became more industrialised.
Willesden Junction station is big. And I don’t – this is an understatement – understand railways so I have found (through http://gallery62603.fotopic.net/ and Mike Morant) Ian Bull to guide me. He has kindly informed me via email that he has a nose stud, long hair and has a bit of a Goth thing going on, so when I see an elfin-looking man/boy (he’s actually middle-aged but that adjective seems completely wrong) quaffing water on the Harrow Road railway bridge, I assume it is Ian. It is.
He is immediately eager to point out the distinguishing characteristics between the train-spotter and the railway enthusiast. Train-spotters collect train numbers whereas railway enthusiasts are keen on research, taking photographs and history. Naturally, Ian is the latter. Although neither is he a stereotypical railway enthusiast, because apparently they wear grey raincoats and horn-rimmed glasses. And Ian is definitely sporting neither.
“I think I was born with it,” he says intriguingly, “I remember being in the garden when I was about 3 and seeing a steam engine in blue and yellow going by. It was a prototype Deltic and it is very powerful. That was 1962 and it was doing 100mph. I’ve never forgotten.” I had never before contemplated the idea that people could be born as railway enthusiasts but no doubt the Daily Mail has already recorded scientists working on identifying the railway enthusiast gene.
Interestingly, he also mentions that many railway enthusiasts have a touch of Asperger’s Syndrome about them although he omits himself from that category. Rather too quickly, me thinks.
“Willesden Junction used to be a far grander station,” declares Ian passionately as we descend the steps at the entrance, “it used to have an overall roof but there’s not a lot of old stuff left. It’s been re-built so much over the years.”
Ah, first of all, there’s the mysterious metal building on stilt legs that a train-spotter (I say this with new authority) informed me was a water tower where water was stored for the steam trains possibly going back to the 1860s. But Ian disagrees. He looks across at the odd little edifice and gradually as he ponders its enigma, I can hear the mounting excitement in his voice. It starts off slowly and then gains momentum. It’s the thrill of potential triumph that I’m witnessing. “It’s too small to house the water for a steam locomotive and the building is quite modern. I think it’s 1930s because it has rolled steel joints,” he says his voice speeding up not unlike a head of steam, “I suspect that it’s a carriage washing plant.”*
Ian, I will discover, is a bit of a one for inspired guesses.
And then, there’s the disused stone building at the back of it with its broken windows and rows of pigeons. Ian stares up at the windows. “Pure 1904*,” he says with what I can only describe as unadorned joy in his voice, “that’s a transformer station. When the lines were electrified in 1914/15, transformers were needed to change the wattage of the electricity coming in from the power station according to the needs of the railway line. They had to have windows because they were manually operated and the operators needed to be able to see what they were doing with the large levers that they had to use.”
I so enjoy finding out these tasty morsels of information, which otherwise I’d never, never have known. In fact, never have known that I wanted to know.
The graffiti-covered (it’s not very high quality) brick building in front of the old transformer station, is a modern transformer station. No lovely windows, only vents. No people needed to operate them. Much less appealing to the eye. How the means effect the end result!
Blackberry brambles, pink willow herb, deep purple blossoming buddleia trees all scramble together besides the tracks. Nature versus industry. Railway sidings are often prolific in terms of wild life. “Buddleia originally grew in the Himalayas,” says Ian easily stepping out of trainland into plantland, “naturalists think the seeds arrived in the docks with goods from the Far East and got there on axel grease on trains.”
There’s lots of maintenance going on here today. A Sunday. Orange-bedecked labourers “are adding ballast to the tracks to support the rails”. Obviously something I would never have noticed if Ian hadn’t been here. I’m not sure I even knew that ballast was broken up stone. I certainly didn’t realise that railway lines need ballast shoulders. “This is a very good shoulder of six inches,” says Ian approvingly implying that this is well looked after station, “these rails carry a lot of heavy freight and high speed trains.”
The underground system is not working today because of building work. The platforms are being extended, a new footpath is going in, there are new steps being built. The booking office is housed in an almost rural-looking cottage brick building. We walk up a pathway – that I’ve never been up before – behind it. “It was built at the end of the 19th century, look at the lead in those windows,” says Ian in one of his favourite refrains, “it’s pure Arts and Crafts movement, look how they’ve used lots of different terra cotta mouldings and brick in different patterns to make it look complex.”
On our right, are the tracks for the North London Line to Stratford and the South Western Railway to Richmond. Unfortunately, the buildings are 1960s. Ian is more interested in a buried entrance to our right. “This footpath has only been here about 10 years,” he says, “that’s when they buried the entrance to this covered walkway.” Now we’ve emerged near the Station Road exit to Willesden Junction but there seems to be an opening to our left where it is possible to walk. Men in orange jackets are leaving via this route.
Ian is distinctly hesitant at this juncture. “The public never used to be allowed down there,” he says.
“Come on,” I say encouragingly, “let’s go.” This is what I like – a bit of forbidden adventuring. We wander down and find ourselves in deep Willesden Junction railway wilderness. In fact, later I read that it used to be nicknamed ‘Bewildering Junction’. A high-speed train bolts past. “That was the Birmingham express,” says Ian.
We gaze across the lines – a Virgin express to Glasgow whizzes by – and there over on the other side is something that could be an Anish Kapoor tubular sculpture amid gigantic mounds of earth. It transpires that it is the European Metal Recycling centre.
There are steps to climb and I look back on a bevy of yellow and blue trains, which look like exotic beetles just about to rampage across this urban wasteland. “They are Class 378 engines which have just been built in Derby,” announces Ian, “they travel between Euston and Watford.”
Now we’re crossing a footbridge – steel, 1960s – which Ian has never been over before. Let alone me. I’m feeling the excitement of previously uncharted (to us anyway) landscape. And on our right is a wooden signal box, which is still used and goes back to the 1860s. “Look at the distinctive finials on the ends,” says Ian pointing to wooden decorative pieces that look almost like could spin wool or at the very least, appear in a gothic church. He’s right they are remarkable.
We’re getting nearer to the huge mounds, which Ian has guessed might be crushed cars. After passing a couple of noble Spruce trees, we see dozens of white bags full of some sort of mechanical parts. “Oh, they are fridge compressors,” says Ian his voice ascending towards the highlands of an inspired guess, “ so those mounds of rusty metal must be old fridges.”
Fridges. Whoever would have thought it? But it’s true, the mounds are not earth but rusty metal. Wow, I’m impressed. “Can you smell that oil in the air?” says Ian.
I couldn’t but now I can. On this hot sunny day, it’s like a weird garage extra. The wire fences are covered with over-active morning glory or more prosaically, bindweed, and bushy horsetails burst out of the poor soil beside them. Suddenly – we’ve been totally alone so far – a denimed man is approaching us. “Where have you been?” I ask him cheekily. “Car Giant,” he says somewhat disappointingly. I was imagining something more industrially romantic like a tryst in the railway wilderness.
The path ends and we find ourselves near Scrubs Lane, but we turn right into more of the industrial heartlands. There’s a Portuguese Bi-café with fake pink flowers outside and gingham, there’s a Lebanese foodstuff warehouse, the Icehouse, an ice cream centre and another footpath that leads to the Grand Union Canal.
“I wonder if there’ll be a footbridge,” says Ian. And there is. It looks straight onto the disused Old Oak Common locomotive shed. “Cross Rail should emerge here in the future,” says Ian, “which I think is a good idea. There’s even a railway turn-table over there on the right which is still used.”
Fascinatingly, he then reveals a little of the inner sanctum railway bitchery that goes on. “This is Great Western Railway and it’s a very self-important railway. Magnificent steam trains ran along it from 1900 to 1922 and somehow the people connected to the GWR think they are superior. I don’t get on with it.” Somehow the railway has become imbued with the attitude of its employees. This must be a railway enthusiast thing.
We’re walking beside the canal now but before we know it, there are two railway bridges. The first is the London and North West Railway to Acton, and then there’s the South Western Railway to Richmond. Normally, I wouldn’t even have registered that they are railway bridges. We exit at Oak Lane because there are railway cottages up the road, however, I know Ian is going to be interested in the derelict tower block over the road. Broken glass, gas cylinders, plastic bags, every imaginable bit of rubbish has gathered like a polluted sea around it. Blot on the landscape totally underestimates the power of this eyesore. Probably an office block – I’ll look it up later – it has been attacked by urban marauders. Burnt, broken, covered in graffiti – it is nevertheless somehow amazing.
When something or someone is broken open, there is always the opportunity for beauty. As Lenard Cohen sings; ‘The crack that lets the light in.’ It’s hideous, dystopian and falling apart but there’s something gloriously wonderful about it. Like Detroit now. Like The Road. Like me when I was breaking up with the father of my son. The decay almost radiates in its slow dying.
On the other side of the road, there’s a 70s concrete building that Ian thinks – wrongly this time – used to be a pub. In fact, it’s Willesden Junction Maintenance Depot. Ah ha, more railway stuff. We peek around the corners, find an overgrown garden – the out of control limbs of honeysuckle, sedum and traveller’s joy tangle together – beside the Richmond line. The lights are on, but I can’t get them to answer the door. I was going to ask them about the derelict building over the road.
Even Ian doesn’t have an answer, and even more surprisingly, no inspired guesses. Huge concrete blocks have been dropped at the entrance. “To stop gypsies moving their vehicles in,” says Ian. We spot a canal-viewing ledge where evidently itinerant drinkers – there’s quite a few of them who frequent the canal – repose on a regular basis. Although not today. There’s a brown velveteen sofa and a wooden crate, presumably where they put the TV when the world cup was on
Oak Lane railway cottages have become quite gentrified. Window boxes and sometimes BMWs. However, Ian is more interested in the bricks. “They would have housed workers in the 19th century or lodgings for travelling engine men,” he announces, the pace of his words quickening, “but what’s fascinating are all the different sorts of brick that they are made out of. London brick over there is yellow and stains really easily, but these ones are from Staffordshire and much smoother and redder. These cottages are made from so many different types of brick, I think the railway could have been using them as part of an exhibition which would demonstrate how many places their trains visited.”
I have a feeling Ian is off again into inspired guessland. He has been a very entertaining, not to mention, railway host. And I have to admit my feelings about Willesden Junction station have changed. I’m actually feeling inspired by everything that I didn’t know. Knowledge!
*Afterwards Ian contacts me to say that those windows are actually from 1909.
* New inspired guess arrives by email two weeks after the walk. Ian believes it could have been used by British Railway’s laundry.