Tag Archives: History


I love the way Sally Wilton – founder of Kensal Rise’s extraordinary state of the art indie cinema, the Lexi which sends all of its profits to an eco village in South Africa – signs herself at the end of her emails, not as chief executive, but as dreamer. Yes, yes, yes. She has certainly ‘dreamed’ her cinema into a thriving community enterprise and has recently set up Nomad, a travelling pop up version of the Lexi soon to arrive at Harlesden’s Misty Moon (Movies at the Misty Moon start on March 1st with a new documentary called Lover’s Rock) which is, of course, a former cinema. Oh, the cultural satisfaction of turning a pub back into a picture house. Although it will stay a pub as well.

It’s a grim, cold, rainy morning when Sally appears on my doorstep weather-ready in hat and gloves. “We’d call it a ‘mizzly’ morning in Ireland,” she says revealing her Antrim roots. She grew up in Nigeria until she was 8. I thought she might cancel but Sally is made of sterner stuff. As we march down Anson Rd, she’s telling me how she used to put fliers about the Lexi into people’s letter boxes herself back in 2008 when it had recently opened. “I could do a PHD in the potential dangers of letter boxes,” she jests unexpectedly, “there are the ones with teeth that almost bite you, the ones that are hell to push open and the ones that say ‘No Junk Mail’. One day I was about to put a flier through one of the latter when the woman of the house greeted me with an absolute ‘No’, so I explained about the Lexi and she changed her mind instantly. I’ve never thought of Lexi fliers as junk mail.”

Sally Wilton initially appears to be shy and self-deprecating but she is also humorous. Quietly but bitingly.

Sally is a full-time philanthropist, as well as a dreamer. Having sold her business – Etc Venues, which created affordable temporary training and conference facilities – in 2006 for 21 million pounds, she and her directors became not so secret millionaires and Sally found her way to her own causes and passions without the aid of a TV programme. The Lynedoch eco village in South Africa – a community created out of the principles of the Sustainability Institute – was her first commitment destination. The Lexi – her daughter is called Alex – was the second.

Did it really result from the amazing community spirit that emerged at the time of the bizarre micro- 2006 tornado in Kensal Rise? “Well, I was already looking for a building,” she says, “although I had no idea how to run a cinema, it just stemmed from my love of film. I was out in South Africa when it happened. I thought my children were pulling my leg but I flew straight back when I realised it was true. Roofs had been ripped off, one side of a building had gone. Luckily only our house’s windows had smashed because a furniture van outside had taken much of the impact. However, the community spirit was amazing, everyone was helping each other. And the Lexi was very much born in that atmosphere. Today we have 50 volunteers from the community all helping us out, and some of them get involved with the eco village too.”

The Lexi is housed in an Edwardian building that used to be called Pinkham Hall. “Colonel Pinkham created it in 1928 as a theatrical space and as a part of the Conservative Men’s Club next door,” she says. It’s surprising we agree, that he was a Conservative but one who obviously liked the theatre so much he funded one next door. He was apparently big on snooker as well.  “I saw it was for sale,” she says, “and they said it had already been sold, but I instantly wrote a document for what I envisaged as a community cinema and I got it. I had to go and meet the Men’s Club committee which was an experience in itself. The Constitutional Club is like going back into the 1950s. The treasurer is 85 and remembers queuing round the block for the two old cinemas that used to be further down Chamberlayne Road.”

By this time, we are walking up Harlesden High St towards the Job Centre Plus, the brick abomination which was built  at the turn of the century as the very grand Willesden Hippodrome. It became a cinema in 1928 as audiences’ appetites for variety theatre diminished. During that era, there were seven cinemas in the area, now sadly there are none. “I love cinema as a place where you can be with others,” she says, “or to completely escape to, and be alone. The old-fashioned picture houses were magical and they were for the working classes not just the posh. We had two cinemas down Chamberlayne Road near  the Moberley gym, that’s where the Consitutional Club treasurer remembers the queues. Together, they had 3,000 seats, imagine that. Cinema was having its golden time. Of course, that was when we had a train going straight to Liverpool St, so lots of workers from the City lived in Kensal Rise. There were tailor shops then.”

I mention that I first came to Harlesden in the 80s when the Mean Fiddler put on brilliant bands and people travelled to come here for gigs. “I did too,” she exclaims, “I came to see Nico play there, it was amazing.” It turns out that Sally used to live in a squat in Brixton, whilst I lived in a squat in Shepherd’s Bush. That information re-modelled my preconceptions of millionaires! “It was pretty run down,” she says, “we didn’t have hot water. I love London though, it’s always interesting.”

We pass Paddy Power and I can’t help letting her know that over a year ago, I discovered that this had been a cinema called The Picardy. I looked it up on the internet and it showed a photo of the interior where you could see that the films were projected onto that wall that backed onto the street. It looked like the inside of a train and had posters for Barbara’s Stanwyk’s Golden Boy from the 1930s. Later it turned into a night club called Top 32 and I’m sure Mean Fiddler former boss, Vince Power, met his first wife there when he was a teenager! It’s all coming back to me.

There was also a cinema at 24 Harlesden High Street opposite Peacocks. Now it’s a hair shop. And then there was the Odeon – later to become the Roxy theatre where bands used to rehearse in the 70s at the same time as being a fleapit apparently – which was knocked down in the 90s and has now become a faceless ‘new’ build on the corner of Odeon Court. That’s what’s left of the history.

We stand in the entrance to the Misty Moon – formerly the cinema, the Coliseum – where there are old photos of film stars. “Tony Curtis was so sexy in those days,” says Sally in another unexpected  bit of banter. I laugh again.

She then admits what she would really like is “one of the vans that the government used to send out in the 1950s with little cinemas in them for disseminating public information. It would make a brilliant pop up cinema.” There is one out there apparently that has been restored.

I inform her that the Clash and the Slits played here in 1977. She is suitably impressed and surprised.

In the meantime, we notice the amazing statistic on the wall that in 1946, the audiences for cinema is the UK were 31 million. Wow!

What would she like to screen here? “Unusual stuff,” she says, “we don’t want to do the obvious.”

Ah there’s the rub. She explains that the most difficult aspect of screening films is obtaining the rights to old films. “We’re trying to get the rights for Pulp Fiction at the moment but it’s very difficult,” she explains. “That’s where it helps to be a newcomer, I’m endlessly optimistic. I think we can do anything. Others are more pragmatic. I’m a dreamer and I’m determined. I want Twin Peaks. I’d like to do bring your duvet nights at the Lexi like they do at Battersea Arts Centre.”

It also helps if you know a few of the right people. “I’d always wanted to meet David Puttnam,” she says. “His former chauffeur lives down the road from me. So when I was at the same awards ceremony as him, I introduced myself to him with this little fact. He has been to the Lexi and he has helped us out with rights. He’s a very nice man.”

I love that the Lexi always have someone there introduce the film. It feels old-fashioned and caring. “I was inspired by the genuinely wonderfully eccentric gentleman who runs the 600 seater Rex in Berkhampstead,” she says. “He always introduces his film. It makes it an individual experience. It’s cinema with heart. We also do newsletters where we say what we honestly feel about new films, we don’t gush without meaning it and we are critical.”

One of the recent projects of which she is most proud is working in South Africa at Lynesoch teaching schoolkids to be camera men and women. “Then we show what they make at the Lexi,” she says, “there is a 16 year who had been in trouble for violence, and is now going to film school in Cape Town.”

And what would she like at the Lexi? “A second screening room, that would really help with programming.”

The Lexi’s Pop up cinema Nomad is coming to the Misty Moon on March 1st. It’s a free event with special cocktails to buy. You can find more info about the film here and there will be other screenings over the following few months.



Filed under Walks


The Welsh Harp had been intriguing me for a while. I’d never been been before. Not long ago, I was coming down the stairs at Willesden Library when I saw inscribed on the wall ‘Bear escapes from The Welsh Harp in 1871’.


So, unusually for me, I looked up the history beforehand. More mundanely the Brent reservoir, it was built in 1835 to supply the Grand Union Canal. The Old Welsh Harp Tavern was the name of the inn on the A5 side of the area – a pub is still there – and apparently, it was so opulent with ornate pleasure gardens that the Prince of Wales used to pop down and do a little pigeon shooting. My dear. It was the height of fashion.

Ah, the bear? The bear escaped from the Welsh Harp menagerie in 1871. Menagerie, a little zoo type affair. So underused as a word these days. I remember my father in the 1960s referring to our household – a 3 storey terrace house in Yorkshire – as a menagerie meaning we were chaotic. We had tortoises, a goldfish and guinea pigs, but I think he was talking about us, the children, rather than the actual animals.

Karen Liebenguth is a Green Space life coach who has offered me a session. Usually, she would choose a green space – park, woods, heath  – in London and you would both meet up there. This time, I have chosen this site of special scientific interest – it’s 17o hectares of open water, marshes, trees and grassland apparently – because I want to know what it’s like. The Welsh Harp, that is.

The idea of life coaching in a green space? “I love the outside,” says Karen, “and people relax and open up more easily when surrounded by trees, grass, water. It also de-intensifies the session. We can stop and breath at times, and appreciate the landscape. It’s good to come to coaching when you are at a point where you want to move on. Often people will have traced the background of the problem, but now they are ready to move on. Life coaching can give you a blueprint for your future. Whereas counselling and therapy focus more on delving into the roots of the difficulty.”

Sorry, but we arrive by car. We park at the Youth Sailing Club on Cool Oak lane. It has the air of having seen better days. Bits of litter, information boards covered in grafitti, but a wonderful view of the reservoir. And no-one around. Karen is looking for somewhere to have a pee. Will she go wild or not?

“I was walking with a group of clients once,” she says, “and they wanted to go to the toilet and there were no facilities. I suggested the bushes and they were shocked and a bit scared. I showed them where to go, and they were fine. It made me realise that there are people who are frightened of green spaces in that way.”

She emerges from a wooded corner, and we set off towards the reservoir. Somewhere here there is a breeding colony of Great Crested Grebes but I have feeling we are not going to find it today. There are weeping willows instead – so deliciously green – and she asks me what my area of focus is today.

I decide to take a risk, and tell Karen, I am having difficulty opening my heart to men. And that’s what I want to change. I’m single. I’m happy and single. But I’d like to be happy and in a relationship with a man, so I want to address whatever it takes in order to allow that to happen.

As we’re passing a noble swan paddles across the reservoir, and a Polish family wander over to feed  him with bread. At that point, Karen asks me what it would feel like if my heart was open. In a quiet, caring voice. She has a very graceful, compassionate presence.

I’m usually good at answering questions, but this is quite difficult. And the start of many similar ones. “Expanded,” I say feeling that is a very limited reply, so I continue, “when I’m camping in summer with a group of friends doing emotional work, I always feel expanded, and because I’ve just done lots of crying and laughing with others, my heart is more open than it normally is.”

I’m circumnavigating her question. She persists. “What would that feel like?” she asks as we notice a sign saying ‘Beware Blue Algae’. Oh dear, not so green after all. The Blue Algae is reflecting my fear of answering that question. I could have said ‘like ice melting’ or ‘like wood disintegrating’, but I can’t quite feel it.

And then we come across the most inspiring sight. A meadow of blue and white vetch. It’s almost unreal, it looks so untouched by fertiliser or gardener. We stand and take it all in – in silence.

This is the point. Difficult questions followed by enough space to reflect a little. We walk on, and talk about what has happened to me in relationships with men. “I’ve been hurt,” I explain, “so I closed my heart to protect myself. I needed to have time to recover and also for my heart to beat gently on its own, without needing another to relate to.”

“What is stopping your heart opening around men now?” she asks. I reply:”Fear and a fierce critic that can find fault with men.”

Are you afraid you are a little too independent now? “Well,”I say, “I know what I want and it doesn’t have to be conventional in terms of a relationship. I don’t need a man to move in. I would be content with someone who has their own projects and passions, but wants to spend some special times with me. I’m at a time in my life where I don’t need to have a relationship but I would like to.”

“So you sound like you know what you want,” she says. And I do.

We stare across the water as moor hens and mallard ducks pootle around. I like that word. It’s an idyllic afternoon.

I wonder where around here the naturists used to gather in their glorious nudity between 1921 and 1930 when some puritanical locals objected vociferously? 200 angry anti-naked voices. This was known as the Sun-Bathing Riot of 1930.

We turn back on ourselves now but via a different route away from the water. We see a group of ancient oak trees and allow ourselves to be truly fascinated by them. In that innocent, wondrous way.

I start to tell Karen about my last true love affair which lasted 5 years, which was torturous and extremely painful. He really couldn’t give in the way that I longed for. “It sounds as though you opened your heart too much to this man,” she says, “and it was wounded for a while, but now you are ready to try again.”

Exactly, I agree. At this moment, we’re walking very slowly and we stop.

Well, I do have a date with an artist this weekend.

This was like manna to a life coach who is eager to give to her clients.

“I’d like you to imagine how your heart would feel if it were really open to this artist?” she says.

I have to close my eyes and really let myself into a situation where my heart is soft. “What does your heart look like?” she continues, refusing to let me off the hook.

“My heart feels like a rose where the red petals are falling off to reveal its centre, and it smells very fragrant,” I say as I sort of sway in an involuntary swoon. Oh gosh, I’m really getting the Mills and Boon of this now.

Will this satisfy her, I wonder. No, no, not quite.

“And how will you know if your heart is open when you meet this artist?” she says.

I have to stop again and really allow myself to feel. “I’ll feel a golden, warm feeling flowing from my heart to his, “ I reply like a true heroine.

Now she seems content. She remarks that I was doing a little dance at the end, and she likes that.

But back to my critic. “What will I do if I feel critical about something to do with him?” she asks.

“I do feel a little critical already,” I say laughing. “because he smokes. And I do smoke but only occasionally when I’m at a party.”

This throws her a little. “Ah, well, there’s criticism and there are value judgements,” she says, “for me, personally, I couldn’t go out with a smoker.”

Ah ha, well, we’ll have to see.

By this time, I can see the Sailing Club car park appearing amongst the trees. “How will you deal with your critic if she raises her head whilst your on the date?” she asks. I suggest I have an internal dialogue to ascertain  how worthy the criticism is, whether it’s coming from a value I hold dear, or is arising from my fear that I will get hurt if I get close to this person.”

Oh good, she’s OK with that. “Yes, remember, an internal dialogue is a great resource,” she says finally.

I want to come back to the Welsh Harp, there are butterfly and moth walks that I’d like to go on. I feel as though that was just the beginning.

And as for Karen’s coaching, I loved being asked lots of questions. Usually, I ask the questions. I revelled in having to reflect, and go through a mini-process with her.

PSThe date was cancelled because the artist injured his back whilst pruning errant roses! So you’ll just have to watch this heart space.

PPS Heard Robert Elms’ on Radio London today declare that he had one of his first jobs cutting grass at the Welsh Harp!

Green Space Life Coaching was set up by Karen Liebenguth. Karen offers life coaching while walking in London’s parks and green spaces, indoor coaching and group workshops to reconnect with nature. The next nature connection country walk will take place on Sunday 16th October in Kent, meeting point at Charing Cross Station. See website for details http://www.greenspacecoaching.com or contact Karen 07815 591 279 karen@greenspacecoaching.com

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There are a couple of asides to this tale. Firstly, a minor miracle that happened to me last week. I was in a rush. I went to the Santander cash machine, performed the usual card thing, and crossed Manor Park Road to go home. Three minutes later, it dawned on me that I’d left the cash behind. YES! LEFT THE CASH LYING THERE READY TO BE PICKED UP BY ALL AND SUNDRY. I didn’t even have time to panic. I turned back and there was a woman with a huge smile approaching me with £40 in her hands. Gasps all round. Of thanks and incredulity. A singular act of doing the right thing. In Harlesden. I glowed for the rest of the day.

The second aside is more apposite to the story. I invited Malcolm Barres-Baker, a rather grand, booming gentleman from Brent Archives to look at pubs with me. He’s rather charmingly of another era. When manners and politesse were uppermost in the ‘English’ way of being. Anyway, Malcolm – this is typical, I’m sure – sent me a tract from the nineteenth century author, Arthur Machen’s supernatural short story, The Inmost Light, written in 1894, to read beforehand. Because it mentions Harlesden. Oh, what an arcane delight this is.

Of course, at the time, Harlesden was in fact a prosperous middle-class suburb, so it’s slightly shocking to read Machen as he points out its less salubrious side. “A place of no character,” he writes caustically, “it’s too new to have any character as yet. There are rows of red houses and rows of white houses and the bright green Venetians, and the blistering doorways, and the little backyards they call gardens, and a few feeble shops, and then, just as you think you’re going to grasp the physiognomy of the settlement, it all melts away.”

Dear me! He goes on to describe Harlesden as “like a city of the dead”. Even at midday. The polar opposite is true now, of course. It’s hard to think of anywhere more animated. And I forgot, Machen goes on to set the scene for a certain Dr Black who was suspected of murdering his wife. “I dare say that you have never heard of the Harlesden case?” No, I hadn’t either.

Malcolm Barres-Baker and I had arranged to meet inside the Royal Oak. I’ve only been inside once before. Searching for an alcoholic boyfriend who had escaped from my alcohol-free home to pursue his own vision of how life should be. It was 5pm and this charismatic drunk was on a bender. His focus on beer was unwavering. I couldn’t persuade him to leave.

Today, Malcolm is already ensconced  with his half pint, and his archive photos.There’s a great, quite well-known (it adorns the cover of Traditional Pubs of Brent by Cliff Wadsworth) photo of The Royal Oak Tavern and  Railway Hotel (as it was known then) circa 1880 (but there was a building here before as long ago as 1757) when it was a two storey building with Venetian blinds and a huge, classy gaslight outside, there’s a horse and cart delivery in mid-action. The pub looks distinctly posh. Today’s building is a 1892 re-build. “The irony is,” says Malcolm, “the older pub looks more modern.” Now with its baroque-style – in other words, its got lots of fiddly architectural bits – 4 storeys, and red brick, there are always Irish bands playing there, but at 2pm today, it’s a little bit sad in here. Drinkers who’ve seen better days. Health-wise.

Just how upscale Harlesden was in 1900, Malcolm illustrates with a photo of a garden party in Roundwood Park showing the women in flouncy long dresses and the men in top hats and tails.

He also mentions the ‘original’ (ie 1892) tiles in the hallway, so we venture out there to admire the scene – a Parliamentarian trooper hunting for King Charles II after the Battle of Worcester in 1651, Charles hid in an oak tree, hence the name Royal Oark (see first picture)  enshrined in these colourfully painted ceramics. “They’re excellent quality,” intones Malcolm in his own unmistakable way. Posh too.

On the subject of ‘poshness’, Malcolm remarks that there are oodles of old photos and photo postcards of Harlesden in existence. Many more than Willesden. I’m surprised. I’d always assumed that Willesden was richer than Harlesden because there is so much printed coverage of Willesden.  “Harlesden was actually posher than Willesden,” says Malcolm getting into the vernacular.

Ah ha, I really didn’t know that.

And these picture postcards, why are there so many of them? Because the ladies and gents of the area would send them as a way of thanking their recent hosts for tea. “Remember in those days,” says Malcolm, “you could send a card in the morning and it would arrive in the afternoon, there were two post deliveries a day.” Postcards, letters – they were the texts ‘de leurs jours’. Instantly, I want to re-create the sending of postcards and letters in this way. The romance of the postal delivery. And, of course, there were no phones.

Before stepping out on to the High Street – which is rather a daylight shock for Malcolm who is used to being hidden away in  bookish archives – we discuss the contemporary( this being entirely the wrong word for the Royal Oak style) open plan bar. “In many ways, it’s not helping pub trade,” says Malcolm, “because before with a public bar and a lounge one, at least pubs could attract different sorts of drinkers. These days, it’s all-in-one and much more limited.”

We stare up at the sign outside. “What’s wrong with that?” says Malcolm who has a degree in history, and a post-degree in Greek classical archeology. I haven’t a clue. “Well, they’ve put an image of Charles I in the middle of the oak tree, when the king who is remembered for hiding in an oak tree is Charles II.”

We appreciate the mosaic of an oak tree on the side of the building. All gold and green – it is artfully constructed and also from 1892. Looking up is a vital constituent of urban anthropology. “Gladstone said always travel upstairs on a bus if you really want to see London,” says Malcolm helpfully.

This block of buildings including this version of the Green Man – the first one was built before 1778  and was a useful stopping place for stage coaches on their way from Harrow to the City of London – was constructed in 1907. And is pseudo-Dutch. Which I’ve never noticed before. The Green Man has curved gables and even a turret at the side. Malcolm is keen on the architecture and distinctly excited at the turret which he didn’t notice on the plans.

But why Dutch? “It’s in a style called Anglo-Dutch, or sometimes ‘Pont Street Dutch’,” he explains. “Starting in the 1870s, some young British architects wanted to break free from the competing Classical and Gothic styles. They began imitating late seventeenth and early eighteenth century domestic architecture, which in some cases was strongly influenced by the Low Countries, partly because King William III was Dutch. This Anglo-Dutch and pseudo-Queen Anne style was very popular around the time the pub was built. It also turns up in Australia, where it’s called Federation Anglo-Dutch because it was popular around 1901, when Australia became a single Commonwealth.”

Now, the Green Man has become the Portuguese Bi-cafe. Another take over. Or rather a flow from English pubdom to Portuguese eating and drinking location. In the incessant wave of building-use changes.

He stares across the road and declares that the various Somali shops over there had once been a pub too. The Elm Tree. I’m astonished. Again, I hadn’t realised there had ever been a pub there. Afterwards, I find a photo of it, and the building looks Edwardian.

We walk back along the High Street and Malcolm points out a blue sign on the buildings opposite Iceland, it says You May Telephone Here. Not any longer, of course.

We arrive at the newly refurbished Way 2 Save (so much better and cheaper than Tesco’s)  and focus our attention on the other side of the road. “A pub called the Anchor & Cable used to be there,” says Malcolm forever flummoxing me with new information, “which existed in 1670 and it was rebuilt in 1888 and called The Crown.” This building has flounces and flourishes, it almost thinks it’s in a gothic horror story. The more I look at it, the more I see. Additions. Balustrades, terracotta rosettes, grotesque heads, mock tudor black stripes. There’s quite a lot going on. Earlier during archive picture time, Malcolm has shown me a photo of the trade token used at the original pub. “There wasn’t enough small change in 17th century England so tokens helped,” he explained. “On the back you can see the initials of the husband and wife who ran it.”

The last word has to go to the incisive words of Cliff Wadsworth – local history supremo – he writes –’ in the 1990s, the Crown suffered on of the worst examples of re-naming: someone felt it would do better under the title The Rat And Carrot’. Not surprisingly, it didn’t.


Filed under Walks


Everything I knew about the Salvation Army could be summed up by – fire and brimstone speeches involving multiple mentions of damnation, novelist, Jeanette Winterson’s strange upbringing, lots of brass instruments, and my friend, Caralinda Booth, now an A & R woman in Bejing, but also the great, great granddaughter of William Booth, its founder. In 1865, I read later. They are also evangelical Christians. There is a large building in Manor Road that proclaims Salvation Army from the outside in big, bold letters, with a brown and white cross to back it up. I’d been meaning to get in touch with them. Somehow, I’d imagined a shabby interior with heaps of second hand clothes ready for the homeless.

So I was genuinely surprised to discover a huge, fairly freshly painted hall/place of worship – in fact, it’s been there since 1903 when there were well over a hundred Harlesden residents at services with a full band on the stage – a very modern screen showing a baby for Mother’s Day and a mixed congregation of about twenty people. Mind you, the original crest declaring more lustily Blood and Fire is still there. And copies of their old-time newspaper, War Cry, are also available.

“Where are the officers?” pipes up one evidently regular member. A ripple of laughter wings its way around the attendees. And territorial envoys – yes, a fascinating title, which makes them sound like they have arrived temporarily from an alien planet and maybe they have – Mark and Julia Cozens appear. To cheers. Another shock is their lack of uniform, well, I should say the casualness of their apparent uniform. They are attired in dress down black trousers, navy blue sports shirts with a up-to-datish red shield Salvation Army logo and black shoes, their navy fleeces are on the backs of their chairs. They look as though they are about to facilitate a social workers’ meeting. Which turns out to be an apt impression.

There are more formal uniforms –  navy, lots of badges, with mini bowler hats – but they are in the congregation. ‘Soldiers’ – I find out later are members who commit to the S A core belief system including no alcohol, no smoking, and no gambling, – are allowed to buy themselves uniforms. The flags, the colours, the uniforms, the ethos – they all remind me of the girl guides. Yes, there’s definitely the same do-gooding spirit. Just this seems like a lot more fun.

Julia takes to the lo-fi pulpit (there are several kerfuffles around sharing a mini-mic) which really is in the midst of the people. There is the Mother’s Day introduction, and then Mark on the piano. Absolutely no pomp and ceremony, not to mention sacraments. This is very much employing the love of God as a community reassurance and inspiration. I’m an agnostic but I can appreciate these sentiments.

Psalm 139, thanks to the mothers, and those who act as mothers for instance, foster mothers, then Mark encourages everyone to dance as they sing. There’s clapping and swaying and giggles. And lovely inclusiveness. Jasmin, is invited to read a poem she found on the internet about mothers, there’s a history of Mother’s Day ( apparently it goes back to Isis days, but Christians typically  appropriated it for the fourth Sunday of Lenten and by the 1600s, it was a day when servants and tradespeople could visit their families) and a lot of little jokes.

Natasha, a British Asian woman, has her husband and her baby son, Adam with her. It’s his first birthday today. We sing Happy Birthday. Where else do you have birthday singing in the middle of a service? Natasha tells us how she was a successful career woman who never even considered having a child. And now, she prefers to stay at home with him rather than go out to work. There are wild whoops.

However, my astonishment rises to its zenith at the next section. Mark actually introduces a Mother and Daughter Quiz using the screen on the wall. I’m thrown into a publand state of altered reality. Princess Grace of Monaco and Stephanie, Judy Garland and Lizzie Minelli and many more are all part of this compelling challenge. All I can say, is thank goodness I am here. Because no-one else recognises Peaches Geldof. Frankly, we could be in the Misty Moon next door and I think that’s the point.

We’re even invited to talk about our own mothers. As you can tell, I’m being swept along on this  wave of participation. And I find myself describing a fish n’chip meal, my mother and I shared  recently up in the market town of Otley(we were both born there). The haddock was so fresh, the batter so light, it’s a Yorkshire thing. We were both in bliss. And that is very much what my mum has taught me. How to derive contentment from the simplest of activities.

A young woman – she must be in her 20s – called Fui stands up to talk about her mother. She’s from New Zealand (like many here, her family are all Salvation Army members) and her roots are Samoan. “I have an extraordinary mum,” she says softly but proudly, “she’s very giving, and she also worked her way up from being a cleaner to being the vice president of the most successful cleaning company in New Zealand. I find her inspiring.”

A daffodil moment follows. “If you are here with your mum,” says Julia, “take a bunch of daffodils and give them to her, and give her a kiss too.” These territorial envoys have been out shopping for mother’s delight.

“There’s one son being very quiet,”mentions Mark and he’s talking about their 17 year old son, Luke who is himself a ‘soldier’ based at the Regent Street Salvation Army.  He’s sneaked out but comes back and makes his way forward to hug his mum.

Informality with a capital I. That’s what impresses and surprises me most about this service. I’d imagined something musty with a large helping of ‘you will die in hell if you step on a crack in the pavement’, and what I found is so much more compassionate and friendly.

There is a moment of prayer led by Mark. He asks us to think about our mothers, those who have cared for us, and extends his invitation to all of those who love and care for children including doctors and nurses and gives us the opportunity to say ‘thank you’. I find it useful to have a little time to reflect in this way. About others.

He reads from the Old Testament, and there’s a “Is that a new bible, you’ve got?”. It’s Carol again, she is a regular who is a bit of a joker. I love these interruptions and the way they are so naturally threaded into the more reverent. This bit of the Bible talks about treating others as though they are your family. Mark quotes a sticker – this is making the Old Testament relevant time – he saw on a bus. ‘Treat  cyclists as if they are your granny.’ Exactly, that’s Mark’s view too. He wants us to know that there would be no trouble in world, if that simple message was adhered to. He’s not afraid to mention the difficulties involved either. “It’s not always easy to love our family,” he says, “but ask God and he will give us the compassion we need. When you meet someone whether a shop keeper or a bank assistant, treat them as a family member and see what a difference it makes.” We end on a song – ‘Let there be love shared around us’.

I find myself smiling despite the potential dreaded sentimentality, and asking Joyce, the 80 year old (OK, I have to admit the majority of the  congregation are over 50), Joyce what had made her decide to attend the Salvation Army services. “My family is Methodist,” she says, “and this was the nearest thing I could find. I would describe it as very comfortable as a place of worship. I come to their luncheon club as well.”

The Salvation Army is the polar opposite to high church, they started up to help the alcoholics and homeless in Bethnal Green and their key words were soup, soap and salvation. They don’t do the sacraments like baptism and holy communion, they focus on the message rather than the rituals of Christianity.

Tea and cakes follow. Someone even saves me a piece of Adam’s first birthday cake. People chat. I ask 64 year old Jean who is a soldier (ie more committed than Joy who is an adherent) how she got involved. “I was brought up in Paddington,” she says,“and the Salvation Army ran the nearest Sunday School. It was the Good Will section and there were a lot of slums in that area at that time. I started helping out and have carried on. I also play the cornet.”

Ah yes, the cornets, back to them in a moment. Jean starts talking to me about the symbols in the SA flag, and Leeroy Simpson, chair of Harlesden Town Team 2010 (in charge of all sorts of action from cleaning up Station Road to Willesden Junction), who has a certain swagger about him, happens to be standing nearby. “The blue is for the purity of God, the yellow is for the Holy Spirit and the red is the blood of Christ,” says Jean quietly. “That’s almost the same as the Jamaican flag,” counters Leeroy noisily,“black is for our skin, gold is for the riches to be found there, and red is for the blood spilled by our people and green is for the lushness of the landscape.”

Mark very kindly shows me a sepia photo of the Harlesden Salvation Band in 1934 – with their trumpets, trombones, cornets in this very hall  – and leads me to a back room where there is a lot of brass ‘umpahing’ going on. Not to mention squeaks and groans. It’s cornet practice taken by David whose family has also been in the Salvation Army for years. “At the turn of the century, it would have been all the local business people who were members here,” he says.

“Julia and I like to make everyone in the service feel at home. For us, the content is all about what we call the Kingdom lifestyle,” says Mark,” we want to talk about God’s kingdom as  it is in our daily life. It’s all about our relationships with each other. That’s why I mentioned treating everyone as if they were a member of our family, and related it to the cyclist and granny poster.”

What does evangelical Christianity really mean, I wonder? Evangelical comes from Greek which translates as bringing good news. I’d always thought it meant that they are ardent proselytizers, in other words, their propensity to stand on street corners proclaiming that we would all go to hell if we did not repent and join them. But my impression is anachronistic if this service is anything to go by. “Living out the core beliefs and sharing them by example,”says Mark as his explanation of the modern ethos. He also mentions that this approach is post-modern in that the realists in the Salvation Army have to take on board the dwindling congregations and develop new ways of telling their story.

Ah ha, it seems these particular territorial envoys are not from alien planet after all.

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La verite, c’est plus etrange que la fiction. Six months ago, I bumped into an old friend of mine, Sandra Kane, artist and art director, at a dinner she was organising – only for her to tell me that she had just taken over the lease to the wonderful Roundwood Lodge Cafe.

To say I was surprised is an understatement. As far as I knew, Marianne – a buxom blonde with a charismatic personality and a slightly stretched face, who had heroically transformed this battered, little space into a thriving enterprise for local families, having survived numerous vandal attacks along the way – otherwise known as ‘Countess Romanov’ and a well-respected, local primary school governor, was still in charge.

“Haven’t you heard about Marianne?” asked Sandra incredulous that I hadn’t. “She’s in prison.” Again I was stunned. It  was one of those ricocheting moments. The last time, I saw Marianne was during the ‘Save The Cafe’ campaign two years ago (her story was that the council were about to evict her, although this apparently was not true) where I’d been videoed saying how brilliant I thought the cafe was. Monsieur Theroux had also joined in the campaign and been photographed with the Countess herself in the local press. One of her fortes was rallying the troops.

Having seen Sandra, I scoured the internet for all the news I had missed. It turned out that not only is Marianne in prison for fraud, she ia a transexual – (ok, I know this is non-pc to say this, but it does add another kick to the story) born as Robert Duxbury – who had most incredibly been pretending that she was a paraplegic confined to her bed and apparently claimed £197,000 since 1996 in benefits.

Incredible is too restrained a word for it. Phew. This is obviously vying for storyline status in the increasingly tabloid East Enders.

I’m going to have to repeat myself. Marianne (only one of a whole raft of names) was a very public figure running a prominent local cafe, whilst at the same time, maintaining this insane pretence. For twelve years.  Brazen or just in la la land or both? Anyway, she managed it – obfuscation was one of her many talents – for a very long time. Finally in 2008, a Brent Social Services Officer recognised her walking her dogs. Every time, the Social Services visited her at home in Wembley, she apparently had the curtains closed, was wearing a head wrap plus sunglasses as well as being obscured by bedclothes. She also claimed forcefully – she has a fecund and almighty imagination – that she had a twin sister who was out there running the cafe.

After much more fantastical ado in the court, she was sent to prison for four and a half years in March 2010. Hence the opening for Sandra who had already been managing the cafe.

Originally termed a refreshment chalet – wait for it – with a verandah which was built in 1900, it was rebuilt – think scout hut – in 1958. Now there have been various additions like a kiosk, and play areas outside. Even a massage table in the summer. (Now, of course, I’m writing about it in snow-bedecked December.)

In the early 19th century, this area was known as Hunger Hill Common Field. Its distinguishing feature was the (still remaining) hillock where there used to be a rifle range. No more, of course. By the mid-1800s, Roundwood House had been built – apparently a magnificent, Elizabethan-style mansion – which later was owned by ‘legendary'(ie rich and powerful), local figure, George Furness, a civil engineering contractor whose international contracts later became our road names. Ancona, Paloma, Furness – all tributes to his work. And of course, seriously flawed.

However, Willesden Council (because then it wasn’t Brent) took out a compulsory purchase order on Roundwood House, and it was demolished in 1937. “An act of civil vandalism,” declares local historian, Cliff Wadsworth in his booklet on the park. I have to agree.

The park was opened in the early 1890s. Although Sandra didn’t arrive until the late 1990s, when Marianne was in charge. “She was always very determined and full of energy,”says Sandra. “In those days, she was in a wheelchair. The official story was that she’d fallen down an elevator shaft. I’m not sure what the reality was. But she did do a lot for the community. And in many ways was very generous. I have been to see her in prison but only in a formal way for the signing over of the lease. It is a new era for the cafe now. I’ve got new ideas like the massages in summer and holding art exhibitions here but it will always be a community cafe.”

Sandra, it has to be said, loves the people that come to Roundwood Park. The different ages and the different nationalities, the families, the teenagers. Everyone. “I also really feel so lucky to work in this environment, “ she declares, “ I see the dew on the plane tree burnished leaves on autumn mornings, and hear the first thrushes in spring. I see all the seasons in. And all the different people, the older ones with their dogs, the toddlers, the teenagers letting off steam. Parks are so needed for school children to hang out and be independent. I’m a strong supporter of parks for teenagers.”

And then, there are the old men who frequent the Bowling Green and their little wooden hut. Like a vestige from the 1920s – it was built by the unemployed – in their whites and their whiteness. Louis (Theroux, we’re on first name terms now post-walk) was keen for me to interview these players as an example, I assume, of particularly old-fashioned Harlesden dwellers. Perhaps, I will. Although I’m getting the distinct impression that it might entail entering a viper’s nest of right-wing opinions.

Sandra and I take a walk down to the main entrance. I have to confess that I always feel amused by the flowerbeds here. Yes, in a snotty way. As a sort of perverse bohemian superiority. To me, these flowerbeds are a little garish. Oh, the jolt and the jab of it. Red, oranges, purples, yellows – all  tipped together like the former Paul Grady Show. They remind me of the seaside town flowerbed aesthetic. Bournemouth, in fact.

As Sandra and I gaze at these beds bursting with yellow and orange marigolds, red begonias and purple verbena. I feel mean. To Sandra, who is so obviously a seaside flowerbed fan. I confess to my ugly thoughts. She is politely aghast.

“Look at those beautiful, orange cana lilies,” she says defending her park, “and we have a quite famous tulip tree. The flowerbeds here have always been an award-winning feature right from the beginning. Now we get couples coming to have their wedding photos taken here.”

Aptly chastised, I follow her to the stunning wrought iron gates which were created in 1895 at Vulcan Works in the Harrow Road. Are they still there, I wonder?  And then, there’s the surprisingly grand, faux Elizabethan lodge where apparently Brent park workers now reside. “It’s a great house,” says Sandra, “look at those chimneys and the sun and the plough on the other side, they were Willesden Council’s emblems at the time.”

There is the most hideous water fountain just nearby. Sorry, Sandra. Gothic, over-follied, ridiculously unattractive, unused (no water spurts sally forth, probably because of Health and Safety regulations). Created (I employ the term ill-advisedly) to mark the opening of the park, it really should go immediately to that imaginary, but much-needed museum devoted to the most grotesque of Victorian inventions.

And then, there’s the aviary. Here I go again. It is small and unadventurous. Anachronistic, even. Full of canaries and zebra finches, it lacks space and cleanliness. It doesn’t even have a whiff of the worst of London Zoo. Maybe the children love seeing these little birds, but I’m not sure it’s worth it.

I can feel Sandra’s disapproval from here. I am not, of course, speaking for her.

Another enigma on the right, is the distinctly 1960s, brutalist Open Theatre. Except I’ve never seen it open. It seems like a great idea to have a theatre in this park. Shakespeare has visited especially in summer, I hear. But, it remains firmly closed at the moment and unsupported. Come on, Brent Council, this theatre is an opportunity for youth theatre to happen in the summer months. It needs your support.

Oh goodness, I’ve just read – post-walk – that after World War 1, a German Bomber plane was almost fixed to the bandstand in the park as a decoration. Now that would have almost outdone Damien. There used to be a bandstand on the defining hillock. No more. Now there’s just a  flat area which could also easily be for performance. And it overlooks Wembley Stadium with its football halo. “When the park was built, this looked out on woods and trees,” says Sandra. “Look, you can see the church steeple in Harrow.”

As we’re walking back down towards the cafe, I notice a plaque on one of the oak trees that I’ve never seen before. It says simply that Lance Hamilton died here in 1998. Who was he? What happened? Even Sandra doesn’t know. The internet doesn’t mention him. It’s an enigma.

“Actually, at times of trouble, I have come to sit between these oaks and wept,” says Sandra, “and I have found the solace of nature here in Roundwood park. It really has meant so much to me over the years.”


Filed under Walks


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.


Filed under Walks


I’ve known for at least the past five years that the ever so quizzical and now apparently sexy – the other day, a 20 something data designer told me that the gig audience her friend had been part of the previous evening, was a sea of  Louis’ which was a very desirable thing – documentary maker, Louis Theroux was a neighbour of mine. Not close close, but I had spotted him at my local newsagents, the one where British Asian Dar (he came over from Pakistan in the 60s) calls himself Danny and sells boxing gloves as well as newspapers. And I’d heard that Louis was a member of the Neighbourhood Watch in my area.

So for the past few months, I’ve been trying to persuade him to walk with me. Via his agent and emails. At first, he declined. However, he declined in a way that made me think that he would eventually agree. He took a typically ‘Louis’ softly, softly approach. ‘I don’t think I can help you,’ he wrote indicating to me that there was at least a small part of him that thought he could.

I persisted in a slow, lightly determined manner. A few weeks ago, he relented politely. Always finishing his emails with ‘Best Regards’ as though he is deliberately adhering to a time warp. I suggested we meet down Park Parade. He had other ideas. “Dora’s Delights,” he wrote, “at 9 15am.” The delightfully named Dora’s Delights is a new café that has recently opened right next to the Jubilee Clock.

And there he is, reading The Sun. That’s a surprise. Initially, I nearly fall into a seductive trap. Louis, of course, starts to ask me questions about myself. I suddenly hear myself talking about The Face and interviewing sculptor and in the 1960s dubbed Scotland’s most violent man, Jimmy Boyle, and stop myself. Otherwise, I won’t find anything out about Louis.

It’s all a bit polite at the beginning. He’s lived here for nine years, he’d like to be even more active locally (he’s pretty active already, he was out on the streets earlier this year promoting the shop locally campaign), the negative press that Harlesden attracts, the regeneration project, (which I haven’t explored yet), the Keep Harlesden Clean campaign and the local shops.

“I do try to shop locally,” he says, “I’ve become a bit of a mango snob since living here. There are at least three different types including honey mangos.” And then, there’s his list of good local fishmongers and restaurants.  Oh dear, I’m in danger of getting bored with Louis Theroux already.

Does he get recognised here, I ask? “Less than elsewhere,” he says, “for instance, my Polish neighbour, Ryzard, has just got back from a trip home. He got really excited because he’d seen me over there on TV, he hadn’t realised what I did before that. A lot of people in Harlesden are watching their own national TV by satellite so they wouldn’t see me.”

It soon becomes clear that Louis’ head really is full of questions. He is wont – as we see in his TV documentaries on everything from medicating children to interviewing the inmates of San Quentin prison or sex workers in Nevada – to ponder possibilities endlessly. He has been accused of being faux-naïve, but I experience him as just eternally wanting to find out more. “I am curious to know,” he says uttering one of his favourite phrases, “how the demographics evolved here. It was posh wasn’t it at the turn of the century, so how did it change?”

I explain badly about the railways, then the industrialisation, for instance, McVities then the arrival of cheap housing for the workers. And the departure of the middle classes in the 1920s and 30s. Later I read that Louis has a first in history from Oxford University. Oh, the satisfaction of not even getting an O level in it and being able to lecture Louis!

But before long, we’re onto to shopping again. Louis reckons – is he right? – that Harlesden is the only place in London where you can buy black beans in a tin. I do like his quirky adherence to such little known ‘facts’. Apparently, he – he has two young boys, Albert and Frederick, and a partner called Nancy – cooked a Nigella dish last night which included one of those remarkable tins of black beans, plus Thai fish sauce and lime.

We talk about shops like Harlesden Fresh Fish – my local fish shop, which is owned by a large smiling Afghan man – opposite Iceland, when Louis demonstrates one of his most charming attributes. “I worry about the shops in the week,” he says and I think he genuinely does, “they might be busy at the weekend but they’re almost empty in the week.” There’s something deeply ok about a man who worries about the livelihood of his local shopkeepers.

I’d planned to take Louis on a walk to Stonebridge. I wanted to know what he thought of all the architectural changes. But he had a slightly different idea. “Have you ever been to that hotel up there?” he says eagerly, “I’m curious to know what goes on there. Who stays there? Why do they stay there?”

In fact, I’ve been meaning to go to this Victorian hotel. Right in the middle of Stonebridge – the estates, the towers – stands this vestige of another era. It is weird. Out-of-place. Faintly ridiculous. The Stonebridge Park  Hotel – it was built when commuters from the City stayed there in the mid 19th century.

And so we’re walking at last. Past Subway, and Wrights photography and lingerie – “What’s all that about?” he laughs – and the old Mean Fiddler. “I read your piece about Vince Power,” he says, “but he can’t really be soft can he? He runs nightclubs and music venues.” Afterwards, I think about this and decide that actually he can be soft as well as tough. Do people have to be just either one or the other? The questions are evidently infectious.

Now we’re outside another fresh fish shop window in the High Street and we witness a crab moving. It’s still alive. “Do you think that’s cruel?” he asks. I turn the question back on him. And he’s not sure. There are a lot of different fish on display here. “Can you name many of them,” he asks. I don’t think I can. These constant questions make me realise what a permanent state of inexactness I live in.

Outside the newly refurbished library, a little group have gathered waiting for it to open. Our communal gaze is immediately drawn to a couple of shaven headed men who are sitting on the steps and falling slowly and drunkenly into one another in a very intimate way for 10 o’clock in the morning. Of course, Louis, the documentary maker isn’t a teensy bit fazed by staring at them for quite a long time. Past most people’s comfort threshold. “It’s funny they look as though they are cuddling,” he says. And they are. “They’re probably Eastern European,” he adds.

He points out Odeon Court – a row of bland, 1990s houses. Like Barrett homes. Of course, it’s where the Odeon, which originally opened in 1937, once was. In fact, this is also where Vince Power meant when he was talking about the location of the famous Harlesden Roxy  where The Clash rehearsed in the 70s.

“I find myself lamenting the demise of the Odeon,” says Louis admitting a kind of longing for a lack of change, “but I do have neo-phobic tendencies so I just have to stop myself.”

I can feel his neo-phobic tendencies almost constantly. They settle in the relentless pondering and the almost comical grimace that so often appears on his face.

As we look down Hillside and onto the new Stonebridge estates, I ask him if he’s ever thought about doing a documentary on Harlesden?  “I’ve thought about it,” he says, “but it’s good to keep work and home separate. There are so many questions that I haven’t asked about Harlesden in the nine years that I’ve been here, that I would have asked in the first hour out on the street with a camera crew.”

The strangely out of place Stonebridge Park Hotel is before us now. Only it’s changed its name to the Bridge Park Hotel. Obviously because Stonebridge has too many crime, gangs and shootings connotations.  It has wrought iron balconies and a feeling of distant grandeur turned into nouveau tackiness. We push open the door and somehow Louis transforms into his documentary maker self. Newly assertive, he takes the lead.

“Can we see a room?” he asks and he won’t take ‘No’ for an answer when the blonde (maybe Slavic) receptionist informs us that the rooms have yet to be cleaned. Suddenly, I’m in a situation where Louis and I are pretending to need a room together. At least, he asks to see a twin one which would cost us £60 for the night.

In the meantime – we wait to see whether we will be allowed in – we survey the reception area. There’s a huge, Argos catalogue-type chandelier, a souvenir display case and lots of brochures about Paris and Wembley, then some decorative 19th century posters.  Louis is bizarrely impressed and incredibly enthusiastic. He’s come alive in some way that wasn’t there earlier.

“Someone has obviously spent some money on this hotel recently,” he says, “there’s a feeling of it being taken care of. It looks clean and looked after.” And he says it quite a number of times. “Am I going overboard?” he asks. He is.

Finally, we triumph. We wander down back corridors crammed with kitsch pictures of elephants, storks and crying women with peculiar little words of wisdom. For instance – To Be Happy, We Must Not Be Too Concerned With Others. “That’s odd, isn’t it,” he says and I agree it is very odd.

The room is small and unremarkable. Louis is far better than me at making small talk about this frankly unimpressive twin room. “Do you have non-smoking and smoking rooms?” he asks as though he is making a vitally important enquiry. I can tell he is enjoying himself. It’s the thrill of the chase of ‘the genuinely odd in the most ordinary setting’ that drives him.  I’m not sure how odd this is though. “I think I can smell smoke,” he observes in a detective-like manner. The receptionist concurs but adds that it probably is from a few nights ago rather than the previous evening.

On the way back, we look out of the back door on to one of the two remaining Stonebridge tower blocks. Confusingly, it has scaffolding around it. We’re fooled into thinking that they are re-furbishing the façade. My son puts me right when I get back. “That’s because they take it down bit by bit,” he explains to his ignorant mother.

As we walk away from the Bridge Park Hotel, I wonder aloud about the dramatic changes in architecture around here, and whether the low rise buildings will encourage more community and less crime. “I think Corbusier said something like ‘we shape our buildings and thereafter, they shape us’,” he says.

You were sounding rather anti-smoking back at the hotel? “No, I’m a smoker,” he smiles, “I smoke about three cigarettes a week.”

At this point, he produces a shopping list on the back of an envelope and we end up at Blue Mountain Peak Cash And Carry, the quintessentially Caribbean food shop, searching out very English ingredients for the Theroux family dinner. But Louis is unabashed. “Can you see the broccoli?” he says amid the mountains of yams and cassavas. I can. But definitely not the crème fraiche. Oh, and he has a very cute shopping bag with him!

“I’m so glad we went to that hotel,” he says seeming genuinely pleased. “Why?” I laugh. “Because now I can speak with authority about it,” he explains.

Hilarious. Why would you want to? “Well, it would make a great place to disappear in,” he adds tellingly, “haven’t you wanted to totally disappear?”

Ending on a series of questions seems only right and proper after an encounter with Louis…

PS His next BBC documentary is called Law and Disorder In Lagos. It’s about the city’s civic structure or lack of it. “I spent a month there,” he says, “it is dangerous but not as much as you would expect. Nigeria is not really far away. It’s much closer than the US, and there is so many connections with the UK.  So many Nigerians who live here, families who send money back there. I like that.”


Filed under Walks