Today – rainy, the day after the earthquake in Chile, a Sunday in Harlesden – I’m walking with journalist and author, Nick Barlay. He’s finally turned up. Remember, I was meant to meet him for the first walk. I think he’ll be a fruitful ‘collaborator’ because he’s a Londonist with an arch sense of humour. Plus he’s written about his own walks. He once wrote a 10,000 word account of the London section of the A5, the old Roman Road, 30 miles and eight road changes of name for Time Out. “It was a scientific dissection of London but of course, there was a psychosexual angle in that it started with a phallic obelisk in the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital, Brockley Hill and ended with the vaginal Marble Arch. I walked it twice. You have to walk it to feel it”. Oh la la.
Before we set off, I show him a piece entitled ‘No Evacuation From Harlesden’ – which is a memory recorded by Derek Sebbage for the BBC’s World War 2 site, the People’s War – in it he describes how his family lived in a flat in Ranelagh Rd during the war (for him, between the ages of two and seven) and his mother wouldn’t allow them (four children) to be evacuated because she wanted them to stay together. Vividly, he recalls they had their very own “ Andersen Shelter in which we sometimes had to spend days. You had to drop down into the ground, it was half out of the soil, and covered with soil. Inside I can always remember, there were blue striped mattresses and pillows, not pillowcases, just blankets. One of the treats we used to have was mum would make Cadbury’s drinking chocolate.”
I ask Nick (he knows more than I do about history) if he knows what an Andersen air raid shelter was like? “It was home-made wasn’t it?” he says, “People would get them together from scrap.” According to wikipedia – where there is a handy photo showing one constructed from corrugated iron and in someone’s private garden – “They were designed to accommodate six people, and buried in 1.2m of soil and covered with soil too.” The earth banks, it suggested, could be planted with vegetables and flowers, “that at times could be quite an appealing sight and in this way would become the subject of competitions of the best-planted shelter among householders in the neighbourhood.” Wow, whoever would have imagined Britain In Bloom transposed to air-raid shelters! Not only that, it adds – “The internal fitting out of the shelter was left to the owner and so there were wide variations in comfort.” Of course, there was no Ikea of air-raid interiors. It also informs us that Andersen shelters were free to all householders who earned less than £250 a year, otherwise, they were £7 each.
Thoroughly acquainted with the state of the Andersen shelter, we set off on a circular trip which will include Ranelagh Rd. At the junction of Rucklidge Avenue and Park Parade, the very blue Workers sculpture by Kevin Harrison seems rather strangely located. Four workers in blue overalls with a triumphant flag – City Challenge, 1995 – it seems frankly more Moscow than Harlesden. “It’s what I would call Soviet-lite,” says the ever-coruscating, Mr Barlay, however, he also adds more gently, “but I can’t bring myself to hate it. It is a step up from two sad fucks sitting on a fence.”
We’re walking by the Royal Oak pub and Nick is gazing at the other side of the road. Naturally, he’s practicing observational yoga. He’s an original practitioner. “You get all the mouldings of the original buildings, you can see those painted flowers on the corner above the café were Edwardian, but on the lower parts, everything has been stuck on – like the alarm box and then the fashion shop with the missing letters. I like that kind of architectural history.”
Have you seen the docu-soap, (remember, there was a docu-soap TV era) the Heart of Harlesden, I ask? When was it on? he says. 2001. He hasn’t. Anyway, the cavernous rooms above Iceland apparently used to be Dreams nightclub where black British Harlesden girls used to shake their short and frequently diaphanous skirt-clad booty at the boys who were wont to roll full bottles of spilling-forth champagne towards the gyrating girls’ ankles. In a full-on display of peacockdom. Now it simply says Gym in the windows. There was a tattered church sign but it’s disappeared. And I think it still operates as a club called NW10.
Turns out that Monsieur Barlay – actually he’s just finished a memoir about his Hungarian Jewish roots – has previous with the Jubilee Clock. “As a teenager, we used to meet at that clock,” he says, “I’ve always liked it, it reminds me of Little Ben outside Victoria Station.”
There’s a huge Church of England church, All Souls’, on the corner of Station Rd and the High street, I’ve never been in, but my newsagent, Dar, had mentioned that he sometimes goes there, and sometimes to the mosque. Shall we go in? The exterior is pretty grim grills over the windows, Gothic, and generally uninviting – so the interior comes as an unexpected pleasure. Instead of a dark, dank interior, there is a terrifically white, light one. I actually gasp at how much light there is. White painted walls, Victorian stained glass windows and an interesting contemporary lectern. It is more like a lecture hall than an altar and chapel actually. A vicar passes and it turns out to be Fr Michael Moorhead who has brought in all these changes. “We refurbished it three years ago,” he says hurrying past with a what’s-she-up-to smile, at the same time as handing me a leaflet.
The Sunday morning service has just ended and musicians are milling around. Showing my profound ignorance, I ask a friendly-looking bloke who he thinks the finely carved statue with the ornate robes is. “It’s probably God and baby Jesus,” he says and admits he’s guessing! He is Gary who directs the music for the praise worship sessions. With guitars and piano rather than the amazingly grand organ built in 1903 with 2,000 pipes. “They are a more modern tradition,” he says, “than hymns and the organ. Did you know we had an EastEnders’ wedding here? Hattie or Michelle Gayle got married here in the programme.”
Does he like the refurbishment? “It’s great,” he says, “except the covering up of ‘The Word Was Made Flesh And Dwelt Among Us’ at the front by the modern design. That’s a shame because those words are so important to so many people.”
Meanwhile Nick is looking at the poster about a holy pilgrimage to Israel. “I went there in 1989,” he says, “and I was going to write about it, but I was searched and they confiscated the notebook where I’d got my interviews. I’d been visiting some Peace Now people and they didn’t like it. It was a situation where it was absolutely no good saying ‘Look, I’m a Jew.’” Not surprisingly, he hasn’t been back.
We’re standing in the new entrance area – think summer house – when I spot what I take to be a contemporary natural wood cross in the window. The horizontal part is definitely a branch. However the vertical section on closer inspection looks less natural. “It’s from B & Q,” pipes up Nick, “look, you can still see the price tag on the base.”
Ever an atheist, Nick brings out his packet of Marlborough Light as soon as we leave the holy place. He’s making his own connection to his soul. “I think I’ve given up,” I say half-heartedly boasting. “Oh, wasn’t it Mark Twain who said ‘Giving up is easy, I’ve given up so many times,” he smiles wryly. So I am forced to explain that I haven’t so much given up, as found myself being uncharacteristically lethargic when it comes to reaching for a cigarette. I’m slightly disappointed in myself in fact, because I like to keep my ‘bad girl’ going.
I’ve never walked down this part of Station Road before. I normally drive down here. There’s an unkempt brick Telephone Exchange. I mention that my father worked for the GPO (as it was then) for over 40 years, so I’ll probably discover he once worked at this exchange as an engineer. Suddenly, Ranelagh Rd is upon us on the left. Rows of Victorian houses that were built to house railway workers when the mighty Willesden Junction came into being in 1866.
“That battered Citroen looks as though it could have been an Andersen shelter,” quips Mr Barlay. Otherwise no sign of the corrugated wonder with the accompanying vegetable and flower potential. Instead, we’re in Honeywood Rd where Derek Sebbage recalls the VE Day celebrations included a street party. “Tables were set up near the air raid shelters,” he writes. “The Mayor and Mayoress of Willesden dressed up as a honeysuckle and a bee and sang the song ‘You are my honeysuckle and I am the bee…”
Hard to imagine on this grizzly February day, but marvellous nonetheless. We look up and the imposing Willesden Junction Hotel, which announces itself jauntily in big letters high up, with all the self-importance of its former existence. A vestige of grand. Now, of course, it’s turned itself into the very meaty Amber Grill.
Back on Station Road, there’s a Brazilian community with a beef shop, a swimwear shop Planeta Brazil, an emporium fully of colourful biscuits and a café that my friend, writer Monique Roffey raves about regularly.
The trains flit by like silver fish but the view is not as dramatic from this south side of the Junction. It’s the conformist view. No bizarre buildings to catch our eye.
Savoir Beds – bespoke, of course – is housed in a 70s brick building but the drain covers are Victorian. Detective Barlay points this out, but I’d already noticed! We’re straying briefly out of Brent into Ealing to inspect the tiny railway cottages in Old Oak lane. Dillie Keane –she’s still a member of comedy trio, Fascinating Aida specialising in flirty satire, and now celebrating at least 25 years in show business – lived here in the 80s and mentioned in the Evening Standard that she had a wonderful sunset view of the Junction. I want to know it that view still exists.
Crewe Place has a bijoux feel to it. Lots of pots with bamboo, strange little frogs bearing succulents and an original Victorian notice announcing ‘Any person leaving the gate open will be liable to pay 40 shillings’. No view though. There is a potential view down the next little lane but it’s blocked by newer buildings. Oh, I was looking forward to revisiting a sunset.
Never mind, time for a Brazilian coffee. Funnily enough, the waiter downs pot noodles while I savour a chicken and sweetcorn delicacy in an effortless culture swap.