"When melancholy Autumn comes to Wembley And electric trains are lighted after tea, The poplars near the stadium are trembly With their tap and tap and whispering to me." John Betjeman (Harrow-on-the-Hill)
No other location on Betjeman's Metro-land journey has changed so utterly since 1972 as "trembly" Wembley. Sir John came to see the now-demolished Twin Towers stadium, and even to stand in the centre of the pitch. But he wasn't here for the football, he was here to remember the tower erected on the site several years before... and most especially the unique buildings that used to stand just across the road.
Wembley owes its world-wide fame to Sir Edward Watkin, Managing Director of the Metropolitan Railway, but not for the reason he hoped. Watkin's 1890 plan was to build a rival to the Eiffel Tower, here in the undeveloped Middlesex fields. He mounted an international competition and soon began to build the winning design, one level at a time, close to a new halt on his railway named 'Wembley Park' [photos]. But the crowds never came, the money ran out and the unstable tower was demolished after only its first storey had been completed. It was probably for the best - the view over Brent and Harrow is nothing special compared to looking down across Paris and the Bois de Boulogne.
In place of Watkin's Folly, indeed on the exact same spot, was built the Empire Stadium. Centrepiece of the British Empire Exhibition, this steel and concrete coliseum was knocked up on schedule in 300 days flat. Bolton won the first match in 1923, fending off pitch invasions long enough to beat West Ham in the legendary "White Horse" FA Cup Final. The stadium saw 72 FA Cup Finals in all, as well as one fairly memorable World Cup Final and 262 international matches. But Twenties design wasn't up to the demands of 21st century sport, and the Twin Towers were razed to the ground in 2003. It's taken rather longer than 300 days to finish erecting the replacement, although from the outside everything looks complete already. The Wembley Arch is visible for miles around, looming over the stadium like the handle on a very large metal shopping basket. It's four times higher than the original towers and really most impressive [photos], but I suspect that a slightly simpler design might not have delayed the incompetent construction company for quite so long.
"The British Empire Exhibition exhibition will be the chief event of 1924. It is costing over £10 million to produce, and an entirely new concrete city has been erected to house it... The grounds at Wembley will reproduce in miniature the entire resources of the British Empire. There you will be able to inspect the Empire from end to end... Every aspect of life, civilised and uncivilised, will be shown in an exhibition which is the last word in comfort and convenience." Feature in "Metro-land" brochure (1924)
As an impressionable 17 year old, Betjeman was enthralled by the BritishEmpireExhibition. He came especially to see the ecclesiastical basilica inside the Palace of the Arts, drifting disinterestedly past the more down-to-earth exhibits in the Palaces of Industry and Engineering (textile production and shipbuilding weren't really his style). The exhibition was the British Empire's last gasp - at the very peak of its extent but already ominously declining in power. 56 national pavilions were constructed to showcase local agriculture, crafts and exports, with Canada's one of the largest and Bermuda's one of the smallest. And there was an Amusement Park, also on a grand scale, featuring switchback coasters, a scenic railway, a giant Dancing Hall and even a walk-through reconstruction of a coal mine. The whole exhibition must have been breathtaking to the average Briton, previously unexposed to such global visions, and 27 million visitors eagerly flocked through the gates.
After the exhibition closed in 1925 many of the pavilions fell into disrepair, and most have now been demolished. The British Government Pavilion was razed the year after Betjeman visited, with two of the lions guarding its entrance given sanctuary at Woburn Safari Park. In place of these temples to Empire have sprung up warehouses, light industry and cavernous megastores. Londoners flock here now to experience Allied Carpets, JD Sports and Lidl. Last year only the Palaces of Industry and the Arts remained. The corner of the former still stands humbly alongside Wembley Way, its pillared facade now faded and grimy, enduring new life as a White Arrow courier depot [photo]. But broad acres of the remainder have oh-so-recently been delisted, destroyed, erased, to leave a broad open scar where once was magnificence [photo].
"Oh bygone Wembley, where's the pleasure now? The temples stare, the empire passes by." John Betjeman on Wembley ("Metro-land", BBC, 1973)
The rebuilding of Wembley stretches far beyond the stadium. The Arena is blazing the way forward, its scrubbed-up interior now augmented by an imposing interactive fountain feature in the new plaza outside [photos]. I'm far less enamoured by imminent plans to construct "boutiques, offices, crèche, apartments, hotels, greenspaces..." all around, blocking off views of the stadium and blocking out all memory of the past. Developers Quintain describe the NewWembley as a "modern, urban and exciting place" with "high quality, state of the art, leisure, business and retail facilities"[photo]. Sounds grim, doesn't it? But Wembley's fields have seen enormous changes since the Metropolitan Railway first passed by, as each generation seeks to lure in the crowds where once there were none. Let's hope that the new stadium, whenever it's ready, becomes a beacon for positive regeneration and not a new Palace of Greed.