diamond geezer

 Sunday, November 18, 2007

Random borough (15): Hounslow (part 1)

directly overheadGo West. Hounslow is a ridiculously long borough, ten miles from tip to tip, almost perfectly aligned with the Heathrow flightpath. I said ALMOST PERFECTLY ALIGNED WITH THE HEATHROW FLIGHTPATH. It's not an especially coherent borough, with only the A4 and M4 to link its disjoint suburbs. But look carefully, especially in the Thames-side slice to the east, and there are some absolute gems hidden away. I'm almost tempted to drop "Hounslow" back into my random jamjar - there's easily enough here to merit a return visit. But preferably next time on a warm sunny summer's day...

Somewhere famous: Kempton Great Engines
Kempton Steam Engine HouseFor a certain breed of gentleman, nothing beats a steamy day out. It might be a ride on a locomotive, it might be a chug on a traction engine, but sheer heaven only comes when they're tweaking a bloody enormous steam engine. And steam engines don't come much bigger than the Triple Engines at Kempton Park Waterworks. These monsters reside inside a huge Portland stone Engine House, erected by the Metropolitan Water Board in 1928, adjacent to two thin brick chimneys which are visible for miles across the floodplain. There are reservoirs aplenty along this stretch of the Thames, and these engines were needed to pump water up from the river and across town to the North London suburbs (via Cricklewood). And that's a very long way, which is why this is such an enormous engineering marvel. The steam engines went out of service in 1980 (blame that new-fangled electricity), but were restored a few years ago by that certain breed of gentleman. We thank them.

Seven weekends a year the Kempton Engines are steamed up in for the delight of their adoring public. This weekend was one of the seven (including today, if you're interested), so I kicked off my journey by heading down to the most inaccessible corner of Hounslow for a look. Blimey, if I'd known how far I'd have to walk from the nearest outpost of civilisation I might not have bothered. Along a back lane, through a Thames Water security gate and down a long curving access road with bramble-covered pavement. I think the journey works better if you drive. Outside the front entrance were a group of spluttering pipes and spinning wheels, lovingly tended by the Sussex and Kent Weald Stationary Engine Group. Beautifully preserved, guys, but there was some considerably more impressive vintage machinery inside.

Kempton Steam Engine number 6Blimey. They. Are. Huge. I'd entered an enormous tiled cavern, the size of a squished cathedral, surrounded by a perimeter walkway looking down over a subterranean turbine floor. But the most impressive sight was off to the left and to the right - a pair of green triple-decker steam engines [photo] [photo]. And not just three storeys high but also three cylinders wide, like a towering wall of pre-electric power. Men in white boiler suits were scuttling around on all levels, tending to the valves and dials and gauges, like something out of a 1920s James Bond movie. I arrived as they were firing up the engines - tweaking two smaller rear wheels to make the starter motor run - and then the room was full of swirling churning steaminess. Giant flywheels turned. Grown men beamed. Over in the corner their wives were busy selling filled rolls, jam sponge and steaming tea, and they beamed too. Every so often small groups of lucky punters got the opportunity to take an hour-long tour of the second engine ("The Lady Bessie Prescott"). Up the metal staircases they went, to view the entire spectacle from one, two, three levels up. Alas I couldn't afford the time to do the same, although the bloke on the front desk was extremely anxious that I was leaving too soon and begged me to come back next year. Maybe I will.

Oh, and I forgot to explain why this Hounslow powerhouse is famous, and why you've probably seen it before. It's because triple-expansion steam engines such as these used to be used aboard the largest ocean-going steamships. Remember that engine room scene in Titanic? That was filmed here (according to the council's website). And, at 62 feet tall, Kempton's still the biggest operational triple engine in existence. It's the king of the world.
by train: Kempton Park  by bus: 290, H25

Somewhere retail: Hounslow Road Parade, Hanworth
I was planning to write about the shopping nirvana that is Hounslow Broadway, but I didn't have time to get off the bus and explore. I could have written about the bijou boutiques of Turnham Green Terrace, but it was cold and drizzly and I didn't feel like hanging around. So instead, here's an in-depth look at the retail location where I spent longest yesterday afternoon. On the A316, near lots of houses, by a bus stop. Forgive me if the following is of no interest whatsoever.

Hounslow Road Parade, HanworthMH Recruitment: They find labour for airline catering and cleaning. But not at weekends - shutters down.
Domestic Appliances: Local purveyors of quality white goods. On Saturday the owners were busy unloading several gleaming washing machines from the back of a lorry - none of them fell off, honest.
Elizabeth Fashions: One of those delightful old-fashioned "clothes and wool" shops you only find in suburban parades. Still displays an 081 phone number above its red and white striped awning. Balls of wool are down from £1.25 to 99p in the latest sale, a pair of blue nylon shorts is £1.99 and a pair of padded slippers bearing a football motif will set you back only £5.99.
Beijing Chef: Hanworth's favourite Chinese takeaway (serves "Traditional Fish & Chips").
APW Property Services: The lady who lives above this shop gave me the strangest looks as I took a few photographs of the parade. She probably thought I was a criminal, or a spy come to gather intelligence for some evil parade-bombing terrorist empire.
Londis: They've got one of those Link cashpoint machines that charges the financially inept a small fortune for withdrawals (and they sell Haribo).
The Hotspot: "A famous name in Indian Quality Catering" - unlikely for a Zone 6 takeaway, I suspect.
Bunters Cafe: From what I saw, a feeding station for stocky blokes in trackies (they do pie and mash and eels on Fridays).
Q Barbers: There wasn't.

by bus: 111, H25

[part 2 tomorrow - in the meantime here's a pretty photo of autumn leaves in Gunnersbury Park]

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