diamond geezer

 Sunday, January 27, 2008

Random borough (16): Brent (part 1)

Brent, at the heart of northwest London, is the only local authority in the UK to have a majority of its residents born overseas. Communities and high streets around Wembley and beyond now boast a diverse mix of cultures, religions and cuisines. It wasn't always this way. A century ago Metro-land carved a genteel domestic swathe through the heart of the area, where once were only fields and villages. Suburban semis still rule, but the place is changing fast. Yesterday I attempted to catch up.

Somewhere to begin: Brent Museum
1948 Olympic memorabiliaI doubt that the old Brent Museum had many visitors. It was situated in a converted stable block in the middle of an extremely busy roundabout, just off the North Circular, in the middle of Neasden. Not a location especially conducive to major tourist influx. So the council moved the entire collection, a couple of years ago, and plonked it inside the brand new Willesden Green Library. And what do you know, when I visited on Saturday morning, I was the only person there. Not one other visitor, nor even a single member of staff on duty. Now that's my kind of museum. And I was unexpectedly impressed by the contents. It's not an enormous gallery, but the curators have crammed in all sorts of aspects of Brent-ian life, as it was lived then and as it's lived now. Enough to get you interested, if not deeply satisfied. Read about the world's first speaking clock, and the old Guinness brewery, and Graham Young the schoolboy "Teacup Poisoner". See Neasden FC's Cup Final appearance commemorated on the front cover of Private Eye, and learn about the political homeland of Rhodes Boyson and Ken Livingstone. There's quite a bit about the history of Wembley Stadium, as you might expect, including an actual Olympic torch from 1948. Oh, and in the "special exhibition" room nextdoor, a special exhibition about saris. No really, it was a lot more interesting than it sounds. As I would have told the curator on the way out, had they existed.
by tube: Willesden Green  by bus: 52, 302

Somewhere random: Chamberlayne Road
Chamberlayne RoadFew natural events are more random than a tornado. One minute you're sitting at home in your dead ordinary terraced house, and the next the wind is ripping your roof off and hurling tiles through your bedroom window. That's what happened to the residents of Chamberlayne Road in Kensal Rise on the morning of 7th December 2006. You must remember, it was big news, and surely not only because the tornado touched down within two miles of BBC Television Centre. So how are the residents coping now, just over a year later. Very well, by the looks of it. Most of the damaged houses look completely back to normal, although there are still a well-above-average number of roof repairs being carried out along the western side of one short section of the street. For at least the next few months the path of the tornado is still just about traceable, in scaffolding photos. And take a closer look at the side of the house at the junction with Whitmore Gardens photos. The exterior wall appears to change from new brick to old brick two-thirds of the way down, because this is the house that had its side completely ripped off by the T4 twister. The poor owner returned home after work that fateful Thursday to find a gaping hole in the side of her largest investment. But time, and insurance, heals all. A very ordinary wind whipped down Chamberlayne Road yesterday, and nobody seemed particularly concerned.
by train: Kensal Rise  by bus: 6, 52, 302

Somewhere pretty: Kingsbury
Shortscroft, Roe GreenThe great majority of modern-designed homes are routine identikit boxes with limited character. But in Kingsbury, to the north of the borough, a couple of architects once went out of their way to give local residents somewhere really special to live. The aircraft industry came to this part of rural northwest London during World War 1, and workers had nowhere to live. Sir Francis Baines was commissioned to rectify the situation. He designed a compact "garden village" of 270 flats and houses, just over the road from the de Havilland works on Stag Lane, and Roe Green Village was the result. There are a variety of charming buildings, some timber-faced and others plastered, each divided up into two, three or more dwellings photos. The homes were cutting edge at the time, though perhaps a little small by later standards. Roads on the estate are narrow and homely, clearly not designed for the motor car, and a sense of rural community still remains. The aircraft industry has long since moved away, of course, but these houses remain an aspirational enclave for those who want to live somewhere with real character.

Highfort CourtAnd then there are Ernest Trobridge's houses on Buck Lane. Oh boy. Whatever was he thinking when he created this handful of eccentric residences? Up on the hilltop, around a single crossroads, are a small cluster of striking individual castellated follies. Some merely have round towers and gothic staircases photos, but one is a full-on white-painted castle with battlements photos. John Betjeman came to pay homage to Highfort Court in his Metro-land documentary, you may remember. These bizarre creations all look like they've seen slightly better days, but it must be a joy to live in one of these houses or maisonettes today. Trobridge's other fascination was grand detached cottages, and there are a fair few of these dotted around the area too. He was a firm believer in the importance of social housing, as was Sir Francis down the road, and in modern Kingsbury it's easy to see where their special influence stops and the "ordinary" interwar semis begin.
by tube: Kingsbury  by bus: 204, 302

• Jag's Route 79 blog is based in Kingsbury - he can give you a full history of the area
St Andrew's Church (11th Century) is the oldest building in Brent photos
John Logie Baird received the first international TV transmission at Kingsbury Lodge Coach House in 1929 photos

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