diamond geezer

 Friday, February 22, 2013

BAKERLOO: Between the lines

Before the Jubilee line opened in 1979, the Bakerloo had two northern branches. One went to Watford, and the other went to Stanmore. These two branches ran fairly close together, like a bent tuning fork laid out across northwest London. So I thought I'd go for a walk between them at one of the points where they're closest together, in Wembley. The shortest hike is between North Wembley and Wembley Park, but I tried walking that and it was really boring. So instead I walked from Wembley Central to Wembley Park... and I can write you 1000 words on that.

Wembley Central is another of the Bakerloo's wholly unimpressive stations. It started out as ordinary platforms on the mainline, way back in 1842, with the Bakerloo arriving in 1917. In the 1960s a concrete piazza was constructed over the tracks, with a shopping parade on top and covered platforms beneath. They're a fairly gloomy place to wait, but not as unappealing as the five year-old station entrance up top [photo]. This is destined to be swallowed whole, as the space overground slowly morphs into the "vibrant and bustling" Wembley Central Square. This has a very 2010s look, all angular apartments with coloured panels, plus several mid-range superstores at ground level. It's in complete contrast to the other side of the road, the much older Central Parade, which is more pawnbrokers and pharmacies than TK Maxx and Sports Direct. The street is genuinely bustling on a Saturday, with teens in pink leggings and mums dangling Iceland carrier bags, a proper multi-ethnic retail mix.

I've long associated this corner of London with very slow traffic, and this was again the case last weekend with cars queueing down the High Road. I managed to outwalk a bus with ease, which is never a good sign, although that turned out to be the result of a crane lifting metal girders to the roof of some new flats. The big word in Wembley at the moment is redevelopment, which includes the main council offices here at Brent House. They look long past their use-by-date, so they're being vacated this summer and a big foodstore is pencilled in as the replacement. That'd also be why Barham Library has been closed down. This used to be down Sudbury way until last year, but lives on now only as a shop on the High Road where volunteers lend volumes. 25p buys you a paperback or a comic from a box outside, but it's only 20p for an REM single.

That's enough of mundane Wembley (for those of you who are still reading) because here comes the famous bit. Its arch has been looming over the rooftops since I left the station, but here it comes full on, dominating the area ahead. This is of course Wembley Stadium, the national arena, where some of the most forgettable events of the London Olympics were held. The approach (from central Wembley) is across a relatively new structure, the White Horse Bridge, which spans the railway cutting over the Chiltern line [photo]. Accessed between futuristic lightpoles, its arches echo the main stadium ahead. The scale of the walkways is appropriate for post-match fallout, but come at any other time and you'll likely feel dwarfed. The London Development Agency are very proud of this area, one of the Mayor's Green Spaces, but the dominant features are the bland tower hotels alongside. [photo]

Walk up to the podium around the stadium and you might expect to be here alone. There's nothing to see except the outside wall of a sports fortress, complete with state-of-the-art turnstiles and twisty curve above. But Wembley has a lure all of its own, and many come here on a footballing pilgrimage. I saw a fair number of twenty-something lads, the type you'd expect to see down the pub of an evening, who'd clearly come hoping the stadium might be a good day out. They didn't look disappointed, but they did look entirely aimless. Unless they'd pre-booked they wouldn't be getting inside the stadium or onto the 5-a-side pitches outside, so all there was to do was stand around and take each other's photo [photo]. A few more enterprising souls had brought skateboards and were using the extensive system of ramps to manoeuvre downslope, or the stepped piazza outside Wembley Arena for some tricks and jumps. The infrastructure's unintentionally ideal, especially for beginners who can practice (and fall over) in peace. [photo]

But that peace won't last. A new urban centre is being created here, and you'll likely be coming to look even though you don't know it yet. The land around Wembley Stadium has been levelled over the past few years, and modern buildings have finally started shooting up, everywhere. Closest to the stadium is a Hilton hotel, dark and squat, with an exclusive roof terrace up top and a TGI Fridays underneath. To the right is the council's latest masterwork, the new Brent Civic Centre, an environmentally-friendly replacement for Brent Town Hall [photo]. From the summer residents will be able to come here to marry, to gain citizenship and to interact with council services via a self-service portal. There'll also be a big "21st century" library, assuming those who live near Brent's many closed libraries can be bothered to travel this far. Eventually even the car parks round here are scheduled to become flats, as the Wembley City project takes hold.

The true game-changer is being erected to the west of the stadium. This is the London Designer Outlet, a retail complex the size of Wembley's pitch which expects to be open before Christmas. Expect several dozen stores on three levels, plus restaurants and a cinema, all hoping to attract the more discerning shopper to HA9. The official brochure calls it a "lifestyle destination", and revels in the size of its affluent northwest London catchment area (which it measures solely by car-driving distance). Why go to Bicester Village or Hatfield Galleria for your cut-price designer leftovers when you can snap them up in Wembley, that's the plan. They expect 8 million visitors a year, and if you fancy last season's trousers you could soon be one of them.

Head up Wembley Way, as generations of football fans have done, and the view is changing. Beyond the hot dog stands and burger booths a cluster of newbuild towers has risen, in blue and brown and gold. Some are offices, but others are hotels, because this corner of Wembley is fast becoming a place you stay and eat and spend. One plot of heritage survives [photo], part of the Palace of Industry from the 1924 British Empire Exhibition. It's only concrete, and unlisted, but within its classical walls appeared the finest innovations our nation could muster. Today it's used as a warehouse by a distribution company, and is due for demolition because a shabby palace would be out of keeping with a world-class destination. Make no mistake about it, this area's on the up. And next time you fancy a steakhouse meal, some designer togs and a bed for the night, you might just be heading to Wembley.

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