The Edgware Road is the longest straight road in the capital. As the former Watling Street that's no surprise, but in London it's highly unusual to be able to travel in the same direction for three miles without deviation, let alone nine. I have blogged about the first mile of the Edgware Road before, precisely ten years ago (when I didn't used to write so much). But this time I'm going all the way, following in the footsteps of Sir John Betjeman and his 1968 documentary Contrasts: Marble Arch to Edgware. I'm assuming you've iPlayered it by now. Yesterday we got as far as the Marylebone flyover, which is hardly any distance at all, and today we'll continue to the North Circular.
Ah, what a change. Breadth, leafiness, space.
Maida Vale: Sir John was clearly relieved to reach Maida Vale, as it had architecture far more to his liking. He stopped off to admire "a charming villa, like an English spa", a step change in residential desirability compared to main street Marylebone. But in doing so he missed the dominant housing type around here, the redbrick mansion block, characteristic of the estate laid out here at the end of the 19th century. It makes for an elegant neighbourhood, not least the broad sweeping avenues so wide that there's room for a linear parking space down the centre. Like Elephant & Castle the area is named after a pub - the Hero of Maida, which used to stand near the Regent's Canal. Like Waterloo the area is named after a battle against the French - the Battle of Maida, which took place on the 'toe' of Italy. As for the Vale, that's long built over, but sufficient green spaces survive to hint vaguely at the rural past.
And all the time the traffic goes on and on and on.
Betjeman paused on camera to bemoan the heavy traffic, more specifically the lorries, that plagued the Edgware Road. They still rumble through, though are less dominant today because the majority of long distance traffic takes the Finchley Road instead. These two former turnpikes run roughly parallel through northwest London, the A41 now a more important artery than the A5 despite its lowlier number. While the Metropolitan follows the former, it's theBakerloo that tracks the Edgware Road, though generally at a distance. I would say more, but most of the stations on this section of the Bakerloo celebrate their centenary this year, a couple in ten days time, so best keep stumm til then.
Kilburn High Road: Kilburn dates to Anglo Saxon times, long a stopping point on the great march north, and grew up near the start of a stream now known as the Westbourne. Indeed if you look up above one of the empty shops on the southern stretch, near the Overground, a plaque declares "This was the site of the Kilburn Wells". The High Road is now the site of considerable retail activity, and for quite some distance. On the western side, in Brent, are the rather lacklustre market and the vibrant TricycleTheatre, now with a single screen cinema tucked round the back. Meanwhile on the eastern side, in Camden, are the larger chain stores and an ex-2000-seatercinema, once one of the largest in Britain, now the hangout for an evangelical church.
And then there are the pubs. Kilburn's always had several, and they like to compete in the game of "who's oldest" with dates emblazoned on their frontages like a game of heritage Top Trumps. The Black Lion announces Rebuilt 1898, while The Old Bell lays claim to Foundation 1600. That's nothing, says the Cock Tavern, which can boast Licensed 1486, and Rebuilt 1900. And the Red Lion laughs at them all, with Established 1444 and Rebuilt 1800, or would laugh if only it hadn't been reborn recently as a one-star cocktail bar called Love & Liquor. But then pubs are an essential staple in an Irish part of town, which is Kilburn through and through, creatingly an oddly appealing fusion of emerald and spice down the mainstreet.
Ho for the Kilburn High Road! Ho for a sumptuous feast.
It's your road and it's my road, and Ireland meets the East.
Let's mount the Sixteen bus with care, it's empty, wide and free.
It will take us out of everywhere to the days that used to be.
Forget the littered pavements, the chain stores row on row
And the super-super cinema where our parents used to go.
With Shoot-Up Hill before us we leave the hemmed-in town
And raise a country chorus to Cricklewood and the Crown.
There stood a village marketplace where now you buy your yams,
And I like in memory to trace the red electric trams.
However far their journeys made they always waited here
And in this terracotta shade their passengers drank beer.
Cricklewood: Beyond Kilburn the road to Edgware rises up the delightfully named Shoot-Up Hill before descending as Cricklewood Broadway. What a difference a mile makes. Cricklewood lacks the oomph of its trendier neighbour, and you'd be harder pushed to window shop down the highstreet. Betjeman thus focused on one of its most important buildings, namely The Crown pub. Built on the site of an 18th century tea gardens, and a smaller subsequent hostelry, The Crown's enormous size is down to two contrasting quirks. Firstly in the 1880s it was selected by the London General Omnibus Company as the terminus of its horse-drawn double-deckers operating from Marble Arch. Secondly it was at the time the only permitted licenced premises in Cricklewood, so obviously the bigger the better. Many of the drinkers were Irish, the forecourt outside being a key daily recruiting point for casual labour, and Dexy's Midnight Runners shot most of the video for The Celtic Soul Brothers within and without. The Crown's reputation wasn't great, but the building itself is gorgeous, and the pub still boasts a lengthy bar capable of coping with weekend crowds. A jarring note is struck by the hotel of the same name more recently attached to the side, all curves and sheets of glass, opened to appeal to a globetrotting Wembley-bound audience. But I suspect that if John Betjeman were filming his documentary again today, this sandstone edifice would still catch his eye.