7♠ Wembley Two former boroughs came together to make the London borough of Brent, namely Wembley and Willesden, with Wembley to the west of the river Brent and Willesden to the east. Having only visited Willesden a couple of weeks ago, my deck of cards then dealt up the other half, so back I went. And what I wanted to know this time was, what the hell is going on around Wembley Stadium?[10 photos]
Around Wembley Stadium
The new Wembley Stadium opened 10 years ago, a fortress of steel and glass overtopped by a signature arch. Its arrival has triggered a whirlwind of regeneration, as Brent council and a tranche of developers seek to transform the surrounding area, with much swept away and much more yet to come. If you've not visited for a while, it's quite a shock.
What's growing here is an 85 acre neighbourhood called Wembley Park, a name harking back to the landscaped Georgian gardens and Metroland pleasure grounds that once covered the site. You'll hunt in vain for a recreational expanse of grass today, the 'park' the developers have in mind being more of a mixed-use events destination stacked with boxes for sleeping in.
The view from the tube station hasn't actually changed too much since 10 years ago. The offices at this end of Wembley Way were already in place, along with a low-brow low-slung Curry's, but the hotels just beyond are more recent. Eventgoers now pause for coffee and muffins where previously they'd have grabbed burger and chips, and the tiled Live Aid mural in the subway has been plastered over with adverts for concierged apartments.
Looking the other way, back from the podium, the residential revamp appears much more dramatic. Those mundane blocks on the right are student accommodation, because hutches are where the money is, while the liftshafts rising on the left belong to the exclusive Alto Apartments.
On this very spot just five years ago the last remnant of the British Empire Exhibition lingered on, the Palace of Industry, living out its last days as a distribution hub for Yodel. Betjeman adored it, but who needs memories of the 1920s when the mortgaged of the 2020s need somewhere to live?
Wembley Arena is now the sole listed survivor hereabouts, built for the 1934 Empire Games, its pristine white frontage rippling with silent adverts for Coca Cola, Uber and a Steps concert in November. I should say that officially this is the SSE Arena, while the stadium itself is 'Wembley Connected by EE', these alphabetical brand appendages deemed essential to finance buildings which spend 95% of their time echoingly empty.
A little further round is the London Designer Outlet, opened four years ago to purvey past-it fashions to the populace of northwest London at knockdown prices. This triple-decker mall acts as the thriving hub of the new Wembley when there isn't an event on, drawing crowds who pick over trainers, handbags and Le Creuset, drop in for a movie and, most importantly, hang out at one of the high concept chain brand restaurants that fill the upper floor.
In prime position on site is Brent Civic Centre, the council's payback from the developers, a large glass box containing municipal offices and a replacement library, topped off with a ribbed-drum meeting space. Anyone can pop inside for a sitdown on the atrium terrace, a book or (weekdays only) a cheap cup of tea. Meanwhile the dayglo compound of artificial football pitches out front has vanished, the fun is over, because such prime land was always going to be flats.
The Sunday Market's also long gone, and the surrounding car parks are slowly being eaten away. And yet look down from the eastern rim of the stadium podium and almost nothing has altered, the adjacent trading estates still very much a going concern. Warehouses, workshops and commercial units proliferate, from meatpackers to vanfixers, because Brent's small businesses still need somewhere to make a living... for now.
For the most unexpected view of Wembley Stadium, double back to the opposite side of the railway and find the entrance to Sherrins Farm Open Space. This is a genuine and longstanding recreational amenity, a local park for very local people, even if the slope and roughcut grass make the surface less than ideal for anything better than a kickabout.
In the surrounding avenues Wembley's Metroland survives unscathed. Betjeman would recognise the hedges, bay windows and leaded lights, if not the Asian families who now make up over 80% of the inhabitants. Looking at their sturdy spacious homes with gardens, it's easy to conclude that they're Wembley's true winners, not the cash-rich incomers being packed into highrise boxes on the premier side of the tracks.