HAMMERSMITH & CITY: Walk the line I'm following the western end of the Hammersmith & City line. I'm travelling on foot, rather than by train. I'm walking four miles alongside the railway viaduct, near enough. And I'm about halfway through.[map]
North Kensington's a peculiar place. Some of it, like Notting Hill, is upmarket like nowhere else in London. Other parts are rather less so, for which we can partly blame transport links. First the Hammersmith & City viaduct divided the land in two, then a century later two motorway-standarddual carriageways scythed through the streets. To see the nicer houses, stay well away from the railway. However, that's precisely where this walk is heading. The Hammersmith & City line rattles across the main road between a forest of warehouses and commercial blocks. The inhabitants advertise themselves in big branded letters on the top floor - Monsoon, Accessorize, Talk Talk. Even Heart FM are based here, firing up the playlist computer from a gated development erupting from a former brewery. A least someone on Bramley Street has a sense of humour - a mixed-use block near the railway is called Pippin House. [Here be Latimer Road]
Latimer Road no longer runs as far as the station of the same name. Instead it's been amputated by the A40, with the area around the station now stacked full of flats and low-rise modernity. As kids ride their bikes up onto the pavement past Costcutter, it's hard to imagine that David Cameron's house (pre number 10) is only a few hundred yards ahead. We'll not go there. It used to be possible to take a shortcut along Station Walk by following an alleyway immediately alongside the viaduct, but that's been temporarily blocked while a new academy is built. So great has the pace of change been around here that a Methodist church spire marks the only readily visible sign of pre-war construction.
It's around here that the Hammersmith & City line nudges up against the Westway, although chronologically speaking it was the other way around. Why destroy new areas with a road on stilts, argued the planners, when you could simply eradicate the row of houses closest to the railway line. Local people have made the best of this concrete intruder by installing a range of businesses and services underneath. North Kensington's ambulance station is located here, as is the Westway Sports Centre and the occasional plumbers' merchant. At St Mark's Road the space is filled by a forlorn looking lightpole sculpture, apparently temporary, but the weatherbeaten state of the floor covering suggests otherwise. [Here be Ladbroke Grove]
Sainsburys have filled the void beneath the roadway at Ladbroke Grove, with trains running across a brightly coloured bridge alongside. Metronet helped to provide this vinyl disguise, as well as two vibrant Bridget Rileyesque panels at street level on either side of the span. The space ahead is used for overspill to Portobello Market, and has such edgy graffiti that one couple on Sunday had brought along their lemon yellow 1970s car for a photoshoot. The under-road spaces here are occupied more commercially, including a dark uninviting arcade of boutiques, plus a cavernous live music and arts space called Flyover. Only a handful of stalls spread out their wares on the second day of the weekend, but there's just enough crafty-stuff and collector-bits to make a Sunday visit not quite utterly wasted.
To escape the hubbub, and for the longer walk to a station, head east up Tavistock Road. Outdoor cafe culture soon subsides, past one last tweely-painted row of terraces. At a triangular open space the road divides, providing a rare public oasis for slouching and rocking on swings. Tavistock Crescent has clearly been rebuilt as a residential sound barrier, its brick façade blocking out the noise of the Westway for the benefit of those living in the proper houses to the south. Only one gap exists, to allow St Luke's Road to continue across the railway, but not for cars, which is why the roads are so quiet. [Here be Westboune Park]
Alongside Westbourne Park station is a pub called The Metropolitan, which sounds wrong, but up until 1990 that was indeed the underground line which served here. The bridge marks the point where the H&C meets the Great Western Railway, with the station's ticket hall straddling the mainline. From here onwards Brunel's chasm divides the landscape in a not especially attractive way, which is why Westminster council built the Brunel Estate alongside and rehoused people there. And then suddenly comes a dash of wealth. I was taken aback by the crowds drinking outside The Westbourne, and the achingly hip kids popping into the Idler Academy for books and espresso. I shouldn't have been - the avenues to the south are home to the well-to-do of Bayswater, and I'd merely approached from the wrong direction.
A long stout brick wall shields the northern side of Westbourne Park Villas. There are only two ways across the railway, one a lonely-looking metal footway, the other a characterful pink/green-painted iron span for vehicular traffic. LordHill'sBridge looks much the worse for wear, with plastic barriers down the middle of the road to prevent overloading, and segregated pedestrian walkways. The ironwork blocks sight of the entrance to Royal Oak - surely the underground station whose name least matches up to the reality of its situation. Crossrail are busy digging the Royal Oak Portal beneath, their mammoth works clearly visible from the island platform. A modern railway will soon descend beside the old, but only the H&C can whisk you from here to Paddington. [Here be Royal Oak]