The latest big exhibition at Tate Britain is O' Magic Power of Bleakness by Mark Leckey. He's a Turner Prize-winning video artist from Birkenhead, and the exhibition focuses around a life-size replica of a motorway bridge on the M53. You sit or stand underneath it while three video works are screened around you, sequentially, over the course of an hour. The first is Under Under In, a new immersive experience inspired by folktales about changelings and memories of pre-adolescence. The second and third are his earlier works Dream English Kid 1964–1999 AD 2015 and Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore, seminal paeans to dance and casual culture. You can tell at the ticket desk who's buying tickets for William Blake and who's buying tickets for the edgy Wirral bloke.
I considered going in but the tickets were advertised at £15 (including £2 'optional donation'), and also two of the three works are availableonline in their entirety, so decided against. Instead I headed off to experience the ambience of three of London's genuine motorway bridges for myself, and to pen you a digital portrait of each.
In the 1960s the GLC had brutal plans for a series of concentric ringways around London, which were halted when public opinion rose up against mass demolition. But some sections got built, including a pair which met at a giant elevated roundabout in North Kensington. The A40(M) Westway, now merely the A40, launches off towards Marylebone while the M41 West Cross Route, since downgraded to the A3220, stalks down to Shepherds Bush. The West Cross Route was supposed to continue north to a massive junction in Willesden but that never happened, which is why two concrete spurs still jut out towards the terraced houses they were meant to destroy. If anywhere in London epitomises urban motorway blight, it's here.
And yet down at ground level a sense of community thrives. The Westway Trust own 23 acres of land under and alongside these dual carriageways, a good third of which is devoted to sport and fitness, including a huge rectangular sports complex jammed within the ring of the roundabout. Local youth flood inside for light gymming and changing facilities, or bike aimlessly round the covered outer circuit. If you think of Kensington and Chelsea as well-to-do, a spin around the immediate vicinity will soon change your mind.
I spotted two teams clearing up after their match on the all-weather football pitch above the car park. Several older players were massing on Pitch 4 whose goalposts lie either side of the elevated carriageways. If Kensington's hoodied teens have booked ahead they can occupy the basketball court, else they can shoot practice hoops for free. The riding centre closed down four years ago and is now half-overgrown. A climbing wall awaited scrambling hands. What the hell is a swimfarm anyway? A rib of concrete shielded the multi-coloured playground hump. The Westway Wildlife Garden is a dog-free zone (because poo is full of nitrogen). Tiny apples have fallen from the tree by the stile (yes, stile).
Next up it's my local multi-level 1960s interchange, about which much has already been written. Technically the motorway terminated at the Old Ford junction a short distance to the north, because motorways never have pavements, but let's pretend. The flyover spans the Lea between the church and the high street, and is used by vehicles and brave cyclists only. Those on foot dice with death to dash across the sliproads, despite the pedestrian crossings TfL added a few years back, because few can be arsed to take the longer route via the centre of the roundabout. There's probably nothing coming, at least nothing especially fast, oh hang on, run!
A set of locked doors block entry into the cavity beneath the Bow up-ramp. Five of the pillars are numbered, bigly, in a misguided attempt to provide navigational assistance to people who haven't noticed. Beneath the concrete roof is a space large enough to provide overflow parking for Friday prayers. You won't normally find a narrowboat here, but when one was abandoned last week on the back of a lorry a traffic warden made sure to give it a parking ticket.
The planters in the centre of the roundabout are filled with spiky leaves, irrigated by pipes pushing through a crust of bark chunks. The three-letter metal sculpture up one end was originally nicknamed The Bow Wow, for which I hope someone is truly sorry. A white bike is still chained to the railings close to the spot where one of the roundabout's three cycling victims was killed. Behind it the advertising tower has recently been covered in silver sheeting and upgraded from static to video. Engineers switched the screen on last week, and this week is the first to be blazing ads for Ford, Coke and Hiscox into drivers' line of sight. Removing the flyover has disappeared off TfL's list of visionary priorities, so dream on.
The North Circular meets Eastern Avenue at the Redbridge Roundabout. Originally the 'South Woodford to Barking Relief Road' it was intended to connect the M11 to Beckton and the Thames, and had the notional designation M15. But beyond the roundabout it wasn't built to motorway standard, more massive dual carriageway, so remains the A406. Orbital traffic crosses the junction on a parallel pair of high concrete stilts. And in the centre of the roundabout is a vast Ballardian corral five acres in size, accessed only via three subways or a raised barrier for service vehicles only.
Anyone could set up a tent here, or have a picnic, or play an entire croquet tournament, if only they didn't mind the fumes. Nothing grows in the strip beneath the flyover, but to either side are two copses planted with an impressive variety of trees. Lime, plane, maple, horse chestnut and pine aren't even the half of it. But hardly any people step off the entrenched walkway which orbits the southern perimeter, if indeed they walk through at all, the subways generally a lifeline only for inhabitants of a single isolated street. I did spot one resident offering up the central space to two large dogs for a runaround, which if nothing else has put me off the picnic idea.
Thanks, that'll be £15 (including £2 'optional donation').
Or go off and explore some motorway flyovers of your own.