About Me

"Use every man after his desert, and who should 'scape whipping?"

Wednesday, 25 January 2017

Something strange is happening on the Wandsworth Road

Trying but failing to hide itself behind the quirky 1900s facade, the boxy bulk of a new Premier Inn looms over the southern end of fast-changing Wandsworth Road.

Do you remember that scene in the original Alien when the vile creature burst out of John Hurt's chest? Pretty damned unpleasant. Now something very similar has happened at the Battersea end of the Wandsworth Road, where a strange old 1909 building seems to have been harbouring the sperm of a terrible 21st century parasite - and now it has erupted all over the skyline!

A couple of years ago I wrote about the beginning of the demolition of the old Rileys Snooker Hall, which was one of the strangest and most abused buildings down this (Queenstown Road) end of my local arterial route. A little research revealed that this was a historically significant building, completed in 1909  - one of 17 Temperance Billiard Halls built in South London  in the 1900-1910 period, all designed by the architect Norman Evans.

The idea, which began in the teetotal heartlands of England's non-conformist north-west, was to create big, attractive social centres that could lure working men away from the pubs and bars and gin palaces. Inside they got most of the entertainments of a pub, but without the alcohol. Ironic, looking at the building's subsequent history, but still.

Eventually they destroyed the entire, massive complex of old billiard halls, meeting rooms, a lounge bar and a later attachment of a pub/nightclub (anyone remember Inigo's? Often had some of the biggest bouncers I've ever seen, hanging around outside).

Over the course of the year, they destroyed the whole place - except for Norman Evans' distinctive ornate, mock-oriental facade, which was (as is the current way) kept up on a matrix of props and jacks and scaffolds. Then the building work began in earnest; the whole place was shrouded in green plastic netting, there was even more congestion at the always bad Queenstown Road junction, and a crane was erected.

It was widely rumoured that the budget hotel chain Premier Inn was building its latest branch right here on Wandsworth Road, but it seemed hard to believe. Why here? What's there to tempt tourists or even businessmen to this strange, forgotten bit of South west London that doesn't even know if it's Clapham, or Battersea, Nine Elms or what. It more or less straddles the border of the boroughs of Lambeth and Wandsworth, and is a good 15 minute walk to the nearest underground station (Clapham Common, or 10 minutes to an overground rail station (Wandsworth Road).

So we sort of forgot about it. Then one day  back in December, you look up and see this great bulky six-storey building looming over the old Temperance hall frontage, now tarted up of course. There are big hoardings up at street level still, but they are painted in those distinctive Premier Inn colours.

And, after Christmas, the final wrappers come off, and out pops - not a nasty, sharp-fanged space monster, but  a brand new Premier Inn. As you can see in the pic above, the clash of styles between the flamboyant, almost Disneyland look of the old Temperance Hall and the boxy industrial estate chic of the human storage facility behind it could not be greater.

And, on the Premier Inn website, you'll find an entry for their new hotel "opening soon" in Clapham: a "leafy green oasis in the heart of lively South London".

You can find out exactly how this bulky addition to poor old Wandsworth Road got planning permission here on the London Borough of Lambeth planning site. It's a long and interesting document; some of the objections to this plan are swiftly dismissed. Now we see the reality, we must wonder if our planners had a very clear view of what was being proposed.

Then again, compared with the glass, steel, concrete, gold, marble and bronze nightmare that is being acted out down the road at Nine Elms, you have to admit this is very small beer. It could have been so much worse.

You still have to wonder who will stay there.  I can't imagine the Clapham High Street weekend ravers will find it much use - a long stagger across the common in that state? Besides, they now have a night tube to get them back home.

Meanwhile, now that it has gone, more or less, it's great to read a good architectural history, and Historic England's account of the Temperance Hall movement is an excellent record.

It includes some great observations, eg: "The buildings often used the same decorative materials that pubs used, such as tiled facades and stained glass windows, to create the congenial atmosphere of a public house without the pitfalls of available alcohol. 

"The Temperance Billiard Company Ltd targeted the suburbs of south London, where many new pubs had been built in the late C19, as well as in the north-west of England where the firm originated. Thus, temperance billiard halls by the company are a distinctively south London and north-west England building type, although there are other temperance buildings elsewhere."

There are in fact several other Temperance Halls in this area - one on Battersea Rise, a smaller version of the same building, is now a pub (the Goat). And at Clapham High Street, there's a different, later design, but with the same distinctive tiles and turrets, now the offices of an architect.

Perhaps the best example is in Lewisham, and this building is covered in great detail here.

Meanwhile, poor old Wandsworth Road continues to carry its bus, car  and lorry loads into and out of the city centre, while the residents of the three big and many smaller council estates along its route continue to attempt to make ends meet in the shops, pubs, cafes, bookies, parks, gyms, colleges and charity shops of that long central swathe of the road that is still pretty much unchanged.

This road has long had a truly shabby charm all of its own. Over the past three decades, as surrounding areas gentirifed, it remained a bastion of the old, scruffy south London, with car breakers' yards, junk shops, scary boozers,

Now, at the Northern end it has been totally transformed by the Nine Elms development. Sainsburys, Tesco and now Premier Inn at the other end signal the beginnings of an inevitable change, which will surely accelerate as money from the Nine Elms development washes up this way.

Yes, look out, it's coming. They are nibbling away at both ends: watch out!

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Bottom gear, Ep.2: How come these bloated SUVs don't get parking tickets?

Face to face: a 20th century car meets an enormous and very shiny van, also known as an SUV, in a street in Brixton. Note
how about a foot of the Audi oozes over the white lines of the parking bay. How come this is allowed?
Years ago I was mortified to find a yellow envelope stuck on the windscreen of my decrepit Renault, which I had left, a week earlier, in a residents' parking bay near my flat, one I paid £140 a year to use.

It turned out that the back wheels were more outside the white line than in it, an inexcusable bit of  sloppy parking. I paid up, and tried to forget it. But these days it seems cars can park with much more of their body mass outside the lines, with impunity.

If you drive or cycle, walk, run or even skate around London's inner suburban streets you'll have noticed that the bit between the parked cars on each side is getting narrower and narrower, as the cars themselves get wider.

It becomes a dreadful farce trying to drive or cycle down these streets. Lots of flashing of headlamps, a quick dash to the next space, letting or not letting the other driver through, wondering if that white van is really going to keep coming on at that speed. And whether there's a space enough for your narrow handlebars between the wing-mirrors of the SUVs and the sharp front end of the fast-approaching Porsche 911.

What I am really moaning about today, in this second episode of a long-term, lonely, hypocritical and very personal war against cars (see Episode 1 about hooters here), is the width of some of the things that are now sold as private conveyances, rather than HGVs.

If you are stupid enough (as I am) to live in a wealthy zone 2 suburb you will know that the majority of vehicles parked outside those humble £2.5million workers' cottages are whacking great wagons. They're called SUVs, and they are made by many different firms, but under their flashy skins they are all much the same, and most of them are obese.  The angry, aggressive styling which their buyers seem to crave often makes them look even bigger than they are: some resemble children's inflatable toys that have been pumped up to the point where they are in danger of bursting.

These vehicles are indeed big -  most of them are over 2 metres wide - that is, nearly 25 per cent wider than a 1970s Renault 5.  That's 20cm wider than the national minimum width for parking bays. Why, you might ask, didn't the manufacturers check this out before selling these monsters in the UK? Surely it's easier and cheaper to slightly re-design a vehicle than to widen all of the nation's streets. You get the feeling such vehicles are designed for the US market where there are wider roads, wider bottoms and fewer pedestrians. Or for the Gulf States, where there are lots of sand dunes. Or of course for Clarksonshire or whatever they call the Cotswolds these days, where most of these elephantine carriages will be parked on a private crunchy gravel drive.

No-one would mind much if they were genuine utility vehicles, like ambulances or delivery vans. No, they are "sports" utility vehicles. It's the sporty bit that rankles, along with their flashy styling and often thuggish aspect. Plus the sad fact that their owners usually have nothing more than a few bags of Waitrose shopping in there. And they seem to think it's OK to just stop outside their houses, and not to attempt parking manoeuvres of any sort.

Disagree? Just look at some of these monsters:

One of the worst offenders. This BMW XL5 (named after one of the Thunderbirds) is about two feet over the line. It
was there in a Clapham street for days and didn't get a ticket!

Another BMW in another Clapham street. This is parked as well as it possibly can be and yet it is still over the white
line. Why doesn't the council charge extra for parking these behemoths?

Sometimes it's not just the width of the SUV, but the fact their sheer size makes them difficult to park accurately up against
the kerb. Or maybe the drivers are just as arrogant as their cars look.

Yes, the original SUV - Range Rover was the first, and is still the worst of this baleful species of suburban battle-wagons.

Fast and bulbous? Typical that Porsche should get onto this fat band-wagon, as though their sports cars were not annoying enough.
What is it about these vehicles, why are they so popular, and why do the authorities let them get away with it?

The huge popularity must come down to a few basic human weaknesses:

A) As humans get richer they eat more and get fatter, and so have wider bottoms. So they need wider seats to accommodate these bottoms.

B) As humans get richer, they also feel more threatened, so they need things that look like military weapons to protect themselves and their families. Hence the popularity of these tank-like vehicles.

C) As more humans get richer, fatter and more aggressive they need to express these qualities in ways that differentiate them from their rich, fat, angry, aggressive neighbours. So they compete to get the biggest, widest, loudest, angriest, most fuck-you car.

That's all obvious - but why doesn't our lovely council do something to rein in these very basic human failings?

The police stop people doing lots of things in public. Sadly there's not as yet a law to prevent these very rich people, albeit living in the what used to be the modest homes of 19th century clerical and working classes, from splurging their wealth in the faces and eyes and ears of the few remaining members of that older layer of resident.

Even when they're young and single and without wide-bottomed offspring in super-wide pavement-clogging buggies, these rich ones often acquire big fat sports cars which are just as wide and difficult to park in south London parking bays as SUVs.

God, we have no hope.

Parking bays are supposed to be at least 180cm wide from kerb to white line. But to my horror I hear that some councils are thinking of widening bays  just because the car industry has decided it can make more money by selling over-wide vehicles.

Just read this crazy article in AutoExpress. Oh so it's safety features that account for this shoulder-padded look is it? Safety for whom? Not for me as I try to squeeze my bike past your paddy-wagon with another one approaching fast with its quartz-halogen mainbeams and LED fairy-lights blazing and its super-loud horn inverting eardrums of all in the block.

And yet National CAr Parks says it is willingly widening bays to help the drivers of these vehicles. At least half the people interviewed in this BBC news item seem to think that's a good thing - all the while people are complaining that our roads are too crowded.

A final straw? Yes. Now I understand those kids who go up and down the zone 2 streets with a sharp key in their hand.