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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!

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