Tag Archives: north kensington

Shirley Bassey ain’t singing about this one.

Yesterday I found myself in West London, White City to be precise, in the shadow of the Westway. It is, if I’m quite honest, not the most beautiful area of the city – the Westway itself has become synonymous with psychogeographical hostility, due to the way it cuts across West London like an infected wound.

That’s not what I’m here to talk about, though, although it’s not entirely unrelated, thematically speaking. From here, and indeed from many, many vantage points on this side of the city, there’s a landmark even more visible and only slightly prettier.

The rather rubbish photo to the right depicts it- the Trellick Tower. The Tower is notoriously brutal in its design and, indeed, is one of the most famous examples of Brutalist architecture in the city.

Brutalism is perhaps the ultimate expression of architectural arrogance. It is a spin-off from Modernism, which, for all its high-falutin’ idealism concerning the revolutionising of living space, has rarely worked in the real world. The architect Erno Goldfinger, who designed the Trellick Tower, summed up the aims of Modernism thus:

Whenever space is enclosed, a spatial sensation will automatically result for persons who happen to be within it.

At this point, I think I speak for us all when I say “No shit, Sherlock.” Goldfinger then adds,

It is the artist who comprehends the social requirements of his time and is able to integrate the technical potentialities in order to shape the spaces of the future.

Thus, Goldfinger (and the other Modernists) saw their duty as something more than simply to produce places for people to live and work. Their goal was nothing less than the reshaping of society through their harnessing of space. However, at this point, I would like to retort with the Da’s opinion on architecture, which he quotes from a builder he once did some work for.

For centuries, houses have been built with four walls and a pointy roof, and there’s a good reason for that.

You see, the problem with Modernist architecture is that while it was very high-minded in its conception, it was often ill-thought-out and badly-executed. I don’t think I’ll be contradicted when I say that the result, in the 1950s-70s, was the most hated architectural movement in Britain’s history. Cutting corners during construction resulted in unsafe buildings that aged poorly. In one notorious case – pictured left – the side of Ronan Point tower block in Newham collapsed following a gas explosion. Even when the buildings stayed up, they were ugly and depressing. Concrete grew damp and grimy, corridors admitted little light and sharp corners gathered dust and litter. The psychogeographical effects are summed up by Lynsey Hanley in her excellent Estates: An Intimate History:

You can’t drift easily this way around many council estates… They are too channelled, too labyrinthine to make wandering an enjoyable experience.

Indeed. If Goldfinger and co. intended to shape people, it’s not entirely clear what they intended to shape them into. Modernist housing became synonymous with crime, poverty and hopelessness.

The Trellick Tower opened for business in 1972, and within a few years had become as notorious as any other high rise council block – indeed, its prominence made it perhaps more notorious than most. It stood out for miles, compromising not one jot with its surroundings. Tales abounded of poor maintenance, robbery and rape. Goldfinger was utterly unrepentant, observing, “I built skyscrapers for people to live in there and now they messed them up – disgusting.” What a prick.

For many people, the ugly-bastardry of Trellick Tower demanded retribution, and a popular urban legend arose that Goldfinger was actually utterly guilt-ridden by what he had unleashed on the residents of West London and jumped to his death from the Tower’s roof. Nothing but wishful thinking.

Ian Fleming, however, took things a step further. Fleming, of course, was the author of the James Bond novels, and no fan of Brutalism. If you know the Bond canon at all, you’ll no doubt have figured what happened – Fleming decided to give Bond a greedy, cheating enemy by the name of Goldfinger. Goldfinger – the real one – was a man without humour, as you may have guessed (for instance, he was known to fire assistants for cracking jokes), and Fleming’s publishers baulked at the possibility of being sued by the architect. Fleming furiously suggested that the character be renamed “Goldprick,” and the publishers figured maybe they should just go ahead and what the hell.

Oddly enough, the Trellick Tower has had something of a revival in its reputation in recent years. Following the formation of a Residents’ Association and a number of improvements, it’s become a more desirable place to live, with flats selling for an amount reported to be “heinously large” by sources (well, Wikipedia). Its distinctive shape has given it something of an iconic stature, and it’s become weirdly accepted as part of the skyline, like an old scar. It’s even been given Grade II* listing, which I don’t think anyone saw coming back in 1972. Apart from Goldfinger, perhaps.

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Filed under 20th Century, Buildings and architecture, Environment, Fashion and trends, Geography, History, Kensington, London, Notable Londoners, Psychogeography, Suburbia

Nightbusmare

London has no shortage of ghost stories. It’s almost inevitable in such a large, old and densely-populated city.

For instance, there’s the tale of Thomas Cox the hackney-cab driver, who picked up a passenger one night in Fleet Street who caused his horses a great deal of distress. When he went back to investigate, the passenger had turned into the apparition of a giant bear before vanishing in a flash of flame. This is coincidentally Yr. Humble Chronicler’s favourite way of fare-dodging, too.

Then there was the ghost of Old Jimmy Garlickhythe, an unknown medieval gentleman named after the church of St James Garlickhythe in which his mummified remains were displayed. His tomb was hit by a bomb in 1942, following which his ghost would appear around the church looking reproachful.

Bank Station, we are told, is haunted by a strange and unearthly sense of dread and misery, but this is actually normal for the Northern Line and is nothing to worry about.

If you believe in ghosts (Yr. Humble Chronicler remains sceptical), these are practically routine for the area. This is, after all, the City itself, dating back to the Romans.

On the left you may see a black-liveried Routemaster belonging to Ghost Bus Tours, and this reminded me of a particularly memorable haunting. This one didn’t take place in the City, but in the rather more suburban surroundings of North Kensington. This area, although historic enough, wasn’t really a part of London until the coming of the District Railway in the 1860s (Yr. Humble Chronicler was once able to impress a resident by guessing precisely the year in which her house was built, in what might have been the nerdiest chat-up technique ever).

The ghost in question was first noted in June 1934, when a motorist swerved off St. Mark’s Road at 1.15 a.m. for no apparent reason, hit a lamp post and was killed. The accident was a mystery. When the police appealed for information, a number of people came forward with the same somewhat bizarre suggestion. Namely, that the motorist had swerved to avoid a ghost.The ghost supposedly took the unlikely form of a Number 7 bus, and would always appear on St Mark’s Road (near Ladbroke Grove tube station, if you’re interested). It most commonly appeared at the junction with Cambridge Gardens, but could be sighted anywhere along St Mark’s Road between there and the junction with Chesterton Road. It would appear very suddenly, accounting for the motorist’s sudden swerve, and always at 1.15 a.m (this, you must remember, was long before the introduction of night buses). What was more, the driver appeared to be somewhat homicidal, and would apparently head straight for anyone witnessing his vehicle.

What led witnesses to think this was a ghost? These days, psychotically-driven late night buses are the norm, and the ghost would probably go unnoticed. In this case, the big thing that seems to have tipped people off that the bus was not all it seemed was the fact that it was painted in the livery of London General. In 1933, this company was taken over by London Transport. Frankly, this part of the story is the least spooky aspect for me – public transport vehicles taken over by new owners tend not to get repainted until they go to the works for a service.

Regardless, stories persisted – particularly after the inquest. Strangely enough, though, within ten years they had died down, and the ghost has not now been seen in more than half a century. Even the author of the book on London ghosts that I’m reading at the moment is sceptical as to whether there ever was a ghost bus. Sceptics suggested that it was perhaps a late night staff working or an optical illusion caused by tiredness and reflections, and the sudden appearance of the vehicle might be put down to the fact that that part of the road had notoriously poor visibility.

Knight buses, on the other hand, are very real.

Nevertheless, the story goes that that blind curve was rebuilt in part because of fears of the Ghost Bus. Perhaps so, although I would imagine that spooks or no, a blind curve that causes accidents is a bad thing.

Michael Moorcock briefly mentions the bus in his book Mother London – essential reading for any London enthusiast – adding the detail that “passengers foolish enough to board it are lost forever.”
The most exciting thing that has ever happened to me on a Number 7 bus was that time my bag got nicked.
Now I come to think of it, that wasn’t a Number 7 at all.

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