Monday, May 3, 2010

The Search for Water and the Real West End by the Landless Landlord

I was at West Hampstead, walking, trying to see. Where is the river Westbourne here, now? What does it look like, how does it sound? These are by no means idle questions to pose of the submerged urban waterway.

It's too easy to say of these things they've gone to ground, the concern now of the authorities only - the sewage authorities, drainage, rats, antiquarians and illegal moles, when the thought that stops you looking might be the result of not seeing, hearing, looking.

Often these things live on in the pub, at least in name, and it was in search of this I was there. The sign of such a pub would surely be a sign for this blog, last trace of a lost river, affirmation of the social role of the pub, recorder of our collective history, overlooked museum of the street.

The course of the river itself's well mapped, with a series of posts of the first water dedicated to it by a blogger to follow. The very first sentence is quotable: 'Three of London's lost rivers, and arguably the most important, begin in Hampstead.' Because that's a subject worth the argument, the animation rising all the way to kicking out time and, in good company, beyond. Those posts, in fact, were my first recourse in planning the trip, the course of the walk in search of pub signs plotted from that account, inspiration to keep a watch on green patches and water fountains, falls and rises in the road for signs at surface.

The area I chose to search was a triangle, I came to appreaciate as the day wore on, with one side straight - Shoot Up Hill to Kilburn High - and two distorted, rippling - Mill Lane gently, West End frantic, winding. The choice was governed by three criteria, one for each. West End was the source of the Westbourne; Kilburn, of course, as 'burn' suggests, was the name of the river; Mill Lane, I reasoned, could be interpreted as a reference to a wheel turned by the current. Any sign of a Mill Tavern, a West End Inn, a Kilburn, then, duly photographed, would function as banners; posted on the blog, instruments of resurgence.

I touched down at West Hampstead, one of these tube stations on a line that, sharing space in deep sidings with rail, feels always disproportionate, all this space down there, below the level of the houses, so wide with rails, the terraces rising great cliffs above.

The street level's defined by rails and the stations they bring, and not only because it was them that brought the dense building to the area, either. The character of the centre, the heart of this street, the sort of intimacy allowing estate agents to tag it 'village', is defined in large part by the intimate size of the shops and the rolling rise and fall arising from the fact it's no more than a viaduct, unassuming Rialto.

I snapped the sign of the Railway Tavern for the record, but in no pub on the street found reference to the river, all the way to the green at the top, where I turned onto Mill Lane.

It was, I began to realise as I made my way down this street, perhaps a bit naïve to have thought I could just go off in search of a pub name associated. There were several places that looked like they might once have been pubs, now converted, and any of these might have born the name, but I should have known things would have changed. Many of the shops there were empty, others just opened. Antiques shops, fancy furniture and framing, the older down at heal, the newer in upmarket taste - everything spoke of resurgence, gentrification, basically change, submergence.

By the time I hit Kilburn I'd realised the original project had little hope of success, I think. If the place lacked a Mill why a Kilburn, an area on the surface less aspirational, for many harder to love?

London as a whole, splayed flat on a map, can be considered in shape a spider's web, traversed by myriad infill, but pulled out and pinned down by the ribbons, stretching straight and endlessly out into the countryside from the centres where they converge. These long, straight arterials, however different, always share qualities amongst themselves. Kilburn High, Kingsland, Old Kent, Kennington Park, even in more hidden ways Kensington High or the King's Road share qualities their distance from each other conceals even and above all from their users. Often as not, as at Kilburn, old Roman, they're where the web catches its prey, those drawn to the city not for prosperity, but by need.

By now, then, I knew at least to stop looking for what I'd come for. Signs of the river would come in characters, perhaps, unamenable to the board. I combed the betting shops, phone unblocking services, cinemas converted to save souls. Here red brick predominated massively, tall terraces set off with plaster in stripes, key stones, moulded heads, Dutch gables grinning down, occasionally breaking out into gaudy pub front. With this railway ribbon I was in the realms of Kingsland Road and Old Kent, so far from Mill Lane it was impossible I'd just turned off it.

Here was that feeling again of being lost, rising like a mist and clearing, sure sign of a new coast approached. A key perhaps to the ribbon line's the number of name changes. The whole only in the imagination, grasped only in pieces: Vauxhall Bridge Road, Grosvenor Place, Park Lane, Edgware Road, Maida Vale. The change to Kilburn High from Shoot Up had occurred under the railway bridges, where they part, blue, the colour of the sky above, certainly, but below also of water, the concourse submerged in darkness, with the frequent muffled clatter and rumbling overhead thoughts of pebbles shifted by the currents racing downhill into town, up and out.

The journey should have ended back down at the bottom of Kilburn High where it meets Maida Vale, with a pint at the Old Bell. The name of the pub echoed the original Bell, in whose grounds the Kilburn Springs had first been discovered, giving the area its first great draw before the trains, rivalling Sadler's Wells, the pub open from breakfast on, the Encyclopaedia of London informs us, a milky, bitter carbonated purgative sold fresh from the ground alongside the more usual brews. The original Bell had long been destroyed, and it was certainly strange that the Old Bell should commemorate it, rather than the other way round. The anomaly found its way skewed further onto the sign in the form of a painting of a cracked painting of a bell, rather than, for instance, of a cracked bell. This, certainly was a sign, and one indirectly of water, but it confirmed more that things shouldn't be expected to be where I thought they were, than that the search had come to its end.

Ever since the bridge the houses now in the sun gleamed still, wet with a water I'd never otherwise have seen than having come looking for something else, for one thing, but also along the arms of this triangle with the other roads. Back at the lowest corner, I realised I had to head at least one more time back round, this time looking not for the words, not even the boards, but what it was about this confluence that had the atmosphere of water.

There's some controversy over the naming of the West Hampstead stations, a fast growing facebook petition pointing out the name's a fiction, the area myth. Certainly locals complain of the number of tourists emerging lost and blinking from the station in search of Hampstead Heath. As for the West End, although it may have been the first so named, as west of Hampstead, once swallowed by the city, its claim to anything but confusion's long gone, handed over to the theatres, clubs, intensive shopping, general chaos, or whatever you want to be named that way, far off down the hill.

And yet there's still a foothills feel to it, of the more well-to-do cousin, the further up you go towards it, the more independent cafes there are, serving Frenchified or Italianate meals, or even indeed, as you begin to wind also towards Golder's Green, potato latkes, chopped liver.

Turning left onto Mill Lane, this sense remains for some while, the last time named explicitly in the framing shop Thou Art in Hampstead. Though arguably by that point an expression more of will than of fact, supported by the gentrification it's there to serve, this is a will with a way.

It's in the nature of the web form, as in a net, that you can almost arbitrarily cut smaller webs from it and catch something. Here formed by this triangle, it was the net itself that would be the sign, I realised - not the sign already up of the pub that would be called after the water, but one waiting, which, drawn perhaps to the right angle or into good light, occasionally caught traces of a water always there. That would be a kind of submerged or dispersed, diffracted pub sign that would have the virtue of lasting as long as there was anyone there to look hard enough for it.


  1. such a quest (and a good walk too) must have a reward, but rather a good pint of you know what than a fine glass of water.

  2. Quite. Besides which, the best use of natural springs is to contribute to the complexity of you know what.