Monday 31 December 2007

Kilburn State Cinema - end of year developments

I have earlier posted about the future of the Kilburn State cinema venue on the Kilburn High Road [] - two major developments have since occurred.

The first is the emergence of a group of residents up for pushing forward a positive agenda for the venue - mindful of its historical and architectural significance to the High Road and locality - but also wanting to see the building back in use and accessible to the public.

To that end we held a vigil on the 70th anniversary of the building being opening on 20th December 1937 - just in time for Christmas.
The was held at short notice but was brilliantly well supported.
Thanks to Councillors Anthony Dunn, Derek Jackson, Janet Grauberg, James King, David Abrahams and Russell Eagling for attending and helping.
A special thanks to Oliver Curry who set up and who sent round an email highlighting the vigil. Also heartfelt thanks to the residents and traders who came along - it was cold and windy!

After some discussion we have now resolved to formalise a group of residents and traders passionate about the buildings significance to establish a clear vision for the future.

The next major development however, is the news that the Kilburn State has been sold by Rank Mecca to the Ruach Inspirational Church of God - based in the UK in Brixton. The good news of this is that it isn't a property developer determined to make proft through exploitation of the site, but it raises a whole load of additional questions.

We will be working with Brent and Camden Councils to try and get a real meaningful dialogue with the new owners and secure some good access for the community - there are lots of ideas - we just now need to get the talking going and the action identified...

Sunday 23 December 2007

'The Pavement' on Mill Lane

Some roads you think you know so well and then 'bingo' you notice a feature for the first time. Yesterday was one of those.

I have been up and down, onto and across Mill Lane, West Hampstead, more often than I can remember and yet I had never noticed this sign that identified 'The Pavement 1888'. Now of course, this range of shops running from 41-83 Mill Lane on the North side are a great little run - inlcuding the famous Mill Lane Post Office.

So a bit of digging in the books at home and the best insights I can currently find is in 'Kilburn and West Hampstead, Weindling and Colloms' which references actor Joss Ackland as saying:

"I remember the little row of shops [The Pavement] around the corner. The sweet shop with liquorice bootlaces - all different colours; Mickey Mouse toffees - twopence a quarter; packets of Imps - tiny sweets made from liquorice with menthol, with the kick of a mule; pennyslabs of choclate - brown and white; packets of sherbet with liquorice straws; bottles of Tizer and fizzy tablets that exploded in the mouth.

"There was a chemist that smelt of camphor and a grocer where the salty rashers of bacon blended with the sweet icing smell of biscuit animals, and a hardware store with bundles of wood to light fires and the smell of parafin lamps, and of course, the newsagent and toy shop with copies of the Buzzer, Magnet, Gem, Champion and Film Fun and many others, sometimes with magnificent free gifts - water pistols, Japanese flowers that erupted from the shells when put in water and divers that bobbed up and down in the bath.

"And there were the soldiers and the cowboys were of lead - penny ones that stood; twopenny ones on horseback and sixpenny knights with removable swords - mounted magnificent and unobtainable."

The row is still a busy parade of shops and of course includes the popular Mill Lane Post Office. The picture here is taken from Mill Lane, where Aldred Road drops down onto it - for reference this is just opposite the top of Holmdale Road.

Monday 17 December 2007

Granny Dripping's Stairs - West Hampstead

There is small footbridge in West Hampstead from where Priory Road meets Broadhurst Gardens. It's just an old railway bridge, but there is something of a story hidden behind it all - the reason why this arouses such comment at all is that it has as a route, gained a lot of traffic since the growth of the O2 Centre on Finchley Road and yet it has lain uncared for and increasingly unpleasant.

Locally the steps are known as Granny Dripping Steps [Granny's Stairs and also Granny Drippen's Stairs/Steps - apparently named from her bread and dripping sandwhiches] - named after the crossing sweeper who at the turn of the 19th/20th Century swept the stairs. The historical suggestion is that she was old ["looking for all the world like the witch in Hansel and Gretel"] and relatively ineffective at clearing the mud and muck that accumulated.

Now we have a need for Granny Dripping to return - in short the stairs are neglected and are a really unpleasant mess - graffiti, overhead wire meshing, broken bottles, litter under the steps and often dog mess... But of course no-one is clear who owns or maintains the steps. The network of rail companies makes for a labrynth of avenues.

So it's a cause that we have agreed to take up - working with Cllr David Abrahams we have started the task of unpicking the various responsibilities and seeing if we can allocate some direct and sustained improvements...

Local resident Jean Austin joined David and I when we looked at the steps and the need for a serious clean-up is pretty self evident - we'll keep you informed.

Friday 14 December 2007

It was cold in West Hampstead last night!

I know it's one of the great British conversation pieces - but blooming heck it was nippy last night.

A pretty hectic round of events, AGMs, christmas drinks and meetings meant I was rushing from location to location.

The new coat was warm but it didn;t cover my ears and I hadn't got gloves so I got the full benefit of the 'chill'.

Just browsing through my computer files this morning, I noticed this (pic left) engraving from Robert Bloomfield's Farmer's Boy first edition (1801) of the winter scene - the attraction of the open fire and it's camaraderie that goes with that I think has just served to remind me of just how cold it was.

In terms of events and activities a huge well done to UCS for the Centenary Carol Service at St John's Parish Church, Hampstead - Poulenc, Rutter and JB (Junior Boys School) singing 'Little Donkey' - what more could you want at Christmas to set the seasonal cheer. :-) You really get a sense that UCS is a learning community - strong, confident, fun, but crucially inquisitive and challenging and it is this that I find impressive.

And Queen's Park Residents Association (also last night) - a very impressive RA and truly with a clear idea of what they should do, how they fight on local issues and keep a really active watching brief over the local area. Cllr Mark Cummins and Emily Tancred were there - I'm always impressed and amazed at just how assiduous and hard working they both are for their area and residents.

I also had some appointments with residents on very specific topics, some considerable number of letters to sign and then the attendant emails and post for the day...

Thursday 13 December 2007

Yep, I like actually handwriting letters...

The now perennial, season and annual debate on the design of our end of year psued Christmas Card was less painful than usual due to a tight timetable - but I'm appending here the main artwork design background for Hampstead and Kilburn Liberal Democrats this year.

I still like Christmas Cards - it feels old fashioned but I have an ink pen, I like writing letters - for me the personal thoughts, news and greetings is a relaxation that reminds me of friends and family of whom I see too little. So the coming week is a joyous prospect of letter and letter and letter again - to the scatter of family and friends - often it's something I allow to spill over into the post Christmas, pre-New Year period... this year, mainly because of the threat of a General Election I have missed too many birthdays so the annual letter write-fest that is Christmas for me will be especially heavy. :-)

When is it too late to try?

Steele's the butchers in Hampstead is to close.
Joe is retiring after a lifetime and so it will cease trading in the near future.

I'm not close to Joe at all - I pop in there occasionally, grateful and delighted to have a local independent butcher - I was in there last week to buy my copy of the Hampstead meat cook book, but is this the sort of thing you try and 'save'?

Linda Chung, the energetic Hampstead village campaigner, hit the nail on the head when she was reported in the Ham and High as saying there should be some kind of planning definition that replaces like-with-like. A formal planning guidance note that stops everything becoming a national/international coffee chain or mobile phone shop... that enables a local council, under request from the community to designate certain shops and locations to certain uses and identities.

There is talk in the village of some residents investing in the butchers (buying it?) and trying to keep it as a going concern, but there are also rumours that it is sold already and will become an office/shop front for a parking enforcement company...

Either way doesn't fill you with huge amount of hope, and I suspect there is more to it all than meets the eye. What I do know is that I care passionately for Hampstead, I love its village atmosphere, the area is the better for independent shops and Flask Walk is one of the most valuable illustrations of this.

'Something must be done' is the easy cry - but the fact is local planning laws are not flexible enough, it would require a Government amendment and no Labour or Tory Government has been prepared to countenance such devolved power... I fear this one will just slip past us and we will all be there to watch and regret it, powerless and sad.

Tuesday 11 December 2007

"Live differently" - living life as a Blakean

I have an interest in romantic 19th century poet Robert Bloomfield. Such an obscure poet (he was the best selling poet of his lifetime and indeed one of the best selling of the entire Victorian period) means you end up referencing your interest by the 'other' more household names.

In the case of Robert Bloomfield these are John Clare and William Blake. Clare was the great articulation of rural england and his reputation is increasingly being restored to public attention - Blake has enjoyed long recognition as illustrator, artist, poet and of course the author of 'jerusalem'. But of course, Blake has acted as an inspiration to many and some, try and lead lives that are actively Blakean...

All three poets have a respective society, but one of the leading champions of William Blake, his work, his lifestyle and beliefs, Peter Cadogan, has passed away:

Here is what others said about him:

And for more on William Blake - this is a good start:

and this is of contemporary interest in placing Blake in context:

Monday 10 December 2007

Libraries - old fashioned, crucial or both?

I have always been a fan of libraries, in fact I'm a lover of books. I have just brought together my whole book collection and it currently occupies more than a square cubit and I can't deny being a little worried for the weight of the floor/flat!

When I was younger libraries were a key part of family life - every wednesday (late night opening to 7.30pm where I grew up) was a trip to the library with my mum and sister and it was just a feature of the week. As a result I have always read a huge amount and just enjoy the book world.
But of course the world has changed and the age of the computer has arrived. So it raises the question - is the age of the library over? Well, judging by the volume of computers in a good modern library then the answer is pretty clear... both live side by side.

There had been some concerns over the future of libraries in both Camden and Brent with the change of political administrations, but it's great to see that in fact there is a rennaissance taking place in Brent. £1.4million in lottery grant for Harlesden Library and a further £300,000 for libraries within the Council budget itself.

I'm very pleased and my committment at least to libraries, books and of course the requisite computers remains. :-)

Overground improvements needed and quickly

The North London Line (now Overground) is for me one of the most impressive bits of London transport links - it goes across London (everything else runs up and down, in and out of the City), it stops in useful places (residential as well as shopping and commercial), it's pretty quick and efficient and for me [sentimental] it feels like a good old fashioned railway line. (Pic of Brondesbury Park station to right)

This is not to say that it is without problems - tatty, neglected, poorly staffed, vulnerable to graffiti and slightly shambolic. But it needs investment and attention and we 'users' need it to work better.

I'm especially keen that the anomaly that is Hampstead Heath in zone 3 should be removed and placed back into zone 2 - Mayor Ken Livingstone has promised it but is now enforcing zone 3 fares (another broken promise?)...

Most of all I think we users need a sustained dialogue with Overground (used to be Silverlink) and so if anyone wants to help with that then drop me a line at or start the debate below in the coments section.

Sunday 9 December 2007

St Pancras's architectural brilliance

I was just re-reading St Pancras Station by Simon Bradley and I was reminded of a tour I organised round the old station hotel buildings before it closed for the full refurbishment that is currently taking place.

It would be a shame not to share these here - St Pancras Station is one of the most dominant buildings of London - an amazing level of detail, quality confirmed by a total sense of place.

The history is that in May 1865 - with the railway station already being constructed - Midland Railway Company launched a competition for the design of a 150 bed hotel.

Sir George Gilbert Scott (1811-1878), put in a grand plan bigger and far more expensive than the specification. But audacity paid off and he was awarded the contract and by 1876 it was open. Cost and scale were lavish:

  • decoration and fittings £49,000
  • furnishings £84,000
  • A toal consturction cost of £437,335
  • The building had 60 million bricks
  • 9,000 tons of ironwork
  • polished columns of fourteen different British granites and limestones.
  • 300-room hotel, charging 14 shillings (70p) a night in 1879 - only six pence (2.5p) more than the famed Langham in Portland Place, W1.
  • Fixtures and fittings in the hotel were to a high standard
  • Special 'new' features including hydraulic 'ascending chambers'
  • concrete floors
  • revolving doors
  • fireproof floor construction

We're now not far from being able to see it all restored to a new and exciting glory - whether it will quite have the army of servants that previously serviced the hotel will remain to be seen...

Thursday 6 December 2007

Promotional adverts for smoking, cigarettes and matches...

After my previous post I have been contacted by several people pointing out old wall adverts that can be seen on and around local streets in Camden.

This advert for matches and cigarettes is on the end of terrace wall on Messina Avenue as it joins the Kilburn High Road, NW6. Of course the location is the key to this being picked back when and to it's surviving now.

The location is highly visible, it's passed every day by thousands, but now of course is there just largely un-noticed. In it's day key advertising location and pre-billboard...

The other element is of course the unfashionable nature today of advertising. It's worth noting that this one has changed and you can see the older advert underneath the current one. Of course, such advertsing for smoking now is just so frowned-upon and indeed limited and restricted.

I'm not an obsessive 'save everything' person and there's not much you would do to preserve this any more than has already survivied but as a small insight of history it is attractive in the most unlikely way...

Tuesday 4 December 2007

Yep, I've fallen in love...

Sierra Leone is perhaps the most amazing place I have ever been to. Friendly, warm, positive... And yet it is racked by the most endemic poverty, corruption and lowest wage levels I have seen.

In terms of all international indices and assessments Sierra Leone is near the bottom of the chart and yet when you are there it doesn't feel like that.

Don't get me wrong - the poverty is highly visible - and indeed I went down the back streets, into the slums and it is truly upsetting and stark. But people are positive, engaging and amazingly positive.

I was first there before the election had really started, but then returned to see the country during the election - few places are so political, seeing politics as a solution, engaging with the process.

Of course, Sierra Leone has a positive relationship with the UK massively enhanced by our role during the war and in particular in taking on the West Side Boys in 2001, but I can honestly say that in our own small way, we as a delegation felt useful.

The work was coordinated by the Westminster Foundation for Democracy and we appear to be the only group working directly with the political parties.

There are essentially three large parties now - SLPP (Sierra Leone People's Party), APC (All People's Congress) and the PMDC (Peoples Movement for Democratic Change). The latter - the PMDC - are a new party led by Charles Margai and they eventually led the campaign for change - SLPP have been in power - and amazingly Sierra Leone has voted for change. There is now a coalition of APC and PMDC and the transition of power has been largely peaceful.

The new president Ernest Bai Koroma has a huge responsibility driving forwards change, but he seems to be up for the task and a great advocate for the country to enable them to move forward.

Quite what happens next precisely however is the unknown bit - can the new government tackle the endemic corruption, can living standards increase, can the tax and administrative mechanisms be embedded..? All is possible and there is great optimism, I just hope that it works.

Of course, the other (often unspoken) element is that there is a vast diaspora from Sierra Leone, especially here in London and so much hinges on their reactions and impressions.

The potential for international investment is huge, and I noticed China the other week formalising links with the new Government.

It's a country I want to keep in touch with and am planning a holiday trip sometime in the New Year... Having been around the major population centres (Freetown, Bo, Makeni and Kenema) I now want to see something of the rural areas especially in the deep south and the islands around Bonthe if possible.

For an introduction to Sierra Leone I started on Ismail Beah's memoirs of a boy soldier - it's tough and in places harrowing, but probably the best all round view of what the country has gone through - and yet still retains it's optimism.

Monday 3 December 2007

Trees - our London lifeblood

When I moved back to London I was really struck by the variation in certain areas which had massive amounts of trees and some that just had too few. It seems to me like a bit of a no-brainer really - you just can't have too many trees.

Trees provide us with the oxygen we need to live and sustain life. They clean the air and offer us shade and protection. They provide shelter to an enormous array of wildlife. And most convincing for me - they were here before we were.

So I was more than delighted to see that some re-planting (albeit small scale) had taken placed down Reddington Road and was particularly pleased to see these little notices have been appended on the supportive stake next to each tree:

"Please help water me

"When the weather is dry I will require extra water (dish/bath/vegetable/rain water) over the next few months

"Please water me first thing in the morning at at dusk

"I am watered by contractors but I will need extra help throughout the year"

Replaced by Camden, it reveals the love and affection and professional pride in this planting by the staff and on the back of considerable support for trees and planting across this part of London

London is now every built up, and I have sat through too many discussions where it is explained that trees can't be replaced because of their roots and gorwth interferring with cables, underground etc etc. It seems to me really sad, for example, that the Finchley Road once had trees down the middle of it but now they are a distant memory sacrificed to the development of the car and traffic. Is it too late to bring them back?

I have served on the Hampstead Heath Management Committee for the last two years and have been more than struck at the issues surrounding trees - the way they are nutured and loved, maintained and assisted by the Heath staff who care for them. There are times when we see trees that have been cut back or pollarded and the effect is dramatic (and you tend to assume the nagative) but in fact the work is remedial or medium term and the following year the tree is flourishing again - it's been a real education for me.

Revealing something of my own childhood reading habits, it has certainly brough home to me the significance and depth of Tolkien's chapters on the Tree Ents in Lord of the Rings... an environmental concern at a time when change could have been achieved for the better if more people had understood what we know know about climate, nature and the fragile globe on which we live.

Sunday 2 December 2007

Street furniture you can get excited about?

It's true - you can get excited about street furniture. It's a fake, adopted, sort of local government term - "street furniture", but it applies to basically anything that adds to a street scene (sic) and usually covers benches, lamp-posts, water fountains, bike racks etc.

Most of it tends to be pretty hum-drum and lacking imagination, and you often see stuff that is so terrible that you tut or just have an internal sinking feeling. But just occasionally you see some that is, well, good to excellent...

So this on Station Approach, Kensal Rise was a really pleasant find...