Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Beneficiaries of neglect, or victims of success?


Of all the books about London that I have accumulated over the years, Peter Ackroyd's one (subtitled THE biography) has summed up the general feel of the place above all others.

He flashes through thousands of years of Bronze Age and Roman history in a few paragraphs, then lingers for whole chapters on all but forgotten pockets of the place, such as under the mulberry tree at Fountain Court.

This, to my thinking, is a perfect illustration of how a town or city stays as alive as London is, through growing organically and not receiving too much attention from developers who are not held held in check by sympathetic and sensitive planning authorities. Tired of London? Tired of life then, according to Samuel Johnson.

I know I have said most of this before, but I was reading the latest glossy freebie magazine today, and it features my home stretch of Bath called Walcot Street, an area now dubbed the Bath 'Artisan Quarter' by the very people who allowed London-based property developers to evict the last of the true artisans (I was one) who had been working just outside of the city wall since medieval times.

Walcot is the largest parish in Bath, but the street itself is usually what people think of when hearing its name. The most damage done to the city (after 1942) was done in the 1960s, and was eventually halted by a group of citizens with the reluctant help of central government. The demolition stopped in the very late 1960s, following the destruction of most of the Georgian buildings of the South Gate area. Too late for them, as the horrible, concrete Southgate shopping complex has recently been replaced with a slightly less horrible stone one, albeit a thin skin of stone glued onto concrete panels as a veneer - over in Italy.

While all this was going on over the last 45 or so years, Walcot was allowed to quietly rot, apart from the charming terraces of Snow Hill, where the residents were designated as 'slum-dwellers', forced to move out, then forced to move into the ghastly high-rises that were built in its place and are still there today. Then they were allowed to carry on rotting again.

In the early 1970s, various groups of people started to rent the highly undesirable buildings and yards of Walcot Street at low rents, because the entire area - including London Road - beyond the site of Northgate was of no commercial interest to the London developers as they and the high street chains plotted to dominate every town and city centre of Great Britain, forcing up rent and rates until only they could afford to take them on.

Quietly, the small, independent businesses began to congregate in Walcot Street, and now number 70 in total. The Bell Inn has been bought by 536 ordinary people (if Robert Plant can be considered ordinary), and is thriving even better than it was before the community take-over.

The London developers who bought Walcot Yard about 20 years ago, seem to have given up their plans to convert the Victorian buildings to 'mixed use', so they are some of the few properties which remain empty and idle in or off the street. 

My old horse's stable is exactly the same as it was when I left it 14 years ago and - with a bit of luck - will stay that way until some sympathetic person takes it over again. Currently it is used to store the trappings of the Bath Half Marathon.

I just hope that the success of the small business in Walcot don't spawn big successes - the area is beginning to attract attention from investors now that other people have given it a test-run at their own expense.

17 comments:

  1. That church spire is the one you have seen many times - from the opposite side - with a Peregrine Falcon perched close to the Golden Chicken.

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  2. I miss the London I first knew -- it was a place I could afford to go, for one thing. And for another there were a lot more 'Londoners'! Now all our friends and family are living in the outskirts. I hope Bath manages to retain the character you describe -- why does it sound like it could be such an uphill struggle?

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    1. There is no such thing as a true Londoner, unless you believe in Pearly Kings and Queens. My kids have just told me that they were the only white people in the whole of the East this weekend, but what has whiteness got to do with it?

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  3. When I lived in London, I lived in Bayswater, Marylebone, Islington, and Chelsea; in that order. I don't suppose I could afford to live in any of those locations today. But, I'm still hoping to buy myself a little mews house in South Ken; dream on!

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    1. Sell up and die in a hovel, You know it makes sense.

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  4. London has changed very much - sometimes exciting, sometimes weird. When I think that they sell those little houses in Clapham (not renovated) for over 1,2 million Pounds I am aghast.

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    1. Pounds I am aghast too, Britta. You can afford a little place there, I am sure.

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  5. Walcot Reclamation is what I remember Walcot Street for. Is it still there?

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    1. No - they were my landlord in the old stable.

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  6. It's about the 1%, Tom. Where would they or they money go, if not for projects such as these. Because they're not going to hell, as we wish.

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    1. You missed off a 1 - even British Gas make 11% these days.

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    2. The 1's have it all around. I was referring to the 1% whose coffers contain 20% of all the money.

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  7. Like Rusty, I remember Walcot Reclamation { I love a reclamation yard !! } but, I also remember a Doll's House shop …. is that still there ? …. it was really tiny.
    Also, in the 1920's, a French ? cinematographer, Claude Friese-Greene, travelled across the UK with a new colour film camera. In 1927, he captured some iconic scenes of London………86 years later, filmaker Simon Smith traced his footsteps and matched his originals, shot by shot. What is surprising { and really surprised me } was how similar they are and how London has hardly changed { in certain areas } apart from clothing and car designs. XXXX

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    1. No, the dolls all grew up and are now crack-heads and prostitutes. We have Fox Talbot, as well as Friese-Green, who had his studio about 100 yards from where I write this shit, none of which is worthy of even Wikipedia.

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  8. If only small businesses would infiltrate all of our cities, taking over areas that are a bit 'run down' Tom - then I suppose the wheel would have turned full circle.

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    1. The trouble is that giants like Sainsbury and Tesco suddenly turn into small businesses just to take up all the available space (in the market), and call themselves 'Express'.

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