Many American architects and planners want to turn their post World War 2 suburbs into neighbourhoods with a sense of place. Galina Tachieva, the author of the Sprawl Repair Manual, and Ellen Dunham-Jones and June Williamson, who wrote Retrofitting Suburbia, would like to make dormitory towns designed for car owners more like traditional cities, more densely populated (see illustration below from the Sprawl Repair Manual) and with traditional high streets — rather than shopping malls — that can be reached on foot. London is the original sprawling city and the ribbon development along the A4 and A40 which swallowed the county of Middlesex has a lot with the United States in the era of the Interstate Highways. Galina Tachieva, who works for a Florida-based practice specialising in the ‘New Urbanism‘, feels that Middlesex would be a prime candidate but hadn’t in her researches come across any examples here. It is sure that more people will live in the suburbs, especially if there is successful resistance to building on the Green Belt, as urged by commentators such as Simon Jenkins, a former chairman of the National Trust. What is missing, especially since the abolition of Middlesex County Council, is a public body that’s specifically tasked with turning sprawl into livable neighbourhoods resistent to the gravitational pull of central London.
Film and television love Middlesex locations because they are close to base, in London, but can be cheated as many other places. Doctor Foster, which went out on BBC from September 9 to 7 October 2015, is set in ‘Parminster’, a fictional market town which has to be deep enough in the Home Counties for the move of the divorced husband to London in Episode 5 to feel like a significant upheaval. In fact the home of the doomed family is little over 14 miles from Charing Cross with a workplace in Chesham, Bucks, a further 16 miles out, still on the Metropolitan Line in Zone 9. Other scenes (see below) were filmed at Hitchin in Hertfordshire.
The latest Land Registry Report (table on page 11) shows that house price inflation has caught up with the semi detatched suburbs but slowed or gone into reverse in Camden, Westminster, Kensington and Hammersmith and Fulham. Hillingdon had the biggest annual increase — 14.6 % — and Barnet the biggest monthly rise of 2.6%. In July 2015 the average price of a home in former Middlesex was around £400,000, whereas in the former London County Council boroughs it was £650,000.
This is the modified version of the North West runway proposals, which saves the heart of Harmondworth with its church and extraordinary barn, but leaves them immediately beside the runway. Quite a lot of Sipson also survives.
‘He’s from a hard family in Northwood. His brother did time.’
The Inbetweeners, ‘Work Experience’ S2E2 2009
A lot of film and television has been shot in famous studios such as Shepperton or Teddington, and the streets of Middlesex have featured in any number of BBC shows, from Monty Python to Dr Who. But E4’s cult show The Inbetweeners about the frustrations of four suburban teenage boys extracted maximum value from locating its characters in the anonymous sprawl of north west Greater London as the show’s co-writer Iain Morris explained to a local newspaper in 2011, soon after the release of the hit series movie.
But what clinched it for Ruislip, Morris explains, was that it had had ‘the nicest looking school’ in Ruislip High. This opened in 2007, not long before the series started shooting. In the series it appears as Rudge Hill Comprensive. So the reason for the Inbetweeners choice of location turns out to be the 1997-2010 Labour government and its Building Schools for the Future programme.
Shenley Hospital opened by Middlesex County Council in 1934 built on a long tradition in the county of enlightened care for people with mental illness. This began with the bluntly titled Madhouse Act of 1828 which provided for the first publicly funded purpose built asylums, resulting in the opening in May 1831 of the Middlesex County Asylum in Hanwell. Here the first resident physician Dr John Conolly was a pioneer in abandoning physical restraints for patients. The handsome asylum building, soon to be overlooked by Brunel’s equally fine Wharncliffe Viaduct, is still in use today as St Bernards Hospital. St Bernards is the headquarters of the West London Mental Healthcare NHS Trust which treats more than 20,000 people a year spread across 32 different sites including Broadmoor High Secure Hospital.
20 years after it opened Hanwell was joined by the Second Middlesex County Asylum, also known as Colney Hatch Lunatic Asylum. Colney Hatch was used by Londoners to mean any mental institution. It had 1250 beds at its opening in 1851 growing to care for 3,500 patients, living in wards arranged around the longest corridor in Europe. Unlike Hanwell Colney Hatch is no longer open; the site was redeveloped in the 1990s as luxury flats.
The public asylums largely replaced private establishments outside London. These have become famous in literature through The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins, published by Charles Dickens as a serial in 1859-60. The first of the so-called ‘sensation novels’ this is the story of a young woman who we meet in the Finchley Road having escaped from the asylum where she had been wronglyfully committed in order to steal an inheritance.
Here are some of the names of these establishments, as traced by this blogger. The first, for wealthy patients, may have been Irish’s, which opened in Guildford in Surrey, in 1700, and which was followed by madhouses in Chelsea in the mid 18th century, also Hoxton House just north-east of London, Normand House, Fulham, Ann Pope’s in Hanwell, Manor House, Chiswick (1833), Earls Court House in Old Brompton, and Wyke House and Inverness Lodge in Brentford. In Hanwell John Conolly opened his own private establishment called Lawn House after leaving his position at the county asylum. One of the last was Stilwell’s in Hayes in the mid 19th century.
Conolly also lived on in literature, according to a contributor to the British Journal of Psychiatry who argues that he is the model for a doctor in another novel dealing with the issue of wrongful commitment to asylums. This is the best selling Hard Cash (1863) by Charles Reade. Despite Conolly’s progressive regime in Hanwell, Reade represents him as his fictional alter ego, a Dr Wycherly, is happy to fall in the (sane) hero’s dishonest father and commit him to imprisonment while spouting jargon about ‘an organic affection of the brain’.
The houses of London and its suburbs made a big impression on Germans, largely through Herman Muthesius, the author of Das Englische Haus , later employer of the influential Berlin city planner Martin Wagner. But it was a two-way exchange. Greater London which after 1965 became the single governing authority swallowing Middlesex whole appears to have been inspired by the creation of Greater Berlin in 1920 which itself swallowed what had previously been seven neighbouring towns. Berlin also influenced the rebranding of London Transport in the 1930s by its managing director Frank Pick with architect Charles Holden followed their research tour of Northern Europe by the pair in 1930 which took in Holland Denmark and Germany. If 19th and 20th century London struck visitors as an example of how to combine buildings and nature, 21st century Berlin has now overtaken it, with its extensive greenery and woodland linked everywhere by cycleways. The debate over the future of the disused Tempelhof airport foreshadows that over the future of a possibly-abandoned Heathrow. The biggest difference between the two cities: just as London itself dominates the rest of the country, the centre overshadows the suburbs and makes them appear mean and second rate. Greater Berlin by contrast feels like a partnership of equals.
The Airport Commission’s Interim Report on expanding the UK’s airport capacity proposes, as one of its three shortlisted options, creating a new runway (pictured above) to the northwest of Heathrow on the site of the village of Harmondsworth. The other proposals are enlarging the existing northern runway and a second runway for Gatwick.
Harmondsworth is a village of exceptional historic interest, as the report acknowledges, and is home to one of the most exceptional medieval structures in Britain, the Harmondsworth barn, hailed by Sir John Betjeman as ‘the cathedral of Middlesex’. It says its proposal would ‘require a significant number of demolitions, totalling approximately 1,500 houses and including the loss of the village of Harmondsworth, much of which is a conservation area. A second conservation area in Longworth would also lose listed buildings. Around 30 listed buildings would be lost, including the Grade I listed Great Tithe Barn and the Grade II* listed St Mary’s Church. While Heathrow Airport Ltd has indicated that it will continue to examine the potential to avoid the most severe of these heritage impacts, it is difficult to see currently how this may be achieved other than by relocating the barn and church.’
Harmondsworth is a landmark too in the history of British publishing. Between 1937 and the 1990s all Penguin books paid tribute to the village giving as their publishing location ‘Harmondsworth, Middlesex’ rather than London. The village helped inspire the naturalist Richard Mabey, an editor at Penguin in the early 1970s, who created a classic account of his walks around the fringes of London in ‘The Unofficial Countryside’. Whatever future is found for the Harmondsworth barn the core of the village (below) would be lost under tarmac should the third North West Heathrow runway go ahead.
Brilliant News that Bentley Priory, the Stanmore country house designed by Sir John Soane won’t after all be sold off as flats but is opening as a museum reflecting its role as central command point for the RAF in the Battle of Britain, headquarters of the head of Fighter Command Hugh ‘Stuffy’ Dowding. The handsome building and its grounds were part of the large number of RAF properties currently being sold off mainly around former Middlesex. Now walkers on section 15 of the London Loop can take in two grand suburban houses, with Bentley Priory joining the even more architecturally important Grims Dyke — if that is they can cope with the the missing or confusing signage produced by the beyond-Greater London local councils who seem to resent visitors (and, possibly, the fact that the London Loop was wished on them by Ken Livingstone.)
Georgian and early Victorian streets look rigid and geometrical whereas suburban streets bend and sprawl. But the older flat fronted houses are used or converted in any number of ways, from Prime Minister’s residence, to offices, restaurants, to pubs and from pubs to houses, shops, the rag trade from sweatshops (traditionally in Spitalfields) to Savile Row …
Contrast the media’s amusement at finding that the North Korean embassy is housed in a semi in Ealing. This is because the point of suburban house design is to advertise that it’s residential — a refuge from the working world. So the only accepted commercial uses are quasi-homes, as in family hotels or B&Bs ( or, at a stretch, brothels.) It doesn’t even really feel comfortable when a restaurant is housed in a 1930s semi rather than a purpose built location in a shop parade: when I pass the Japanese restaurant in Hanger Lane, Ealing I do a double take. The most incongruous use of a semi was Crespigny Road, Hendon, during World War 2, as the place where double-agents misled the Germans via short-wave radio about the Allies war plans. But of course this traded on the very privacy that prevents semi detatched houses being accepted as the scene of public and civic life.