Harmondsworth — a terminal case ?



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 BARNHarmondsworth 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.

Harmondsworth Village


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A Commanding View

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.)

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Why can 1930s semis only be homes or B&Bs?

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 …

North Korean Embassy in Gunnersbury Avenue, W5

North Korean Embassy in Gunnersbury Avenue, W5

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.

Momo restaurant, Hanger Lane, Ealing W5

Momo restaurant, Hanger Lane, Ealing W5

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Relaxed about difference

Greater London has been unbothered about ethnic and cultural mixing since time immemorial and it’s good to see from 2011 census data that this tradition lives on. Dollis Hill, developed pre-World War I on the grounds of a 19th century country estate, is one of the two most ethnically diverse electoral wards in the United Kingdom. At the same time analysis of the data shows a local decline in neighbourhood ethnic segregation.

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Two terrible business ventures that shaped modern Middlesex


What Watkins’ Tower would have looked like

The most famous place to have Middx in its postal address must be Wembley,  the home since 1923 of England’s national stadium. Equally vital to the economy of west London are the 500 hectares of Park Royal, Europe’s largest area of industrial and business parks. Both were planted in the fields of Middlesex as a result of projects that failed to interest the public. Wembley was put on the map by what became known as Watkin’s Folly — more formally ‘The Great Tower of London’ — the brainchild of Sir Edward Watkin, the chairman of the Metropolitan Railway, who tried to outdo the Eiffel Tower on a site close to his trains. The foundations were laid in 1892 and the partially built tower was opened in 1896. But the structure was unsound, visitor numbers were disappointing, and it closed in 1900 being demolished between 1904-1907. However the project did succeed in raising Wembley’s profile and the ‘Empire Stadium’ built for the British Empire Exhibitions of 1924-25 cemented its place in history. Park Royal, which seems an odd name for a sprawling expanse of warehouses and light industry, is so called because of the decision of the Royal Agricultural Society to buy up 102 acres of land to create a permanent show ground. The society had run touring annual shows since 1839  to teach farmers about best current scientific practise but felt that, with modern transport, it would be more appropriate to bring audiences to the show then take the show out to the audiences. They were wrong. Despite patronage by King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra audiences fell from 65,000 in 1903 — a figure which meant a substantial financial loss — to 24,000 in 1905, the lowest ever recorded. Londoners apparently were unwilling to jump on the train to the new Park Royal stations to survey prize livestock. The Royal Agricultural Society cut its losses and sold the land for industrial development.

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Free pre-NHS health care in Middlesex

This online exhibition on Shenley Hospital is a reminder of how the former county council organised a county-wide health service between the wars. In 1930 it rebranded as Middlesex’s ‘County Hospitals’ a clutch of former poor-law infirmaries : North Middlesex in Edmonton, Redhill (now Edgware Community Hospital), Central Middlesex (formerly Park Royal hospital), Hillingdon Hospital (the county council developed this from scratch from a former workhouse) and West Middlesex in Isleworth. Almoners at these hospitals investigated patients’ means and charged them according to their ability to pay. Middlesex CC  had already started some free health care, especially in the fight against tuberculosis. From 1910 onwards any TB patient in the county was treated, and the council found funds to support their families. Then from 1936 onwards all TB treatment became free. Middlesex built two TB sanitoria and also concentrated  on mental health (a particular issue for the thousands traumatised in World War I.)  According to The Times in a 1927 article the council wanted to create in Shenley somewhere that would use the “most modern methods of treatment” and “for a period, at least, be the finest institution of its kind in the world”. The council made full use of its powers under the 1930 Lunacy and Mental Treatment Act to invest in mental health provision just as it channelled other income during the Great Depression (see below) into creating the modern infrastructure of much of Greater London.

A corridor in Shenley Hospital soon after its opening in 1934

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Roads and Bridges — how Middlesex built its place in history

Chiswick Bridge, built by Middlesex County Council and opened together with new bridges at Twickenham and Hampton Court in 1933

Nearly fifty years ago Middlesex County Council was abolished; it disappeared into thin air but before doing so it scattered London and its approaches with monuments to years of frantic activity between the wars; these aimed both  to combat unemployment and build the external skeleton of a modern mega-city.

The county council built the North Circular, Western Avenue, the Great West Road, the Cambridge Road, the Chertsey Road and the Watford and Barnet by-passes. and handsome bridges at Chiswick, Twickenham and (with Lutyens as its archtect) at Hampton Court.

The Great West Road at Osterley

The biggest example of the 30s building programme is mostly invisible: the 70 miles of new main sewers serving the new West London suburbs built under the Middlesex County Council act of 1931 with half of the £5.5 million bill paid for by central government on condition that three quarters of the workforce were recruited through local labour exchanges.  The visible part of this undertaking — comparable with the original Victorian London sewerage programmes of Sir Joseph Bazalgette — is the 55 hectares of the Mogden Sewage works in Isleworth, the second biggest in the UK and serving 2.1 million people. It was built between 1931 qne 1934 and officially opened in 1936. An upgrade was completed in March 2013 which increased its capacity by 50%.

Mogden Sewage Works

Mogden Sewage Works


What’s more Middlesex pioneered green politics. It was the first ever local authority to obtain legal powers to prosecute people suspected of polluting rivers and to pay for remedial work. It also, at around the turn of the 20th century, began buying land to create riverside walks. This initiative was came decades before the first act of parliament to promote London’s Green Belt, in 1938; Middlesex in any case spent heavily during the 1930s buying land to keep it free of development — not just in Middlesex itself, but the 110 acres of the Ankerwycke Estate at Wraysbury and the 306 cres of Denham Court, both in Buckinghamshire, the 350 acres of Moor Park, Rickmanshworth in Herfordshire.

Moor Park Estate, Rickmansworth

It’s a record that makes present day efforts to invest in infrastructure during a recession look timid.


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When Ratty and Mole met the Home Fleet

Looking north from the Surrey bank. Launches at Thorneycrofts were occasions for local celebrations.

The Clyde and the Tyne are famous as shipbuilding rivers for the Royal Navy; the Thames at Chiswick and Hampton less so. But in the heyday of the British Empire a great shipbuilding name — Thorneycrofts — arose with the unlikely address of Church Wharf, Chiswick Mall, where it made torpedo gunboats before moving operations to Southampton in 1904. To fit under London’s bridges, masts and funnels had to be removed and replaced downriver and Greenhithe, near Dartford.  The picture above shows the launch of HMS Speedy in May, 1893. More on the history of Thorneycrofts here and also to follow on this page.

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Paradise Lost

Evelyn Waugh, writing in his unfinished autobiography A Little Learning (1964), describes how London spread into a Middlesex village in the years before World War I.

Golders Green in 1904

I was four years old when my father built his house in what was then the village of North End, Hampstead. He was, in fact, the first of its spoliators. When we settled there the tube reached no further than Hampstead. Golders Green was a grassy crossroad with a sign pointing to London, Finchley and Hendon, such a place as where ‘the Woman in White ’ was encountered. All around us lay dairy farms, market gardens and a few handsome old house of brick or stucco standing in twenty acres of more; not far off survived woods where we picked bluebells and streams beside which we opened our picnic baskets. North End Road was a steep, dusty land with white posts and rails bordering its footways. North End, the reader may remember, was the place where Bill Sikes spend the first night of his flight after the murder of Nancy…

The meadow with the willows was sold to the builders. Soon after ours other new houses sprang up alongside us. Opposite us stood a large late Victorian villa named Ivy House (where Pavlova spent her last years) with wooded grounds. Soon these were built on leaving the garden and a pond for the ballerina’s privacy. Then the tube emerged into the open at Golders Green and round the station grew shops, a theatre, a cinema and a dense spread of new brick and rough cast dwellings not unlike our own. Eventually (I think soon after the first war) our postal address was altered from Hampstead to Golders Green. My father deplored the change and, as far as was possible, ignored it, because Hampstead had historic associations, with Keats and Blake and Constable, while Golders Green meant, to him, merely a tube station …

… besides the conurbation at Golders Green, another building enterprise was soon begun __ Hampstead Garden Suburb. The houses there were better designed and their tenants were under particular restrictions about the height of their garden fences. They were inhabited not exactly by cranks, nor by bohemians, but mainly by a community of unconventional bourgeois of artistic interests …

Henrietta Barnett (née Rowland) 1851-1936

This utopia had its presiding genius, a lady named Mrs (Later Dame Henrietta) Barnett. My father, who had some difference with her, would sometimes wander about singing a ditty of his own composition which began:

‘Blast it! Darn it!

‘Henrietta Elizabeth Barnett’

so that I grew up to regard this, I now believe, exemplary lady as a ludicrous monster.’


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Heathrow: no plane no gain?

Suddenly we’re having to think about the future of Middlesex without its biggest employer, its largest single commercial site, the one feature which probably really is visible from space: Heathrow Airport. The Norman Foster scheme for a giant airport and transport hub in the Isle of Grain in Kent, the most likely version of ‘Boris Island’ which will soon be the subject of a public consultation, has to involve closing Heathrow — according to Willy Walsh of BA — otherwise the private financiers who’d have to fund it won’t be able to get their money back.

From the Norman Foster plans published Nov 11. For the first time since the Romans, Middlesex is not central to Britain's transport links.

The Foster scheme has a second implication for the former-Middlesex boroughs of North and West London: the new rail links to the North and to the Continent skirt them entirely. So the old county would be lose its historic importance as the gateway to London, which it had as the site of the Roman roads, the docks, the railway approaches and most recently as the birthplace of aviation. It seems almost as politically impossible to shut down Heathrow as it’s been to find room for more runways in the South East. Ken Livingstone has been making defending Heathrow a plank of his mayoral campaign. But the national threat of high unemployment and negative economic growth can be powerfully persuasive. The kind of fate that could be in store for Heathrow’s 12 sq kilometers is depicted in the sort of plans prepared for places like Old Oak Common, very similar to the instant developments taking place in China’s new giant cities. Another and better approach would be to re-evaluate the unappreciated potential in the urban sprawl of the Middlesex suburbs.  Heathrow was once a Neolithic monumental site.

Before London Airport: a market garden at daffodil time

Much more recently it was rich market gardens, in the heart of a county largely dedicated to Londoners’ pleasure and recreation. The wheat of Heston, just to the east of Heathrow, was so good that Queen Elizabeth used it for her manchet bread , according to John Middleton, author of A View of the Agriculture of Middlesex (1798). The most attractive way to plan for Heathrow, and more generally  for Middlesex, will be through re-appreciating existing buildings and finding new uses for them, and by showing an appreciation of local history — the same kind of approach, in fact, that revived Notting Hill and Islington in the 60s and 70s and Hoxton, Shoreditch and Dalston in the last few years. And with Heathrow’s agricultural history and its legendary soils, at least some of its 3,000 acres might be used for new allotments.

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