This blog was inspired by a dream I had last night about the High Road, Wood Green, which was the nearest shopping center when I was growing up in the 1950s.
The dream got me thinking about how London has changed almost beyond recognition over the last 50 years or so. In a few areas, the changes are so dramatic that the area is completely different. Two such areas spring to mind immediately: the Elephant and Castle, and Swiss Cottage.
At the Elephant, all that remains of the old is the building containing one of the entrances to the Tube station. Bleak 1960s blocks and a shopping mall have replaced the old. Even the Elephant and Castle pub has been rebuilt in bleak 1960s style. The whole junction/roundabout area reminds me somehow of the Alexanderplatz redevelopment in East Berlin, once the showpiece of the German Democratic Republic. The main difference being the Elephant and Castle doesn’t sport a giant TV tower so, as the East Berliners used to joke, you can go up and watch people jumping over The Wall.
Swiss Cottage is where my father used to have his restaurant (click on picture above). It was modeled on a little Swiss Cottage (rather than an Alpine chalet) and gave the area its name. The building was originally a dairy we were told, when the area around was still fields. It was attached to a farmhouse. Presumably the two-story portion was the farmhouse, and the single-story part the dairy. The restaurant was called the Cottage Grill.
Behind it was a little garage, and then the Swiss Cottage pub, which in the 1950s looked nothing like a Swiss chalet or cottage. It has since been tarted up to resemble a Swiss Alpine chalet, and give the false impression that it was the pub which gave the area its name. In fact the dairy/farmhouse/Cottage Grill restaurant which inspired the name Swiss Cottage was criminally demolished in the mid 1960s. It should, of course, have had a preservation order put on it. There is no other building anything like it in London, or indeed the entire world. Inside it consisted of little rooms on various levels, the front wedge-shaped room (following the road layout outside) was oak-paneled. Now you can’t even see where there was room for this building. The garage has also disappeared, and all you have in front of the pub apart from roads/car parks is an entrance to Swiss Cottage Tube station, created after the restaurant was demolished.
There used to be an arcade of little shops opposite the restaurant which contained the main entrance to Swiss Cottage Tube station. The arcade could be accessed from Finchley Road, or from Belsize Road round the corner. Belsize Road was then a busy main thoroughfare, running into Finchley Road. It had buses, shops and restaurants. Since then huge blocks have been built over the junction, so Belsize Road no longer comes into Finchley Road, but has been turned into a little residential cul-de-sac. The station arcade has also been demolished. The whole area bears no resemblance whatsoever to its former self. All that is recognizable really, beyond the pub, is the 1930s Odeon cinema, and the 1930s block of flats behind it. Everything else has been rebuilt since the 1960s. Only if you turn back along Finchley Road towards Finchley Road Tube station do you see some older buildings on your right. The indoor swimming baths on the left has long been replaced by Sainsbury’s and other shops. Of course John Barnes, the famous Finchley Road departmental store, has long gone. It was on the left just before you reached Finchley Road Tube station.
But even in Wood Green, where I spent my childhood for 10 years from 1951-1961, there are many changes. In the High Road all the old shops have gone, even the big departmental store Bartons. And of course the old Wood Green Empire theater, later a TV studio, has also gone. Further down towards Wood Green Tube station there used to be an old railway line and a bridge going across the road. Nearby was Noel Park station. The line then continued behind the cinema and via a bridge over Station Road, near a fleapit cinema called the Rex (long demolished). The old Wood Green library (now rebuilt) with its green dome was on the corner, opposite the station. Trolleybuses used to use the nearby bus station.
The Noel Park railway line ended one station further on at Palace Gates, which in fact was a few minutes walk from the gates of Alexandra Park. There was yet another railway line which ended just behind Alexandra Palace itself. There was talk in the late 1950s of turning it into a new surface Tube line to Finsbury Park, but this never happened. Instead the lines were dug up, and we used to walk along what now looked like a country lane all the way from Alexandra Park, via Highgate and Queens Woods to Hampstead Heath, barely seeing any houses or streets at all en route.
Back to the High Road area, and the railway bridge has now been replaced by a bridge belonging to Wood Green’s Shopping City mall. The other bridge, over Station Road, used to be so low that the 233 bus from Finsbury Park to Northumberland Park (now renumbered as the W3) had to be operated by single-deckers. The road was lowered under the bridge during the 1950s to permit double deckers to operate on the route.
Recently I took my mother to visit the Bowes Park area a little to the north and to the left of Green Lanes, which is a continuation of Wood Green High Road. You pass the ‘new’ Haringey town hall on your left, which I remember them building in the 1950s, when it was the new Wood Green Town Hall. The old town hall was in the park further up on the right, which was then called Town Hall park.
Turning left up Myddelton Road, you come to a row of shops. This is the heart of Bowes Park, once part of the Bowes-Lyon estate of Queen Mother fame. The Bowes-Lyons, when they permitted residential development, stipulated that there were to be no pubs in the entire area, and there wasn’t at the time when I lived there. You had to go outside Bowes Park to find the nearest one.
The shops in Myddelton Road have all changed now. There were no Greek or Turkish restaurants there in the 1950s. No Greeks or Turks had spread as far out of central London as Wood Green. My brother and I were the first two kids with Greek names in the area, and our name of Papadopoulos was so unusual and caused so much ribbing at school that my mother (English and separated from her Greek-Cypriot husband, our father) changed it to Papard in 1958.
In the 1950s Myddelton Road had a fishmongers, a bakers, Seagrave the butcher (where I was given a little red Coronation Oxo tin in 1953, now long lost like my other Coronation souvenirs) and the Home and Colonial general store. Bowes Park station has also changed beyond all recognition. Like all British Rail(ways) stations it was lit by gas in the 1950s, and of course steam trains used it. Gone is the old covered wooden footbridge with its posters of Diana Dors in her latest film - my grandmother used to call her a ‘brazen hussie’ for her pouting lips poses on these posters. The other side of the footbridge on the left was a little cabin which sold raw cat’s meat - that is meat for cats, and dogs I suppose - a trade which has completely disappeared.
Marlborough Road, where we used to live, looks like a typical Victorian street of which London still has many. You would think little had changed in the last century or so. But to someone who lived there 50 years ago, it has changed beyond all recognition. If you took a photo of the house where we lived, number 93, you wouldn’t recognize it. It could be any Victorian house in London. Subtle changes have made the street almost unrecognizable.
When we moved there in 1951 (my grandparents already lived in the house, we moved in there after my mother left my father) the street was still lit by gas. Milk and coal were delivered by horse and cart. Pale green ‘pig bins’, a left-over from the war, stood on the corner of Manor Road. This was the first recycling scheme, meant for food waste such as potato peelings, and was fed to pigs in the countryside.
Why was number 93 so unrecognizable? First, the privet hedge had gone. Nearly all houses had big privet hedges for privacy in the 1950s. This made the streets look quite different to how they look now. Second, the old multi-colored tiles on the front footpaths had gone, as had the red-colored doorsteps everyone favored. The doors had been replaced, and the old ones with stained colored glass removed.
Politically the area has changed with the London borough changes in the 1960s. Leftwing Labour-Coop MP Joyce Butler represented Wood Green in Parliament. The border between the boroughs of Southgate and Wood Green ran right across Marlborough Road, just a few doors up from number 93 to the north. Now the whole area is in the London Borough of Haringey. Although we had a London postal district - N22 for Wood Green, N11 for Southgate to the north - we came under the county of Middlesex. The London County Council area ended at Finsbury Park, way to the south.
Although the Post Office doesn’t realize it, Middlesex was abolished as a county in the mid 1960s. It now only exists as a postal address. Greater London swallowed up the entire county of Middlesex (apart from Potters Bar), plus parts of Hertfordshire, Kent, Essex and Surrey in the 1960s. Romford moved from Essex, Bromley from Kent, Croydon from Surrey, Barnet from Hertfordshire, and they all became London boroughs. Only the Post Office, and snobs who live in these places, refused to recognize this fact. The Post Office and snobbish locals refused to allow such outlying areas to have London postal districts, preferring to create the completely false impression of places like Pinner and Croydon lying among the pastoral fields of the Home Counties. These and other places, such as Wandsworth and Clapham Junction where I now live, should be told: you are NOT towns, you don’t have ‘Town Centers’ - you are suburbs of London. Get used to it. (The same applies to ‘cities’ like Wolverhampton - clearly a suburb of the Birmingham conurbation, and Salfold, clearly an inner suburb of Manchester.)
The only concession offered by the Post Office was to let Potters Bar, once an outlying part of the old county of Middlesex, now be listed on envelopes as being in Hertfordshire.
So next time you walk down an old Victorian street in London, thinking little can have changed in the last 100 years or so, try to imagine it with gas lamps, privet hedges hiding all the lower bay-windows, and old-fashioned doors with stained glass windows. Then you may get a flavor of how it looked just 50 years ago.
The estate where I now live in Battersea was built in the 1980s. We were one of the first tenants to move in. The complete street layout has been altered. Streets which existed when I first moved to Battersea exist no more, or have been truncated into riduclous cul-de-sacs. McDermott Close, where I live, didn’t exist 30 years ago, neither did any of the other Closes on my estate.
Central London has also had many changes, some subtle, some not so subtle. Take the London Pavilion building for instance, part of the Trocadero site. Apart from once being a famous cinema, I always thought the building was little more than a hoarding for the vast electronic Wrigley’s Chewing Gum and other advertising signs. Piccadilly Circus was a blaze of neon, stretching right down to the Haymarket. You hardly realized there were real buildings behind all those lights.
I wonder how London will look in 50 years from now?