Saturday, 27 November 2010

Drab, sad West Ealing

London, I think, suffers from its very size. It is just the centre of London, from Kensington in the west right across to the City in the east, that foreigners think of as 'London'. Kensington, Chelsea, Knightsbridge, Mayfair, Marylebone, Belgravia, Westminster, Soho, Covent Garden, Bloomsbury, Holborn and the City of London - each with its own separate character. This is London proper, districts known by tourists and well-informed people around the world who might not have visited it, but are familiar with the above names from newspapers, books or films.

But the rest of Greater London? Acton, Forest Gate, Greenford, Kenton, Hornsey, Yeading, Isleworth? How many foreigners who've never visited London are even aware of these places? Peckham, Perivale, Catford or Whitton? Do these places resonate with atmosphere, with spirit of place? I rather think not.

Spirit of place in an urban setting comes from historic buildings, interesting architecture, geographic location - hills, rivers - West Ealing has none of these.

Beyond Kensington to the west, London continues to sprawl out with housing only giving way to fields once you get beyond Hillingdon, 15 km to the west. Half way between London proper and the countryside, surrounded by all sides by dense, forgettable suburbia, is West Ealing. Generic terraced housing. This is where I grew up. And while the top end of West Ealing, where my parents live, by Cleveland Park, is pleasant enough, the bottom end, along the Uxbridge Road, is drab and depressing.

Noble old buildings from Edwardian times are being demolished to make room for flats; more and more people (and their cars) are moving into the area. Large houses that were once home to a single prosperous Edwardian family and its servants have been sub-divided into four or five flats. Back gardens are being sold off as building plots for yet more flats.

Most white faces you pass will be talking Polish. There are five Polish shops between Ealing Broadway and West Ealing, a Polish hairdresser, restaurants and even a furniture shop (Polskie Meble!).

But the rest of the shopping is dire. The profusion of pound-shops (everything for one pound) is no more; all those Pound Kingdoms, Pound Lands and Pound Duchies have gone, boarded up, unable to face the competitive pressure from the almighty Pound World, which resides where Woolworths once was, and where everything from gas turbines to hovercraft to streetlamps can be purchased for a pound. People shuffle around in a daze, gormlessly drifting from store to store. Walking around West Ealing today, I had the distinct impression of a country without direction or purpose.

Central London has immense character, but it is ringed by dull, drab and essentially similar suburbs that the well-to-do flee from, either for the extremely expensive sophistication of the centre or for beautiful villages in the English countryside, far away from the ghastliness of the suburbs.

The choice between rural Buckinghamshire and Knightsbridge is one that today can be made only by millionaires. The rest is England's squeezed middle.

And so I prefer living in Warsaw, thank you!


White Horse Pilgrim said...

Hmm, so those acres of communist apartment blocks are less dull than London suburbs? Still we started off with better things in Britain and seem determined to claw our way down to find the lowest common denominator. It's sad. The British seem to have lost their way, thrown away their advantages and lost their work ethic. (I'm looking forward to seeing Cameron's "chain gangs" of long term unemployed cleaning the streets.) Even so London must be dire if you prefer a Warsaw suburb with muddy streets, no sewers, a propensity to flood, and a crap train service.

Ryszard Wasilewski said...

But there are places like Hampstead, Blackheath, Putney, Islington, Whitechapel, and many others , which have character and a strong sense of place. Islington, the area between Angel and the Caledonian Road, even survived gentrification and has long been one of my favorite parts of London. But you are correct in general; it is a dismal experience spending too much time outside the central areas, which you listed -- unless you are a keen anthropologist.

Marcin said...


We visited London in 2004 before moving over to the UK and decided it wasn't for us - we far preferred Warsaw.

However we landed in a town in Kent (Maidstone) and found it bearable. Now we moved to Oxfordshire which offers much better opportunities in IT and find the area very nice indeed.

We've got a great train service to Paddington if need be (whether it be commuting or just entertainment), and also Oxford/Reading/Swindon.

I really feel for people forced to live in London, but there are other affordable places available too.

Marcin said...

Besides, it can take more than 45 minutes to get to Central London if you live in the suburbs, so I'd rather take the train from a nice small town than the crammed tube every day.

Having said that, the Great British Commute seems to be the longest in Europe (and a waste of life).

Commuting in Warsaw wasn't much better though, my friend took a bus to work from Tarchomin to Szczesliwice, 90 minutes each way.

Pan Steeva said...

I completely agree and Warsaw is marvellous. To answer White Horse Pilgrim's question "so those acres of communist apartment blocks are less dull than London suburbs?". Absolutely!

I find the success of anti-communist propaganda most amusing, compared to the reality I found. Arriving in winter in weather like today, with snow filling the air and covering the ground, the first impression of such an estate was depressing. However, when the tress were covered with leaves and the grass was green it was pleasant enough. With the walls painted, as most are now, even the winterscape is no longer bleak. I subsequently visited and lived in other estates. All of these were built as parks and gardens. Nice places to live. Better than most of the terraced house landscape or worse in London.

Now, thinking back to the high-rise blocks near Camberwell Green that I knew, plus the low rise blocks in Peckham, both to some extent equivalent to Polish communist estates, I know what city slums are like, and they aren't in Warsaw.

Sigismundo said...

I'm not a great fan of London's western suburbs. They are an unfriendly sterile place and have been ever since London expanded eastwards back in the 1920s and 30s. They have since undergone massive "Third-Worldization", with the influx of immigrants from Britain's former colonies, and more recently of Poles.

But you are not comparing like with like. Your hometown of Jeziorki is akin to one of London's greener suburbs, Amersham perhaps, but without the antique shops, pubs and winebars, and apparently sanitation and transport infrastructure.

I write this while sitting in a house just 4km from West Ealing. And I'd much prefer to be here than wasting away in one of those Stalinist soul-destroying concrete wastelands in Bemowo or Grochów, or in one of the "reconstructed" areas of Warsaw like Wola, which still bear the pain and sadness of the atrocities of WW2 in the demeanour of the present inhabitants.

If you see a loss of direction in the faces of the people of Ealing, don't blame it on the English – who have all left for greener pastures – you're looking at Poles and other assorted immigrants, who are adrift in an alien environment because the British government has been too chicken-shit to tackle the problem of immigration in time to avert the destruction of London's suburban culture.

Anonymous said...

The suburbs deserve a very detailed academic study that researches the post-war social, architectural, anthropological, economic and spiritual structures –it would be very revealing to see London, inner and outer and central anatomised and peeled like a giant onion. I grew up in the suburbs and I live in the suburbs now and will probably continue to the the suburbs. When you get away from the tarnished romanticism that blurs the objective view of the suburbs - that so many writers seem to like to employ these days when writing about the subject - you see a landscape of ever-changing communities coming in and inhabiting the trappings of past and current tradition, you see the shifts in wealth and family ties and values, the changes in shopping habits reflecting the community - where once there stood a 'Blockbuster' video rental store, now stands a wondrous Eastern Deli - you can stand in awe at the top of a hill and see wonderful rib upon rib of terraced houses reaching out like spokes from the core, each with their parades of shops and services - the patchwork of parks and rurality that emerges and then is savagely cut asunder by a major road or two. Each suburb has its station or stations, its parade of shops, its no-go areas, its gentry areas where you go to on a Saturday to 'feel better' and to drink over-priced coffee and select good 2nd-hand books and each suburb moves slowly out of its tradition shell with the mores of the planning laws. I adore the heirachy of the Semi-detached house with its flush fronts or bow windows and gentle or elongated eaves and the opaqueness of order - defined by net curtains, routine and the ticking of the clock on the mantle. A vision of the past? Not a bit of it. The suburbs have this clarity, this routine of opening and closing doors defined by the need to leave the house and travel to work and the need, the urge to return to the same scenario. Look out for the 1973 classic work 'The Castles on the ground- the anatomy of suburbia" by J.M Richards {John Murray - illustrated by John Piper} which is an illuminating text. If you are aware, you can chronicle the changes at the micro and macro-level. The extensions, the loss of the garage, the people who move on, the shops that remain firmly shut, the strangely out-of-place property built after a fire or because the owner could no longer stand his current dwelling, the empty properties still owned by ancient freeholders, the replacement bus service routes when your station is closed, the Sunday pizza or indian takeaway leafleteer - always at 3.30pm, the drive full of cars because each offspring needs one{!}, the over-sized pubs on roundabouts that yearn for customers, the hedge untrimmed, the perpetual wind chimes, the church halls used on weekday nights for resident committee meetings, the endless search for meaning in a newly-paved drive. The suburbs sing and sleep with equal relish!


Steve Rees said...


I came across you're blog purely by chance whilst researching for my other blog ( - regarding cuts Ealing Council are making to disability social services currently)and sat surfing it for a very pleasant hour.
I had the pleasure of living in Wa-wa from 1999 - 2001, in Mokotow(ul.Wiktorska & the very nice square by the Kino on Ul. Narbutta)whilst working at the British School. Spent many a pleasant evening eating Turkey & cranberry in the bistro by the shops at Raclawicka.
I used to love a walk in Kabaty forest, very peaceful and beautiful and often would wonder down to Wilanow Palace and the glorious park & forest around there. Just a lovely place.
Thanks, an interesting blog

Michael Dembinski said...

@ Steve Rees

By coincidence (and the universe is indeed held together by a web of coincidences), my daughter Moni goes to school on ul. Wiktorska!