The Westway must rank as one of the capital’s most notorious roads. Opening in 1970, the raised concrete motorway cut through densely populated swathes of west London, causing furious protests from local residents. It subsequently provided inspiration for the dystopian visions of author JG Ballard and cropped up in songs by The Clash and Blur. But what’s life like along the Westway now? We walked alongside a two mile stretch of the elevated road to find out.
The Westway starts by Edgware Road and begins its ascent beside the little leafy oasis of Paddington Green. Also here is St Mary's Church, built in 1790, and a plucky little survivor in the shadow of the concrete monolith right in front of it. Its bell rings out every hour, trying to be heard above the constant roar of traffic. Paddington Town Hall used to be right in front of St Mary's but found itself in the way of the wrecking ball. Its frontage was saved and now resides further up the Harrow Road.
Passing the Grand Union Canal, the road becomes a complicated, double-decker beast with Harrow Road running on the level below the Westway. In this tightly packed space is the ‘Battle Bridge Building’. Formerly a British Rail depot, it’s now an office block, home to the Indian Visa Application Centre among other things. It won the Concrete Society’s ‘Building of the Year’ in 1969; fans of that particular material would really be in their element round here…
Following Royal Oak, the Westway curves away from the main Harrow Road and becomes easier to walk alongside as it veers back towards the Grand Union Canal, headed to Westbourne Park. Two worlds really collide here with the sleepiness of the Canal and the thunder of Westway traffic.
A wall with a barbed wire fence separates the towpath and the area under the road. Combined together, it has an air of the Berlin Wall about it, especially with the graffiti. The 1960s Trellick Tower also looms large on the horizon for more shades of the Eastern Bloc.
After leaving Westbourne Park, with its bus garage built into the Westway, North Kensington looks more LA than LDN thanks to the modern BaySixty6 Skate Park nestled beneath the road.
It’s a creative use of what could easily be a desolate no-man’s-land. Where the road begins running beside rows of Victorian houses, it's easy to see why the ‘60s residents would have been aghast to have all this suddenly land on their doorstep.
Things get really interesting when the Westway crosses Portobello Road and its famous market. The bustling, thriving energy of the market has spread beneath the road too. Acklam Village Market flanks it, and every weekend offers a wide range of world cuisine from its food stalls. For those who find trawling a market thirsty work, Bay 58 bar is located under the Westway itself.
The owners have made an incredibly colourful and vibrant space with regular live music sessions, an impressive achievement considering the grey concrete environment around it. There is even a ‘Westway’ ale available on tap, brewed by the local Portobello Brewery.
Further along, businesses make use of the road bays as warehouse space. Things liven up again shortly, in the shape of the Westway Sports Centre. With football pitches both under and adjacent to the road, basketball courts and cricket nets, there's plenty going on.
But perhaps the cleverest use of space comes in the area encircled by the roundabout linking up with the A3220, with the Westway ploughing through the middle at a higher level. The sports centre has put gym and fitness buildings here, nestling either side of the central pylons carrying the Westway.
A 1980s music video by British Soul/Funk band the Cool Notes for their song In Your Car gives you a glimpse of how bleak this section was before the centre opened in the '90s. To the north of the roundabout is a small nature area, alongside which are some Victorian houses, still accessed by a stile. We admire the spirit of those who maintain this small slither of green next to such an expansive section of the road.
The last part of the road comes as it crosses Wood Lane and descends to meet the original Westway. This is probably the only section that feels really derelict and desolate, a fenced off and graffiti-strewn area. It's a challenging area to work with as the road descends, reducing the headroom, but in time we wouldn't be surprised to see an inventive use of the space here too.
There's more going on along the two mile elevated stretch of the Westway than most people expect. Instead of the concrete brute sucking the life out of the immediate areas, the excellent Westway Trust has injected life back into the area. The original campaigners behind the Trust wanted something given back to the local communities after all the damage and destruction the road brought, and they've certainly got it.
So next time you find yourself in west London, walk beside the Westway for a while – there’s plenty there.