The Westway is 50 years old and must rank as one of the capital’s most notorious roads. One of London planners’ homages to Le Corbusier’s grand visions of Cities in the Sky, it was conceived of as part of their ambitious 1960’s London Ringways network of multi-lane motorways soaring on concrete pylons with massive spider’s web junctions, linking high-rise housing and offices. These would span areas like Hackney and Highbury, Balham and Battersea. A dual-carriageway was planned for Covent Garden, to go through the Piazza and demolish St Paul’s Church.
In the event, London got the Westway, a 3.5 mile stretch of motorway which for a while relieved congestion around Shepherd’s Bush caused by traffic coming to and from Western Avenue, and reduced time driving in and out of the city from over an hour to just minutes.
Taking five years to build and opening fully in 1970, the raised concrete motorway cut through densely populated swathes of west London, obliterating familiar landmarks, abruptly abbreviating residential roads, splitting communities in two, causing furious protests from local residents. In North Kensington the opposition was intense and prolonged, and here the road became a focus for anti-establishment groups and alternative culture, it inspired punk and graffiti, and was responsible for dystopian visions in film, fiction and music. Fifty years later, brand new communities thrive in undercrofts below, though some are doing a lot better than others.
In Westminster, it’s quite a different story. Although the impact of the construction and presence of the road was similar, its effect and subsequent history took a different direction. It certainly dramatically split communities here too, as a walk north on Edgware Road clearly demonstrates – the ‘little Beruit’ and slightly exotic Arabic feel of the section between Marble Arch and the Marylebone Flyover disappear completely north of the Flyover, where the poverty and deprivation of the Church Street area are immediately stark. For 40 years the only way to cross between the two was via a most uninviting subway. Similarly, densely packed terraced housing in Westbourne Green and on the south side of the Harrow Road were demolished, replaced by modern high rise blocks, cut off from their natural hinterland of Porchester Road, Royal Oak station and the delights of Queensway beyond.
In general however, Westminster seemed simply to turn its back on the development, managing to ignore it and leave it to the motorists for whom it was intended. For most of 50 years, its environs were unlovely, neglected and avoided.
But what’s life like now along the Westminster stretch of the Westway? It’s worth taking a two and a half kilometre walk alongside the elevated road from Marylebone to Westbourne Park to find out. There are signs it is no longer quite as shunned as before. Signs of humanity are coming back and shiny new communities are coming to life nearby. This is particularly true of the south side between Edgware Road and Little Venice where a new area apparently as big as Soho has suddenly materialised. It is a fascinating exercise to take a close look at what’s along the Westway, to admire or despise the sweeping curves above with their polished concrete underbelly, think back 50 years ago, and imagine what future might be.
Surprisingly perhaps, it is possible to walk alongside the Westway avoiding noise and pollution. Contrary to expectations, there are plenty of quiet leafy places along the way where tour stops are easy and audible. It’s also relatively step free – the subways, underpasses and footbridges used to criss-cross below the road are well furnished with ramps and slopes.
One day it might even be possible to walk on the Westway itself. Not now of course: although it lost its motorway (M) status in 2000, pedestrians are still not permitted on any part of it. For a couple of years though, it looked as if cyclists might be. In 2015-16 Mayor’s office supported proposals to replace a traffic lane into a segregated two-lane cycle path separated from motor traffic by a screen and barriers. This was to provide a clear route between Wood Lane and Paddington. London Cycling groups heralded the plan as an ‘iconic and controversial scheme’, although admitting it could be quite challenging to get on and off the route, and impossible to enter or exit mid-way. It was quietly shelved in 2017 by TfL and Mayor Sadiq Khan.
By Mary Enright