Westway

On July 28 1970 the Westway, A40 Western Avenue Extension flyover between White City and Paddington, at two and half miles, the longest elevated road in Europe at the time, was opened by Michael Heseltine, the parliamentary secretary to the transport minister. The opening ceremony was famously accompanied by a protest over the re-housing of the last residents alongside the road. As demonstrators disrupted the ribbon cutting, a banner was unfurled on Acklam Road, looking on to the flyover, demanding: ‘Get Us Out of this Hell. Re-house Us Now’.

When the Portobello farmhouse was painted in 1864, shortly before its demise, the only other building on the lane north of the newly opened Hammersmith and City railway line was the Notting Barn Lodge at the future junction of Cambridge Gardens. Florence Gladstone wrote in ‘Notting Hill in Bygone Days’: ‘There seems to be a natural break where the railway embankment crosses Portobello Road. At this point the old lane was interrupted by low marshy ground, overgrown with rushes and watercress.’ But within a few years of the painting the last remaining fields of Portobello farm would become the streets of the Golborne ward.

Alongside the railway line boundary of the Golborne and Colville wards, Acklam Road was built in the late 1860s and stood for a hundred years, before being demolished to make way for the Westway flyover in the late 1960s. The road took its name from the Acklam village, now in Middlesborough, which like Rillington and Ruston is close to the Yorkshire country seat of the North Kensington developer Colonel St Quintin.

The old street featured the Duke of Sussex, an HH Finch pub on the corner of Portobello Road, on the site of the open-air market area by the entrance to the Acklam Village farmers market. At the beginning of the 20th century, on Charles Booth’s ‘Life and Labour of the People of London’ map, conditions on Acklam Road were assessed as fairly comfortable. In the 1914 street directory the south side was occupied by a laundry, coal dealer, loan office, greengrocer and general dealer, bootmaker and news vendor. On the north side there was a timber merchant, builders, French polisher, bricklayer, chandler’s shop, confectioner, beer retailer and tobacconist. In the 30s there was the Pembroke Athletic Club boxing gym by the railway footbridge, and by the 60s the scrap merchants Acklam Metals were established at number 20.

From the 19th century up until 1965, number 3 Acklam Road, near the Portobello junction, was occupied by the Bedford family. When the Westway construction work began they sold up and moved to south London. In the early 70s the house was taken over by the North Kensington Amenity Trust and became the Notting Hill Carnival office before its eventual demolition. Anne Bedford (now McSweeney) has fond memories of living there, although she recalls: ‘I now know that the conditions were far from ideal but then I knew no different. There was no running hot water, inside toilet or bath, apart from the tin bath we used once a week in the large kitchen/dining room. Any hot water needed was heated in a kettle. I wasn't aware that there were people not far away who were a lot worse off than us, living in poverty in houses just like mine but families renting one room. We did have a toilet/bathroom installed in 1959, which was ‘luxury’. 

‘When the plans for the Westway were coming to light, we were still living in the house whilst all the houses opposite became empty and boarded up one by one. We watched all this going on and decided that it was not going to be a good place to be once the builders moved in to demolish all the houses and start work on the elevated road. Dad sold the house for a fraction of what it should have been worth but it needed too much doing to it to bring it to a good living standard. We were not rich by any means but we were not poor. My grandmother used to do her washing in the basement once a week by lighting a fire in a big concrete copper to heat the water, which would have been there until demolition. 

‘When we moved from number 3, I remember the upright piano that my grandparents used to play – and me of sorts – being lowered out of the top floor and taken away, presumably to be sold. I used to play with balls up on the wall of the chemist shop on the corner of Acklam and Portobello. We would mark numbers on the pavement slabs in a grid and play hopscotch. At the Portobello corner, on one side there was the Duke of Sussex pub, on the other corner, a chemist, later owned by a Mr Fish, which I thought was amusing. When I was very young I remember every evening a man peddling along Acklam Road with a long thin stick with which he lit the streetlights.’ Michelle Active who lived at number 33 remembers: ‘6 of us lived in a one-bed basement flat on Acklam Road. When they demolished it we moved to a 4-bed maisonette on Silchester Estate and I thought it was a palace, two toilets inside, a separate bathroom that was not in the kitchen, absolute heaven.’

Before Westway construction work began in 1966, the site of the south side of Acklam Road towards Westbourne Park hosted the London Free School adventure playground. This hippy community action project was inaugurated with an auto-destructive art performance by Gustav Metzger, consisting of a pile of rubbish that was set alight by local children. The Westway site was recalled by Emily Young (of Pink Floyd’s ‘See Emily Play’ fame) in Jonathon Green’s ‘Days in the Life’ as: “The dark side of the moon, the other side of wonderful Britain. It was the Martian wasteland. There were dead donkeys lying around, and dead people, a dead baby one time, a very weird place, desolation. And we’d have happenings; huge bonfires and musicians would come and Dave Tomlin played the saxophone and wrote poems and we’d take a lot of acid.”

At the last London Free School meeting, as construction work began in September 1966, Adam Ritchie proposed continuing the adventure playground part of the project under the flyover. The North Kensington Playspace Group proto-Westway Trust was subsequently formed by him and John O’Malley of the Notting Hill Community Workshop, with the aim of establishing a permanent adventure playground on Acklam Road. At this stage according to Jan O’Malley: ‘No one was certain about the use planned for the motorway space. While the chairman of the GLC Highways Committee had a vague idea that the space was to be used for recreation, the engineers building it believed the plans were to use it for warehousing and a car park.’

Dave Robins wrote in the Notting Hill ‘Interzone’ issue of International Times in May 1968: 'The area could congeal into a genuinely depressed ghetto, people’s social and economic needs being overshadowed by the gigantic inhuman motorway. This is what happened after the building of over-head railways in Chicago and New York. Local politicians could seize this opportunity to turn Notting Hill into Britain’s first US style black ghetto (if it isn’t that already). A lot may depend on the use of the huge arches or spans which carry the motorway… If the spans are given over to the community, the possibilities for further creative extensions to the children’s adventure playground, already under way in Westbourne Park, are total.’

As the Playspace Group was renamed the Motorway Development Trust in late 1968, their plan outlined by Robin Moore was to create: “a kind of community strip, a bustling social market place, complementing the commercial activity of Portobello Road.” The proposed amenities for the Acklam Road bays were a public laundry, café, health centre, nursery school, pre-school playgroup, sport area and adventure playground. After the Motorway Development Trust established the first adventure playground under the flyover on St Mark’s Road, with the assistance of the Westway contractors Laing Construction, for the next summer holidays in 1969 the Acklam Road Adventure Playground was opened in 6 bays east of Portobello Road. The following year it was established as a permanent playground with a hut.

During the 4 years of construction work, for the remaining inhabitants of the north side of Acklam Road and the other surviving terraces close to the flyover, ‘continuous noise and dirt from heavy lorries and machinery became a familiar and unwelcome part of life.’ The sound of the Westway being built was described by Eileen Wright in ‘Taking on the Motorway’: “There was a terrible noise for weeks when they were pile-driving. They started at 6 O’clock in the morning – sometimes it went on all night. You think the whole city is being bombarded beneath you.”

From 1968 through the 70s, the wall alongside the Hammersmith and City line beneath the Westway between Portobello Road and Westbourne Park featured graffiti by the Situationist King Mob group that read: ‘Same thing day after day – Tube – Work – Diner (sic) – Work – Tube – Armchair – TV – Sleep – Tube – Work – How much more can you take – One in ten go mad – One in five cracks up.’

At the Westway opening in 1970 Michael Heseltine told the press: “There are two sides to this business. One is the exciting road building side… but there is also the human side of this thing, and how huge roads like this affect people living alongside them. You cannot but have sympathy for these people.” The Standard reported that: ‘the ministerial cavalcade later drove the length of the twin dual-carriageway running from Paddington to White City. On the way it passed Acklam Road, where bedrooms of houses are less than 50 feet from the elevated section of the road. Here the GLC is proposing to spend £250,000 buying 42 houses which have been ‘blighted’, demolish them and turn the land acquired into a buffer state.’

The Acklam Road residents’ representative George Clark protested to the Transport Minister John Peyton (who said he couldn’t attend the opening because he had to be at a cabinet meeting): “I want to make a statement to the minister about the hell on earth in North Kensington. During the 5 years it has taken to construct this engineering marvel, the lives and social conditions of the residents of Acklam Road and Walmer Road have been made hell upon earth. For these people the new urban highway is a social disaster." The Westway opening protest developed into a local dispute between Walmer Road and Acklam Road, as George Clark was blamed for holding up the re-housing of the former tenants in favour of the latter. International Times accused him of ‘diverting justifiable community anger from radical action into harmless words.’ 

As 47,000 vehicles a day began ‘cruising through the rooftops of North Kensington’, negotiations between the Motorway Development Trust and the Council resulted in the inauguration of a new trust with a half-Council/half-community management committee in 1971. Andrew Duncan wrote in his introduction to 'Taking on the Motorway': 'Out of a 4-year campaign, North Kensington Amenity Trust was set up in partnership with the local authority in response to two demands: The mile strip of land under the motorway which lay within the borough's boundaries should be used to compensate the community for the damage and destruction caused by the road; and the 23 acres should be held in trust to ensure that local people would be actively involved in determining its use. The story of the trust is one of conflict, for it was born out of bitter clashes between an angry local community and the two planning authorities that gave consent to the motorway intruder – the GLC and the RBK&C. But it is also a story of hope…'

Anthony Perry, the first director of North Kensington Amenity Trust, was a former film producer who had worked on the Beatles’ ‘Yellow Submarine’. He concluded that developing the Westway land ‘would call for qualities not unlike those needed for producing a film’, went for the job and got it. In his ‘A Tale of Two Kensingtons’ diary of the trust’s first 5 years from 1971 to 76, he pondered: ‘What is the Amenity Trust? In the very simplest terms, it is a charity that has been set up to develop the 23 acres of land under the elevated motorway in North Kensington in the interest of the community. No thought was given to the social implications for this working-class neighbourhood at the time the motorway was planned. The trust was set up in response to the great energy and pressure of a small number of local people.

‘The council wanted me to take an office at the town hall but it was essential I be on the spot so I occupied an empty house waiting for demolition, on the corner of Portobello and Acklam Road, and set up shop on May 28 1971 with the help of Pat Smythe, a tough resourceful member of the management committee who had set up the first adventure playground in Telford Road. 3 Acklam Road was one of a row of houses due to be demolished as being too close to the motorway. I subsequently got them reprieved and we did some repairs and re-wiring and gave rooms to local groups. Our office was the one overlooking the junction with Portobello Road.’

Hawkwind played a series of free gigs under the Westway, pictured on the gatefold sleeve of their 1971 album ‘X In Search of Space’, during which they would merge with the Pink Fairies as Pinkwind. Frendz underground paper (at 305 Portobello Road) made ‘a call to all progressive people; black people smash the racist immigration bill; workers of Britain smash the Industrial Relations bill. All progressive people unite and smash growing fascism. Rally and march July 25, Acklam Road, Ladbroke Grove 2pm. Black Unity and Freedom Party.’

In 1973 the Caribbean Notting Hill Carnival as we know it today was established on Acklam Road, facilitated by Anthony Perry and the Amenity Trust. The Carnival office under the administration of Leslie Palmer was at 3 Acklam Road for two years and then moved to number 9 in the mid 70s, when Selwyn Baptiste became director. At the Carnival 73 ‘Mas in the Ghetto’ Acklam Road was dotted with reggae sound-systems and ‘electric funk/Afro/black music’ bands including Black Slate on the corner of St Ervan’s Road. In his Carnival memoirs Leslie Palmer recalls his first impressions of the area, Anthony Perry and the trust when he arrived on the scene in 73:

“Going to the North Kensington Amenity Trust at 3 Acklam Road offered me the opportunity to observe the derelict state of the terrace, which had been evacuated as they were close to the flyover and faced it directly. The Amenity Trust occupied the end house of the terrace that had been made functional and just about fit for purpose. Beside Cora, his secretary, there was the light skinned Jamaican worker Dave, who Anthony designated to help settle us in. The trust’s work was challenging as they were the most accessible body that seemingly represented the Council and as such they were the target for occasional grouses from disgruntled residents. Their main brief was to ascertain what amenities could be built on the undeveloped land under the flyover. The bays were empty and rubbish strewn but on the eastern side a small playgroup existed across Acklam from the derelict terrace.”

The photographer/artist Steve Mepsted was inspired by his childhood memories of the Acklam Road adventure playground to create the Orphans 70s street photo blow-up installation in the bays: ‘As a kid of 10 years old in 1973 I would play in the NKPG playground built in the Acklam Road bays – the very site of my installation. I was merely a visitor to the area at that time, travelling each Saturday morning from Redbridge in east London to help my mother on her market stall situated on the land now covered by the market tent. I returned to live here permanently at the age of 22; my decision to do so in no small way informed by my instant love of the area when I was a child.’

Acklam Road in the mid-70s is described in ‘Soft City’ by Jonathan Raban as consisting of: ‘a locked shack with Free Shop spraygunned on it, and old shoes and sofas piled in heaps around it; a makeshift playground under the arches of the motorway with huge crayon faces drawn on the concrete pillars, slogans in whitewash, from Smash the Pigs to Keep Britain White.’ The Free Shop hand sign on the corner of Acklam Road was sprayed with ‘It’s Only Rock’n’Roll’ graffiti, promoting the Rolling Stones’ 1974 single.

Emily Young recalled: “Under the motorway was just dead cats. People dumped rubbish and nobody cleared it. My idea was to have big archetypal figures and a continuing landscape of hills and green fields to bring a sense of space and freedom to the concrete bays.” As Anthony Perry was helping to establish the Notting Hill People’s Carnival, he was attacked in the People’s News (Notting Hill People’s Association’s newsletter) for getting private business funding for the community projects of the Amenity Trust, ‘set up to develop the land under the motorway for the people in the area’, rather than getting the Council to pay. 

During the 1976 Notting Hill Carnival riot, the film director Don Letts walked across Portobello Road towards Acklam Road, as Rocco Macaulay began photographing the police charge towards the Westway, where the youths were gathered. Macaulay’s shot of ‘The Clash’ moment when police ran across the Acklam junction became the back cover of the first Clash album and the backdrop of their ‘White Riot’ tour. The Don Letts’ Wild West 10 walk appeared on the sleeve of the ‘Black Market Clash’ album.

As Joe Strummer sang ‘Up and down the Westway, in and out the lights, what a great traffic system’, the Clash were photographed under the flyover by the Free Shop and Bob Marley was on the Acklam corner at the 1977 Carnival, establishing the site as ground zero of the west London punky reggae party. Acklam Road at the time of the 76 riot appears in the gritty detective film ‘The Squeeze’, starring Stacy Keach and Freddie Starr. In 2007 Mick Jones returned to ‘The Clash’ photo location with his Rock’n’Roll Library exhibition and the Strummerville studio at 2 Acklam Road.

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