Monday, 11 July 2011
I’m at Euston station in London, at 9.30 on a weekday morning in early July. People are streaming off the train from Birmingham, which has whisked them here in an hour and twenty minutes. The journey I’m about to embark on will take me rather longer. I’m going to walk the proposed route of HS2 – the High Speed Rail line – finishing where they started. It will take me ten days to walk, which with rest days to write and plan gives me no slack if I am to finish before the consultation period ends on July 29th.
I like Euston. It is the embodiment of the optimistic modernism of the 1960’s. Light, airy and international – it feels more like a small airport than a station. And like airports all over the world, you could be anywhere. In fact it feels like an entirely suitable terminus for Britain’s fastest railway.
Except for one thing. It isn’t big enough. In order to accommodate HS2 the station will have to be extended. This will mean demolishing around 250 homes, which is more than half of all those threatened on the route to Birmingham. My first objective as I start my walk is to find them.
The streets outside the station are a mixture of the original late Georgian, the Council estates which replaced them, and the towering offices of the modern city. I’ve got some previous here. My great-great grandfather lived in Ernest Street. The house and the street are gone now, demolished to make way for the Regent’s Park Estate. Part of this estate in its turn will need to be demolished for HS2.
I hunt around for posters or banners opposing the line. I know that local MP Frank Dobson has come out against it, and I know about Camden against HS2, but I find no evidence. Eventually I spot a community notice-board listing the affected blocks (pictured above). They are neat well-maintained flats, with plants on the balconies and plane trees growing on the community greens outside. I’m sure that inside they will be spacious, built in the 1950’s during the halcyon days of “Parker Morris” standards before the money ran out. Why aren’t people protesting more publicly? I don’t know, and I don’t find anyone to ask.
Just beyond the Regent’s Park Estate HS2 will enter a tunnel under Primrose Hill. Once again my family history greets me. Near here the daughter of the cabinet maker from Ernest Street married a tailor living in rooms in a house in Ainger Road, and they became my great grandparents.
Like so many Londoners, my genealogy is moulded by the thirst for in-migrants of the growing city. The cabinet maker from Ernest Street was born in Darlington the year after the Battle of Waterloo. He moved to London, married a woman from Essex, and their daughter married a boy up the road, the son of a tailor born in Norfolk. The rest of that generation of my family tree were tradespeople from variously Westmoreland, Yorkshire, Hampshire, Oxfordshire and Devon. Born and raised all over England, they came to London to find work and intermarried, so that by the beginning of the 20th century their grandchildren, my four grandparents, were all living in the capital.
This migration from within Britain of 150 years ago is now of course replaced by migration from across the world. If my personal history is repeated then in two generations time the descendants of the young Londoners in the primary school playground in Euston will be able to trace their lineage from the four corners of our global village. And why not? We live in a High Speed world.
Primrose Hill gives me an unrivalled view of the metropolis (pictured above). From here I can see the Houses of Parliament, St. Pauls and Westminster Abbey among the modern giants of the Telecom Tower, The Nat West Tower, Canary Wharf, the Gherkin and, rising ever higher into the sky, the Shard of Glass. Staring out over London, which is a forest of cranes despite the downturn in construction, it just seems obvious to me that as the city grows it needs ever more transport capacity. HS2 is just one of many new arteries that will be needed to keep the blood of labour and capital flowing.
I follow the HS2 tunnel route through the neat Council estates and terraced streets of South Hampstead and Kilburn, and stop to rest on a bench by the Regent’s Canal. I’m overlooking Kensal Green cemetery. The first commercial cemetery in London, it counts among its “inhabitants” Isambard Kingdom Brunel, buried close to his own Great Western main line, and now to have HS2 tunnelled underneath him.
A man sits down on the bench next to me, and I ask him what he thinks of HS2. He’s local, and very even handed about it. It will create disruption yes, but it will create jobs, so on balance it should be built. Old Oak Common used to be a hive of activity, but it’s nearly empty now. This will bring it back to life. “If I lived in the Chilterns I wouldn’t like it, though,” he adds as an afterthought. Fascinating. Here he is, five miles from Euston and more than twenty from the Chilterns, aware of the impact on an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, but utterly unaware that 250 homes will need to be demolished in London. My respect for the Chiltern publicity machine goes up another notch.
I follow the canal to Old Oak Common (pictured above). The giant marshalling yards are indeed very quiet, with the main activity being preparation for Crossrail. This is where the HS2 station will go, open for travellers before the tunnel to Euston is completed. The area to the north is almost wholly industrial - the marshalling yards at Willesden and the sprawling Park Royal estate. A thought strikes me. Could Old Oak Common station be the spur for a massive regeneration of this area? Olympics 2036 at Park Royal anyone?
I pop into the Old Oak Café and ask a customer what he thinks of HS2. He’s seen the leaflet, and the line will be going under his house. His answer surprises me. “When there are 30,000 people in front of you on the platform why would you object to another rail line?” And his house? “Well the line won’t be 10 feet down will it, more like 100 feet”. Interesting. It’s as if Londoners are used to their city changing around them. It’s what happens, it isn’t a surprise and it isn’t to be feared. He doesn’t like my Olympics idea though. He says 2012 is a complete waste of money and we certainly shouldn’t bid for it again.
I walk on through the Park Royal estate and soon abandon the Olympics concept anyway. Although the big engineering companies are gone, and the Guinness brewery is closed and demolished, the giant estate remains a thriving mix of wholesalers, workshops and distribution depots. Regeneration on the scale of 2012 is not needed here. In any case Wembley, a mile to the north, is already part of the Olympics package.
As I leave Park Royal I cross the route of HS2 again, now alongside the Central Line, go through the subway under the Western Avenue, and suddenly I am in suburbia. I haven’t seen a single poster or banner opposing HS2 yet. I haven’t even found anyone who opposes it, and I’m really rather surprised.
You can view my route at http://www.mapmyrun.com/routes/view/41019954