Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Wembley Revisited...

...and I don't mean the shiny new stadium. Wembley, the town, was the main shopping centre when I grew up (although as we lived about a mile to the north, in Preston, Harrow was also an option). Wembley was where I had my first job, working in a carpet shop during the summer of 1966 (and though I saw nothing of 'that' match, I did see the Queen sweeping through the near-empty streets in her shiny black car on her way there). It was to Wembley that my mother would go to redeem her books of Green Shield Stamps (stuck in by me). It was at the Trustee Savings Bank in Wembley High Road that I worked for nearly a year after I left school and before going to University; it was at the Abbey National in Wembley High Road that I opened my first savings account; it was at the Midland Bank in the centre of town where I did a further summer job in 1970. The main M & S branch opposite clothed us. My mother worked for years in a jewellers in the Wembley Central square, a sort of piazza where the tube station was situated.And, most fascinating of all for my car-obsessed brother, the romantically-named Midnight Motors occupied premises in the grimy streets at the back of the stadium, open till very late, if not necessarily up to midnight, and what better night out than to buy spanners, stiff metal brushes or spare light bulbs selected from the many open racks under the strip lighting whilst mixing with other blokes in oil-stained clothes clutching their Haynes manuals of do-it-yourself car repairs.

And then we cut the connections. Harrow became the shopping centre of choice. My mother lost her job and found another in Debenhams, also in Harrow. After graduating I worked in the City. Wembley, an easy bus ride away, ceased to be so important once we all had cars.

All a long time ago. Yesterday I took the train down to Wembley Park and walked the length of the High Road to see how it had changed. I knew that the white, middle-class population of what was once a prosperous suburb had been largely replaced by black and Asian immigrants (to be more precise by their children and grandchildren) but had not walked the streets for about 40 years. It was a case of stopping every couple of minutes to think "That used to be..." or "Where has that gone?". The first impression was the huge number of takeaways and cafes, offering a vast range of international cuisines. In my day it was a burger bar or a sandwich from British Home Stores. None of them looked like the sort of place you might wish to book up for a special night out. The next real surprise was not the large branch of Poundland but two similar establishments within fifty yards of it, each claiming to be "99p" stores. The old post office, in a grand building at the junction of the High Street and Park Lane, is now a "Liquor Station". The huge office block on the other side, once used by the council and the Inland Revenue seems to be empty. And the bus stop where I used to wait for the 79 to take me home has vanished and the buses sweep up the road without stopping. Marks, BHS, pretty well all the chains have gone, though most of the banks remain. But what has happened to Wembley Central Square? A huge block of flats is going up the middle of it. The station is under scaffolding and barely visible, not even a London Underground logo to mark it out.

At the western end of the High Road, where I worked at the TSB, the bank and all the shops around it have vanished, replaced by a succession of Indian "Cash and Carry" shops, mainly selling fruit,veg and groceries.  This quaint description was used by some of the first supermarkets back in the 1950s, to distinguish themselves from the traditional shop that would allow customers to have a credit account and would deliver to their homes, and it is odd that it still used at all these days when only pizza joints deliver. Here the Ealing Road runs south to Alperton and the character of the street changes. Along both sides are nothing but Indian jewellers, each displaying identical traditional women's necklaces in gold (and nothing else, no silver, no rings, no brooches or watches, no diamonds, just the rather dull gold) together with a few sari shops and a lot of cafes with Indian cuisine. I saw no customers in any of the jewellers, although there were plenty of people about on the streets. Finally, before I turned round to retrace my steps, there was the Central mosque side by side on the same plot as the Shiva temple.

If Wembley High Road has changed in one direction, the area around the stadium has gone another way. At least the architecture of Wembley Central, despite the new flats slotted in to every available space, is largely unchanged. But I thought I knew the stadium area and I found I knew nothing. Hotels that I don't recall at all occupy much of the frontage. I remember when much of the site held the crumbling, and fenced off, remains of the Empire Exhibition. Those ruins have all gone. An enormous blue-grey office block, the new centre for Brent Council, blocks off the stadium from one direction. The Arena, once an imposing building in its own right, now seems to be tucked away as if they are ashamed of it. The old Wembley Stadium station, not on the Underground but on the Chiltern Line out of Marylebone, has been replaced by a sparkling white modern edifice with a huge bridge and walkway.  And all round by the station there is the College of North-West London and its many halls of residence.  Yes, the stadium is there as well, somewhere, behind all the steel and glass but you only get odd glimpses of it as you walk up the main road around it.

I didn't bother to wander round the streets behind the stadium, which are still used for light industrial and warehouse purposes, to see if Midnight Motors was there. I think I'll save this up for another day. Perhaps.

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