Battersea: Some Hope (And Some Despair)

It is testament to the vastness of London that however many years you have been here, there will still be pockets of the city that are unfamiliar to you. Whilst visiting Tate Britain or Millbank I have often glanced over the Thames, with no little distaste, towards the enormous glass shapes past Vauxhall that blight the South Bank, but never actually ventured into the area. Battersea Power Station is the unmissable, cathedral-sized landmark for this quarter and presumably most of the land was still industrial until deindustrialisation. With the escalation of our housing crisis, the Nine Elms district has come under greater scrutiny as the ground zero for what Londoners have taken to calling “deposit boxes in the sky”; new-build flats which are marketed and sold, for fantastical prices, to speculators in Hong Kong or Singapore, whom we are told leave the flat empty but are happy to see a greater return on their investment than they would receive from any bank. I thought it might be an instructive, if monstrous, experience to go for a walk around here.

Battersea and Wandsworth are something of a blur in my head; I haven’t been here but I have seen a couple of shows at the lovable Battersea Arts Centre, before it burnt down, and I remember drunken attempts to negotiate the night buses after a Wandsworth Road house party. Where each one ends and Clapham or Kennington begin, I’ve never been altogether sure. One of the last times I visited Sussex, whilst waiting for a bus we got talking to an enthusiastic nonagenarian from Battersea. A penny for her thoughts on what it looks like today.

My journey begins at Vauxhall station. Once visited by a Russian delegation, it has given its name to ‘voksal’, the Russian word for ‘station’, and it therefore seems appropriate that the area is dominated by a vast and attention-seeking bus depot that looks for all the world like an experimental bus shelter from some coffee table book about abstract municipal furniture in the provinces of the Eastern Bloc.

The two-pronged frontage to the shelter is compared to a ‘ski-slope’, but looks more like the guns on some monolithic tank to me. It’s all sleek and suggestive of thrust and motion, which seems ironic as it is encircled by a perpetual traffic jam. The central building is shaped to resemble one of those double-decker commuter trains that carry people into the heart of Paris or Rome.

Although I didn’t intend to cover Vauxhall on this walk, a glance at the map and ‘Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens’ piques my curiosity. Pleasure Gardens were an C18th/19th prototype of the theme park, with fancy lighting, supper boxes, live music, fountains, fireworks, and shady corners for ladies of the night to ply their trade. Precisely the sort of thing that if we tried to recreate, we would kill stone dead with bland chains, private equity funding and all-round fakeness. Vauxhall was the best known but if anything remained of the gardens, I should have been very surprised and what I find is a small green with a sports court, watched over by MI6 and brightened up by the existence of a City Farm. These days the local colour is provided by next door’s venerable gay institution, the Royal Vauxhall Tavern.

Behind the farm is a Victorian church with banded polychrome brick whose nave is very tall and very skinny; instinct tells me it might be worth further investigation. This turns out to be St Peter’s, a product of the days when London’s population boomed and the church wanted a cathedral-sized base in every neighbourhood. A meeting is taking place and a lady nips over to invite me in, offering a detailed booklet with foreword by the Archbishop of Canterbury.

The church makes me think of the vast, usually deconsecrated, places I have seen in the Netherlands. The brick walls are left big and bare in order to draw the eye upwards, where the light streams in, and help worshippers focus on the next world. This is all diligently Gothic. My sweet tooth draws me towards the apse with its un-Protestant incense swingers, luxurious red wallpaper and frescoes that I initially mistake for sgraffito.

Back towards the river, and a quick look at the spiky pink-and-green postmodern fortress that is the MI6 building. It’s a vast solid bunker crenellated with cogs, wheels and spikes, its wine-bottle glass heavily glazed. The message is defensive, but weirdly the pink cladding is quite art deco; it’s Lisbon’s Teatro Eden, if Ceaucescu had been allowed to tamper with the design. This veneer of attempted affability is like watching Gordon Brown try to smile.

Past Vauxhall Bridge is the quite awful St George Wharf, surely one of the worst things in London and prototype for every golden goose on every vacant spot of riverside; walk the river from Rotherhithe to Deptford and you will see this stuff go on for miles. Every flat has its cramped balcony, whether the view is the Thames or an inner courtyard. It is as if people loved their package hotel on the Costa del Sun Reader so much that they wanted to recreate the experience in cold, rainy London.

The front-facing blocks make the shape of a ship’s prow with their dingy blue-tinted glass and each tower blocks watching over these is topped by a gentle V-shape, presumably intended to suggest a bird in flight. But all these buildings do is drag us down and contrast the freedom of birds with our own sorry lot. The ground floor units are expensive (but not necessarily good) bars, restaurants and gyms, but it’s striking how subterranean the deserted precinct feels.

If it’s life you’re after, however, you know you can find some the other side of Vauxhall Bridge; and, unlike anyone crossing the bridge, you can enjoy its Edwardian statues.

Behind St George’s Wharf are countless building sides for the next batch, granting themselves lofty titles like ‘The Legacy Buildings’ and all bordered by self-important promotional hyperbole. I imagine the flats have all sold before they start building. The platforms on my local train station are advertising some lofty new scheme in Catford with neo-classical imagery and the enticement that Catford is just 18 minutes from Elephant (sic). The idealised graphic comes with a disclaimer that it is computer-generated and “subject to change”. Sometimes you feel like you don’t recognise London anymore.

If nothing else, it’s interesting to look onto the Thames from an unfamiliar angle and see landmarks in a new light. The campanile of Westminster Cathedral has never looked more Byzantine Russian, and sitting between the river and the stucco streets of Pimlico is the notorious Dolphin Square, where Bishops, cabinet ministers, and household names from the BBC may or may not have indulged in the ritualised sex murder of children, depending on whether we think ‘Nick’ is a ‘credible and true’ victim of appalling crimes or a Walter Mitty fantasist.

The one landmark of Nine Elms that can be seen from far and wide is a skyscraper whose name I do not know, but which I always think of as the Juche Tower. From the summit of the hill where I live you can see the Shard, the Post Office Tower, the London Eye and so on, and this is the one tall poppy that is visible way out west, estranged from its showoff mates in the City like the unpopular kid in a playground (although it will be joined by a dozen skyscrapers when the building sites come to fruition). At nights its tip glows red like a cigarette and it really does look like one of the showpieces from downtown Pyongyang.

Although the story that gets told is one of sadistic millionaires buying up all these flats and leaving them unoccupied just to mock those of us for whom it is a monthly struggle to pay the rent, I must say that as I walked through these soulless carbuncles I saw more signs of life than I expected. Everyone seems to have a round table with two chairs on their balconies (although these might come with the flat, I suppose) and bicycles are a regular fixture, as are classical urns and busts. Caroline, whose mobile number I have scrubbed out, is really kicking against the grain by trying to instil a sense of community and home into this Ballardian nightmare. I wonder where she comes from; my guess would be Switzerland.

The sense that these antiseptic new apartments are for the frightened and the fastidious is amplified when you come across the nearly-finished American embassy that will replace the one in Mayfair next year. No doubt the area will come under close surveillance once they move in, and be patrolled by armed soldiers ready to sling any weirdos walking around with digital cameras into Guantanamo; no doubt this is exactly how the kind of people moving into Nine Elms would want it. But there is for now one small, quiet voice of dissent.

The further you walk the more of these apartment blocks you find, and against all odds they get increasingly uglier, even if one contains a Waitrose the size of the Louvre for American spies to pick up their Chateau d’Yquem. We desperately need places where Londoners can actually live and all we’re getting are million-pound studios, which miss the point rather.

The attempt to give these flats a human touch only makes me want to run for the hills. The sticklebrick flats at Riverlight, industrial-looking with a primary colour trim, huddle around three docked boats and a sign excitedly tells us that one of these boats was a party venue at Battersea’s ‘Adrenaline Village’, which in the ’90s held parties for Meatloaf, Robbie Williams and the East Enders cast. Here we see a typical estate agent’s idea of cultural heritage: TFI Friday. There is even something on the ground floor which purports to be the local pub, though it damn well isn’t in my book.

It continues in the same vein. Building sites whose concrete foundations, soon to be hidden provide a bizarre echo of San Gimignano. Gigantic chrome turds and concierges with 27” iMacs.

All this riverside land was until now vacant because until recently, it was industrial and the template being followed is familiar from Canary Wharf and Wapping. The biggest building site of all is Battersea Power Station, familiar to Pink Floyd fans and squabbled over since it ceased to operate. Many starchitects have been hired over the years to work on harebrained schemes such as making the station into a theme park, a giant airport-lounge shopping mall, and a new Chelsea stadium. Malaysian money came up with a plan that was considered viable a few years ago, and its current state, the area is a hive of activity (one flat, yet to be built, was bought and sold on at a profit of half a million). The building itself is so vast that the scaffolding around it looks like the work of the Doozers from Fraggle Rock. Most of the famous chimneys have vanished, like a poached elephant shorn of its ivory, but presumably they will come back tarted-up.

I don’t like how the flats around the station are apparently going to be as tall as the station itself; something like this demands to be seen from afar, and will become invisible if all the space around it is built over. Is it better for this great edifice to crumble, collapse and disappear, or for it to be saved and converted into a concert hall with 100 chain restaurants? The boards around the construction area offer no little amount of handwringing platitudes, promising that their “careful curatorship” will deliver a “real place for real people”. This contrast to the usual ‘fuck you, I’m rich’ perfume advert stuff might reflect growing public annoyance, or the greater scrutiny that bigger developments come under.

The power station still had a couple of decades left in it at the time of Nairn’s London, and it is one of the few things from this neck of the woods that made it in: “Immense plumes from the chimneys, lurid floodlighting: stage scenery for a riverside opera, splendid in mist or with winter sun behind it; if there is such a thing as industrial melodrama, this is it”. He paints quite a picture, but one that suggests today’s ‘industrial melodrama’ is supplied by the giant incinerator beside the Millwall ground. After the station come the wholesalers’ flower & vegetable markets formerly of Covent Garden, which are as impossible to look into as MI6, and a large estate run by Wandsworth council, whose inhabitants must be feeling very precarious at the moment. When you reach Battersea Dogs’ Home there is finally some levity from all the visiting children and uniformed volunteers taking rescue dogs around the block.

After the Dogs’ Home, I pass under a railway arch and am slightly shocked to see greenery and terrace housing. Following Nine Elms’ intensive course in J.G. Ballard studies, my eyes could do with something more soothing and I pop into Battersea Park. The park was recently in the news for having privatised the childrens’ playground, whose new custodians will charge £25-33 a ticket. The layout of the park is quite inviting; an oval shape with a lake taking up the corner from which I enter, it always feels as if there is more around the corner and I’m reminded of Amsterdam’s Vondelpark.

It’s always a surreal sight to walk along Chelsea Embankment and find a huge Japanese Buddhist pagoda appear across the river, each niche housing a gilded frieze with smiling buddhas, and I enjoyed seeing how everything looks from the opposite side.

Although I spend ages nosing around the Woodland Walk and the English Garden I am unable to locate the Brown Dog statue, one of the strangest stories I encountered when researching my book. The Brown Dog affair lasted from 1903-1910 and consisted of the considerable fall-out from a UCL surgeon dissecting a dog in a lecture. Anti-vivisectionists sneaked into the lecture and contradicted his claims that the dog had been anaesthetised, claiming that they could see its terrified struggles. There was a libel trial, Mark Twain got involved, and a provocative dog statue erected in the park became the focus for a series of riots between Battersea locals and armed gangs of “anti-dogger” medical students. Tired of having to pay for armed guards, the council melted down the statue and a replacement was installed in 1985. Although it eludes me, there is enough living fauna to make up for it.

Out the other side, and Parkgate Road has some nice old houses with unusual amounts of period details, giving way to lots of low-rise council flats and shop units that gentrification has turned into luxury butchers and the like.

A few paces north along the river, a huge and preposterous blimp-shaped building rises above the shops and houses. My eye caught, I detour to investigate. This is a Norman Foster job and his practice is next door; all of the ground floor units around here seem to house design agencies, and I can see into open-plan offices with scale models of stately homes in the window and stressed out workers staring into their iMacs. The floating spaceship itself turns out to be a crescent shape, with the obligatory glass-fronted flats facing the water, this time with added pop art squiggles and curves in the design. I get the feeling that they look much nicer on the inside.

The Thames diverts and snakes north-to-south between here and Wandsworth Bridge, and Battersea Church St leads to the riverside St Mary’s. I’m hoping that this street will give me a sense of the old Battersea and what it looked like as a self-contained country village, but its beginnings are unpromising. After a few terraced houses, mostly heavily renovated or about to be, the streets dissolves into gated-access private roads on the riverside, a sprawling and formless estate on the other, with more new blocks of flats to follow.

Eventually, I reach St Mary’s and it is a real jolt to find a proper C18th village church, sitting pretty in its privileged position just where the Thames bends, and utterly out of context with its rather unfriendly surroundings. Nairn calls it “dumpy yellow-brick, with a fan of mutilated trees” but also opines that “it has survived the transition from village to grim industrial suburb because of its classless, unselfconscious honesty… a Victorian church always bears the stigmata of the exact social layer it was built for”.

When I try the door two posh ladies with mid-Atlantic accents step out and proffer an icy, English Can I help you? No, the church is not open, alas, but I should certainly come back for Sunday service. The design of the church is modest and it has probably been elected as the one permitted relic of working-class Battersea, but I like it. Note the shiny car in the churchyard. Look across the river and you can see the brooding gang of irregular high-rise towers that are the Chelsea World’s End Estate; a Barbican dipped in cocoa powder, like the teeth-corroding Chelsea whoppers of my youth. This is exactly the sort of estate that in East London is considered to have failed its residents and faces demolition; but those that happened to get built in posh and affluent areas appear to thrive. Jonathan Meades reminds us that when this stuff went up, the estates “were not yet bins for sociopaths. But they would soon become so: if blocks are unguarded, if there are no janitors, if they are not maintained … You don’t buy a car and never get it serviced.”

After the church, Church St swings round with the river, and becomes narrow and twisting before it terminates in a small triangular piazza, where amidst the Levantine delis and Gordon Ramsey restaurants you are able to eke out a (very) tenuous sense of how Battersea began.

Continue past the square and any sense of a Battersea town/village very quickly disintegrates into warehouses and timber yards, but I press on because Nairn’s London speaks of a heliport, although I have my doubts whether this will have seen out the half-century.

Nairn: “This tight little square of ground, usually with a gleaming helicopter on it, has all the excitement and immediacy which London Airport [Heathrow?] so blatantly lacks. Though nobody has thought about designing it, it is one of the remarkable places of today’s London”. I half expect to be allowed nowhere near this, and that it will be a flash launchpad for Arabs and tycoons, but what I find is charmingly quaint. It looks like the kind of place that would be frequented by a panto villain entrepreneur from a BBC soap opera in the early 90s; more Alan Sugar than Donald Trump. I can’t be bothered to hang around and wait for the next chopper, but as I ponder the adverts offering us plebs a ride in the sky for exorbitant sums, I hear the voice of Steve Coogan in my head: “Right, I never thought I’d say this, but I’m closing the bureau. For an hour.”

Having walked this far, I realise that I’m quite close to Clapham Junction and can catch a train home. Heading away from the river feels like coming back home after visiting somewhere foreign; suddenly there are families, and Asians, and poor people, and Polski Skleps. Once again I speak the language. The council housing facing the station entrance features a few high-rises which are not at all bad themselves; but even here, residents have to put up with rubbish like this.

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