Saturday, February 25th 2017
We first took the 476 bus to Euston Station where we broke our journey for breakfast. The capital’s railway stations are these days virtual shopping centres with shops and restaurants, bars and kiosks, competing with the departure boards and loudspeaker announcements for people’s attention.
On the upper level is a branch of Leon, a basic if efficient dispenser of fast food. Along with the likes of Pret A Manger and EAT, Leon has spread across London, showing a particular penchant for sites in railway stations. It operates in ‘Starbuck’s mode’, that is, you queue at the counter to place you order and have the goods handed to you and then you look for a vacant seat where you can sit and eat. The food is pre-prepared and tends to be warm rather than hot but that might be an advantage, I suppose, if your train were about to depart.
We took in the view of the concourse from the balcony, standing beside beside two police officers armed with pistols and automatic rifles. One might reflect on what this says about the world we live in but we had other thoughts in mind and hurried off to catch our next bus.
The bus took us along Bayswater Road to the district of the same name. We disembarked at the road’s junction with Queensway. The building pictured above stands on the corner shared by those two streets. Today it is known as the Hilton London Hyde Park, a rather awkward appellation but one that is no doubt thought necessary to distinguish it from other Hilton Hotels. If we wanted to be finicky, we could object that the hotel overlooks Kensington Gardens rather than Hyde Park but I suppose that foreign visitors in particular are more familiar with the name of Hyde Park than with that of Kensington Gardens.
The hotel itself was built in the first decade of the 20th century and named the Coburg Court Hotel, later simply the Coburg Hotel. It was still named thus when it was used in 1971 as a location for Alfred Hitchcock’s film The Frenzy. I don’t know when it became the Hilton.
We set off along Queensway where we came upon our first listed building. It is called the Church of Our Lady of Heaven and if you think that that name suggests that it is a Catholic Church, you would be right. It was not always so, however.The Grade II listed church was actually built in 1868 for the United Methodist Free Church. From 1909, it served other, non-religious, purposes in the ownership of the West London Ethical Society before being bought by the Catholics in 1954. The design of the façade is churchy but somewhat sober, as befits the Methodists, and I expect the colourful motif in the middle window has been added by the present owners.
This striking ceiling dome belongs to Whiteley’s Store where we went next. The history of this once prestigious store goes back to 1845 when William Whitely left his native Yorkshire and came to London to make his fortune. He was successful and worked his way up to owning a string of shops which he eventually combined into a department store. This first store was destroyed by fire in 1887 and William Whitely himself, dramatically enough, was murdered in 1907 by a man claiming to be his illegitimate son. A new store, designed by John Belcher and John James Joass, was opened in 1911 and continued the proud tradition begun by the founder.
By the middle of the 20th century, Whiteley’s, like other department stores, was facing a decline in trade. The size of the premises was thought to large for the number of custmers still using it and so part of the building was turned into office space. The department store closed in 1981 and the building lay dormant for 5 years. After extensive internal rebuilding, the store reopened in in 1989 but now as a shopping centre, occupied by many independent shops and businesses. The building retains a Grade II listed status.
The most striking part of the building is the central atrium. Forming a huge light well, it gives a view of the dome and of the upper floors. To one side is a rather magnificent iron staircase leading from ground level to the first floor, known as the La Scala Staircase. Here are two pictures of it:
We took the escalators up to the second floor from where I took the picture below:
Whiteley’s is far more elegantly styled than the average modern-day shopping centre or “mall”. Unfortunately, it was very quiet and there was an air of uncertainty as if the spirit had gone out of it. It needs taking in hand with a view to reviving its old glory but how is this to be done in times such as these?
Beside the Queensway entrance are two sculptures, one of which is shown above. Two female figures seem to be pouring out a cornucopia emblazoned with the monogram of the store. The figure on the left seems copied from Classical iconography but the one on the right is obviously a Modern Woman (early 20th-century vintage), dressed warmly but fashionably and wearing ice skates. She is obviously the archetype of the kind of customer that Whiteley’s sought to attract.
Above the entrance is a fine clock, just the sort of accessory to grace a prestigious store. It is topped with the Whiteley’s monogram and bears the date 1863. I am pretty sure that the date is not that of the manufacture of the clock which probably dates from the creation on this building in the early decades of the 20th century. In that case, the date probably recalls the founding of William Whiteley’s first business, a drapery shop, which did indeed open in that year.
My final view of Whiteley’s shows where it forms a corner with Queensway and Redan Place. The building evinces and intriguing combination of Classical solidity combined with an interior whose curvaceous forms recall the organic shapes of Art Nouveau.
Our next stop was what is now known and the Porchester Centre. Today, this area is part of the London Borough of Westminster but, when this building’ was opened in June 1925, belonged to the Metropolitan Borough of Paddington. It seems then to have been known as the Paddington Central Baths. As that name suggests, it was originally a public baths and wash-house but in a second wave of building from 1927 to 1929, it acquired more facilities including Turkish steam baths, assembly rooms and a public library.
We asked whether we could take photographs inside this Art Deco gem but permission was refused. This is quite reasonable, if disappointing, because the building is after all a place where people go to bathe and are therefore seen in various states of undress.
This view shows that part of the complex that was built in the second wave and comprises what is called Porchester Hall and the Public Library, also known as Paddington Library. This façade is situated in Porchester Road whose name has been applied to the whole. The baths are now referred to by the more prestigious name of ‘Porchester Spa’.
Note: The above picture had to be made by stitching several pictures together and this has introduced a slight perspective distortion, making the façade appear curved when it is in fact quite straight.
Before making for home, we stopped off for a late lunch. We eventually plumped for the branch of the Masala Zone chain of modern Indian Restaurants in Bishops Bridge Road. This gave a spicy finish to our outing.