I took the opportunity of a trip to London last week to return to some of my old undergraduate haunts in order to continue my musings on how I ended up where I have. That meant a Northern Line tube journey as far Hampstead, and then continuing on foot around the streets, some of which were as familiar now as when I was a student 30 years ago, some of which had dropped completely from my memory. I recognised Flask Walk and Heath Street (the setting for Ford Madox Brown’s masterpiece “Work”), got lost in a maze of streets until I found myself in the Vale of Health, on the edge of Hampstead Heath, then found my way back to Whitestone Pond and the pub Jack Straw’s Castle. From here, I knew I should follow the streets roughly westwards and downhill.
When I was a student, I knew the kilometre or so route from Westfield College to the pubs of Hampstead intimately; now I wandered around, occasionally with a flash of recognition, sometimes with no memory at all. Eventually, after some backtracking, and checking a map, I saw the familiar street sign of Kidderpore Avenue. My failure to recognise what once had been so familiar was an intimation of what it must be like to suffer from Alzheimers: to be lost in a place that I knew was, somehow, far less comfortable than if I was in a place I did not know at all.
The sense of dislocation continued even when I arrived at the site of Westfield College. The absence of triggers for my memory were, at least, easier to explain: most of the buildings had been demolished and replaced by high end apartment buildings (close on £2 million for a 3-bedroom flat). King’s Building, where the science laboratories and lecture theatres were located, had disappeared completely, as had the old refectory / student union building. A quadrangle of what were once women’s halls of residence (no mixing of the sexes in those days!) still existed and had been, until recently, accommodation for King’s College students. However, this and other buildings were empty: either awaiting redevelopment or perhaps, even, demolition. One – the Queen Mother Hall – was only completed in 1983. The far end of Kidderpore Avenue, where some rather ugly 1970s halls of residence once stood, was a building site, and the hoardings announced yet more chic apartments.
Kidderpore Avenue, Hampstead, looking towards the site of the King’s Building, once the science laboratories of Westfield College, now replaced by apartments.
Westfield College was a constituent college of the University of London yet, unlike the behemoths of Imperial, UCL and King’s College, it was a small college (only about 1100 students during my time) with the residences and teaching rooms all located on the same site – a triangle of land between Kidderpore Avenue and Finchley Road. Most of the houses lining Finchley Road were either the locations for smaller departments (Classics, I recall, only had about three single honours students in my year) or residences, and their gardens had become the leafy grounds of the campus. However, my pleasant memories of student life are probably also the reasons for the current sad state of affairs. The size of the college was deemed uneconomic as the Thatcherite years got underway, and Westfield, along with several other small colleges within the university, were merged into the larger colleges. Westfield joined Queen Mary College, with the academic staff moving to the rather less salubrious environment of the Mile End Road. For a while, the joint college was called “Queen Mary Westfield” but, in 2013, the “Westfield” part of the name was dropped.
Finchley Road, the busy road that runs along the Westfield’s south-western edge, is the boundary between the postal district NW3, which includes the highly desirable Hampstead Village and environs, and the somewhat less chic NW6. Consequently, once the teaching functions had gone, the Westfield site became prime real estate and the fate of the rather functional college buildings was sealed. It was sad: my diversion to Westfield and the walk along Kidderpore Avenue provided me with very few of the triggers I needed to stimulate memory – that link with Alzheimer’s rearing up again … I had good times there but my walk down the hill from Hampstead Village convinced me that I had forgotten much and I wonder what else might have been unlocked by a wander through Westfield’s grounds?
On the plus side, all these upheavals to Westfield mean that I have dropped off the university alumnus records completely, so am never plagued by requests for donations. Small recompense, maybe?
Next time, I’ll write about what I learned about ecology during my time at Westfield.
Westfield College: the former Principal’s residence, with women’s halls of residence beyond.