How to make an ecologist #3

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.


Trafalgar Square

Trafalgar Square

I’m en route to New York with time to kill in London before heading out to Heathrow. I spent an hour or so in the David Bailey retrospective at the National Portrait Gallery (somewhat superficial; hard, I guess, to transcend the roll-call of famous faces and create great art), followed by a look at the rather moving show of Great War portraits, then sat in the sun in Trafalgar Square watching the world go by.

One of the human statues caught my eye. He has a contrivance that makes it appear that he is hovering just above the ground (the base plate, which he had covered with a blanket, must be very heavy to lug around). In the many gaps between posing with tourists he made a very lonely figure, sitting in his elaborate garb whilst people walked past either heading to the National Gallery or more interested in the the performance artists a few metres away.

Prepare for a few posts from New York over the coming days. I’m also planning to start tweeting @basil0saurus. That’s a zero not an ‘oh’ in the middle just in case you thought you could escape with the lame excuse that @basilosaurus is someone else entirely.

More things we’ve forgotten to remember …

I left the John Snow pub and was engulfed again by the tourist hordes round Oxford Street until I reached a tube station.  From here, I travelled east on the Central Line until it burst back into daylight at Stratford.  This was familiar ground for me: I was born just a kilometre or so from here and, rising up in front of me was huge bulk of the Olympic Stadium and, beside it, Anish Kapoor’s enormous red Orbit tower.  The city skyline, dominated by the “Gherkin” rose up to the west and, just visible to the south, I could see the roof of the O2 Arena.


Abbey Mills Pumping Station, photographed from the Greenway in Stratford, East London, June 2013.

An ornate cupola was just visible in the gaps between modern high-rise buildings as I walked towards the City.  However, the full structure only came into view when I turned off the main road and walked for 500 metres or so along a gravel track on top of an embankment.   A huge ornate structure resembling a Byzantine church rose up in front of me.   This is Abbey Mills pumping station and, like the Broad Street pump, it is another incongruous landmark in the history of Victorian London’s battles against infectious disease.

This was built about 10 years after the Broad Street cholera outbreak, as part of an ambitious scheme to collect all London’s sewage, which formerly ran in open drains to the River Thames.  The engineer Joseph Bazelgette was commissioned by the Metropolitan Board of Works to build a series of interceptor sewers, which collected wastewater from all over London and channelled it towards locations downstream of the main centres of population.   The whole system relied on gravity to move the wastewater from the interceptor sewers to the Northern Outfall Sewer which joined the Thames five kilometres away at Beckton.  The Lee Valley, however, is a low point in the network and it was necessary to raise the sewage from two of the interceptor sewers by 12 metres so that it could reach the Northern Outflow Sewer.

It was only afterwards that I realised that the embankment on which I had walked to get to Abbey Mills was, in fact, the route of the Northern Outfall Sewer itself.   It has been made into a footpath and cycleway, known as the “Greenway”, running from Hackney Wick to Beckton.  Like the Romford Canal (see post of 3 June), the unpleasant associations have been discretely overlooked or forgotten but, nonetheless, this narrow embankment and the Byzantine architecture of Abbey Mills represent one of the most significant advances of the Victorian era.