An actress on the village green

SHE SITS THERE MOTIONLESS, day after day and year after year, watching the traffic on Westway either rushing past or crawling along in a traffic jam. In her heyday, before being captured in stone, instead of the noise of motor vehicles, she would have enjoyed the sound of the applause given by audiences in dimly lit theatres. She was the actress Mrs Sarah Siddons (1755-1831), and her carved stone statue stands facing the elevated Westway in Paddington Green, just west of the Edgware Road.

Mrs Siddons

Paddington Green used to be part of an expanse of ancient wasteland located in an area now bounded by the Regents Canal, the Paddington Arm of the Grand Union Canal, and Edgware Road, but now much of this wasteland has been built upon. Writing in 1867, John Timbs noted:

“Paddington Green, now inclosed and iron-bound, was the green of the villagers, shown in all its rural beauty in prints of 1750 and 1783. Upon a portion of it were built the Almshouses, in 1714; their neat little flower-gardens have disappeared. South of the green is the new Vestry -hall. At Dudley Grove was modelled and cast, by Matthew Cotes Wyatt, the colossal bronze statue of the Duke of Wellington … it is thirty feet high, and was conveyed from the foundry, upon a car, drawn by 29 horses, Sept. 29, 1846, to Hyde Park Corner.”

Dudley Grove was in Paddington. What is now left of the wasteland consists of St Mary’s churchyard and next to it a small grassy area, still known as ‘Paddington Green’, and marked as such on a map drawn in 1815. It contains the statue of Mrs Siddons. The first written record of the Green is dated 1549. The Green contained a mediaeval chapel, now long-since gone. It has been replaced by St Mary’s Church, which was built in the Georgian style, in 1788. It was designed by John Plaw (1745-1820), who emigrated from London to the North American Colony of Prince Edward Island in 1807. His church in Paddington was later modified in the 19th century but restored to its original shape (a Greek Cross in plan) in 1970 under the guidance of the architect Raymond Erith (1904-1973), amongst whose other creations was the current form of the Jack Straws Castle pub in Hampstead.

The present church is the third in the area, which was halfway between the ancient villages of Paddington and Lilestone. The old Manor of Lilestone (or ‘Lilystone’) included the present Lisson Grove and extended as far as Hampstead. The earliest church was taken down in about 1678. The second church, which replaced it, can be seen in old drawings. It was a simple edifice with a single aisle and a small bell tower at one end. Edward Walford, writing in the 1880s, described it as:

“… not unlike the type of country churches in Sussex…”

The poet and preacher John Donne (1572-1631) preached his first sermon in the first church in 1615 and the painter William Hogarth (1697-1764) was married to Jane Thornhill (c1709-1789) in the second in 1729 without her parents’ knowledge.

Next to the western end of the church there is a single-storied rectangular, brick building decorated with trompe-l’oeil grisailles, one of which depicts Mrs Siddons. Today, this houses the Phileas Fox Nursery School. Built on the site of the old, now demolished, vestry hall (parish council meeting place), this building, the  church hall,  in a late Georgian style was designed by John Quinlan Terry (born 1937), an architect of the ‘New Classical’ style favoured by Prince Charles, and built in 1978-81.

Apart from the statue of Mrs Siddons on Paddington Green, most of it is surrounded by buildings or roads built either at the end of the 19th century or long after. At the eastern side of the Green there is what looks like a pair of either early 19th or possibly 18th century houses. The reason Mrs Siddons is commemorated on the Green is that she is buried in the adjoining St Mary’s Churchyard. Her gravestone is contained within a cast-iron enclosure that looks like a small cage. For some time, the actress lived in Paddington in a house which used to stand in the area around Westbourne Green, which is near the current Westbourne Park Underground station.  

Mrs Siddons was highly acclaimed as an actress by many. The critic James Henry Leigh Hunt (1784-1859) had reservations as he remarked in his autobiography:

“Want of genius could not be imputed to his sister, Mrs Siddons. I did not see her, I believe, in her best days; but she must always have been a somewhat masculine beauty; and she had no love in her, apart from other passions. She was a mistress, however, of lofty, of queenly, and of appalling tragic effect. Nevertheless, I could not but think that something of too much art was apparent even in Mrs Siddons; and she failed in the highest points of refinement.”

Although the poet and playwright Joanna Baillie (1762-1851), shared Hunt’s opinion about her, others held her in higher regard.

The statue of Mrs Siddon in Paddington Green was sculpted by the French sculptor Léon-Joseph Chavalliaud (1858-1919). In the 1880s, he moved to London from France and lived south of the Thames in Brixton. His Mrs Siddons, based on a portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds, was unveiled by the actor Sir Henry Irving (1838-1905) in 1897. It was the first statue of a woman, who was not royal, to be put up in London.

Paddington Green, like its close neighbour Paddington Station, figures in the history of London’s transportation. For, it was from here that the coachbuilder George Shillibeer (1797-1866) ran London’s first omnibus service to The Bank of England in 1829. He had got the idea from Paris, where he had been asked to design carriages that could carry up to 24 passengers at any one time.

The Paddington Green police station building stands a few yards east of Paddington Green. Constructed in 1971, this used to provide local policing services as well as an interrogation centre for terrorist suspects. Suspects accused of terrorist activities were brought here for questioning from all over the UK. Although it was refurbished in 2009, the station was closed in 2018. The building’s future is in the hands of property developers, who plan to build new housing on its site.  

Until the beginning of the 19th century, Paddington Green was a bucolic environment on the edge of what was then London. Now, surrounded by buildings and highways, it is a green but noisy oasis in a highly urbanised area.

Wrecked, then recovered

Running track at Paddington Recreation Ground

PADDINGTON RECREATION GROUND, located between West Kilburn and St John’s Wood, was formally established in 1893. It was London’s first public athletic ground. From 1860 to 1893, it was a parish cricket ground. In 1888, a cricket pavilion was constructed. It is now named after Richard Beachcroft who was Secretary of the cricket club in the 1880s. Also in 1888, the grounds were opened to public access and a cycle track was laid out, which remained in existence until 1987 when the position of the cricket pitch was moved. In 1893, the Paddington Recreation Act was passed, authorising:

“…the formal acquisition of lands in the Parish of Paddington to “provide the residents with a public recreational ground.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paddington_Recreation_Ground).

In 2006, the grounds were completely refurbished by Westminster City Council. The centrally located cricket pitch and its Victorian pavilion are now surrounded by a children’s playground; tennis courts; an outdoor gymnasium; a running track; hockey pitches; a bandstand; a bowling green; and various fenced off enclosures containing gardens and an ‘environmental area’. The pleasant park with its café and other facilities covers 27 acres and is well used by locals.

The Paddington Recreation Ground was a place where two world famous sportsmen trained. One was the professional road and track cyclist Sir Bradley Marc Wiggins (born 1980), who won the Tour de France in 2009. He learned to ride a bicycle in the grounds. He attended the St Augustines Church of England School nearby. The other sportsman was a medical student at the nearby St Marys Hospital when he trained on a running track at the Recreation Grounds, and on the 6th of May 1954, he became the first man to run a mile in under 4 minutes. This man was Sir Roger Bannister (1929-2018).

The Recreation Ground has several entrances. One of these is a short path leading from Carlton Vale. It runs past a pub called ‘The Carlton Tavern’, which has a curious recent history. In 1918, a German bomb destroyed a pub that stood on this site. In 1921, this was replaced for the Charrington Brewery by a newer building designed by Frank J Potter (1871-1948), who also designed the observatory in Hampstead. During WW2, the pub was the only building in the street not to have been destroyed during The Blitz. This plucky little pub’s luck ran out in 2015.

In 2015, developers bought the Tavern with a view to demolishing it to create space to build luxury flats. A week before the pub was due to become a protected historical edifice, the developers, no doubt having learned what was in the offing, reduced it to rubble. They hoped that they would get away with being fined an amount, which they could easily recoup when they sold the luxury accommodation they were planning to build. Things did not work out in their favour. Local action groups fought for the pub’s reconstruction and won. The courts ordered the developers to reconstruct the pub brick-by-brick (www.standard.co.uk/news/london/developer-told-to-rebuild-maida-vale-pub-brick-by-brick-after-site-torn-down-without-notice-10211892.html). They did a good job, and today it looks much as it did before it was hurriedly demolished.

Both the pub and the Recreation Ground stand in the shadow of the tall tower of the Anglo-Catholic Church of St Augustin. Known as ‘the cathedral of north London’, the church was designed in the gothic revival style by John Loughborough Pearson (1817-1897), who also designed Truro Cathedral in Cornwall. St Augustin was consecrated in 1880, but the tower and spire were not completed until 1897-98. I have never been inside this building, but I have seen photographs of its interior, which looks superb.

The places described above are almost all that remains of an area which has been subject to much rebuilding since WW2. Visiting these places can make an interesting detour when walking near Little Venice along the Paddington Arm (branch) of The Grand Union Canal. I doubt that I would have visited the Recreation Grounds had I not been alerted to it and encouraged to pay it a visit by two sets of friends, to whom I am grateful.

A tunnel and a canal

LITTLE VENICE, near Paddington in London, is a picturesque spot with a large body of water where three waterways meet. The waterways are the part of the Grand Union canal system that links London with Birmingham. Two of the canals that meet at Little Venice are the two sections of the Grand Union Paddington Branch that links Paddington with Brentford. The third is the Regent’s Canal that links Little Venice with Limehouse Basin next to the Thames, 1.6 miles east of Tower Bridge. The body of water where these three waterways meet is triangular with an island in it. The waterways enter the large expanse of water at each of its three corners.

While the area hardly resembles the Italian island of Venice apart from the presence of water, some believe it might have been given its name, Little Venice, by a former local resident, the poet Robert Browning (1812-1889). Others question this, and believe that it was Lord Byron (1788-1824), who associated the name ‘Venice’ with the area (https://hydeparknow.uk/2017/11/11/browning-never-dreamt-up-little-venice/). Apparently, Byron compared the dirtiness of the canals in Venice with those in Paddington:

“There would be nothing to make the canal of Venice more poetical than that of Paddington, were it not for its artificial adjuncts.”

Whatever the origin of its name, Little Venice is now a lovely oasis, favoured by tourists, locals, and waterfowl.

The Regent’s Canal leaves the Little Venice triangle of water by passing beneath the bridge carrying Warwick Road and heads northeast for 475 yards. It is flanked by Blomfield Road, lined with fabulous mansions, on its north side, and Maida Avenue on its south side. Then it enters a 243-yard-long tunnel that begins beneath a café on the Maida Vale section of Edgeware Road, which follows the route of the Roman road, Watling Street. The canal emerges from the tunnel a few yards north east of the eastern end of Aberdeen Street. This street, which has few if any outstanding architectural features, was once the home of the bomber pilot Guy Gibson (1918-1944) who was awarded a Victoria Cross; he was the Leader of the Dambusters Raid in 1943.

The tunnel through which the Regent’s Canal flows is called the ‘Maida Hill Tunnel’. The tunnel was constructed between 1812 and 1816. There are no towpaths in the tunnel, which is narrower than the open-air sections of the canal at either end of it. Therefore, horses could not be used to drag the barges through this subterranean section of the canal. Instead, the barges had to be ‘legged’. Men lay on their backs on planks on top of the barge, and using their raised legs, they pressed their feet against the roof of the tunnel, ‘walked’ them along it, and thus propelled the vessel through the tunnel. This was not without its dangers. For example, in 1825 the planks supporting three men, who were working their way along the roof of the tunnel, accidentally slipped off the top of the barge. One man was seriously injured and the other two were killed.

Much water has flowed through the tunnel since then. Today, pleasure barges, powered by engines, still pass through it. One day, when the pandemic eases up and the weather is better, we hope to take one of the popular cruises from Little Venice to Camden Lock via the Maida Hill Tunnel.

Plenty of bridges

LONDON IS BLESSED with an abundance of open spaces where one can exercise and enjoy reasonably fresh air. In addition to parks, woods, the banks of the Thames, and squares with gardens, the towpaths alongside canals provide visually fascinating places to walk, run, or cycle. These canals  used to be important routes along which freight could be transported right across England before they were rendered practically redundant by the advent of the railways. Despite this, they have been maintained and give great pleasure to many people including my wife and me.

Today, the 6th of November 2020, we walked along a branch of the Grand Union Canal from Golborne Road (near Portobello Road), where I practised dentistry from 1994 until about 2001, to Paddington Basin, which only became accessible to casual visitors in about 2000, when it was redeveloped. We began our walk in Meanwhile Park at the base of Trellick Tower, a tall block of flats designed in brutalist style by Ernő Goldfinger and opened in 1972. The pleasant community park, created in 1976, runs alongside a short stretch of the Paddington Arm of the Grand Union Canal, which was opened for use in 1801. We walked across the narrow park and onto the towpath. Although we have walked along this often, what attracted me this time in addition to the variety of barges and waterfowl was the variety of bridges that cross the canal and its towpath. I shall concentrate on these in this essay.

The first bridge we walked beneath is that carrying the Great Western Road over the canal. This is a cast-iron, single-arched bridge with the Union Tavern at its northern end. It looks like a Victorian design. Heading east, after walking beneath the sweeping curve of the Westway, an elevated motorway (the A40), the first bridge we encountered was that which carries the Harrow Road over the canal. This iron bridge with brick abutments is shorter than the previous one because the canal narrows temporarily as it passes beneath it.  A few yards east of this, there is another bridge that crosses the canal to reach an old, derelict building that must have been a factory in the past. The bridge, known as the ‘Pipe Bridge’, has a roof and is completely enclosed with translucent panelling. It looks as if it was built in the last few decades and leads from the factory to a solid brick wall which serves as its abutment on the south bank of the canal.

Four hundred yards east of the Pipe Bridge, after passing the green space around the Church of  St Mary Magdalene, we pass beneath a concrete footbridge with iron railings and decorative lamp posts that links Delamere Terrace and Lords Hill Road with Blomfield Road across the canal. The approach to the bridge from Delamere Terrace is an elegant helical ramp.  This fairly modern crossing is known as the ‘Ha’Penny Bridge’ (i.e. half penny).

The towpath runs south east and alongside Delamere Terrace and reaches the building that houses the Canal and River Trust, the former Toll House. This is next to another bridge, a delicate-looking cast-iron structure with masonry abutments topped with distinctive lamp stands. This carries Westbourne Terrace Road (laid out in the early 1850s) over a constricted section of the canal. East of this the canal enters a vast triangular expanse of water, the junction of three waterways: the Paddington Branch from west London, its continuation towards Paddington Station, and the Regents Canal that leads to Camden Town and further east.

The poet Robert Browning, who lived near to this junction area, or possibly Lord Byron, is credited with christening this district as ‘Little Venice’, the name by which it is known today (https://londoncanals.uk/2010/01/17/the-history-of-the-place-name-known-as-little-venice-and-the-facts-that-are-ignored/). With its willow trees, colourful barges, a wealth of waterfowl, and some floating refreshment outlets, Little Venice is a popular place for tourists both local and from further afield. The small island in the middle of the watery space, inhabited only by birdlife, is called Browning’s Island.

We leave Little Venice by walking south east along the next section of the Paddington Branch canal. Soon, we reach another bridge, an undistinguished structure that carries the Harrow Road over us and another short, constricted section of the canal. The next 450 yards of the towpath on the west side of the canal has been redeveloped recently and is lined with eateries both on the shore and on boats moored  alongside the shore.

After walking beneath a concrete bridge, the Westway Viaduct, carrying the Westway high above us, we soon reach a fascinating footbridge over the canal. The span across the water is approached by both curving staircases and spiral ramps. This suspension bridge is supported by cables fanning out from a tall pole on the eastern side of the canal. It is known as the ‘Harrow Road’ footbridge. Despite an extensive search of the Internet, I have not yet discovered who designed this structure, which is a visual delight in comparison with the next bridge we reach, an inelegant concrete span, which carries Bishops Bridge Road.

Shortly before the direction of the canal turns from south east to due east, we need to cross it over a curious looking modern footbridge that runs beneath what looks like a double wall of glass panels. This, the Station Bridge (Paddington Basin), leads from the east side of Paddington Station to a footpath leading to North Wharf Road. It was completed in 2004 by the Langlands and Bell partnership (www.langlandsandbell.com/work/).

Having crossed this distinctive bridge, we are now on the final stretch of this blind ending branch of the Paddington Arm of the canal. Next, we encounter another suspension footbridge with perforated metal panels along both sides of its footway over the water. This bridge leads to a car park next to a twentieth century block, part of St Mary’s Hospital. This is the Paddington Basin Footbridge designed by Sidell Gibson Architects.

A few yards further east, we cross a short blind-ended inlet by means of a short bridge known as The Rolling Bridge. Designed by the Thomas Heatherwick Studio and completed in 2005, this bridge curls up into a circle to allow boats to enter or leave the inlet. Routinely, this pointlessly complex yet interesting bridge is opened briefly at noon on Wednesdays and Fridays and at 2pm on Saturdays.

On Fridays at noon, or when necessary, the last bridge over the Paddington Arm, a few feet away from its eastern terminus, can be seen in action. At rest, the Fan Bridge (aka Merchant Square Bridge) looks unexceptional. However, when it is raised to allow passage of vessels it is extraordinary. As the bridge rises, it splits into sections resembling five blades of a pen knife when they are all opened, or a lady’s fan.  The bridge is twenty feet long, was designed by Knight Architects, and completed in 2014. We were lucky enough to see this bridge open and then to watch it closing. You can watch this happening on my video at https://youtu.be/UGQERbGo_jU .

Beyond the Fan Bridge, the canal ends abruptly. Trellick Tower, where we began our perambulation was a landmark in modern architecture when it was built. The Fan Bridge, constructed 42 years later, is another exciting development in design. In between the tower block and the unusual bridge, we passed beneath or over several canal crossings representing various points in the history of bridge design, many of them adding beauty to a lovely waterway that provides pleasure for many people.