SW12: Gateway to the South

Architectural historian, Pevsner, says Balham was never a proper village, just a settlement on the road between Clapham and Tooting before it became absorbed in the growth of London in the 19th Century. There is really very little which predates the coming of the railway in 1863.

But of course in many people’s minds Balham will always be “The Gateway to the South” which kind of sums up a place that does not seem to have much going for it.

This phrase “Balham: Gateway to the South” is always associated with Peter Sellers but he did not write it or originally perform the sketch of that name. It was written by Frank Muir and Denis Norden for a 1950s BBC radio series called Third Division with actor Robert Beatty extolling the wonders of ‘Bal-ham’. It was only later more famously performed by Peter Sellers in a parody of an American newsreel travelogue host. This was subsequently released on the 1958 record “The Best of Sellers” and that is what everyone knows. Here is a link to that famous recording in case you want to remind yourself or indeed in case you have never heard it in full: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8RTWk9QIKS0 (may need to be reloaded but should work if you do that)

We start at Balham Post Office which is 92a Balham High Road.

Stop 1: Balham Post Office

Unusually I am making the Post Office itself the first stop on this walk. Not because it is particularly beautiful or historic but because of its odd situation. It is a sixties building I would say and it sits some 10 metres back from the road in a little courtyard. Why? Well there was clearly a plan to widen the road. This is afterall one of the main radial routes out of London. Bombing had done much of the clearance further up Balham Hill as we shall see later, and to get ahead of the game the Post Office was built far back on a new building line so it would not have to be knocked down when the road was widened. Well of course as you can see the road never got widened!

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Turn right out of the courtyard and at the traffic lights take the road which veers off to the left. This is Bedford Hill. After the Sainsbury’s car park, at the next set of lights, on the corner diagonal from the car park is our next stop.

Stop 2: The Bedford

The Bedford is a live entertainment pub venue which has hosted the ‘Banana Cabaret’ comedy club for over 25 years. People such as Eddie Izzard, Jo Brand and Al Murray have appeared here.

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The building is extensive – the public areas spread over three floors with 5 bars and 5 function rooms. It was originally a hotel and back in 1876, the building housed the coroner’s inquest into the unsolved murder of local man Charles Bravo who was poisoned, possibly by his wife, although that was never proved.

Turn right down Balham Station Road and on the wall holding up the main line station is the next thing we are going to look at.

Stop 3: “Impressions of Balham” reliefs

On the wall are four bronze resin reliefs called “Impressions of Balham” by artists Julia Barton and Christine Thomas (and apparently also the people of Balham). This was funded by Wandsworth Council and the Urban Programme in 1991. There should be a sign explaining what this is but I think it must have gone missing. I could not see any information on the street about these reliefs. I am not sure they work very well, as they are quite hard to see. And it is hard to work out what is going on in each panel. No doubt there is all sorts of local significance, but I can’t work it out!

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Keep walking along Balham Station Road and you come first to the Southern station and then to the Underground station buildings

Stop 4: Balham Stations

The station building now used by the Southern Railway dates from 1863, whilst the Underground station adjoining is a Charles Holden design dating from 1926. They are linked internally so you can interchange between the two stations without going outside but it is a bit of a trek as you are going from a station high on an embankment through two ticket halls separated by a staircase  and then down an escalator to the deep level underground station. And of course it is worse going up!

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On 14 October 1940 a bomb penetrated 32 feet down, exploding in the cross passage between the two Underground platforms. A bus later fell into the crater. Gas and water mains were ruptured and there was flooding which hampered the rescue effort There are some pictures on http://ww2today.com/14th-october-1940-disaster-at-balham-tube-station .Really amazing ones of the bus and the crater. It is not absolutely agreed how many people were killed – the number varies between 64 and 68. There is a remembrance plaque in the station ticket hall. The first plaque said there were 64 fatalities but this plaque was replaced in 2010 by the current one which gives no number.

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This incident provides a pivotal moment towards the end of Ian McEwan’s novel Atonement. The novel and the subsequent film date the event incorrectly, with the novel placing it in September 1940, and the film dating it as 15 October rather than the previous day.

Now go turn left at the tube station entrance and go under the railway bridge.

Stop 5: Balham Travelodge (Site of Palladium Cinema)

The first thing you see after the bridge is the Travelodge. This is a fairly recent addition to Balham and is a rebuild of a dull looking office block called Steel House.

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But this is the site of the Palladium Cinema which had been demolished in the 1950’s. The cinema had opened in 1914 but was taken over by the Gaumont Company in 1928 and enlarged with a full stage facilities. The architect for this conversion was Cecil Massey. It was severely damaged by a bomb in 1940. Not sure if this was at the same time as the one that did the damage to the tube station, but it could not have been the same bomb. The pictures clearly show the crater for the bomb that hit the tube station as being on the north side of the railway bridge and we are now on the south side. The cinema never re-opened.

Keep walking down Balham High Road and across the road you will see St Mary’s Church

Stop 6: St Mary’s Church

This church started as a chapel in 1805 and as the 19th century progressed got larger and grander. The facade we see today was only completed in 1903. The interior has lavish marble and mosaic decoration dating from the 1890s.

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This too was affected by wartime bombing and there is a little plaque at the front to say the clock in the tower was repaired by members and friends of the St Mary’s Sports and Social Club in memory of church and club members who lost their lives in the war.

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Keep walking along Balham High Road and across the road you will see a massive block of flats. This technically is in SW17 but most people think of Du Cane Court as being in Balham so I am including it here with our SW12 walk.

Stop 7: Du Cane Court

Du Cane Court is said to be the largest block of flats in Europe built for private occupation rather than as social housing.

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It has 676 flats which range from studios up to 4-bedroom flats. The block has had a number of notable residents, including comedian Tommy Trinder, actress Dame Margaret Rutherford, model/showgirl Christine Keeler, and, currently, comedian and writer Arthur Smith. Scenes for the TV series Poirot have been filmed here, and you can see why.

Retrace you steps back up to the railway bridge and keep going on. On the left just before the market is our next stop.

Stop 8: 172 – 174 Balham High Road (former cinema site)

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This is the site of a very old cinema. The Cinematograph Theatre was the fifteenth cinema in a chain founded by early cinema promoter Montagu A. Pyke. It opened in September 1911 It was re-named Picture House around 1916, and re-designed and enlarged in 1927. It was taken over by Associated British Cinemas (ABC) in 1933. In 1953, the frontage was demolished and a new facade was built. The cinema re-opened as the Ritz Cinema. The Ritz Cinema closed in 1968 and became a bingo club. Later Bollywood films were screened. The Bingo and Asian films use ended in the mid-1980’s and the building was demolished in the Summer of 1985. Now as you can see it is a shop.

Keep walking up the main road, past Waitrose and stop opposite Foxton’s Estate Agents.

Stop 9: 75 Balham High Road (another former cinema site)

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There is just a branch of Foxtons Estate Agents at No 75 Balham High Road now, but this was once a building which variously had been a swimming pool, concert hall, theatre and cinema.

It started life as the The Swimming Baths Concert Hall in 1890, with a swimming pool under the wooden concert hall floor. It only had a narrow entrance on the High Road and the auditorium was behind. In 1907, it was renamed the Balham Empire Theatre showing films and it is said this is one of the first theatres to go over full time to showing films. It had several changes of name: Theatre De Luxe (1909), the Olympia (1915) and the Pavilion (1922). In 1928 it was over by Gaumont Theatres and eventually re-named Gaumont in 1949. It closed in 1960 and became a Bingo Club, It was demolished in 1974 and used as car sales space. Subsequently a new building was built on the site which kind of blends into the facades on each side.

Keep walking along the main road.

Stop 10: Balham Hill (site of Balham Hippodrome)

As we go up Balham Hill on either side of the road is a post war estate of flats called the Balham Hill Estate. Somewhere on the left hand side was the site of the Balham Hippodrome, Opened as the Royal Duchess Theatre in 1899. It had a Beaux-Arts style exterior topped by a huge copper dome under a cupola with a Classical winged figure. It had 1,268 seats and was designed by W.G.R. Sprague. In 1903, it was named Duchess Palace Theatre and films were screened from 1908. In 1909, it was re-named Balham Hippodrome Theatre, and was a full time cinema until 1915 but then reverted back to variety. It was bombed in the Second World War and was closed. It was demolished in the 1960s.

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Moving on up the Hill we pass the Gateway Hotel on the left. Wonder if their guests know the significance of the name. The hotel markets itself as being in Clapham, presumably because Clapham South tube is closest.

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Cross over Malwood Road and on the other corner is our final stop

Stop 11: Majestic Wine (facade of former Odeon Cinema)

This is one of the distinctive Odeon cinemas. Built in 1938, it has that unmistakable Odeon style with those creamy tiles and the tower. It survived as an Odeon cinema until 1972.  From 1974 to 1979 it was a cinema showing asian films, called the Liberty. Then in the early 1980s the auditorium was demolished for flats, but the facade and front section was retained and became one of the first Majestic Wine Warehouses. Interesting Majestic call this their Clapham branch. For most of its life this was the Odeon Balham, which is technically right as it is in Balham Hill, SW12, but it is so close to Clapham South station.

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Shame that this wonderful facade is spoilt by all those mobile phone masts sticking out.

We seem to have visited quite a few places of entertainment (mainly from the past) and again wartime bombing seems to feature highly. But to finish here are a few words of C.Quill Smith from “Balham: Gateway to the South”:

“Broad-bosomed, bold, becalmed, benign, Lies Balham, four-square on the Northern Line”

For onward travel you have local buses on Balham hill or of course Clapham South station

SW5: So why do you smile when you think about Earl’s Court?

Earls Court is an area which largely owes its existence to the District Railway which was spreading its tentacles westwards in the 1870s and 1880s rather than finishing off the Circle line in the City like it was supposed to do. It is an area dominated by vast cliff like buildings of 5 and 6 storeys; many were built as single houses and are now split up but others were purpose-built flats. During the 1960s it became known as the place for Australian and New Zealanders to stay. But today the area has gone up considerably in price and there are not too many run down properties of grim bedsits. But on the main drag. it still does feel for the most part a bit of a place to go through rather than to live.

We start our walk at the Post Office opposite the Earl’s Court Road exit to the underground station

Stop 1: Old Manor Yard

As you look across the road from the Post Office, you will see a gated mews to the left of the station building. This is Old Manor Yard. This dates from the 1870s and is on the site of the Old Manor House of Earl’s Court. There was not really a village as such at Earl’s Court. Just a few buildings associated with the manor. Not much to see but basically this is was the original heart of Earl’s Court.

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Now look at the facade of the station across the road

Stop 2: Earl’s Court Station (east end)

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The Metropolitan District Railway first built tracks through Earl’s Court in 1869 as part of an extension from Gloucester Road to West Brompton where there was an interchange with the West London Extension Joint Railway which ran from Clapham Junction to Olympia.  There was no intermediate station here at Earl’s Court until October 1871. The District Railway (as it became known)  was later joined in 1906 by the Great Northern, Piccadilly and Brompton Railway (GNB&PR – now the Piccadilly Line) which ran between Hammersmith and Finsbury Park serving Earl’s Court in deep level tube tunnels under the District Railway station.

The facade we see today dates from 1906 and is unusual in that the GNP&BR normally had their own distinctive buildings at almost all their other stations – designed by Leslie Green, they were covered in deep red glazed tiles. But this did not happen here presumably because there was space was within the existing station shed to house the lifts to the lower level. Even though at the time this facade was built the two railways serving Earl’s Court were controlled by the same holding company (Underground Electric Railways Company of London Limited), the two individual railway names are set out on the station front.

The lift access was supplemented in 1911 by the Underground’s first escalators between the upper and lower levels. It is said there was a one-legged man named “Bumper Harris” travelling all day on the escalator to demonstrate its safety but no evidence of this has been found by the London Transport Museum.

Now you can hardly fail to notice the blue Police Phone Box by the newspaper stand outside the station. Cross over and have a closer look.

Stop 3: The Police Phone Box

No this is not Doctor Who’s time machine  – the TARDIS. It is a modern day replica of the traditional police boxes that were once a common sight in the UK until the early 1970s when personal radios became possible.

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Unveiled in April, 1996, this box was to enable the public to contact local police at the touch of a button, There were plans to distribute similar boxes throughout London as hi-tech surveillance units, but this idea was later abandoned.

Cross back over Earl’s Court Road and turn left, ahead you will see a pub

Stop 4: Prince of Teck pub (corner of Earl’s Court Road and Kenway Road)

This pub is named after a german Royal, Francis who was Prince of Teck from 1863 – 1871 then he became Duke of Teck. He married into the British Royal family but had to rely on his wife’s income and was often heavily in debt. His daughter, Mary married one of Queen Victoria’s grandsons who later became King George V. So basically this pub is named after one of the present Queen’s Great Grandfathers

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Go down Kenway Road

Stop 5: Kenway Road

The small scale of the buildings in this street comes as a bit of a surprise given the scale of most of the rest of Earl’s Court. The reason is that this is one of the oldest streets in the area, predating the coming of the railway. Architectural historian Pevsner dates the pretty two storey terrace from numbers 15 – 33 as being 1819 – 1825. Further down the road (35 – 71) the houses are even older, dated to 1807.

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Continue down Kenway Road and into the short pedestrianised section. At the end turn left into Cromwell Road.

Stop 6: Cromwell Road

The second house along is number 173 where the composer Benjamin Britten lived between 1931 and 1933. I guess the road was a lot quieter then!

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Retrace your steps and keeping walking down Cromwell Road until you reach number 153. This is where the film director, Alfred Hitchcock lived from 1926 – 1939. So for a couple of years in the 1930s, Alfred Hitchcock and Benjamin Britten lived a few doors away from each other. I wonder if they ever met. By the way look at how the ivy is satisfyingly creeping around Hitchcock’s blue plaque. Now that cannot have been an accident!

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Turn back and go along Cromwell Road until Knaresborough Place where you turn left. Go straight ahead following the road as it veers slightly to the left. Continue until you reach Courtfield Gardens

Stop 7a: Courtfield Gardens 

Earl’s Court was largely developed in a period of twenty years (1870s and 1880s) but in the middle of this period the fashion changed from classical, with the use of stucco to red brick and terra cotta with “Queen Anne” or “Jacobean” motifs. You can see it vividly here in the contrast between Courtfield Gardens built in the 1870s and the next stop, Collingham Gardens built in the 1880s.

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Keep walking straight ahead – the street name changes

Stop 7b: Collingham Gardens 

Collingham Gardens together with the neighbouring Harrington Gardens was a mixture of private commission and speculative buildings by the architectural partnership Ernest George and Harold Peto. It is quite a dramatic change of style.

One famous resident was Howard Carter, of Tutankhamun fame who lived at Number 19.

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Keep walking to the end where you will get to Number 9 whose entrance is actually round the corner. Number 9 is noticeably smaller than the others and it turns out this was originally occupied by Peto.

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Stop 8: The streets with two names

The street names round here are incredibly confusing as a number of the buildings are clustered private gardens and take their names from the gardens, so here we have just seen Number 9 Collingham Gardens but across the road the buildings are all in Bolton Gardens. So if you turn back on yourself and cross the street you have just come down, the buildings on your right are numbered in Bramham Gardens and the ones on your left continue to be numbered in Bolton Gardens. Confusing huh?

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Keep on walking down Bramham/Bolton Gardens until the end. Turn left into Earl’s Court Road and at the lights turn left into Old Brompton Road. Almost straight ahead across the road is out next stop.

Stop 9: Coleherne Court (Old Brompton Road)

Coleherne Court is a sprawling complex of flats with its own private garden out back. It dates from 1901 – 1904. Pevsner describes it as a “cheerful mix of Tudor and Georgian motifs”.

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The flats’ most famous resident has to be Diana, Princess of Wales (1961–1997), the first wife of Prince Charles. She lived at 60 Coleherne Court from 1979 to 1981. Her parents bought her the 3-bedroom flat for £50,000 as an 18th birthday present. Diana lived there with flat mates until February 1981 when she moved into Clarence House, the Queen Mother’s residence, on the night before her engagement to Prince Charles was officially announced.  She reportedly said it was here where she spent the happiest time of her life.

You can get a tantalising glimpse of the private gardens through the gate.

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Retrace your steps along Old Brompton Road crossing over Earl’s Court Road. Keep walking until just past the corner of Coleherne Road

Stop 10: The Troubadour (263-267 Old Brompton Road)

The Troubadour at  in Earls Court, established in 1954, is one of the last remaining coffee houses of its era in London. It has a club room in the cellar famous as a venue of the British folk revival in the late 1950s and 1960s.

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When the unknown Bob Dylan arrived in Britain for the first time, it is sometimes said that his only guide was a piece of paper from his mentor Pete Seeger bearing the words, “Troubadour Folk Club, London, ask for Anthea”. He first performed in London here in December 1962 apparently under the name Blind Boy Grunt

Morrisey played here in February 2012. I wonder if he sang his ode to male prostitution “Piccadilly Palare”. Morrisey anoraks will have noted our title today is a quote from this song. At the time this song (late 1980s) was written Earl’s Court had a number of gay bars and clubs but I do not believe any are still operating today. And here’s a bit of Morrisey trivia, you can hear the voice of Suggs from Madness on this track.

Continue walking along Old Brompton Road and turn right at lights into Warwick Road. Cross over at crossing and take the second turning on the left.

Stop 11: 67 Eardley Crescent

A few doors down on the right hand side of this street is number 67 which was home to the comedian and actor, Hattie Jacques for 35 years

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Hattie was not her real first name which was Josephine. She made her theatrical debut aged 20 at the Player’s Theatre and during her time there she appeared “blacked up” in a minstrel show called Coal Black Mammies for Dixie. She was likened to the American actress Hattie McDaniel (of Gone with the Wind fame) and the name “Hattie” stuck.

She had a life long partnership with comic actor and writer Eric Sykes and was in a number of Carry on films. She was a great friend of Kenneth Williams and is mentioned a number of times in his diaries. She loved hosting parties and he mentions he saw 1957 in there and also went to a Christmas Day party in 1972. He was invited to her 1973/74 New Year’s party but declined. He went nowhere that year – and says in his diary “If I attend one more party I shall go stark raving mad”.

Retrace your steps to Warwick Road and turn left. until your reach the entrance to the Exhibition Centre.

Stop 12: Earl’s Court Exhibition Centre

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This was London first permanent centre for commercial exhibitions built in 1936/37. The orginal hall was built over the District line with a new entrance to Earl’s Court tube station constructed to facilitate easy access to the Exhibition Centre. There was a direct entrance from the underground passage which connects the District and Piccadilly lines. This was however closed in the 1990s at around the time the capacity of the Exhibition Centre was expanded by the construction of a second exhibition hall, Earls Court 2, which was opened by Princess Diana, who as we have heard was herself a former Earls Court resident.

This vied with Olympia up the road to stage all the big trade shows and exhbitions. It also doubled up as a concert venue. However the world has moved on and we now have the larger much more modern facilities such at the NEC near Birmingham and ExCel in Docklands. So Earl’s Court’s days as an exhibition centre and concert venue are numbered. Mayor Boris Johnson has recently agreed plans to demolish the whole complex, plus a bit more and to build what is virtually a whole new neighbourhood. It’s a shame to see the old place go but I guess it is just inevitable.

So we have seen how Earl’s Court developed mainly in the 1870s and 1880s following the coming of the Underground. Most buildings are huge cliff like 5 and 6 storey structures and we can see how the building fashions changed from classical stucco to red brick and terra cotta around 1880.  But there are a few buildings from earlier in the 19th century which are on a smaller more intimate scale. Earl’s Court has been home to many famous people over the years from Benjamin Britten and Alfred Hitchcock in the 1930s through Hattie Jacques for 35 years to 1980 and Princess Diana for a couple of years (1979 – 1981). And for now at least we have two concert venues of very different kinds, the intimate Troubadour and the vast Earl’s Court.

We are now at the other (western) entrance to Earl’s Court station for onward travel. Or go back to Earl’s Court Road for refreshment options.