Essay | The Wild Side of Town by Alexis Self

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Urban pastoral: The borderlands of Wormwood Scrubs. Photo: Alexis Self

There are millions of miles of Montessori walls filled with quotations about the virtues of sharing. But you don’t want to get to your favourite restaurant and find you have to wait for a table. In the stifling urban environment it’s only natural to crave a no man’s land. This is how I feel about Wormwood Scrubs. I’ll extol its life giving benefits to all I meet, but I hope they won’t be so inspired when I go for a Sunday morning stroll. Luckily for me, a large part of the Scrubs’ charm derives from its unconventional beauty — like an obstreperous puppy, it has to earn your affection. Those unwilling to look beyond skin-deep might find its two hundred acres of rough, uneven ground too bleak for a picnic; while the lack of any retail opportunity probably renders it pointless to visitors from afar.

The 1879 Wormwood Scrubs Act legislated for its “perpetual use… by the inhabitants of the metropolis for exercise and recreation.” But that temple to consumerism Westfield, just down the road, is where more Londoners go for such things. On weekend mornings, the Scrubs is a panoply of wholesome endeavour: football, rugby and hurling in the winter; softball, kite and model aeroplane flying in the summer. At all other times it is near-deserted, save for scattered formations of dog-walkers, who dutifully patrol its perimeter year-round. Its utilitarian pretensions seem apt, since the Scrubs was originally intended as a military exercise ground close to the city. The army’s green jackets have long since been replaced by those of parakeets, which conduct intricate twilight manoeuvres during summertime.

The name attests to its agrestal nature: “worm” comes from the Old English for “snake”. Ominous things still happen here. In 2013, while out walking his dog, fleece and corduroy empresario Johnnie Boden found a dead body in the woods. The southwestern edge was the site of the Massacre of Braybrook Street in 1966, when the brutal murder of three policemen led to nationwide calls for the revocation of the recently abolished death penalty. This verdant strip is rarely used as a thoroughfare, especially at night, and not just because of its lack of electrical lighting. In the evenings less savoury pursuits leave bins filled with empty Red Bull cans and kamagra packets.

Strangely enough, this urban wilderness is ringed by bureaucratic institutions. There is, of course, the eponymous prison, built between 1874 and 1890 by convict labour and dismissed by Pevsner as an “array of suitably forbidding buildings,” it was once the largest in the country. Nick Papadamitrou, a former inmate, describes it as “this vast vat of compressed and frozen evil saturated in prisoner-years spent gazing out over the adjacent lands.” Today its Romanesque towers look decidedly kitsch next to the faceless modernity of Hammersmith Hospital to its east. Both stare dolefully through the gloom towards the huge Old Oak railway depot, which stretches north to Willesden. Stopping at this desolate junction on your way into London gives you cause to reflect on whether you really are entering a bustling metropolis after all.

Photo: Alexis Self

 

On the Scrubs’ southeastern corner, dozens of identikit Portakabins stand testament to more recent local tragedy. Last year they housed students from Kensington Alridge Academy, displaced by the Grenfell Tower fire, whose solemn tented figure you can see in the distance. If you add to this line-up the neat redbrick rows of the interwar Old Oak Estate and the crumbling edifice of the Linford Christie Stadium (named for a local boy done good, then bad), you have a school, prison, hospital, housing estate, sports stadium and railway depot: a veritable inventory of so-called civilisation.

The city seeps into every nook of available space, this is why the Scrubs feels so anachronistic — a neighbourhood-shaped and sized slab of England untrammeled since a time of snakes and convict labour. Attempts to tame it have increased as proximate post-industrial spaces become more coveted. In the late 80s, Great Western Rail petitioned for permission to expand its depot along the Scrubs’ northern perimeter, home to its most unruly woodland. Resistance to the plans inspired a musical, The Wild Side of Town, written by environmentalist and broadcaster Chris Baines. When it comes to opponents of change it is the redoubtable Friends of Wormwood Scrubs, a vocal local minority, which leads the call to arms. Its most cherished acreage is kept completely untended so as to encourage biodiversity: the ubiquitous squirrels, foxes, starlings and parakeets; but also bats, lizards, owls and butterflies. Not to mention the sort of flora long since purged from the rest of the city: blackberries, elderberries, thistles and gorse.

The parliamentary act means its status as a space for recreation is protected in perpetuity. A 2005 reaffirmation of this ensures that any new efforts to alter the landscape must be minimal — the installation of more benches, or picnic areas — and are, therefore, mostly intended to make it accessible and attractive to the wider public. This is, undoubtedly, a noble endeavour. But most friends of the Scrubs, formal and informal, would argue that its true integrity derives from the vast emptiness it affords its coterie of fans. Therein lies the conundrum: as a member of said group, am I happy for this space to go largely underappreciated in order to preserve it for myself? Yes, probably.

Words by Alexis Self.


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