The Modern Wonders of Brent: London Borough of Culture 2020/2021
The Mayor of London’s ‘Borough of Culture’ award aims to put culture at the heart of local communities, enabling boroughs to fund events and support local artists and performers. The first LBC was Waltham Forest in 2019 and the second is my home London borough of Brent.
What is Brent?
Following the hugely significant London Government Act 1963 the London Borough of Brent was born by merging two smaller local authorities called Willesden and Wembley. This radical reform Act created today’s Greater London by merging almost 90 small councils into 33 larger authorities. For instance the modern City of Westminster was created by merging the ancient City of Westminster with Paddington and St Marylebone.
Local thoughts after the Act were to simply name this new north-west London borough ‘Willesden and Wembley’ but central Government preferred the unexpected sobriquet of ‘Brent’, after a tributary of the River Thames that runs through part of the borough.
Ironically for a newish made-up borough the name Brent – referring to the river – is incredibly ancient. Perhaps bronze-age in origin, it means ‘holy one’ or ‘high place’ and is possibly named for the Celtic goddess Brigantia. The river rises in Hendon and ends its journey through north-west and west London in Brentford (which isn’t in Brent but in the post-1963 London borough of Hounslow), where it flows into the Thames.
I have selected three modern wonders of Brent to explore, all remarkable:
- Historic Barn Hill
- Cultural Wembley Stadium
- Religious Neasden Temple
Barn Hill, Wembley.
Barn Hill is a high green space with woodland that stretches from Wembley to Kingsbury rising to 282ft. An ancient track runs through it known as Hell Lane or Eldestrete which may, it’s said, date back to pre-Saxon times.
This ‘natural’ landscape has changed a lot and there is some real history here. Local big landowner Richard Page (1748-1803) decided to convert the family home called ‘Wellers’ into a grand country seat and the fields around it into a private estate. In 1792 Page employed the famous landscape architect Humphry Repton, to convert the previous farmland into wooded parkland and to make improvements to the house. The original area covered not just the upland but the low lying land around the hill as well.
Humphry Repton often called the areas he landscaped ‘parks’, and so it is to him that Wembley Park owes its name. The original site that Repton transformed was later built on during the construction of the short-lived Watkin’s Tower in the 1890s and is now the site of Wembley Stadium (see below).
The area landscaped by Repton was larger than the present Wembley Park. It included the southern slopes of Barn Hill situated to the north, where Repton planted trees and started building a gothic style tower or ‘prospect house’ offering views over the lower parkland. The landscape features on Barn Hill are characteristic of Repton, in particular the planting of belts of trees sweeping down from the summit.
Richard Page lost interest in the entire project after inheriting the grander Flambards estate in nearby Harrow. ‘Wellers’ was never remodelled and the tower on Barn Hill was never finished, becoming known as ‘Page’s Folly’. The house was sold to John Gray (d.1828), a London brandy merchant, in 1802 and he carried out some renovation. It was eventually demolished, sometime after 1820. The Page family had retained the Barn Hill part of the park, some 91 acres.
Barn Hill is first recorded in 1547 as Bardon Hill. By 1732 a new farm, Barn Hill Farm, existed on the summit of Barn Hill. It was no longer there by 1850 and had probably gone by the late eighteenth century, when Richard Page began building his tower or prospect house. The pond at the summit sits very close to where the farm stood and Repton’s original pond, now filled in.
Humphry Repton (1752-1818) was the last great English landscape designer of the eighteenth century, often regarded as the successor to Capability Brown (1716-83). Repton was born in Bury St Edmunds but grew up in Norwich, the son of John Repton, a collector of excise, and Martha.
He became apprenticed to a textile merchant and then, after marriage to Mary Clarke in 1773, set up in the business himself. He was not successful. Repton then tried his hand as a journalist, dramatist, artist, political agent, and in a venture to reform the mail-coach system. Repton again lost money.
But Repton had a childhood friend called James Edward Smith, the famous botanist and founder of the Linnean Society. Smith encouraged him to study botany and gardening and at this Repton at last succeeded; he even invented the term ‘landscape gardener’.
Part of his success was to help clients visualise his designs. Repton produced ‘Red Books’ with explanatory text and watercolours with a system of overlays to show ‘before’ and ‘after’ views. In this he differed from Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, who just worked with plans and rarely illustrated or wrote about his work. Repton was clearly a good salesman and landscaper.
A short history of Wembley Park
Wembley is derived from the Old English name ‘Wemba’ and ‘lea’ meaning meadow or clearing, so it was Wemba’s meadow. The name was first mentioned in a charter of 825AD. As part of the parish of Harrow the manor of Wembley later belonged to the Priory of Kilburn (see my blog about the Beatles in St John’s Wood).
During the Dissolution, in 1543, the manor of Wembley was granted to Richard Andrews and Leonard Chamberlain and they sold it onto Richard Page, a wealthy local farmer from Harrow on the Hill.
The Page family continued as lords of the manor of Wembley for several centuries and as we have seen a later Richard Page commissioned Humphry Repton to design what is now Wembley Park.
In 1829 the Page family lands ended up in the hands of Henry Young, the junior partner at Page’s solicitor. There was good reason to suspect that Young obtained the lands fraudulently. It certainly became a cause célèbre and in the decades following Young’s death numerous people appeared as claimants to the ‘Page millions’, but no one was successful.
The district did not change significantly in the nineteenth century due to an agricultural depression after the Napoleonic Wars and London’s growing need for hay; both Uxendon and Forty farms on the slopes of Barn Hill had converted to hay farming by 1852.
The opening of the London Euston to Birmingham railway in 1837 and the Metropolitan Railway in 1880 had no effect on development, even after the opening of Wembley Park station in 1894.
By 1900 Uxendon Farm had become a shooting ground (the Lancaster Shooting Club). When the Olympic Games were held in London in 1908 the ground was sufficiently important to be used for Olympic clay pigeon shooting. Pressure from the shooting club, which was a two mile walk from Wembley Park station, initiated the opening of Preston Road Halt (a request stop) in May 1908.
Preston Road Halt triggered the first commuter development in the district. Some large Edwardian houses were built along Preston Road after 1910 and Harrow Golf Club opened near the station in 1912 joining Wembley Golf Club, which had already existed on the southern slopes of Barn Hill from about 1895. Both golf courses would disappear beneath brick and tarmac once the anticipated housing development took off between the wars.
In 1923 Haymills acquired the golf course for development. They may have been speculating on the likely impact of the British Empire Exhibition of 1924-25, which was based in Wembley and for which its spectacular centrepiece, Wembley Stadium, had been constructed.
On the hillside setting of Barn Hill, Haymills constructed large semi-detached mock-Tudor properties. The contours of the hill are reflected in the layout of the Estate. The progression of the development to West Hill takes in the tree belts of Brampton Grove and Basing Hill, which are survivors of Repton’s eighteenth century landscaping.
Some houses had also been built at Uxendon when in 1932 Uxendon Farm was destroyed to make way for the Metropolitan Railway extension from Wembley to Stanmore (later renamed the Bakerloo Line and today the Jubilee Line). In the years that followed the whole of Uxendon was developed except for Barn Hill Open Space, which had been purchased by the council from the owners of Preston Farm in 1927.
Today Barn Hill and neighbouring Fryent Country Park are wards of the London Borough of Brent and most of the Barn Hill Estate is a Conservation Area.
Barn Hill. Left: The view west to St Mary’s Church, Harrow on the Hill. Above: The view across Wembley Park to the Stadium.
Wembley Stadium, Wembley.
The first stadium opened on 28th April 1923 for the FA Cup Final: Bolton Wanderers (2) v. West Ham United (0). Attendance was a massive 126,000.
It became known as the ‘White Horse Final’ when mounted policeman George Scorey and his horse Billie ushered fans off the pitch, which had been over-run due to overcrowding. Other police horses were used but Billie, who was actually grey, stood out in all the photos and news reels. King George V presented the cup to the winning team.
The official name was the Empire Stadium and it went on to become the main location for the 1948 Olympics, the 1966 World Cup Final (30th July, England 4 v. West Germany 2) and Live Aid, 13th July 1985.
The new stadium officially opened on 24th March 2007 for an Under 21 friendly: England (3) v. Italy (3). It cost £757 million and has 90,000 seats. The arch is 440ft (133m) high and has a span of 1030ft (315m). The pitch measures 115 x 75 yards (105 x 68m). There are 2618 toilets. Whilst the old stadium was world famous for its stately ‘twin towers’ the new stadium is sometimes referred to as ‘the shopping basket’.
1880: The Metropolitan Line only ran as far as Willesden Green. Plans were made to extend the line to Harrow-on-the-Hill. Wembley Park is half way between the two.
1881: Sir Edward Watkin, Chairman of the Metropolitan Railway Company, purchased land in Wembley Park. His idea was to create an amusement park to lure passengers onto the Metropolitan Line. The park would have boating lakes, gardens, waterfalls, cricket and football pitches.
1889: Watkin visited Paris and decided that the park’s main attraction would now be a structure to surpass the new Eiffel Tower (1063ft/324m x 4 legs). The Parisian super-structure was the wonder of the modern world, but Watkin was determined that Great Britain could do better.
1890: A competition to design the tower was opened and 68 entries were submitted.
The winning entry was by Stewart, MacLaren and Dunn of London. They proposed a 1,200ft (366m) octagonal 8-legged metal tower. It was to have two observation decks – each with restaurants, theatres, dancing rooms and exhibitions – winter gardens, Turkish baths and a 90 bedroom hotel. The top of the tower, reached by a system of lifts, would have an astronomical observatory. The entire structure was to be illuminated by electric light. The estimated cost was £352,000.
1893: Watkin had attempted to fund the tower through public subscription, but couldn’t raise enough money. Construction begins although the Metropolitan Railway Company had to pay. So Watkin had the plans revised down from eight to four legs. Its design now resembled a slimmer but taller Eiffel Tower.
1894: Wembley Park Station fully opens.
1895: The amusement park opens. The tower had reached the first level, at 155ft, which people could climb. An impressive 120,000 people visited. However, the tower was already too heavy and began to sink into the clay. The reduced number of legs transferred too much pressure onto each leg. Watkin retired due to ill health.
1899: The construction company ran out of cash. Construction ended. Wembley Tower was by now known as Watkin’s Folly or Watkin’s Stump.
1901: Sir Edward Watkin died.
1902: The tower was declared unsafe and closed to the public.
1907: The tower was dynamited and demolished. End of story?
2003: After the old stadium was demolished the new stadium pitch was set at a lower level than the old pitch. During digging the foundations of Watkin’s Folly were found under the old pitch.
If events had gone differently perhaps Richard Page’s gothic tower would have been looking across Wembley Park to Edward Watkin’s Wembley Tower.
BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir, London NW10.
Shri Swaminarayan Mandir (aka ‘the Neasden Temple’) is a Hindu temple. Built entirely using traditional methods and materials, the Swaminarayan mandir has been described as Britain’s first authentic Hindu temple.
It was also Europe’s first traditional Hindu stone temple, as distinct from adapting or converting secular buildings. It is a part of the Bochasanwasi Shri Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha (BAPS) organisation and was inaugurated in 1995 by Pramukh Swami Maharaj, a swami and the guru of BAPS which is a major branch of the Swaminarayan Sampradaya, a Hindu denomination.
At the time it was also the biggest Hindu Temple outside India, although since surpassed. It is made of 2,828 tonnes of Bulgarian limestone and 2,000 tonnes of Italian marble, which was first shipped to India to be carved by a team of 1,526 sculptors. The temple cost £12 million to build.
The entire project spanned five years although the mandir construction itself was completed in two-and-a-half years. Building work began in August 1992. In November 1992, the temple recorded the largest concrete-pour in the UK, when 4,500 tons were put down in 24 hours to create a foundation mat 5.9 ft (1.8 metres) thick. The first stone was laid in June 1993 and two years later the building was complete.
The temple complex consists of:
- A mandir, constructed mainly from hand-carved Italian carrara marbleand Bulgarian limestone. It is the focal part of the complex and can house 3000 worshippers.
- The BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Haveli, a cultural centre housing an assembly hall, gymnasium, bookshop, and offices. It is carved from English oak and Burmese teak. It was designed according to traditional Indian haveli architecture, to evoke feelings of being in Gujarat, India, where such havelis were once commonplace.
- A permanent exhibition entitled, ‘Understanding Hinduism’.
Brent’s three modern wonders circled in red. ‘Brent’ by Stephen Walter (TAG Fine Arts).
Walking around around the new ‘Wembley City’ development recently I came across ‘Humphrey Repton Lane’. ‘Wembley City’ is an ongoing, never ending vertical expansion of Wembley Park sitting on the original Page estate that was landscaped by Repton. It’s very close to Wembley Stadium (see above).
An honour to the memory of Repton you might think. Sadly the developer has mispelt Humphry. A quick ‘google’ search or look in a, y’know, ‘book’ would have clarified the correct spelling.