WORDS: James Stirling
IMAGES: Jamie Rowlands
Saturday morning, late March.
I rise early and drift along to Ciaran’s flat on Deptford High Street at a perfectly reasonable Saturday morning hour. Ciaran, a close friend and consummate pedestrian, had suggested a walk he would like to undertake – a short sojourn (barely a mile) from Finchley Road station to West Hampstead station via the curiously titled Billy Fury Way.
From our mutual base in south-east London we traverse the city’s subterranea before popping our heads up in its north-western reaches, where our day’s journeying begins in earnest.
As we exit the station, Ciaran is immediately chagrinned by the poor town planning – a duel carriageway and a subway to cross the road provide a grim backdrop. “Everything,” Ciaran asserts, “just screams dull.” This street is built for the motorcar. The air is heavy with exhaust detritus and the sound of unsympathetic engines bound for the distant suburbs and beyond. It is an unforgiving environment for the pedestrian.
Interestingly though, my relationship with this particular stretch has always been of a purely symbolic nature. Many a time have I viewed this street from the window of a National Express coach and considered this the site where a mental shift takes places: London to not London. This is the moment where I feel myself leaving London proper and entering the endless provinces and, inversely, the site at which I mentally prepare myself upon return.
As we pass the O2 Centre – a charmless shopping centre housing all the usual gubbins – Ciaran heartily agrees. Taking the Megabus from Liverpool to London, he would peer out of the window and envision the exciting lives these cosmopolitan Londoners must live. Now, however, these northern reaches of the city are its unfriendliest parts. The housing, however pleasant, is monotonous. Up here, people seem to mirror the mood of these busy streets; folk jostle with intent and purpose; dawdlers and saunterers are not suffered gladly in the rush of pedestrians mimicking the flow of the northbound traffic.
We walk over the railway bridge and gaze out over the line leading out to Neasden, Wembley Park, Rickmansworth, Chorleywood and into Buckinghamshire. A curious smell of death lingers in the air. A short way on and we arrive at a discrete alleyway unbecoming of its highfalutin moniker: Billy Fury Way. In erstwhile days, however, this sordid alley was known as The Black Path and was a blight upon the land. In 2010, it was decided that they must invoke the spirit of Billy Fury, who recorded nearby at Decca Studios on Broadhurst Gardens, to change the fortunes of this dreary lane. Fury, immortalised in his native Liverpool with a sculpture on Albert Dock, finds himself relegated to a seedy, crime-ridden back-alley in the capital.
The passageway itself is somewhat grim: it is uncomfortably narrow, dog shit is smeared hither and thither, and the walls rise oppressively high either side. The rear wall of a derelict pub’s beer garden backs onto the path where scores of discarded cans litter the floor whilst three plastic bags hang neatly from the wall – each containing the remnants of dozens more continental lagers.
“People often say it but I really wouldn’t want to walk down here at night,” Ciaran remarks.
Local newspaper cuttings reveal anti-social behaviour, robbery, assault and battery. Signs read ‘Clean Up After Your Dog’ as though they were really the problem in this place. As Ciaran observes, we are firmly “transported outside Camden and Hampstead wonderland.”
The brick wall on our right hand side recedes and we are separated from the railway lines by a wooden fence. Another mountain of empties, into the hundreds at least, adorns a bramble bush. LECH, ZYWIEC, a few Kronenbourgs, cheap vodka, Special Brew and a Double Decker wrapper. Expensive modern apartments with large balconies overlook the alleyway like sentry towers. The inhabitants of which watch the squalor; perverse scopophilic yuppies getting off on poverty porn.
At the grand unveiling of Billy Fury Way, Mother Christine from the nearby St. James’ Church ‘blessed’ the street. I imagine it was more akin to an exorcism of the demons that haunt the alley. A failure. The ghosts are ever present. Ciaran remembers his time before living in London when he would visit frequently. He would often wonder at the people who lived down the side streets and alleyways.
Who are they and what do they do?
Billy Fury Way is the shortest walking route between Finchley Road and Frognal and West Hampstead Stations yet one imagines that it would be preferable to most to walk the long way around. Forgo the Black Path at all costs. We stand on the railway bridge and take in the view: A Vue cinema, Homebase, a Volkswagen dealership. The suburbs with their dreams of comfort, leisure and a five-door hatchback are upon us.
As we approach West End Lane, our journey’s end, the path cleans up its act a little. We have strolled the entire length undisturbed. Perhaps we arrived a little too early to encounter the clandestine lager swillers, shit smearers and disappointed Billy Fury fans.
The street sign has been stolen several times since 2011 – ironically defeating the very purpose of the West Hampstead Safer Neighbourhood Team’s vision of changing the street’s fortunes by attracting more crime. Rather than being driven away, the criminals have merely diversified and added ageing rock and roll memorabilia aficionados to the extant muggers and vandals.
We approach the stairs leading up to the street and observe people passing by wholly indifferent to – or ignorant of – the alleyway’s existence. It is, Ciaran notes, rather like a portal; an unusual nether region of north-west London doomed to obscurity.
After passing the Billy Fury mural – a strikingly handsome portrait that somewhat jars with the coarseness of its surroundings – we are spat back out onto West End Lane; as though nothing had happened.
James Stirling is based in Camberwell, London and is currently toiling in a secondary school in Deptford whilst studying for an MA in English Literature at Queen Mary, University of London and writing about London life and literature.