The Westway at Harrow Road in 1999 (image: Amelia Lancaster)
The Westway, which opened in July 1970, is a botched modernist operation, as if part of Los Angeles’ freeway system has been grafted on to bypass west London’s coagulated arteries – only for London’s weakly pumping heart to reject it.
The Western Avenue extension (Westway A40) is a 2.5 mile-long elevated motorway section that connects the end of Western Avenue at Wood Lane to the Marylebone flyover at Paddington Green, providing a direct link into central London from the west. It was originally conceived as part of the ambitious London Ringways network, a complex ring-road system that was never fully realised.
But just as the Westway has failed in infrastructural terms, so it has acted as a concrete muse for writers, filmmakers, artists and musicians. JG Ballard’s 1974 novel Concrete Island – in which an architect is marooned Crusoe-like on a triangular strip of motorway intersection when his car plunges off the exit road after a tyre blowout – is set between the M4 and the Westway, and it appears in Crash (1973) too. If Ballard is the poet of the motorways, then Concrete Island is his Paradise Lost.
The Westway also made its way into the iconography of punk London, and especially the Notting Hill riot of 1976. In London’s Burning (1977), The Clash wrote: “I’m up and down the Westway/In and out the lights/What a great traffic system – it’s so bright/I can’t think of a better way to spend the night/Than speeding around underneath the yellow light” and they called their 2000 documentary film Westway to the World. The photograph of the massed police ranks at the Westway formed the back cover image of The Clash’s first album and was also the backdrop to their White Riot tour.
For many artists, the Westway has a cinematic feel, as it sweeps through and pans across north Kensington’s suburban housing stock and drab Edwardian terraces. The film-maker Chris Petit, who hymned its attractions in his 1979 film Radio On (the poster of which featured the British Rail maintenance depot at Paddington seen through a car windscreen on the Westway) and, most recently, in Content, said that the Westway stands as “a rare example of the modern city London never became”.
The painter Oliver Bevan, who held an exhibition of Westway paintings at the Barbican in 1993, said: “I think the flyover conforms to old notions of the sublime. It has a kind of awful beauty. I can’t paint anything that doesn’t fill me with conflicting feelings.”
In some ways, the vehement local opposition to the Westway marked the beginning of the anti-roads campaigns of later years, culminating in the protests against the Newbury bypass and the M11 link road. It is ironic in this regard that the Westway Development Trust, which was established to develop the derelict land around the Westway, now promotes its raw urban ambience: “Our outdoor locations range from part of Portobello Market including the iconic Portobello Green Market Tent, to edgy, urban development sites rich in graffiti, beneath the concrete arches and pillars of the flyover.”
At the time, the Westway was the longest stretch of elevated motorway in Europe, and had many experimental features including electric heating on gradients (to prevent ice formation) and special vibration-absorbing joints. Intriguingly, the Ministry of Defence insisted that the spans support heavy tank traffic loadings. The uncompleted spurs to Kensington and Chelsea can still be seen, but the cultural reach of the Westway has extended far beyond Paddington.