Nightmare on Nine Elms
At least that’s what the residents of Pimlico think about the new ’burb springing up across the Thames. But, says Clive Aslet, the only thing being slashed is the distance to the nearest Waitrose
HUW MORGAN IS a landscape architect. As you’d expect, he lives and works in a pretty choice landscape, the one he’s chosen being rural Montgomeryshire, three miles from Snowdonia National Park. It says something that, although an outsider — he is from south Wales, which means steelworks rather than sheep — he obtained the necessary consents to build a new house; an emphatically modern new house to boot.
The design practice of which he is a director, Camlins, has succeeded in building a glorious little office, too, also modern, in the form of a wooden chalet with a steep, single-pitch roof. It stands on a slip of field that wouldn’t normally get planning permission, so the tribal elders and local planning authority must really like them.
You couldn’t see much of the landscape on the day I visited; the fog was as thick as milk. But I didn’t need to be convinced. I know this to be one of the most spectacularly ravishing parts of the world, with huge views that melt my heart when I see them bathed in the golden light of late afternoon.
This is my idea of Arcadia — not perhaps as iconic as Wordsworth’s Lake District, nor as dramatic as the Highlands of Scotland, nor as singular as the Giant’s Causeway in County Antrim, but the sort of place in which you would be very happy to be confined in a retirement home or lunatic asylum, so long as they let you look out of the window.
Go quickly, though. If a combination of wind farm speculators, power companies and the National Grid have their way, the character is about to change. Several hundred giant turbines will be built across it. An agrarian landscape will be industrialised. From the peak of Cader Idris, the wind farms — half a dozen are in planning, more expected — will merge into one giant power station. Electricity will be taken out via a spaghetti of pylon lines.
Mid-Wales will have been sacrificed to appease the vanity of green fanatics who think China will be so impressed by our devotion to very expensive wind energy that it will stop building its coal power stations and airports. It won’t. It will simply laugh as we struggle under the burden of extra costs.
A New Park for Nine Elms
But I didn’t discuss this with Huw Morgan. Strangely, in that remote part of the world, we had another interest to share. His practice is designing the linear park that will run through the Nine Elms development, across the Thames from where I live.
At present, Nine Elms — despite its bucolic name — is one of the bleakest streets in London, running from the derelict Battersea Power Station past sundry industrial units, a vast Royal Mail sorting office, New Covent Garden vegetable market and a Booker wholesale shed, where I buy baked beans and lavatory paper in bulk.
Covering 500 acres, Nine Elms is the last big post-industrial site to be redeveloped — no doubt with flats for Hong Kong and Kazakhstani investors taking advantage of the weak pound. Forgive the cynicism.
There will also be the American embassy, occupying a giant sugar cube in the middle of a lake. The Dutch embassy is going next door. Looks as though Nine Elms will become an embassy quarter, a short stroll from the Houses of Parliament. Snaking in and out of the embassies and luxury towers will be a park, blowing with grasses and perennials if a showcase that has been put up, called The Garden, is anything to go by.
I knew about Nine Elms before meeting Huw. It’s the talk of Pimlico. More precisely, one detail of it is: a proposal to build another Wobbly Bridge across the Thames. When, as chairman of a small residents’ association, I’m in conclave with other self-confessed Nimbys, I hear only one thing: a collective howl of anguish at the thought of a conduit that will allow the hoodies of south London to swarm on to the north side of the river en masse, seizing our jewellery and mobile phones as they flood by. My dear, it will be a cycle bridge. Mass panic.
The idea that residents from Pimlico, which is not particularly flush with public open space or good restaurants, might want to stroll southwards to an array of new eating places, perhaps loitering on the bridge to enjoy the air and an unfamiliar panorama of one of the world’s greatest rivers, does not occur to them. Huw is sage. ‘Wait till they hear that there will be a Waitrose,’ he advises.
He’s too modest to say that they might be inspired to saunter over to enjoy his linear park. But it is exactly the sort of project that London needs. London is an essentially green city.
My friends in the Woodland Trust tell me that it has such a high proportion of tree cover that it should officially be designated as a forest. But it’s also monstrously huge. Open countryside is far away. It’s rich and rewarding to live in the centre, but human beings pine for green space. So thank you, Huw and colleagues, for providing some.
Strange that, at the same time as you’re bringing Nature to the city, your own hitherto agrarian idyll is being besmirched by the industrialisation caused by giant turbines and power lines. It’s a mad world, my masters.