At The Stables Under The Westway
Whenever I have made the trip to Oxford, I have always been surprised to glance down as the bus ascends onto the monstrous concrete Westway, suspended high above the city, and see a stable far below where horses are being exercised. It is a curious anachronism to discover this peaceful spectacle in the midst of the urban chaos and heartening to be reminded of the persistence of these old ways, before you race off up the A40. So when the West London Stables invited me to pay them a visit, Contributing Photographer Patricia Niven & I ventured over to learn more.
When the Westway was built in 1968, it isolated an intermediary space between Notting Hill and Shepherds Bush where scrapyards, travellers’ encampments and stables occupied land that nobody else used. Over the years, this has become an unlikely time capsule in which elements that defined the place historically have survived in spite of the more recent developments which encircle them today.
Sarah Tuvey took over running of the stables as a community riding school in 1994. She explained to me that they were originally built as a concessionary gesture for travellers, totters and costermongers from Portobello, at the time the Westway was constructed over land they had used for keeping their horses – but by the early nineties there were only three or four horses left, after their owners had retired or switched to motorised transport.
Yet Sarah also revealed this place was once the site of a racecourse known as the Kensington Hippodrome, built in 1837 by John Whyte. These former ancient grasslands were used traditionally for the working horses that served the city – pulling cabs, dray carts and milk floats – and it was this culture of horsemanship which gave rise the celebrated White City Horse Shows. Prior to the development of the west side of Notting Hill, the decline of the Racecourse led to its use by travellers, and the creation of potteries and piggeries, and a reputation for vagabondage and criminality which lingers to this day. Significantly, it was the West London Stables that supplied the old nag to the BBC for ‘Steptoe & Son.’
You feel you walk off the map when you leave the made-up road and enter the shadow land beneath the gargantuan interchange, where unseen traffic booms overhead like distant thunder. It is a dirty realm of excitement and of possibility, lacking the same degree of social control which prevails in the clean streets. Graffiti abounds and water drips in the dramatic shade cast by the monolithic structures above, and there is a theatricality in the presence of horses in the arena, parading as if within a circus ring beneath a big top.
Beyond, you discover the small enclave of stables which Sarah has run for the past twenty years, offering riding to community groups from the surrounding areas and single-handedly keeping the age-old culture of horsemanship alive in this corner of London. She is evangelical about the social benefits of the stables, especially for children who have grown up in the city and may not have seen horses before. Yet the recent decline in income as an indirect consequence of cuts means that the stable is forced to choose between feeding horses or paying the rent, and now Sarah has been told her lease will not be renewed in February next year.
When I heard Sarah’s news, the pathos of the circumstance became apparent to me, standing there in the stables with the motorway roaring overhead. If we can justify the vast shopping complexes and the titanic motorways suspended in the air, why cannot this small but well-used stables be allowed to exist for the benefit of its immediate urban community? You might like to visit the West London Stables for yourself to experience horse-riding in this unique location while it is still possible and – in the meantime – you can sign the petition to help them survive here.
Paula Sheenan, Trustee
Carley Small, Rider
Tamara Heirons, Trainer
Photographs copyright © Patricia Niven
West London Stables, 20 Stable Way, London, W10 6QX
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