Earlier this month I wrote about the phrase “I remember when this was all fields”, as part of this piece. I have lived in the same part of West London for my entire life but do not remember when it was all fields. I do, however, remember when we had record shops, video rental stores and petrol stations on the High Road. They are now all gone. I have been discussing petrol stations with each of my children in recent weeks.
The other weekend, returning from one of our Marylebone mornings with my 10-year-old daughter, I pointed out all the places on Goldhawk Road where petrol stations used to be. One of them is now a Majestic Wine Warehouse, the other three or four have been pulled down and rebuilt as blocks of flats. There is one place left where you can fill up, near Stamford Brook station; the rest have gone.
The same is true for the High Road. From Chiswick Roundabout to the lights at Goldhawk Road there used to be at least five petrol stations. Now they’ve all gone, replaced by a Metro Bank, a branch of Halford’s and three blocks of flats. I pointed this out one evening to my 12-year-old son when we went out to fill up the car. It was a cold February night and he had been asking if we could go out somewhere. To his surprise I said yes. With his current fondness for pubs and pub crawls he was expecting a drink of lime and soda and a packet of crisps but we went driving instead. We drove up to Chiswick roundabout and I pointed out the petrol station on the other side of it. I then pointed out the places where all the others used to be. Like the Majestic Wine Warehouse in Goldhawk Road the local branch of Halford’s is the only building that still looks like it used to be a petrol station. We ended up at the one near Stamford Brook station, filled up, and shared a bottle of Mars chocolate milk, which he had never tasted before.
On both of these trips I asked my children to consider why there are so few petrol stations now. On a 3-mile stretch of road from Chiswick Roundabout to Shepherds Bush Green there used to be at least ten and now there is only one. Why is this? I don’t know what the correct answer is but I wanted to see what they came up with.
The first suggestion could have been right: “Were there more cars in the olden days?” No, quite the opposite. “Maybe people don’t use their cars so much?” Again, it doesn’t seem likely. I couldn’t expect my children to know much about vehicle ownership, car usage and petrol pricing, but they are at the age where it becomes important to think things through, to try and work out answers, rather than rely on the things that other people tell them. What do you think? Where have all the petrol stations gone? Why are there so few of them on our high streets?
Here are my thoughts.
One factor, which my children are unfamiliar with, is price-cutting by supermarket chains. Supermarkets have been known to sell petrol (as well as bread and milk) at a loss, to encourage drivers to do all their shopping in one place, or they offer discounts on fuel when you spend a certain amount in the store. None of our regular routes takes us past any of these larger supermarkets so we do not use them for filling up.
Credit cards and debit cards probably make a difference too. 30 or 40 years go, when more people used cash for their day-to-day purchases, drivers were more likely to part-fill their cars, more likely to say “A tenner’s worth please mate” than “Fill her up, Jacko”. Now, with most of us using plastic for larger purchases, more of us are likely to fill up our cars rather than part-fill. We are not consuming any more fuel but we are making fewer trips to the forecourt.
And of course most of our local service stations were on valuable land. Hundreds of people now live on sites which used to house a few petrol pumps and a small shop. I don’t miss the old places, but I remember where they were.