Memories · Notes from West London

Lyons, Wimpy, Burger King, Carluccio’s, Empty

If you live for long enough in the same village, town or city you will see many businesses come and go: shops, restaurants, bars, petrol stations. Having spent most of my life in the same part of West London I can trace the history of some of these multiple local changes without difficulty. Other places have changed hands so often that I can barely remember what was there 20 years ago.

Many of the larger premises have changed only once or twice since the 1960s. Woolworth’s occupied the same site on the High Road until fairly recently, from my childhood until less than a decade ago. By that time I had children of my own. They wore items of Ladybird clothing purchased from the same store that my mother had visited to buy Ladybird clothing for me, my brother and sister when we were their age. When Woolworth’s went into Administration in 2008 most of the UK stores were closed down. Ours became a Waitrose, and so it remains.

WH Smith has occupied the same spot a few doors down from Woolworth / Waitrose since the 1970s, when it replaced a small supermarket called David Greig. There might have been a gap between Greig’s closing and Smith’s opening, a few months when the store was empty or occupied temporarily by what would now be called a “pop-up”. That was certainly the case when the old Boots the Chemist closed. As with WH Smith, the business moved to larger premises further west on the High Road. Its old corner location was occupied temporarily by an AID Gift Shop. It appears in that state in the movie “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square”, which I wrote about in some detail in this piece. 13 minutes into the movie you can see the shop, with a sign above the door reading “Ivan’s General Store”. The sign is a prop, but the rest is real. This is one of those places whose various incarnations I cannot recount with confidence. It was definitely a branch of Clinton’s Cards for at least a decade, and it has now been a Gail’s Bakery for many years.

The specific recent change that has prompted me to write this piece is the closure of our nearest Carluccio’s restaurant. There seems to be a trend these days for eliminating every trace of a business when it has closed down. It happened a few years ago when the local McDonalds ceased trading. Within 24 hours the whole shopfront had been boarded up. There was nothing to indicate what had been there before. (It’s now a Pound Shop.) Something similar happened when Le Pain Quotidien closed (the closure was also mentioned in this update about Dead Pubs). All traces of the former “bakery and communal table” have been removed. This trend makes sense. Why should a brand leave evidence of where they used to operate but no longer do? Carluccio’s have almost done the same. The shopfront has been anonymized, but above the door a faint trace of the restaurant name remains, easily missed if you drive past, but readable if you stop to look. The word “palimpsest” came to mind (and it’s word I have not used since this piece from 29 February 2016), though technically it probably isn’t one.

As a family we ate in this branch of Carluccio’s many times. We were there for my mother-in-law’s birthday in 2007. It was the only occasion that I have discussed with any of my in-laws the Catholic doctrine of Transubstantiation and the Church’s official line on Intinction. This line of conversation was initiated by my brother-in-law, by the way, not by me. Five months before that, a few days after my daughter was born, the four of us (two parents, two children) had eaten there. One of the waiters took a photograph for us, the first that contains all of us together.

Every trip to Carluccio’s triggered memories of the restaurant’s previous incarnations. In my lifetime it was home to Lyons, Wimpy, Burger King and Carluccio’s, in that order. There was a gap between the closure of Burger King and the opening of Carluccio’s but I can’t recall if it was months or years. My memories of Lyons are vague. I think it was a Lyons Tea House. It was where my mother and other school mums would meet for a cup of tea after taking their eldest children to school back in the 1960s. They would have their pre-school children with them, me included, and would often head over the road for 10 o’clock mass. Lyons was a huge restaurant and catering business before, during and after World War Two, but by the early 1970s many of its outlets had been converted to Wimpy Burger Bars, including our local Tea House. Wimpy was one of the first places I went to without adult accompaniment. It was a special holiday treat to go there with a school-friend. My younger sister and I went there many times, but not enough to work our way through the 20 or more different flavours of milkshake, as we had hoped to.

In the late 1970s our old-style Wimpy burnt down. Before the fire, it was a regular sit-down restaurant: waitress service, knives and forks, plates and glasses. After the fire, it reopened as a McDonalds-style takeaway: disposable containers and a new menu, with fewer flavours of milkshake. By the mid-1980s I had become rather partial to their half-pounders, as much for the wholemeal buns and the unique sauce as the 227g of beef.

By the late 1980s, like most Wimpy Bars, ours had become a Burger King. In keeping with the site’s history as a place for parents to bring their pre-school children, it had a play area. There were enough distractions to keep people under 11 happy for an hour. By the mid-1990s this branch had shorter opening hours than those in the centre of town, and shorter than the McDonalds 300 yards away. During the week they would stop serving before 8pm. I recall an evening in late December with my brother and his two children, then aged 3 and 8. They had just arrived from Spain that afternoon and we took a stroll down to Burger King, more for the play area than the food. Within a few minutes of our arrival the door was locked to new arrivals. We sat there for a whole hour, witnessing at least 20 people being turned away. The staff did not hurry us to finish our food, and nor did they shush the children, running around and playing in the carefree way that came from having the place to themselves. Eventually the children had had enough, and so had my brother and I. We asked the remaining member of staff to let us out. I wondered how much longer we would have been allowed to stay otherwise.

As I noted above, I can’t recall exactly when Burger King closed, whether it was months or years before Carluccio’s opened in early 2006. The exact date that Carluccio’s closed is also unknown to me, but it was sometime in the spring of 2018. When something else opens in its place I hope to update this piece, but in the meantime the history of the site, in my lifetime, can be summarized as: Lyons, Wimpy, Burger King, Carluccio’s, empty.

 

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