Victoria Summerley: Town Life

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Clapham Junction has long held the reputation of being the busiest railway station in Britain - indeed, as any self-respecting train-spotter will tell you, on 17 June this year it changed its signage to claim that it was the busiest in Europe. It has a claim to literary fame, too, being immortalised in Nell Dunn's novel Up the Junction (filmed by Ken Loach in 1965).

So it's intriguing to find that most people who use the station on a daily basis don't actually know where it is. At least, that's the verdict of a survey in one of the local papers, the Wandsworth Borough News, which found that 60 per cent of the people who use Clapham Junction station every day think it's in Clapham.

You see, Clapham Junction is in Battersea (in the borough of Wandsworth), not Clapham (in the London borough of Lambeth). According to the newspaper's research, many of the people questioned were local residents who indignantly insisted that they lived in Clapham, not Battersea, and were horrified by the thought of having to confess that they had been living a lie. I mean, imagine the consequences. Crossed off people's Christmas card lists, cold-shouldered at PTA meetings, blackballed from the tennis club, expelled from the gym - and all because your friends have discovered you live in SW11 instead of SW4.

Of course, for every Claphamite who sneers at Battersea (no Georgian property to speak of, too many yuppies and 4x4s), there is a Battersea resident who thinks Clapham is beyond the pale (overpriced Georgian property, too many yuppies and 4x4s).

The Wandsworth deputy Labour group leader, Councillor Tony Belton, has leapt into the fray to suggest that Clapham Junction should be renamed Battersea Junction; that the word Battersea should be included on all street signs; and that those who are responsible for the Claphamisation of Battersea should be penalised. "We should fine all the places down Northcote Road [the local main drag] who call themselves the Clapham branch," he declared.

Who can he mean? Surely he can't be referring to the lettings agency Green Locations, which is listed on one property website as being in Northcote Road, Clapham? Or the estate agents Haart, which has its address listed as Northcote Road, Clapham on Then there's Thomas's Prep School, which although based in Broomwood Road SW11, in the heart of Battersea's Nappy Valley, describes itself as Thomas's Clapham.

The idea of giving various bits of London a name borrowed from a neighbouring posh area to make them sound more desirable isn't new. Estate agents have done it for years; thus Peckham has metamorphosed into East Dulwich, Kilburn into West Hampstead and so on. (And that's without all the twee little names estate agents dream up for various bits of their patch: south-west London has enough triangles, polygons and squares to keep a modern-day Pythagoras happy for months.)

However, it surprised me to find out quite how old the idea of "rebranding" actually is. Because - and Councillor Belton should prepare himself for a fit of apoplexy at this point - it was precisely for this reason that Clapham Junction was given its name when it was built in 1863 by the London & South Western Railway and the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway to accommodate a burgeoning rail network.

The rail companies, targeting an affluent, middle-class clientele, thought the genteel village of Clapham, a mile to the east, had a much more attractive image than Battersea, which had a more, shall we say, industrial tradition (Prices Candles, for example, which probably weren't as sweetly scented then as they are now).

But I don't think Clapham Junction should be renamed. I like it just the way it is - a fearsomely busy station which retains some of the bustling glamour of the old steam age. Get off the train there on any day and a United Nations gets off with you - black, white, young, old, rich, poor. The name may have been a fabrication but life at Clapham Junction feels refreshingly real.