St Ann's, Harrow 'geograph-2284249'  by Stacey Harris is licenced under CC BY SA 2.0

St Ann’s shopping centre, Harrow  – my original inspiration? ‘geograph-2284249‘ by Stacey Harris is licenced under CC BY SA 2.0

This morning I was down at our local primary school arranging to do a talk about civil engineering for the Year 5 and 6s. The head teacher remarked that most of the teachers at the school probably wouldn’t know what civil engineers do, let alone the students. It was the same for me as a kid. But although I didn’t know the words civil engineer, I was fascinated by all things civil engineering: big construction, railways, bridges, waterways.

I grew up in Harrow, and though I regularly visit family in the area, in over fifteen years I haven’t been back to the town centre that was the backdrop to my childhood. This week, beating the Tube strikes meant an eighteen mile cycle ride through that part of the world. After an hour and a half in the saddle in the pouring rain I decided to take a pit stop in downtown Harrow. And WHAMM: all these childhood memories came streaming back, as vivid as if they were yesterday:

  • There’s the ‘whole in the wall’ where my Dad would queue for cash
  • There’s the Debenhams that I followed my Mum round on what seemed like endless trips
  • There’s where I first went to McDonald’s on my own
  • That’s where I got mugged for the money I’d saved up to buy a new motor for my radio control car
  • There’s the bar that underaged me used to go into at 4pm on a Saturday and wait patiently to avoid the evening bouncers.

But the strongest memory I have of all is the excitement of seeing much of the town centre under construction. For the suburban child that I was, Harrow was the big lights. The 6-8 storey office blocks in the town centre I considered big, glamorous, sophisticated – like the buildings in the montage at the start of Dallas. So when construction started of an enormous middle-of-town shopping centre began including a 9-storey post-modern multi-storey car park, it really captured my imagination.

I remember watching the St Ann’s centre being built right from the basement excavation works and the piling through to the fit-out – watching from the bus stop across the road. I remember the steel superstructure being erected and asking my Dad why they were building a giant Meccano model of the building before they built the real thing. The new centre required major rerouting of the roads – this too I found fascinating.

The influence of all this construction is clear in the drawings that I made at this age – some of which I still have. I was trying to design my own shopping centres, car parks, one-way systems, tram systems, all modelled on Harrow. There were other influences too: the construction of the M25 up the road was an event horizon for me. When my best friend moved away, I asked if he would be coming back before they finished the M25, something which I knew would take ages. When I was told no he wouldn’t, I knew I was in for a long wait.

I even remember aged about ten going to a traveling exhibition about how Harrow would be served by something called ‘Crossrail’ – that sounded incredible.

After St Ann’s with its anchor stores and enticing food court, they built St George’s the even more ambitious St George’s shopping centre, and then the Harrow property bubble must have burst because there is the concrete shell of abandoned incomplete office block just around the corner. These days the anchor stores have dwindled, and the food court sells more chicken than I remember.

Had I grown up here fifteen years later I wonder if I would have been similarly inspired?