During my stay in London, I stayed just outside of the city in a place, near Heathrow, called Hounslow. It seems inappropriate to discuss my time in London without also discussing Hounslow. Hounslow, as I mentioned, is just outside of London. For someone visiting London on a budget it significantly reduced the cost of my hotel. It also had the nice advantage of being on the Piccadilly Tube Line, which gave me access to Heathrow and to central London. To top it off, my hotel, the Days Hotel, was a 2 minute walk to the Central Hounslow Tube Station.
Hounslow is particularly unique. Something I noticed the moment I stepped off the Tube. There’s a sense that the community is slightly rough around the edges. But, it’s a rough around the edges that also feels completely safe. Unlike most of London, which has a certain cleanliness, it is slightly dirty. In some of the gutters, on the sides of the roads, you’ll see cans and plastic bags rolling along or flattened into the ground, obviously having been there for some time. And yet, in this same community where trash seems to have collected in corners unbeknownst to the people, in a community that seems slightly rundown, I felt safer here than I did in parts of central London.
The first thing you see when you’re walking down the street from the Tube Station is a giant sign reading something along the lines of “Drinking Free Zone.” This is not to equate non-drinking with safety, but it does limit the fear of a 20-something girl traveling by herself of having an encounter with a stumbling, drunk man. So, when you get off the Tube and see that sign it does give a sense of relief.
I didn’t know much about Hounslow before I got there. My cousin mentioned when I had dinner with her and my uncle that anytime she mentioned where I was staying people became worried and seemed nervous. I don’t know why. My uncle thinks it has to do with the high immigrant community. Something that is noticeable the moment you step out onto the street. Everywhere I turned I was surrounded by Indians, Arabs, Eastern Europeans. For me, something I find refreshing. Hounslow and the feelings so many seem to have towards Hounslow, epitomizes the still existent tension between the White English and the minority communities.
When I came home the best way I could think to describe Hounslow was to compare it to the Dupont Circle area of Washington, DC. Vibrant ethnic communities, safe, and yet a bit run down.
I could continue to describe Hounslow. The people, the buildings. But, I think the best way to give the appropriate feel for the area is to tell a quick story of my first night there:
After getting my bags from Heathrow and running around London all day, by 4pm the only thing I wanted to do was find my hotel, put my feet up and grab something to eat. So, stepping into the hotel was probably one of the most exciting moments of the day, though some of this excitement needs to be attributed to the fact that I was stepping into the first hotel I had ever stayed at and paid for by myself.
As I walked from the Tube station to the hotel, I passed several little grocery stores, all in a 2 block radius, with produce lining the sidewalks outside, and people hustling in and out with bags full of food. Naturally I assumed this would make it easy to find a quick, pre-prepared meal. I overestimated the easiness. By this time I was so exhausted I was willing to grab the first thing that looked good from the closest store. So I wandered the block past my hotel to the first grocery. Unfortunately the concept of pre-prepared food seemed to be failing, so I grabbed a personal sizes of potato chips and called it quits, moving onto the next store. This had much the same effect, so I grabbed something else and moved on again.
At this point, I figured I’d try the safest bet, I had seen when getting to Hounslow, that on the same block as the grocery stores was a place called Lilywhites. I had seen it at the airport to and had deduced that it was some kind of convenience store. If anywhere was going to have what I wanted it would be there. Unfortunately, I failed to read the sign under Lilywhites, a sign that suggested that Lilywhites was no longer Lilywhites. So I walked in, caught off guard by the intense smell one usually associates with a meat market or deli. Sure enough the aisles were full of open face floor freezers containing…meat. This seemed to dim my prospects a bit. I quickly browsed, realizing that the brands all seemed a bit odd, all a bit Polish. So I found the beverage aisle grabbed something that appeared to be Pear juice of some sort, and got in line. It was in that minute of standing in line that I realized, that I was not in a Lilywhites, I was in a Polish deli. As I stood there, I listened to the cashier and the customers around, none of them speaking a language I understood. No, they were all speaking…Polish. Which instantly explained the lack of recognizable names. Never before in my life have I been more thankful to have a little cash register sign that digitally reads how much the customer owes, because sure enough the cashier told me in Polish how much I owed for my bottle of juice.
To the people passing what use to be Lilywhites it was completely normal to have Polish speaking Polish-deli there. No one seemed to question the fact that the Lilywhites sign still remained even though Lilywhites had actually gone. The lack of cosmetic upkeep on the building and the pure authentic ethnic deli describes Hounslow perfectly. It’s safe and ethnic but building maintenance and town cleanliness are not high of the list of people’s priorities. It’s an area clearly poorer than central London and yet I saw more people being friendly, saying hello to each other, and simply stopping to catch up than I did anywhere during my time in the London area, because it’s a community.
During my first night, I drew the conclusion that Hounslow was simply trying to figure out what it wanted to be. Coming from an American who considers old anything after 1850, I don’t think I can really place that judgment on a place that has probably been around since before the United States signed the Declaration of Independence. Being back, and thinking about Hounslow now, I think it knows who it is. It doesn’t want to be the prim and proper English community that people think of, because it’s not English. It’s a community of immigrants that prides itself on being a community of immigrants. It prides itself on not being perfect. I think looking at it now, Hounslow isn’t trying to figure out what it wants to be, it’s trying to figure out how to show the rest of London what it is.