What else could I do but go investigate and report my findings to you in a timely fashion?
First, though, let me give you a little background on the area and my affinity for it. The first time I walked down the Goldhawk Road to Shepherds Bush after work I came to the conclusion that the whole area was a horrific dump and should be bulldozed into oblivion. I was a little rash in formulating that opinion, though, and in the years that followed I've developed quite a fondness for the area. Yes, Shepherds Bush Green is populated by winos and crack addicts trying to sell you a "one-way ticket to South America," but let's not forget that it's also home to the Shepherds Bush Empire, quite possibly my very favourite gig venue, a wonderful little subterranean bar called Ginglik (which is currently fighting for survival - please sign the petition to keep it open HERE), a quality cinema hidden away above Morrisons supermarket, and a variety of diverse and independent little shops (few of which I actually frequent, but I like the idea of them being there).
The news that a massive new shopping centre was going to be slapped down just behind the green was greeted with mixed emotions by yours truly. Yes, I heart shopping big-time, but I was also worried that, although the project would help rejuvenate and bring jobs to the area, it might also suck the soul out of Shepherds Bush and kill off all the independent businesses scattered down both the Uxbridge and Goldhawk Roads (although as my boss pointed out to me earlier in the week, I don't think the "glittery wig store, dodgy mobile phone sellers, and bong shop" will face much competition from the flagship shopping centre).
So, after what seems like years of watching this massive building rise up from wasteland, Westfield White City (as they insist on calling it despite the fact that it looms over Shepherds Bush like the alien ship over the White House in Independence Day) opened its doors for the first time yesterday. Within are literally hundreds of stores, from familiar high street names and exclusive boutiques (grouped together in an area called The Village), to restaurants and cafes. Next year a gym and a multi-screen cinema will open (which leaves me wondering what will happen to the cinema in the teeny-tiny shopping centre just across the road…).
Anyway, as I've got next week off work I decided to hit-up Westfield this evening after leaving the office rather than waiting until I go back to work the week after next; although I'd like to say I was doing this purely for journalistic reasons and an interesting blog post, what it really comes down to is that fact that I was gagging to hit the shops.
It was actually kind of weird walking down to Shepherds Bush … it was as familiar as always, and yet walking round by the Empire you suddenly see this huge expanse of grey building poking out from behind the regular shopfronts that surround the green. And I'm not kidding - the thing is freakin' massive. Rather than nip in a closer side entrance, I decided to head for the main doors just past the brand new - and very shiny - Shepherds Bush tube station. And again I was knocked for six - it's even more freakin' massive than I realised. Seriously, it's like a futuristic version of The Wizard of Oz - like this massive building just fell out of the sky and landed on a vast portion of Shepherds Bush. Everything else pails in comparison; Bluewater (which is actually bigger) feels smaller … the Bentalls centre in my beloved Kingston is made to look like nothing more than a small shed in someone's back garden.
There's so much there - and everything is bigger. I don't know whether it's because the ceiling is very high and predominantly made of glass, but it just felt open and airy. The walkways are wide, the food court area clean, clear, and open. There's bigger versions of some of my favourite clothes stores, leading me to think that it's actually going to be quite dangerous for my bank balance what with the office being in such close proximity and me having five lunchtimes each week. I picked up a map and I still got lost (although in my defense the map is ludicrously laid-out).
Check out the funky glass roof.
Disappointments? A few. There's only one bookshop - admittedly it's a branch of Foyles, which is a good thing, but its actually a lot smaller than I'd imagined it would be, and no where near being the new favourite hang-out spot I'd hoped it might be (Borders in Kingston is safe in that respect). On the plus side they do have a reasonably good selection of graphic novels, with Fantagraphics and Drawn and Quarterly books taking precedence over DC and Marvel stuff. In fact, a few of the stores I thought would be quite big were actually rather small - yes, Nike and HMV, I'm looking at you. What else? Oh yeah - the guide said there were two branches of Starbucks; I could only find one, which doesn't open until November; the other, according to the guide, is sandwiched somewhere between Boots and M&S, but I'm damned if I could find it; maybe it's magically hidden like Platform 9¾ where the Hogwarts Express departs from in the Harry Potter books?
The lack of Starbucks was annoying, actually, because the whole thing was a little overwhelming and I needed somewhere familiar to sit down and collect my thoughts. A concierge suggested Costa, but not wishing to be a traitor to the 'Bucks I headed instead to Shakeabout, a milkshake stand that blends chocolate bars and sweets into drinks (handy if you have a problem chewing solid food, I suspect). I went for a Cadbury's Shortcake shake, which entailed three chocolate biscuits being blended up with some milk and a massive dollop of ice cream (I watched them do it in front of me). This is undoubtedly not the healthiest beverage you could order, but it was many, many times awesome.
Cool things? Well, the All Saints store has an incredible window display comprised of a load of old Singers (sewing machines, not assorted Bryans, Aretha Franklins, and Diana Rosses).
There's also a pretty cool central stage area that plays host to catwalk shows and musical performances. Everyone's favourite Afghan hound lookalike Leona Lewis sang here yesterday.
So, the big question is … did I buy? Well … no. I was tempted by a few things - an awesome, faux-fur lined hoody that looked like it would be really warm and was pretty reasonably priced, a couple of books (which I decided against because I'm currently less than halfway through East of Eden), and a few t-shirts. Actually, let's have a bit of audience participation; these are the three tees I liked - vote on which one you think I should buy and I'll get the one with the most votes next time I'm in a branch of Topman.
So, what's my verdict on the Westfield centre? Honestly, I'm actually a little torn. Yes it's a stunning new shopping destination that I can definitely see myself visiting rather too much, but as I left I glanced across the road towards the little shopping centre that's home to the cinema, and it suddenly looked old, run-down, and obsolete. Not too long ago there was a cracking book shop in there with a coffee shop attached to it - then it closed down, and I can't help thinking that it was the first of many to disappear. The area's changing, and part of me thinks the regeneration of Shepherds Bush should've focused on sprucing up the historic buildings that were already there rather than just plonking a massive new shopping centre down.
Only time will tell, I guess, but as I headed back towards my car I saw firsthand how some of the residents now living in Westfield's shadow feel about the new development, and there's definitely a part of me that sympathises with them.