This is a bit of a passage, and mostly a footbridge over several railways in West Hampstead that has a remarkable name that’s just too amazing to ignore. It can be found at the far end of West Hampstead tube station, offering a route across six railway tracks used by Chiltern Railways and London Underground.
What was the Metropolitan Railway opened a station at West Hampstead in 1879 (now part of the Jubilee line), when all around here were still fields, but the station had to be rebuilt when the Great Central Railway was constructed in the late 1890s.
Thanks to the short gap between the two railways being built, it’s proven difficult to know if the Metropolitan Railway built the footbridge, or if it was added when the railway was widened a couple of decades later.
My gut feeling is that as much of the land was fields when West Hampstead station opened, and was later being developed for housing as the railway had hoped, when the railway was widened, the road layouts were already in place, and adding a footbridge would have made much more sense then.
There is also some indication that the footbridge was added later, thanks to a Parliamentary debate that cited, of all things, the Manchester, Sheffield, and Lincolnshire Railway (Extension to London, &c.) Act, 1893, which built the London extension better known as the Great Central Railway, in a debate about who is responsible for repairs to the footbridge.
So I am comfortable suggesting that the footbridge dates from the widening of the railway.
The origin of the nickname for the footbridge is, shall we say, also quite difficult to pin down.
In fact, the earliest written record I can find anywhere to Granny Dripping Steps is a mere 30 years ago, when in a May 1991 Parliament debate when Sir Geoffrey Finsberg cited the story told to him as a child, about an elderly lady sitting on the steps eating bread and dripping, when complaining that the footbridge had been closed by London Underground when some of the steps were damaged.
A few weeks later, in June 1991, the nickname of Granny Dripping Steps was said to have originated in the 1930s, and came from a street cleaner who used to sit nearby eating a meal of bread and dripping. It’s likely that the newspaper picked up on the Parliament debate a few weeks earlier and then backtrack how old Sir Geoffrey was when he was a child being told the story.
Those are the only two written references to Granny Dripping Steps until the recent property developer planning application.
In fact, trawling the archives only otherwise finds references to “Granny’s Stairs”, being cited as the well-known local nickname, not Granny Dripping Steps. It’s speculative, but around the time the original footbridge is likely to have been built in the 1890s, there was a well-known comic song in music halls, “Climbing Up de Granny’s Stairs”, or sometimes simply “The Granny Stairs”.
I’ve not been able to track anything more about the song, other than it was very widely performed at the time, and has since seemingly vanished without a trace. But it seems more likely to me that as this was a newish type of structure that wasn’t that commonly seen yet – a footbridge that you had to go up steps to walk over the railway — was unusual enough that maybe it acquired the nickname from the song.
Where the legend of the dripping street sweeper came from though, other than Sir Geoffrey’s reminiscences, I’ve drawn a total blank.
This post-war rebuilt footbridge is certainly a bit of a character though.
A set of steps with slightly alarmingly large gaps between them on the north side for the railway, with an abandoned rail replacement bus service on the steps when I visited — lead up to a long covered walkway.
The steps and walkway are covered in graffiti, which I can appreciate is offputting for some, and while tagging generally lacks much appeal for me, the sheer proliferation of it here rioting over every flat surface turns it almost into a wall of abstract art.
The grill over the footbridge is made up of tight fencing, but there’s just about enough of a gap between the wires to turn this into a very good spot for some trainspotting photos of the local railway and station.
The far end is nicely covered in plants, which are normally verdant and turn the footbridge into a green corridor but are feeling the aftereffects of last year’s heatwave and looking rather threadbare at the moment.
The footbridge will get some sort of a clean-up as part of the large housing development to the east, once details about how they will add step-free access to the station have been agreed.
So, while we might not be totally certain how the nickname came to be, it’s certainly memorable, and worth pointing out to people if waiting for a train at West Hampstead tube station, or better yet, take a walk over it.