Arriving at the Latimer Road tube station and wandering through the streets of North Kensington towards Westway Sports & Fitness Centre, it’s impossible not to notice the effects of the tragedy that occurred there just a few months earlier. Grenfell Tower, a blackened shell, looms over the area, a constant reminder of lives lost and devastated. Yellow ribbons are tied around trees, and photos of victims are still plastered to walls and fences.
As I pass under the Westway flyover, and make my way to the sports centre, the streets are quiet and the atmosphere dark. But on stepping through the sliding doors into a bright, spacious reception area, complete with the buzz of coffee machines and the thuds of tennis balls, my mood lifts.
“This was the first phase of the refurbishment,” Alison Norman, Everyone Active contract manager explains after greeting me. “The reception desk used to be an old-fashioned circle in the middle of the space. It was a bit of a barrier between the public and the centre, so we opened it out and brought the cafe to the front, in an effort to make it more welcoming.”
Welcoming more of the community through the centre’s doors was always a central goal of the multi-million pound refurbishment by Everyone Active, which won a 10-year contract to start managing Westway back in November 2016. But at that time, no one could have foreseen just how far this goal would be taken.
“On 14 June, the morning after the Grenfell fire, we stopped trading and decided to open the doors for the community to come in,” says Norman. “We took a walk down towards the tower, and there were just people everywhere. There weren’t enough places where they could sit down or get away from the area. The nearby church was completely inundated, so we told them to come to us, as it was a lot more comfortable and spacious, and they could just sit down and have a drink.”
At first, with around 200 people in the centre, Norman thought they might be closed for a day or so, but after that first day when hundreds of people had come through the doors, along with dozens of volunteers and truckloads of donations, Norman realised they were in for the long haul.
“Nobody knew how big it was going to become,” she tells me, still looking slightly bewildered by the turn of events. “There was never any question about whether we’d continue, we were just here to do whatever we could for the victims.”
“We could have locked the doors and said we can’t help,” adds Ian Ling, general manager of the centre. “Especially as we’d just refurbished and were on the cusp of officially reopening. Everything was brand new – we could have been very protective of that, but it wasn’t even a thought. It was that openness to help that I think people appreciated, and that I’m really proud of.”
Under the Westway
Everyone Active was granted the contract by the Westway Trust, a charity set up in 1971 to be custodian of the 23 acres of land under the recently-built Westway flyover, and to help promote positive use of this space for a community that had been all but torn apart by the colossal construction.
Forty-six years later, the Westway Trust is still on this mission. The aim of the partnership with Everyone Active is to achieve 1.2 million visits to the centre each year (up from 600,000) and in doing so to improve the health and wellbeing of the local community. To help reach this target, Westway Trust has invested £2m and Everyone Active £1.7m.
“We’re on that journey already,” says Norman. “That’s the reason for doing the refurbishment, so we can support that goal of getting 1.2 million people active.”
Now completed, the newly refurbished centre boasts a new, state-of-the-art Stages Cycling studio, group exercise studio, an improved climbing area and a new fitness centre kitted out with Technogym equipment. The centre has also received fresh paint and flooring throughout, refreshed changing rooms with new Craftsman lockers and all the courts have been resurfaced.
As we enter the expansive climbing zone, with its undulating walls and colourful holds, Norman speaks proudly.
“We’re really well known for climbing right across the country,” she says. “We’ve just put in a new bouldering area that’s double the size of the old one. Bouldering is going to be in the Olympics in 2020 so we know it’s a growth sport.
“We have several elite climbers who train here when they’re in the area, and mountaineer Sir Chris Bonington is also a regular user of our climbing facility.”
Breaking down barriers
The new fitness centre is another point of pride for both Ling and Norman, and leads to a discussion about how the membership has changed as a result of the disaster.
“When we look at the demographic in here, we’re seeing more local residents than before,” says Norman. “So many people came here after the fire that it’s broken down some of those barriers. Our involvement in that event really helped us to show that this a community space for everybody. That’s a massive positive to come out of what was a horrible situation.”
In the aftermath of the fire, the centre stayed open 24 hours a day for 10 days, during which time hundreds of victims were coming in for advice, support, clothing and food. Dozens of people were sleeping on the indoor tennis courts, donations were being stored and sorted in reception and a Marks and Spencer truck was parked outside providing food and water. Volunteers poured in, both official and unofficial, from all over the country.
“We also had Everyone Active colleagues from across the region coming to support and help us,” tells Norman. “About 50 or 60 were here every day, without being asked.”
It wasn’t until 27 July, about six weeks after the fire, that the assistance centre was moved to a building rented especially for the purpose, and it was time for Westway to get back to the business of getting people active.
It wasn’t an instant switch back to normality. Everything had to be properly cleaned and asbestos-tested. The outdoor pitches were covered in debris from the fire and needed to be resurfaced.
Then there was the fact that the community was still in shock, grieving lost family members, friends, homes and their sense of safety. The team applied for funding straight away, to allow the centre to provide extra programmes and services for all those affected by the tragedy.
“Funding came in quickly from the City Bridge Trust, John Lyon’s Charity and Westway Trust,” says Ling. “Everyone Active matched this, so all together it allowed us to run a series of football workshops over the summer, for local kids aged between four and 15 years old.”
“We had a lot of local children who were affected by the fire,” adds Norman. “Many lost their homes, family or friends. We wanted to give them something fun to help them through that tough time.”
Ling continues: “We were approached by QPR Football Club on the Friday before the workshops started, and they offered to make it much bigger. They organised for posters, etc, to be dropped through hotel doors where people were staying. They also volunteered their coaches and some of their players to come down and help out. With their support we were able to host 4,791 kids over the summer.”
With the football camps lifting the spirits of the kids, the adults have also been taken care of, thanks to funding from the Westway Trust that has provided free gym memberships to anyone who was displaced by the fire.
“The parents who were bringing their children to those football clubs all got coffee vouchers, so they were coming into the cafe here, where we could then offer them those memberships,” says Norman. “We had groups of Korean ladies, Muslim ladies, etc, all sitting together while their kids took part in the programme. And I’ve seen some of those same ladies this morning, doing Zumba together!”
A close knit team
Ling, who only joined Westway in January 2017, is proud of everything they’ve been through, but is glad to once again be focusing on what the centre does best.
“We’re very proud of what we did, but obviously we’re a sports centre, so to have kids and adults here taking part in sport and fitness is what we’re all about.”
As the team moves forward into the next phase of the centre’s life, they do so as a group that’s bonded closely by their experience, not just with each other, but also with the North Kensington locals.
“It’s affected us in a number of ways,” says Norman. “I think Westway provided a real beacon for people during that time. It was a place to come and be together, to be safe. A number of the local schools and community groups lost children and teachers, so our normal client base was affected. Our staff was also affected – they lost friends and children from our football teams.
“The fact that we were able to help and support has, I think, helped everyone involved to find something positive in a negative situation, which in my book, is a really good way of dealing with it.”