Kensington Forum Hotel is visible for miles around. This is fairly close, from Grenville Place. Picture from Google Street View. (Click to enlarge)

Kensington Forum Hotel will just be refurbished, promises new owner

Instead of being replaced by a massive double tower complex that would have become the tallest building in the borough, Kensington Forum Hotel on Cromwell Road will continue as before after an internal refurbishment. That seems to be the end result of a planning application fight that went on for five years, cost millions and involved the council, the London mayor, the government and thousands of local residents.

As we reported in March 2021, the owner of Kensington Forum Hotel, Queensgate Bow, suddenly withdraw their planning application to replace the tall 1970’s Kensington Forum Hotel (run as a Holiday Inn hotel) with a massive two-tower resident and hotel complex – after having fought five large planning battles between 2018 and 2020 and less than two month before the final sixth battle: a Planning Inspectorate run public hearing that had been initiated by the government’s housing secretary.

No explanation for the withdrawal was given, but there were speculations that the Queensgate Bow either suspected to lose that final battle, or had had come to the conclusion that the hotel and housing markets had changed so that their plan would no longer be viable. Whatever the reason, everybody expected them to come back after a few months with a revised or totally new plan. However, nothing happened, the owners avoided all contact attempts, and rumours began to swirl about a sale.

Finally, on 29 December 2021, the trade press revealed that Queensgate Bow, and thereby the hotel itself, had been sold to the newly registered company GP Hotel-UK London Ltd. This company, via various other companies, is owned to more than 75% by the self-made Singaporean hotelier and property magnate Koh Wee Meng (known in English also as James Koh). He is one of Singapore’s 40 richest individuals, according to Forbes. Via his property empire, the Fragrance Group, he already owns 11 other hotels (existing or under development) in the UK. However, Kensington Forum is his first hotel in London.

GP Hotel-UK London have announced that they plan to refurbish and reopen the 906 room hotel as soon as possible. They have also stated that they will retain the existing structure of the building and have no plans for any additional floors. The refurbishment is expected to take 2 – 2.5 years. 

As soon as the purchase was made public, contracts with the airlines (whose staff have used the hotel on a regular basis since it was built) were terminated and notice was given to the staff. The last guests left the building at the end of February.

A temporary website for the hotel, aimed at informing local residents, has been set up for the new owner by online consultation platform communityUK, and the intention is to provide more details at a later date.

Recently, mountains of mattresses and divan bases have been removed, together with quantities of other furniture and carpeting.

Moves have been made by local residents to establish contact with representatives of the new owners, with the aim of ensuring the integrity of the garden. The local resident committee (which includes the Kensington Society) is waiting on further action and is currently keeping an eye on the general maintenance of the site.

Built when the Heathrow check-in was across the street

The hotel, originally known as Penta Hotel, can be seen as a symbol of poor commercial planning in the early 1970’s.

In the early 1950’s, as Heathrow was being expanded to take over the role as London’s main airport from Croydon Airport, the airlines needed a new check-in terminal. At the time, check-in was a slow and complex process, so this usually happened at check-in terminals in cities, hours before departure, with passengers and luggage then transported by road or train to the airport. Croydon’s check-in terminal by Victoria Station was deemed too small for the vastly larger Heathrow, so in 1954 it was decided to build a check-in terminal for Heathrow on Cromwell Road, where London Transport had a section of railway line, known as the Cromwell Curve, which would be closed down in 1956 and thereby create available land.

In October 1957 a temporary terminal was ready and the West London Air Terminal was born. In 1963, a much larger, multi-floor terminal was opened next to the first one. Beside check-in counters, restaurants and various tax free stores, it also housed various support services for the airlines. Passengers would both start and end their flights at the terminal, as this was where they picked up their luggage. Many where transported to and from the airport in specially painted Routemaster double-deckers owned by BEA. However, road traffic could often delay the coaches and ultimately delay the departure of the flight. 

Obviously, hotel companies soon began to build hotels nearby, not just for passengers, but also for all the aircrew that would stay overnight in London (what the crews called “overoay”). The largest of these hotels was the 92 metres tall Penta hotel, designed by architect Richard Seifert, built in 1971-72 and opened in July 1973 by the Penta consortium (so called because it was a joint venture by five large airlines) just across the road from the terminal.

However, years before the hotel was built, modernisation of check-in technology had begun, making it quicker and easier, which enabled airlines to move the check-in to the airport itself. This transformation had begun long before Penta was built, because on 1 January 1974, all check-in at the West London Air Terminal ended, just six months after Penta opened. However, public transport to Heathrow was still lacking ( it wasn’t until 1977 that the Piccadilly line was extended to the airport), so the TfL continued a bus service between Heathrow and the terminal until 1979.

In 1983, the low 1957 terminal building became Sainsbury’s, while the 1963 terminal building was converted to the large Point West block of flats in the late 1980s. Also, in the late 1980’s, Penta was sold and renamed Forum Hotel.

Those wishing to learn about the aircrews’ memories of Kensington Forum can watch this YouTube video, posted in May 2022 by “Queen Vic”, an American flight attendant turned vlogger who revisited the hotel shortly before it closed, for a last walk down memory lane.

Kensington Forum Hotel as it looked in 2016. Picture courtesy of Richard Sutcliffe (CC BY-SA 2.0. (Click to enlarge)

A bird’s eye view of the 93 metre Kensington Forum. Picture from Google Earth. (Click to enlarge)

The proposed but now abandoned complex (in red) would have been both much taller and more massive than the current Forum Hotel (in blue). It would have become the tallest building in the borough. Picture based on drawings in the revised application from 2019. (Click to enlarge)

A postcard from the early 1970’s shows the delights of West London Air Terminal, across the road from the Penta hotel. (Click to enlarge)

First published 26/07/2022