Sunday, June 16, 2013

Clanricarde Gardens, London


Backward glance (5): A tall house near the Gate

This backward glance focuses on an area of London in which I lived for a while. Its patterns of change and development still fascainte me.

Clanricarde Gardens, just off Notting Hill Gate, is a street of very tall, narrow houses built between 1869 and 1873 by a pair of West London builders, Thomas Good and William White. It was a speculative development, consisting of 51 of these houses, together with a row of six houses with shops below, just around the corner in Notting Hill Gate itself. The tall houses were intended for large Victorian families with servants, and the developers were probably successful in finding buyers because soon after they finished these, they embarked on another similar development nearby. The houses were convenient for town but in the 1870s very near the edge of London too, and no doubt appealed to professionals with one eye on the city and one on the countryside. Spacious, light rooms with big windows, elegant classical details on the facades, and sizeable service basements probably appealed, too. Among the early occupants were the Beerbohms and their young son, Max, the writer and artist to be. Max remembered that when he was a small boy the houses seemed as tall as skyscrapers to him.

But a few decades after Max grew up, these houses were nearly all subdivided into flats. Perhaps endless stairs without a lift, not to mention close proximity to the noisy Gate, meant that they lost their appeal to the well-heeled. Or perhaps owners just saw a way to make a fast buck out of multiple rents. The stairs were certainly a challenge, as I remember very well, having shared a flat at the top of this very house in the early-1980s. By then, many of the houses were labyrinths of multi-occupied flats and rooms whose occupants spoke a babel of languages – something that gave the place a wonderfully cosmopolitan atmosphere while also making the whole area a challenge to a friend who was employed on organizing the 1981 population census. I remember big, airy rooms, the continuous background roar of traffic, the squawk of gulls perching on the balustrade outside the upper windows, and a hot summer with many windows open and a hint of hashish pervading the air from neighbouring houses. “Ah, the scent of the orient!” a visiting elderly relative who had spent many of her early years in “the east” observed with relish. It was something that John Lennon relished too: there is a story that the Beatle smoked his first joint in this street. It was all more like the Notting Hill of Samuel Selvon† than the Notting Hill of Hugh Grant. And none the worse for that.

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†Author of
The Lonely Londoners and Moses Ascending, fine novels describing the lives of West Indian immigrants to London.

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Living in London, as I did in the 1980s and 1990s, one could not but be aware of constant alterations to the built environment: not just the continuous additions to it in the form of the occasional good building amid the mass of new sub-architecture  but also the cycles of change to older structures. This Clanricarde Gardens house brought these changes literally home to me – a grand house subdivided to provide more basic, but still very comfortable, accommodation for individuals, couples, and nuclear families. Some of the houses in the street had sunk yet lower, split into bedsits separated by flimsy partition walls and let to the very poor. One of these bedsit-houses caught fire while I lived in the street, with tragic results. Nowadays, the street seems to have been gentrified (regentrified, I suppose). The flats into which the houses are divided are more luxurious than in my day and command impressive price tags. The cars in the street number many BMWs and their more modestly badged cousins, Minis. Residents with the money to afford it have realised the attractions of living here, in a relatively quiet spot near the heart of a great city. The cycle of change goes on.

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