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 in some cases let to the very poor. One of the 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.

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

I lived in 27 Clanricarde Gardens in 1976 - 77. As you say the houses were subdivided into bedsits. Myself and a friend shared a room that measured about 4.5 meters by 2.5 meters. Just enough room for 2 single beds, a sink built into a wooden cabinet and 2 small wardrobes for clothing. I think we were on the 3rd or 4th floor.
Electricity was through a coin operated meter(which we soon learned how to bypass). The bathroom was down the corridor shared with everyone else on the floor. For the pleasure of living there we paid 15 pound a week between us. We were certainly not poor as you state but happy to live in the center of London close to the west end and everything nearby Notting Hill had to offer.
I believe it was number 27 that went on fire in the early 80's resulting in the loss of life of a tenant.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Anonymous: Thank you so much for your informative comment. I've altered the post very slightly so as to make it clearer that not everyone who lived in the street then was poor – although some were. If you look at my earlier post about this street, you'll find other comments by former residents.

Bob said...

I lived at number 27 for two or three years until I moved out a couple of months before the fire. In my early 20s, and spending most of my evenings in the Old Swan down the road, I overlooked the drawbacks - it was probably the best time of my life.

Anonymous said...

My parents rented a bed sit to the front of 20 Clanricarde Gardens W2, from 1948-1953. The period of my birth,with my older sister we were trapped by a house fire and rescued by the fire brigade.Apparently we made the evening paper. Luckily the bedsit we lived in had minor smoke damage and we were not made homeless.Soon after and a younger sister in tow we moved to a Tufnell Pk flat with garden, happy days.Clearly I have very little memory of the era except we were in the crowd for the funeral of the King and I can remember visits to the Serpentine. We visited the area often after our move and for all our cramped space, it was like a magnet, difficult to forget. Did you know Lord Heseltine bought number 39 in the 1950s an 18 room b&b and made his first ever property profit very quickly. As you say, a re-gentrified area with much to command itself on.

Anonymous said...

I was living in the buildings that caught fire and lost several people that I knew very well
Far too much gossip as I actually have the truth about this incident

Philip Wilkinson said...

Anon. Thank you for your comment. I'm sorry for your loss.