Today is the end of an era.
After forty years of having a toe-hold in north London, this morning the removers arrived and started packing up furniture in my beautiful flat in Primrose Hill. My home is now in Chiswick, where most of my pictures, books and most precious things are already comfortably settled and the remainder of my belongings are going into store. I love my new life in W4, but it’s been a bit of a wrench to leave north London.
I was a very small child when I first came to this city. We had relatives living in a top-floor mansion flat in Belsize Park and we would come to stay with them every year, before and after our summer holiday. I thought the whole idea of a flat was very glamorous and I loved the fact that – by hanging out of the windows at a dangerous angle – I could see the spires of St Pancras Station and the distant dome of St Paul’s Cathedral.
Round the corner from the flat, in the curiously named England’s Lane, was a whole community of small shops; butcher, dairy, newsagent and grocer alongside several antique shops, a launderette and the wonderful emporium of Ken Paul, who hired out props for theatre and TV. He had a full size stuffed bear in his window and I was thrilled to recognize it in various television dramas, most notably the 1970s dramatization of Anthony Trollope’s ‘Palliser’ novels, where it stood in the hall of a gentlemen’s club and was adorned with top hats. It was all so refreshingly unlike the small town where I grew up.
When, at 22, I eventually moved to London – having bored everyone rigid for years with my belief that it was the only place I could possibly live and work – I arrived in Belsize Park to a ready-made home and circle of friends. And, up until recently, I’ve stayed within a ten minute walk of that spot.
When I finally bought my own flat, I strayed just down the road, to Primrose Hill. Only two minutes walk from the top of Primrose Hill itself, and close to Regent’s Park Road, I’ve been so lucky to live in one of the most beautiful parts of London. The top of the Hill boasts one of the finest city views you could wish for; a panorama of the whole of London, from Canary Wharf to Battersea Power Station, while the ‘village’ alongside still retains it’s Victorian character and distinctive street layout. You can walk into Regent’s Park in minutes, passing the Zoo on your way to Oxford Circus.
This part of London grew as a result of the railways, with land that belonged to Eton College being opened up to building, after the main line into Euston Station was tunnelled from Chalk Farm to South Hampstead. Indeed, the ‘down’ tunnel runs right under my house and the heavy freight train that dawdles through around two in the morning provides a reassuring rumble below.
Today, the gracious Victorian terraces and crescents are painted in pastel colours and millionaires inhabit the charming Chalcot Square, in the centre of the village. Long a haunt of writers and radicals (Friedrich Engels lived just round the corner) the area now boasts more coffee shops than would seem feasible and a number of chic boutiques. But there is also an excellent bookshop and the much-loved and warmly-welcoming Lemonia restaurant, serving unchanging and delicious Greek food. This part of London has been a home to me for almost all of my life, and I shall certainly keep coming back.
And, strangely, I found that I had a surprising family link to the area. A few years ago I started exploring my family history, getting to grips with genealogical websites and delving into the arcana of nineteenth-century census returns. I was looking for my maternal great-grandfather, about whom I knew practically nothing. I discovered his full name was Septimus Herbert Faulkner (the ‘Septimus’ pleased me inordinately) but I could find no trace of him as a young man, living with his family in Manchester.
Flummoxed, I broadened my search, looking for his name anywhere in the 1881 census. When the answer came back I stared at it. The street name seemed so familiar. He had been living in Chalcot Crescent, just five minutes walk away from me.
It seems that Septimus (I bet the family really called him Herbert) had left home at 18 to seek his fortune in London. He lodged with Esther Horniman, a widow, in the newly built area around Primrose Hill, in a pretty little street that must have been laid out fifteen or twenty years before. His landlady was a piano teacher, with a daughter called Minnie and when his elder brother, Charlie, came to join him he fell in love with Minnie and married her at St Mark’s church, down the road. Charlie and Septimus would set up in business together, making fine art prints and postcards and I’ve so enjoyed thinking of them, as I’ve walked around the streets that they knew; two bright young men out to make their way in the world, in this rapidly growing new area of the city.
I’m sorry that I didn’t find this out when my mother was still alive – she would have been delighted to think of her grandfather living in what is now some of north London’s most desirable real-estate; and even more delighted to know that one of his current neighbours would be Alan Bennett, one of her favourite authors.
As for me, I’m very happy indeed in my new home in Chiswick.