a city through the eyes of a girl who's not sure how she ended up here

Monday, 9 April 2012

The Bishop's Avenue: London's Millionaire's Row

Whilst Chelsea, Kensington, Belgravia and Mayfair boast the vast majority of the city's richest inhabitants, North London also claims its fair share.  Up in the north of the city they cluster in vast mansions ringing Regents Park and Hampstead Heath, and lining the city's very own 'Millionaire's Row'; The Bishop's Avenue.  This prestigious place - a residential address so exclusive it merits a 'The' in its name - skirts the northern edge of Hampstead Heath, taking its name from the nearby Bishops Wood.  One can walk from Hampstead to East Finchley along its length, and what a peculiar walk it is.
At the East Finchley end are identikit McMansions, blank and thoroughly unremarkable - in fact the only thing notable about these houses is their sheer size.  Set back from the road the houses sit, sometimes almost entirely obscurred from view by high fences and thick hedges, behind paved driveways covered in Porsches and Range Rovers.  Some of these new houses pretend to be old, sporting fake wooden beams and solely decorative chimney-stacks, whilst others are just unashamedly modern, with their plastic window frames and high-tech entry systems gleaming on their iron gates.  The occasional house has two sets of gates, labelled somewhat ostentatiously 'In' and 'Out'.  More than one set of pillars by the entrance bears Arabic script, and much of the decoration around the perimeter of the plots is distinctly 'UAE bling'; acres of marble, inlaid gold lettering, showy fountains spurting perfectly aquamarine water.

This is not particularly surprising however when you learn who earns these palaces; and it's not hard to work out who it is likely to be when you recall who has come out of the recession better than most.  Many of the owners of the houses on Millionaire's Row (often even referred to as 'Billionaire's Row' as prices have spiralled upward, despite the recent global financial downturn) are owned by, what an estate agent responsible for many sales here described as, 'international ultra-high-net-worth individuals'.  And yes, we're talking Middle East businessmen and Russian oligarchs here; the Sultan of Brunei and the House of Saud are noted property-owners on The Bishop's Avenue.  However, as the financial crisis has bit in the UK many of the British residents have fled (Heather Mills, formerly McCartney, to name but one former British inhabitant), downsizing to more manageable mansions elsewhere.  Many houses were put up for sale, but when your home costs 30 or 40 million pounds the buyers are few and far between during a recession.  Some have remained on the estate agents' books unsold.     

Moving further towards the Heath the plots grow in size, but many of houses built on them do not appear to be inhabited - are these the unwanted, unsold casualties of the recession?  Maybe leaving a property empty is cheaper than attempting to sell it.  Besides the ubiquitous security signs, warning of round the clock surveillance of these properties, enormous gates are padlocked shut, take-away menus spill out of over-full post-boxes and overgrown weeds cover the driveways in place of the shiny sports-cars further down the road.  I wonder how often the owners of 'Summer Palace' actually stay there.  Just for the summer if the name of the place is anything to go by - but then why on earth would you choose to spend summer in London, where it will likely rain solidly for three months?  
At least two large houses are in the process of being demolished; one obviously so, an incomplete skeleton, another more discretely, with the frame of someone's onetime home still in tact. Wallpaper that someone (or their costly interior designer) had probably spent hours choosing hangs on an exposed wall, windows are propped ajar, now letting in a little more than a bit of fresh air.  There is something rather sad about a house that no one wants anymore; all those memories it once contained abandoned along with the rooms inside. Once well-tended lawns colonised by weeds are patrolled by German Shepherds and uniformed guards, but no one would even bother squatting here.

Where the extremely wealthy once lived are now empty spaces and the damp, discarded remnants of palatial estates.  This aspect of The Bishop's Avenue suggested sad things about London's claim to be the global financial capital; does the city not possess the money to rebuild or maintain such extraordinary houses any longer?  Maybe it simply suggests that North London is no longer where the city's rich and fabulous want to live.  Or perhaps the owners of these places have so much cash that, rather than redecorate, they prefer to tear down an unsatisfying kitchen or a disliked private gym and to rebuild the house of their dreams from scratch, splashing their cash and perpetuating The Bishop's Avenue as London's 'Millionaire's Row'.

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4 comments:

  1. I quite often pass by this bit of London and I always think it must be an awful place to live, with all those gates and, as you say, the half demolished and abandoned houses.

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    1. I don't think I'd like to live there very much either, Jenny. It's an odd place! Vast fences and isolated mansions don't really create much sense of community.

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  2. In fact, we are not talking about houses here, we are talking about speculation. The houses are not built to be lived in, they are built to be sold with a profit.
    It is a bit sad not to use them, but when you have 40 millions in your account, surely you don't really care?

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    1. Very true, Muriel - as they say, property is the best investment over the long-term. Clearly holding one of these vast mansions in your portfolio is enough...you don't have to bother living in them. Although it's a pretty odd way to live!

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