As Hamp­stead Gar­den Sub­urb – home to film stars, fi­nanciers and roy­alty – marks its cen­te­nary, Clive Aslet won­ders if it’s time to re­vive the utopian dream

The Daily Telegraph - Saturday - - Front Page -

Buds are open­ing. The sun is find­ing its way down hedge­lined al­ley­ways and through gar­den gates. Chil­dren play on vil­lage greens. Dormer win­dows are open to the soft air. Spring has come to Lon­don NW11.

Hamp­stead Gar­den Sub­urb opens an eye and re­alises it is time to get up. It is a child of the Heath, phys­i­cally lo­cated on the rim of the North Cir­cu­lar Road, seven miles from the cen­tre of Lon­don, but be­long­ing emo­tion­ally to an­other world: an older, vil­lage Eng­land, half-re­mem­ber­ing the fields out of which it was cre­ated, where Queen Anne ar­chi­tec­turally joins hands with the Arts and Crafts Move­ment, a place of high ideals, now re­served for higher in­comes. Where did we go wrong? House-build­ing has gone down­hill ever since.

Hamp­stead Gar­den Sub­urb, be­gun 100 years ago next month, knows it is spe­cial. King Con­stan­tine of Greece rubs shoul­ders with Jonathan Ross (who is joint pres­i­dent, with his wife, of the Sub­urb’s Hor­ti­cul­tural So­ci­ety). Martin Bell’s white suit vies for at­ten­tion with Pro­fes­sor Robert Win­ston’s mous­tache. Harold Wil­son once lived here; Lady Wil­son still does. Peter Man­del­son has been a bird of pas­sage. “I see it as an oa­sis,” he says to­day. Al­though al­most plu­to­crat­i­cally com­fort­able (busi­ness­men and fi­nanciers flock like star­lings), the Sub­urb lists to the left, freighted with more lib­eral-minded in­tel­lec­tu­als than you could shake a Hamp­stead Heath stick at. The fact that more than a third of the elec­toral ward is Jewish may have some­thing to do with it.

Show­biz makes an ap­pear­ance. It is here that Richard and Judy have parked their sofa. Sacha Baron Co­hen, the cre­ator of Bo­rat, romped as a child in the “twit­tens”, the sub­urb’s strangely named al­ley­ways. Film star Rachel Weisz was brought up with her brother at 6 Linnell Close. Dame El­iz­a­beth Tay­lor cher­ishes mem­o­ries of a house on Wild­wood Road, where she spent her early years. “The hap­pi­est days of my youth were when my brother and I would run through the woods and feel quite safe,” she says in a let­ter sup­port­ing next month’s cen­te­nary cel­e­bra­tions. “It was heaven for this child and her brother.”

But nowhere stays spe­cial with­out try­ing. I am out this spring morn­ing with David B Lewis, chair­man of the res­i­dents’ as­so­ci­a­tion. He is show­ing me the charms of the place: brick­work some­times laid with tile, hipped roofs, variety within or­der, streets that are bal­anced but not mo­not­o­nous, the shel­tered spot by the Great Wall along the side of the Sub­urb known as Sun­shine Cor­ner. Lewis lives in Wild­wood Rise and a framed draw­ing for his house, signed by the ar­chi­tect Ho­race Field, hangs in his hall. A re­tired fi­nan­cial jour­nal­ist, he has an eye for de­tail. An out-of-date plan­ning no­tice on a lamp post is pulled down. He ful­mi­nates against yel­low lines, wrong lit­ter bins, garage ex­ten­sions.

A no­tice has been put up telling dog own­ers to clear up their pets’ mess. “Some­body’s an­noyed,” muses Lewis. “I should take it down ac­tu­ally. Yes, I think I will.” Cam­paigns against dog mess may have their place in the scheme of things, but not on A4 pa­per at­tached to trees. Let the guard slip for a mo­ment and the 21st cen­tury will come sneak­ing in.

The Gar­den Sub­urb was cre­ated in much this spirit. It stands in a tra­di­tion of model hous­ing de­vel­op­ments that goes back to Ti­tus Salt’s Sal­taire in the 1850s. By the end of the 19th cen­tury, the ur­ban plan­ner Ebenezer Howard had for­mu­lated his vi­sion for a com­mu­nity that would be free from the hor­rors of the in­dus­trial city, set amid fresh, health­ful coun­try­side while yet en­joy­ing the ben­e­fits of the town. This would be re­alised in Letch­worth Gar­den

City, shaped by the plan­ner and ar­chi­tect Ray­mond Un­win.

Mean­while, work­ing in the slums of Lon­don’s East End, Canon Samuel Bar­nett and his wife Hen­ri­etta had sim­i­lar ideas. They imag­ined a com­mu­nity based on the neigh­bourli­ness of the English vil­lage or mar­ket town.

The im­pe­tus to take it for­ward came in 1896. The North­ern Line of the Lon­don Un­der­ground was ex­pected to head their way, with a sta­tion at Gold­ers Green. The Bar­netts fore­saw that the Un­der­ground would trail bricks and mor­tar in its wake, de­spoil­ing what was then still farm­land, north of Hamp­stead Heath. Hen­ri­etta set about pre­serv­ing a north­ward ex­ten­sion of the Heath. This 80 acres of open ground would be­come the lung of a “gar­den sub­urb for all classes”, built on the sur­round­ing land. If north Hamp­stead had to be de­vel­oped, she would see it was de­vel­oped prop­erly.


art of the land in ques­tion was owned by Eton Col­lege, but the school wouldn’t deal with a wo­man, so Hen­ri­etta put to­gether a syn­di­cate that in­cluded two earls and a bishop. Un­win was com­mis­sioned to draw plans. “We de­sire to do some­thing to meet the hous­ing prob­lem, by putting within the reach of work­ing peo­ple the op­por­tu­nity of tak­ing a cot­tage with a gar­den within a 2d fare of Cen­tral Lon­don, and at a mod­er­ate rent,” an­nounced the Hamp­stead Gar­den Sub­urb Com­mit­tee in 1905. How­ever, its mem­bers weren’t stupid: phi­lan­thropy has to be paid for. And so room was found for the rich City types as well.

Or, as the com­mit­tee phrased it, “to pro­mote a bet­ter un­der­stand­ing be­tween the mem­bers of the classes who form our na­tion”, the best sites around the Heath would be oc­cu­pied by homes of “wealthy per­sons who can af­ford to pay a large sum for their land and to have ex­ten­sive gar­dens”.

On May 2, 1907, the first sod was turned on what was con­ceived as the Ar­ti­sans’ Quar­ter. Henry Vi­vian of Hamp­stead Ten­ants Ltd re­minded a meet­ing of the aw­ful death toll taken when fam­i­lies were herded to­gether into a sin­gle ten­e­ment room. Rap­tur­ous ap­plause greeted Mrs Bar­nett’s ap­pear­ance on the makeshift podium. “We have met to­gether to make a bit of God’s earth beau­ti­ful for gen­er­a­tions ahead,” she de­clared in words that un­der­lined the Chris­tian con­text of her mis­sion, “to en­sure that a piece of what Emer­son calls ‘the sun­skirts of the Most High’ should be around the homes of each one of His chil­dren.”

A pic­ture gallery, band­stand, re­fresh­ment rooms, ponds for pad­dling and sail­ing, barns for tools and ten­e­ments for the old — such fa­cil­i­ties, marked on the map that Un­win drew for the new set­tle­ment, show the utopi­anism of the en­ter­prise. Houses were placed so that none could spoil the out­look of the other. Plots were di­vided by hedges and trel­lises rather than walls. Old trees were pre­served, along with the whole of two woods, Big Wood and Lit­tle Wood.

Pro­gres­sive think­ing went fur­ther. For ex­am­ple, Water­low Court, a quad­ran­gle de­signed by MH Bail­lie Scott in 1909, was con­ceived for sin­gle work­ing women who weren’t able to af­ford ser­vants, al­low­ing them to share the cost of liv­ing and en­joy com­pan­ion­ship.

Hen­ri­etta asked Ed­win Lu­tyens to de­sign the cen­tre­piece of the Sub­urb, in the shape of two churches (Church of Eng­land and Free) and an In­sti­tute. For the story of English ar­chi­tec­ture, it was an in­spired choice. “I can­not — at least have not yet — ar­rived at a church, which is de­press­ing,” Lu­tyens wrote in a let­ter to his wife the pre­vi­ous year. Now he had two on the go, lo­cated on a su­perb hill­top site — one (St Jude’s) with an im­mense spire, the other domed. Nei­ther, how­ever, con­formed to Hen­ri­etta’s es­sen­tially vil­lagey ideas and sparks flew (see panel).

To­day, the pub­lic space around Lu­tyens’s great ar­chi­tec­ture strikes the one false note in the Sub­urb. The plant­ing of the flower beds is mis­er­able and de­tails such as dogs’-mess bins are pro­vided with lit­tle thought for de­sign.

David B Lewis makes no bones about it. “The big­gest threat to the Sub­urb is the Lon­don bor­ough of Barnet, which is a para­dox, be­cause it is par­tially charged with pre­serv­ing it.”

Lu­tyens even­tu­ally buried the hatchet with Hen­ri­etta by de­sign­ing her me­mo­rial. It takes the form of a curved open frame, from the cen­tre of which hung a lantern. But the lantern was stolen and Barnet Coun­cil sur­rounded the whole struc­ture with a mas­sive gal­vanised steel se­cu­rity fence. Enough said.

By con­trast, the private realm con­tin­ues to nour­ish its in­hab­i­tants and to be nour­ished by them in re­turn. It may be that Hamp­stead Gar­den Sub­urb has changed so­cially from what the Bar­netts had hoped for it. On one visit, I was able to help out a wo­man whose large Mercedes had un­ac­count­ably stalled half way across the road. I am not sure that’s the sort of so­cial in­ter­ac­tion the Bar­netts had in mind when they planned the Sub­urb. Had Ray­mond Un­win fore­seen how rates of car own­er­ship would soar over the next cen­tury, he would no doubt have de­vised his own traf­fic-calm­ing mea­sures, rather than leav­ing the task to Barnet Coun­cil. Bur­glar alarms show that ev­ery par­adise has its ser­pent. No doubt all those lit­tle lanes and al­leys, so much part of the charm of the place, dis­may the crime pre­ven­tion of­fi­cer.


or have all the so­cial in­sti­tu­tions sur­vived the cen­tury in their orig­i­nal form. Chil­dren still play on greens and in the woods, and go to schools; but the In­sti­tute, in­tended to pro­vide self-im­prove­ment for adults (“to help the poor out of poverty by ed­u­ca­tion,” as Hen­ri­etta put it) has taken off for other pas­tures, leav­ing the Lu­tyens build­ing to func­tion as a gram­mar school. To the ir­ri­ta­tion of some lo­cal par­ents, pupils come from all over Barnet, not just the Sub­urb.

The Club House, sit­u­ated by the orig­i­nal Ar­ti­sans’ Quar­ter and in­tended to pro­vide a so­cial fo­cus with­out al­co­hol, was bombed dur­ing the Sec­ond World War; its re­place­ment is not a patch on the orig­i­nal. The Or­chard, pro­vid­ing old peo­ple’s ac­com­mo­da­tion, was re­placed in the 1960s with a more hum­drum af­fair.

In the great scheme of things, th­ese are de­tails. Vis­i­tors to the Sub­urb to­day can­not help but be im­pressed by the de­gree to which its sense of iden­tity has sur­vived the lev­el­ling ten­dency of the 20th cen­tury. The street signs are dif­fer­ent from those else­where, made with the orig­i­nal serif let­ter­ing al­though now with “NW11” added. (Post­codes only came in af­ter the First World War.) You hail the H2 bus when you see it — “Bus stops are ugly,” ex­plains Lewis.

There is still top­i­ary and bird­song in the gar­dens, the sound of chil­dren play­ing and cy­clists ring­ing bells. Its 13,000 res­i­dents seem more than happy.

“In 1974 a be­nign build­ing so­ci­ety helped me buy a very large oak tree in Den­man Drive with a very small cot­tage at­tached,” Martin Bell re­calls. “Mov­ing to the Sub­urb was one of the best de­ci­sions I ever took.” To Lord Win­ston, the Sub­urb is a “unique part of Lon­don that pro­vides a peace­ful and nat­u­ral haven in our bustling and ex­cit­ing city”.

I must leave them to it, walk­ing out of the de­fended precincts of the Sub­urb into a world of satel­lite dishes, de­sign chaos, spread­ing ug­li­ness and no­tice­ably lower prop­erty prices. Isn’t it time for Bri­tain to re­vive the utopian dream?

The Sub­urb’s cen­te­nary cel­e­bra­tions be­gin on May 2. See­te­nary.

Clive Aslet is ed­i­tor at large of Coun­try Life.

The stars in their haven: Hamp­stead Gar­den Sub­urb and res­i­dents past and present (from left) Sacha Baron Co­hen, Rachel Weisz and Jonathan Ross

A claim and a spire: Canon Samuel and Hen­ri­etta Bar­nett, who clashed with ar­chi­tect Ed­ward Lu­tyens over his plans for the cen­tre of Hamp­stead Gar­den Sub­urb, in­clud­ing St Jude’s (in­set). Des res res­i­dents (be­low, clock­wise from top left): Pro­fes­sor Robert Win­ston, Dame El­iz­a­beth Tay­lor, Martin Bell, Peter Man­del­son, Richard Made­ley and Judy Fin­ni­gan

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