Unearthing the garden suburb’s past
Bedford Park has launched an initiative to rediscover the history of its homes. Eleanor Doughty visits the west London enclave
‘We are giving back the history to the people who live here’
Just north of Chiswick High Road, a short walk from Turnham Green tube station, is a quietly revolutionary neighbourhood. Built in 1875, Bedford Park was the world’s first garden suburb, inviting the more famous Hampstead, Welwyn and Letchworth to follow its lead. It seems unlikely that this unassuming corner of west London, with its tree-lined streets and wide avenues, could have spawned such a progressive urban movement, and yet families are queuing around the block to live in a piece of its history.
Now, Bedford Park is set to be the first digital suburb, too. A new project, the Bedford Park House History Initiative, aims to democratise the history of the area, collating individual house records across the 356 properties in the Bedford Park conservation area, and opening them to the wider community.
“We are trying to give back the history to the people who live here,” explains Nigel Walley, a local entrepreneur at the centre of the project. “In the same way that Bedford Park was the first modern garden suburb, we want to make it the first digital suburb, so Bedford Park once again leads the way.”
Walley has teamed up with social historian Melanie Backe-Hansen, a specialist of houses and streets, who is hard at work assembling the individual histories of each property.
The aim is to create a log for each house in the area, so it can grow over time, like a car logbook that comes with the vehicle when it is sold.
“Everything around us is digitised, and we’re keen on people having that information available about their home,” Walley says. It isn’t just about the architectural nuance, he says, but also the social history that is important. As an owner, “you are part of the history of that house, and it should be yours to own and present”.
Bedford Park began life in 1875, when cloth merchant turned property developer Jonathan Carr purchased 24 acres of land in Chiswick, inspired by the arrival of the Metropolitan Railway at Turnham Green.
His idea was to provide an estate of around 500 homes for the middle classes, with roads spreading out like roots from the station, allowing residents to access the city within 30 minutes. It seemed a simple enough idea in smoggy, crowded, industrial London.
Unlike the traditional landed estates of London, owned by the Grosvenor and Cadogan families, Carr sold his properties and released the freehold.
“It was, in effect, the Carr estate,” Backe-Hansen says. “He brought in the architects and bought their designs outright. It was all up to him.”
To bring his vision to life, Carr employed architect Richard Norman Shaw, who designed several properties in the picturesque Queen Anne revival style, with distinctive characteristics. These Flemish-influenced buildings with roughcast timber gables, white picket fencing and large sash windows were then repeated in a pattern and organised around the neighbourhood, each one appearing to be unique.
Carr’s vision also incorporated local stores, a tennis court and clubhouse, plus a church – St Michael and All Angels, a red-brick Norman Shawdesigned building with white joinery, a mongrel mix of Gothic and Queen Anne. The club became the centre of the community, opening in 1881, when it was constantly revolving with plays, parties and concerts.
The artistic community, for whom Bedford Park was built, was in evidence early on. The poet WB Yeats moved to 8 Woodstock Road in 1879, when the area would have likely resembled a building site – far from the smart cachet it comes with today. TM Rooke, a pupil of the PreRaphaelite artist Edward Burne-Jones, and a friend of John Ruskin’s, lived at 7 Queen Anne’s Gardens between 1879 and 1942. But the poet John Betjeman is probably Bedford Park’s most famous resident, describing it as “the most significant suburb built in the last century, probably in the Western world”.
It remains a tightknit community, and the annual Bedford Park Festival is an emblem of its survival. In 1966 – when Victorian buildings were going out of fashion and some of the largest houses in the area were being demolished to make way for flats – the residents launched a festival to raise awareness of the area’s importance, reviving a community event that had last been held in the 1890s. Within a month, 356 of the houses in Bedford Park had received a provisional listing from the local council as protection from developers, and a dozen roads were declared conservation areas.
This defence comes at a price in modern-day London. According to local estate agent Andrew Nunn, there is a premium of approximately 20 per cent on Bedford Park houses. Values are roughly £1,200 per sq ft on listed properties within the conservation area, and £1,000 per sq ft for those outside it.
“People buy into the social history,” Nunn says. “There’s a lot of interest in the history of the garden suburb. As Bedford Park was the first, that carries a little bit of extra weight.”
While some parts of London have faced a change in clientele as house prices have rushed up, Bedford Park has retained its audience. There are fewer corporate types in the area than one might imagine, Nunn says. “More independent people [are buying in Bedford Park], those running their own businesses.” There’s also a
‘Bedford Park remains a tight-knit community’
consistently healthy number of artistic people in the area – those working in music, film and television.
The architecture itself is a draw for residents. “Buyers are more likely to be those who are harmonious with the romantic side of it – the architecture, the history, what it’s about. By definition, they’re probably more creative than hard-nosed commercial bankers.”
Nunn relates part of this demographic to the difficulty that comes with extending and exploiting the space in listed properties. Basements are forbidden in Bedford Park. “Eight or 10 houses did it, and the councils had a say and placed an embargo,” Nunn explains.
Of course, the commercial buyer can still have a crack at some home improvements. “You could buy an unmodernised one and refurbish it, but adding square footage is quite hard to do.”
Instead, emphasis is placed on preserving features such as the white picket fencing, ornamental brickwork and the stained-glass windows that give Bedford Park properties their character.
Young families make up many of the residents, thanks to good schooling locally – both Chiswick & Bedford Park Prep School and Orchard House School are in the immediate area; the fee-paying secondaries Latymer Upper School and St Paul’s School are both within three miles. Chiswick High Road is awash with smart restaurants, boutiques and a Soho House outpost, High Road House.
The area is also very lived-in, even if the residents are well heeled with houses elsewhere, Nunn says. “We are not Holland Park, where it’s a ghost town.” Houses rarely change hands, too – approximately 10 sell per year, rather than the 15-20 of 15 years ago.
The residents’ association in Bedford Park remains a central part of the community. Its forum encourages neighbours to exchange local information and ask questions of one another, as around the green in a rural village. It truly is one of London’s hidden gems.
Grand plan: the church of St Michael & All Angels, which was part of property developer Jonathan Carr’s big idea for Bedford Park
Chiswick grandeur: Melanie BackeHansen, a social historian, and Nigel Walley from the Bedford Park Residents’ Association, right; tree-lined streets and red-brick homes in Bedford Park, left
Suburbia: a typical house and front garden in Chiswick’s Bedford Park