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26th April 2017

Primrose Hill: a Window over London

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Primrose Hill

 

Primrose Hill is a nice name, and the place lives up to it.
It is a posh area of London, central yet relatively undiscovered by tourists, with a park on a hill from which you can have one of the best views of London. The top of the hill is in fact one of the six protected viewpoints of London.

From the top of Primrose Hill you can see an ample view of the city, containing the Post Office Tower (also called Telecom Tower), the London Eye, the Canary Wharf towers, the dome of St Paul's Cathedral, Battersea, and many other London landmarks. There is a plaque telling you what is in the view, although in the summer the tall trees may cover some bit.

Primrose Hill is situated between Regent's Park and Camden Town.

In its wide avenues and cosy streets, built during the early Victorian age of railway expansion, there are imposing but shabby mid-19th century houses that fetch prices with 6 zeros. The area is sought after and exclusive, you see, and that's what counts most. Location, location, location... so the story goes.

But then Primrose Hill is full of contradictions, because around the corner from the million pound properties you find bars, bistros and cafes where you can eat for a few quid.

 

Primrose Hill Village

The Hill is a close-knit neighbourhood village, but then many London areas are. Tourists may find it odd, but this metropolis is both one of the world's big cities and an archipelago of little boroughs which still retain the air of the villages they were not long ago, before being devoured by the ever-expanding Greater London megalopolis.

Primrose Hill and Camden Village

Primrose Hill is a surprisingly steep green mound overlooking London, lined with broad trees and crisscrossed with ribbons of paths, surrounded by houses many of which have pastel-coloured facades and beautiful architectural styles.

Along its wishbone-shaped high streets you can buy anything, but they are remarkably free of chain stores. The chains that did try did not last very long.

Primrose Hill is a place where professional and creative people came to have families in the 1960s. It was close to the BBC, Fleet Street (which was then the street of the newspapers, and whose name has become synonymous with the press) and Soho, but at the same time full of greenery, with the "hill" and Regent's Park by it. And yet it was still rundown and therefore affordable.

The journalist and author Amanda Craig remembers her childhood in Primrose Hill:

My sister and I were allowed a degree of freedom unthinkable to today's children. When The Avengers showed Diana Rigg's flat in Chalcot Crescent, there was only ever one car in it, and that was the way it was in real life, too. We could play hopscotch, tag or football in the streets; were allowed to go to the park and the playground alone from about six onwards, and to the library almost as soon as we could walk. For children, it was close to paradise.

Chalcot Square is the heart of Primrose Hill, a small garden square with a children's playground. There is a 24-hour emergency Village Vet Hospital in Belsize Terrace, that's how civilized this area is.

Revolution lies deep in the veins of Primrose Hill, the "island" north of Regent's Park, focacciaed between railway line and park. In the 18th century, on the hill itself, it was duelling at dawn and prize fighting, in the 19th it was championing the rights of vagrant boys, fallouts from the Industrial Revolution, by establishing a boys' home on the corner of Regent's Park and King Henry's Roads. In the 20th century, women, children and Bentleys successfully barricaded roads to keep out the road warrior juggernauts in the Seventies, estate agents teamed up with barristers to fight Camden Council's parking plans in the Nineties, and a high-profile Save Our Library campaign was launched, with national celebrities living locally involved, to prevent Chalk Farm Library closure.

The pubs of Primrose Hill are more relaxed and laid back. Here used to be one of my favourite pubs, a place where you could stay until midnight and later without anyone shouting 'Time, please, ladies and gents!'. Perhaps it's no wonder that it's now closed.

 

Movies, writers, celebrities

View of London from Primrose Hill at night

The genteel, holidaying-in-the-Mediterranean atmosphere of the place hides a burning sense of local identity, celebrated in literature and film.

The top of Primrose Hill itself is where Pongo and Perdita resort to the twilight bark in search of their 15 missing puppies stolen by the evil Cruella de Ville in the Disney classic 101 Dalmatians, and where the Martians finally expire through disease in the last pages of HG Wells's The War of the Worlds.

It is the focus of Kingsley Amis's novel The Folk Who Live on the Hill and of journalistic parodies by Alan Bennett and Mark Boxer.

Many writers, poets and artists have lived in Primrose Hill, a truly Bohemian quarter, including Martin Amis, Isabel Fonseca, Ian McEwan. Before them Charles Dickens and poets William Butler Yeats who lived at 23 Fitzroy Road, Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, who committed suicide here.

The German subversive thinker Friedrich Engels, who co-wrote many works with Karl Marx - including The Communist Manifesto in 1848 - and supported financially the monstrous revolutionary who gave the world the most destructive ideology, resided in Primrose Hill at 122 Regent's Park Road until his death in 1895.

There is an English Heritage blue plaque commemorating the poetess Sylvia Plath in 3 Chalcot Square, NW1, where she lived in 1960-1961 in the early years of her marriage to Ted Hughes. They lived in a small flat where Hughes wrote much of his best poetry and became famous, while she was bearing Frieda, their first child. Plath later moved to another Primrose Hill house where she wrote poetry and died in 1963.

Famous rock groups and singers have recorded albums here: the Rolling Stones, Stevie Wonder and Sting in Utopia Village, Blur in Mayfair Studio.

A disproportionate number of celebrities live in Primrose Hill, eat in its restaurants, frequent its shops, meet in its bars.

The media people have also taken up residence here en mass, in studios and converted warehouses.
For people who can't afford space in Soho it's ideal. It's just a walk from there, through Regent's Park, anyway.

It is the kind of place only a mile from Oxford Street where you can hear a neighbour shout for help, and put your groceries on account.
It's where residents pin 'To Let' notices and missing pets leaflets on trees in Chalcot Square, and hold business meetings at the local pub.

 

HOW TO GET TO PRIMROSE HILL

Primrose Hill nearest tube Local Underground Stations: Chalk Farm is the nearest, otherwise Camden Town if you fancy walking along the canal from Camden Lock to Primrose Hill.

 

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