Monday, February 29, 2016

London walking guide Pt. 2: West

To me, West London is the most beautiful urban residential area in the world. Unlike most European cities, it is largely composed of houses rather than apartment blocks. Even though many have now been converted into apartments, that more human and domestic scale remains. West London is also the greenest part of Central London, with dozens of garden squares interspersed among the elegant terraces and Hyde and Holland Parks never far away. The level of greenery is evident just by looking at a satellite image. The difference with other large European cities is staggering. 

This is an area I have photographed more than any other, as this is where I spent most of my free time (when I could spare a break from studying architecture). There are few things I would rather do than take a walk through these neighborhoods. As charming as I find a North West area like Hampstead, West London stretches for miles, a huge cluster of unique streets. It's the closest thing to an amusement park I've ever found. It's the first place I go to every time I visit London, and I'll be going back regularly for as long as I live. 

To me these areas represent the true London, where London is at its best and most unique. You'll have noticed I specifically avoid featuring Piccadilly Circus, Oxford Street, the City, and other popular areas. They may be fine places to work and shop, but today are far too busy and modern. Especially for someone like me, in love with Georgian and Victorian architecture, there is no better place in the world than West London.

If you already read the first part, you'll know that red represents my favorite streets, blue my recommend walking route. I highly suggest clicking on the map for the full size, which you can then save on your phone for reference during your walk.

Click for full size
I recommend starting the walk at Royal Oak station, which is on the Circle and Hammersmith & City lines. That's what I have drawn on the map. It's also possible to start at Bayswater station (Circle and District lines) or Queensway station (Central line) but the route will not be perfectly in tune with my recommendation.

Westbourne, Bayswater, and Notting Hill

These three areas sort of blend together, especially in the border area where our walk starts. Neighborhood boundaries in London tend to be less defined than in many other cities
and here is no exception. The Westbourne name in particular is not too well known, and many residents identify themselves as living in Notting Hill, though to me Notting Hill proper will always be the group of crescents along Ladbroke Grove, which is my favorite area of this bunch (and perhaps my favorite area in London generally).


Only Belgravia (featured later in this guide) can rival Notting Hill for pure elegance. There's something about that stark whiteness that harmonizes the streetscape. It's hard to believe not too long ago it was regarded as a run-down area. Today it's one of the city's most expensive. Just goes to show that a true gem never truly loses its shine. It's always there, even if under a layer of grime. 

What really sets it apart are the large, private communal gardens to which many of the terraces back up onto, and the sweeping crescent road layout, unusually regular for London. This makes it very pleasant to walk, as your view is constantly changing.


After you've had your share of white and colorful houses, head south towards Holland Park.

Holland Park

Holland Park is both the name of a park and the surrounding neighborhoods. This part of the walk takes us down the most iconic streets, a group of elegant Victorian mansions not unlike those we saw earlier in Pembridge Square. Don't miss the dramatic Holland Park Mews, which runs between the two main roads.


Next in the walk is Campden Hill Square, which exemplifies a London trait I have always cherished, that of a peaceful oasis just off a busy street (in this case Holland Park Ave).


We now start entering Kensington, the namesake of the borough, and probably the most eclectic area of the walk, both economically and architecturally.


This next photo is again in the Holland Park area, more specifically Phillimore Estate, though again this is a name rarely used outside of property agents. The Phillimore Estate is characterized by well ordered streets and large detached homes, many of which back onto Holland Park. 


Kensington

Crossing Kensington High Street, we are back in Kensington. Walk along Earls Terrace and then head inwards toward Edwardes Square, one of the largest garden squares in the city. Like most it's private, but the late-Georgian terraces surrounding it are modest and charming, and are Grade II listed.


Next on the walk is Pembroke Square, a little less regular. Beyond walk east along Scarsdale Villas, where the homes are again firmly Victorian, built between 1850-1864.


Once you reach Lexham Gardens, be sure to take the secret passage called Cornwall Gardens Walk to pass through to Cornwall Gardens. Next on the walk is a very expensive group of streets, Eldon Road and Cottesmore Gardens. That's because they are not only handsome homes, but also have quite large back gardens by London standards.


You could take a shortcut here and go straight through Kynance Mews to Launceston Place, but then you'd be missing Kensington Court and Square.


If you took the longer loop, step out on Kensington High Street briefly until you once again reach Victoria Road, and walk all the way down to Kynance Mews. Beyond is Launceston Place and Victoria Grove, one of the most charming streets in Kensington, in my opinion. I'd love to own one of these little homes, completed around 1846.


Gunter Estate

This next neighborhood is sometimes included with Kensington, especially among property agents, but sometimes also as Earl's Court or even Chelsea (the southern bit). To me it's neither, as the character is quite different from any of those. The reason is because this area was developed together as part of the Gunter Estate. These terraces have a unique style, even by London standards, with red brick contrasting sharply with light stone. Built between the 1860s-1880's, so quite late compared to many other terraces in London.


It's difficult to recommend how best to go from here, as my favorite streets are all over and it would require a lot of zig-zagging to see them all. I tended to go through The Boltons, a large oval garden square surrounded by large semi-detached mansions. Though be warned, I cannot recall a single occasion I came through here without getting a Godfather vibe. There were always black Mercedes S-classes and security on at least one doorstep. Don't let that detract from the architecture, however.


Chelsea

While today Chelsea is a popular neighborhood, in the Victorian age it was not as upscale as it is today, and therefore somewhat retains more of a village feel than many of these other neighborhoods. It's what once drew artists and writers to the area. In general the buildings are much shorter, with far fewer terraces.


The next image shows Glebe Place, once the heart of artistic activity in Chelsea starting in the 19th century.


And now you reach the Thames. Cheyne Walk was once home to Henry James, T.S. Eliot, Ian Fleming, Ralph Vaughan Williams, J.M.W. Turner and many other notable artists and writers.


Generally the further east you walk, the more urban and formal Chelsea becomes. It's fun to seek out the exceptions, however.


Knightsbridge

Many avoid glitzy Knightsbridge because of the Harrods crowd (and who can blame them), but that's a shame, because away from the crowds, this area has some of the most beautiful architecture in London.


At this point is a long walk down Walton Street. 

South Kensington

We'll be back in Knightsbridge soon, but first a detour into South Kensington. Popular among tourists for the many museums along Exhibition Road, to me it will always hold a special place, because this was my first experience of West London during my first week in London all those years ago. Suffice to say, that first walk among the white stucco terraces and garden squares was one of constant amazement. I couldn't believe what I was seeing. I didn't know an urban residential area could be so beautiful. The myth of suburbia that had been a cornerstone of my American upbringing came crashing down in an instant.


We cross busy Brompton Road now to see Brompton Square, and then take the pedestrian passageway called Cottage Place to visit one of my favorite mews: Ennismore Garden Mews.


Once you reach Rutland Mews, there's a hard to spot doorway through to Rutland Street, and now you'll be back briefly in Knightsbridge. Below, Montpelier Square.


Belgravia

Even by West London standards Belgravia can be quite shocking. With few exceptions, white stucco is the order of the day here, and the terraces are palatial in scale and style. Developed from the 1820's and largely still owned by the Grosvenor Estate, this has always been a very upscale neighborhood. It was once a popular second-home location for England's aristocratic families. It's an impressive area, no doubt, but more urban than the others you will have seen today. As imposing as it is, however, I've always felt it's a shame there isn't more greenery, with many of the squares divided from homes by traffic, and in general one has a sense they are little used by residents. 

Fans of mews are in for a treat. Belgravia is full of fine examples so be sure to keep your eyes out.


Well, that's it. If, as I suspect, you finish around Chester Square, the nearest tube station is Victoria, a few minutes walk east.

I certainly kept my promise to make photos more of a feature in this one. It has been a pleasure to show you my favorite streets in London, and if it goes a little way towards encouraging more people to see these areas of London in a different light, and appreciate the architecture as much as I do, I'll feel I have done my job. These are not just bedroom communities for the wealthy. They're beautiful homes and beautiful streets, each with a unique character.

Enjoy your walks.

All photos my own. See more here.