My father arrived in London as a very young man the early 1960s and rented a bedsit in Primrose Hill, in a large rambling old house where St Paul’s Primary School now is, next to the entrance to the park. He now takes great delight in telling me what a rough old place Primrose Hill was in those days, which it undoubtedly was. He stayed for about a year, then moved a little to the north to a bedsit in Belsize Avenue.
These were the days of the notorious pea-soupers, so dense and disorientating that Dad once got completely lost making his way from the Tube to his room in Belsize Park Avenue after work. And power cuts, which meant that Dad and his neighbours, instead of staying home in the darkness, gathered companionably at the (sadly now defunct) Belsize Tavern in Belsize Village, where, he pragmatically points out, ‘they had beer and candles.’
I have lived in Belsize Park myself and still love to walk through it, often on my way from Primrose Hill up to Hampstead, and have always adored the huge, stately houses , some crumbling in their grandeur, some brought stylishly back to the peak of elegance, most somewhere in between. And amongst them, but in far smaller numbers, more modern houses, usually much less grand but clearly the height of taste for their times.
I especially love Belsize Park in the summer, when the white stucco, wherever it lies in the spectrum ranging from tatty to smart, looks so pretty, and a particular kind of mauve flower seems to grow unhindered. The layers of history, the waves of residents with stories to tell, the sense of community gratefully fostered by those who had lost their own: you can feel it as you walk through the streets.
Belsize Remembered, compiled by Ranee Barr and David S Percy, edited by F Peter Woodford, captures the unique nature of Belsize Park perfectly. It sets the scene with a brief summary of the history of the area, made especially fascinating because it is so easy to locate the important buildings and features in modern-day Belsize Park, such as the grand driveway to Belsize House being what became Belsize Avenue.
And then the book launches into a well-organised and absolutely gripping series of first-hand memoirs, by current and former residents, telling their tales of life in Belsize Park that fit together like a huge patchwork to create the wonderful social history that just needed to be sewn together as this wonderful book has done. It’s the stuff of ordinary life – coins in the meter, trips to the laundrette – but lived by people who had found their way there almost by accident and who each brought with them something unique to contribute to the melting pot. It’s impossible to pick out a favourite from these accounts of spies and artists, pubs and churches, the grand and the humble, but for me Alison Hawkes’s description, ‘From Bedsits to Baby Buggies,’ succinctly sums up a broad period of the neighbourhood’s history and throws in some fascinating anecdotes to boot, all in just one page.
This is a wonderful book to dip into, like a chat with an old friend, but more than that it is a precious testament to the unique and haunting history of Belsize Park.
I bought mine for £16.99 from Primrose Hill Books, but it is also available on Amazon here: Belsize Remembered
© 2018 Joanna Reeves