How Belsize Park was nearly ruined, and how Eton saved the day

Picture of Danny Brewer

Danny Brewer

Belsize Park has arguably the best alfresco cafe culture in London. Its extra-wide pavements are immediately recognisable, not least because they’re so uncharacteristic of the rest of the city. Politely buzzing with the chatter of locals sat outside the long stretch of bistros, bars, and coffee spots, the tables and chairs strewn along Haverstock Hill serve up food and drink from around the world.

A warm summer’s evening, Sunday brunch or pretty much anytime on a Saturday is a delightfully refined experience. Perched at the very top of the capital, even the name “Belsize” derives from the French “Bel Assis” – beautifully situated.

It’s no less charming on England’s Lane and its neighbouring tree-lined streets, collectively known as Belsize Village. Independent shops and boutiques abound, selling the very loveliest of things and symbolising just how good life here is.

But it could have all been very different.

Imagine all of that gone, along with many splendid avenues of Victorian villas designed by Daniel Tidey. Instead, picture a deep railway cutting similar to the one slicing through Camden on its way to Euston. This could easily have been the story of one of today’s most desirable London neighbourhoods, and we have Eton College to thank that Belsize Park is as wonderful as it is.

When Victorian train lines began bulldozing through North London’s former forests and farmland that supplied Londoners with their meat and dairy, Belsize House dominated the area, bringing with it wealth and culture.

Belsize House, over which today's Belsize Park is built
Belsize House as it was in 1696

Eton College also owned large tracts of land here for centuries and held major influence. They controlled much of what was built, and who could build it, including the Victorian streets of large villas that are a rich part of the local vernacular. While those were going up, the London & Birmingham Railway was quickly leasing land for long-distance rail links across the country to link the major cities of England. The industrial revolution was full steam ahead!

A typical Belsize Park Victorian villa
A top-floor apartment for sale in Belsize Park, in a typical stucco-fronted villa designed by Daniel Tidey. Click here for more information.

The saviours of Belsize Park

Part of the railway plans involved driving lines straight through Belsize Park. Facing those proposals, development stopped in its tracks as the area stared at a very different future. But that wide-reaching power and authority of Eton College came to the rescue, as the school successfully lobbied Parliament. In the end, the railway company had to tunnel the lines beneath Primrose Hill.

Today, many street names in Belsize Park carry the names of Eton scholars, like Oppidans Road. Meanwhile, the four tower blocks of the Chalcots Estate (Dorney, Bray, Burnham and Taplow) honour locations near to the school.

Map of Belsize Park
A google snapshot showing the diverted railway’s route today.

The landscape of London, particularly the inner cities, is defined by its railway lines. How different would Belsize Park have been, had the train ploughed through so unceremoniously? An artisan muffin on a Saturday morning would have been a very different experience!

We have an apartment for sale in Belsize Park, occupying the second floor of a classic stucco-fronted villa. Click here for the full description, gallery and floor plans.

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