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MY LONDON VILLAGE - PRIMROSE HILL

(Metro – 1998)
Lowdown on Primrose Hill


What first attracted you to the area?

When I was at university I used to spend my summer holidays punting tourists up and down the local river. One day a dapper and amusing man 'from London' paid for a double-length tour and then invited me and a friend up to the big city for a night out. Being naive and enthusiastic we accepted his invitation and ended up in a famous gay club called Napoleon's. But the man had a flat on Regent's Park Road, and drinking champagne on his balcony in the early evening, I fell in love with this lovely curve of ramshackle houses leading up to the mysterious dark hill.

When did you move in and what was the area like then?

Ten years on, in 1990, I was in a position to afford my one-bedroomed flat above a shop in this very street. In those days, it was still fairly ordinary. There were two garages, two Asian corner shops, two greengrocers, a fly-blown butcher's, a popular little Greek restaurant and a big gloomy pub that nobody seemed to go into except on Saturday nights, when it would be packed with aggressive characters from out of the area who would regularly smash shop windows on their way home.

How has it changed since?

In the nine years since the street has been transformed. One of the garages has been demolished, the other is an over-expensive supermarket. The big pub has been taken over by the popular little Greek restaurant and is now a celebrated big Greek restaurant where you can queue for a table even if you've booked. More and more of the other shops either sell expensive knick-knacks or are restaurants. We now have, in one street, three Greek, two Polish, two French, and one English restaurant, and that's not counting the one that's temporarily closed and the pubs who do food. Oh yes, and the four cafes.

Are there any local characters or celebrities?

The area is stuffed with characters, from the ex-Parisian boulevardier who spends his entire day outside one or other of the cafes to the prosperous-looking rag-and-bone man who appears with cart and bell every Friday lunchtime. At the risk of being sent to Coventry I'll refrain from detailing the others. As for celebs, when I moved in we had Sir Kingsley Amis, who would make a stately progression every Saturday morning to the Queen's Head on the corner. Now, with the inexorable rise of the cappuccino-strasse, the area is fast becoming Star Central. We have Beatle-tribute crooners, Scottish boy-wonder actors, seasoned TV comics and presenters, quite apart from the numerous writers. Luckily they all make resolute efforts not to be recognised, so life is not too disrupted.

Are there any village scandals?

A few years ago we had the very sad story of Sir Allan Green, Director of Public Prosecutions, who was caught by the police kerb-crawling in King's Cross. The press had their usual feast of moralising over the incident and his Swedish wife subsequently committed suicide. Our current scandal is of a rather different kind. Camden Council is closing down our local library, a move resisted by 99.9% of the locals, who are hanging protest banners and posters from every tree and gable, signing petitions to Chris Smith and assiduously leafleting visitors. So much for Labour's vaunted commitment to education; and so much for democracy.

What is the best local shop?

It's a toss-up between the bookshop, which manages to have everything you want to read in a tiny space, and Mrs Welsh at the cornucopia of a general store, who will sell you a bag of nails or an ironing board with the same unfailing good nature.

Is there a good local park?

Primrose Hill, at the very end of the street, is more than just the local park. People say the hill lies on the cross of several ley lines, and although I am sceptical about such things there is no doubting that the place has magical qualities, even now, when it is overrun with people digesting cakes and cappuccinos. In the summer, on warm nights, the top of the hill hosts a bizarre perpetual party. Strangers chat to each other - a rare thing in London - inspired perhaps by the extraordinary glittering view of the capital below.

Are there any major irritations about the area?

Yes. Car alarms, turning the place into an urban jungle day and night. I personally would vote for any political party that promised a total ban on these shrieking intrusions.

How long does it take you to get to the West End?

One of the many joys of this area is its location. You can walk to Oxford Circus - across Regent's Park - in half an hour, cycle in ten minutes, speed in a cab in five. Taking the tube can be a less pleasant experience. Though less awful than it used to be the Northern Line still runs trains that must be pre- Second if not First World War they are so acrid and creaky.

What do you think will be the eventual downfall of the area?

For a long time the pleasantness of Primrose Hill was a well-kept secret. Noisy gents in treble-breasted pinstriped suits were not to be seen stalking its environs. This is changing. And as the prices of the houses and flats go ever higher the local property-owners get more moneyed - even if they are not actually earning more. If Camden succeed in their shameful plan of shutting the library yet another centre that makes the place a real rather than a bogus village will have gone. In the end the place may become another St John's Wood or Knightsbridge, just a well-appointed upmarket area near to ample green space.
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