Close communities in the capital
Sun 29 Mar 2015
A spring afternoon in Barnes. The wind is cold but the green is busy, with two Labradors bundling after a football and a group of children engaged in a playground game that involves folding their arms and crashing into each other. There are no over-protective parents hovering. Barnes is the sort of place where children can still play out on their own.
"It's a village," Julia Bebington, office manager at the Barnes Community Association (BCA) tells me later. "Geographically, it's in the loop of the river, so it's surrounded on a couple of sides."
We're sitting in The Sun Inn, a pub overlooking the duck pond, and Bebington is explaining how the lazy tract of Thames that curls around the end of the High Street contributes to Barnes' cosy, commuter-town feel. Regency houses on The Terrace, the road that runs by the river, are painted jaunty pastel colours. People here don't dash: they perambulate along the pavements. It's only seven miles from Waterloo, though you'd never think it.
"Barnes is actually one of the only true villages in London," says Paul Zammit of Savills. "It's very family-orientated. Schools are a big draw. There's Barnes Primary, in Little Chelsea, The Harrodian School, The Swedish School and St Paul's. We do get a lot of people moving from west-central locations. When they move here, they generally put roots down and stay for the long term."
"People have often lived here for a long time, so their community is important to them," agrees Samuel Bide, a director at Marsh & Parsons. "Little Chelsea is particularly friendly. It's an area of railway cottages, with Barnes Primary School in the middle. Many families there have kids at the school and it's a great common link for everyone."
Village London is a strong selling point. Londoners have a reputation for being unfriendly; people who are barely on nodding terms with their neighbours. Yet, recent research conducted by Robinsons removal company found
that 43 per cent of Londoners want to live in an area where neighbours speak to each other. Which is perhaps one reason why property in these places comes at a premium. Julia Bebington paid 600,000 for her house five years ago and it's now valued at 1.2m.
So how do you spot a London village? "Schools, parks and pubs act as pillars of the community," explains Charlotte Dabney at Cluttons. "There are places where people can catch up on the local gossip. You just have to see the queues of loyal customers outside Steve Hatt fishmongers on Essex Road or the weekend caf culture around Camden Passage to see locals spending time together."
Just as country estate agents have pinpointed the "seven P's" essential to village life (pub, primary school, post office, parson, public transport, phone box and petrol station), there are signifiers of a thriving London community.
"The recipe for a good community feeling is the "four S's": shopping, service, space and schools," says Jake Russell, director at Russell Simpson. "People want to live close to good schools, good shops and enjoy spacious homes, gardens and green space. Elements of each of these make for happy homeowners, happy neighbours and a happy community."
"You need a Tube station, a pub, a gym, schools, a supermarket, a cinema, and a park," says Bryony Farrar, of Finlay Brewer. "Askew Road in W12 is a lovely, lively road with the Starch Green at one end, where Hammersmith Community Gardens and Askew Business Network hold community events in summer and for Christmas. Wendell Road, also in W12, is open to Wendell Park where the children of Wendell Park School run around and people walk their dogs."
A park or green acts as a natural focal point, particularly as the weather warms up. In Barnes, one of BCA's biggest events is their Easter duck race. Held on Beverley Brook (which runs along Barnes Green), the race pulls in crowds of 500, and has now become so popular, they no longer advertise it. Bedford Park in Chiswick hosts an annual Green Day weekend in June, with fairground rides, live music and a children's fancy dress parade (last year they had a Roald Dahl theme). Amanda Rogerson, an artist who lives in Wandsworth Village, gives drawing and painting classes on Wandsworth Common.
Yet village life isn't solely based in these verdant swathes of south-west London. There are communities within communities, in the most central districts, such as Knightsbridge, Earl's Court and Notting Hill.
"We've seen a lot of people moving to Notting Hill from South Kensington and Chelsea," says Jasmine Hotz of John D Wood. "There's more of a neighbourhood feel in Notting Hill. People want to see other people in the streets, living their lives."
"In Earl's Court a lot of the shops and cafs have been open for many years, and the continuity of staff and customers enhances community spirit," adds Keri Mahmoud of Faron Sutaria. "The Earl's Court Square Residents' Association recently celebrated its 40th anniversary with a party hosted in one of the few full houses that remain on the square itself. Past and present residents gathered to enjoy the speeches and celebrations."
The layout of period London streets plays a part, too. "We've got a lot of garden squares, cul de sacs, and mews in Notting Hill, and they all have their own little communities," says Hotz. "Ruston Mews has its own website, and does a mews party every year. Wesley Square, which was designed by Terry Farrell, has a Nordic concept behind it. All of the houses look into this square, which means people communicate with their neighbours."
Similarly, the low, double-storey buildings on Walton Street in Knightsbridge make it a "light airy street", conducive to social interaction, according to Simon Godson of WA Ellis.
Ultimately though, the most important component of a community is its residents.
"Of course, you want highly-rated schools and well-maintained parks," says Bryony Walters of Bective Leslie Marsh, "but the most important factor is your neighbours. The ones interested in the quiz nights, street parties and residents' associations will be the ones who ensure that your community thrives. It really is an appreciation of the area in which you live that makes the difference."
You need people like Julia Bebington, who are prepared to put the hours in to make their village a better place to live. Only when prices start to spiral as they have in Barnes, it brings in a new cohort of buyers. And they may not be the type to muck in at the jumble sale.
"House prices are astronomical," says Bebington. "You get a lot of yummy mummies here now, a lot of bankers. They don't really like to get involved. So yes, the dynamic has changed. But the BCA is trying to encourage younger members. Barnes is a really special place. And we'd like it to stay that way."