The London of Dickens, the London of countless Masterpiece Theatre portrayals, the black and white London of the British movies of my youth—in other words the traditional London that tourists flock here to experience, that London is fast disappearing.
At the bottom of Portobello Road the jaws of a mechanical monster right out of a CGI-infested superhero movie chew into the ruins of a long-standing structure. Luxury flats are to be built in place of what’s there now. The rich have arrived, and they are demanding changes to the landscape.
In his informative non-fiction book, Portobello Road: Lives of a Neighbourhood, author and resident Julian Mash laments the continuing gentrification of this most iconic London neighborhood.
“Shops that had been a feature of the street for decades,” he writes, “were being forced out by huge rent hikes, replaced by impersonal high street chains.”
All over the city similar complaints are heard as local residents fight various luxury developments that threaten the uniqueness of their neighborhoods. The battle is mostly futile. Luxury is winning the war at the expense of historic London.
This is certainly evident at Arnold Circus in London’s East End, not far from Brick Lane. When they were built in 1890, the dramatic brick buildings surrounding the circular park with a bandstand at its center, formed the first so-called council estates—what we would call in North America, affordable housing. Today, although there is some council housing, flats in these buildings sell for prices nudging toward a million American dollars.
To be sure there are still lots of the monuments one associates with London. You can’t get rid of those. No tourist wants to stare at blocks of new Mayfair flats he or she can’t get into. So Buckingham Palace, the Queen’s London digs, is still here, as is Kensington Palace where Kate and William reside along with Prince Harry.
The Houses of Parliament at Westminster Palace loom impressively as does the Tower Bridge, Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, and the best-known symbol of London, the double-decker red bus.
The West End continues to be synonymous with theatre, and it is still exciting to cross Piccadilly Circus in the evening to attend a show like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime. Disappointingly, though, as they do everywhere else, unimaginative juke box-type American musicals reign—Michael Jackson and Frank Sinatra are both dead, but somehow still alive on West End stages.
St. Paul’s Cathedral, which survived German bombs during the Blitz, fights a losing battle against the colossal totems to modernity rising around it, homages to the architecture of Dubai, with derisive nick-names like the Shard, Cheese Grater, the Gherkin, and the Walkie Talkie.
And this is by no means the end of it.
According to the Guardian newspaper, two hundred and thirty new towers are due for construction in the coming years. “Like a cigarette butt stubbed out by the Thames,” is how the Guardian describes one of the proposed towers.
“The overall impression is of an unplanned free-for-all,” says the newspaper.
Carnaby Street is a tourist trap. Harrods, choked with tourists, looks more and more like any other high-end department store, so does Selfridge’s. The posh shops along Mayfair and Bond Street have been taken over by the luxury brand names you can find in just about any major city.
The average price of a London home has soared to five hundred thousand pounds, nearly one million American dollars. And that’s the average. London, as everyone points out, is increasingly for the world’s very rich, and the rich crave luxury.
The city is doing its best to provide it. The Victoria and Albert Museum even devotes an entire exhibit dedicated to the investigation of the subject.
“Luxury has a long history of controversy,” the exhibit points out. “More recently, the increase in prominence and growth of luxury brands against a backdrop of social inequality has raised new questions about what the term means to people today.”
The exhibit argues that luxury is the result of an investment of time and skill by dedicated artists passionate about what they create. It is the uniqueness of their products and their quality that makes them objects of luxury.
Fair enough, one supposes, but—and the exhibit makes less of this—cost increasingly replaces craftsmanship and uniqueness as an arbitrator of modern-day luxury. The luxurious flats are smaller, the soles come off the Marc Jacob shoes, the Gucci watches don’t work, the five star hotels nickel and dime guests to death.
What used to be affordable isn’t, and so just about everything in London becomes something of a luxury that fewer and fewer people can afford. In order to escape this and perhaps find a more recognizable England, one climbs aboard a high-speed train (also a luxury) at St. Pancreas Station that whisks you southeast to the bucolic delights of country living in Ashford, Chilham, and Charing in Kent.
Yet even on the rolling green (a trifle brownish, actually, due to lack of rain) of the Kentish countryside, tradition is harder to find. My friend and local guide, Ray Bennett, grew up in Ashford and he says that so much has changed since he was a boy, he barely recognizes the place. The steeple of the church where he married many years ago used to dominate the town. Now it’s barely visible.
Down the road, Charing features a traditional high street where a friend occupies a small, charming English house fronting an English garden dominated by a bay leaf tree and overflowing with flowers and herbs. Here one has a brief sense of the England of clichéd imagination. That sense is amplified by lunch at the sort of—there is that word again—traditional pub one still expects to find in Britain, and often does.
Then it’s off to Leeds Castle where the English continue to do what so few of us do in North America, maintain and celebrate historic roots. Of course in the cradle of western civilization—at least the English section of it—there are plenty of roots to maintain.
Leeds Castle, according to faithful guide Bennett, is one of Britain’s most beautiful castles. What’s more, it provides a combination of Wolf Hall and Downton Abbey for the visitor with limited time, evidence conveniently gathered under one roof, so to speak, that the rich through the centuries lived a lot better than the rest of us. There are not, as it turns out, a whole lot of poor people’s homes available for tours.
First built on an island in the River Len by a Norman baron during the reign of William the Conqueror, Leeds has played many roles throughout history, most prominently as the palace away from the palace of Henry VIII and his first wife, Catherine of Aragon.
Leeds in 1926 fell into the hands of, and was probably saved by, a wealthy Anglo-American heiress, Lady Baillie. It was she who decided that after her death, her beloved Leeds should be enjoyed by anybody with the price of a ticket—which is how they came to allow the likes of me into the place.
You wander out of the castle, pause for a final look at its imposing battlements, and it strikes you: the rich wrote English history, and they preserved their luxurious surroundings so the peasants could see how they lived. Perhaps there is hope for traditional London after all. The new traditional London that is. Hundreds of years from now our children’s children’s children’s children may be able to see where the rich and the ruling once lived.
For the moment, luxury is the multi-million dollar development I pass on the No. 23 bus back to our flat at Trellick Tower. No chance of ever getting into any of that in this lifetime. As the electronic voice on the London tube reminds you just before the doors open: “Mind the gap!”