This Town standing in a wholesome Air, not above Three Miles from London, has ever been resorted to by Persons of Quality,” wrote John Bowack of Kensington, in 1705. Little has changed, and the decision of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge to base their London life in Kensington Palace will only underline the fact. Knightsbridge may have more glitz and Notting Hill more edge, but nothing beats W8 for the child-rearing years.
“It’s a very civilised place to live,” says Peter Young, managing director of John D Wood & Co, who has been selling family homes in the royal borough for more than 30 years.
The royal newlyweds are currently occupying a two-bedroom cottage in the grounds of KP (as it’s known to locals), but next year they are scheduled to transfer to Apartment 1A, formerly the home of Princess Margaret. This four-storey, 20-room residence is presently arranged as four bedrooms, four reception rooms, a nursery, staff quarters and a walled garden.
Aside from being second in line to the throne, Prince William is reasonably typical of local homeowners, who are often in their early-to-mid 30s and on the foothills of family life. A good example is Andrew Dunn, co-founder of international property design and development company Finchatton, who has recently made the move to Kensington with his wife and two young children. “I’d always lived in Chelsea, but the houses here are a good metre wider and the area has everything going for it. Great schools and parks, independent food suppliers and interesting boutiques. It’s sophisticated but relaxed – more stealth wealth than flashy. That’s no doubt why the royal couple like it. Here they can walk about unremarked.”
Prince William spent his own early childhood in Kensington Palace, as did Queen Victoria, who expressly willed that the borough be granted “royal” status. The location could not be more ideal for urban family life. Generations of well-trained nannies and well-brushed children have taken the air on their daily outings to sail boats on Kensington Garden’s Round Pond, or visit Peter Pan’s statue. Nowadays, they can also act out their Captain Hook fantasies on the full-scale wooden pirate ship in the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Playground.
The educational establishments, too, are among London’s finest. William and Harry’s own school run took them up Kensington Palace Gardens to Wetherby Prep in Notting Hill Gate – and traffic the other way ferries girls from Pembridge Hall to games at Perk’s Field (also a helicopter pad for the palace). But the area’s state schools are equally notable. Parents at St Mary Abbots Primary, just off the High Street, include the prime minister, David Cameron, and education secretary Michael Gove; while Holland Park School, in the throes of an £80m rebuild, is generally referred to as the “Eton of comprehensives”.
William and Mary became the first members of the royal family to buy a home in this salubrious district, when, in 1689, they purchased Nottingham House (now Kensington Palace) and hired Sir Christopher Wren to do the makeover. But it was the mid-19th century that witnessed the transformation of this semi-rural suburb into a desirable location for the urban haute bourgeoisie.
Queen Victoria’s wealthiest subjects splashed out on deluxe housing abutting the palace, and Kensington Palace Gardens remains the pinnacle of the local market. Historically referred to as “millionaire’s row”, the “M” has, of course, now been replaced by a “B”, and the tree-lined avenue is one of the most expensive residential roads in the world.
The vast villas here, which in the 20th century were generally used as embassies, have once again been converted into family mansions. Last year, Roman Abramovich paid Pierre Lagrange £90m for the 15-bedroom house the Belgian hedge-fund manager had bought in 2004 for just £19m. The listed stucco building, dating from 1843, comes with a long driveway and a large walled garden, as well as planning permission to improve the interior. Though all the property in the road is leasehold (with leases granted by the Crown Estate), the Abramovich cash purchase brought with it further advantages, including armed police checkpoints at either end of the street and an invite to the annual garden party at Kensington Palace.
Those wishing to join this exclusive residents’ association (neighbours include steel magnate Lakshmi Mital and Russian-American oil oligarch Leonard Blavatnik) will not find details in estate agents’ windows. “Houses here never come onto the open market,” says Edo Mapelli Mozzi, managing director of Kensington-based search agents Banda Property. “I’ve only ever been asked to view a handful.” But, if the family mansion is in short supply, the family home on a (relatively) more modest scale is what the area is all about. In the postwar austerity years, Kensington was a stronghold of the English upper-middle classes – families with debutante daughters and stockbroker sons. “When I first started work,” says antique dealer Julia Pruskin, long-term owner of the Pruskin Gallery in Kensington Church Street, “they used to sell chandeliers wearing white gloves.”
At the time, property prices were reasonably accessible. “I was a captain in the army when I bought my first Kensington house in 1977 for £30,000,” says Young. “It cost about five times my pay. My son is also a captain in the army, but he certainly couldn’t afford the same house, which is now worth about £1.8m.”
From the 1980s, Kensington’s demographic shifted from English gentility to global wealth, as wave after wave of discreet international finance colonised its safe, green and convenient streets.
“Today, we have more overseas buyers than ever before, with applicants from over 40 countries,” says Tom Tagney, partner in Knight Frank’s Kensington office. Of these, Europeans (particularly French and Italians) and Russians still dominate in the quest for the perfect family residence. What they’re looking for is substantial interior square footage accompanied by an ample garden; those on the Phillimore Estate (such as the five-bedroom house Savills is marketing in Argyll Road, for £9.25m) and in the elegant streets south of the High Street, where Savills is selling a six-bedroom property in Cottesmore Gardens for £16.75m, are typically desirable examples of the genre.
Many of these larger properties had previously been converted into flats or used as genteel rooming houses, but the demand for such homes has become so great, that Young has seen (and aided) a dramatic reversal of the trend. “Provided a house has a decent garden, you can increase the value by 30 or 40 per cent by converting two or three flats into a single dwelling.”
Not all the homes are on this noble scale, however. The entry point for a pretty pastel cottage in “Hillgate Village”, the medley of streets just south of Notting Hill Gate, is about £2m. Here, Marsh & Parsons are selling a picturesque three/four-bedroom house (once the home of navvies who helped build the area), for £2.15m.
Kensington has, since the turn of the last century, also been renowned for family-scale flats, in its wealth of Edwardian brick mansion blocks, with high ceilings and generous lateral expanses. (The type of flat in which the late Princess Diana spent her youth). These solid, portered buildings, such as Iverna Gardens (where John D Wood is selling a four-bedroom flat for £2.499m) and Falkland House (where Knight Frank has a two-bedroom flat for £1.35m), still provide an attractive base for families, but recent developments have catered as much for the investor as the resident.
“What’s really performing well are gated communities with parking,” says Thomas Holcroft, director in charge of flats at Savills, Kensington. “International buyers want a safe haven for their money and are happy to pay a premium for security and large, lateral spaces.” At the top of this market are the ballroom-like dimensions of Westcity and Northacre’s fully serviced renovation of Academy Gardens in Duchess of Bedfords Walk (where Knight Frank is marketing a five-bedroom duplex for £30m).
The area, too, is witnessing something of a building boom. The Palace end of the High Street will soon enjoy a lavish 97-flat development designed by Sir David Chipperfield for Lancer Asset Management. De Vere Gardens is intended to rival the super-prime offering available in Knightsbridge and the properties, scheduled for completion in 2014, will be accompanied by underground parking, a spa and entertainment facilities.
Just down the road, the hotly anticipated arrival, in 2014, of the Design Museum in the reborn Commonwealth Institute – itself an iconic monument of mid-century modernism – will be accompanied by 62 new flats by Pritzker Prize-winner Rem Koolhaas. Two-bedroom apartments in the Chelsfield Partners/Ilchester Estate development, The Parabola, will start from about £2m and include, at least initially, a complimentary PA service. “People always talk about a concierge,” says Ed Lewis, director of residential development sales at Savills, London, who will be selling the flats. “But you’re much more likely to need someone to walk your children to school than to book you a restaurant.”
The practical requirements of family living have also been addressed by one of Kensington’s canniest property moguls, Jon Hunt. In the 1980s, he recognised that house buyers wanted to look at property in the evenings and at weekends and founded Foxtons to satisfy this demand. Now he’s noticed that, however generous your living quarters, working at home is not everyone’s cup of tea. In 2011, he opened the Dryland Business Members Club in Kensington High Street, to provide a new style of serviced office with the atmosphere of a private members club and the hospitality of a five-star hotel. “People don’t need to go to the office,” says Hunt. “You go there to socialise. Humans prefer being with other humans.”
In Kensington, they certainly do. “People may buy in Mayfair and Knightsbridge,” says Andrew Dunn, “but they live in Kensington.” And street parties to celebrate the jubilee were ample proof of that. “Our street isn’t particularly long,” said one resident of Bedford Gardens, “but we sold over 170 tickets. About 60 per cent of those who came were English; the rest were from all over the world. In this regard, Kensington is just like the rest of London – a truly cosmopolitan mix.”