Belsize House was, according to historical accounts, a notorious entertainment venue. Just two years after it opened as a pleasure garden in what is now Belsize Park, a 1722 satirical ballad described the “scandalous, Lew’d House” where in amongst rioting and gaming visitors could eat, drink and dance, as well as well as enjoy other activities such fishing, hunting and racing.
First mentioned in 1496 when Westminster Abbey ordered building bricks from the local area, Belsize House was once a respectable residence. It was re-built a number of times, including in 1663 when one of the richest men in England, Colonel Daniel O’Neil, began constructing an elegant mansion in the restoration style with projecting wings and a central tower. The diarist Samuel Pepys visited just five years later and wrote it was “wonderfull fine: too good for the house the gardens are, being, indeed, the most notable that ever I saw, and brave orange and lemon trees.”
When pleasure gardens opened in 1720, they were said to be on par with the now better known Vauxhall Gardens (originally known as New Spring Gardens) and boasted a lavish ballroom. The Prince and Princess of Wales visited Belsize House in 1721 and it quickly became a celebrated and fashionable venue. “One hundred coaches will stand in the square of the house,” reported the Daily Post in the August of that year.
But within just a year, behaviour deteriorated at the complex and the pleasure gardens were finally shut down in 1745. Belsize House was re-built the following year as a respectable private residence and replaced yet again with a new building in 1812. But after falling into disrepair, it was demolished for good in 1853 and – with suburban Belsize Park growing fast – replaced by housing.
Today, Belsize Avenue marks what would have been the grand carriage driveway to Belsize House. Traces of the old manor have all but gone, but as you explore Belsize Park – which takes its name from the French “bel assis” (meaning beautifully situated) – sections of the high wall that would have surrounded the vast area of land remain.
Belsize Estate was split into eight leasehold estates in 1808, paving the way for development of a series of new mansions surrounded by parkland. Hunters’ Lodge on Belsize Lane, built in 1810 and the oldest surviving property in the area, survives from this period, but today only has a fairly compact garden. The rest of its grounds has been built over.
Within a matter of a few years, modern day Belsize Park was born as a new suburb for the carriage-owning merchants and lawyers who wanted to be close enough central London so they could easily reach work, yet at the same time be far enough away from the capital’s polluted, dirty streets. Edward Bliss was the pioneering developer here, building between 38 properties between 1815 and 1830 for commuters on the west side of Haverstock Hill – some of which can still be seen to this day.
The pleasant villas that emerged in from a variety of developers over the following years in Belsize Park, at the foot of Hampstead Heath, display a wonderful array of architectural styles (including fine stucco fronted buildings) boasting playful features and designs that look more suited to a rural location.
There is an amusing story of Queen Victoria visiting Belsize Park when the modern development was in its infancy. The monarch was looking for a place to build an additional holiday home for her family, as an alternative to Windsor. There were numerous tollgates around London at the time and, even though she was Queen, the keeper insisted she pay her penny to pass through Belsize Park. In the end Victoria settled on making her new holiday home Osbourne House on the Isle of White.
Belsize Square, considered by many the heart of Belsize Park, today boasts a good range of shops and restaurants around a green (actually a patch of tarmac). Surrounded by a garden stands St Peter’s church, with an attractive clock tower and built in the Gothic style. It was consecrated in 1859.
Spending some time exploring the surrounding tree-lined streets, particularly the cobbled mews where former stables have been converted into residential homes, is rewarding. There are also former coaching inns like the Washington Hotel, built in the 1860s, to explore.
Belsize Park was significantly boosted in 1907 by the opening of a station by the Charing Cross, Euston & Hampstead Railway on what is now the Edgeware branch of the Northern Line. Designed by celebrated architect Leslie Green, the Grade II listed building boasts a distinctive distinctive ox-blood red tiled façade, with four round arched windows.
Belsize Park was one of eight London Underground stations to have a deep-level Second World War air-raid-shelter built underneath it. The cylindrical white-painted former lift shaft and old entrance can be seen just around the corner from the passenger ticket hall and the cavernous space is now used by a data storage company. Although it was only introduced only fairly late on in the war, it was an important place to shelter and was well well-organised with beds set-up for civilians.
Haverstock Hill, where the station’s main entrance opens out, is today a pleasant continental style boulevard where in the summer months many people enjoy al fresco dining at one of the cafes and restaurants along this stretch.
For many years the main attraction of Haverstock Hill was the Art Deco Odeon cinema, opened in 1934 and the company’s flagship branch until Odeon Leicester Square was built in 1937. With 652 seats in the stalls and 892 in the upper balcony, it was a sizeable venue.
But like many buildings in the area (spot the modern properties lying seemingly out of place in the midst of Victorian terraces), the Odeon faced severe bomb damage during the bomb Second World War and needed to be re-built. It was re-opened by the Rank Organisation in 1954, but only lasted until 1972 when it was demolished. The current Budgens store replaced it, however in 1977 a small arts cinema (now called Everyman Belsize Park) was opened next door meaning that at least some films are still shown in the area.
Modern day Belsize Park was popular from its early days with gentleman who wanted to be close to London, while at the same time enjoying cleaner air and the proximity of open green spaces.
Most of the people living here were initially Christian, but over time this changed. Between the First and Second World Wars, many Jews moved from the East End to north London, particularly in the newly built Hampstead Garden Suburb. As Adolph Hitler’s terrible treatment of the Jews worsened others moved over from Germany and some chose to Belsize Park – not far from Hampstead – to set-up new homes.
What was to become Belsize Square Synagoue was founded in 1939 and in 1951 moved into a former vicarage in Belsize Square. The institution later moved to its current purpose-built building.
Some have suggested that the prestige of Belszie Park has declined in recent decades given that many large Victorian properties have been converted into bedsits. But the fact that many celebrities – ranging from Bonham Carter and Frank Skinner to Jude Law and Kate Winslet – have chosen to live here suggests that it has by no means lost its popular appeal. The close proximity of both central London (less than 20 minutes away by Tube) and the wide expanse of greenery at Hampstead Heath continues to make Belsize Park a pleasant place to live.