Belsize Park

Belsize Park, Camden

A (relatively) poor man’s Hampstead, situated to its south-east

Leafy Belsize Avenue
Leafy Bel­size Avenue

The sub-manor of Bel­size was first record­ed in the ear­ly 14th cen­tu­ry and Bel­size House in 1496. The name derives from Bel-assis, mean­ing ‘beau­ti­ful­ly sit­u­at­ed’.

Well-to-do Lon­don­ers built coun­try hous­es in Bel­size in the 17th cen­tu­ry, each with its own spa­cious grounds. Among these was a rebuilt Bel­size House, where a sub-lessee who called him­self ‘the Welsh ambas­sador’ opened plea­sure gar­dens in 1720. These briefly attract­ed high-class vis­i­tors, includ­ing the Prince and Princess of Wales, but like almost all Lon­don plea­sure gar­dens they soon descend­ed into bawdi­ness and vul­gar­i­ty, offer­ing enter­tain­ments such as mud-wrestling and ille­gal gam­ing. The gar­dens were closed in 1740.

Bel­size was divid­ed into nine lease­hold estates in 1808, each based on a sin­gle house and its park­land. Ear­ly exploita­tion of the leas­es was lim­it­ed to the con­struc­tion of a hand­ful of lodges and vil­las, while a new and excep­tion­al­ly grand Bel­size House appeared. Ter­races of hous­es were built north of England’s Lane in the mid-1820s but the main phase of sub­ur­ban­i­sa­tion came after 1850. One by one the coun­try hous­es were demol­ished and their grounds cov­ered with detached or semi-detached hous­es.

Each devel­op­ment was giv­en the name of the house it replaced, such as the Ross­lyn Grove estate and the Hill­field estate, but the largest was the Bel­size Park estate on the site of Bel­size House, which ulti­mate­ly gave its name to the entire sub­urb. Sus­sex builder Daniel Tidey was respon­si­ble for the first stage of Bel­size Park’s devel­op­ment, putting up five-storeyed stuc­coed hous­es, but he over-extend­ed him­self and went bank­rupt in 1869. William Wil­lett and his son, also William, led the next phase, pre­fer­ring a vari­ety of red-brick designs. Sep­a­rate ‘vil­lage cen­tres’ evolved on England’s Lane and Haver­stock Hill and at Bel­size Vil­lage.

Flats came very ear­ly to Bel­size Park, built pri­vate­ly from the 1880s and by Hamp­stead coun­cil after 1905. Bel­size Park tube sta­tion opened on Haver­stock Hill in June 1907.

In the 1930s refugees from cen­tral Europe opened a syn­a­gogue, a Vien­nese the­atre club and con­ti­nen­tal-style cafés. Flat-build­ing reached a crescen­do around this time, when many Vic­to­ri­an prop­er­ties were replaced. The most impres­sive of the blocks was the recent­ly restored Isokon devel­op­ment on Lawn Road by the mod­ernist archi­tect Wells Coates.

Through­out its exis­tence Bel­size Park has act­ed as a more afford­able alter­na­tive to Hamp­stead but the price dis­tinc­tion is less and less appar­ent nowa­days. Most res­i­dents rent or own flats in sub­di­vid­ed hous­es rather than occu­py­ing the whole prop­er­ty, although gen­tri­fi­ca­tion since the 1970s has result­ed in the reuni­fi­ca­tion of a num­ber of homes – for which prices in the mil­lions are the norm.

Such is Bel­size Park’s con­tem­po­rary cachet that estate agents have invent­ed ‘Low­er Bel­size Park’ as the new iden­ti­ty for the area that had been called Mait­land Park for the pre­vi­ous 150 years. Google Maps at first went along with this cha­rade – and then made mat­ters worse by remov­ing the ‘Low­er’ and sim­ply plac­ing ‘Bel­size Park’ where ‘Mait­land Park’ should be (see below).

Belsize Park has always attracted artists, writers and entertainers. The artist Robert Bevan lived locally and painted several views of the neighbourhood, including A Street Scene in Belsize Park (1917), which shows the influence of his acquaintance Paul Gauguin.

Other residents have included the composer Frederick Delius, authors Jerome K Jerome, Nicholas Monsarrat and Agatha Christie, actors Sadie Frost, Jude Law, Hugh Laurie, Kate Winslet and Helena Bonham-Carter, film director Tim Burton and humorists David Baddiel and Frank Skinner.

Postal district: NW3
Population: 12,702 (Belsize ward, 2011 census)
Station: Northern line (zone 2)
Further reading: Marianne Colloms and Dick Weindling, Hampstead & Belsize Park Then & Now, History Press, 2014
and Ranee Barr and David S Percy, Belsize Remembered: Memories of Belsize Park, Aulis, 2017