The history of Primrose Hill

We take a look at the history of one of London's most desirable areas.

London Focus

While the neighbourhoods surrounding it have changed dramatically with the times, Primrose Hill has always been an exclusive postcode.

Or at least it has been since the 19th century, as till then it was little more than woodland. Primrose Hill itself was a fairly inaccessible part of this forest, inhabited by wolves and used as hunting grounds by the ruling monarchs. It earned its name from the multitude of primroses that covered the hill.

Few people strayed this far north, with the exception of men who travelled here for the purpose of settling a duel. For a brief period in the late 17th century it achieved notoriety as three Catholic men by the names of Green, Berry and Hill were executed for killing one Edmund Godfrey, who suspected the trio of plotting to kill King Charles II. Godfrey’s body was found lying in a ditch, impaled on his own sword and with signs of strangulation on his neck. The hill was dubbed “Greenberry Hill”, taken from the names of the accused, however in the years since doubts have been cast over whether the Greenberry three were the ones responsible for his death. In any case, the incident helped stir anti-Catholic sentiment in England and anyone suspected of being a Catholic was promptly ushered out of London and forbidden to return.

In 1842 the grassland of Primrose Hill became a public park, although there had been various proposals to turn it into a cemetery and to build homes on it; the noise from the London Zoo thwarted the latter. But the surrounding areas did see many new homes being built, especially with the arrival of the railways. At this point Primrose Hill consisted of the Chalcot estate, divided into Upper and Lower Chalcot (where Chalcot Road and Chalcot Crescent are today). Some of the cottages built to house railway workers still exist, converted into private properties, and The Engineer was their local pub, attracting a very different clientele to the celebrities that frequent it today.
\n\nThe Primrose Hill Tunnel was London’s first railway tunnel, and while it was certainly a remarkable feat of engineering for its time it still had its fair share of dangers. It wasn’t unheard of for workers to have fatal accidents, and the Chalk Farm Tavern (now Greek restaurant Lemonia on Regent’s Park Road), was where the bodies were taken for their wake. On the opposite side of the road were the Chalk Farm pleasure grounds, which included a large marquee that hosted dances.

Camden became noisier and more polluted, serving as a main thoroughfare for transporting goods between London and the north. The Regent’s Canal, devised by John Nash, served a similar purpose, with cargo arriving at Limehouse Basin. Primrose Hill remained tranquil and clean by comparison.

In fact, despite its proximity to Camden Town, Primrose Hill’s character hasn’t changed very much; it’s always attracted affluent residents and retained a “village” feel, as estate agents love to point out. Camden has seen several incarnations, from being a no-go area patrolled by highwaymen to becoming a bohemian haunt in the 20th century, hub of indie music and more recently a tourist hotspot. Primrose Hill on the other hand has been home to many politicians, actors and literary figures. Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes lived together briefly on Chalcot Crescent before Plath moved round the corner to Fitzroy Road, where she committed suicide. Dylan Thomas lived on Delancey Street; Boris Johnson and the Millibands grew up in Primrose Hill. And then there was the “Primrose Hill Set” making tabloid headlines in the 90s, comprising Kate Moss, Hollyoaks actress Davinia Taylor, Sadie Frost and her then husband Jude Law. It is still common to see paparazzi snapping away at the likes of Daisy Lowe, Gwen Stefani and hubby Gavin Rossdale as they stroll past the shops.
\n\nProperties are mostly Victorian terraces, many with attractive floor to ceiling bay windows. Add to that the green spaces of Regent’s Park and Primrose Hill, the quaint high street lined with independent boutiques and cafes with pavement seating, and you can see why homes here go for upwards of £1 million.

The shops on Regent’s Park Road may be infuriatingly expensive, and 4x4 buggies invade the neighbourhood at school drop-off times, but walking around Primrose Hill reveals a neighbourhood that is really, really pretty. From the top of the hill, which is 63 metres above sea level, the view of London’s increasingly vertical skyline is a sight to behold, whether it’s sunny, shrouded in mist or the sun is setting in the west, when it reflects on the tops of the skyscrapers and merges with the twinkly lights of the London Eye and BT Tower. Unlike most other parks it’s open through the night, so it’s not surprising that in the summer months people turn up at 3.30am just to watch the sunrise; it’s one of those things that must be done at least once while living in London.

Locals are fiercely protective of their “village”. When Space NK announced they were to open a branch the residents – including Mary Portas – signed a petition in protest. It wasn’t successful, but it showed just how adamant locals are about keeping the chains out, even if they are upmarket companies with branches on Marylebone High Street and Westbourne Grove. This is one patch of the capital Tesco will never be able to infiltrate.

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