Listen to this article
Over a month in late spring 1819, much of it spent in the fresh air of his Hampstead garden, a 23-year-old medical graduate composed three of the finest poems in the English language. John Keats had moved there two years earlier, from the smoggy grime of the City, to nurse his brother Tom through tuberculosis. His efforts proved in vain and Tom died the following year. The poet’s furiously productive period that followed culminated in May 1819, when Keats wrote “Ode on a Grecian Urn”, “Ode on Melancholy” and “Ode to a Nightingale”.
In the intervening 200 years, the combination of fresh air, Sylvan inspiration and nesting songbirds has meant London’s hilltop jewel has remained popular with writers. DH Lawrence, Evelyn Waugh and George Orwell all lived here and current residents include John le Carré and the playwright David Hare.
Properties next to the heath still generally command the highest premiums — Knight Frank is selling one on Downshire Hill around the corner from the house where Keats once lived for £4.25m. But these days, unless your books are selling like le Carré’s, Hampstead will be out of your range.
The ward of Hampstead Town has outperformed average Greater London prices over the past five years. The five-year gain of 75 per cent to June 2015, compared with 46 per cent for Greater London, has helped push average prices to £1.8m, nearly three times that of Greater London, according to Savills.
While residents might bristle at the comparison, this is London’s answer to Los Angeles’ Bel Air: huge leafy hillside plots housing a smorgasbord of architectural styles. “There’s nowhere in central London to match Hampstead’s extraordinary plot sizes,” says Trevor Abrahmson, managing director of Glentree International, speaking from a truffle hunt in Alba, Italy.
To the frustration of many, the similarities with Bel Air extend to the seemingly perpetual motion of cranes and diggers. Sandwiched between Hampstead and Highgate, Bishops Avenue — perhaps London’s priciest road — is virtually a row of building sites, says Frank Townsend of Savills. Here the agent has a house for sale at £35m. Most of Bishops Avenue was built in the past 40 years. This means few homes are protected, making it a magnet for the bulldoze-and-build crowd — that growing chunk of the super-rich, whose Byzantine needs are driving a race for space at the top end of global property markets.
“Large cavernous uncluttered living areas” and homes split into formal entertaining and informal living wings, are now de rigueur for Abrahmsohn’s eastern European, Middle Eastern and Chinese clients. “These days 25,000 sq ft is an appropriate size.” For the most part, this has kept them away from the village-like centre, he adds — the notion that buildings should be protected from demolition, regardless of who is wielding the wrecking ball, is as unpalatable as it is unfamiliar to most.
Those attracted to Hampstead’s centre tend to have more traditional tastes: as an example Abrahmsohn names resident Bernard Arnault, chairman and chief executive of LVMH — the worlds’ 13th richest man, according to Forbes.
Even buyers who flocked to Hampstead for a piece of English heritage are growing used to construction vehicles and cement mixers. Stamp duty changes have seen moving costs in the £6m-plus bracket spiral. At this level, the majority of the value of the new home is taxed at the top 12 per cent rate, which kicks in at £1.5m. And moving can easily mean costs of 15 per cent after agent’s fees and costs, according to Abrahmsohn. It is often far cheaper to develop into the basement or the loft.
So, as owners opt to extend existing homes rather than move, building projects have become commonplace. The trend is “decimating sales”, says Abrahmsohn. And prices are suffering: Savills’ prime index for Hampstead, with an average value of nearly £3m, lost 2 per cent in the year to June 2015.
This building boom is ruffling feathers among Hampstead’s traditional residents — a mix of ageing, mostly English, long-termers, according to Townsend. Actor Tom Conti, a 30-year Hampstead resident, has locked horns with Thierry Henry since 2012 over the former Arsenal striker’s plans to rebuild his house in central Hampstead with a home that will include a four-storey fish tank. (Henry may yet get his way: Conti’s five-bedroom house is on sale with London REA, for £15m.)
The Heath and Old Hampstead Society provides a focus for resistance. A victory in February after a six-year battle fought alongside the Highgate Society saw planners rule against the demolition of a house on Hampstead Lane. Haringey Council, in one of more than 5,000 objections, called the proposed replacement “a Stalinist wedding cake”.
The 791 acres of heath remain at the heart of Hampstead’s appeal. Centuries before today’s vogue for wild swimming, its ponds — one for men, one for women and one for both — were attracting bathers for a bracing year-round dip. Today, twitchers searching out Keats’ “light-winged Dryad of the trees” will more likely spot a green ring-necked parakeet than a nightingale. The heath houses one of London’s several park populations that probably bred from escaped pets in the 1960s and 1970s.
When the artist John Constable was painting “A Bank on Hampstead Heath” (c1820-22) the five-mile journey to the City would have been a coach and horses affair. Today, after you have descended the 55-metre lift at Hampstead underground station, the deepest on the network, the Northern Line takes you to Moorgate in 14 minutes. Journey times to the City, the West End (14 minutes to Leicester Square) and Canary Wharf (33 minutes) are quicker than those from Wimbledon and Richmond, Hampstead’s leafy rivals.
Interesting, but irrelevant, says Abrahmsohn. His big spenders from Russia or the Middle East haven’t even heard of Wimbledon or Richmond. For clients of Sarah Meikle of Knight Frank in Hampstead, being close to central London isn’t much of a draw, either: “It’s more about the proximity of the extended family, a country home or a child’s boarding school.” Many children go to school locally, she says. On Eldon Grove, near several good schools, Savills has a penthouse for sale at £4.25m.
Good schools probably didn’t count in the choice of Harry Styles — the 21-year-old One Direction singer — a recent Hampstead buyer — is barely out of his.
Hampstead’s green ring-necked parakeets may provide inspiration to the young pop star, but if he is to be heard above the bulldozers, he will have to sing hard.
● Private secondary schools in the area include Hampstead, University College School, South Hampstead High School for girls and nearby Highgate
● Hampstead Town had 7.5 reported crimes per 1,000 residents in the three months to September, compared with 15.6 in Knightsbridge and Belgravia
● The award-winning Hampstead Theatre is, in fact, down the hill in Swiss Cottage
What you can buy for . . .
£1m A two-bedroom second-floor maisonette in a period building in Belsize Park
£2m A three-bedroom maisonette in Hampstead village with access to communal gardens
£5m A six-bedroom, Edwardian house with a large garden and off-street parking
For more properties, please visit ftpropertylistings.com