The houses clustered around the Great Portland Street entrance to Regents Park are a formidable proposition, inhabiting that stretch where bona fide Central London ends and well-heeled NW begins. Pinter lived here after hitting the big time, not particularly happily if Hirst from No Man’s Land is anything to go by; the celebrated writer drinking heavily and rattling around a North London mansion, all sorts of disreputable types wanting a piece of him.
On first sight, the proportion of these buildings seems absurd. We’re so used to picking our way around Zone 2 and the realisation that anyone in possession of any kind of house there, however modest, is a millionaire, that the scale of these properties, the height of each floor, makes one feel dwarfed. These are the kind of properties where Russian oligarchs leave JCBs buried under their basement cinema/gymnasium, because after all the thing only cost £3 million. It’s milk in the bath. It’s the cloth bellpull. It’s organisation.
We’ll begin where John Nash began and Nairn does too, at Park Crescent; “smooth curve and colonnade leading the eye away on either side, overcoming the barrier of foliage in front”. A crescent speaks to us of Georgian Bath, it both looks good and keeps your home back from the road and the traffic (a definite concern of the houses around here). The only famous examples I can think of are British, that need for seclusion presumably ties into our “my home is my castle” mentality. Two small girls with violins were in the private garden out front.
Past Albany St to the East, Nairn laments the disappearance of “working-class” Munster Sq and Clarence Sq and their replacement by flats, the best of which are “too highly-strung”. Whether these flats remain I know not, but I do rather like the look of the netting-shaped flats at the rear here.
After Park Sq East & West, we are directed to the series of terraces along the eastern perimeter of the park. The Royal College of Physicians “has a flair for fitting in whilst looking completely different”. To me it doesn’t so much fit in as it feels like a boundary marker for the start of Town. Looking, I am immediately put in mind of Jonathan Meades on Brutalism; for Speer’s pomp, Himmler’s occultism and their general volkishness, the main architectural legacy of the Nazis is in their coastal fortresses and flak towers that resemble helmet visors, chain-mail, and clenched fists.
Cambridge Gate, omitted by Nairn, is next. It may not altogether fit either, but I enjoyed its Parisian ornamentation. Surrounded by the lustrous stucco of its neighbours the brown stone looks almost volcanic, its slate roof interrupted by gables and porthole windows, stone balconies and bay windows beneath. Even the pigeon-deterring spikes look like luxury items.
Nor does Nairn linger on Cambridge Terrace, still “half-blitzed” in 1966. It speaks volumes about Cambridge Gate that these properties are bedecked with sphinxes and still look very subdued in comparison.
Chester and Cumberland Terraces are the places Nairn is itching to get to. “Chester is the best design, Cumberland the best stage scenery, but both are unforgettable”. From the main road, Chester can barely be seen behind its trees; remote, self-referential and turned in on itself.
For the best view we need to come closer:
“Taut and crisp, its columns held well in to its stomach, a wonderful sight in perspective through the triumphal arches at the ends”. The strangeness hits me more than the beauty. I know Britannia ruled the waves, but I cannot even conceive of the self-confidence required to have the name of my street emblazoned across an arch sufficiently big for Augustus or Trajan. It’s quite alien, and it’s alien to find such bombast hiding round the corner from a place I’ve passed so many times.
The small nook where Chester and Cumberland meet is a cosy one, despite the grandiosity. Not wishing to parrot the ubiquitous reportage of homes left empty and used as investment vehicles, but it’s awfully quiet here. One passes the occasional Asian delivery man with clipboard, baseball cap and jeans, and one au-pair pushed a pram, cooing to the boy within in Russian.
Even in this bubble of wealth, however, there is the sense that the barbarians are at the gates.
Cumberland, to Nairn, is “strung out grandiloquently, a fat man’s embroidered waistcoat”. The buildings are “so patently and unjustifiably a backcloth” for the figures atop that one might as well “tell a giraffe in the zoo that its neck is too long for London”. Walking back round to the facade, I raise an eyebrow to discover I am suddenly in Palladian Vicenza.
Once again, I find myself not buying into this. I’m reminded of those Renaissance paintings in which people showed off the new-fangled discovery of perspective by dreaming up “ideal cities”. The paintings look lifeless. Of the places which actually got built, Sabbioneta and Ferrara’s Addizione Erculea are given a shot of earthiness by the Po Valley fog. This place feels as geometrically perfect, and as sterile, as the paintings.
Nairn is happier and tells us to “see it from the park, peeping through the trees, when the sculpture is completely convincing.” Step away and you no longer see the figures perspire under their coats of white paint, but the centrepiece is surely too much; more befitting a parliament, an emperor’s apartments or a global headquarters than a few private flats. The tree out front appears a circumspect butler who, at a party, intervenes when his drunken master makes a fool of himself by running around in a toga.
After such grandiosity the sobering prospect of St Katharine’s and the Danish church is a welcome one, reminiscent of an old Cambridge college.
Leaving the orbit of the park via Gloucester Gate is one of those plunges into cold water that London does so well. In a few steps, we go from the pristine terraces of Nashville to Camden Parkway, where some god-awful band are no doubt soundchecking at the Dublin Castle.
Camden Town’s real-world activity catches the eye, but Nairn directs us to turn back whence we came and walk down Albany Rd,in pursuit of Nash’s Park Village West. Post-Euston, of Park Village East we have “only a fragment”, but Park Village West remains “a perfect example of rus-in-urbe… you are plunged entirely into the leafy oasis: serpentine road and copious trees and the counterchange of crocket and bracket perform the conjuring trick.” It’s very beautiful and I am grateful to make its acquaintance, but ‘conjuring trick’ is a very apt phrase as it feels like a film set. The sinewy winding path reels you in, the houses peeping through the leaves enchant; there’s something of the fairytale about it.
Follow the road and, via a small terrace and mews, you are deposited back on Albany Rd a minute or two after stepping off it. It passes as quickly, and feels as unlike solid ground, as a fairground ride.
In one of his best asides, Nairn mentions that “Tower House, the prettiest of all, is at the time of writing owned by a prominent MP on the right wing of the Labour party. This somehow gives more of a key to British politics than several months of Hansard.”
Part II, the park itself, to follow when time allows.