Save our Sloanes

A long-time Chelsea resident says the Kings Road has been ruined by property speculation and petty regulation.

One question no one seems to have bothered asking the many rich Russians who are moving to London is: ‘Why oh why do you insist on living in Belgravia?’ Granted, one can see the status boost involved in owning one of the interminable beige mansions in Eaton Square, and obviously you are only a few seconds’ drive from the bargains and bun-fights of Harvey Nicks and Harrods; but really, there is very little to do in Belgravia these days.

Many of you will be thinking: if Belgravia is becoming boring, who cares? No one sympathises very much with Sloanes. But Belgravia matters because it represents the final stage in the evolution of dull London boroughs, a final stage this writer is seeing only half a mile to the west of where he lives, and a final stage that is coming soon to a borough near you. For if you want to see the evolution of a borough from trendy to prosperous to soulless and dull, then go for a wander down Chelsea’s Kings Road and see how a combination of Belgravianisation, petty new rules and greed has taken the panache out of a once-fun part of London.

Obviously Chelsea’s Vivienne Westwood and Rolling Stones days are as dated as the Chelsea Drugstore and Granny Takes a Trip (a Sixties boutique on the Kings Road). However, the Kings Road didn’t die in 1979, and for scores of Sloanes, locals and fellow travellers the road continued to offer a feeling of community and party into the Eighties and Nineties. Sadly, in the space of a few years this has all been ripped apart. If you’re looking for a drink and a party on the Kings Road these days, you won’t find many.

The closure in recent months of the legendary Jak’s bar, which operated as a sort of downmarket Annabel’s, has killed any after-hours drinking around Sloane Square. A potent combination of rapacious property landlords, well-connected and litigious incomers and the general dire state of the pub industry has also done in before-hours drinking. Offbeat locals such as The HMS Surprise, where you could play darts and chat with pensioners from the nearby Royal Hospital, closed three years ago and the building still remains unoccupied. The Rat and Carrot/Beehive, where generations of 14-year-old Sloanes were served their first pints, has long since closed down, while the Water Rat, previously the pub of choice for Chelsea fans, has now become an upmarket café. Even the Phene Arms, George Best’s old local, was closed down after the new batch of hedge-funders living next door complained about the pub’s popular beer garden.

The trials and tribulations of Britain’s pub industry have been well documented; however, Chelsea’s pubs face the further burdens of sitting on valuable real estate and having well-connected new residents who resent the ‘intrusion’ that a local pub represents into their living quarters. Even those pubs that have survived the cull have had to blandify in order to stay alive. The Cadogan Arms, once a bastion for visiting football fans and Welsh rugby supporters, has now become a gastropub and its upstairs pool room has become that embodiment of blandness: a function room.

However, there is more to Belgravianisation than a few dead pubs. Daytime Chelsea is also suffering from a combination of petty regulation and rapacious local landlords seeking to milk the borough’s property value.

One of the more flagrant examples of this milking, and of the beigeness that ensues, was the government’s decision to flog off Chelsea Barracks to a pair of property speculators. This vast area of prime real estate was essentially public land that was supposed to be used for the local community; instead the government sold it to the Candy brothers to make a quick dollar, and their plan was to stamp an architectural cancer on to one of the best-preserved areas of London (1).

Local landlords are a problem, too. It is pretty hard for a trendy boutique to survive when the landlord arbitrarily triples the rent, another well-documented occurrence on the Kings Road during times of property speculation. Likewise, the extension to the London congestion charge, foisted on Chelsea with absolutely no local support, has meant that even fewer shoppers are visiting struggling independent shops, and instead we have the arrival of Monsoons and Gaps and other stores that can be found on any high street in Britain.

Only last month Café Picasso, which had been the best people-watching place on the Kings Road since the 1950s, closed down; its owners blamed the extension of the congestion charge and yet another hike in rent by Chelsea’s land barons. Café Picasso was home of the Chelsea Italians, a breed identifiable by their old-man sunglasses, espressos and flat caps. They were every bit as Chelsea as the British-born pensioners, only they don’t have a Royal Hospital to return to when their favourite haunt closes down. They don’t even have a Pucci Pizza, the alleged mafia haunt which has also finally closed after a painfully brief reopening. Now, the only thing left of ‘Italian Chelsea’ is a Pizza Express located in Eric Clapton’s old house.

You might ask: what has all this got to do with me? Who cares about Sloanes? London is a big place and there are plenty of pubs, clubs and Italian cafés to go round, right? But the thing is this: Belgravianisation is spreading.

Go down to Old Street or Limehouse and have a listen. Beneath that veneer of mockney you might now catch a hint of RP (received pronunciation). The artists who made areas like Old Street and Limehouse popular have already moved out to make way for the media types who are in turn rubbing shoulders with the refugees from Chelsea. Now you, too, are just a property boom away from Fabergé Eggs and polonium-210.

Henry Williams is a writer living in London.

Previously on spiked

Joe Jackson mourned the death of the British pub. Duleep Allirajah argued the pub is replacing the football ground to watch football because beer and rowdiness is still allowed. Brendan O’Neill questioned the politics of misbehaviour. Anna Travis reported from ban-happy Brighton. Or read more at spiked issue Drink and drugs.

(1) Public opinion gets burnt to a crisp by the Chelsea Toaster, The Sunday Times, 12 April 2009

 

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