It is unexpectedly complicated to write about Britain’s most expensive street since its inhabitants, members of a super-rich elite, are not generally willing to give interviews to the Guardian. More problematic still is the hostility which the street’s security guards display towards people walking along the road, writing things down in a notepad. Kensington Palace Gardens – where global plutocrats such as Roman Abramovich, Leonard Blavatnik and Lakshmi Mittal own stuccoed mansions, and where one house belonging to a Saudi prince is discreetly on sale (which I think means it isn’t on any property websites) for around £100m – is regularly listed as the most expensive place to buy a house in London.
At first glance, there is nothing overtly ostentatious about this quiet road, where the average property was last year valued at around £41m, more than 165 times the value of the average UK home (£248,863). There are no yellow Lamborghinis or Hummers blasting music. The overwhelming impression is one of tasteful reserve, of glistening cream paint and shining green and black railings – until you pause to examine the enormous heft of the houses: vast, detached palaces, with too many windows to count, on a scale dwarfing other private homes in London.
There are armed police officers at both ends of the street, and security huts, where Crown Estate officials control bollards that sink into the ground allowing cars to enter or leave once they have been cleared. It is hard to think of another road in London protected in this way. The need for security is intensified by the presence, just behind the street, of Kensington Palace – home to Prince William, Kate and their baby – and police officers patrol the daffodil-covered lawn in front of the building, followed by sniffer dogs. All of which makes for a rather unfriendly environment; weird and secretive, and slightly reminiscent of somewhere such as Minsk in Belarus, under Alexander Lukashenko’s authoritarian rule.
Construction of the street, which runs along Kensington Gardens between Notting Hill and Kensington, began in the 1840s; even then the scale and grandeur of the properties bankrupted one of the first developers, John Blashfield. By 1860 it was already known as “millionaires’ row” and was occupied by merchants, landowners and fund managers. These huge houses required large numbers of staff to maintain them; in 1871, the census shows, one house was occupied by a team of 20 servants, tending to their two employers.
Gradually, throughout the 20th century, the houses became unaffordable to run as family homes, even for bankers, and the buildings were sold off as ambassadors’ residences. It is only in the last couple of decades, as oligarchs and industrialists have accumulated new extremes of wealth, that the buildings have been transferred gradually back into private hands.
The arrival of this growing roster of private owners, ready to pay unthinkable sums to temporarily own these houses (which have 100-year leases before returning to Crown Estate), has made this street symbolic of the widening gulf that divides London, which itself has become unrecognisable to the rest of the country because of its soaring house prices (up this year by 18%, creating the biggest house price gap between London and the rest of the country since records began).
Does it matter that bits of London feel so removed even from the rest of the capital? Should we just gawp and shrug at excesses like Kensington Palace Gardens? Or should the extremes here trouble us? At the very least, the road is emblematic of how peculiar London has become; a place where some people think nothing of parting with tens of millions to lease a home, while just a couple of miles away others are signing leases to move into garden sheds.
Some anti-poverty campaigners say they don’t care too much about the tiny numbers of super-rich, whose lives are so off the scale that they distract from the more pressing problems associated with getting a fairer deal for those on the brink. But it is remarkable how quickly, in the past 20 years, a new top strata of extreme wealth has taken hold again.
If you walk down the street, the houses give little insight into lives of the inhabitants, because their existences are shielded behind net curtains and slatted shutters and privet hedges, which on closer inspection conceal CCTV cameras. More informative are the vans purveying luxury services to the residents.
Eskimo Ice services draws up outside one house – the company delivers ice sculptures for parties, and its website shows glassy ice lions and carved statues of the London skyline. Elsewhere, a van – Anglo-Italian marble installation – is delivering bespoke marble, granite, limestone and porcelain tiles. Gardeners arrive in a van marked Siddeley landscape design (a company that also appears to work on mammoth private estates in China and Russia). British Security Technologies is parked outside another mansion, its van promising in italic lettering: “We’ll Keep You Safe ‘n’ Sound Tonight.” A vehicle drives up to provide swimming pool and whirlpool maintenance.
There is also a fire-protection services van, an emergency plumbing car and Rentokil pest control – because, it seems, money offers no real protection against fire, rats and plumbing catastrophes. The plumbing vehicle is outside the Nepalese embassy, which property websites suggest the Nepalese government would like to sell, and which has fallen into a state of disrepair, particularly noticeable next to its expensively maintained neighbours. But someone who lives or works here has put a couple of drooping geraniums on a first-floor windowsill, a touchingly modest, personal attempt at home-making, more human in scale than all the tulips, hyacinths and pansies planted in vast quantities in the gardens along the road, which have been landscaped into luxury-hotel-style anonymity.