The secret life of Belsize Park
Dan Carrier immerses himself in the history of Belsize Park, thanks to a new book by David Percy and Ranee Barr
13 October, 2017 — By Dan Carrier
Belsize Gardens, near England’s Lane, around 1900
IT was, says Mel Wright, a “likely cellar dive” for an early 1960s RnB club. Found in the basement of the Witch’s Cauldron in Belsize Lane, it had “arty posters and tables with candlelit wine bottles, also dreamy student girls looking like Jean Shrimpton, reading Penguin paperbacks and who I imagined lived in a nearby Belsize bedsit”.
The drummer’s memories of late nights in NW3 are part of a collection of stories from the neighbourhood collected in a new book, Belsize Remembered.
From grand 19th-century homes to mid-20th century blocks, from the delis run by German émigrés to beat clubs that gave young students somewhere to meet, Belsize Park’s diverse range of streets and houses has offered a home to an equally diverse range of people.
The social history of the neighbourhood has been drawn together by the anecdotes of people like Mel who have made it home – and it reads like a wonderful requiem for a London village in the 20th century.
Compiled by Ranee Barr, a poet and historian who has lived in Belsize Park for more than 40 years, and photographer, film-maker and graphic designer David Percy, who has lived in the area much of his life, the book started in 2012.
Ranee told Review: “We started by collecting anecdotes and memories. We realised much had been written about the great and good of the area, but what about other people’s stories? They all have stories to tell and could just disappear unless they are written down.”
They also used accounts from the Camden New Journal and Ham and High, drop-in sessions at Belsize Library and by word of mouth.
David Percy and Ranee Barr
“People were generous with their personal stories,” Ranee writes.
“Everyone emphasised how lucky they were to have grown up here, to have come to live in the area, or simply passed through, making it their home at one time or another.”
The book begins with an overview of the development of the area, from rolling countryside and farmland with a grand country home Belsize House – which can be traced back to 1496 – to the streets we know today. Belsize House was renowned for its pleasure gardens, and by 1720 Daniel Defoe noted the grounds were used for leisure pursuits. As well as dancing and music, “visitors could fish or hunt in the grounds, dine on the best food, enjoy fine wines and dance in the lavish ballroom,” the authors note.
And with both writers enjoying longevity as residents, they have seen much change.
“Those who return are astonished at its present appearance,” writes Ranee. “We hope that the reminiscences that follow will capture the flavour of what both newcomers and old hands in the are feel about where they live.”
Reflections range from the memories of the pianist Alice Herz-Sommer, who died aged 110 and survived the Theresienstadt concentration camp in Austria, to Su Rogers, the wife of architect Richard, Judith Nasatyr on the Belsize Festival and the story of when the Load of Hay pub was invaded by armed police on the trail of someone who had just held up a carpet retailers in broad daylight.
Émigrés made the area home in the mid-20th century, with its houses divided up into flats offering those fleeing persecution a safe haven. There were also scores of bedsits, allowing those on small budgets to make the postcode their base.
“It was bedsit land,” recalls Ranee. “And there were also new blocks of flats built. There were specialist shops then for émigrés, including a deli and a furrier. I recall when I first moved here how it was so many bedsits with single people on small wages – it meant there were not too many cafés.”
Belsize Stores in Haverstock Hill around 1912
Elaine Spencer recalls living in a hostel in Belsize Park Gardens, where people had shared meals provided and they had a communal laundry room. Her collections include the Royal Free hospital site being empty and home to stray cats.
“We bought extras from delicatessens run by an Austrian couple and cakes from Grodzinski’s opposite the tube station.”
Some residents supplemented their salaries with evening work, ushering at the Odeon in Haverstock Hill, which gave staff complimentary tickets to pass on, so we regularly went to the cinema.”
Among the contributors is Robert Labi, whose mother came from Austria in 1938. “For a time she used to wait in Swiss Cottage to see if she recognised anyone from Vienna. And she did: she found two childhood friends who had also escaped.”
The émigrés gave NW3 a “Mittel Europe” flavour.
He added: “When I was young it was still possible to communicate in German with the older assistants/owners in some local shops.”
Every story has a value and insight into life in this part of NW3.
Frances Pinter recalls going into a Belsize bookshop and overhearing a conversation where a “little old lady” was berating the bookseller over his store’s table of books by Carl Jung: “My good friend Thomas Mann lived right next door to Jung and knew him perfectly well yet when we went walking on Sundays Jung would walk right by us and not even say hello,” the lady was saying.
She then went to complain that Mrs Jung would do the hoovering every day at a time when Thomas was taking his nap and wrote to ask her to desist – a request that fell on deaf ears. “And yet you have a table full of books by this terrible man’, she said. And I heard this conversation, I knew I had to come and live in Belsize Park.”
• Belsize Remembered: Memories of Belsize Park. Compiled by Ranee Barr and David S Percy, Aulis Publishing, £16.99