by Nicola Perry, The Daily Telegraph, May 8, 2017
Nicola Perry's new book, 33 Walks in London that you Shouldn't Miss, highlights some of the best ways to explore the city on foot. Here's one of her favourites, dubbed The Arcadian Walk and perfect for a spring weekend.
Best time: Spring or summer
Distance: Approximately 8 kilometres
Upon first hearing of a place in London called Little Venice, my imagination ran wild. Would there be Italian gondoliers, a piazza, and a skyline of domed buildings? Whilst the reality is hardly Venetian (replace gondolas and palatial homes crumbling into seawater with waterbuses and houses set back on leafy avenues), the area does have some sympathy with its namesake, for example an air of rare seclusion, an appreciation for beauty, and of course its canal.
Stepping out of Warwick Avenue Station, you are betwixt Lisson Grove and St John’s Wood, both fashionable areas of the Regency period, owned and developed by the Eyre Estate. Many of the leases and the land are still owned by Eyre descendants and this broad street – with its white, stuccoed villas – is typical of the period. The distinctive cream-colored façades line both sides of the canal and, in the early 1800s, they would have attracted the literary and journalistic set, George Eliot among them.
While you are welcome to walk Warwick Avenue to the canal, I suggest delaying and instead circling around to Clifton Villas by way of Warrington Crescent and Formosa Street, so as to end up at Bristol Gardens. While these are mere mid-sized Regency terraced houses, the street is gratifyingly dignified.
Ahead of you, there is a small, open passageway, which leads through to Clifton Nurseries, part garden centre and part sanctuary for savvy locals in search of a secret hideaway. The passageway opens up into a charming courtyard, a secluded spot in which to sit outside on warmer days, with an attractive indoor greenhouse cafe for wetter ones.
At the end of the Clifton Villas, before turning left onto Blomfield Road, you’ll see The Summerhouse seafood restaurant just to your right, which has a terrace overlooking the canal. The nearest bridge is Westbourne Terrace Road, a popular spot for boarding a boat for a canal ride.
Walk the length of canal-facing Blomfield Road, and the neighbourhood feels more townlike, reflective of the streets a Jane Austen character might have strolled two centuries ago in Bath or Cheltenham. If your knowledge of English architectural periods is as hazy as mine, then it might interest you to know that the principal difference between Regency houses and their late Georgian equivalents is their size. The taller Regency fronts – with their use of stucco, heavy cornices, and decorative ironwork – continued to be classical in style, but they lost the neat proportions of their Georgian predecessors. Another significant difference was the half basement of the Regency house, which raised the ground floor by several steps above street level.
At the busy intersection of Blomfield and Edgeware Roads, look out for Cafe Laville, straddling the canal. Step inside, and you’ll be treated to one of the finest cafe views in all of London: a huge landscape window through which to gaze the length of the canal.
From here, wend your way along Aberdeen Place and Cunningham Place to St John’s Wood Road and Hamilton Close, a mews which would once have been the stables for a local aristocratic household, and then to Hamilton Terrace, another fine example of a leafy Regency-style broad street.
Back in the 1800s, men of certain means could buy a great deal of privacy here, in what was then considered the outer realms of mainstream London society. Far behind these high walls, a gentleman could ensconce his mistress or welcome a lover. The rumour goes that there have been kept women in parts of St John’s Wood as far back as the Restoration. Others took advantage of the villas’ privacy, installing several “laundresses” (a term coined for a house of ill repute) and even lunatic asylums, where wealthy patrons could deposit sons and daughters, wives and siblings. Regularly, Lord Eyre would receive news of such goings-on. A rather open-minded man for the times, he would write to the transgressor merely advising them to marshal their private affairs so as to not spill out onto the streets. When a “homosexual” scandal arose, with residents notifying his lordship of one tenant’s known associations with convicted “deviants,” the earl, admirably, went against the grain and refused to evict said gentleman.
Where Hamilton Terrace meets Hall Road, steer to the right. The tone of your walk will change somewhat at the next turning — a left on Grove End. After 100 yards or so, you’ll spot a most incongruous sight: groups of tourists assembling in packs of four, halting traffic as they march along a pedestrian crossing, arms swinging in unison. For this is the start of Abbey Road (the nearby Abbey Road Studios is where the Beatles recorded their famous album) and what you are witnessing is a re-enactment of the iconic Abbey Road album cover.
Retracing your steps along Grove End Road in the direction of the canal, make a left turn on St John’s Wood Road, but not before noting Lisson Grove across the street. In the 1800s, this area was a magnet for theatre people as well as musicians, artists, architects, and writers. A coterie of painters from the Royal Academy settled here, congregating around William Blake.
Continuing along St John’s Wood Road, you’ll pass the famous Lord's Cricket Ground on your left. Lord’s opened here in 1814, around the same time as John Nash, director of the Regent’s Canal Company, began building detached villas set in gardens facing the canal. Nash was also the architect of our final destination: Regent’s Park.
At the roundabout up ahead, come off at St John’s Wood Church and wander through the gardens to St John’s Wood High Street, which is worth a gander, especially if you’re in need of watering or the use of some facilities, but then it’s on to Regent’s Park by way of Prince Albert Road.
Entering the park at Avenue Road, cross over the canal to the Outer Circle, which runs the park’s circumference. Here on the north-western edge are the principal six Detached Villas designed by the English neoclassical architect Quinlan Terry. Terry designed each house in a different classical style. To observe the mix of Corinthian and Tuscan villas interspersed amongst the predominant Regency architecture, make a right onto Outer Circle, and loop around at the second turning on your left, getting up close to Winfield House, the official residence of the US ambassador.
Returning to the path you entered the park on, continue straight ahead until you reach a fork in the walkway. Stay to the right, and at the next fork, keep to the western flank of the park and follow the curve of the Boating Lake to a bridge. Cross over and continue on the path until you arrive at Inner Circle.
When John Nash was designing the 395-acre park, this central ring was to have been the spot reserved for the Prince Regent’s Palace. Today, as well as being the most carefully tended section of the park, it boasts a theatre and the Regent’s Cafe. The wall to your left surrounds the Open Air Theatre, where wonderful productions of Shakespeare’s plays are put on throughout the summer to delight audiences. Originally, the ornamental gardens here were landscaped by the Royal Botanic Society. When the society’s lease expired, in 1932, Queen Mary's Gardens were born, culminating in a cascade, rose gardens (containing more than 400 varieties of roses), and the small Japenese Garden Island.
Crossing Inner Circle again, follow the signs for York Bridge. The large buildings on your right are Regents University London and the European Business School. York Bridge will lead you over the tail end of the Boating Lake and left onto Ulster Terrace on the south side of Outer Circle. The wonderfully named architect Decimus Burton fulfilled Nash’s vision for the grand terraced housing you see here. Make a right on Park Square West and walk up to the busy main road. Turn left here onto Marylebone Road and cross over at the set of traffic lights for Park Crescent, which forms a semi-circle around a private garden.
Not many people know that there is an underpass linking the private gardens of Park Crescent to the private gardens of Park Square on the other side of Marylebone Road. This was known as Nursemaids’ Tunnel and is still in use today. The public rarely has access to it, however, except during the annual Open Garden Squares weekend in June. Here our Regency Walk draws to an end at the steps leading down from Marylebone Road to Regent’s Park Underground Station.
Starting point: Warwick Avenue Underground Station
Getting there: Bakerloo Line
1. CLIFTON NURSERIES
5A Clifton Villas London W9 2PH +44 20 7289 6851 www.clifton.co.uk
2. THE SUMMERHOUSE
60 Blomfield Road London W9 2PA +44 20 7286 6752 www.thesummerhouse.co
3. CAFÉ LAVILLE
453 Edgware Road London W2 1HT +44 20 7706 2620
4. HAMILTON CLOSE
London NW8 8QY
5. BEATLES’ ABBEY ROAD CROSSING
2 Abbey Road, London NW8 0AH
6. ABBEY ROAD STUDIOS
3 Abbey Road, London NW8 9AY +44 20 7266 7000 www.abbeyroad.com
7. LORD’S CRICKET GROUND
St John’s Wood Road London NW8 8QN +44 20 7616 8500 www.lords.org
8. QUINLAN TERRY’S REGENT’S PARK VILLAS
Regent’s Park, London NW1 4HB
9. OPEN AIR THEATRE
Regent’s Park London NW1 4NU +44 844 826 4242 www.openairtheatre.org
10. QUEEN MARY’S GARDENS
Chester Road, London NW1 4NR
11. JAPANESE GARDEN ISLAND
Regent’s Park, London NW1 4NR www.sequinsandcherryblossom.com