London Off The Tourist Map: No.3 – Belgravia
Who now lives in Belgravia, long the home of dodgy Russians and old-school Tories? Near Hyde Park and Buckingham Palace Gardens, the upscale streets of Belgravia are defined by elegant townhouse residences, foreign embassies and fancy hotels. But it was once well dodgy. Known as Five Fields, it was a place to cross at your peril, as highwaymen and footpads operated there (much as now, I suppose).
The ward houses a Thames tributary, the Westbourne, which was crossed by Bloody Bridge, so called because it was frequented by robbers and was unsafe to cross at night. In 1728, a man’s body was discovered by the bridge with half his face and five fingers removed. In 1749, a muffin man was robbed and left blind. Five Fields’ distance from London also made it a popular spot for duels. Cool.
Belgravia was mostly owned by the Duke of Westminster, from whom it takes its name (Belgrave). He was forced to sell off many of its freeholds in 1967. It has some fantastic squares and gardens, including Belgrave Square, Eaton Square, Chester Square and Lowndes Square. The area features heavily in the novels of Anthony Trollope, and has a bohemian (in this instance meaning ‘rich’) atmosphere which means it doubled for a number of period pieces including ‘Brideshead Revisited’, ‘Downton Abbey’ and ‘Upstairs, Downstairs’.
It’s one of the most expensive places to live in the world – Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich was busy knocking through several of the houses there to build a shonky great mega-mansion, but his plans will be scuppered if/when property assets are seized to get back at Putin. Our dithering PM is apparently horrified by the exploitation of London as a haven for seriously dirty Russian money. Transparency International estimates that Russians account for £729m of the £4.4bn acquired in UK property via what it regards as ‘suspicious wealth’.
Belgravia feels like a film set. It’s pompous and boring, rather like the UK establishment, but being able to afford to live there is a sign that you are now part of that establishment. The National Crime Agency is investigating a list of wealthy Belgravia residents to assess if they’ve used the UK to launder their doughnuts. The problem is that anyone can lie about his source of wealth and produce a document that shows a fortune based on, say, playing the stock market.
Is there any reason to visit this peculiar, soulless part of super-rich London? No, not really, unless you’re an architectural student or like seeing really clean streets. Nothing to see here, do as the security guard says and move along. Pretty, though.