Belgravian Rhapsody

As Julian Fellowes puts the finishing touches to the TV adaptation of his novel Belgravia, set in the aristocratic milieu of 1840s London, Harry Mount shines a spotlight on this enduringly upper-crust area, famed for its leafy squares and fine classical buildings – including The Lanesborough.

In the hugely popular television series, Downton Abbey, the British novelist and film director Julian Fellowes depicted English upper-class life in the country – in the era when families like the Crawleys lived in style in great country houses. And now he is about to do the same for upper-class life in town – in Victorian London, to be precise – and in the smart area called Belgravia, home of The Lanesborough and just a stone’s throw from the gardens of Buckingham Palace.

For almost 200 years now, Belgravia has been a byword for the rarified world of grand palazzi in London. No wonder it has provided rich pickings for Lord Fellowes, Britain’s pre-eminent chronicler of aristocratic life. In 2016, Fellowes wrote Belgravia, a novel of secrets and scandals set in 1840s London. Now it is being adapted into a six-part television series. It begins at the legendary ball held in Brussels by the Duchess of Richmond on the eve of the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. And it develops into a tale of high society in Belgravia in the first half of the 19th century.

The stucco mansions of Belgrave Square, at the heart of this historic district , with the statue of Belgravia’s founder, the 1st Marquess of Queensbury

 

Belgravia has long been the setting for grand drama. It has starred in the novels of Anthony Trollope and Henry James, while in Downton Abbey, Lady Rosamund’s London home was here, in this handsome quarter of stuccoed townhouses and leafy squares. Nor is this the first time that British television has made merry with grand Belgravia life. From 1971 to 1975 – and again in 2010 in a reprise boosted, no doubt, by the global success of Downton Abbey – Upstairs, Downstairs depicted the contrasting but domestically interlocked lives of the upper-crust Bellamy family and their servants in a Belgravia townhouse in Eaton Place. At its peak, the first iteration of the show attracted huge audiences – with, once again, the servants often stealing the limelight – the Bellamys’ butler Mr Hudson and cook Mrs Bridges emerging as rather severe but much-loved characters.

But the Bellamys and the Crawleys aside, the history of Belgravia, and indeed of much of central London as we know it today, is intertwined with the real-life saga of the Grosvenor family, who, over succeeding generations, developed most of Mayfair, all of Belgravia and much of the neighbouring quarter of Pimlico. They still own a sizeable chunk of central London, which makes the current head of the family, Hugh Grosvenor, the 28-year-old Duke of Westminster, the world’s richest person under 30, with a £10 billion fortune.

Hugh owes it all to the extremely wise marriage made by his ancestor Sir Thomas Grosvenor in 1677. Sir Thomas had been a modestly rich baronet in Cheshire in the north of England, whose family had come over to England with William the Conqueror in 1066. Sir Thomas struck gold with his marriage to Mary Davies, the heiress to the Manor of Ebury in what was then rural west London.

In those days, the Manor of Ebury was far from a grand place. Mary Davies’ 500- acre estate was a mixture of marsh, pasture, orchards and a few scattered houses. The northern part of her manor took its name from an annual fete, the May Fair, and was known in the 17th century as a “place of vice and impurities”. It’s now super-luxe Mayfair, which is bordered by Oxford Street, Park Lane, Regent Street and Piccadilly. It was the southern parts of the dowry – known in Mary Davies’ day as the Five Fields, haunt of duellists and highwaymen – which was to become the fabled Belgravia.

Fellowes’ upcoming drama is set in the early 19th century, not long after Robert Grosvenor, the 1st Marquess of Westminster, built the great creamy stucco palaces that still ll Belgravia. The area is named after Belgrave – a village on the doorstep of the Duke’s country house, Eaton Hall, which along with the nearby village of Eccleston, also has a handsome square named after it – so that although few Londoners realise it, many of the city’s smartest addresses come with a dash of rural Cheshire in them.

Located a short walk from Victoria Station, Eccleston Yards is a vibrant new development that brings a cool contemporary edge to the area

 

The 1st Marquess’s ancestor, Sir Richard Grosvenor, had made one fortune developing Mayfair as early as 1720 – Grosvenor Square was built by Sir Richard. And then, a century later, the 1st Marquess made his brilliant move – and acquired a second fortune – by appointing London’s greatest speculative builder, Thomas Cubitt, to build Belgravia, working alongside a host of the capital’s greatest architects.

Cubitt was a master when it came to the practical business of draining land, which could be marshy so close to the River Thames, and sorting out the sewers, along with all the paving and the planting. But he also had vision, and together with the Marquess and his surveyor, Thomas Cundy, he was largely responsible for creating the charming, interlocking chain of crescents, squares and streets that today make up Belgravia – and which are a delight to explore on foot.

Start your walk in the centre-piece of Belgravia, Belgrave Square, just behind The Lanesborough. From a distance, each side of the 10-acre square looks like one huge palace. Look closely though and you’ll see lots of front doors, giveaways that these are in fact the grandest terraced houses in the land. The smartest houses are the detached ones, and many are now home to foreign embassies rather than wealthy Britons, such as the Portuguese Embassy at number 11, with its huge Doric columns, or the Spanish Embassy at number 24, built for Thomas Read Kemp, the MP who developed Kemp Town in Brighton. The German Embassy at number 23 may not be detached but it’s still vast, taking up three terraced houses on Belgrave Square.

Now a Japanese and Nordic-inspired food and retail emporium, the Pantechnicon in Motcomb Street was built in 1830 to house shops, warehouses and carriage showrooms

 

From Belgrave Square, wander southwards down Belgrave Place, through Eaton Square (named after Eaton Hall, the Duke of Westminster’s Cheshire home), then through to Chester Square, where Margaret Thatcher would eventually settle after her retirement from Downing Street. The great creamy river of stucco keeps on running south, past the great train terminus of Victoria Station, towards the old Pimlico estate of the Grosvenors – and even more garden squares: Eccleston Square (once home to Winston Churchill) and Warwick Square.

As you walk through Belgravia, you’ll notice quite how much green space there is (although most of it, like the big green glade in the middle of Grosvenor Square, is open only to local residents). And that’s all thanks to the 1st Marquess and Thomas Cubitt. In 1828, the Marquess asked Cubitt, “Will you ensure you bring a little country into the town by having garden squares?” And so Cubitt lled the Grosvenor estate with them. There are also pockets that feel charmingly village-like – such as Kinnerton Street, with cottages and cosy pubs just a few paces from the grandeur of Hyde Park Corner, home of The Lanesborough hotel, and the spot where Belgravia’s borders abut those of Knightsbridge and Mayfair.

You can see the statues of Belgravia’s creators today. The 1st Marquess’s statue is in Belgrave Square: look out for his coat of arms, distinguished by gold wheat sheaves, and the family motto, “Virtus non stemma”, meaning “Virtue not pomp”. Cubitt’s statue is in Denbigh Street. Both statues were commissioned in the 1990s by his descendant, Hugh’s father, Gerald Grosvenor, the 6th Duke of Westminster (Queen Victoria having conferred on the family a title commensurate with their nancial and social status). The Queen-Empress also greatly admired the man she called “our dear old Mr Cubitt”, saying on his death that “a better, kindhearted or more simple, unassuming man never breathed”.

Today, the Duke owns more than 4,000 properties, from studios to sumptuous houses, though many of these are now developed laterally into apartments, the most covetable of which might stretch across several townhouses. Some ats are on short leases of 20 years or less, while a quarter of the estate is given over to affordable housing, managed by bodies such as the Peabody Group.

The Nag’s Head in Kinnerton Street is one of Belgravia’s best-loved pubs, complete with wood-panelled rooms, charming memorabilia and a famously “colourful” landlord, Kevin Moran. Mobile phone use on the premises is strictly forbidden

 

There are also offices and shops across the estate. In recent years, the Grosvenors have followed the fashion – instigated in the 1990s in Marylebone High Street by the Howard de Walden estate – for creating “microhoods” of upmarket boutiques, coffee shops and restaurants. In Mount Street, Mayfair, in 2011, the Grosvenors brought in smart cafés as well as upmarket retail brands like Lanvin, Balenciaga and Christian Louboutin. In Belgravia, Elizabeth Street and Motcomb Street are the latest fashionable thoroughfares.

Motcomb Street was one of Britain’s earliest shopping streets. Here you’ll find the Pantechnicon, built in 1830 as shops, warehouses and carriage showrooms. Later this year, it will reopen as a Japanese and Nordic-inspired food and retail emporium over five floors. Opposite is the Halkin Arcade, also of 1830, designed as a series of opulent bazaars. It’s now a Waitrose supermarket. Round here you’ll find popular independent restaurants like Za erano and Motcombs brushing up against ritzy shops like Rococo Chocolates, the Fine Cheese Company and the Carolina Bucci jewellery shop.

Elizabeth Street is just yards from Victoria Station, but light years ahead in terms of sophistication. Here is the Thomas Cubitt pub, named after the great man himself; Oliveto, a modern Italian restaurant; and the Tom-tom Coffee House with its neighbour, Tomtom Cigars. Around the corner is the estate’s newest microhood, Eccleston Yards, a little piazza carved out between Ebury Street and Eccleston Place, billed as “a new hub for creative enterprise”. The most low-key of the recent trio of royal weddings – that of Lady Gabriella Windsor to Thomas Kingston – concluded with a family supper at a restaurant here. But its handsome post- industrial architecture feels more hipster East End than old-school Belgravia, as does its contemporary urban mix of co-working offices, a gym, cafés and cool pop-ups. And the same goes for the flower-bedecked mural of Frida Kahlo looking down at the shoppers and co-workers playing ping-pong in their lunch break.

This kind of placemaking shows the determination of the Grosvenor family to keep their centuries-old estate fresh and alive, and it’s a reminder of a favourite phrase of the 6th Duke: “When we build, let us think we build for ever,” first said by John Ruskin, and inscribed on that statue of the 1st Marquess, the man who built Belgravia. Belgravia may not have lasted forever just yet, but it has survived for 200 years as London’s gilt-edged gem. Long may it continue.

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