It’s the former gun crime capital of the UK, and once recorded the highest murder rate in the country. Now, Harlesden is on the make.
This nook of north-west London has seen the biggest growth in property prices in the capital in the past year at 14.6 per cent, according to research by Hamptons. That’s more than double the London average of 6.1 per cent.
Everyone should be thinking of Harlesden as the new Dalston, Peckham or Walthamstow. And yet NW10, which consists mainly of a high street and its famous Jubilee Clock surrounded by terraced houses, remains hitherto unknown, unlauded and resolutely untouched by hipsters.
“It is profoundly unfashionable,” says Stephanie O’Brien, 58, an NHS manager who has lived in the same Harlesden street for 33 years. “But I think that’s cool. It’s real here.”
O’Brien had the opportunity to buy in Queen’s Park, now a more well-heeled neighbourhood farther south-east, but favoured Harlesden because back in the Eighties, when house prices were no different, it was less rough.
Two years ago, Stonebridge Estate in Harlesden topped the Met’s gun violence hot-list, and in one incident, bullets were sprayed into a school playground as two gangs clashed in an adjoining street.
And yet, bespoke wooden shutters are slowly replacing net curtains, and front doors are painted in Farrow & Ball’s Elephant’s Breath. The average house price is now £485,059, under the London average; the most expensive ever sold in the neighbourhood hit £1.4 million.
My husband and I, a middle-class couple working in media, moved here four years ago. Frankly, it wasn’t our dream location. But the properties were a steal compared with anywhere else in Zone 2. It is near to handy public transport including Crossrail at Old Oak Common when it opens in 2019 and, surprisingly, the primary schools here are good to outstanding. As it turns out, plenty of others have had the same idea.
Molly Cowan, 29, a casting agent, bought in Harlesden last year, having rented in Shepherd’s Bush. “I loved it there and when I first looked in Harlesden I felt the same energy,” she says, admitting it’s never going to be “Shoreditch cool. It’ll get more of a village vibe I think. People seem really positive about making that happen.”
Despite the influx of money and a rapidly changing residential demographic, changes to Harlesden town centre are slow and often short-lived, as if it is resisting gentrification.
There’s no gastropub: the Royal Oak just closed, despite an expensive refurbishment. The high street has Superdrug, not Boots, and Tesco is the poshest supermarket around here. There are no boutiques and no artisanal bakeries.
But, if you’re willing to look beyond appearances, the high street is brimming with delights from many different cultures: there is an abundance of fresh fishmongers, and the Way 2 Save international supermarket offers an ever-expanding range of organic produce. Will Latham – also known as the Harlesden Music Man – runs a preschool class in the Salvation Army shop that knocks the socks off any other groups I’ve been to with my daughter.
A glimpse of a new Harlesden is peeking through. Late last summer, house music duo the Shapeshifters opened Rubio, a pizza joint on Park Parade, providing competition for Alma’s Swedish café, the only other middle-class outpost in the area. A local gardener has set up a stall selling succulents in teapots outside.
George Gittens, 47, has lived on the same Harlesden street for his entire life. The son of Grenadian immigrants, he remembers a peaceful childhood playing in the street and going to parties with his parents. He welcomes the changes the rising house prices will bring.
“I’m up for change because it brings new life,” he says. “Remember how Brixton used to be? It was really naughty and run-down; people were frightened to go to Brixton. Look at it now! Well, Harlesden’s the second Brixton. We’ve got a Costa. When they were putting that in I thought, ‘They’re really trying to bring Harlesden up now’.”
The area’s trump card is Roundwood Park, the beautiful Victorian pleasure garden in the heart of Harlesden. It’s well-kept and spacious, and the staff who run the café are kind beyond measure.
There is a sense of community in Harlesden. I know all my neighbours by name. We’re different ages, races and from diverse backgrounds but we have each other’s house keys, feed each other’s pets when we go on holiday, chat over the fence, and send Christmas cards.
This is normal in many parts of the country, like in rural North Yorkshire where I grew up. But in London this is rare – and hopefully it will survive the incoming middle-class wave.