Natural charm

Writer Harry Mount reveals why he loves unpretentious Kentish Town, where a torrid snog is more likely than a ‘mwah-mwah’ kiss
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Kelly Street in Kentish Town, NW5
Kelly Street is one of the many picturesque streets that lie either side of the busy thoroughfare of Kentish Town Road, NW5
Many native Londoners are not quite sure where Kentish Town is. It’s neither near Kent, nor is it a town.

Instead, it’s a ragged, down-at-heel chunk of Victorian terraces, surrounded by gold chip London: Hampstead to the west, Camden to the south, Highgate to the north and Islington to the east.

'Kentish town doesn't take well to flattery. Its appeal comes from its lack of manufactured charm'

It wasn’t always like this. A century ago, Kentish Town was the last word in middle-class prosperity. John Betjeman, baptised up the road at St Anne Brookfield, Highgate, remembered as a boy shopping at the baker’s in Kentish Town and visiting its curious Anglo-Norman parish church - now a Christ Apostolic church.

My flat, in an 1870 house in Caversham Road, is a product of those boom years, built by the old landowners, Christ Church, Oxford, before it was sold to the council in the Fifties.

Most London terrace houses owe their origins to 16th century Palladian palaces, and I like to think of mine as a full-blooded palazzo: Corinthian pilasters on the piano nobile, a rusticated lower-ground floor and an ornate cornice fringing the roof.

Harry Mount
Harry Mount at Chamberlaine bike shop on Kentish Town Road, where he has bought all his 17 bikes over the years
The area’s principal artery, Kentish Town Road, is hardly palazzo territory, though. Heading north towards the M1, it is choked with traffic and has the dusty Seventies feel that main roads bring.

Still, it means Kentish Town is utterly unponcey, utterly unpleased with itself. You know the way people in smarter bits of London walk as though they constantly expect to meet someone - immaculately turned out, head high, poised for the mwah-mwah double kiss?

No one mwah-mwahs in Kentish Town Road; they have torrid snogs up against the plate-glass window of the Sardinian restaurant, Pane Vino, waiting for the N20 night bus to Barnet.

The shops along Kentish Town road are useful rather than showy. B&S DIY Homecare is one of those places that has everything, and half of that is tied to the shopfront. During my decade here, I have bought from there an enormous plastic zip-up tartan laundry bag, a bottle of sulphuric acid drain cleaner, lawnmower blades and a mop.

There is a fishmonger, B&M Seafoods, which also does fresh poultry and game. Nearby is the blooming Boma Garden Centre, run by expat white Zimbabweans and squeezed between the cliff faces of a Thirties Art Deco Leviathan of a council block.

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'The shops along Kentish Town road are useful rather than showy'

At Chamberlaine, I have bought every one of my 17 bicycles over the years, from my first Raleigh with Sturmey-Archer gears in 1978 to my Giant hybrid two years ago. Next door, Eddie, a wise-cracking Kurd from northern Iraq, cuts what remains of my hair for £10 (£2 tip included).

The Owl Bookshop in Kentish Town Road
The Owl Bookshop is an institution in Kentish Town Road
The most useful shop of all is the Owl Bookshop, which survives by stocking not the obvious but also the interesting. Look for George Orwell - who lived around the corner in the Thirties and worked in a bookshop in Kentish Town Road - and you’ll find not just 1984 and Animal Farm but his essays, too.

I once caught Professor Roy Foster, Yeats’s biographer, buying a copy of one of his own books there, in true J R Hartley style. Kentish Town is short on green spaces.

There’s a scrappy bit of field, Cantelowes Gardens, just behind high-performing Camden School for Girls, and Camden Gardens, a triangle of trees and lawn under the railway bridge that I can’t remember anyone ever using for pleasure, Carlsberg Export consumption apart.

Still, just a short walk away to the north are the wild hills of Hampstead Heath and, to the south, George IV’s manicured pleasure ground, Regent’s Park. Kentish Town doesn’t take well to flattery. Its genuine appeal comes from its lack of manufactured charm. It has been gentrified, so £1 million houses are not unusual. But the pace of gentrification has been slow.

Those civilised places such as the fishmonger’s and the Owl Bookshop were there long before the housing boom. They will be there long after any crash - and so will I.

Harry Mount's A Lust for Window Sills - a Lover’s Guide to British Buildings from Portcullis to Pebble-Dash, is published by Little, Brown (£12.99). To order a copy, call 01832 737525.

B&M Seafoods, Kentish Town
B&M Seafoods, which also sells poultry and game (020 7485 0346)

Kentish Town: the lowdown

La Sainte Union School: Highgate Road, NW5 (020 7428 4600;
William Ellis School (boys): Highgate Road, NW5 (020 7267 9346;
Parliament Hill School (girls): Highgate Road, NW5 (020 7485 7077;
Camden School for Girls: Sandall Road, NW5 (020 7485 3414;
North Bridge House Preparatory School, 1 Gloucester Avenue, NW1 (020 7267 6266;

The Owl Bookshop, 207-209 Kentish Town Road, NW5 (020 7485 7793).
B & M Seafoods, 258 Kentish Town Road, NW5 (020 7485 0346).
Pane Vino, 323 Kentish Town Road, NW5 (020 7267 3879).
B & S DIY, 313 Kentish Town Road, NW5 (020 7284 4636).
Eddie’s Barber Shop, 71 Kentish Town Road, NW1 (020 7485 8880).
Chamberlaine bike shop, 75-77 Kentish Town Road, NW1 (020 7485 4488).

Buses: 134, North Finchley to Tottenham Court Road; 214, Highgate to Liverpool Street; 393, Chalk Farm Road to Clapton; C2, Parliament Hill Fields to Oxford Circus; N20, Barnet to Trafalgar Square.
Kentish Town Tube station is on the Northern and Thameslink lines.
Kentish Town West is on the North London line.

Pictures by Barry Phillips

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