London has its share of busy, crowded shopping streets and quiet, elegant neighbourhoods, but even in this city, with its many magnificent places and magical corners, very few areas offer both. A couple of happy twists of history have given Marylebone the winning combination of buzzy but quiet, convenient but unpretentious, and ideally situated in central London.
Marylebone High Street
Marylebone still looks and feels something like the village it was 400 years ago and the handsome Georgian development it was 250 years ago. Its High Street in particular is a pleasure to visit. It has a butcher and a baker, and, if not a candlestick maker, at least three shops that sell candles. But it also has smart clothing, fine jewellery and bespoke furniture. And while its pubs and shops and footpaths bustle with media types, local residents and students, it isn’t heaving like Oxford Street, its southern boundary.
Marylebone still counts real Londoners among its residents.The atmosphere is a bit more cosmopolitan than other parts of the city, and at the same time, a little more relaxed. As one resident noticed: “If you’re decorating over the weekend, you’d be comfortable going outside in your paint-covered clothes in Marylebone. If you did that in Belgrave Square, you’d probably be arrested.”
Yet Marylebone is hidden in plain sight in Zone 1. Walk around Marylebone’s dignified squares and discreet town homes and you can’t help but wonder: “How did it manage to remain so pristine, yet so unpretentious just metres from Oxford Street and Madame Tussaud’s?” The answer lies in two of the funny accidents of history that make London the charming patchwork it is.
London in the 18th century must have seemed like one vast construction project. The building boom was under way in at least three areas of town: Mayfair, St James’s and Marylebone. In 1711, the estate that comprised much of Marylebone passed to the Duke of Newcastle’s daughter, Henrietta Cavendish Holles, who commissioned architect John Price to lay out a grid of streets and squares. Her daughter Margaret Cavendish Harley continued the building programme and the tall, beautifully proportioned Georgian houses on squares began to be the dominant residential form in the area.
Margaret Harley was married to the Duke of Portland, and for five generations, until the late 1800s, the Portlands held much of the estate. The fifth Duke of Portland had no children so the estate passed to his sister, Joan Bentinck, widow of the sixth Baron de Walden. The name of the estate changed to the Howard de Walden estate and not much happened to Marylebone for a couple of hundred years. Then, in the last turn-of-the century go-go days (that would be the 19th century), it seemed as if Marylebone was poised for future development as the rail station opened for business. It was originally planned as a stop on a European rail line, but that project was scrapped and the original 10-platform station was scaled way back. The station, which could have been another King’s Cross, pouring thousands of travellers a day onto Marylebone’s streets, saw limited usage, which is still the case. And in the longer view, that mistake hasn’t been an entirely bad thing for Marylebone.
About 20 years ago, the London Evening Standard asked readers to list the central London area in which they’d most like to live. The usual favourites topped the list, including Knightsbridge, Mayfair and Chelsea. How did Marylebone rank among Londoners’ dream neighbourhoods? The surprise wasn’t that Marylebone ranked far down the list – it didn’t make the list at all. As if it didn’t exist, yet it was right behind Selfridge’s, hidden in plain sight, waiting its turn.
The 1990s real estate boom lifted all boats (as they say) but some boats more than others. Suddenly, around a decade ago, people began to notice Marylebone again. The Howard de Walden Estate began marketing Marylebone to highly desirable tenants, hand-picking both residential and commercial tenants for its properties with a longer-term view to the quality of the area. With a wide selection of Marylebone property, the Howard de Walden Estate is perfectly positioned to market Marylebone lettings to prospective applicants.
The delights of Marylebone are no secret now – Marylebone High Street was voted London’s favourite street in a BBC Radio 4 survey. And with its rich mix of everyday retail, specialist shops, food shopping and eateries, the real mystery is that it didn’t happen sooner.