Jenny Hancock tells us how The Howard de Walden Estate, whose family ties go back to the eighteenth century, has carefully curated today’s vibrant Marylebone neighbourhood for residents, businesses and visitors alike.
FOR MANY PEOPLE WHO WORK IN CENTRAL LONDON, THE SINGLE MOST EXHAUSTING AND STRESSFUL PART OF THE DAY IS THE COMMUTE. NOT FOR ME. I DON’T SO MUCH COMMUTE AS SAUNTER.
For the past 15 years, I have been lucky enough to live in Marylebone while also working for The Howard de Walden Estate, which owns and manages a large proportion of the area’s buildings. Every day, my journey to and from the office involves strolling across one of central London’s most attractive and engaging neighbourhoods, through a grid of characterful streets and along a vibrant high street, stopping if the fancy takes me in a friendly café for one of the many half shot cappuccinos required to grease my wheels.
Wandering around this historic enclave is never less than a pleasure. Marylebone has many grand vistas – the stately curve of Park Crescent and the wide sweep of Portland Place – but the more modest streets and intimate mews also have their subtle charms, as do the many green spaces that punctuate the streetscape. In particular, I love the understated, elegantly proportioned Georgian terraces, most of which are interspersed by flamboyant Victorian constructions and other more modern infills. Not every building is beautiful, but that’s simply a reflection of the area’s character: Marylebone isn’t some flawless time capsule; instead, it’s the living, breathing, ever-evolving heart of one of the world’s most diverse and dynamic cities.
It’s that contradiction of calm vibrancy that makes Marylebone so special: it is lovely to look at, fascinating to explore, and also a genuinely pleasant and serene place to live in. Unusually for such a central area, it is home to a genuinely close-knit community of residents and businesses – my short commute can be slowed considerably by the number of people I say hello to.
None of this is an accident. The Howard de Walden Estate is owned by the same family that led its development in the eighteenth century, turning what was then a semi-rural backwater into a fashionable neighbourhood that would be quickly subsumed into the city. With its deep roots, long history and a business model that values long-term growth over short-term profits, the Estate considers its role to be that of a steward. Our core business may be that of a landlord, but the responsibility we feel towards our residents, businesses, shops and clinics (the world-class Harley Street Medical Area is an essential part of the mix) goes far beyond the provision of high quality accommodation or profit on cost attitudes.
Our approach is perhaps most visible in the profile of the shops on and around Marylebone High Street. Rather than simply leasing out its units to the highest bidder, the Estate has sought to create distinctive, balanced shopping streets that favour independent retailers and genuine specialists – the butcher, the cheesemonger, the bookseller, the shoe designer – over bigger and more familiar chains.
When units become available, we actively look for new operators who will complement the neighbourhood. As a result, some of our shops are new and highly fashionable, others old and venerable; some are indulgent, others essential; together, they benefit residents and visitors alike.
Two of my favourite places to eat capture this appeal quite nicely. There’s the quiet grandeur of Fischer’s, which is fairly new to the scene but feels like it’s been serving up sumptuous schnitzels in its wood-panelled dining room since the height of the Austro-Hungarian empire. I particularly love going there for breakfast – I judge any breakfast by the quality of the bacon, and the streaky bacon at Fischer’s is among the very finest. It’s how I would like to start the day every morning if my work schedule and cardiac health would allow. Then there’s Galleria – small, friendly and family-run, it has been here for more than 20 years, offering consistently stunning Persian food in the most accessible of settings at great value.
Culturally, too, we offer an embarrassment of riches, ranging from small, independent art galleries to world famous attractions. To the south of the Estate, Wigmore Hall is one of the world’s most esteemed chamber music venues, renowned for the unique clarity of its acoustic and the enviable quality of its line-up. To the north, the Royal Academy of Music, which earlier this year opened a stunning new theatre and recital hall, provides a showcase for the stars of tomorrow. To the west, the Wallace Collection houses magnificent rococo art and furniture, while to the east we have the galleries of RIBA, the home of British architecture. Regent Street Cinema and the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre are also there at our fringes, doing what they do quite brilliantly.
The Estate is not shy of laying on some entertainment of its own. Every summer, we fund and organise a festival designed to celebrate this amazing community and show it off to visitors, while raising a substantial sum for charity. This year, the festival takes place over the weekend of 16-17 June, kicking off on the Saturday evening with an al frescofilm screening in the lovely surroundings of Paddington Street Gardens, followed on the Sunday by the Marylebone Summer Fayre – a full day of live music, dancing, children’s activities and a vast quantity of food and drink. The streets will be closed to traffic and thousands of people will come from both near and far to revel in the convivial atmosphere and – please god – unbroken sunshine.
The Estate is, by its very nature, fully embedded in the surrounding area. My team are heavily involved with the local community, organising events such as the Marylebone Summer Festival, Marylebone Christmas Lights and the Marylebone Food Festival. We publish a bi-monthly journal for residents and a twice-yearly periodical for the medical community, manage websites and social media accounts and run regular forums for businesses and medical occupiers. Alongside the wider team, embarking on projects to improve the public realm, engaging with residents’ associations, business improvement districts, local authorities and charities. We are all, it’s fair to say, quite busy. At the end of the day, though, I get to saunter slowly home through one of the most appealing neighbourhoods of one of the world’s most exciting vibrant cities – and in a city of exhausting commutes, I know how lucky that makes me.
THE MARYLEBONE SUMMER FESTIVAL TAKES PLACE ON THE 16/17 JUNE 2018.