In the heart of west London, there is what is thought to be a hidden paradise. Private gardens, surrounded by white stucco mansions pristine as wedding cakes, where children roam through landscaped lawns and pampered pooches piddle against the trees. Where pop stars puff through their exercise routines out of sight of the paparazzi and, by night, the ghost of Hugh Grant attempts to scale the iron railings, muttering ‘Oopsidaisy’, with all the other plebs who can’t get in.
In reality, though, it’s hell. Notting Hell, to be precise: a place where homeowners sitting on a pile worth merely £5 million battle with those whose homes are worth more than £20 million. Here, dingdongs signal not the doorbell, but all out war — between parents and pet owners, party animals and pedants. It’s bankers vs billionaires, Brits vs Yanks: All struggling, tooth and nail, to acquire the biggest house, build the largest basement, raise the brightest children, enjoy the wildest sex, and throw the party to end all parties.
‘A communal garden is the ultimate house trophy, an unambiguous symbol that you have “made it” — especially for the Americans,’ explains the author of the Notting Hill Yummy Mummy blog. ‘They infuriate the native Brits because they drive the prices so high only the richest can afford to live here. And once they get here, these hedge-funders and finance guys don’t just compete at work; they compete at home, too. They have to own a “wow” house, with the absolute best swimming pool/Jacuzzi/slide/aquarium/zipline/cinema set-up.’
Alas, even the most spacious Georgian villa rarely comes with room for a frigidarium — a posh name for a cold spa — so incomers dig deep into the clay beneath their homes to build what are known as ‘iceberg’ basements. Trophy wives battle yummy mummies, and vice versa, over planning permission — with Filipina maids caught in the crossfire. The conversions, which often take years, bring builders, trucks, dust and noise, interrupting morning mindfulness meditations and ever more exhibitionist yoga routines.
Communal gardens were invented to provide oases of calm in the middle of the city — but the mania for building below ground has unleashed chaos.
One long-term resident irked by all this is the novelist Rachel Johnson, who grew up in Notting Hill, and whose neighbours include celebrities such as Rita Ora and Ruby Wax. In 1992, Johnson bought a ‘falling-down semi-detached house off Elgin’ for £385,000 and now sits pretty in a house worth more than £4 million, simply by virtue of never having moved.
‘Five householders at the last count were putting in double basements in Elgin Crescent alone,’ Johnson complained in Harper’s Bazaar. ‘My husband says that when you live in a place that you can’t afford to shop in it’s time to move. But I won’t.’
Still, it makes for comic material and Johnson has now spent eight years eviscerating the vulgarities of the super-rich in her Notting Hell series of novels. The latest, Fresh Hell, opens with a murder in an iceberg basement.
‘It’s all fiction!’ bellows an exasperated Johnson, when I ask her about how she gets her inspiration forher fabulously pulpy books. ‘How dare you ring me up like this?’
So, alas, no actual lesbian sex scenes chez Elgin like the one depicted in Fresh Hell, which is hotly tipped to win Johnson an unprecedented second Bad Sex Award. (‘My whole body was buzzing, as if I’d run away from a charging bull and hurled myself over an electrified fence only to find myself at a cheese-rolling event…’)
But there’s no shortage of real-life shagging, according to Notting Hill Yummy Mummy. ‘Due to all the building work, many women spend far more time with their workmen than their partners,’ she says. ‘This causes a lot of affairs. One woman got pregnant by her architect and initially tried to pass the baby off as her husband’s.’
The French contingent is typically relaxed when it comes to les liaisons amoureuses. Russian oligarchs, meanwhile, like to keep their friends close — and their mistresses around the corner.
Gossip is rife. Aberrant behaviour is closely monitored — and stamped on — by a network of residents’ associations. (The TV producer Peter Bazalgette was living in Kensington Palace Gardens when he launched Big Brother, which no one thinks a coincidence.) Barbecues and ball games are strictly verboten.
Elderly residents can be particularly crotchety when it comes to screaming infants and yapping puppies. They remember the bad old days: when Jimi Hendrix overdosed at 22 Lansdowne Crescent and you’d step outside expecting to get shanked, rather than pistachio cronuts. One of the most contentious issues is tree-felling. Typically, residents of houses that are south-facing prize the beauty of the ancient trees, while those in the north-facing ones rant about the lack of sunlight.
One garden square somewhat lacking in more hysterical shenanigans is Stanley Crescent. Its residents’ committee, stuffed with energetic, enthusiastic Americans, not only throws a convivial annual fireworks party — to which plenty of outsiders are invited — but permits (horror of horrors) football. It is so child-friendly that when the Obamas moved into the White House and wanted a really good set of garden swings, they copied the one in Stanley Crescent.
It is believed in these parts that the number of children you have indicates how much money you have, since the bigger your brood, the more you have to fork out on private education. So there are a lot of children in Notting Hell. With several birthdays every week, the fiercest rivalry of all is reserved for children’s parties. Parents outdo themselves to create the costliest, most original extravaganza.
Bouncy castles are erected, private pony rides laid on, gardens are transformed into fairgrounds complete with Ferris wheels and candy floss machines. Every-thing is outsourced, so there is an arms race for the best children’s entertainer. Magicians, clowns and face painters are passé — what you really need is a troupe of acrobats, or the ‘insect man’ to awe children with creepy crawlies. One celebrated birthday party had the young guests dress up as knights to embark on a quest around the garden to find and slay a dragon — the dragon being a giant piñata.
Party bags — which used to consist of a piece of cake, a party popper and a pencil sharpener — are now bags of loot to rival the ones they hand out at the Oscars. They contain gifts that in less affluent areas of the country would be given as main birthday presents: Barbie dolls, stuffed animals, a Play-Doh kit or a Disney character. The parents must also be taken care of, with champagne and canapés.
Still, whatever jealousies seethe in garden squares, there is no shortage of people desperate to get in. Houses cost 25 per cent more if they come with access to a communal garden. And one day soon the residents may even forget their squabbles and unite to counter a greater threat to their lifestyle. Kensington & Chelsea council periodically mutters that more access to these sacred spaces might be granted to people who live locally but who can’t afford the adjoining homes. When this was last raised in 2008 it was a suggestion repelled most vigorously. Paradise might not mean a garden, these days — but letting the oiks in? Well, that would be hell on earth.