Today, Knightsbridge is home and host to the glamorous, but it wasn't always quite that way, finds Carla Passino.
An immaculately coiffed guest sashays out of the massive doors of the Mandarin Oriental, past the top-hatted, red-coated doorman, revealing a glimpse of the marbled hall inside. Reopened about a year ago after being ravaged by a fire in June 2018, this turreted Edwardian icon is the pinnacle of centuries of Knightsbridge’s hospitality – but its gilded grandeur is a far cry from the timbered inns that peppered the area in the past. After all, this was one of London’s most infamous suburbs, where robberies and assassination attempts were the order of nearly every day.
For centuries, Knightsbridge’s only remarkable landmark was the stone bridge that gave it its name. Nonetheless, the bridge and the road that passed by it, linking London to Kensington and Brentford, brought in roaring, if rather shady, trade for inns of ill repute. No tavern was more notorious than the Swan Inn, which, in its early incarnation, stood in that part of Knightsbridge that is now taken up by the swanky glass-and-copper pavilions designed by Richard Rogers for One Hyde Park.
Where aerodynamic cars now defy gravity by hanging off a wall at the McLaren dealership’s window, thieves, traitors and murderers once gathered to plan their next misdeed. Among other occasions, it was here that two Jacobite conspirators met in the late 17th century to plot one of the many failed attempts to assassinate William III: they had planned to ambush him on his way back from Kensington, but were discovered and duly executed.
Travellers who ventured through Knightsbridge didn’t only have to contend with the local low life, either – the road itself, unpaved and dimly lit, was equally as treacherous. It’s hard to imagine anything more different from the glossy lengths of Knightsbridge and Brompton Road.
The gentrification that turned Knightsbridge into a place that, in the words of Tim Hassell, managing director of Draker lettings agents, ‘screams luxury from every rooftop’, began at the turn of the 19th century. The magnificent Kingston House, where the bigamous Duchess of Kingston-upon-Hull lived for a time before being put on trial (and fleeing to Continental Europe with a good chunk of the late Duke’s wealth), was built in what is now Princes Gate in 1775.
At about the same time, Hyde Park’s Rotten Row, which William III had created to convey himself safely to St James’s Palace, became the place where the cream of Society paraded by horse, phaeton and curricle during the Season. The arrival of the Horse Guards in 1795 must have also helped uphold law and order, although the guardsmen were later considered the prime reason Knightsbridge was rife with drinking establishments, rowdy music halls and women of dubious morals.
However, the real game-changer for the area was the development frenzy of the Regency and Victorian era. The first houses in peaceful Montpelier Square, sheltered from the bustle of Brompton Road, were built in the mid 1820s and they are still sublime in their stuccoed simplicity. Meanwhile, a wall had been built along Ennismore Street to separate residents of the Rutland Estate from the area behind Brompton Road, which, at the time, was rather less salubrious.
A German bomb tore it down on September 25, 1940, and, when the City of Westminster set out to rebuild it in 1948, the locals, who had presumably grown quite tired of having to walk for miles to get from Rutland Gate to Brompton Road, requested a passage-way be kept open. Known as The Hole in the Wall, it now links perhaps the prettiest streets in Knightsbridge: the western end of Rutland Street, with its sequence of cottages brightened by colourful external shutters; the cobbled Ennismore Mews, where converted coach houses with miniature wrought-iron balconies hide under the shadow of the Russian Orthodox Cathedral Church; and the southern portion of Ennismore Gardens Mews, whose sorbet-hued buildings overlook the grounds of Holy Trinity Brompton.
Beyond them soars the neo-Classical dome of the Brompton Oratory, a bulwark of traditional Catholicism. Even after it gentrified, Knightsbridge didn’t lack peculiar characters – chief among all being (the possibly mythical) Mrs Dowell.
A tobacconist who ran a shop next to what today is the Berkeley Hotel’s sleek glass entrance, she ‘was so exceedingly partial’ to the Duke of Wellington, who had settled at nearby Apsley House in 1817, that, wrote Henry George Davis in Memorials of the Hamlet of Knightsbridge, ‘she was continually inventing some new plan whereby to express her regard’. This included plying him with ‘patties, cakes, and other delicacies’ that she left with his servants.
Although the Duke never paid her any attention, she wasn’t deterred – and, who knows, perhaps her ghost still trundles every day to Apsley House, to place spectral cakes on the Meissen dessert plates and gaze longingly at her hero’s imposing bust.
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Residents love the food, from Heston Blumenthal’s Dinner to Gordon Ramsay’s Pétrus, Knightsbridge is a Who’s Who of the culinary world. Plus, there are Indian tapas at Amaya, contemporary Japanese at Zuma and a New-York take on Italian cuisine at The Bulgari Hotel’s Sette.
Residents like the cluster of some of the world’s best shops, such as Christian Louboutin, Feathers and the big Sloane Street fashion houses. Knightsbridge is one of only two areas officially recognised as international retail centres in the London Plan (the other is the West End).
Residents could do without the small number of (usually young) luxury-car drivers racing around the local streets at night. The Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea has called for the installation of sound cameras to identify and fine the perpetrators.
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