Giles Coren considers a des res on London’s most expensive street
It is hard to feel sorry for billionaires. But spare a thought for the man who put Heath Hall on The Bishops Avenue up for sale at £100 million in 2011, waited hopefully for four years (peering out the window lest some passer-by with that sort of cash in his pocket take a liking to his wisteria and wish to fork out on the spot) and finally sold it last month for less than a quarter of that.
Of course, it is easy to laugh at a guy who has just taken a £75m bath (and I intend to), but looking at the wider picture, does this spell the end of the road for ‘Billionaires’ Row’? And what is a ‘Billionaires’ Row’ anyway? What is it for? Why do billionaires need their own row? Is it just because they’ve already got one of everything else?
For most of the last hundred years, The Bishops Avenue in north London was known as little old ‘Millionaires’ Row’ and only got promoted quite recently, on account of inflation. Will it have to be demoted again?
Certainly the people who live there are not poor. Ten of the road’s 66 houses are owned by the House of Saud, the rest by Lakshmi Mittal, Richard Desmond, the president of Kazakhstan (who paid £50m for his in 2008) and assorted other nice normal people who earned their fortunes as a happy by-product of simply making the world a better place.
I say ‘live there’: they actually don’t. Nobody does. You can tell when you drive down it (you have to drive: walking is illegal and private security operatives shoot on sight). The only humans you will ever see are builders, smoking fags and leaning on their wheelbarrows. Because what people do when they buy a house on Billionaires’ Row is immediately knock it down and build another one, even more vast and horrible than the last, presumably for arcane tax reasons you and I couldn’t possibly understand. Indeed, from the road, all you can see is wooden hoardings with pictures of houses on them, to hide the house that is really being built behind them, in preparation for its being knocked down by its next owner.
And all you can hear is the deafening racket of a thousand pneumatic hammers, blasting away marble floors to lay identical ones over the top, which can’t be very nice when you’re smoking a big cigar in the heated swimming pool of the house you yourself have recently built next door. Except you’re not. You’re in Dubai or Barbuda, making plans to sell it on to someone else who will immediately knock it down.
When I was a kid, The Bishops Avenue was just a leafy suburban street with a lot of very big Edwardian houses in it. But three or four architectural generations on, it is now a row of enormous red-brick strongboxes with barred windows and marble columns, each one looking like a cross between a national reserve bank and a Babylonian temple, which nobody could possibly want to live in. Which is why they don’t.
An investigation by the Guardian last year revealed that 16 of the houses (with a theoretical value of £350m) are currently derelict, while local reports suggest that the figure is far higher, with possibly only three houses permanently occupied. THREE!
So if billionaires do not truly live in Billionaires’ Row, then what is it for? Asked that question recently, one local estate agent explained: ‘Among the wealthiest circles in the world, The Bishops Avenue is better known than Buckingham Palace. If you live there, you don’t need to explain to people that you’re rich.’
Which sounds terribly convenient. Except that if actual prices have tumbled to barely 25 percent of expectations then very soon the only thing you won’t need to explain, as the proud owner of a seven-storey onyx pleasure dome on a dusty two-acre plot by the side of the roaring North Circular, is that you are a total sucker.
‘Suckers’ Row’. Now that has a definite ring to it.