What’s the story behind Britain’s richest road?
There’s a simple way to check if your house is a super-mansion or not: look for the boiler cupboard. If you find one, you fail. Of course, there are other tests. Do you have your own cinema, for instance, or could you hold a five-a-side football tournament in your drawing room? But the boiler cupboard is the clincher.
Jersey House, a recently refurbished property at the north end of the Bishops Avenue in Hampstead, certainly does not have a boiler cupboard. No, in keeping with its size and value (its 20,000 square feet cost £5,000 a square foot to build – feel free to complete the arithmetic), Jersey House has a “plant room”.
The plant room is important. Because – despite its freakish scale, despite the lavishness of its appointments, despite the £75,000 dual-direction fireplace that forms the centrepiece of an entrance hall in which the London Philharmonic could comfortably be accommodated – most aspects of Jersey House are passably domestic. There are bedrooms. There is a garden. There are basins. It looks like a house. It is only when you descend to the basement, past the pool, the sauna, the caterer’s kitchen (as opposed to the family kitchen upstairs) and into the plant room, that you realise you are not dealing with a house but something else entirely: a hotel, perhaps, or a hospital. This whitewashed, windowless vault, with its gleaming levers and huge, digitally calibrated tanks, looks like the engine room of the QE2.
Two boilers – producing 140 kilowatts of heat via four twin-head heating pumps to eight separate underfloor heating systems – dominate the space. There are also two 1,800-litre indirect water heaters, a heat exchanger for the pool (which, naturally, has its own plant room), a basement kitchen air-handling unit, and a heated towel-rail system.
Then you have the drinking water. For this there is a 3,000-litre cold-water tank, which comes with a 250-litre resin water softener, and a triple-pump cold-water-boost set (your house definitely doesn’t have one of those) providing ice-cold water at five bars of pressure to every basin in the house – technology that is all the more impressive when you consider that the Russian or Middle Eastern plutocrat who buys the house will have his drinking water delivered from Fiji anyway.
Welcome to the Bishops Avenue, home to the richest, emptiest, weirdest houses in London. Some streets may be more expensive per square foot (Kensington Palace Gardens is the current pound-for-pound champion), and others have higher average prices (Courtenay Avenue beats its Hampstead neighbour handsomely). But no other street in London can compete with the Bishops Avenue’s concentration of huge, monstrously expensive houses.
It should be said that not all of the Bishops Avenue – which winds from Hampstead Heath to Cherry Tree Hill – is colonised by super-mansions. There is a section at the northern end where the modestly loaded live in conditions bordering on the suburban. There are even some flats, which has driven down the street’s averages. But in the central and northern sections, where the Saudi royal family, the Sultan of Brunei, Richard Desmond and Lakshmi Mittal all own colossal plots – the Saudis own at least seven – it is, as they say, different gravy. It is this part of the road down which residents of nearby Hampstead village drive, they tell me, “for a giggle”.
The Royal Mansion, once called Toprak Mansion – a violently ghastly temple-cum-mausoleum in the cod-classical style – which was sold to the Kazakh billionairess Hourieh Peramaa in January, is the paradigmatic Bishops Avenue super-mansion. It was bought for a reported £50m (although some say £41m), making it the most expensive new house ever sold in Britain. Golden lions protect its front door. The garage can hold 28 Rolls-Royce Phantoms. The new owners are spending a further £30m on the place, fitting, among other gizmos, a retractable helipad. It’s hard to see why people find this funny.
There is something faintly absurd, not to say hubristic, about a private house that costs this much; about a transaction that generated £2m in stamp duty alone. But in this regard the Royal Palace has company. Indeed, four weeks before it made headlines, the record for the sale of a new house was beaten when Palladio, in Courtenay Avenue – a pad boasting such Hampstead essentials as a bulletproof front door – sold for £35m to the Lev Leviev diamond family. And the record could fall once more if Jersey House reaches the upper limit of its estimate.
Credit crunch? Not here, where the international buyers are, as the estate agents’ parlance would have it, ultra-high-net-worth individuals. No, the Saudis, Russians, Nigerians and Kazakhs don’t worry about credit. Their wealth comes largely from commodities – in particular, oil – an area in which, if we are to believe the newspapers, there’s currently some money to be made. And anyway, says Andrew Silver, the affable developer of Jersey House,
“it is not as if these guys are going to Nationwide for their mortgages”. Quite. In fact, the super-wealthy have hardly felt the crunch. Last month, Citibank and Knight Frank reported that, in 2007, the UK saw the biggest rise in billionaires, from 35 to 49, and that the current investment of choice for billionaires is property. This has fuelled huge growth in luxury house prices, particularly in London, now the most expensive place in the world to live.
If this is galling news for most Londoners, it is terrific news for Trevor Abrahmsohn, the silver-haired MD of Glentree Estates – which shifts 90% of the expensive houses in the area. Abrahmsohn takes 2-3% commission on every sale. The sales of Palladio and Toprak alone generated around £2m for his company.
Abrahmsohn is what my mother would call “a character”. He talks a great deal. Originally from South Africa, he started Glentree from a room in a hotel in Golders Green, with a £10,000 loan, “audacious dreams… and all the odds stacked against me”. His success, he says, made him the “parabeau of Thatcherite enterprise”, whatever that may mean. Now, he lives among his clients in the Hampstead Garden Suburb.
Abrahmsohn makes some bold claims. He compares his style of deal-broking to Madeleine Albright’s attempt to forge a peace agreement between Ehud Barak and Yasser Arafat (although he tells a story about settling a dispute over £100,000 by tossing a coin, and I don’t remember Albright offering the Gaza Strip in that fashion). Despite his bombast, though, it’s hard not to like him, if only because, at 53, he retains a puppyish enthusiasm for his job. Today, I adore him. He’s agreed to show me round some of the houses on the Bishops Avenue. As we drive in his Smart car past the high gates and the Range Rovers, and hordes of builders, I ask him why this street became so popular with the super-rich. It is busy, noisy and dirty. White vans outnumber Rolls-Royces. Some of the larger houses are defiantly ugly; others are in a state of disrepair. Why here?
“If you buy a house on the Bishops Avenue, you can’t be a poor man,” he says. “It’s known all over the world. Where else can you buy a house 15 minutes’ drive from the centre of London with a garden of two acres, 30 minutes from Luton airport, your airport of choice if you have a sizable jet? London has become the capital of the world for the super-rich, and the Bishops Avenue is a good place to park some money.”
Abrahmsohn shows me a house he’s trying to offload as a rental property: Sabilese. Built over four floors, it has eight bedroom suites, a huge garden, and, of course, not a boiler cupboard in sight. Its exterior broadly follows the brickwork arts-and-crafts theme of the original houses on the road, but on the inside, what horrors await.
On entering the triple-galleried reception hall, we are greeted by a chandelier like a belly dancer’s headdress. Indeed, there is a chandelier in every public room. The carpets are so plush they practically tickle the shins. The swimming pool, meanwhile, has been adorned with classical pillars and a seaside trompe l’oeil that resembles a kindergarten art project. Of course, water floods out of the showers at a litre per second, the cinema and steam rooms are capacious, and the lighting can be controlled from a yacht in the Mediterranean (just to spook the neighbours), but what could override the all-consuming hideousness of the interiors? Who would want to rent this house, unfurnished, for £15,000 a week? “I’ve heard Russell Crowe’s interested,” says Abrahmsohn. They deserve each other.
Back in the car, we drive past the Royal Mansion. It makes Sabilese look positively demure. I ask Abrahmsohn whether he thinks the house is in good taste. “Taste is very personal, and highly subjective,” he says. “What is much more relevant, to me anyway, is this: it’s a world-beating deal. Whether you like the architecture or not, the house has huge presence, huge status.
“We decided that the sale of this house was so significant, we had to have a party. And because it is so stately, we had to have a political icon as our guest of honour. We chose Gorbachev.”
He’s not lying. He invited Gorbachev. What’s more astonishing, Gorbachev came. Moreover, Abrahmsohn’s views on the significance of properties are mirrored along the street. Silver, the developer of Jersey House – which, despite being off-puttingly large, is soberly decorated with English stone and wood – elaborates. “To me, Jersey House is attractive,” he says. “But that depends on whether you like this style. There are some features in this house that I wouldn’t put in my own, but I know what our clients are looking for. The key is this: you couldn’t look at this house and think it was insubstantial.”
Buying a house on the Bishops Avenue, then, is not for rich dreamers with grand designs, but an opportunity for the super-rich to fulfil two of their driving compulsions: showing off and looking after their assets. The land is the thing – buyers know it is unlikely to decrease in value. The house is a secondary consideration. It’s not as if many of the super-rich are going to live there full time anyway (there are exceptions – one Russian gentleman never leaves the road).
If buyers do build on the land, what they want, in Abrahmsohn’s words, is “a trophy house”, which they might visit five times a year. Indeed, developers have started to offer houses fully furnished in the pan-Arab embassy style favoured by the international super-wealthy, because their clients want to move in with no effort. They want towels on the rails, plasma screens in the shower and art on the walls. They might, at a push, bring their own clothes.
In the late 1980s and ’90s, buyers – initially from Greece, then the Middle East, Nigeria and, latterly, Russia – would tear down houses and build in whatever style they wished. The houses resembling American presidential libraries or Dubai banks were largely built in this period. Now, Barnet’s regulations are tighter, but there has hardly been a day in two decades when the council has not been considering a planning application from the Bishops Avenue, which explains why so many houses are unkempt and unoccupied. Until planning permission comes through, the owners let their houses lie fallow, often returning to find their property occupied by squatters. Indeed, until recently, Jersey House was occupied by five shirtless Hungarians.
Naturally, there have been some run-ins between developers and the planners at Barnet – so much so that in 1999, a “character appraisal” document was written for the Bishops Avenue. It is, perhaps, the most gloriously sniffy piece of literature ever produced by a local council. The authors give the impression of a road wheeling its way to hell in a handcart.
The Bishops Avenue, they note, was constructed in 1887, on land formerly belonging to the Bishop of London, and has from the outset been a street for the rich. George Sainsbury was one of the first residents. This seems to mark the zenith of the road’s aesthetic fortunes. In the 1920s and ’30s it started to become known as “Millionaires’ Row”, with Gracie Fields owning one of its mansions. Even at this stage there were some distinctly non-U features. “A number [of houses],” says the report, “fail to exhibit the architectural skill to be found at Hampstead Garden Suburb. Some are a little architecturally showy, no doubt influenced by the styles of the homes of the stars in Hollywood.”
Worse was to follow. By the mid-1960s, Billy Butlin had arrived, and another raft of development was unleashed, as the road’s “fame had now spread abroad”. The results? “The quality of the architecture is often unscholarly and dull or aggressively modern and incongruous.” This time of unscholarly buildings, however, would seem very heaven when the 1980s rolled around, and “a number of the earlier houses along the middle part of the Bishops Avenue [were] demolished and replaced with often much larger properties. Many of these have taken the desire to impress to new heights and pay no regard to the vernacular architecture which characterises the area but rather reflect the vagaries of the international architectural fashion and the individual whim of their owners.”
The report concludes, dolefully, that the Bishops Avenue has always been the butt of jokes – in the 1930s it featured in the comedic material of variety performers – and that this forms something of the “special character” of the area. “From the beginning, public attitudes were tinged with a certain snobbery about new money and poorly educated taste,” a mockery which, of course, the authors would never stoop to.
The day after Abrahmsohn has whisked me around Hampstead in his tin can, I return to the Bishops Avenue. This time I’m on foot, walking down the west side of the street, pressing buzzers to see if anyone will let me in for a chat. Few answer. Of those who do, the responses are almost uniformly hostile. But I have some luck. At Barons Court, they won’t let me in, but they are putting out their recycling (Jonathan Cainer horoscope pages, Arab newspapers, a bottle of Johnnie Walker whisky). And, at Kenstead, Sebastian, a Polish builder, comes to meet me outside the high, forbidding gates.
Kenstead, he says, is owned by the Saudi royal family. He’s been refurbishing it for the past two years. How do they pay? “Okay. Could be better, could be worse.” How often does he see them? “Never in two years.” Why are they refurbishing the house if nobody’s going to use it? “Don’t ask me,” he says, shuffling back inside to his pointless labour. I later discover the Saudis bought at least seven houses on the road in the early 1990s, when they feared Saddam Hussein would invade their country. All are now unused.
Outside the Royal Mansion, I stop for a gawp at the golden lions. In doing so, I meet my first pedestrian – an English woman in her thirties walking her labrador, her child and her child’s nanny down the road. She is, she says, renting at the northwest corner of the road, although she won’t give me her name. What does she think of the road? “It’s horrible,” she says. “You never see your neighbours. It’s noisy. It’s full of builders.”
Our discussion is broken up by a Kazakh goon in a black suit and tie, who comes out to see who we are. We throw our hands up. “We’re just looking!” we say. The guard grunts and moves off, as do we, but I am reminded that my labrador-walking friend is not the only denizen of the Bishops Avenue to feel disenchanted. Mona Bauwens, daughter of the PLO official Jaweed Al-Ghussein – whose family lived from the late 1970s until 1997 at Sunningdale, 38 the Bishops Avenue – says she would never return. “We loved our house, particularly the garden. We had two acres out the back; we had a rose garden, a secret garden, a pond. The house itself was big, but it was a family home. But towards the end, in the late 1980s, when people had begun building these super-houses of 30,000 square feet, the character of the road changed We used to know most of the people on the road. People would walk up and down the road, and we’d be on nodding terms with most of them. We’d see them up at Kenwood House for the summer concerts. But when those houses started being built, we only knew who lived there because of what we read in the papers.”
Secretive is, of course, exactly the way the international super-rich like it. The road has a long history of nefarious characters – Asil Nadir and Emil Savundra masterminded multi-million-pound frauds from their houses in the road, and the Greek tycoon Aristos Constantinou was shot dead at No 66 on New Year’s Day, 1985, with seven silver bullets. Now the trend among the international wealthy (however they have earned their billions) is towards high-security paranoia. For this reason, Silver has fitted a secret “safe room” in Jersey House, which exists, in James Bond fashion, behind a false wall.
My stroll down the street concludes at the Summer Palace, Lakshmi Mittal’s sprawling 25,000-square-foot modernist mansion. It has been reported that Mittal, who spends most of his time in Kensington, wants to sell. His back has been put up, apparently, by the fact that Barratt Homes has erected 12 apartments next door, which look rather chic from the inside, and like a school sports hall from without. I buzz the entry phone and, surprisingly, his smart secretary, a former Gurkha, comes to the gate. Mittal still uses the house, he says, “sometimes for relax, sometimes for party”. He says his boss is hanging on to the place for a while. “Price kept dropping, £5m, another £5m, and then is too low.” I ask Abrahmsohn about this, but he denies the claim. The Summer Palace, he is sure, will fetch close to the asking price of £40m.
The guiding principle of the Bishops Avenue is that money is no object. If you have to ask the price, you can’t afford it. That is the folklore, perpetuated with some skill by Abrahmsohn and his crew. Indeed, Glentree make much of the fact that they vet potential buyers for their economic status, offering brochures for houses at exorbitant rates to see if “they’re serious”, and throwing out their inquiries if they complain about paying hundreds of pounds to look at a brochure of a house that looks like a tomb.
This is all jolly stuff, but it misses the point. The Bishops Avenue is not for people for whom money is no object – those people renovate double-fronted townhouses in Mayfair. It is for people for whom money is the only object, and the only subject. There can only be one goal to buying a house with the scale and eye-watering aesthetics of the Royal Mansion, and if you think the people who bought it don’t care how much they paid for the brochure, you’re mistaken.
I heard a story, a parable even, about this pocket of north London. It takes place in the plant room of a new-built mansion – where else? – and concerns a certain country’s richest man, whose identity I promised to conceal for fear of my informant’s social (and, perhaps, actual) death. This man and his wife had not lived in their house for long – one of the world’s most expensive – when the heating systems began to go awry. Now, when you live in a 20,000-square-foot house and the plumbing’s playing up, you call someone fast. The engineer arrived promptly, went down to the plant room and looked at the series of mechanical control panels that monitor the byzantine complex of boilers and water tanks and filters. And they were all to cock. Someone had been messing around with them. He asked around the staff, but nobody knew anything about it. Eventually the owner’s wife admitted, rather sheepishly, that she had been in the room and had tried to adjust the settings. Why, asked the engineer. Her reply tells you everything you need to know about this odd little world. “I was worried about the heating bills,” she said.