Hymn to a village way of life

Vast changes have overtaken many districts of London. Robert Liebman looks at how the capital's villages have held up
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The Independent Online
When Penny Muir and her then husband were house-hunting in the early 1980s, they insisted on an area that was urban and also suitable for raising three young sons. The order was tall, perhaps self-contradictory. It was resolved by Crouch End.

Now, thoughts about grandchildren would not be inappropriate. Her two eldest sons and her husband have long left the nest, and her youngest is a gap-year wing-flapper who, recently returned from an extended trip to the Middle East, has his sights set elsewhere.

Nestled in the Underground-free zone in north London between Archway, Highgate and Finsbury Park, Crouch End still blends urban ambience with pastoral pace. Alexandra Park, home to Alexandra Palace, is nearby, as is Parkland Walk, a former railway spur, now trackless and genuinely rusticated.

"Crouch End feels self-contained, and when you enter from Crouch End Hill, it suddenly appears almost dramatically in front of you. I certainly identify it as a distinct community," says Penny, a partner with solicitors Lewis Nedas in Camden Town.

The village-like flavour has numerous components: "Crouch End is an urban, not rural village. You don't feel anonymous. Everything is to hand, within reach, in a manageable unit - manageable emotionally, not geographically," she says.

Most of what is to hand consists of a huge number of mostly ethnic restaurants in an amiable melting pot: "Crouch End is diverse ethnically but it all works well. My dry cleaners are Indian, my wine bar is run by Greek Cypriots, and many of the shopkeepers know me by name. It is a great pleasure on Saturday mornings when I go to my local bakery and bump into several people I know. It's comfortable living here."

Sam also feels that Crouch End reaches most of the parts required by a 19-year-old. Most of his social life consists of visiting friends' houses and pubs, all of which are local. "Being on the outskirts makes Crouch End countrified and green and suburby but you still have contact with the city. It is somehow insular. I leave only to go clubbing."

Over the years, says Penny, "a lot of houses have been converted into multiple occupancies. Many young couples have moved in - writers and advertising people. It is getting a Bohemian feel. There is still a good mixture - students, families who have been here for years, ethnics."

To this pastoral idyll, Toby Muir, 26, a disc jockey cum legal clerk cum decorator, interjects a corrective in the form of "a little Socialist rant. Crouch End is a bowl, but it has changed. Haringey Council sold off many Georgian properties to the middle class. The working class has been bought out, with the council selling whatever was council-owned."

He admits, though, that it is no less of a village for this policy, only more "twee". His mother contends that "Crouch End does not have the poncey quality of Highgate and Hampstead."

Architect and town planner Terry Farrell notes that today's clocktowers are like the old village pumps, the focus of traditional English village life. "London is a set of villages for definite genuine reasons," says Mr Farrell, who is an architect, urban planner, and chairman of UDAL, the Urban Design Alliance. "London and English cities generally are rural because the country's psyche is rural. Even the monarch lived out of town. London is rural because it genuinely grew from villages."

Mr Farrell notes that "London has no underlying urban pattern, except for the City, which is small." New York and the modern American model have a central downtown business area, and continental cities are denser, reflecting military needs and local political concerns. London is different from any other major city I can think of."

Many urban planners have noted that Londoners tend to end up where they began. When the time comes for Penny to put her house on the market, she warmly imagines, if money were no object, living in "an old-fashioned mansion-block flat in St John's Wood or Maida Vale or Hampstead, the kind of elegant flat doesn't exist in Crouch End. I'll be happy to stay here, and that is probably what will happen."

Lewis Nedas, 24 Camden High Street, London NW1; 0171-387 2032; UDAL, c/o RIBA, 66 Portland Place, London W1N 4AD; 0171 580 5533; Terry Farrell, 17 Hatton Street, London NW8 8PL; 0171 258 3433.