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How Maida Vale turned from boudoir village to one of London's most vibrant neighbourhoods

Maida Vale took its name from a small Italian town and an even smaller pub, so it’s the perfect place to celebrate the end of lockdown, says Carla Passino.

It’s strange to walk around Maida Vale’s stately roads and think that none of this existed until 200 years ago.

Of course, woods and fields had long occupied the stretch of land north of Paddington, but the area had no name of its own. Then a battle changed everything.

When, in 1806, the British troops inflicted a burning humiliation on the Napoleonic army at Maida — a small Calabrian town few Italians would be able to pick out on a map — a patriotic pub on Edgware Road named itself The Hero of Maida, in homage to commander Sir John Stuart. As houses began to creep in on the surrounding pasture, the name stuck and Maida Vale was born.

Period terraced properties, Randolph Avenue, Maida Vale

The new crop of Italianate villas, iced white with stucco like giant cakes, and the rows of brick terraces and mansion blocks that followed them soon became home to publishers (Charles Ollier), artists (Sir John Tenniel) and poets: Robert Browning lived at 19, Warwick Crescent for more than 20 years and the pool where the Grand Union and Regent’s canals meet is now called after him.

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Although Browning has been credited with naming the canal area Little Venice, it was Byron that first (facetiously) compared the basin to the Italian lagoon.

Story has it that the poet used to walk along the Paddington arm of the Grand Union Canal with his publisher, John Murray — helpfully pointing to the bridge where another publisher had once drowned himself — and was inspired to write that ‘there would be nothing to make the canal of Venice more poetical than that of Paddington, were it not for its artificial adjuncts’; a fair point, considering that, at the time, the London canals were lined with warehouses and wrapped in soot.

Even today, however, the elegant terraces halfway up Randolph Avenue, with their tripartite arched windows, are far more reminiscent of the Italian city than Little Venice itself, where the serene buildings and tree-lined banks have a rather more bucolic feel.

This atmosphere — and the silence that comes with it — is a boon for Stan Middleton, who runs the Puppet Theatre Barge with his parents and brother.

Founded in 1982 by Mr Middleton’s grandparents, the theatre, which specialises in marionette shows, with a repertoire ranging from Brer Rabbit to works by Shakespeare, Coleridge and Lorca, is a local institution (currently online).

‘It moved to Little Venice in 1988 and this has been an absolute blessing. It’s very peaceful, which is good for us, because it means the show is not disturbed by outside noise. It’s perfect for what we do.’

The Westbourne Terrace Road Bridge over the canal

The barge is moored opposite another local icon, the little blue bridge that spans the Regent’s Canal. At the time it was opened, in 1907, Maida Vale hid a debauched core behind the prim veil of middle-class rectitude.

It was there, in flats or small houses ‘furnished with thick carpets and divans and bright cushions and dim lights’, that young men-about-town kept their mistresses, according to A. G. Macdonell’s Autobiography of a Cad.

The ‘bijou girls’ that filled those ‘bijou residences’ are likely the reason for Lady Edith’s celebrated line in Downton Abbey: ‘I don’t want to be some funny woman living in Maida Vale that people talk about.’

Only a few years later, however, an altogether different group of women, clad in uniforms rather than silk chemises, called Maida Vale, if not home, certainly their workplace. During the First World War, the Underground Group had been increasingly turning to women to fill jobs and, when the Maida Vale Tube station opened on June 6, 1915, it had an all-female staff — a fact so extraordinary that it was reported in The Times.

The ‘Ladies’ Tube station’ would later rise to cinematic superstardom after appearing in Alfred Hitchcock’s Downhill.

It was the beginning of a connection that would not only see local landmarks, but also Maida Vale performers star in international blockbusters. Star Wars wouldn’t be Star Wars without Sir Alec Guinness, born in Lauderdale Road on April 2, 1914, or Daisy Ridley, who spent her childhood in a mews house around the corner from the BBC Studios.

BBC Radiophonic Workshop

The studios themselves have long been a magnet for some of Britain’s greatest musicians. Almost every great rock band has been across their threshold and recorded there,’ says Alice Sinclair, editor of Maida Unveiled. ‘There is, somewhere, a great and chaotic photograph of Pink Floyd arriving in an open-top jeep.’

The Pink Floyd guitarist, David Gilmour, must have liked what he saw because, in the 1980s, he bought a house in Maida Avenue, which he kept until about 20 years ago, when he sold it to Earl Spencer (donating the proceeds to charity).

A few doors from him, also on Maida Avenue, lived Michael Bond, who shared his stucco-fronted home with the floppy-hatted teddy that had inspired him to write the adventures of the bear from darkest Peru (he and his first wife, Brenda, shared custody of the toy after their divorce).

But perhaps one of Maida Vale’s most beloved residents was Edward Ardizzone. ‘There is a blue plaque at 130, Elgin Avenue, right by the bay window where he sat and did almost all of his work,’ says Miss Sinclair. Together with Maurice Gorham, Ardizzone published two London pub guides that are ‘full of lovely drawings’ of Maida Vale’s watering holes.

Many of these places are still much cherished today. According to Little Venice resident Fiona Dent, stepping into the Prince Alfred and the Warrington, feels ‘like being in film sets—which they often are.’ There’s even a new Hero of Maida (the former Shirland) and the Warwick Castle, famous for its marble fireplace, prompting Miss Sinclair to say that Maida Vale has ‘London’s best concentration of classic Victorian pubs’.

Handy, now that coronavirus restrictions are finally beginning to be eased — and only fitting, for an area that owes its name to a pub.

Property for sale in Maida Vale

Warwick Place, £2.9 million

Warwick Place, St Johns Wood, Knight Frank

This Little Venice house, with views of Regent’s Canal, spans 2,446sq ft across four floors. It has a striking, open-plan kitchen and dining room, plus a light-flooded reception room on the lower ground floor, a magnificent double reception room with fireplace on the ground floor and three bedrooms upstairs, including an elegant master suite that takes up the entire first floor and features a spectacular bathroom.

For sale through Knight Frank — see more pictures and details

Elgin Avenue, £1.35 million

99 Elgin Avenue

This townhouse stands in the heart of Maida Vale, close to the Paddington Recreation Ground and the Tube station. Its 1,159sq ft include three bedrooms, one of which doubles up as a study, a living room and an open-plan kitchen and dining area, which flows seamlessly into the conservatory and the terrace beyond. The property is available as a leasehold, with 999 years from 1987.

For sale through Hamptons — see more pictures and details

The places you need to know in Maida Vale

Clifton Nurseries
The reason Maida Vale’s gardens are so full of ‘rare and beautiful plants’, according to a passage in Barbara Vine’s book, Grasshopper (5A, Clifton Villas)

Da Daniela
‘The best Italian food I have ever had outside Italy,’ says local resident Alice Sinclair (49, Shirland Road)

The Winery
This shop has ‘an amazing selection and clairvoyant gift recommendations,’ according to resident Fiona Dent (4, Clifton Road)

Clifton Greens
If this greengrocer doesn’t have it, then ‘it doesn’t exist,’ notes Miss Dent (16, Clifton Road)