In what could have been described as a ‘welcome to the neighbourhood’ walk from the RCA Kensington campus to the Battersea campus, we gathered a group of walkers ready to flock together. We were to travel down the streets of Kensington and Chelsea toward and over the Thames, to the bridge where the starlings of London roost, murmurating above the rush hour traffic.
Between these two RCA campuses lies some of the most expensive real estate in Britain. It is an urban landscape of privilege. Indeed, according to Zoopla (a property evaluation website), four of the ten most expensive streets in the UK can be found in this small area. I distributed a map marking our start, end, and these four streets, but without the route we would take to link them marked on it.
After a short discussion about the concept and context of the walk we set out to the north, away from the river and through Hyde Park, before doubling back on ourselves to walk down the most expensive street in the country: Kensington Palace Gardens. It runs the length of the western edge of the park behind Kensington Palace between Bayswater and High Street Kensington. The street appears to be a private road, with a gatehouse and armed guards at either end, but is open for the public to walk down. The vast mansions of embassies and billionaires sit back from the leafy boulevard, and we spotted neons by Tracey Emin and chandeliers through high windows.
At the end of this promenade we crossed High Street Kensington and continued south through more narrow streets of flats and apartments before we turned left onto Cottesmore Gardens, a seemingly unexceptional street for our surroundings, except that it is the 8th most expensive street in the country. At this point, as we stood discussing the possible reasons that a street might be considered ‘more valuable’ than another, we were spotted by a private security guard in a tiny marked car, slowly patrolling the roads in this area. It quickly because apparent that we had caught his interest and he slowly followed us for the next few minutes as we approached a seeming cul-de-sac. Pedestrians are able to access the mews below, but not vehicles, so when we descended the steps he made sure to drive right to the end of the street. Intimidation of an unusual group of passers by seemed to be part of the job.
The next stop on our way was the Boltons, the 4th most expensive street in the UK, a sharpened oval of two curved roads split around a church and private gardens. The houses are large, white, solid blocks of 19th century mansion architecture. The church in the centre, St Mary The Boltons is where the street gets its name. Stopping to look at the church we surprised a church warden locking the door as he was leaving. He seemed to take an instant dislike to our group and displayed his suspicions of us silently but overtly. We left after a few minutes of ignoring his glares but I was stunned at how unwelcome we were being made to feel.
From the Boltons a sharp turn to the east took us along the Fulham Road to Chelsea Square. Manresa Road leads south to the King’s Road and is the 10th most expensive street in the UK. One side of the street holds several small terraced houses and some apartments while the other has a large block of student accommodation and a large official looking building of unknown purpose. Again, it seemed surprising that this street should make the list over others.
Crossing the Kings Road and winding our way down to the river via back streets we stepped into yet another world of set piece houses, relics alive with character. As we reach the embankment and turn west along the river to Battersea Bridge the sun was about to set. There was a sudden cry from someone to “Look!” The starlings were mumurating over the bridge, and we watched them as they danced together in unrehearsed patterns, as they do every night. Soon the last few nipped up under the bridge to roost and the cars and buses had the place to themselves again. Across the bridge we paused outside the RCA Battersea campus. It had been a long walk and now the sun had just set. It has been a fascinating experience wandering these exclusive and rarified streets, and the experience of being treated as unwelcome and undesirable leaves a curious mark which was turned on its head by the sight of the mumurating starlings. With so much to digest and night falling we retire to the pub.