Who knows the inside track on Britain's prime addresses? The long-standing local agents – of course – so each week we pin a different one down for an insider's walk around their manor.
This week: Martin Bikhit of Kay & Co
Where: Connaught Village, Hyde Park Estate, Central London
I'm never too sure about the tag 'village' to describe a central London enclave. What does it convey? We're certainly not talking Ambridge existence, cricket on the green, or the hum of gossip over the counter of the general stores.
With one or two notable exceptions, London 'villages' are generally characterised by little more than a cluster of bijou shops, slightly higgledy-piggledy architecture, and the increased likelihood that you'll see familiar faces around the place. Perhaps it's this latter element – the sense of a smaller community of sorts within the faceless London hubbub – that makes them so popular with buyers.
Connaught Village, the triangle of shopping streets which lies at the heart of the Hyde Park estate, is a good example. It's a pleasantly sleepy corner, remarkably free of traffic considering the estate is bounded by the thundering Edgware Road to the east and Bayswater Road to the south.
Perhaps surprisingly, there's a preponderance of the kind of shops people who live locally don't need on a regular basis – upmarket estate agents, dry cleaners, smart flower shops, interior designers, art galleries, Jimmy Choo shoes, bespoke chocolate shops and pricey patisseries.
Know your neighbours
But Martin Bikhit of Kay & Co, who's showing me around the locality, exchanges greetings with several passersby and people drinking coffee in the sunshine outside the patisserie. Clearly the locals stand a good chance of bumping into a neighbour when they nip out to pick up the papers of a morning.
Bikhit tells me that the 'village' was so dubbed a few years ago by the Church Commission, which owns most of the estate; presumably the choice of name was viewed as a bit of a marketing ploy to attract smarter businesses. But he's critical of the commission's approach as landlord: "A lot of shops shut down because they can't afford to pay the rents, and they haven't got the right mix of businesses yet," he says gloomily.
Hyde Park Homes
We stroll away from the shops to explore the estate. "The area has smartened up a lot, and now includes some of the most expensive real estate north of Hyde Park," Bikhit observes. He reckons prices for homes at the upper end of the market are now in line with nearby areas such as Marylebone (though standard two bed flats in modern blocks are still cheaper here).
But there's a marked 'north/south' price divide across Hyde Park. "Parts of Knightsbridge such as Rutland Gate are up to 50 per cent more expensive," Bikhit says. "Yet the Hyde Park estate is not only cheaper but also definitely quieter and greener than the likes of Belgravia, Mayfair and Knightsbridge, south of the park."
Given that Kay & Co's stamping ground focuses exclusively on Marylebone and north west central London, he would say that, wouldn't he? But it's certainly true that the estate is rich with garden squares, and that there's surprisingly little through traffic in evidence.
There's also a real array of housing stock – and a range of prices to match. At the top of the league is Hyde Park Gardens, a handsome stucco-fronted terrace with views across private communal gardens and the park beyond. "Prices there average £1,500 to £2,000 per square foot," says Bikhit. "We've just sold an apartment for £2.6 million, but we have another beauty of over 3,600 sqft with a private terrace overlooking the garden, currently on the market for £7.5 million."
Connaught Square – home to the estate's most high-profile residents, Tony and Cherie Blair, who reputedly paid £3.6 million in 2004 – is equally desirable, though it consists mainly of entire period houses. The larger residences fetch £5-6 million and the smaller ones up to £4 million, according to Martin Bikhit.
But the area lacks the architectural consistency of other parts of town such as Belgravia. The estate is, in fact, a real old hotchpotch as a result of wartime bombing, with many 1960s and 70s apartment blocks punctuating the handsome terraces of the Georgian town planners. Gloucester Square, for instance, is edged with modern blocks. And very popular they are too, says Bikhit: "They have porters and lifts, which the period conversions don't, so they go down really well with older people."
Indeed, he adds, in general the price differential between period and modern accommodation is not terribly significant – provided they're overlooking a garden square. "It's once you come off the squares that modern blocks become much cheaper than period."
The choice of accommodation extends further. If you can't face the ostentation of a stucco-fronted home, the Hyde Park estate also has some fantastic mews homes tucked away behind the main frontages. Bathurst Mews is a good example, with added rurality in the shape of a stables and Pony Club for Hyde Park riders tucked away at one end. Expect to pay £1 million or so for a small two-bedroom house and the pervasive aroma of fresh dung.
So who does live around Connaught Village? High-profile locals include Keira Knightley and trance DJ Paul Oakenfold as well as the Blairs. More generally, says Bikhit, "there's a big Middle Eastern community because of the proximity of Edgware Road, but I've also dealt with a lot of English people". Greeks, Indians and Malaysians also like it – not least because of the ease of getting out of the country via Paddington station and the Heathrow Express, ten minutes' walk away.
Bikhit would clearly like to see a little more dynamism and bustle around the Village. "It'll never become a mini Marylebone High Street, because it doesn't have the office workers or the volume of locals,' he explains. 'Too many people around Connaught Village are only here for part of the year, which makes it hard for the shops to keep going."
He therefore wants to see more passing foot traffic attracted into the shopping centre – perhaps by developing a link through to Portman Village on the other side of Edgware Road. But that, of course, depends on councils collaborating, so Bikhit is not holding his breath for change. Luckily, the charms of the Hyde Park Estate extend well beyond its sleepy shopping centre.
Kay & Co, www.kayandco.com, 020 7262 2030