Free Weekend? Explore Primrose Hill

Shielded by its triangular borders of railway, canal and parks, an afternoon ambling round the villas and vistas of Primrose Hill is a London classic. Yet there’s plenty of change afoot

A giant Jack Russell strolls over the hill. Photos by Stephen Emms
A giant Jack Russell strolls over the hill? Photos by Stephen Emms

In the late 1970s, Regent’s Park Road was just another one of London’s down-at-heel parades, a row of rudderless, crumbling shop fronts. But it was cheap and central, so my dad took a basement office, from which he bought and sold not-so-cheap cases of wine.

Culinary options were limited to the brown velvet-curtained booths and prawn cocktails of Mustoe Bistro across the road, or the unreconstructed earthenware idealism of the (now world-class) meat-free Manna just round the corner.

The pubs were faded, the parking options plentiful. Rehearsal spaces and workshops filled disused stables. A former squat operated as a sweaty nightclub, The Howff, in the building that was later to become the Creation Records office. It brought a few people staggering up from the scene around the Enterprise and Roundhouse, but this was otherwise a quiet backwater of the equally down-on-its-luck Camden Town.

A busker on the bridge
Parklife: a busker on the bridge

As one of the first pockets of the city to, er, hipsterize – long before the term was ever coined -(yuppify perhaps being the choice sneer back in the day) – Primrose Hill is a mature London “village”.


Its unique borders – the deep swathe of railway line, the kink of Regent’s Canal and the Royally-protected parks – keep the area neatly contained and offer a semi-seclusion that has made it such a fave of the 90s Jude-and-Sadie set.

Enviable topography aside, it shares much with the capital’s other famously brushed up ‘hood, Notting Hill, from the rebooted grandeur of its villas to the proliferation of interiors shops, £800-a-pop buggies and vaguely ridiculous dogs.

The area’s big ticket attractions deliver the goods dependably, even for spoiled-for-choice city folk. London Zoo, with its swanky new Tiger Territory, Grade I listed ex-Penguin Pool, skyline defining aviary and bug-eyed wonders is a rejuvenated and rightly popular institution.

Primrose Hill - remarkably photogenic whatever the weather
Photogenic, whatever the weather
Meanwhile the de rigueur climb to the top of the Hill rewards with one of the quintessential city vistas, remarkable and photogenic whatever the weather. The park’s trademark gas lamps flag the arteries that run back down again, leading the out-of-puff and the exhilarated straight into the clutches of the many cake vendors on Regent’s Park Road.

Café options? Beyond numerous, with coffee much improved, especially with the arrival of the Little One, a dedicated if diminutive Brazilian-English beans specialist. For something a little stronger, The Queen’s at the foot of the Hill, or the sun-trap Pembroke Castle up the other end are both solid locals, with a higher-than-average chance of having a pint stood next to someone off the telly.

Health and beauty emporia know no bounds along this strip, with alternative therapy and fitness studios to be found at the end of every delightful mews. Grand dame, Triyoga (Erskine Rd), recently revealed its meditative HQ is threatened by proposed property development, but residents are famously vocal about encroaching change, so fingers are crossed the rare fury of yogis has been noted.

Perfect signage: Lansdowne
Perfect signage: Lansdowne
Change is nevertheless unstoppable back on the main drag. Much-loved institutions dating back to before my dad brokered his subterranean deals have recently closed, such as health food pioneers Seseme, Polish run Primrose Patisserie and Welsh’s, the hardware shop.

Others, like vast Greek taverna Lemonia and hot newcomer Greenberry Cafe (see box) are seemingly forever packed, highlighting the direction this now far from crumbling parade finds itself pulled towards.

A stroll deeper into Chalcot Square and surrounds reveals a proliferation of heritage blue plaques waiting to be discovered.

So, beneath the cupcake and luxury linen strewn surface, P-Hill offers visitors an easily unearthed and rich cultural history. More than enough, in fact, to give the throwaway detractors of its modern day posh village tag some food for thought as they drift out of the boundaries and back into the smoke.

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Eating: a brief guide

Velvety: chicken liver parfait at L'Absinthe
Velvety: chicken liver parfait at L’Absinthe

After a noughties lull, the food scene in Primrose Hill is back on track. Odette’s on Regent’s Park Road has been on the receiving end of critical acclaim and awards since celebrity chef Bryn Williams’ took over back in 2007, a recent set menu Saturday lunch proving good value. Elsewhere the Lansdowne is the safest boozer eating option, with its wood-fired pizza and reliable, simple rustic plates. Off the main drag? Melrose and Morgan or La Collina, the modern Italian restaurant on Princess Road.

Always rammed: Greenberry Cafe
Always rammed: Greenberry Cafe
But the hippest places to eat? Undoubtedly Greenberry Café, rammed all day and nightly with sharing plates, cocktails and an on-trend menu of British ingredients. And, over the road, wine-bar-cum deli/trattoria Negozio, part-owned by Tuscan wine estate Avignonesi: try their good-value pasta a la ragu or tasty beef tagliata, served with rocket salad.

Tucked away off Chalcot Square is L’Absinthe, the relatively longstanding French brasserie occupying a site that has often failed. Fronted by ex-pat Burgundian Jean-Christophe, who followed his dream to open a neighbourhood restaurant, it’s the real deal.

L'Absinthe - alfresco in the summer, at a downstairs table in winter
Cute exterior: L’Absinthe
We’ve been many times: alfresco in the summer, at a downstairs table in winter. Delicate slivers of salmon, smoked just across the tracks in Chalk Farm is always a starter highlight, but the chicken liver parfait is a corker, too, its meaty richness offset by the sweet red onion marmalade. Steak-frites? Why, a ribeye: aged, bloody, fat with flavour. Even better on a recent visit was corn-fed chicken breast with celeriac mash and a rich girolles mushroom sauce. Wines start at around £16 – and a bottle of Burgundy to wash it down with will set you back around £30. Stephen Emms

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Top 5: Primrose Hill indies

Primrose Hill Books Cherished, unashamedly analogue booksellers, with a strong focus on local authors, for which they are truly spoiled for choice. But time to overturn that dog ban! 134 Regent’s Park Road

Cherished: Primrose Hill Bookshop
Cherished: Primrose Hill Bookshop
Graham & Green Eye up their range of achingly desirable interiors flourishes, from quirky modern lighting to bold statement sofas. 164 Regent’s Park Road

Richard Dare Extensive top notch kitchen accessories to rival the very biggest department store at one of RPR’s longest-running stores. 93 Regent’s Park Road

Gallery 196 Lovely bits for the home with an Asian/Indian bent including piles of soft furnishings and striking paintings, carvings and mirrors. Corner of Gloucester Crescent, opp railway bridge

Mary’s Living & Giving Shop Portas does high street charity shop chic via upscale donations in aid of Save the Children. 109 Regent’s Park Road

  • Show Comments

  • Sally

    Nice pics!

  • Carol S

    I missed this post last year.
    You’ve forgotten David Bailey lived and worked from here for decades. Superb Patrick Caulfield too..
    Many others of course, and it has changed so much since the 70’s. Sesame and Trojka are very much missed. Thank goodness for stalwart Primrose Hill Books (where books are stacked so carefully, invitingly, in a relatively tiny space that allowing in a dog would be very tricky). It also has irresistible second hand books outside
    Thank goodness too for Yeoman’s, the flower and plant shop opposite whose name escapes me, Lemonia and Richard Dare. Yes to Gallery 196, to the great bathroom accessory place on the corner of RPR & Berkely Rd., and to Graham & Greene too.
    Primrose Hill would be very peaceful but it is always blighted by noisy building/conversion works regardless of HS2 fears.