18 September 2014, The Wall Street Journal
On Saturday mornings Northcote Road in southwest London is abuzz. Market stalls sell artisanal bread and specialty olives to adorable nuclear families, while yoga-toned mothers with caramel highlights drink no-fat cappuccinos in the many local cafes.
Welcome to London’s original “nappy valley”—the most renowned of an elite group of London neighborhoods considered so ideal for families that buyers are prepared to pay a premium of around 20% to live there.
The nickname nappy valley is a play on Happy Valley, the enclave in pre-independence Kenya known for the hedonistic lifestyles of its wealthy expatriate community. The appeal of today’s nappy valley is far more wholesome: green space, great schools, good looks, and a very specific atmosphere.
Northcote Road is at the heart of an area locally known as “between the commons,” referring to the public open spaces of Wandsworth and Clapham Commons. Nearly 400 acres of green space—about half the size of New York’s Central Park—are dotted with play areas and tennis courts. The neighborhood also has highly rated schools, plenty of cute boutiques and high-end cafes. It also has grand period homes with spacious backyards that affluent London families aspire to. Little wonder that celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay and his wife, Tana, have chosen to bring up their brood in the area.
“Between the commons is the most child-friendly area of London,” says Ed Tryon, of Lichfields Buying Agency. “There are two excellent state primary schools; there are also a number of child-friendly restaurants and cafes that serve marmite on toast and fairy cakes for children. There are also endless summer fetes and fairs in the summer, largely aimed at younger parents and kids.”
On a more prosaic note, trains from nearby Clapham Junction offer fast links to central London, 4 miles away, as at least one parent in a nappy valley family tends to have a high-powered job in finance or tech to pay for their child’s play dates and baby Mandarin classes.
A typical four-bedroom property between the commons would cost around $1.866 million, according to Ed Mead, executive director of Douglas & Gordon. An identical house a few minutes’ walk away would be worth around 20% less.
Between the commons was the first area to earn the nappy valley title—but it does have its rivals. Chiswick, about 7 miles west of central London, also touts top schools, cafe culture and green space. The actor Colin Firth and his wife, Livia, live there with their young children, and locals believe it has a more country-village atmosphere than the sophisticated—some might say flashier—vibe of between the commons.
Real-estate agent Rachel Thompson, a partner at the Buying Solution, explains why Chiswick is catnip for parents: Not only will their children enjoy a great lifestyle, but so will they. “There are some fantastic restaurants in Chiswick,” she said. “La Trompette is Michelin starred, and Sam’s, which is backed by restaurateur/chef Rick Stein. ” There is also an outpost of the Soho House empire of private members’ clubs and restaurants for the well connected, named High Road House.
John Horton, a director of Horton and Garton estate agents, said most of his Chiswick clients are in banking and finance, their spending power evidenced by the high-end baby strollers and designer Wellington boots worn for muddy walks in Chiswick Park.
Demand for nappy valley life has put a premium on homes in Chiswick. A typical terraced Victorian house would sell for around $1.947 million, said Mr. Horton. That same property transplanted to just outside the area would be around 20% cheaper.
Historically, most nappy valley neighborhoods have tended to be in south and west London, perhaps thanks to the drift of young families out of unaffordable prime central London. But a subtly different style of nappy valley is developing farther afield, to the east of the city, around Victoria Park, an oasis of almost 200 acres of green space.
Buying agent Caspar Harvard-Walls, of Black Brick, said Victoria Park Village is beloved by slightly edgier parents who want to combine the hipster vibe of east London with the upscale amenities for their children. Victoria Park has the classic nappy valley street full of cafes, restaurants and pubs, and the schools in the area are considered among the best in London. Yet it is also popular with artists, and its streets are slightly less perfectly manicured than those between the commons or in Chiswick.
Simon Randal, senior sales negotiator at Currell Residential, said the area’s popularity with families is also due to its strong community. “This is not a transient area; people tend not to want to leave,” he said.
A typical four-bedroom terraced house in Victoria Park would cost around $2.272 million. Mr. Randal estimated that just outside the area exactly the same property would be worth $1.866 million—a difference of just under 20%. It is worth pointing out, though, that if the same house was in prime central London it could easily be worth $16 million or more.
Many of Mr. Randal’s buyers are abandoning more expensive areas like Notting Hill—not only because of its high prices. They also complain that increased gentrification has left many prime central neighborhoods feeling a bit sterile. “Victoria Park is like Notting Hill was 25 years ago,” he explained.
His clients are uniformly well-paid professionals, although they often work in creative sectors like media and advertising. “They want something a bit more bohemian than stiff upper lip west London,” he explained. “It is a paradox really—they like the fact that east London is a bit more down to earth; it is like they want to appear a bit less well off than they actually are.”