Nowhere in London shimmers with “scintillating” wealth like Belgravia, says Nicholas Boys Smith in The Daily Telegraph. But until the early 19th century it was a meadow, known as the “Five Fields”, that ran down to the River Westbourne. Deep below the tarmac, the river still runs; if you listen carefully, you can hear it burbling beneath Sloane Square Tube station. Medieval farmers grew watercress and asparagus, and harvested hay; Londoners came to shoot ducks and fight duels. The bricks of today’s Belgravia houses are made of soil from those medieval fields. It was only after the Great Fire of London in 1666, when building restrictions eased, that the fields suddenly became valuable.
At the time, the land belonged to the young widow of an aspiring property developer. Burdened by debts, she struck a deal: her six-month-old baby, Mary, was betrothed to an ambitious Cheshire landowner – Sir Thomas Grosvenor – in return for £6,500, an allowance and a salary for the governess. That is why so many streets and squares are named after places in Cheshire: Eaton, Belgrave, Eccleston, Chester. In the 1820s Grosvenor’s descendant, Robert, turned to Britain’s greatest developer and the great–great–great grandfather of Queen Camilla, Thomas Cubitt. The son of a carpenter, Cubitt became the “true father of Belgravia”, designing all the “indulgent decoration and detail” we see today. Most of the houses have now been “scooped out” and converted into flats, but one remains as it always was, in Eaton Square: the London home of Hugh Grosvenor, 7th Duke of Westminster.