Taxi Noir: Billionaires Row
I occasionally find myself driving my cab along one of London’s most upmarket streets; The Bishops Avenue. Some people say it’s in Hampstead, others Highgate. While it’s close to both of these smart North London districts, The Bishops Avenue has an N2 postcode, which identifies it as East Finchley. Not as highbrow as Hampstead, but still a decent area.
Surprisingly there are only sixty-six houses on this exclusive avenue. This is because they are big houses, and they are well-spaced apart. The houses are influenced by Ancient Greek, Roman and Egyptian designs. There’s a touch of the traditional English country house too. Many of the owners come from overseas: seriously rich, and probably famous. Owners have included the Sultan of Brunei; plus various Saudi royals and Eastern European arms dealers. The Toprak Mansion was sold to the President of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, for £50 million in 2008, making it one of the most expensive houses in the world at the time. The road is known as “Billionaires Row.” Interestingly, when I started driving a cab in 1988 it was known as “Millionaires Row”. I guess booming London house prices have led to an upgrade in status.
It’s as leafy and pleasant as you’d expect of any suburban road in which houses are among the most expensive in the world. The Bishops Avenue is a useful cut through from Highgate and Hampstead into the centre of East Finchley, but it’s under-used. This makes it fairly unique in London, where the one thing you can always expect is traffic. It’s quiet because many of the multi-million pound houses are unoccupied. Some haven’t been lived in for decades. Many are registered to companies in tax havens such as the British Virgin Islands and the Channel Islands. They are houses, but not homes.
Buying a house and living somewhere else seems nonsensical to someone of my lowly means, but this is accepted as normal by those who have the money to run more than one home. In recent years, we’ve seen a huge rise in foreign investors buying up properties all over London. The fact is that any home on Billionaires Row is going to appreciate in value. Well almost. In 2019, The Steeple Times reported on the sad decline of Kenmore House at number 58, on the favoured west side of the avenue. This ten-bedroom house was built in 1896, but by the 21st century was suffering badly from many years of neglect. It was marketed as a “development opportunity” in 2016 for £22.5 million. In 2019 the derelict mansion was on offer for a mere £15 million.
A conversation on the morality of owners leaving their houses empty often comes up, particularly with such a homelessness problem in our cities. Personally, I think it’s a matter for the owners to decide on. It’s their money.
I could never afford to live anywhere near The Bishops Avenue. East Finchley used to be considered a pleasant, but accessible, suburb. When London property prices rocketed in the 1980s many such suburbs became too expensive for ordinary families to live in. When I started out as a cab driver in 1988 I was too short-sighted to buy myself a little flat in the suburbs. Had I done so, my property would be earning considerably more than I do. In fact, I’d be a millionaire by now. Perhaps even a billionaire.