How Do Rainbow Streets Happen?

Harry Rosehill
By Harry Rosehill Last edited 80 months ago
How Do Rainbow Streets Happen?
Falkland Road. Photo: Geoff Holland

Wandering down some London streets, you might think you've hit the end of a rainbow. Turquoise sits next to lilac, next to a yellowy orange and so on. The phenomenon occurs in many parts of London, but it's most prevalent in two particular neighbourhoods. There's a cluster in Kentish Town, Camden Town and Primrose Hill in the north, and in Notting Hill and Chelsea to the west.

It's an Instagrammer's dream, alright, but the history of these live-in Pantone charts has mostly been left unexplored. When did this trend begin, and why? Were the houses all painted at the same time, or did the colours spring up slowly over time? What role does the council play in maintaining the houses? And what's it like to live in one?

The residents on Falkland Road in Kentish Town know the answers better than most, considering their houses became colourful within living memor. Judith Peak is the person who started it all, with her bold turquoise statement.

Judith's turquoise house that began it all

"I'd been heavily mulling it over for about five years," Judith tell us. After 25 years of living in the house, she decided to go for it. She'd been inspired by the nearby Leverton Street, which has rows of pastel houses. Her neighbours slowly followed suit. Some of them less flamboyantly, others with a sense of flair matching Judith's.

Judith, who's a musician, chose her colour from a Rossini opera score cover. She then mixed a few different shades of paint and talked to the neighbours about which would be their favourite, eventually going with the majority vote. This same formula was followed some years later by Zina, a fiction writer who lives diagonally across from Judith in a raspberry-hued abode.

"I painted pots outside my house with the selection of reds I was considering," says Zina, "Everyone came by to let their opinions known. Then one evening, the owner of the dry cleaner on the high street pulled up, knocked on my door, pointed at a pot and said 'that one.'"

Zina's raspberry house

As painting the houses fell to each individual, it's clear that some homeowners' decisions are more popular than others. We hear more than a few grumblings about a particular door colour they're hoping will fade as soon as possible. And we've all heard of the notorious 'striped house' in Kensington.

Zina, meanwhile loves her raspberry so much, she's matched the decor inside to the outside. "When I moved here, a few of the houses were painted, but not all of them," she says. Some of the stories Zina tells of how each house was painted hint at an unspoken pressure that convinces homeowners here to live up to one another, and bust out the colours. Former homeowner on the street John Storey said just that in an interview with The Guardian in 1999, claiming he "felt compelled to paint his house an interesting colour as it was next to Judith's."

It's this vibrant peer pressure that in part has shaped the way the street looks today.

The back of Zina's house, which is also painted.

Over time, Falkland Road attracted so much attention, it became a conservation area — something that came as a shock to some of its residents. "We became a conservation area without ever being told," says Zina, having only found it out in 2012, when she tried to extend her house and realised there was a special process to go through. She does, however, claim that others have repainted since without recriminations.

The main thing these houses attract, of course, are photographers — something that's created a few awkward situations for Judith. "One summer a family were taking photos of my house so I paused as I walked up to it. They asked if I wanted to pass. I said no, actually I want to go in." Another time she spotted a local estate agent posing for photos outside her house, passing it off as either where they live or something they sold. The formidable Judith — she also jokingly claims the council are afraid of her — quickly set them straight.

Standing in the middle of Falkland Road looking down, there's a noticeable difference between the two sides. One is draped in brighter pastel based shades, the other is darker. It's all down to the sun; the rays wash over the south facing houses and fades the paintwork. Zina loves that it makes the light bounce across the road through her window. She describes the effect the light has upon the pastels as 'like a Neapolitan ice cream".

These streets weren't always so quaint. Before the nearby Kelly Street — another one that inspired Judith to pick up the brushes — became so colourful in the 60s (when the trend originally began), it had an entirely different character. Famed Victorian reformer Charles Booth visited it with the local police inspector and dubbed it Kentish Town's "worst street for immorality." He even suspected a couple houses to be brothels.

This does raise an interesting question in the changing nature of these streets. "People have brought up the G word when it comes to this street," Zina says. That G word is every Londoner's favourite topic: gentrification.

Kelly Street. Do any of these look like former brothels? Photo: David Williams

Then again, the literati at least have been in the area for a while. Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath used to call another nearby rainbow road, Chalcot Square, home before it was colourful (we can't imagine Plath would've been drawn to anything so lurid). However, neither had pockets deep enough to afford to live on a road where a house sells for £9.9 million.

It's more than the colours that's led to the accusations of division. The street's spiked black railings also form a part of the criticism; which the homeowners on Falkland Road added themselves. Zina explains that this is simply the restoration of a feature the houses lost in the 1940s, when railings were scrapped as part of the war effort. Zina argues that people just want to make their houses look as nice as possible. In a borough such as Camden where there's a huge wealth divide, it's easy to see things in a more cynical light.

None of this matters to the budding young photographers who populate these streets in summertime. The colours mean likes for them on social media — something we can all relate to.

Last Updated 13 June 2017