IT’S strange to walk around Maida Vale’s stately roads and think that none of this existed until 200 years ago. Of course, woods and fields had long occupied the stretch of land north of Paddington, but the area had no name of its own. Then a battle changed everything. When, in 1806, the British troops inflicted a burning humiliation on the Napoleonic army at Maida —a small Calabrian town few Italians would be able to pick out on a map—a patriotic pub on Edgware Road named itself The Hero of Maida, in homage to commander Sir John Stuart. As houses began to creep in on the surrounding pasture, the name stuck and Maida Vale was born.
The new crop of Italianate villas, iced white with stucco like giant cakes, and the rows of brick terraces and mansion blocks that followed them soon became home to publishers (Charles Ollier), artists (Sir John Tenniel) and poets: Robert Browning lived at 19, Warwick Crescent for more than 20 years and the pool where the Grand Union and Regent’s canals meet is now called after him. Although Browning has been credited with naming the canal area Little Venice, it was Byron that first (facetiously) compared the basin to the Italian lagoon.
Story has it that the poet used to walk along the Paddington arm of the Grand Union Canal with his publisher, John Murray —helpfully pointing to the bridge where another publisher had once drowned himself—and was inspired to write that ‘there would be nothing to make the canal of Venice more poetical than that of Paddington, were it not for its artificial adjuncts’; a fair point, considering that, at the time, the London canals were lined with warehouses and wrapped in soot.
Even today, however, the elegant terraces halfway up Randolph Avenue, with their tripartite arched windows, are far more reminiscent of the Italian city than Little Venice itself, where the serene buildings and tree-lined banks have a rather more bucolic feel. This atmosphere—and the silence that comes with it—is a boon for Stan Middleton, who runs the Puppet Theatre Barge with his parents and brother.
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