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Kilburn, North-west London, UK

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Kilburn is a small, bustling and inevitably traffic-clogged community in the Borough of Brent in north-west London. It is surrounded by rather more upmarket neighbours, but has mercifully not yet acquired an inferiority complex. To the south is posh Maida Vale and to the north is suburban Cricklewood. Westwards you will find trendy Willesden and Queen's Park and if you go east you will stumble upon smart West Hampstead.

The centre of Kilburn life is the Kilburn High Road, a section of the ancient Roman Road of Watling Street which now forms the western boundary of the London Borough of Camden. This same road starts life at the north-east corner of Hyde Park as Edgware Road and continues through North-West London up to St Albans, which was an important Roman settlement.

History of Kilburn

The name comes from Kelebourne, a stream which flowed from Hampstead through Kilburn, and eventually into the Serpentine in Hyde Park.

The Kilburn Priory was established in 1130 on what was then Watling Street – now the corner of Kilburn High Road and Belsize Road - and provided shelter and food for pilgrims on their way to the shrines at Willesden or St Albans, until the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII. It could have made a fascinating tourist attraction for Kilburn, if it still existed - however, not a trace of it is left.

On its site was built The Bell Inn in 1600. The zenith of Kilburn's reputation came in the 18th Century when the Inn's tea gardens became a fashionable spa, due to the discovery of a chalybeate1 spring, at Kilburn Wells.

This was short-lived, however, and by the end of the century Kilburn had acquired a reputation for cheap entertainment. The Bell became the scene for dog fighting and bare-knuckle bouts, as well as certain immoral activities connected with a house over the road. By the early 19th Century the place had also become a notorious duelling spot.

County Kilburn

It is said that along the Kilburn High Road there is a pub or bar every forty yards. Stroll along at 3am on any given morning and you will hear the muffled sound of good cheer emanating from these numerous pubs with drawn curtains and closed doors. Yes, intrepid traveller, you have arrived in the Land of The Lock-In.

There's a reason for the number of pubs, of course: Kilburn is home to London's largest Irish community, and is therefore affectionately known as County Kilburn.

The first wave of Irish immigrants came in the mid-19th Century after the great potato famine. There was a second wave in the 1950s and 1960s. Why they settled in Kilburn, nobody quite knows. The word Brent probably comes from 'Brigantia', the name of a Celtic goddess, so perhaps the Irish were drawn there by a mysterious but primordial urge reaching back to their Celtic roots. Or perhaps it was a divine retribution visited on the English for the destruction of Kilburn Priory, thus allowing a bunch of Catholics to take over the area. Or maybe it was because the expansion of the railways meant that there were jobs and homes. Historians are divided.

The biggest event in the Kilburn calendar is, unsurprisingly, the St Patrick's Day parade. Not on as grand a scale as the one in Central London, nor as colourful as the nearby Notting Hill carnival, the Kilburn Paddy's Day parade is nevertheless a jolly occasion, best avoided if you don't like Guinness or the colour green.

Ethnicity & Religion

The Borough of Brent is one of only two areas (the other is the London Borough of Newham) in the UK to have a non-white majority. Kilburn itself is an ethnic mix, with Afro-Caribbean, West African, Somali, Middle Eastern, Pakistani and Bangladeshi peoples in particular. The so-called white community is also diverse, with the large Irish contingent and a Polish faction now competing with a growing Russian enclave in the area.

Kilburn has a Mosque, a Synagogue, Catholic, Presbyterian and Evangelical Churches, and there is a large Hindu temple in next-door Willesden.


Kilburn may not have a monastery any more but it has its fair share of monuments to entertainment. Which is only to be expected, given the place's historical reputation. Kilburn High Road is home to the State, the National and the Tricycle.

The State

Or the Gaumont State Cinema, to give it its full title. It was the largest cinema in Europe when it opened in 1937, with more than 4,000 seats. A gold and green dome tops the enormous auditorium and the foyer houses two chandeliers which are replicas of those at Buckingham Palace, only bigger.

The State possesses the largest original Wurlitzer Organ in Britain, one of the few remaining in the country today. The State is now, inevitably, a Mecca bingo hall, but there are occasional Wurlitzer concerts - for instance, as part of London's regular Open House weekends.

Not content with an enormous organ, the State also has a 130-foot tower thrusting upwards into the north-west London sky. It is a landmark, lit up at night in tasteful red neon.

The National

First known as the Kilburn National Ballroom, then later as the Kilburn National Club, the National, with its distinctive dome, has played host to hundreds of major rock bands, from The Smiths to Nirvana to Blur. There was even a short-lived music television programme broadcast live from the place in the 1980s.

In 1999 it was closed down after long legal battles over noise levels, and was converted into an evangelical Church. This too was closed down in 2002 by the Charity Commission after an investigation into financial improprietry. Kilburn waits with bated breath to see what the building will turn into next.

The Tricycle

The Tricycle Theatre was founded in 1980, and refurbished after a major fire in 1987. It is now a shiny new cinema and theatre complex and under its current director, Nicholas Kent, has earned a reputation not only for high-quality fringe theatre productions but also for reflecting the cultural diversity of its neighbourhood.

Plays by Irish, Afro-Caribbean, Jewish and Asian writers are the staple of this trend-setting theatre, and recent acclaimed productions that have gone on to bigger and better things include the worldwide Irish hit play Stones In His Pockets, the musical Ain't Misbehavin' and The Colour of Justice, a dramatisation of the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry, recently adapted for BBC Television.

Local Amenities

Kilburn High Road really is a colourful and bustling place, especially on a Saturday afternoon. Many of the shops are family-run businesses; you won't see many famous names here.

But there is very little in the way of useful local amenities, especially for families. There's no decent library, no sports hall or swimming pool. The local park is very small and hidden between the High Road and an estate. The Tricycle cinema is a bit on the art-house side. Still, there's a bingo hall and lots of pubs, so things aren't all bad.

Transport Links

Kilburn is amazingly well-served by transport. Just close your eyes and you can hear it!


At the north end of the High Road is the Jubilee Line's Kilburn station - with its bridge inexplicably painted a bright turquoise hue - and at the south end is Kilburn Park station on the Bakerloo Line. Both are in zone two.


Kilburn High Road station is two stops from London Euston on Silverlink's Euston – Watford line. The trundling Silverlink North London line, which meanders all the way from Woolwich to Richmond, stops at Brondesbury Station, on the High Road. The good thing about this route is that it regularly carries nuclear waste freight on its way to Sellafield.


Kilburn's bus routes are many and various.

  • The 16 and the 98 run straight up and down Edgware Road to the West End and beyond. The 189 does something similar via Abbey Road and Baker Street.

  • The 328 and 31 ply an east-west route, running down to Notting Hill and Kensington and up to Camden and Golders Green.

  • The 32 runs northwards from Kilburn Park all the way to Edgware. The 206 runs between Kilburn and Harlesden and the 316 will take you to Neasden.

Many of these routes have a night bus equivalent.


Kilburn High Road is one of the main arterial roads out of London, going north towards Staples Corner and Junction 1 of the M1. It was built by the Romans and is marvellously long and marvellously straight. Just not marvellously wide. There's a quaint local tradition of doing three-point turns where the road is at its narrowest just before Kilburn station.


Kilburn has no airport, and there is nowhere to land a helicopter.

Famous Residents

No-one famous lives in Kilburn. There is anecdotal evidence that Heather McCartney's infamous accident (the leg) occurred on Kilburn High Road.

People who have lived in Kilburn in the past – presumably long before they were famous - include WH Smith, Ronnie Scott, Dusty Springfield, Ian Dury, whose first band was called Kilburn and the Highroads, AA Milne, Evelyn Waugh, Joan and Jackie Collins, Dirk Bogarde, Kim Philby and Ken Livingstone, who still lives up the road in Cricklewood.

Kilburn Today

Kilburn is still trying to shake off its rather unfortunate reputation. In decades gone by it was associated with the IRA and the republican cause, with collections for the 'boys back home' being a not uncommon activity in the Irish pubs. Kilburn was also tarred with the 'loony left' brush in the 1980s, owing to Brent Council's machinations and the rise of the aforementioned Ken Livingstone. Kilburn is a relatively under-developed area, compared to its Camden and Westminster neighbours, with some crime, unemployment and general grottiness on the High Road.

However, house prices have leapt up, wine bars have started to replace some of the pubs, and a new young professional element has moved in, probably under the impression that they are living in 'South Hampstead' or 'Queen's Park Borders', so there's hope yet.

1Water impregnated with iron.

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