Cities > London > 7 Things Tourists Don't Do in London, but You Should...

5) Go to Irish-Caribbean Town

Kilburn: Historically Irish, Later Caribbean

Kilburn, London

Established in 1134 as Kilburn Priory, and possibly named for "the cattle stream" from a Saxon word, Kilburn became more developed by the 1800s and a predominantly Irish neighbourhood during the 1900s. In fact, it was considered such an Irish neighborhood that on December 21, 1975, Biddy Mulligan's — a popular pub in the area that had raised funds for the Irish Republican Army (IRA) in Northern Ireland — was bombed by the Ulster Defence Association (UDA). Although no one was killed by the bomb, and few were hurt, it was the first time that the UDA had struck outside Northern Ireland.

No doubt at least partially due to the bombing, Irish started to leave the neighbourhood in the 1970s and recent immigrants from the Caribbean, Middle East, and South Asia — attracted by the low rents and convenient location — began to settle in the area. It mostly is from this angle that became more aware of the district, because the award-winning, Jamaican-English author Zadie Smith grew up in Kilburn in the 1970s.

In her book, NW, Zadie Smith described the neighbourhood she grew up in as the rather depressing:

The window logs Kilburn’s skyline. Ungentrified, ungentrifiable. Boom and bust never come here. Here bust is permanent. Empty State Empire, empty Odeon, graffiti-streaked sidings rising and falling like a rickety roller coaster. Higgledy-piggledy rooftops and chimneys, some high, some low, packed tightly, shaken fags in a box. Behind the opposite window, retreating Willesden. Number 37. In the 1880s or thereabouts the whole thing went up at once – houses, churches, schools, cemeteries – an optimistic vision of Metroland. Little terraces, faux-Tudor piles. All the mod cons! Indoor toilet, hot water. Well-appointed country living for those tired of the city. Fast-forward. Disappointed city living for those tired of their countries.

No doubt that is an accurate depiction of Kilburn in the 1970s, but we would have to respectfully disagree about "ungentrifiable." One could have made a similar statement about Camden Town or Shoreditch — even Soho — in the past, all of which are much nicer — or at least much more expensive — than they used to be.

By the 1990s, Kilburn widely was regarded as on the way up, albeit a high crime area. These days, the neighbourhood still has a bit of a rough reputation, but based on actual reported crime data in Kilburn, the crime rate is about the same as the reported crime in the posh neighbourhoods of Knightsbridge and Belgravia, which are swarming with tourists, or the reported crime in the clean and gleaming business district of Canary Wharf. Now is a good time to remind you that, and the author thereof, are not legally responsible for you in any way in Kilburn or anywhere else — and you always should be vigilant about your safety and not wear or carry expensive items — but if you stick to the high street during the day, remain sober, and don't go looking for trouble, you're statistically likely to be about as safe in Kilburn as you are waiting to board a tour bus elsewhere in London. Kilburn is not a bad place to visit or live.

As one inexpensive, but definitely gourmet sandwich shop — Belvedere Traditional — that we enjoyed on Kilburn's high street once described itself, the entire neighbourhood of Kilburn is "cheap as chips" by London standards. There are many inexpensive hole-in-the-wall and takeaway joints on the high street with traditional fish and chips as well as African, Halal, and Indian food. Although Biddy Mulligan's is long gone, there also still are a couple of historical pubs that reflect the neighbourhood's Irish heritage — The Black Lion and The North London Tavern — both of which have inexpensive lunch specials, too.

There's also an indie theatre in Kilburn — the Tricycle Theatre — which is the closest thing to a formal tourist attraction in the neighbourhood. Established in 1980, it got its reputation as a place for cultural and political theatre that would upset your conservative Tory uncle, but it is now backed by government grants and presents some more mainstream offerings these days, as well.

We've mapped out the high street in Kilburn below. If you're okay with a genuine, gritty, international neighbourhood that's off the tourist trail in London, give it a try. When you have kids, you can tell them that you went there before it was hip.

How to Get Here: Take the Jubilee Line (Silver, Zone 2) to Kilburn Station. Although you always could walk back to Kilburn Station, it also is convenient to depart using the Kilburn Park Station on the Bakerloo Line (Brown).

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  • Writing & Photos By Brock Kyle. All Rights Reserved. Last Updated/Verified 4 May 2017. Published 10 January 2017. Feedback.