The battle for Highgate: George Michael’s old house at centre of face off over ‘resort for super-rich’

Fan worship takes many forms. When George Michael died on Christmas Day 2016, his more ardent devotees were moved to lay tributes in a small fenced green opposite his house in Highgate, the north London village suburb.

For 18 months, the impromptu shrine attracted visitors from across the world. But that devotion, you might say, was small change beside the commitment of Stephen Cameron and his wife, Clare Harrison, who spent £19m on buying the late star’s home in 2020 in a private bidding process. Cameron declared a particular interest at the time. “It’s a beautiful property, stunning … I’m a huge George Michael fan, so that makes it even better.”

Since then, the new owners, who made their £170m fortune from the sale of the medical PR firm Nucleus Global, have been involved in a planning battle with neighbours and vocal local heritage groups. Their proposals to “update” the Grade II-listed house, built in 1688 and part of a grand hilltop terrace overlooking Hampstead Heath, included the creation of basement living accommodation for a housekeeper, the relocation of Michael’s swimming pool and the demolition of the railings at the front of the property and around the green that was the focus of mourning for the singer.

The Highgate Society – founded in 1966 to block plans for a major road through the village – argued that the latter intervention in particular would “ruin one of the finest rows of houses” anywhere, and that the replacement of the ironwork around the green “for security reasons” was entirely unnecessary.

Janet Jones, a spokesperson for the society, contended that since the tributes to George Michael were removed and the gate shut, the railings are more than enough to deter anyone from sitting or standing on the “two small pieces of grass”, and described the changes as “unthinkable”. Last week, however, the unthinkable happened, and following final approval of the plans by Camden council, bulldozers moved in.

Tributes to George Michael in Highgate, north London, in 2018, with his former house in the background.
Tributes to George Michael in Highgate, north London, in 2018, with his former house in the background. Photograph: Kirsty O’Connor/PA

The argument was not only about antique wrought iron. It reflected a wider concern that this storied corner of London was being overtaken by people who didn’t quite “get” its particular charm – a version of that eternal opposition between conservation and cash, older and newer money.

The Grove itself – George Michael’s former home is at number 5 – has long been a kind of barometer of elite bohemian London life. It first became a pilgrimage site for another troubled romantic in the 19th century: the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge lived at number 3 for the last 18 years of his life as he battled his opium addiction. Thomas Carlyle was among those who made the quest to see him – “on the brow of Highgate Hill … like a sage escaped from the inanity of life’s battle”.

Carlyle described a scene that has hardly changed since: “a wide sweep of flowery leafy gardens, their few houses mostly hidden, the very chimney pots veiled under blossomy umbrage … handsome villas, handsome groves; crossed by roads and human traffic, here inaudible or heard only as a musical hum”.

George Michael, with close-cropped hair and a beard, hugs Kate Moss, wearing a fur-lined hood
George Michael and Kate Moss in 2012 during the making of the video for his single White Light. Photograph: Caroline True/REX/Shutterstock

That artistic spirit persisted. JB Priestley subsequently lived in Coleridge’s house. Yehudi Menuhin was resident for 27 years at number 2. He sold that house to Sting and Trudie Styler (who enjoyed tantric evening walks in the nearby gothic cemetery in which George Michael is buried). Annie Lennox moved in along the terrace, followed by Jude Law and Kate Moss (who, before she moved out this summer, was in the habit of using a ladder to climb the wall to swim in George Michael’s pool).

Despite their lavish lifestyles, it is argued, those previous residents respected the slightly ramshackle ambience. Sting and Styler once wanted to do something similar with the frontage to their property but changed their plans after local consultation. Other battles have not been so successful. If Cameron and his wife have been surprised at the vehemence of the response to their relatively modest plans, they could understand it in the context of what might be called the ongoing local stand-off between romantics and roubles.

Fifty yards away, 5 The Grove is the entrance to Witanhurst, the second largest private home in London after Buckingham Palace. It is reportedly owned through an offshore company by the billionaire oligarch Andrey Guryev (though some maintain it is Putin’s own project). The highly secretive decade-long refurbishment of the mansion (said to be worth £450m) has involved armies of builders excavating a vast new underground setup that includes a 70-metre swimming pool, a cinema complex on two levels, parking for 25 cars – and untold disruption for its neighbours.


Other sanctioned oligarchs have bought adjacent mansions. Athlone House, purchased by Mikhail Fridman in 2016 and subject to similar “Versailles-style” works, was saved from demolition by the Highgate Society the previous year. At the time, conservation campaign leader Michael Hammerson explained the strength of feeling: “Highgate has always been a resort for the super-rich … but the difference is that in the past, the owners always recognised that they were part of a community, opened their houses to it, sponsored local activities. With the new breed, the opposite is the case, hence the opposition to them.”

Nostalgically or not, the rusting railings symbolise elements of that old relationship – as opposed to the high walls and bristling security systems that have become an ever more common sight across the capital. George Michael in many ways epitomised the disappearing openness of an older Highgate. The singer endeared himself to locals by sponsoring the Christmas fair and the Christmas lights in the village square, and by working anonymously in local homeless shelters.

In doing so, he reflected the spirit of another near neighbour, Ray Davies of the Kinks, who lives in a more modest terrace across the road. Not long before he moved there 50 years ago, Davies sang of the merits of the Village Green Preservation Society – “God save little shops, china cups … God save Tudor houses, antique tables and billiards”. He would be cheered to know that, railing by railing, though not always successfully, that effort goes on.