Kilburn began developing on the banks of a stream called Kilburn Brook. Back in the 12th century, there was a nunnery, called Cuneburna, which is believed to be a reference to either the priory or the stream.
The nunnery is long gone. The same, however, cannot be said for one of Kilburn’s other key links to its past – Kilburn High Road. It may have begun life as an ancient track but it had a pivotal role as a route linking the important centres of Canterbury and St Albans. In Anglo-Saxon times it became known as Watling Street. The priory’s location where the river met Watling Street meant it became a popular resting point for pilgrims.
The major route also encouraged pubs to spring up – notably the Red Lion, the Cock and The Bell Inn. They enjoyed varying reputations, not always good ones, and The Bell was demolished and re-built in 1863.
The Kilburn stretch of Watling Street gradually developed with inns and farm houses. Several houses – mainly on the Hampstead side – were built in the 17th century. Houses were eventually also built on the Kilburn Priory estate and at Kilburn Square. But road conditions were poor, and faced the scourge of highwaymen, and this is one reason why the area remained largely rural until the mid-19th century.