Avril's wanderlust comes to happy end in 'edgy' Highgate

When she s not getting her hands dirty in the garden or walking her beloved dog Mokka, Avril Castellazzo is busy being a central figure in edgy and vibrant Highgate village, as Tan Parsons discovers AS well as running a bespoke furniture company in

When she's not getting her hands dirty in the garden or walking her beloved dog Mokka, Avril Castellazzo is busy being a central figure in 'edgy and vibrant' Highgate village, as Tan Parsons discovers

AS well as running a bespoke furniture company in Highgate, Avril Castellazzo has just been voted in for her second term as chairwoman of the Highgate Safer Neighbourhoods Panel.

We meet in the studio showroom above her shop, surrounded by elegant furniture designed by her husband and business partner Walter. Fiercely proud of the village, she is by her own admission nothing less than a bull terrier when it comes to fighting her corner - a trait she has demonstrated in ardent campaigns against proposals for dog orders, bus lanes and pedestrianising parts of the village.

"This isn't a fluffy-duffy village in the Cotswolds," she said. "We're edgy and vibrant. The idea of pedestrianising everything is so 1980s - like shoulder pads. People will only come to shop here if it's easy for them to park. If it's not convenient they just won't come. In Hampstead they've killed a lot of business with parking."

And as for Highgate's standing in relation to its neighbours?

"I realised straight away that there is nowhere else like Highgate in London," she replied. "Primrose Hill? Forget it. And Hampstead? Transient. People stay in Highgate. We don't want the place preserved in aspic - but we don't want the soul taken out of the village, either. We have some great characters here and some great celebrities - people like Victoria Wood, Tim Pigott-Smith and Jonathan Pryce - real celebrities, not pretend ones."

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Her shop, Walter Castellazzo Design, is in the heart of Highgate Village and its success is down in no small measure to her husband's creative ability.

"He's amazingly talented - he used to work for Ikea but he hated it. I just had a gut feeling we'd be successful if we set up a business," she said.

The reason, she suspects, that she has been voted in again at the Safer Neighbourhood Panel is because she speaks her mind.

"I'm very non-PC and I think people appreciate that," she said. "I think it's stupid to call what is clearly a gang a 'group of marauding youths'. We're very lucky - we've got a fantastic and diverse panel and despite what people may think we're not all fantastically wealthy and living in huge expensive houses."

Close work with the police has helped beat crime, forcing down residential burglary by a quarter and robbery by a fifth at the last count.

"People have a perception that these crimes are getting worse but actually they aren't," she said.

One of the panel's priorities is tackling fights between rival students at secondary schools like Hampstead School, Acland Burghley, William Ellis and Parliament Hill.

"A lot of it is about nothing - 'dissing' [disrepecting] people or looking at somebody the wrong way," said Ms Castellazzo. "There are 3,000 children coming out at the same time - we are aware there are problems and we want to help."

For someone who didn't enjoy her own time at school and left with no more than GCSEs, Mrs Castellazzo is passionate about academia.

"I went to a good school in Mill Hill - I was very lucky, but I didn't really like it," she said. "I had a really serious wanderlust and in some ways it set me up for life - going from north London to Rawalpindi when I was just a teenager set me alight. It helped me to mix with different kinds of people. I love people."

She later took an access course and then studied politics at the School of Oriental and African Studies, where she was secretary of the Jewish Society. Next she took a masters degree in the British Empire and post-imperialism at London School of Economics.

But for all her travels, she is glad to have settled in England: "This is the best country in the world - I'm not saying we don't have our problems but overall you can be what you want to be and do what you want to do and take the opportunities that you are offered. This is the most tolerant society in Europe."

At this point in the interview she checks that I like my green tea - apparently it's very good for your sex life, she says.

Although she grew up as a town girl, Mrs Castellazzo is an outdoor type who keeps fit with regular runs on Hampstead Heath.

"I love it that we are surrounded by green open spaces here - I feel safe on the Heath and there are always other dog walkers there," she said.

She doesn't mind the idea of CCTV being used on the Heath, so long as it's discreet. "I don't have the Big Brother problem that some people have. If it helps keep people safe then fine - you've only got something to worry about if you're doing something wrong."

A keen gardener, she also enjoys making wine. "North London Jews don't normally do rural, but I've really got into it now," she said. "I love getting my hands into the soil."

She tells me a story about being on holiday in Ireland when she decided to do some gardening in her bikini. She ended up covered from head to toe in midge bites - much to the amusement of the local farmer who spotted her predicament.

"It was incredibly painful and I won't be making that mistake again," she joked.

A sense of humour has been invaluable for her during tougher moments, and you certainly need one sometimes in Highgate, she points out. But it's the sense of community that makes the place special: "I meet so many people who I know in Waterlow Park on the way to work - and you end up having a really good chat. That's one of the reasons why we decided to open up our shop here.

"But you've got to give something back to the community as well. It's like what Gandhi said - it's not just about rights, it's about responsibilities and duties as well. That's what makes society civil.