Notting Hill is west of central London. I went there the other day with Marilyn my wife and my youngest daughter, Abigail. It was a sunny Saturday and our British summer seemed at last to have arrived. Marilyn and I had not been to Portobello Road in Notting Hill for years.
It seemed an inviting prospect because it is a vibrant lively area bursting with new talent, entrepreneurs, artists and musicians. Outside of Waterloo Station we got on the 154 bus to Oxford Circus and then transferred to a 94 bus heading for Notting Hill. We passed slowly along Oxford Street. The crowds were immense on the pavements, coloured by the thousands wearing Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund football shirts; the two finalists in this year’s European Cup Final at Wembley. It was the day of the cup final. The traffic was slow and congested but gradually we passed from the shopping mayhem which is Oxford Street past the elegant façade of Selfridges, its fabulous art nouveau clock surmounting its broad entrance canopy, on to Marble Arch and continuing on along the leafy and cool Bayswater Road. Late Victorian and Georgian white stucco buildings were on the right and Hyde Park on the left. Eventually passing Queensway and Bayswater with its tube station on the corner and shops full of ethnic vibrancy and diversity we continued on to Holland Park Road and Notting Hill Gate Underground Station. We got off the bus near the tube station entrance. There were some road works which prevented traffic going further and the bus was directed south along a diversion route but there was a pedestrian walkway by the side of the road works so we could walk on further to the beginning of Pembridge Road which leads to Portobello Road. The Notting Hill area is full of a variety of multicultural shops. It is an area where immigrants, especially West Indians, settled in the 1950’s. For many years it was run down and poor.
In the early 18th century the area now known as Notting Hill was countryside. Portobello Farm was situated where the Portobello Road and Golbourne Road now meet at the northern extremity of Portobello Road. St Joseph’s Convent built by Dominican nuns in 1864 and now a Spanish cultural centre is on the site of the old farm. Up to 1740 the road was called Green Lane but soon after 1740 it was renamed Portobello after the Spanish town in Panama called Puerto Bello. The town was captured by Admiral Edward Vernon during an obscure sea battle called, The War of Jenkins Ear. The War lasted from 1739 to 1748 but was largely over by 1742. It had been instigated by the Spanish boarding a British merchant ship and during the affray Robert Jenkins, the captain of the merchantman, had his ear sliced off by a Spaniard. This caused a war between the British and the Spanish. The British wanted the Spanish to keep to their trading treaties with Britain. From the 1850’s onwards the Notting Hill developed as it is today with fine Victorian housing, mews and many shops.
In 1864 Portobello farm was sold to some Dominican nuns who had St Joseph’s Convent built. The high brick walled convent is still there today at the most northern part of Portobello Road once you have walked underneath the Westway Flyover and the London underground railway bridge. Acklam Road is on the right beside the flyover and Golborne Road cutting across the top of Portobello Road is not far. The convent is a Spanish cultural centre these days.
Aklam Road is an extension of the Portobello Market and local traders sell food clothing and other artefacts from their stalls. At that part of the Westway Flyover, using the roadway as its roof and taking up a large space underneath, there as a bar and free music club. Marlilyn, Abi and I had a beer and listened to a great singer accompanied by her acoustic guitar playing colleague. He was the songwriter and accompanist and she had an amazing voice. We could have stayed there forever. Three West Indian gentlemen sat impassively on a large sofa nearby, pitch black shades, fingers encrusted in gold rings resting on their knees, black leather homburg hats shading their faces, staring straight forwards, not a smile between them.
Music venue under the Westway Flyover
Walking along Pembridge Road from Holland Park Avenue Marilyn Abi and I turned into Portobello Road at the southern end. There were crowds of people. A few tourists were taking pictures of the quaint, pastel painted early Victorian terraces with their front doors straight on to the pavement, some with small gardens with shrubs and trees and then a young American lady, who was walking just behind, me gasped and exclaimed ,” George Orwell!” On one of these small terraced houses hidden behind a tree was indeed a blue plaque commemorating the sojourn of George Orwell.
George Orwell lived here.
I took a photograph and we moved on into the hubbub and massed humanity that is Portobello Road with its fabulous antique stalls, bric a brac, fruit and vegetables, new fashions and second hand goods.
Stalls and shops on the Portobello Road.
Portobello Road is a tourist attraction but it is also struggling to keep its local identity. There is a Salvation Army centre for the homeless and impoverished. Half way down the street there is the old Electric Cinema which is nowadays, since 1996, the focus for the Portobello Film festival once a year and is converted into a plush avant garde art cinema inside with sofas and arm chairs scattered about for the clientele. There is a junior school and crèche and at the far end near St Joseph’s Convent there is some housing where many immigrant families still live. The popularity of Notting Hill has gentrified much of the area but there is still a vibrant core of immigrant people who live in the area and give it its distinctive character. Locals still have their food stalls and second hand clothing stalls.
To set yourself up as a stall holder in the Portobello Road is reasonably easy. You have to have an approved product to sell. Another tea shirt stall is not going to get you a pitch however. You must take out a public liability insurance policy covering £5 million and then all you need to do is go along to Kensington and Chelsea Town Hall and for £12 register as a street trader. From Monday to Friday you will be given a pitch based on a lottery process and you will have to pay £12 for the day. At the weekend the price can go up to £45 for a day but of course at the weekends you will have the foreign hoards and you will make a fortune.
Street musician playing rockabilly
Some of my favourite stalls in the Portobello Road include those that sell second books and a stall that sells old film cameras. Another specialises in 1930’s fur coats. Some stalls sell the most exquisite silverware, gravy boats, salt sellers and ornate silver tureens. There is one stall that specialises in military gas masks. There are a whole range of shops selling high quality antiques including a variety of artefacts and furniture. The street is punctuated by restaurants, cafes and street performers. One gentlemen stood legs akimbo, clad in baggy jeans with turn ups, soft suede shoes and baggy white shirt with brillcreamed hair; his whole body vibrating, strumming vigorously, a great loose stringed double base, pounding out old rock and roll rhythms. He had quite a crowd gathered round him smiling and enjoying the energy.
Bric a brac stall.
Portobello Road is famous in popular culture. We all know the film, "Notting Hill," with Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts which was largely filmed in The Portobello Road. Madonna, when she was married to Guy Ritchie owned a pub nearby and lived in Notting Hill. Us Brits call Madonna affectionately , "Madge,” but she never did like that. In 1950, the cult film, Blue Lamp, was filmed in the area. The road is mentioned in the 1960’s novel, The Chinese Agent. It features in the childrens film ,Bedknobs and Broomsticks. It is also a favourite haunt of Paddington Bear from Michael Bond’s series of children’s books. It has featured too in television programmes such as, Minder, and ,Bargain Hunt. Blur, reference Portobello Road in one of their songs. It also features on the original Monopoly Board game.
Contemplating life in the Portobello Road.
Notting Hill has had its fair share of problems. In 1958 the Notting Hill race riots began over an argument between a Swedish lady called Majbritt Morrison and her black West Indian husband. A white woman with a black lover or husband was not easily accepted back in the 1950’s. After the Second World War many immigrants had come to this country from Jamaica and other Caribbean islands to work on the London Underground and in the National Health Service hospitals but some white groups such as the teddy boys, didn’t like this infiltration of black people and often fights would be instigated at the slightest provocation. This is what happened in Notting Hill. Some teddy boys had seen Raymond Morrison attack his white wife Majbritt. They saw him in the street the next day and attacked him. This instigated groups of black youths to roam the streets looking for the teddy boys. The riots that ensued lasted for three nights. Claudia Jones, a black woman, wanted to do something to stop this sort of aggression. The following year she began what is now termed the Notting Hill Carnival which has now become the largest carnival in Europe and is held at the end of August every year in the streets of Notting Hill. Marilyn and I went to three Notting Hill carnivals in early 1980’s. The vibrancy, colour and the music is fantastic. Half a million attend the carnival now every year over the carnival weekend. The streets are full of floats with bands playing great music. There are garishly and brightly adorned carnival dancing groups and the whole exudes peace , joy, fun and has a great energy. I remember the unbelievable West Indian sound systems with gigantic speakers booming out body vibrating base sounds. Reggae is great!!!!! So many peace loving Rastafarians too, fill the streets. Our ears have never recovered.
Erno Goldfinger's Trellick Tower in Golbourne Road.
One of the most famous or perhaps infamous places in Notting Hill is Trellick Tower situated not far from the north end of Portobello Road just along the Golborne Road. It was built in1966. It is thirty one stories high and is built in what has been termed, the brutalist style.. In other words it is made of unforgiving concrete. Many of our university campuses were expanded in the 1960’s using his very same style of architecture. Trellick Tower is an important example of this style and has become a grade II listed building. This means that it must not be demolished and its outside appearance cannot be altered. It is an example of architecture from a particular period in history. It was designed by Erno Goldfinger. Yes, you may well have a double take at that name. Goldfinger was a ruthless gentleman and a rather aggressive character. Ian Flemming, one day while on the golf course with one of Erno Goldfinger’s colleagues had to submit to this gentleman pouring out his feelings about Goldfinger. It was after that that Ian Flemming decided to use Goldfinger's name in one of his novels. Goldfinger threatened to sue Flemming over the use of his name but Flemming pointed out that if they went to court it would be Goldfinger who would be shown to be a bully and an unsavoury character. Goldfinger dropped the suit and Flemming used his name.
Wearing shiny silver boots walking along Golbourne Road.
Trellick Tower is mostly social housing but some of the flats have been privately bought. They provide an amazing view over London. However they do have structural problems. They are not very well insulated and can be cold in the winter. To improve the insulation the whole exterior would have to be renewed. At the present time this would cost the Borough of Kensington and Chelsea too much money. There has been both a murder and a rape as well as various assaults in the foyer over the years and this caused the residents association of the tower to get the council to provide a coded entry system and a concierge in the entrance. In 1988 the tower was used in the film, Queen and Country, starring Denzil Washington.