Every so often my best friend and I venture into the great city of London either to meet up with someone or to attend an event….like a party. So far, it’s only one party but who knows what the future holds? Sometimes I don’t want to know. And there is so much still to see in this great city where I was born.
I have seen quite a bit of the city so far, but had never been to Portobello Road or the Saturday market. I had been close during our stay in August by Westbourne Park on the canals, teasingly close, but never got to the great road itself. That had to be rectified. Fortunately, my best friend’s elder son, the actor, lives just off Portobello Road in a £30 million house. He rents an upper room from the parents of an actor friend at a ridiculously low monthly rate. Lucky lad.
We hadn’t seen his new digs so he offered to put us up for the night and go to a party at a friend’s place, an artist and art dealer. But the main event for me was the 2 mile long road (we covered a little over half of that) known as Portobello Road, past the market and on into the gypsy side of things. We walked from Euston train station to Tottenham Court Road tube station and took the Central Line to Notting Hill Gate. Along Notting Hill Gate Road and north on Pembridge Road to Portobello Road.
It was an inauspicious beginning at the head of the road. A pub on the corner and some flats. But move around the first corner and along a little bit to where Chepstowe Villas crosses Portobello Road. The market opens up in all its splendour. And suddenly you are into a throng of people moving about and checking the stalls of antique coins, stamps, watches, cameras, crockery, silverwares, clothes, books, toys and miniature soldiers from every era. Some are sold from temporary stalls and others from established shops along the street.
Portobello Road started out as Green’s Lane before 1740. In that year, Portobello Farm was built in the area, named after the town in Panama where Admiral Edward Vernon won a victory during the War of Jenkin’s Ear (yes, his ear) which Britain eventually lost…and more than an ear. But this was a great naval victory during a lost cause and inspired the song sung even today at the end of the musical season known as The Proms (nothing to do with High School), ‘Rule Britannia’.
In the 19th century, the farm was sold to a bunch of nuns from the Dominican Order known in England as the Black Friars. After 1850, the road began to take on its present form. The Victorian era kicked it into a market framework where fresh foods were sold. But it was in the 1940s and 50s that the antique dealers moved in to make Portobello Road the biggest antique market in the UK.
I wanted to look in every shop and check out every stall, but there wasn’t enough time. My best friend and her son kept us moving along. It was a long walk and there was much yet to see. I kept being seduced by the glitter of all the shiny silver tea and coffee pots, the kettles full of old coins and especially the hand-painted toy soldiers of the Napoleonic era. Some went way back. Brought out the little boy in me.
The big boys have tried to move in over the years, those High Street shops that dominate the shopping malls and, well, the high streets (main streets) of Britain. So far, they have been blocked. Go to Oxford Street or Regent Street if you must, but leave our Portobello Road market alone. It is unique and charming. Keep it that way. That and it still has one of the oldest cinemas in the UK, the Electric Cinema. And remember, this is where Paddington Bear came every day for his elevenses.
At the north end of the road are the vintage clothes sellers. Every item imaginable, from bustles to Beatles jackets and even Chelsea Pensioner coats. I could look like anyone from any era. But I looked at the prices and decided I couldn’t afford to at the moment. Besides that, we had walked a long way by now and we were hungry and tired. The threat of rain added to our haste.
Just past the Westway Flyover (The A40 Motorway) is the gypsy part of the market. That’s how I see it anyway. Lots of vans selling this and that. Along Cambridge Gardens, to the right, are all the food stalls. My best friend’s son is Vegan. They opted for Indian food, with veggie stuff and chickpeas. I went for a cheese burger. The lady proprietor had been cleaning up the stall ready to go home, but my puppy dog eyes broke her down and she consented to make me one. Then two more people came along and then a third and she reopened. Naughty me and my puppy dog eyes.
As we made our way back down Portobello Road, things were winding down. The rain was falling by now. Crowds thinned. A few music acts continued to perform, a jazz group here and a folk group there. Two chaps played some marvellous tunes in the classical guitar mode. The jazz group played a jazzy version of Dire Straits ‘Portobello Belle’. A young man played the same tune further down the road on his electric tennis racket, using some other wild gadget for his percussion section.
But I couldn’t leave the road without seeing the door featured in the 1999 film Notting Hill with Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts. Yes, I like what are commonly known as chick flicks. Many of them anyway. And especially this one. It was a lovely film. Loved the character played by Rhys Ifans as Hugh Grant’s flatmate.
The door is located just west of Portobello Road on Westbourne Park Road, the north side. I got the wrong door, the one just beside the one used in the film. You can see me nearly leaning on one of the posts framing the actual door. They were blue in the movie too. Both doors are blue, the original door having been sold ages ago. Silly me. I was duped. Punishment for having kept the burger lady longer than she wanted to be there. Sorry burger lady.
Party on Portobello Road.