diamond geezer

 Sunday, October 09, 2005

Random borough 7: Kensington and Chelsea (part 1)

Kensington and Chelsea is probably London's poshest borough. It's also one of the smallest - a thin strip about four miles long and a mile wide to the west of the West End. To the south Sloane Square and super suave Chelsea, across the centre cosmopolitan Kensington and to the north the multicultural carnival streets of Notting Hill. It's familiar territory for many Londoners, even if most haven't the money to live here. I've scoured the borough from top to bottom, even managing a couple of places I hadn't visited before, and here's my report. Part one (Kensington) today, parts two and three (Chelsea) to follow.

Somewhere retail: Portobello Road
Normally when I do these random borough visits, 'somewhere retail' is the hardest of the six categories. Not so in Kensington and Chelsea, a borough absolutely overflowing with famous shopping locations like the King's Road, Kensington High Street and that big store in Knightsbridge. Maybe everybody round here has loads of disposable income or something. But I took my life in my hands and went instead to the capital's most famous Saturday market, up the Portobello Road, along with half of the rest of London.

Portobello Road is a mile long, almost all of it lined by market stalls, which makes for one hell of an extended retail experience. I started at the Notting Hill end, down where the road is residential with just a smattering of t-shirt vendors and herbal emporia. The market stalls kick in big time as the road heads downhill after Chepstow Villas, and so do the crowds. Maybe they're here for some fancy crockery or bone-handled cutlery, or perhaps they're after some old maps or antique silverware. God knows why, but perhaps they are. I watched as someone stopped off to buy a £45 bowler hat from an impassive old lady with suspiciously blonde hair sat in a deckchair [photo]. Beside her a bored husband stroked a Russian army balaclava hanging from a stall selling army fatigues and gasmasks. An un-self-conscious young couple sporting felt fairytale hats paused briefly to stare at some trinket in the window of one of the many boutiques lining the street. Everyone was in search of that special bargain, or else resting awhile with a cup of something caffeinated before heading off round some other arcade or side alley.

After Elgin Crescent, past the armchair luxury of the Electric Cinema (to which I must go back one day), Portobello evolves into a more normal London market. There's fruit and veg, there's a greasy caff, there are cheap t-shirts, and there's a much higher proportion of local shoppers. Are those DVDs and Calvin Klein undies genuine, do you think, and how can that washing powder be so inexpensive? The stalls continue beneath the Westway (jackets, handbags, reggae, etc) and the Caribbean influence becomes more apparent. And eventually, at Golborne Road, the stalls of cheap tat finally peter out and the final few hundred yards of Portobello Road head northward into obscurity. A few fashionable boutiques linger, just because the address is so desirable, but few if any tourists reach this far. Certainly not as far as the northernmost retail outlet - AK Foods (News Agents & Grocery) - which is frequented only by teenagers on bikes and residents of the surrounding bleak apartment blocks. And I bet they never pop down the southern end of the road for some Art Nouveau porcelain either.
by tube: Notting Hill Gate, Ladbroke Grove, by bus: 7, 70

Somewhere pretty: Kensal Green Cemetery
Right up at the top of Kensington and Chelsea, sandwiched between the Harrow Road and the Grand Union Canal, lies London's oldest public burial ground. Kensal Green Cemetery was established by a local barrister, inspired by the success of the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris, and in 1833 the first of several thousands of Londoners were buried here. The garden cemetery was an immediate (and fashionable) success, and they've been packing them in ever since. Two of King George III's children are buried here, as are novelists Trollope and Thackeray, tightrope walker Jean Blondin and engineering double act Sir Mark and Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Not that I found any of their graves during my hour-long wander, because this place is vast. The cemetery today is a ramshackle mix of old and new, with modern jet black headstones scattered alongside crumbling tombs and weathered mausoleums as part of a kind of funereal nature reserve. The self-importance of many of the ornate Victorian memorials is astonishing, although many of the more modern graves are just as ostentatious. Granny Collins in particular, you may indeed have been much loved by your adoring family, but the over-ambitious granite shrine they've erected in your memory, guarded by an army of alabaster angels, concrete frogs and smiling gnomes, is quite frankly tasteless in the extreme [photo]. A few of the other plots are well tended with fresh flowers (and even helium 'happy birthday' balloons), but most of the old stones now lay crooked, illegible and forgotten. Somehow a silent autumn day with dying leaves underfoot seemed the most appropriate, evocative time for a visit.
by tube: Kensal Green, by bus: 18

Somewhere sporting: Princess Di's gym
You might have thought it would be easy to find somewhere famously sporting in Kensington and Chelsea. I mean, the last word of the borough's name is a big enough hint. But no, it turns out that Stamford Bridge is just over the other side of the boundary in Hammersmith and Fulham, and that Kensington and Chelsea is almost completely devoid of stadia and sporting venues. So I ended up instead where many of the borough's fitness obsessed residents appear to end up - visiting a gym. But this is no ordinary gym, oh no. It may look like two floors of a converted building above Boots the chemist in the Earl's Court Road, but this is where Lady Diana Spencer came to sweat. She'd nip through the doorway beside Burger King, pop up the stairs and take her turn with the weights and treadmills, no doubt smiling wistfully as she did so. She was living in Coleherne Court at the time, a surprisingly bland residential development above a nearby health centre, all before she moved into the rather more impressive Kensington Palace up the road (which presumably had its own gym somewhere inside). Alas the railings in front of the palace have been cleared of all the gobsmacking poetry I saw last time I passed by, but I'm sure the thought of Princess Diana panting breathlessly after a heavy workout could inspire several more verses.
by tube: Earl's Court, by bus: 74, 328

(more to follow, including yet more Diana, an old dinosaur and a riverside walk)

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