diamond geezer

 Tuesday, January 31, 2017

3 Kensington/Chelsea
Only nine of the boroughs proposed in 1960 made it through to the creation of Greater London in 1965. This is one of them, the familiar combination of Kensington and Chelsea. Not only is it London's smallest borough, it's also one of the most densely-populated and one of the richest... but not uniformly well-off. To demonstrate this I took a walk along one of the most famous streets in London, that's Portobello Road, on a day when the market wasn't up and running.

Portobello Road was originally Porto Bello Lane, a meandering track running north from Notting Hill to Kensal Green. Along the way lay hayfields and orchards, and a single farmstead called Porto Bello Farm (which had been named after a naval battle off Panama). In the mid 18th century residential developments encroached, and some of the most expensive real estate in London now spreads to either side. But those pastoral origins help to explain why Portobello Road still wiggles through a grid of elegant avenues and crescents, and how its character survives.

At its southern end, Portobello Road leads off from the more important Pembridge Road, at roughly the same point where the gift shops turn into villas. Crowds of tourists stream up from the tube even on non-market days, because this is the actual Notting Hill street in the actual film Notting Hill, and an endearingly classy destination in its own right. Portobello Road kicks off with a pub, a gallery, a sharp bend, and shops specialising in t-shirts, shawls and hats. But just when you imagine it's going to be boutiques all the way, no, that's when the housing kicks in. On the left hand side are dull brick blocks with garages underneath, but on the right are gorgeous terraces painted in pastel colours with tiny gardens out front. George Orwell used to live in one of them, or rather he lodged here briefly, while one of the current residents is flush enough to own a Polo with the registration AWE50M.

Beyond Chepstow Villas the retail offering kicks in properly, with taller pastel terraces given over at ground level to a succession of antiques shops and other boutiques. Despite the locality they never seem overly prissy, perhaps knowing their audience well, as if you genuinely might find a bargain lurking within. One specialises in cricketing ephemera, another porcelain, another cashmere, another maps, another those metal advertising signs that were commonplace before the war. On non-market days a few have stalls out front displaying boxes of shiny wares, carefully watched over from within, but many shops remain shut until the weekend peak brings the crowds. And yet residential normality intrudes even here - the bog standard council block up Longlands Court could easily lie somewhere off Petticoat Lane.

And so it continues. Antique shops and arcades mix with souvenir bazaars, tables draped with scarves and artisan bakeries. Broadstairs' finest gelato is on sale, even in January, and a well-wrapped lady in a knitted beret will flip you a crêpe with squirty lemon juice, if you ask. One gift shop is named to pretend it's the location of Hugh Grant's book store, while another really is - that's at number 142 if you're keen to take a photo. Sadly it's now occupied by a peddler of the lowest form of tourist tat, from £1 fridge magnets to poo emoji cushions, so you'll get no joy from lingering inside. Close by is a cluster of red phone boxes where a pouting model can be seen posing for professional photos, and unintentionally for smartphone snaps from passers-by who assume she must be famous.

The street is zoned for market purposes, and at Colville Terrace we move from Flea Market And New Goods to Vintage And Fashion. There's also an unexpected intrusion by major high street names, including a Sainsbury's Local, a Tesco Metro and (heaven forfend) a Poundland. A few fruit and veg stalls have set up in front of the gorgeously-plush Electric Cinema, while the tangerine leggings hanging from a pole labelled '£2' are most definitely aimed at local residents. A chain of CCTV cameras on robust poles is a nod to the August Bank Holiday weekend when traders shutter their front windows, and one elegant mews lies safely and smugly behind Carnival-resistant gates.

Past what must be the street's third unofficial Banksy store, an underwhelming piazza breaks out to one side with plenty of space for pigeons, tapas and a laundrette. Portobello Road then ducks beneath the Hammersmith & City line, fortunately stationless, then enters the gloom beneath the concrete span of the Westway. The development underneath and alongside has been branded Portobello Green, when ironically there isn't a scrap of grass in sight, although the tented expanse does provide plenty of room to cram in hundreds of bargain hunters every Sunday. And still the run of sourdough, galleries and falafel continues, as if the quirky terraces may never stop.

Suddenly, at Oxford Gardens, they stop. For the next 100 yards Portobello Road is reduced to being the backside of a row of modern flats, with one long brick wall along both sides. This must be the point where most tourists who've schlepped this far turn round and go back, except on Saturdays when this backwater stretch is filled with lowbrow stalls and noodle vans, egging everyone further still. The resilient are rewarded by the delights of Golborne Road, either the yet-more shops along its length or the silhouette of the Trellick Tower rising majestically at the far end. This is as far as the market extends, but my walk has a few minutes further to go before this street winds down.

The last shop on Portobello Road is AK Foods, a newsagent slash grocery, with a handful of vegetables and a bubble gum machine out front. Opposite is an unanticipated visual jolt, the intrusion of Portobello Square, the redevelopment of a 1970s council estate into a thousand more desirable homes. They're not cheap, they're not especially characterful, and they're not yet finished, but they're selling nicely. Phase 3 will see the council blocks at the tip of Portobello Road wiped away, but for now this world famous street fades out amid lowrise council stock with glass-brick staircases, and residents wandering home with a few packets of food rather than a treasure trove of bric-a-brac.

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