Going back to my roots: Portnall Road, London W9
great grandfather Edward lived (and died) here
I considered writing about Portnall Road back in March when I was investigating my family tree, but I decided not to. I thought that this particular street was far too average and far too unexceptional to bother you with. Nothing interesting ever happened here. And so it was until yesterdayafternoon, when police searching for the London tube bombers suddenly sealed off the central part of the street, forced residents to stay indoors and launched a tear gas attack on one of the houses. Suddenly Portnall Road was the frontline in the battle against terrorism, with the possibility of something completely out of the ordinary lurking in this very ordinary northwest London street.
My great grandfather (the one who lived in South Molton Street and got married in Selfridges) spent the last few years of his life living in Portnall Road. The street stretches two thirds of a mile south from Queens Park tube station to the Harrow Road, and Edward lived roughly halfway down at number 98. It's a very typical three-storey Victorian terrace, and yesterday's police raid took place in a similar property on the opposite side of the road. My great grandparents' house would have been long and thin, comprising an entrance hall, sitting room, parlour, kitchen, bathroom and several bedrooms on the upper floors. 100 years ago your average Londoner lived in all of a house, not just part of it subdivided off by chipboard walls. All that interior space would have been especially useful because my great grandparents had several children, although there still wouldn't have been much of a back garden for them all to run around in. And this was where Edward breathed his last, or struggled to because he'd had breathing difficulties ever since being involved in a gas attack in the trenches of World War 1, and he only just about made it into the 1920s.
I went back to Portnall Road earlier in the year to see for the first time the place where my family had once lived. Number 98 is no longer one house but three flats, although the only hint from the exterior is the triple doorbell. The ground floor looks like it's been renovated by the artiest couple in the street, with a thin grey grille across the bay window in the form of twisted tree branches. There's also a matching twiggy gate and some impressive real greenery crawling up the side of the house next door. I could quite imagine some breathy Channel 4 property show presenter getting very excited at the possibilities to be had here with all those lovely period features and Victorian fireplaces to be scrubbed up and scumble-glazed. I noticed that one of the flats was for sale so I checked out the details when I got home:
That's a quarter of a million pounds for one third of the family home that Edward probably bought for just a couple of hundred pounds. How London changes. And my great grandparents would notice one other enormous change around here since 1920 - the neighbours. West Kilburn is now a mixed multicultural neighbourhood where people of all races and creeds live, and work, together. Shops along the Harrow Road sell foods my great grandfather would never have heard of, and people speak languages that my great grandfather would never have heard. This is modern London, where several cultures live together in harmony. Or, at least, almost everybody does. You never know quite who's living over the road, behind the twitching net curtains.