A well hidden treasure and a film from Iran

FROM THE STREET, the Gate Cinema in Notting Hill Gate does not look like much from the aesthetic viewpoint. However, although the box-like building containing the cinema is typical of unexciting 1960s architecture, the auditorium is a real treasure. Its beautifully decorated interior was converted in 1911 from a former Italian restaurant, which had been designed in 1861 by William Hancock. The ceiling is adorned with plaster mouldings depicting fruits and foliage. The dull exterior housing this lovely auditorium contains in addition to the cinema, the foyer, and offices. It was built in 1962 by the architects Douton and Hurst. Unlike the walls and ceiling, the seating in the cinema is modern and comfortable. One small problem is that there is not much of a rake so that if you are unlucky enough to have someone tall in front of your seat, your view of the screen might be obstructed if you do not lean to the left or right.

To celebrate the 1st of August (2022), we watched a prize-winning film made in Iran in 2021. Its title (in English) is “Hit the Road”, and it is a ‘road movie’. Its four main actors, who are the characters making a long journey across Iran, are superbly credible. Although it portrays the stunning landscapes of Iran beautifully, there is much more to it. Subtly and intelligently, it reveals how delicately the filmmakers view the sophisticated nature of Iranian life and culture. It is easy to make the mistake of viewing Iran solely as a menace and threat to western civilisation. This film and others that I have seen, which were made in Iran after the downfall of the Shah’s regime, might occasionally have aspects critical of the current status quo, but they also demonstrate that the great cultural heritage for which Persia has been known for many centuries persists today. “Hit the Road” does allude delicately at several problems that plague Iran today, but so gently are these allusions made that they were either missed or ignored by the censors in the country where the film was made.

“Hit the Road” should not be missed. If you are in London, why not see it at the Gate, and before the lights dim enjoy the well-conserved early 20th century décor of the auditorium.

Eating in The Ark

THE SHED IS aptly named. It is a restaurant in a long lean-to shed amongst the more solidly built edifices on Palace Gardens Terrace in Notting Hill Gate. This ramshackle-looking wooden structure has been home to a restaurant for many decades. For most of that time, it was called ‘The Ark’. It served lovely French-influenced food including my favourite on its menu, rack of lamb. The Ark was a popular local eatery, which attracted some celebrities including Prince Charles and Ingrid Bergman in the 1960s.

On one occasion a friend, let us call him ‘X’, who had eaten at our home many times,offered to treat us at The Ark. We accepted willingly. As soon as we sat down, X ordered the restaurant’s most expensive bottle of red wine. When, during our meal, it came to an end, he ordered another of the same. When the bill arrived at the end of our dinner, X fumbled in his pockets, blushed, and then, stammering, said:

“Oh, I have left my wallet at home.”

His home was a long way from Notting Hill Gate. He continued:

“This is all I have got”,

and placed a £10 note on the table. £10 barely covered half the cost of one of the bottles of wine he had ordered. Naturally, we paid the bill, and he said he would refund us the money, which he must have forgotten to do.

The Ark closed and then re-opened as a branch of the restaurants run by the chef Jean-Christophe Novelli. It served what I considered to be rather over-priced pretentious food. On one occasion, the Novelli restaurant took part in a scheme run by the Evening Standard newspaper. For £15, restaurants in the scheme offered a full meal without drinks – a bargain. My wife rang Novelli at the old Ark and asked whether we could book a table that day and use the voucher in the newspaper for the discounted meal. She was told that the restaurant was fully booked. So, I rang about two minutes later and asked to book a table, but without mentioning the newspaper offer. The lady, who answered the ‘phone at the restaurant, told me:

“Certainly, we have plenty of tables. Come when you like.”

Novelli’s closed, and the old Ark building remained empty for a while.

In 2012, the Gladwin brothers opened The Shed restaurant in the shed that once was home to The Ark. Time Out magazine (www.timeout.com/london/restaurants/the-shed) described it well:

“Tucked away behind a curtain of tousled ivy, The Shed serves up small, resourceful dishes built with foraged and locally-grown ingredients from the countryside. Led by the Gladwin Brother trio, who have their own farm and vineyard in Nutbourne, West Sussex, as well as two additional London restaurants, their flagship Shed was quick to become a local neighbourhood favourite when it first opened in 2012.

Though the menu changes seasonally, the original plates are still the best bet. (Note: everything is served tapas-style and 2-3 dishes per person is the recommendation.)”

I have been there a couple of times and found it to be both pleasant and original from the culinary vantage point. The serving staff, which briefly included our daughter, are obliging and well-trained. When ordering, the waiter or waitress discusses the dish and its ingredients knowledgeably. Pleasant as it is, it is not as enjoyable as The Ark was in its time.

David Hockney painted here

AT THE EASTERN END of Notting Hill Gate, there is a road called Linden Gardens. In the 1860s, only the eastern part of this existed and it was named Linden Grove. To the west of Linden Grove was Linden Lodge, set in extensive grounds with a large pond or lake. It was designed by the engraver, architect, and property developer Thomas Allason (1790-1852) and constructed in 1826. He lived there until about 1838. In the late 1860s, the Lodge was demolished, and houses were built around the edge of, and on, its grounds. This occurred because of the construction of the Metropolitan Railway in the mid-1860s. The gateposts of the lodge still stand, partially embedded in the buildings at the south end of Linden Gardens.

The website british-history.ac.uk noted that it was probably the peacefulness of the Grove:

“… which attracted two other artists, William Mulready, who lived in the southernmost of the eight paired houses (now demolished) from 1828 until his death in 1863, and Thomas Creswick, who lived at the still surviving No. 42 from 1838 until 1866. In the latter year this house was affected by the building of the Metropolitan Railway. Creswick therefore moved to Mulready’s now vacant house, and also, apparently, occupied the adjoining house to the north (with which it formed a pair) until his death in 1869.”

William Mulready (1786-1863) was the designer of the penny postage envelope depicting Britannia. Creswick (1811-1869) was a landscape painter and illustrator. Someone, who lived in Linden Gardens, told me that some of Queen Victoria’s children received art lessons in a studio in Linden Grove, but I have found no evidence to confirm this. However, it is certain that David Hockney painted Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy, a portrait of the dress-designer Ossie Clark (1942-1996) and his wife in their flat in Linden Gardens. The balustrades in the painting are typical of those on most of the first-floor balconies of the houses in the Gardens.

Another artist, Elsa Fraenkel (1892-1975), a German-Jewish born sculptor and Fellow of The Royal Society of Arts, who fled from the Nazis, also lived briefly in Linden Gardens, so I was informed by her daughter, who lives in Bangalore (India), where Elsa died.

Unveiled at last

THE CORONET CINEMA in London’s Notting Hill Gate was renamed The Print Room a few years ago. Once a cinema, it is now a theatre. Like other theatres, it was closed for a long time during 2020 and early 2021 because of the covid19 lockdowns. During this prolonged period of closures, a statue was placed upon the dome that stands above the theatre’s main entrance. In my book “Walking West London” (freely available as a pdf file from https://adamyamey.co.uk/walking-west-london/), I wrote about the Coronet/Print Room as follows:

“… the former ‘Coronet Cinema’. This was designed as a theatre by WGR Sprague (1863-1933) who designed many of London’s theatres. It opened in 1908. By 1923, the Coronet had become a cinema, and remained so for many years. Apart from the screen, the fittings inside the auditorium were those of an unmodernised Edwardian theatre. Until smoking was banned in all public places, the Coronet was one of the last cinemas in London which permitted smoking (but only in the balcony seating). Between 2004 and 2014, the Coronet doubled up as both a branch of the Kensington Temple Church and, also, as a cinema. And, in 2015 the Coronet reverted to being used as a theatre, now called ‘The Print Room’. This sensitively restored theatre puts on interesting plays, which are well-produced. The bar, which is located beneath the stage in what was once the stalls area of the cinema, is worth visiting to see its ever changing, tastefully quirky décor. In 2020, the theatre was redecorated and a statue by the British sculptor Gavin Turk (born 1967) has been placed upon the dome above the building’s main entrance. The new artwork replaces one that was removed many decades ago.”

When I wrote this, the sculpture was enshrouded in a tarpaulin. Only recently, the covering has been removed and the sculpture can be seen in all its glory. The artwork depicts the artist Gavin Turk posing as the famous artist Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792) just as he appears his sculptural in the Annenberg Courtyard of Burlington House in the grounds of the Royal Academy. When seen from the east, the new sculpture looks like a painter holding a palette and his brush. However, when seen from the west, the viewer might be led to believe that the statue is of a man holding a gun. I feel that the sculpture is a great addition to the landscape of Notting Hill Gate, but a bit too high above ground level to be able to see it easily with the unaided eye.

Stepping on history

INDUSTRIAL ACTIVITY IS NOT what one would associate with present-day Notting Hill Gate in London’s Kensington district. About the only thing that is made on a large scale in the ‘Gate’ is food, which currently is only available on a take-away basis.  Yet, walking along the pavements in the area, you can see evidence that once upon a time the area was not devoid of industry. This is in the form of circular cast-iron coalhole covers. These metal discs that are almost flush with the pavement could be removed to provide an orifice through which coal could be supplied to the coal cellars beneath the pavement.  Using these holes, the coal deliverers, usually covered with coal dust, could avoid entering the house. Many stretches of pavement have been re-paved, omitting the covers, because many of the former coal cellars have been converted to usable living space. The covers that remain – and there are still plenty of them – are often covered with patterns in bas-relief and bear the names and locations of the companies that manufactured them.

I was intrigued by one company, which made many of the covers in Notting Hill Gate, ‘RH & J Pearsons’ whose covers bear the words “Automatic Action” and the information that company was in Notting Hill Gate. I wondered where their factory was in the area, which is no longer associated with trades such as casting iron coalhole covers. I thought that there would be little information about this, but I was wrong. I shall try to condense some of the sea of informative material about these metal discs, over which we walk often without noticing them.

The company Robert Henry and Jonathan Pearson, which operated between the 1840s and 1940, was located at the following places at various times:

“Nos. 141 and 143, High-street, Notting-hill, Middlesex (1871) …and 91, 95, and 97 Camden Hill Road; Iron, Steel & Metal Warehouses, 21, 22, & 23 Upper Uxbridge St.; Manufactory & Workshops, 14, Durham Place, Notting Hill Gate, W. (1879) 141, 143, 145, High Street, Notting Hill Gate, London, W. (1901)” (https://glassian.org/Prism/Pearson/index.html)

All of these places are in Notting hill Gate.

In addition to coalhole covers, the company, which described itself as ‘manufacturing and retail ironmongers’, manufactured a wide range of ironmongery for domestic use including, for example, kitchen ranges, grates, fireplaces, railings, gates. They also produced electrical fittings (for lighting and cooking) and gas fittings. In addition, they supplied a wide selection of plumbing material and sanitary appliances.

Robert Pearson lived between about 1821 and 1893. His brother Jonathan lived between about 1831 and 1898. Both died in Newcastle-on-Tyne, where they were born (https://glassian.org/Prism/Pearson/index.html). Their father, William, was a hardware manufacturer. According to the 1861 England Census, both brothers were living in Kensington. The 1871 Census entry for Robert reveals a little about the size of the firm:
“Ironmonger, Senior Partner in the firm of R. H. & J. Pearson … employing 66 men”

So, Pearson’s was a large local business.

A document published by the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea gives an insight to the manufacturing of coalhole covers (‘plates’):

“Skilled artisans were employed to design and carve wooden patterns of the required shape and size. From these an endless number of moulds were produced by ramming sand around them in a box called a flask. The pattern was then removed and molten metal was poured into the cavity. Sadly many examples of Victorian cast iron work has disappeared with the exception of street furniture, in particular coal plates.”

(file:///C:/Users/adama/Downloads/07%20-%20Grouped%20Pieces%20and%20Miscellaneous.pdf).

Of Pearson’s, the document adds:

“R H & J Pearson and Sons in Notting Hill Gate was one of the largest wholesale and retail ironmongers in the area and their name appears on countless plates. Robert Henry Pearson established his business in the 1840s and by the year of his death in 1893, 200 people were employed by the firm.”

One other bit of information about Pearson’s relates to one of its employees, John Henry Mills (1880-1942), who was born in Notting Hill Gate. On the 11th of November 1895, he was ‘bound’ to Pearson’s to serve an apprenticeship for five years. By late January1899, he had already run away and enrolled with 5th Rifle Brigade (London). For committing some now unknown felony, John was discharged on the 21st of March 1899. Soon after this the Second Anglo-Boer War broke out in South Africa. John served with the Imperial Yeomanry during this conflict. After the war, his movements are unknown, but he is known to have served in WW1. After marrying in 1918, he and his wife lived in London, where by 1939, he was recorded on an official register as a “housekeeper”.  (www.bansteadhistory.com/BEECHHOLME/Beechholme%20Boer%20War/Boer_War_M.html)

Clearly, ironmongery had little appeal for young Mills.

Pearson’s made many of the coalhole covers in Notting Hill Gate, but by no means all of them. It is worth glancing occasionally at the pavement to see the variety of coalhole covers still in existence. It appears that some of these once mundane items are stolen, to be sold to collectors. Some of the stolen covers have been replaced by artistic modern covers. A good example is one with poetry on it near The Gate Cinema. Now redundant because coal is hardly used for domestic purposes in London, these metal discs are remnants of an era now fading ever further into history.

The gate that has disappeared

NOTTING HILL GATE is a stretch of roadway, 670 yards long, that runs west from Bayswater Road to Holland Park Avenue. It is part of what was once a Roman Road that ran from London to places west and southwest of the city, passing through what is now Staines. The ‘gate’ in the street name refers to a tollgate that stood along it until about 1860. The gates of this barrier were placed so that there was no way of bypassing them via the few side roads that existed prior to the development of the area during the 19th century. I have no idea of how much was charged at this turnpike, but one might get a rough idea from a list of charges levied in early 18th century Wiltshire:

“1s. for a coach or wagon, 6d. for a cart, 1d. for a ridden or led horse, 10d. a score for cattle, and 5d. a score for sheep.” (www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/wilts/vol4/pp254-271).

I became curious to learn where the Notting Hill gate was located. I found the answer in a book that I bought whilst browsing the shelves of a local charity shop.

According to Florence Gladstone and Ashley Barker, authors of “Notting Hill in bygone days” (published in 1924), a detailed history of the area, the tollgate known as ‘Notting Hill Gate’:

“… was the first of three successive turnpikes at this spot and crossed the road east of the site of the Metropolitan Station. It seems possible that the toll-keeper’s house occupied the corner where that station is set back from the road. The very interesting view of this gate by Paul Sandby, R.A., dated 1793 … faces west and apparently shows the end of Portobello Lane and the Coach and Horses Inn.”

This gives a clear description of where the turnpike (tollgate) was located, but today, the appearance of the area described has changed considerably.

To begin with, Portobello Lane no longer exists, at least not with that name. It most likely followed the course of the present Portobello Road and connected with Notting Hill Gate along the southern stretch of what is now Pembridge Road. On a map surveyed in 1863-65, Portobello Road is marked in its present position but the northern stretch of it that led through what were then open fields to Portobello Farm was then still called ‘Portobello Lane’.

Today, the Underground station, formerly the ‘Metropolitan Station, is not visible on the road as it can only be accessed by staircases leading down from the pavements to a subterranean ticket hall. The platforms of the Circle and District Lines are housed in what was part of the original station, which is set back from the road. These platforms were opened in 1868 and were accessed through a building set back from the road as can be seen on an extremely detailed (1:1056) map surveyed in 1895.

During the 18th century, The Coach and Horses Inn stood at number 108 Notting Hill Gate, a few feet west of Pembridge Road (formerly ‘Portobello Lane’), where today a recently opened branch of Marks and Spencer is doing good business.

The tollgate disappeared long ago, and so did much of Notting Hill Gate that would have been recognisable to the two authors of the book mentioned above. The most prominent survivor of pre-WW2 days is the Coronet, currently the home of the Print Room theatre organisation. Near it but clothed in a dull, modern (1960s) exterior is The Gate Cinema, whose well-conserved auditorium was constructed in 1911 within a building that had been a restaurant since 1861 (https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1385016). Most of the rest of the architecture lining Notting Hill Gate is mostly 20th century and/or aesthetically unpleasing.  

I am not sure that what preceded the buildings that we see today was necessarily much better aesthetically, but we can get an idea from a short stretch of buildings, currently numbered 26 to 70, opposite the northern end of Church Street. These are mostly shops, whose ground floors stretch away from the road to join buildings with two or three storeys set back from the road. Judging by the architecture of the buildings above and behind these shops, they were probably already built by the end of the 19th century. A drawing created in 1912 by William Cleverley Alexander (1840-1916), who resided near Notting Hill Gate, shows some of these buildings looking remarkably like how they appear today. However, since he created his picture, the row of buildings has been changed by the construction of two banks, each with a neo-classical façade.

While I would not recommend visiting Notting Hill Gate for its own sake, it is the gateway to far more attractive sights such as Portobello Road, Kensington Gardens, Holland Park, and Notting Hill of movie fame. And if you are thirsty, there are at least nine cafés within a paper cup’s throw away from the Underground station, and the number continues to increase.

A theatre resurrected…

Early in November 2018, I saw the opening performance of a new production of “Love Lies Bleeding” by Don de Lillo, which was premiered in 2005, at the Print Room in London’s Notting Hill Gate. The play deals with the question of euthanasia in a situation of a person with persistent vegetative state. The playwright deals with moral and other questions relating to this in a sensitive way. As with most Print Room productions I have seen, the acting was superb, at times gripping.

COR 1

The Print Room theatre began its life in 2010 in a converted printers’ warehouse in Hereford Road, close to Westbourne Grove. We attended several excellent performances there, seated on not very comfortable chairs. In summer the warehouse, which was poorly ventilated, could become very hot. I remember watching “The Kingdom of the Earth” by Tennessee Williams one hot May evening. The heat in the theatre complimented the seediness of the characters. A year or two ago, the Print Room shifted to the Coronet in Notting Hill Gate.

When I began living near this place, the Coronet was a cinema. It was the last cinema in London to permit smoking in the auditorium. Smokers had to sit in the balcony seats, not in the stalls below them. The cinema had two screens, the larger of which was in what looked like an Edwardian theatre. Indeed, the Coronet started life as a theatre when it was opened in late 1898 (see: http://www.arthurlloyd.co.uk/CoronetTheatreNottingHillGate.htm).    It was designed by a theatre architect WGR Sprague (1863-1933). Eighteen years later, the theatre began to be used as a cinema. Many of its original features were retained. By 1923 it became a full-time cinema.

COR 3

In 1972, the Coronet was threatened with demolition. It was saved and made subject to conservation regulations following local residents’ successful protests. In 1993, when I first came to live close to the Coronet, the cinema looked run down but romantically picturesque. The local Kensington Temple Church bought the Coronet in 2004, planning to use it as a place of worship (as has happened with so many former cinemas in London). As a digression, it is interesting to note that cinemas in London have been converted to churches, whereas in Communist Albania the reverse was true during its period of official atheism.

COR4

The Kensington Temple spruced up and restored the Coronet, but kept it running as a cinema. They used it occasionally as a place where their congregation could listen to preachers. Once on a Sunday morning I passed the Coronet, whose doors were open, and looked into the auditorium where a very enthusiastic clergyman was rousing his lively audience.

The Coronet cinema closed in 2014. It had been bought by the Print Room, which had shifted from Hereford Road. Thus, the Coronet became a theatre once more. The Print room have preserved many of the decorative features of the original theatre but have made some major internal modifications. A new stage has been built to cover the space where the original lower level stalls were once. This stage extends to the lower level of the raked seating that had formerly been the original theatre’s Dress Circle. The seats in this Circle have become the new auditorium. Although much has been done to preserve original features, the theatre has been decorated to give its walls a fashionable distressed appearance. The place reminds me a little of what I remember of the Theatre des Bouffes du Nord in Paris when I saw it in the 1970s soon after the British director Peter Brook re-opened it.

COR 5

Although the theatre and its productions are wonderful, the bar must not be missed. It is located beneath the new stage in the space where once the stalls were located. Its concave floor reflects the raking of the seats that were once affixed to it. A grand piano serves as the bar where drinks are sold. The dimly lit bar is decorated quirkily with all manner of bric-a-brac, largely chosen by the staff and, no doubt, sourced from the nearby Portobello and Golborne markets. The bar is open an hour before and an hour after a performance. It is closed during performances because its ceiling is the theatre stage. Even if you cannot manage a play, a visit to the Coronet’s bar is a treat.