IT WAS EASTER Saturday (2022), the sun was shining, the air was warm, and we paid a visit to the world famous, popular Portobello Road Market. For the first time after over two years of pandemic-induced suppression of London’s ‘joie-de-vivre’, the market was buzzing with activity, crowded with foreign tourists and local visitors. As it was before Covid19, the market was bustling and business at the stalls, which offer everything from artichokes to antiques and pancakes to paella, seemed to be brisk.
A friend, who lives in rural France, said to me a few days ago when we were walking near Leicester Square:
“It’s hard to believe that there was ever a deadly pandemic in this city.”
And as we walked along a short street in the area, he added:
“There are more people out in this street than there are living in my hometown.”
Yet, Covid infection rates are high in the UK. Friends in India have been telling us that they are thinking twice before visiting the UK because the risk of becoming infected here is so great at the moment. Recently, I have heard that approximately between 1 in 12 and 1 and 15 people in the UK are likely to be infected with a Covid19 virus, and therefore capable of spreading it to others.
Apart from personal hygiene and wearing face coverings, good ventilation is considered to be useful for reducing the risk of spreading the viruses. So, when I boarded a bus in South Kensington recently, I opened the window closest to me – each window on London buses has a label saying “Open this window”. Immediately after following this instruction, which has been given for reasons of prevention of infection, the lady sitting behind me, who was not wearing a face covering, stood up and slammed it shut. I stood up, opened it, and told her not to touch it. She said, speaking angrily with an Eastern European accent:
“You don’t need to open it. You are wearing mask and have three vaccinations.”
How she knew my vaccination status, I do not know. My wife said to her:
THE BATTLE OF Portobello was fought between the British Navy and the Spanish in November 1739. It was an event during the War of the Austrian Succession. The battle’s aim was to capture the port of Portobello in Panama from the Spanish. The British were victorious.
I have been walking along Portobello Road frequently for over a quarter a century. Each time, I have passed a series of neighbouring shops collectively known as Admiral Vernon Antique Market. I thought it was an odd name until today when I noticed that it is close to an alley called Vernon Yard. Then, the penny dropped, and I began thinking about the choice of the shop’s name – an admiral on Portobello Road.
Admiral Edward Vernon (1684-1757) was born in London. He joined the Royal Navy in 1700, aged 12, and rose through the ranks. One of his many achievements was the creation of the name ‘grog’ for the commonly consumed drink consisting of rum diluted with water. Also, he made improvements to the methods of naval manoeuvres and the welfare of sailors. Another of his claims to fame was that along with Lieutenant-General Thomas Wentworth (c1693–1747) he led the British forces that captured Portobello.
Knowing this makes sense of the name of the antique shop and the name Vernon Yard. The shop and the dreary little alley are not the most magnificent of memorials to Edward Vernon. There is a more elegant one in Westminster Abbey. The most impressive item commemorating the admiral is the estate of Mount Vernon in Virginia (USA), which was once owned by George Washington’s family. It was named after Edward Vernon because one of Washington’s brothers, Lawrence (died 1752), had been under Vernon’s command during the capture of Portobello.
THIS IS AN EXTRACT from my latest book, “Walking West London”, which can be downloaded in its entirety (as a pdf file), free of charge and with no strings attached, from: https://adamyamey.co.uk/walking-west-london/ (just click on the green button, labelled “Download”). The sample below relates to the street market on Portobello Road:
NO LONGER A COUNTRY LANE (PORTOBELLO)
Lovers of street markets, whether they be searching for antiques, bric-abrac, jewellery, telephone covers, clothing, snacks, cafés, flowers, fruit, or vegetables, will enjoy browsing the diverse stalls and small shops that line Portobello Road. This street, which used to be called ‘Portobello Lane’ runs from Notting Hill Gate to just south of the main railway line that begins at Paddington Station. In days gone by, it ran from the gravel pits at Notting Hill Gate to the now long-since demolished Portobello Farm,which stood roughly between Orchard Close and Blagrove Road in NorthKensington.
Before the mid-19th century Portobello Lane, as it was then called, was to quote the historians Florence Gladstone and Ashley Barker (writing in1924):
“‘… one of the most rural and pleasant walks in the summer in the vicinity of London’, and within living memory it led ‘through fields to Kensal Green … cornfields and meadow land on each side … ‘”
Well, Portobello Road is no longer bucolic. It is lined with buildings along its entire length. Currently, it begins with a short section that leads off Pembridge Villas. It is here that you can stop for a drink at the Sun inSplendour pub, which was built in the early 1850s. After running a few yards westwards, Portobello Road heads off in a north-westerly direction, which it maintains with barely any deviation for the rest of its length. Number 22 was the first London home of the writer George Orwell. He lived there as a lodger in the winter of 1927.
After crossing Chepstow Villas, the road slopes downwards and soon after this the market area commences. On most weekdays, much of the market is dedicated to daily domestic needs, mostly food. On Fridays and Saturdays, the number of stalls and the variety of goods on offer increases dramatically. In normal times (i.e., when there is no pandemic), Portobello Road is choked with crowds of people from all over the world, especially on Saturdays.
In the 1860s, the Metropolitan Line (now the ‘Hammersmith and City Line’) was built. It crosses Portobello Road close to the Ladbroke Road station, which was originally known as ‘Notting Hill’ station. Rail access probably accounted for the urban development of what was once ‘Portobello Lane’. The market in Portobello Road probably began operating in the second half of the 19th century. Until the 1940s, it served people’s daily needs. Then, in the 1940s, traders selling anything from junk to antiques began trading along the road, alongside the purveyors of daily requirements, and that has how it has remained.
The architecture of Portobello Road is far from distinguished. Much of it is ‘bog standard’ Victorian suburban sprawl, but this is hardy disturbing as the eye has plenty of other things to distract it along the multicultural, bustling, colourful, sometimes quirky market street.
Next, I will point out several things worth noticing if you can take your eyes off the shops, the buskers, and the stalls in the market. The Electric Cinema on Portobello Road was first opened in 1910, making it one of the oldest still working cinemas in the UK. It was one of the first buildings in the area to receive a supply of electricity. It has an Edwardian façade. Despite having been closed for several short periods during its lifetime, it still shows films. Since its extensive repairs in 2000, it has become a luxurious space in which to watch films. It is near to Talbot Road that leads to the church of All Saints.
The Victorian church was built between 1852 and 1861 …
END OF SAMPLE. If you have enjoyed it, please download a copy of my book to learn more about London west of Park Lane.
SOME ‘POSHER’ JEWISH people in west London tended to live around Bayswater. These prosperous members of the Jewish community arrived in Bayswater in the 19th century as the district began to be urbanised. Many of them had drifted westwards from Bloomsbury and the City (www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/middx/vol9/pp264-265). This migration placed them at an inconvenient distance from the synagogues they had been used to attending. So, in 1863, Bayswater Synagogue (at corner of Chichester Place and Harrow Road) was consecrated. This new place of worship was a branch of both the of the Great Synagogue (in the City north of Aldgate) and the New Synagogue (originally near Leadenhall Street, and then later in Great St Helens Street). Like so many Jewish buildings in mainland Europe, this synagogue was destroyed by the forces of Nazi Germany, during WW2.
In 1879, an offshoot of the now demolished Bayswater Synagogue was consecrated in St Petersburg Place, a short distance from the main road known as Bayswater. This, The New West End Synagogue, is now one of the oldest surviving functioning synagogues in Great Britain. At first sight, you might easily be mistaken for thinking that the huge red brick building with Victorian gothic architectural features, a rose window, and twin bell towers, is a church. And maybe that was the intention of the community that commissioned the building. Upwardly mobile Jewish people in Victorian England might well have preferred not to advertise their religious beliefs too much in a society that then had many prejudices against Judaism and other non-Christian religions. The synagogue in St Petersburg Place looks no more exotic or out of place than the Church of St Matthew a few yards north on the same street. In fact, it is another building to the north of these two and within sight of them that is unashamedly exotic in appearance, Aghia Sofia, the Greek Orthodox cathedral on Moscow Road, which was consecrated only three years after the synagogue.
The desire of some Jewish people to ‘meld’ seamlessly with British ‘high society’ was not confined to England. Amos Elon writes about this in his inciteful book about the ‘emancipation’ of Jews in Germany, “The Pity of it All”, and what a dreadful fate it led to. It is my impression that amongst the few Jewish people, mostly of British and German origin, living in Victorian South Africa, there was the belief that economic and social advancement was not hindered by being somewhat discreet about their religious beliefs. This changed during the final few decades of the 19th century when many Jewish people began arriving from parts of the former Russian Empire, many from what is now Lithuania. Often much poorer than their co-religionists, who were already well-established in South Africa, they were far less reticent about expressing their religious beliefs and critical of the ‘established’ Anglo-German Jewish community, who had, in their eyes, become rather too lax about Jewish religious observance.
Returning to Bayswater and its mainly prosperous Jewish families, we can now travel less than a mile northwest to reach the northern end of Kensington Park Road, close to Portobello Road, in nearby Notting Hill, to reach the site of another, now disused, synagogue. This building, still standing but now repurposed, was not designed to mislead the onlooker into believing it was a church. As was the case in South Africa during the last few decades of the Victorian era, large numbers of Jewish people began arriving in London from Eastern Europe, and many of them settled in the crowded East End. In 1902, A Jewish Dispersion Committee, set up by the (Jewish) banker and philanthropist Sir Samuel Montagu (1832-1911), tried to attract some of these new arrivals to settle in areas away from the East End, like Notting Hill (www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/middx/vol1/pp149-151).
The former Notting Hill Synagogue at numbers 206/208 Kensington Park Road was opened in 1900 (www.jewishgen.org/jcr-uk/london/notting_fed/Index.htm), a little ahead of the formation of the above-mentioned committee. Presumably, it was worth opening because there must have been sufficient Jewish presence in the neighbourhood. By 1905, it had 281 members and ten years later, there were 250. Its ritual was Ashkenazi Orthodox, the same as that at the New West End Synagogue, but the congregants were less wealthy than those who attended the latter. Many of them were market stallholders or artisans, such as tailors and shoemakers (http://www.ladbrokeassociation.info/Churchesandotherreligiousbuildings.htm#Synagogue). They lived in what were at the beginning of the 20th century far less salubrious dwellings than many of those, who worshipped in St Peterburg Place. Although I do not know for certain, I doubt there was much socialising between the Jewish communities of Bayswater and Notting Hill.
The Notting Hill Synagogue was housed in a former church hall. Its memorial stone dated the 27th of January 1900 was laid by Sir Samuel Montagu. Although it was a discreet building externally, its interior with galleries for the women and girls was elaborate and attractive as can be seen in old photographs (www.jewishgen.org/jcr-uk/london/notting_fed/Photographs.htm). We have walked past it many times without realising it was once a place of worship until a friend told us recently about its former incarnation.
During WW2, the synagogue was severely damaged by a German bomb. It was restored and reconstructed. During the Notting Hill race riots in the late 1950’s, during the time that the fascist Oswald Mosely (1896-1980) was campaigning as a candidate in the election for the parliamentary seat of the local constituency, Kensington North, he set up his office close to the synagogue. On the 31st of January 1959, one of his supporters daubed the synagogue with the words used by the Nazis: “Juden raus”. Despite these traumatic events, the synagogue continued to thrive until the 1990s, when the size of the local Jewish population had declined. Rabbi Pini Dunner (born 1970), who had been invited to help in performing the ritual in 1992, when the synagogue, under the leadership of its charismatic Stuart Schama, was falling into decline, wrote:
“Notting Hill Synagogue was nothing like any shul I had ever seen. The congregants consisted of a motley group of mainly octogenarian men, characters out of some East End Jewish sit-com, each with his own catchphrase, many of them not quite sure why they were there week after week.”
The synagogue then closed, and amalgamated with the Shepherd’s Bush, Fulham & District Synagogue. Since its closure, the synagogue has been used as a ‘health club’. Currently (March 2021), the building bears the name ‘Teresa Tarmey’, a company that supplies various treatments (www.teresatarmey.com/).
The transformation of the former synagogue into a trendy beauty salon reflects that of Notting Hill from a relatively impoverished area into a prosperous area with high property prices, which is beginning to make Bayswater seem less attractive in comparison. The synagogue in St Petersburg Place continues to thrive. One of my cousins, who lives many miles from it, told me that it was well worth travelling to because its congregation is vibrant and life-enhancing, which is good to know because the mainly residential area surrounding the synagogue is usually rather sleepy.
COLVILLE SQUARE GARDEN in North Kensington is seventy-two yards east of a section of Portobello Road, where stalls with various foods do business most days of the week. The square was laid out in the1870s by the local developer George Frederick John Tippett (1828 – 1899). By the 1950s, the area around Colville had a large proportion of the local ‘black’ community, numbering about 7,000 (https://citylivinglocallife.files.wordpress.com/2017/04/colville-community-history-newsletter-issue-18.pdf), living there. Conditions in the locality became particularly bad not least because of the activities (www.rbkc.gov.uk/vmpeople/infamous/peterrachman.asp) of the notoriously unscrupulous local Polish-born landlord Peter Rachman (1919-1962). Unfortunately, in addition t0 Rachman’s poor behaviour with his mostly impecunious tenants, the area became seedy and crime ridden. Since those days, things have looked up and the area has become a far more pleasant place to live and visit.
Colville Square Gardens is a typical London square surrounded by residential buildings. Long and thin. it runs parallel to Portobello Road between Colville Terrace and Talbot Road. Much of the garden is used for recreational activity and includes a play area for young children. At the south-eastern corner of the square, there is a decorative iron gate leading to a nursery and pre-school. The gates bear the words:
“In memory of Pat McDonald”, and her dates:
“1940 – 1986”
A small, rather indistinct plaque next to the gate records:
“Pat McDonald. Working-class heroine. Lived and worked in North Kensington from the 1960s until her death in 1986. She was the driving force behind the campaigns for better housing, more play-space, and new nurseries. May her fighting spirit live on.”
There is no mention of who placed this memorial.
Pat’s endeavours to improve the care of children under the age of five began in about 1967 when she:
And this is almost all that I have managed to discover about North Kensington’s local heroine. It seems that the poor lady’s life ended tragically. Two websites allude to her tragic, premature end. From one of them (www.theundergroundmap.com/article.html?id=34069), we learn:
“The Colville Nursery Pat McDonald gates are dedicated to the People’s Association community activist play worker, who was murdered by her husband.”
The association was most likely the ‘Notting Hill People’s Association’, which was set up in 1966 to:
“… to widen access topeople with grievances and problems and to resolve them with legal advice – to resolve the individual problems but also to campaign on more general issues.” (www.unionhistory.info/britainatwork/emuweb/objects/common/webmedia.php%3Firn%3D1618+&cd=8&hl=en&ct=clnk&gl=uk).
Once again, whilst walking along a street which I have used hundreds of times, I came across something I had never noticed before. This time it was the quite conspicuous gate in memory of a social reformer and the far less conspicuous memorial plaque close to it. I pride myself on being reasonably observant, but clearly, I have not been nearly as aware of my surroundings as I believed.
THE BATTLE OF PORTOBELLO (or ‘Porto Bello’) was fought between the forces of Britain and Spain on the 20th of November 1739. The British were aiming to capture the settlement of Porto Bello in Panama during the early stages of the War of Austrian Succession (1740-1748). The victorious British naval force of only six heavily armed vessels was commanded by Admiral Edward Vernon (1684-1757). This gentleman has been accredited for coining the word ‘grog’, meaning rum diluted with water.
A map of Kensington drawn in about 1810 marks a ‘Portobello Farm’ next to what is now Portobello Road. The owner of the farm is said to have named his farm thus to honour Admiral Vernon’s capture of the Panamanian town of Porto Bello. The road or track running past the farm was called ‘Portobello Lane’. In the early 19th century, the farm stood alone amongst open fields where cows, pigs, and sheep grazed.
A detailed map surveyed in 1865 shows the farm located near a slight bend in Portobello Lane, about 270 yards north of a bridge carrying the railway across the lane, 280 yards east of ‘Notting Hill Station’ (now Ladbroke Grove Station). Almost across the road from the farm, there is marked ‘Notting Barn Lodge’. A lane led west from there to a larger building marked ‘Notting Barn’.
Notting Barn was the manor house of the Manor of Knotting Barns. Writing in 1820, Thomas Faulkner, author of “History and Antiquities of Kensington”, noted:
“In the midst of these meadows stands the Manor House of Knotting Barns, now occupied by William Smith esq. of Hammersmith, it is an ancient brick building, surrounded by spacious barns, and outhouses; the road to Kensal Green passes through the farmyard.”
The manor was part of the property of the De Veres, as is evidenced by a document dated 1476. In that year, it was seized by the Crown. In 1543, when the manor was owned by Robert Wright, it was sold to King Henry VIII. Then, through the centuries the manor changed hands frequently. The manor gave its name to the area now known as ‘Notting Hill’. The name of the manor and the present district might well have Saxon origins. Florence Gladstone, writing in 1924 (www.theundergroundmap.com/article.html?id=56157&annum=3000), suggested that a:
“…Saxon family, the Cnot-tingas, or ” sons of Cnotta,” may have made a clearing for themselves in the denser wood to the north. No less an authority than Dr. Walter W. Skeat suggests this Saxon solution for the name of Notting Hill. Other writers have thought that the encamp-ment was founded by followers of King Knut. Whether Saxon or Danish in its origin the little colony seems to have been entirely wiped out before the Norman Conquest; nothing but the name remaining to testify to its former existence. The popular belief that Notting Hill owes its name to the nut bushes which grew upon its slopes is a pleasant, but untenable, tradition. The name occurs in the Patent Rolls for A.D. 1361. There it is ‘Knottynghull’, proving that the ‘k’ is original as is also the double ‘t’ .”
By 1897, both Notting Barn and Portobello Farm no longer appeared on the map and Portobello Lane had been renamed ‘Portobello Road’. Notting Barn Manor House stood approximately where today St Marks Road and Bassett Road meet. Where the farm had once stood, there were residential streets that still exist, including Bevington, Blagrove and Raddington Roads. Across Portobello Road almost opposite the site of the farm there was a large building labelled ‘Franciscan Convent’ and opposite it just north of the former farm there was another large building, which is unlabelled on the map but was ‘St Joseph’s Home for the Elderly’.
St Josephs was founded by a Roman Catholic order, The Little Sisters of the Poor (https://ezitis.myzen.co.uk/stjosephshome.html). They bought Portobello Farm on the 7th of June 1865. They resided nearby whilst the farm buildings were demolished and their new convent and home for the elderly was being built. The home for the elderly opened in 1869. The home was finally closed in 1978. After being demolished in the early 1980s, a new housing estate, St Josephs Close, was built in 1986 with its entrance on Bevington Road. The old convent wall that runs along the east side of Portobello Road has become an open-air public art gallery.
Across the road and almost opposite the former farm and its successor, St Josephs, stands a formidable looking building that currently houses a Spanish school, the Vicente Cañada Blanch Spanish School. This was originally occupied by nuns of the Third Order of St. Francis, whose convent had been founded in 1857. The building was designed by Henry Clutton (1819-1893) and built in 1862, but it was modified and enlarged later.
Nothing remains of either the manor house or Portobello Farm. However, the slight bend in Portobello Road near the Spanish school is as it was when the farm existed as can be seen on detailed maps that marked the farm. The entrance to the farm was on a stretch of Portobello Road north of the elevated Westway (the M40 motorway). On Fridays and Saturdays, this section of the road becomes an open-air ‘flea market’, a scruffy extension of the main Portobello Road market south of the motorway and railway bridges that have been built close to each other where they traverse the busy market precinct.
I worked in Golborne Road for several years, near the streets that now cover the former Portobello Farm. Many of my patients lived in those streets. Most of them are probably unaware of the erstwhile existence of the farm, as was I until I researched this short essay.
The Oxfam secondhand bookshop in London’s Portobello Road is one of my favourite haunts. It has a great stock of books on a variety of topics and the people who work there are very friendly.
Recently, I entered the shop ad headed towards the ‘History’ shelves. Near them, there was a male customer speaking with a female shop assistant. They were standing next to a cardboard box filled with dictionaries.
“Which of these dictionaries do you reccommend?” the customer asked, “the Collins or the Oxford?”
“It’s a a matter of taste. Both are good.”
“But which do you prefer?” asked the customer.
“I prefer Oxford.”
“I have always used Oxford. I like its approach to spelling. I used it a lot when I used to work in a publishing house,” responded the lady, edging away to escape her persistent questioner. He turned to me.
“Which do you prefer?” he asked me.
“And why do prefer that?”
“No good reason, ” I replied,”it was the first dictionary we were given at school. Maybe, that’s something to do with my preference.”
“And which authors do you think are good?” he asked me, adding, “I have just given away my television.”
I could not reccommend the books I have written, as that would be immodest and likely to prolong this conversation.
“Thomas Love Peacock,” was the first author’s name that entered my head.
“You could also try John Buchan. You know the chap who wrote the Thirty-Nine Steps,” I suggested.
“Never heard of him.”
“Balzac is also good in translation,” I added.
“Hmm. What about this one?” the customer asked me, holding a novel by George Orwell.
“He’s also good.”
At that point, I was ‘saved by the bell’. My fellow customer’s mobile ‘phone began ringing at a very high volume. It sounded as if a fire alarm had gone off. He rushed out of the shop.
I went to the cash desk to pay for my latest purchase. When I had finished, my new acquaintance came back into the shop, and said to me:
“Sorry about that. You are real gent. It was nice talking with you.”
I left the shop and will probably not visit again for a long time as viral considerations are forcing it to close indefinitely.
Golborne Road intersects London’s famous Portobello Road. I practised dentistry in a clinic on Golborne Road between 1995 and 2001. In those days, Golborne was far less chic than it is today. Every day I used to pass E Price and Sons, a vegetable shop on Golborne.
The shop had a disorderly display of vegetables outside it and was run by a very old couple. I never entered their shop because it seemed to be impenetrable.
On the rare occasions that I purchased anything there, either the old lady or the old man would hurl the produce onto the scales and hardly waited to see the true weight. Then, they would mention a price, always adding the word ‘alright’, pronouncing it as if they were asking the question “is that alright?” They said the word ‘alright’ in such a way that suggested that something was not alright.
My lasting memory of this vegetable shop is of watching either of the man or woman sitting outside the shop removing withered outer leaves from the cabbages. Every day, I noticed that the cabbages on display got smaller and smaller; they seemed to be shrinking.
The shop closed a few years ago, and was later reopened by younger members of the Price family. Sadly, their lovely shop went out of business and the premises are awaiting their new reincarnation.
The Internet is full of sites listing places you must see before you die, and so on. There are also some lists of places worth missing. All of these listings are usually subjective, as is my current list (in no particular order) of 10 or so places worth avoiding in London north of the River Thames:
1 CAMDEN TOWN
2 BRENT CROSS
3 KILBURN HIGH ROAD
4 OXFORD STREET
5 WESTFIELD AT SHEPHERDS BUSH
6 CAMDEN LOCK MARKET (OR BOROUGH MARKET)
7 PORTOBELLO ROAD ON SATURDAYS
8 COVENT GARDEN
9 KENTISH TOWN
10 WEST KENSINGTON (or KENTON)
I will not explain why any of these is on my list, and I do not expect that all of you will agree with me, but I hope that no one is offended by any of my dislikes!
Just in case this all sounds a bit negative, here is my current list (in no particular order) of 10 or so places worth visiting in London north of the River Thames: