My hood, my home, the place where my children were born, how much do I love thee?
Let me count the ways. The main reason I love you, and so does everyone else, is because you’re not like your usual bland town center, served only by chains, from Starbucks to AllSaints, found in every uniform high street in the world. Notting Hill, west of the capital, has been my stomping ground since I was 14, and the postcodes W11, W2, and W10 are now some of the most sought after in London: groovy, cool, kaleidoscopic, and pulsing with street cred, thanks to the area’s eclectic, indie spirit. The neighborhood is an event in itself, for garden squares, the ice-cream colors of its stuccoed streets, its shops, authentic pubs, and hip clubs, and its rackety, clackety independence.
The Victorian street market of the Portobello Road (Portobello Rd.; portobelloroad.co.uk) is the main artery, pumping out everything from fresh mushrooms to willow-pattern china. Step out to go marketing—for asparagus in May, strawberries in June, and for ruddy Cox apples in September—and you return with some blue-and-white Cornishware, a tray of scented mangoes, or a shabby leather armchair, having forgotten the apples.
There’s a cheese man from France (just ask for the French cheese man) who takes his time selecting the ripest, runniest Vacherin, as if in a market in the south of France, baking under the Provençal sun. The Portobello is my beaker brimful of the warm south all year round in rainy, gray London Town.
I love it all, the spicy shops like, well, the Spice Shop (1 Blenheim Cres.; thespiceshop.co.uk); the clubs and restaurants—Soho House has two outposts on the Portobello: Electric House (191 Portobello Rd.; electrichouse.com) and Pizza East (310 Portobello Rd.; 44-20-8969-4500; pizza east.com); and the fact that the Travel Bookshop, as seen in That Film (i.e., Richard Curtis’s Notting Hill ), closed but didn’t die. It reopened as the Notting Hill Bookshop (13 Blenheim Cres.; thenottinghillbookshop.co.uk). And there are two other independent bookshops, Books for Cooks (4 Blenheim Cres.; booksforcooks.com) and Lutyens & Rubinstein (21 Kensington Park Rd.; lutyensrubinstein.co .uk); and even a pop-up shop, Pop (15 Blenheim Cres.; popthewebsite.com), that actually sells popcorn; and three independent cinemas—the Electric (191 Portobello Rd.; electriccinema.co.uk), the Print Room at the Coronet (103 Notting Hill Gate; the-print-room.org), and the Gate (87 Notting Hill Gate; picturehouses.com).
Yes, many of the poets and painters and musicians who praised the neighborhood, like Van Morrison and Jimi Hendrix, have gone or died, but many remain. Damon Albarn of Blur and David Gilmour of Pink Floyd are fixtures. If the bohos have boogied out, it’s because everyone has a price when an oligarch or hedgie waves a seven-figure check.
“My wife had an unlimited budget,” one banker boasted of his most recent refurbishment (houses are redone on a loop—one year a kitchen is Provençal, then it’s a morgue of stainless steel, then it’s shabby chic). “She exceeded it!”
Still, there are enough moth-eaten writers and artists and musicians here—I sometimes spot the Clash’s Mick Jones skulking around—to be addictive to the creatives, like me, who have been here forever and can’t leave.
When I was pregnant with my first child, in the early 1990s, my husband and I lived near Notting Hill Gate Tube in a small cottage. My husband drove me around South London, pointing out gracious townhouses in Clapham and Blackheath, with sash windows and long green lawns. I wouldn’t open my eyes.
Which was just as well, as we found a perfect pink house on the communal garden where Hugh Grant jumps over the gate and says “oops-a-daisy” to Julia Roberts in That Film. At weekends, tourists come on pilgrimages and I snap their pictures against the curlicued ironwork.
It would be easy to cash in, sell up, and then I’d be rich! But as I walk around the hood, its secret gardens, its hybrid cars, its children in gingham smocks trotting off to the same nursery school I sent mine to, I know I can’t do it.
My husband said, “If you live in a place you can’t afford to shop in, its time to move on,” but I stayed. I was determined to chart the changes and wrote a book called Notting Hell. The Observer called it “a comic study of...‘the Am-schluss—Manhattan’s ongoing annexation of Notting Hill.’” But as I repeat, I’m hooked. As Van Morrison sang, it’s too late to stop now.
It’s yummy-mummy paradise, too. There are beauty parlors and nail bars, like Privet (214 Kensington Park Rd.; privetbody.co.uk), Coco (267 Portobello Rd.; coconailbar.co.uk), and Josh Wood Atelier (6 Lansdowne Mews; joshwoodcolour.com); and boutiques, such as West Village (35 Kensington Park Rd.; thewestvillage.myshopify.com), Merchant Archive (19 Kensington Park Rd.; merchantarchive.com), and Sub Couture (204 Kensington Park Rd.; subcouture.co.uk). Lovely, but it means the Afro-Caribbean community that gave the area its—awful-word alert—“vibrancy,” color, and groove, are pushed further and further to the margins.
Gentrification has arrived with a vengeance. All the useful places that had things you needed—Woolworths, the electricians—have been sold and replaced by shops that sell things you merely want.
It’s a cliché to say if you don’t use it you lose it, but I end this love letter with a plea: Visit Notting Hill, but don’t just look. If you don’t use it, we all lose it.
Touch—and take home, too.
Photo Credits: Rasputin; Bloomberg / Getty Images