An Up-and-Coming Place Still Searching for Its Soul

By Johnson, Paul | The Spectator, March 13, 1999 | Go to article overview

An Up-and-Coming Place Still Searching for Its Soul


Johnson, Paul, The Spectator


The part of London where we live has become smart. It is talked and written about, and the upwardly mobile long to live here. House prices soar. But what is it? For some it is Notting Hill, others Paddington. I call it Bayswater. It stretches on the one hand into Holland Park, where my doctor's surgery is, and which is ritzy. But if you go far enough down the Portobello Road, the streets become dingy, the shops decrepit, poverty lurks openly. It has no centre, no focal point, no overwhelming attraction around which those who wish to be seen congregate. So it has no soul-yet.

In the 18th century the area was known as Kensington Gravel Pits, where men dug the raw material for London's expansion. It was also a haunt of artists who built themselves villas just off the high road which then led past the old Tyburn gibbet to Oxford and Bath, coaches rattling along, their horns blowing -147 a week went to Bath in Jane Austen's day. In the 1820s boom of 'Prosperity' Robinson, the gravel pits were themselves swallowed up as the houses marched west into the market gardens and pastures of the old Ladbroke Estate. There was a hiatus after the crash of December 1825, then the building of terraces and enormous five-storey houses resumed in the 1830s. An old racecourse was engulfed, its curves still visible in Elgin and Lansdowne Crescents. Our street, Newton Road, was put up just after Victoria came to the throne: semi-detached villas for what were then called `superior servants' - butlers, housekeepers, agents, cooks, coachmen. There are one or two streets of tiny cottages for humbler folk, and many terraces for clerks and their families, such as Northumberland Place, which has pretty ironwork verandas, where Peter Mandelson bought his ill-fated house. But many of the dwellings which speculative builders put up in their thousands right up to the 1890s are vast and testify to the robust prosperity of middle-class Victorian England. These properties, each originally inhabited by one family, had 12-15 bedrooms and required half a dozen servants to run. Yet they were not for the upper class or really rich, who resolutely refused to live `north of the Park' until fairly recently.

When I first knew London, around 1950, Notting Hill had come heavily down in the world. It was a desperate place of boarding houses, rooms to let, gaunt mansions split into squalid flats, the realm of Rachman. There were rough pubs, countless small shops selling whatever came to hand, greasy-spoon cafes. Not even literary and artistic bohemia lived there: they could still afford Chelsea. It was a social wasteland, distinguished by nothing except sporadic violence. Westbourne Grove was known as 'Bankrupts' Alley'. Even in the 1970s, when we bought a little flat in Ledbury Road, nothing much was stirring. There were establishments selling old things, little better than junk shops. Chinese, Greek and Indian restaurants were setting up, one or two of them, like Khan's, already famous. Just occasionally you saw a familiar face: a stubble-chinned intellectual loping along, with his arms full of review copies for sale at the knacker's yard, a harbinger of things to come. Once eggheads move into a derelict neighbourhood, it is sure to flourish because they write about it. There was another pointer: a shop selling faddy food. Throughout history, until the 20th century, the rich were fat and the poor thin. Now it is reversed, and selling grub designed to keep people slender foreshadows rising property values. …

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