Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Day 21: Has Portobello Road lost it's charm?

So here I am, standing beneath the elevated section of the A40 Motorway, on Portobello Road on a Saturday afternoon. The sun is shining, the weather is sweet here! And so is the smell of food coming from Acklam Village to my left and the sound of funk coming from one of the music stalls, sheltered under Portobello Green, to my right. There are hundreds of people on a hundred different missions and if I stand here long enough, it won't be long before someone I know will walk by.

If I take a wander, under the massive canvas covering of the Green, it's easy to get lost in amongst the clothes sellers. Here, you can buy everything from cool re-styled army-surplus camo-gear to T-shirts sporting whatever the current  trending internet meme might be. If you've seen it on-line then it's here, be it home made or mass produced. Need something less common? Not to worry: this is also where the line blurs between second hand, scrap and vintage.

But if you really want to go vintage, the music options here will keep you extremely happy. There's always someone selling an old vinyl collection or two. And, if it takes your fancy, you can still buy 'mix-tapes' here, as well as their modern equivalent on CDs. When I lived in Germany in the 90s I would come to this section of the market on every visit to London, just to buy music. On one occasion I met a fly-by-night trader who was selling a record collection so similar to my own that I took a photo of him in case I'd find mine missing when I got home.

Portobello Green extends along the flyover all the way to Ladbroke Grove - a stretch about 100 meters long that is filled with yet more stalls of dizzying variety. Beneath the flyover itself, tucked under its massive concrete supports is a small dark, arcade. it has several entrances which lead from the green, back under the elevated road to the main market. Despite the hubub and colour just outside and the chaos of traffic above, It's a strangely tranquil little place is filled with boutique shops, ranging from bespoke tailors to chinese herbal tea specialists. It's always quiet here and on a hot day, several degrees cooler than outside. It's like a secret sanctuary in the middle of the market, missed by most visitors who can't see the entrances, tucked behind the second hand stalls and jewellery sellers.

On the opposite side of the market, along the flyover in the opposite direction, on Acklam Road is an area which is fenced off, currently called 'Acklam Village'. In here are more food vendors, bars and an area for live music. This is a relatively new addition to the market. The Acklam area has always been here, but it's often been home to different things: A children's play area gave way to a youth activities centre, which later became a Farmers Market, which has since transformed into a 'street food village'. Perhaps it will be something else next year.

Once you've passed under the railway bridge, you are onto the main stretch of portobello, the part that you are most likely to see on TV or in a music video. Even though I've effectively been in the market for an hour, it's only here that I will really start shopping, for this is where the majority of the fruit and veg sellers are situated.

Of course, I say that in such a way that perhaps sounds grander than it is, but there are far less of them these days: I counted less than 10 stalls on my visit, which is probably a half to a third of the number there would have once been. Regardless, what they offer is still fantastic. There's a guy who only sells mushrooms - some of which look like they can't possibly be real. There's a group of ladies who have an artisan bread stand. A fresh olive dealer. A Fishmonger stand. A Butcher stall that seems to have any kind of meat. And not to mention the actual fruit & veg sellers who still call out their wares in ever so colourful ways.

Along the sides of the streets, the shops are mostly boutique fashion places mixed in with coffee houses. And of course - Garcia's.

Garcia's is probably the best known Spanish retail & whole-seller in London. Established in the late 50s, there probably  isn't a single Spaniard who lives here who hasn't been there to buy something. Indeed, over the years, the operation has expanded and the shop is at least twice as big as it originally was and has extended to having a Spanish cafe and restaurant. Personally I prefer the Spanish Deli that I already passed earlier up the street. I've always found Garcia's a little unfriendly and aloof, but there is no doubt that it's a major contributor to what gives Portobello it's character.

At this point, I'm about half way along the market and fully into shopping mode, trying to figure out who has the best prices for the veg I want. It's easy to get distracted. There are so many things going on. The drunk cross dressers badly miming to trance remakes of popular pop songs. A very good human beat-box performing on the corner with his mobile speaker rig. The Hare Krishna's on their march to where-ever they go, with their symbols, chanting and drums. The short american hippy standing on his own on the corner reading chapter and verse to seemingly no one...

By the time I get as far as the Electric Cinema, I've found my chillies. At a good price and quality too. This is normally where I stop and turn around, but it's by no means the end of the market. There is still the antiques section that goes up to Notting Hill Gate. In fact, as I mentioned at the beginning of my previous piece, to most people the market hasn't really started yet, because they are coming at it from the other direction and they've only seen the antiques. That section of the market, even though it's shorter, can keep you occupied for much longer due to the nature of the shops. A lot of them are actually mini arcades and indoor markets with a myriad of small vendors inside, occupying maze like corridors and basements.

I'm not one for that kind of thing and I have my chillies, so at this stage I'm going to turn back. On my way, I'll revisit the things I found interesting and probably allow myself some indulgence spending. Probably on a bratwurst or some churros. And I'll probably sport a bunch of things I didn't notice on the way up.

This is what it's always been like. Some of the stall holders have been here as long as I can remember. Some might be gone next week. Half the shoppers are probably tourists or at least, visitors from out of town. But if you could transport yourself back in time either one, five or even twenty years, it would feel essentially the same.

I can't imagine spending an afternoon here and being bored, or not finding something interesting. When we were doing our sixth form art project, we'd sit in the Portobello Cafe (which is now a Thai restaurant). It has a second floor outdoor terrace which looks down on one of the busy market sections. You can just sit there and watch and be entertained.

So I suppose, the answer to the initial question is easy for me. Portobello Road has definitely retained it's soul. Charm is subjective. I've never found it charming, but I suppose some people would. I find it fascinating.