For most visitors to London and indeed most Londoners, Portobello Road starts at Notting Hill Gate and winds it's way north towards Kensal Green. If you look it up in a guide book this would likely be the suggested route. Certainly, at Notting Hill Gate Station there are seemingly endless tourists with maps and books, heading north, chattering away in foreign tongues, heading that way - probably hoping to get a picture outside the house used in that film.
But not for me. As far as I'm concerned, the Portobello Road experience should be done the other way round, from Kensal Rd via Golbourne Rd and then north towards Notting Hill Gate. Of course, I'm biased as I grew up in the neighbourhood and look at things from quite a different perspective from most.
My earliest memories of Saturday Shopping doen the 'bella are shopping with my mum and my
sister. We'd walk there from the other side of the Grand Union Canal via the Ha'penny Steps on the Harrow Rd, through
the estates on Kensal Road and past Trellick Tower. The market actually
starts there, on Golbourne Rd, right after the iron bridge. Our first stop would often be the Portuguese delicatessen - Lisboa - that sells very good chorizo.
market still begins there and Lisboa still sells damn good
chorizo. So that's score one for the market being unchanged by time. However the rest of the Golbourne Road section of the market is
now mostly North African food vendors. One of them - The Moroccan Soup Stand - won a British Food
and Farming Award a couple years back for being the UK's Best Street Food Vendor.
The whole stretch is a bit like an open air street restaurant. The stalls aren't just trestle tables selling food. They are caravans and huts with seating and menu's. But not contrived like other places such as Borough Market, near London Bridge. There you feel as though the whole thing has been manufactured as a disney-esque theme park, even though it's actually the oldest market in London, dating back to 1100AD. Here on Golbourne Road it feels like the line up was quickly put together quickly and without a plan. In between the food stalls there are also the odd fruit and veg stall or a large piece of carpet covered in trinkets. It all feels very real.
After a couple of hundred meters, Golbourne Road meets Portobello Road. The rag tag collection of sellers turns left at this point and you start to get into the market proper, although at this stage, it's mostly second hand stuff and hand made craft items. Everything from hand-made jewellery to old & rare books. Running alongside the road at that point is a large brooding monastery like building, which is home to La Instituto Espanol AKA the Spanish school.
I have to do a side bar here.
Back when I was a kid, we were sent here after school for Spanish tuition. For the children of Spanish immigrants it was the norm. You either went there full-time or you attended for evening classes. My sister were already in regular school, so it was evening classes for us. These generally revolved around Spanish grammar, rather than things like maths & science. Speaking English was forbidden (punishable by a cash fine of a few pence if caught) and the lessons were conducted as if it were a school in Spain, run by nuns (as I've always assumed most schools over there were at that time).
I despised going to Spanish School. It's the only time in my childhood I can honestly say I encountered racism that actually bothered me. In normal day school I was much bigger than the other boys my age, so I was never the victim of name calling or bullying. Plus, growing up in an immigrant neighbourhood, there was a very even mix of colours and races all around me. I certainly didn't stand out. But at Spanish School not only was I the only non-white kid in the school, but I didn't really speak the language very well at all. All the other kids were already fluent, speaking Spanish at home with their parents from a young age. That wasn't the case for me (or my sister) as only my mum spoke Spanish in our immediate family. I always suspected that my Dad was a bit of a conspiracy theorist and didn't like it when he couldn't understand us. He spoke Patois - the broken French creole of the Caribbean island St Lucia and he didn't insist we speak that either. At home it was English all the way.
At Spanish school however, the other kids could make jokes and call me names in Spanish and I couldn't understand them, never mind answer back. And even though I was much bigger than practically all of them, especially the ones my age, it didn't help. Kids ganging together are fearless. If it wasn't for my cousin (who was one of the more popular kids in the school) I wouldn't have survived at all.
Eventually, when I told my dad the reason I hated going there he immediately pulled me out. Unfortunately it had the unforeseen side effect of making me hate speaking Spanish as a child, which is the most important time to learn a language. As an adult my Spanish is pretty atrocious as a result.
Now, when I walk past La Instituto Espanol , I look at it sadly. It's one of the few parts of my childhood that I consider unpleasant. Sometimes I feel like I actively avoid that part of the market because of it. Even now, 35 years later, I find the building quite menacing.
Sorry bout that. Back to the subject at hand.
A little further down the road, before you get to the flyover, there is a small string of shops that hasn't changed too much. There's a Spanish Deli (changed hands over the years, but still the best one on the street in my opinion), Honest Jon's Records and The Falafel King. These stores have been there as long as I can remember. Amongst them are a wide mix of other restaurants and second hand curiosity shops. It's at this point that the market starts to get busy. People lingering, Music blaring from hidden speakers under the stands. In addition to Honest Jon's, there are a fair number or music stalls around this section, selling obscure CDs, DJ Mixes & compilations.
If you ask me to paint a mental picture of Portobello Road Market, this is the section I see in my mind. Looking south along the road towards the bridges, where the road dips as it passed under the A40 flyover and the Hammersmith & City Tube Line. To the right is Portobello green, filled with clothes stalls under it's giant, peaked, canvas awning. To the left is Alkam Village tucked underneath the flyover, mostly selling food. Straight ahead, beyond the bridge is the main section of the market before the accent to Notting Hill.
On this Saturday Afternoon, the picture is perfect. The sun is out and the large covered area, oblivious to the noise of the overhead vehicle traffic, is filled with the sound of music, people, market sellers and the smell of food.
Next: Has Portobello Road lost it's charm?