FROM good sport bobbies loaning their helmets to defuse Carnival tensions to that sloppy film with Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts – Notting Hill has rarely been under the radar. It’s handy for central London, yet a fascinating destination in its own right, as Neil Sowerby discovered. Here, without mentioning the Carnival, are his Twelve Top Notting Hill Tips...
Clarissa's old hauntReading matters
Hugh Grant is cute William Thacker, who works in Notting Hill’s famous Travel Bookshop. Cue shallow but likeable 1999 rom-com. You can make a pilgrimage to Blenheim Crescent, where Travel Books was (it’s now called Notting Hill Books). The bookshop scenes were actually filmed at Nicholls’ Antiques Arcade at 142 Portobello Road, these days a shoe shop. Confusing, eh? Across Blenheim Crescent from the real Travel Bookshop and its blue plaque is foodie mecca Books For Cooks, which ought to have a blue plaque to Clarissa Dickson Wright, who pre-Fat Ladies ran it. www.booksforcooks. For reading bargains look no further than remainders heaven Book Warehouse, next to Notting Hill Gate Tube station.
Portobello Road is world famous, just not for bargains any longer. Still a good place to pick up used cricket balls, cheeky signs, wild west gear and vintage frocks. If it’s posh frocks (and other designer options) you are after turn right on to Westbourne Grove and surrounding streets, which have turned into a mini-Rodeo Drive. Wolf and Badger, Ventilo, Brora, Smythson, Emma Hope Shoes. Even the Oxfam and the Fara Kids’ Charity Shop around the corner ooze affluence. And ask not the price of a Cotswold rack of lamb at the “town” branch of Daylesford Organics. More than a pair of Hunter Wellies is a clue. For more visit: www.westbourne-grove.com.
Rough Trade– iconicSlipping out for a disc
It’s a relief to return to the edgier urban clutter just further north. Shopping is more real along Talbot Road, but the main reason to head that way is Rough Trade Records at No. 130. It began back in 1976 on Kensington Park Road, selling US and Jamaican imports before embracing punk and has been here since 1983 (shortly after it signed a band to its label called The Smiths). Inside it celebrates its indie longevity with walls plastered with original artwork, posters and sleeves.There’s now a “flagship” offshoot in Brick Lane, with even more vinyl options but not the same sense of music history. www.roughtrade.com.
... and slipping into the groove
Today’s Notting Hipsters are hardly spoiled for choice. After dark it’s all pretty sedate. The best music action is to be found at the Notting Hill Arts Club. Part arts centre, part cocktail bar, it comes alive on DJ nights such as Death2Disco. www.nottinghillartsclub.com.
Coronet, Notting Hill GateThe big picture
The area really is Celluloid Central. Step off the Tube at Notting Hill Gate and both the Gate and Coronet cinemas are in sight. The two-screen Coronet built as a major theatre in 1898, has the history – John Gielgud saw his first Shakespeare play there, Hugh Grant as William Thacker saw a sci-fi movie there in Notting Hill (except they filmed the interior elsewhere... that’s showbiz again).The single-screen Gate offers less mainstream films in an equally ornate more intimate atmosphere. There’s mainstream and arthouse fare at the Electric Cinema at 191 Portobello Road.
Boozers, bars and Babylon
First a must-see (but maybe-not-stay-long). For 20 years Beach Blanket Babylon on Ledbury Road has appealed to aficionados of French country chateau meets Gaudi decor. Cocktails can be equally ornate and champagne reaches aristocratic price levels. A better bet is the Lonsdale, on the road of that name, with its scholarly take on classic cocktails. Try sipping the bartender’s special elderflower fizz out on the decking. Just around the corner in Portobello Road, the Portobello Star manages to combine candlelight and cocktails with the merits of a traditional boozer. For real ale (the entire Fullers’ range) in convivial trad surroundings (ie masses of brassy bedpans hanging from low rafters) I’d cross Notting Hill Gate and head south for five minutes down Kensington Church Street. The Irish-run Churchill was heaving on a January Wednesday evening – deservedly. A pub for locals, tourists and the odd antique dealer (of which there are many in these parts).
Casual dining at dressed-up prices
Yotam Ottolenghi, through two cookbooks and a Guardian column, has transformed the way the chattering classes dine. Whenever you see sumac scattered on fennel, say, you shout YO! The bright white original Ottolenghi cafe on Ledbury Street offers big trays of fusion salads and amazing cakes to a well-heeled clientele. Yes, it's expensive. Telly-friendly Aussie Bill Grainger has opened a rival all-day, eponymous cafe on Westbourne Grove. The mid-morning crowd round the block put us off, so we went for a cheap and cheerful (yet still sustainable) breakfast in Charlie’s Cafe in a converted church hall on Portobello Road. As an alternative shopping break, the Portuguese-run Lisboa Patisserie on Golborne Road, offers good espresso and custard tarts.
London’s best restaurant?
Shades of Notting Hill’s violent past arose when last summer rioters smashed into The Ledbury on Ledbury Road and kitchen staff fought them off. Our bill for a tasting menu for two and wine for one over a long lunch came to £150, so I can see where the anti-toff resentment came from. But Brett Graham’s Michelin 2-star is no culinary clip-joint for oligarchs. Around us sat food-loving young couples out on a special occasion, two young chefs from Huddersfield “researching” on annual leave and, at the next table with his young family, a Spanish Michelin 3-star chef, whose restaurant recently hosted Masterchef The Professionals finalists. We all ate sensational food at the Ledbury. If you can’t get into the Ledbury try Clarke’s on Kensington Church Street – or (for the adventurous) the new Georgian place, Colchis, in Chepstow Place, which has had favourable opening reviews.
Where to lay your head
For half a century the Portobello Hotel in Stanley Gardens has been a celeb hang-out. Very rock and roll. Alice Cooper kept his boa constrictor in the bath – you know the kind of tales. Just across the border in Bayswater that ultimate minimalist hideaway, the Hempel in Craven Hill Gardens, is one of my favourite hotels that I am unable to afford regularly (at rates of up to £599 a double). This time we were happy to stay at the Notting Hill Central self-catering apartments in Pembridge Gardens. Affordable and spacious in a converted Georgian terrace. Just a one minute walk from Notting Hill Gate and the Central/Bakerloo lines and then 15 minutes’ ride into the West End (see factfile below).
A permanent stay
You could do worse than Kensal Green Cemetery, my favourite London burial ground – without all the baggage attached to Highgate. It was inspired by Pere-Lachaise in Paris and founded in 1833 by a barrister. The great and the good of the Victorian era – Trollope, Thackeray and Wilkie Collins are but three – are scattered around its 72 acres. Memorials range from the humblest headstone to knock ‘em dead mausoleums. As for the living, this beautiful green oasis is home to 33 species of bird and other wildlife in two separate conservation areas. Free but paid-for tours are available For opening hours visit www.kensalgreencemetery.com.
Why no museum attractions?
Because they’re all down in South Ken. Apart from one of London’ most fascinating, of course, where it’s literally a case of read the label. In Colville Mews, off Lonsdale Road lies the Museum of Brands, Packaging & Advertising. For £6.50 adm you get to share Robert Opie’s lifetime obsession – 12,000 consumer items from cereal packets to a near-compete set of Heinz products. Historic inventions feature, too, including the 1895 Gower-Bell telephone, the 1911 Star Vacuum Cleaner, the 1890 Rippingille oil warming stove and the world’s first portable gramophone, the 1909 Pigmy Grand. www.museumofbrands.com.
A ramble among the Notting Hillbillies
Notting Hill denizens David Cameron and George Osborne never adopted the combat-trousered trustafarian lifestyle once associated with the area. Trustas were pseudo bohos living off loaded family trust-funds who moved into one-time no-go areas and hung out with the increasingly marginalised old-timers (not Tory policy, obviously). Up near the Westway and the Regent Canal the bed-sitland edges are still rough. Elsewhere all is white stucco, nannies and Ottolenghi-inspired basement kitchens. It's all very relaxed for London. Walk the leafy boulevards into Holland Park and feel the affluence. And not a pair of combat trousers or white boy dreadlocks in sight!
Neil Sowerby stayed in a Superior Studio apartment, courtesy of Hoseasons. A night’s stay at the London Notting Hill Central apartments start from £157. Accommodation ranges from a superior studio to an executive studio. For more information visit www.hoseasons.co.uk or call 0844 847 1100.
Neil travelled to London with Virgin Trains, which runs up to 50 trains a day between Manchester and London. For details of services and fares, including special promotions, visit www.virgintrains.co.uk. For timetable information ring National Rail Enquiries 08457 48 49 50.
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