The north end of Portobello Road crosses Golborne Road, the heart of a vibrant multi-ethnic community in London's North Kensington.
Between 1994 and 2001, I practised dentistry in a surgery on Golborne Road in North Kensington. The street crosses the better-known Portobello Road a couple of blocks north of the elevated Westway. Despite no longer working there, I make regular visits to this lively part of North Kensington, which is home to people originating from many parts of the world. Although much remains from when I began practising on Golborne Road, changes keep on occurring.
A detailed map surveyed in 1865 shows that where Golborne Road is today, was then open countryside through which ran ‘Portobello Lane’ (now Portobello Road). Thirty years later, what had been a narrow footpath running through fields from Notting Hill to Kensal New Town (laid out north of the Harrow Road in the 1840s and the railway tracks) was shown on a later edition of the map as Golborne Road, solidly lined with buildings. In 1870, Golborne Road, named after Dean Golbourne (vicar of St. John's Church in Paddington), was widened and lined with shops and houses. By the start of the 20th century, the area around Golborne Road had become an overcrowded slum (see: http://www.golbornelife.co.uk/golbornehistory.html). From the beginning of its urban development onwards, the cheap accommodation in the area attracted waves of immigrants, many of whose descendants still live there. The first group to arrive were Irish folk. Others will be described below. In the 1960s and ‘70s, there was extensive slum clearance, the Westway was built, as were apartment blocks such as Trellick Tower, which dominates the horizon. Abutting the wealthier parts of Kensington, North Kensington, which includes Golborne Road, has remained a less prosperous part of London, but this is beginning to change slowly.
This exploration begins in Ladbroke Grove just north of its Underground Station. Beginning on a morbid note, there is a branch of John Nodes Funeral Service close by. This company has been serving the area since 1828. In 1920, when the body of the Unknown Soldier was brought back from France: “…H Kirtley Nodes of John Nodes in Ladbroke Grove and together with … the Revd John Sowerbutts, they accompanied the coffin to and from France.” (see: http://lafd.org.uk/funeral-service-in-london-a-short-history). Recently, I was passing by when I saw a horse-drawn hearse loaded with a coffin waiting to depart from the premises. The two horses were decked with black ostrich feathers, and the driver, dressed in Victorian garb with a top hat, sat above them in front of the glass-sided vehicle.
The short Chesterton Road, lined with Victorian terraced housing, links Ladbroke Grove with the western end of Golborne Road. It is dwarfed by the massive Trellick Tower beyond it. The best days to visit Golborne Road are Fridays and Saturdays, when its street market is working. Many of the market stalls on the south side (or right side as you approach from Ladbroke Grove) are dedicated to selling used or ‘pre-loved’ goods, a term which sounds politer than ‘junk’. The vendors demand ridiculously high prices for their often almost worthless wares, but are willing to haggle sometimes. Books are sometimes on offer; these are rarely costly. When I worked in Golborne Road, there used to be a bookstall outside the surgery. Only once during my seven years working there did I ever acquire a valuable book at a bargain price. Whatever the value of the goods, they include an amazing assortment of items – everything from rusty tools and furniture (‘on its last legs’) to colourful disused shop signs.
I will describe the south side first. East of Portobello Road, there is a Danish restaurant, Snaps and Rye, next door to an Austrian one, Kipferl. These have opened in the last few years, and appeal to visitors rather than locals, who would regard them, as I do, as being overpriced. They are part of the ‘gentrification’ of the area, which had already begun with the establishment of Warris Vianni, an upmarket textile company, which opened in 1994 a few months before I began working in the area (see: http://warrisvianni.com/about-us/). Nearby, at number 91, presently the home of the smart-looking Zayane Modern Moroccan, there used to be a modest Arabic eatery with good food (Moroccan and Lebanese), where I often lunched. This used to be patronised mostly by North African men, some of them wearing traditional Berber costumes. I remember that whenever I brought my wife to eat with me there, all the men would turn to stare at us, not always approvingly. Many of these men have Moroccan heritage, Golborne Road and its environs having a large population of Moroccans.
The Etoile de Sous has changed little since I worked nearby. This north African café/bakery offers a selection of Middle-Eastern confectionery, including beautiful freshly-made baklava. It stands on the corner of Swinbrook Road opposite the Golborne Fisheries. This fishmonger contains a bewildering variety of fish and seafood that rivals many the stock in many good aquaria, except that all the creatures lie motionless on beds of crushed ice. The range of seafood on offer reflects the diversity of its customers, many of them locals. Many of the folk who have settled around Golborne Road are keen seafood eaters, for example: Irish, Spanish, Portuguese, Brazilian, Afro-Caribbean, Moroccan, and Tunisian. A seagull often lurks close to this shop.
Les Couilles de Chien (the dog’s balls), a little further along the south side, has been in existence for more than 25 years. Its friendly owner Jerome and his staff sell a wide selection of “… unusual and decorative antiques and natural history curiosities…” (see: https://www.lescouillesduchien.com/). Facing this corner shop across Wornington Road, there is another corner store, Rainbow News. Until recently, this newsagent was a well-stocked, shabby-looking establishment. It used to be run by two Gujarati brothers from East Africa. After one of them learned that I often visit Bangalore, he would always ask me whether I ever visited Puttaparthi in Andra Pradesh, where until recently Shri Sathya Sai Baba (died 2011) ran his ashram. For the record, I have not yet visited the place. In about 2014, the Gujaratis sold their shop. Its new owners have spruced it up impressively.
The newsagent was separated from ‘my’ dental practice at number 59 by a Moroccan community advice centre (no longer there). When I joined the practice in 1994, I had no idea what an exciting professional life I would lead there. Back then, drug-dealers and their customers loitered outside the building despite it being under scrutiny by closed-circuit TV police cameras. Many of my patients, especially the drug-abusers, had a better knowledge of pharmacology than my colleagues and me. The richly varied backgrounds of my patients reflected that of the local population. Generalising a bit, almost the only patients who turned up punctually were the Portuguese. Just about everyone else, despite having made appointments, turned up whenever they felt like it, either on the appointed day, or on another, or not at all. One day to my great surprise, a Tunisian turned up on time. When I praised him for this, and vented about the unreliability of most of my other patients, he turned to me, and explained: “You must understand people around here believe in what the French call ‘rendez-vous africain’”. After learning this, I began feeling as relaxed about my patients’ attitudes to punctuality as they did.
Many of my patients at Golborne Road required careful handling. Some of them were schizophrenics, who had been encouraged to mingle in the community. Others were excitable, unused to not getting their own way. There were people who had endured spells in prison on several occasions. On one occasion, a couple of young men burst into my surgery. One of them demanded that I extract a certain tooth because he was in agony. I examined him, and realised that he had a broken jaw, and that extraction, apart from being dangerous, would not relieve his pain. I suggested that he headed for a hospital, but he was aggressively unwilling. In the end, his friend persuaded him to leave. I met the friend some days later, and asked how the chap with the broken jaw was getting on. He replied: “He’s on holiday,” and then paused before adding: “… a very long holiday. He won’t be back for a few years”.
Another man started visiting me for a course of appointments during which he was going to have a set of complete dentures constructed. He had an intimidating appearance, and told me that he needed permission from the police to visit Golborne Road, as he was barred from staying there. At the penultimate appointment, I told him that he would need to attend the following Friday. He replied that it might be difficult because he was “seeing the judge” on Monday. I asked him if he would let me know if he could not make it. He said that he would be able to ring from jail. He burst out laughing when I said to him: “You can ring from prison? Is that what they mean by a ‘cell phone’?” And, talking of mobile ‘phones, once a young fellow, a patient I saw often, came rushing into my surgery looking ‘frazzled’. I asked him what had happened. He told me that his ‘phone had just been stolen. I expressed my sympathy, and then he said: “I know who’s done it, and I’m going to get the boys in south London to put him six feet under.” You could not ‘mess’ with most of my patients!
There is no doubt that in the 1990s, Golborne Road was a rough area. One of my patients, a tall fellow with a deformed nose, told me that if ever I was in trouble locally I was to say: “I am a friend of Mick’s”. Another helpful patient was standing next to me in a queue, when he turned around and said: “If you ever need a motor, just tell me what make you want, and I’ll get one for you.” Many of my patients had challenging dental as well as social problems, but once I got know them many of them were very nice to me, and greeted me as a friend in the street, and, even today more than sixteen years after I left, some of them still stop and greet me cheerfully.
The practice, which still exists but is now under new management, is next door to the Lisboa Patisserie, which is a little bit of Portugal in London. When my ‘boss’ at the next-door surgery was interviewing me, he bought me an espresso coffee from Lisboa. I believe that it was the high quality of the coffee that helped me decide that I wanted to work in his surgery. Apart from excellent coffee, this popular café, where there are frequently queues, offers a great selection of Portuguese snacks, both savoury and sweet. It is famed for its ‘natas’ or baked custard tarts, but everything else is worth sampling. One wall of the café is decorated with a beautiful blue and white tiled (‘azulejo’) panorama of Lisbon depicting times long past. Next door to the café there is a Portuguese gift/stationery/book shop, the Lisboa Papeleria.
Just before reaching the railway bridge, St Ervans Road leads to Acklam Road on which the Al Manaar, Muslim Cultural Heritage Centre, housed in a purpose-built brick building, is located close to the tracks. It is an Islamic community centre.
The iron railway bridge carrying Golborne Road over the Great Western Railway was built in about 1870 (see: http://www.golbornelife.co.uk/golbornebridge.pdf). At its north-eastern corner, there is a set of several curved steps edged with coloured tiles and paving stones, on which various historic events related to the area are recorded with inlaid letters. These dates include, for example: 1870, when Golborne Road was widened from a track; and 1948 when the ‘Empire Windrush’ set sail for the UK from Australia via Jamaica, beginning a period of immigration from the Caribbean. The walls of the bridge abutment next to these steps are decorated with strips of coloured ceramic tiles with names and dates scored in them.
On the corner of Golborne Road and Southam Street, there stands the former ‘Earl of Warwick’ pub, undistinguished architecturally. A plaque above its corner entrance records the death of Kelso Cochrane (1927-59). Kelso, a carpenter from Antigua, was fatally wounded near this pub in what was most probably a racially-motivated attack. When this happened, the area was a stronghold for Oswald Mosely’s Union Movement and other racist groups (see: http://www.obv.org.uk/news-blogs/death-kelso-cochrane). The pub is almost directly beneath Trellick Tower.
Designed by the left-wing Hungarian-born architect Ernő Goldfinger, and erected by the London County Council in 1972, Trellick Tower is a brutalist-style apartment block (217 flats and maisonettes, mostly state-owned, but some privately owned) that people either love or hate. I love it, but the creator of James Bond (Agent 007) Ian Fleming (1908-64) did not like Ernő’s architecture (especially the home he constructed for himself in Hampstead). Fleming’s evil character ‘Goldfinger’ was so-named because of his creator’s animosity towards the architect of Trellick Tower (see: Guardian online, 3 June 2005).
A separate slender tower connected to the main block by short covered walkways houses the lifts and staircases. Nikolaus Pevsner, the architectural historian, approved of the building. He wrote of it in 1991: “…by the 1970s public housing on such a monumental scale was already a dinosaur from another age, however handsome and generously planned (the entrance halls are marble lined, the balconies are large)…”. At street level the block has several shops, two of which include the name Goldfinger in their trading names. The ground floor of a neighbouring block, Holmfield House, contains a shop named ‘Rellik’, which opened in 1999 and continues to sell ‘vintage’-style clothing.
Crossing over the bridge back to the stretch of Golborne Road to its west, we will next explore the northern side of the road. The Lisboa Delicatessen is opposite the Lisboa Patisserie. All the staff at the ‘deli’ and most of its customers are Portuguese speakers, either from Portugal or from its scattered former colonies. At least one of the serving staff hails from Angola. His parents moved there from Goa, when it was a Portuguese colony. The shop contains every ingredient that might ever be needed to prepare Portuguese dishes. You can buy salted-cod; prepared meats including hams (e.g. Portuguese ‘presunto, which rivals the Italian ‘prosciutto’ and Spanish ‘jamon serrano’) and salamis; wines and other drinks; fresh breads; confectionery; olives and olive oil; Portuguese cheeses; frozen goods from Portugal; and so on. We often buy ‘presunto’ here; it is freshly cut to whatever thickness is required and far cheaper and tastier than that which is available sealed in plastic in supermarkets.
Next door to the delicatessen, there is an abandoned shuttered shop bearing the name ‘W Hicks’ in fading gold lettering. When I worked at the surgery across the road, this was an old-fashioned greengrocer with friendly staff. After it closed some years ago, it premises began to be used to house stock for the delicatessen next door. The Oporto on the corner of Wornington Road is another Portuguese café. I went there a few times in the 1990s, but did not find it as congenial as the Lisboa across the road.
The north side of Golborne Road near to the Oporto has a group of fruit and vegetable barrows, which are in business on Fridays and Saturdays. The lively salesmen, who man them, joke a lot and yell out their special offers. Once I heard one of them shouting: “Collies, collies, collies … three collies, wuppa, wuppa, wuppa!” It took me a while to work out that three cauliflowers were being offered for one pound. Apart from ‘European’ fruit and vegetables, they also sell tropical foods. These greengrocery stalls have been present ever since I began working in Golborne Road, but this is not the case for the several pavement-side stalls containing kitchens where delicious Moroccan food is cooked and consumed.
There are two shops, Le Marrakech and Le Maroc, selling the conical ceramic containers for cooking tagines. Both are Morroccan groceries, which include in-house halal butchers. Near them, there is a shop frontage, the entrance to the Al Huda Mosque, a small mosque with room for only thirty men. The mosque on nearby Acklam Road (see above) can accommodate 1500 worshipers (men and women). Both mosques, although open to all worshipers, caters for the local North African community.
Le Maroc’s neighbour is the double-fronted “E Price & Sons. English and Foreign Fruiterers and Greengrocers”. One half of the shop, the left as you face it, is closed-up and dilapidated. The other half was restored in 2017. When I worked in Golborne Road, the shop was fully open, and staffed by an elderly pair, a brother and sister. They used to be out on the pavement peeling the deteriorating outer leaves off cabbages and lettuces. As a result, day after day, the peeled items gradually decreased in size. It was a place where I only bought fruit and vegetables as a last resort.
Recently, young members of the Price family have restored one half of the shop, and have begun selling a wide selection of groceries, some basic and others luxury, in their very attractive shop. The large, healthy, fresh cabbages that they have on offer are a complete contrast to what used to be available in the 1990s from the ageing siblings, who died in about 2016. Nearby, there is a ‘cash and carry’ shop run by some Sikhs. This has an extensive stock of ingredients required for preparing food from the Indian subcontinent, as well as for several other non-British cuisines.
The Galicia is a Spanish restaurant on Portobello Road, a few feet south of Golborne Road. Its name, that of a north-western part of Spain, reflects the origin of many of the local Spaniards, who live around Golborne Road. Although there have been Spaniards living in London since mediaeval times (a notable example is Eleanor of Castile [1241-1290], whose death is commemorated in several places including Charing Cross), there was a significant influx of refugees from Spain to North Kensington during the Spanish Civil War.
I will not write much about Portobello Road, which is far better-known than Golborne, but I will mention the Spanish Institute (Instituto Español “Vicente Cañada Blanch”) close to Galicia. It is an independent co-educational school run by the Spanish government. It follows the Spanish school curriculum, and is housed in a former Dominican convent. The rather grim-looking brick building surrounded by brick walls was built in 1862 (see: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/vol37/pp298-332#h3-0012), designed by Henry Clutton (1819-93), and later modified by his student John Francis Bentley (1839-1902). On Saturdays, there is a lively flea market on the stretch of Portobello road where this Spanish school stands.
Going north along Portobello across Golborne Road, you will soon reach George’s Portobello Fish Bar, which was founded by the late George Periccos from Cyprus and has been in business since 1961 (see: https://www.timeandleisure.co.uk/articles/food/1123-fish-and-chips). I used to buy lunch there occasionally. Incidentally, of all the localities where I have practised, none could begin to match the Portobello/Golborne area for the variety of reasonably-priced, good food available at lunchtime. Portobello Road continues north, and becomes steadily less interesting. Faraday and Bonchurch Roads both lead to Ladbroke Grove.
The attractive contemporary red and grey North Kensington Fire Station stands at the corner of Faraday Road and Ladbroke Grove. It opened in 1984, replacing an older one that had been in almost the same location since 1882 (see: http://www.london-fire.gov.uk/150/map-of-london-fire-stations.asp). The parish church of St Michael is a few yards south of the fire station. Built mainly in brick in 1871, it was designed by James Edmeston Junior (1823-98). Pevsner describes its style as “Rhineland Romanesque”.
Proceeding north along Ladbroke Grove, after passing the fire station, the Eagle pub is reached. This pub has been in business since the beginning of the 1870s.
Further north, the Grove crosses the railway over an impressive metal bridge, whose girders are richly covered with the dome-like heads of rivets. Kensal House, a slightly curved apartment block on the west side of Ladbroke Grove, was opened in 1937. Its principal architect was Maxwell Fry (1899-1987). He was one of the few British exponents of the Modernist Style that included Walter Gröpius of Bauhaus fame, as well as Le Corbusier. Fry was assisted in the designing of Kensal House by Elizabeth Denby (1894-1965), who was an expert on social housing.
There is a small house, number 330 Ladbroke Grove, which was under restoration in late 2017. The restorers have added an old carved stone to its façade. The stone, which looks like a milestone or boundary marker, reads “KP 1860”. KP might mean Kensington Parish. Old, pre-restoration photographs of the building do not show the stone, which means that it might not have originally been located here. Whatever the inscription means, the northern half of Ladbroke Road is a parish boundary along much of its length.
The brick building with stone facings just south of the bridge over the Paddington branch of the Regents Canal is aptly named Canalside. It is almost all that remains of an extensive gasworks that was built on a site now partly occupied by a large branch (built 1989) of Sainsbury supermarket and its car park. The Gas, Light, and Coke Company that owned the gasworks was responsible for the building of Kensal House, already noted above. A couple of gasometers can be seen west of the store. They are sandwiched between the mainly Victorian Kensal Green Cemetery and the railway tracks that lead to and from Paddington Station.
Close to the supermarket and Canalside, there is a modified water tower. Mounted on its four original concrete legs, there is a cylindrical structure which has several windows and is clad with wood. Tom Dixon, the designer associated with the Habitat chain of furnishing stores, bought the disused water tower, and had, by 2009, converted its 5000-gallon cylindrical tank into his futuristic high-altitude home, the ‘Townhouse in the sky’. The water tower had been built in the 1930s to store water to be used in case of fire braking out in the gasworks spread out below it.
On Monday the 4th of October 1999, I arrived earlier than usual at Paddington Station from Maidenhead, where I worked several days a week. Being early, I bought my ticket to Maidenhead for the following day. Usually, I bought my ticket a few minutes before boarding the train at Paddington. On Tuesday the 5th, having already purchased my ticket I did not have to waste time at the ticket office, and was able to take the train before the one that I usually boarded at a few minutes past 8 am. Had I boarded my usual train, the 8.06, I might not be writing this today. My ‘usual train’, a local stopping train, collided head-on with a heavier express train (travelling at high speed) very close to the branch of Sainsburys mentioned above. Thirty-one people were killed, mainly of them passengers on the local train leaving Paddington and well over four hundred people were injured. A simple stone monument to the victims of this accident, inscribed with the names of those killed, stands between Sainsburys and the railway tracks. Whenever I think of this incident, I shudder, and say inwardly: “There for the Grace of God…”
Returning south along Ladbroke Grove and turning into Barlby Road, we pass Barlby Gardens, a short crescent lined with houses of the type that can be found in almost any of the housing developments built in London’s suburbs during the years between the two World Wars. They are a far cry from their terraced neighbours with porches supported by pillars, which are so typical of most parts of Kensington.
Exmoor Road leads towards the enormous Victorian St Charles Hospital compound. Along Hewer Street, which branches off Exmoor Street, there are some old brick buildings that once housed one of the many laundries that used to exist in the neighbourhood. Described as a “fortress-like pile” by Pevsner, this hospital was built 1879-81 and designed by Henry Saxon Snell (1831-1904), an architect who specialised in creating health-related buildings. It was built as a hospital for the poor by the Board of Guardians of the Poor Law Union of St Marylebone and known as the ‘St Marylebone Infirmary’ until 1922, when it was renamed briefly, before being re-named once more as St Charles Hospital in 1930 after having been taken over by the London County Council.
For lovers of Victorian architecture, this place with its open-air cast-iron walkways, and numerous gothic-revival features, is a real treasure. For the patients, who visit the numerous out-patient clinics which are now housed there, its exterior, redolent of oversized Victorian funerary chapels, might seem rather forbidding. However, the interiors have been pleasantly modernised, and made to look as welcoming as can be expected of hospitals.
The hospital abuts a Carmelite monastery. On the wall connecting the monastery and the hospital, there are two letter-boxes. One, now sealed up, bears the letters ‘VR’ standing for Queen Victoria. Its neighbour, still in use, bears the letters ‘GR’, which refer to one (or both) of the two King Georges that reigned after Victoria and Edward VII.
The Roman Catholic church of St Pius X can be entered from St Charles Square. Designed in a neo-classical style by PA Lamb and R O’B North, it was built in 1908 as part of the former St Charles Training College (for boys), which was founded by Doctor (later Cardinal) Henry Manning (1808-92) in 1863 and closed in 1903. After the college closed, its precincts including the church were taken over by the nuns of The Sacred Heart for use as a training establishment. The church became a parish church in 1955. Its barrel-vaulted interior, reminiscent of 18th century churches in Italy, is delightful and airy. A short walk leads from the church to Ladbroke Grove, about five hundred yards north of the funeral parlour, where this exploration commenced.
Golborne Road and its environs is an area where the multi-cultural nature of London can be explored enjoyably and rewardingly. Not being a lover of crowds, I would avoid the area during the annual world-famous Notting Hill Carnival, but that is not a view shared by many. The area is full of memories for me. I worked in its heart for several years, and became acquainted with many people who live there. I continue to visit it regularly to enjoy a coffee at Lisboa, to buy ‘presunto’, and to mingle amongst people enjoying the markets that flourish at the end of the week.