You’re more than likely visiting Portobello Road for its world-famous market, but if you keep your eyes open, you’ll see some clues that will tell you a lot about the fascinating stories of this most lively of London neighbourhoods. You'll see the sights below as you walk north along Portobello Road from Notting Hill Gate.
22 Portobello Road
Eric Blair, better known by his pen name of George Orwell, rented the attic flat at 22 Portobello Road from the autumn of 1927 until spring the following year when he moved to Paris, a stay marked by a blue plaque. This was a poor area of London at the time, and it’s said that his attic was so cold he had to warm his hands over a candle before he could write. He wrote parts of Down and Out in Paris and London here.
Today, it’s almost impossible to believe that this was once a down-at-heel neighbourhood. The last time number 22 changed hands was in 2014, and the price was just over £2.5 million.
As you walk down Portobello Road from the Notting Hill Gate end, you’ll come to the junction with Westbourne Grove. Just across Westbourne Grove you’ll see a 1950s council housing development, Portobello Court. Although one of the Luftwaffe’s high explosive bombs landed on the site during the Blitz of 1940-41, that wasn't what destroyed the housing that used to be there, as you can see from the photo below taken in 1945.
The site of Portobello Court in 1945, looking up Portobello Road from Westbourne Grove - picture courtesy of The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea Local Studies collection
The nemesis of this small patch of Victorian housing built around 1870 was actually the slum clearance programme that saw many old neighbourhoods demolished in North Kensington. Of course, had this Victorian housing survived, it would today be worth millions.
Read more about Portobello Court here.
Admiral Vernon Yard
Just across the road from Portobello Court, is Vernon Yard, a small alleyway leading to a charming cobbled mews. The alley is named for Admiral Edward Vernon (1684-1757), who distinguished himself in 1739 during the War of Jenkins' Ear by capturing Porto Bello, then a Spanish colonial possession, now called Portobelo and located in modern Panama. This victory was the cause of much celebration in Britain and explains how Portobello Road got its name.
Walk along Vernon Yard and you'll come to an enchanting cobbled mews street.
Echoes of Spain mosaic
This is really quite easy to miss unless you know where to look for it. As you head north up Portobello Road, you come to the railway bridge, walk under it and turn sharp left, under the adjacent bridge, the Westway which carnies the A40 road. You’ll see the mural on the wall between the railway line and the open space which is filled with market stalls on Fridays and Saturdays.
The mosaic was unveiled in 2006 and commemorates volunteers from Kensington who joined the International Brigade to fight the fascists during the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s. It also remembers the Spanish refugees who came to Britain, with many making their home in Kensington. That cultural influence continues today with the tapas bars and Spanish grocery stores as well as the Spanish School on Portobello Road.
Continue north along Portobello Road and you’ll come to Golborne Road with its many shops, cafes and food stalls, plus an excellent selection of curios and bric-a-brac stalls on Fridays and Saturdays.
As you turn right into Golborne Road, cast your eyes to the skies and you’ll see the 322 foot tall, 32-story Trellick Tower completed in 1972. During the 1990s, the block had a terrible reputation, but the introduction of a concierge and improved security turned it around and today the well-designed flats are extremely popular.
Some say this Grade II listed building is a modernist monstrosity, others love its soaring brutalism, a brutalism tempered by its elegant lines. The architect was Ernő Goldfinger (1902-87), a Hungarian Jew born in Budapest who fled Hitler’s Europe in the 1930s.
In 1939, Goldfinger demolished a row of cottages in Hampstead to build a modernist home for himself and his family. There was much local opposition to this project, with one prominent opponent being James Bond author, Ian Fleming. The campaign to stop Goldfinger’s Hampstead project failed, but Fleming took his revenge by naming one of his most notorious villains ‘Goldfinger’. Goldfinger considered suing but was placated in the end by the presentation of six copies of the offending book.