What's happened to Portobello?
Portobello Road has been on the bucket list of London tourists for years. Its Saturday market, an eclectic mix of antique shops, vintage clothing and second hand goods stalls mixed in with plenty of street food and drink to please anyone. Popularity was heightened even more with the box office and BAFTA winning romcom hit, Notting Hill (1999).
I suspect William Thacker (Hugh Grant) is counting his blessings for marrying Anna Scott (Julia Roberts) long before lockdown Britain arrived in Notting Hill. His travel bookshop on Portobello Road would be underperforming the already hopeless returns it was making then.
Most tourists pour in from the Notting Hill end. A short walk from the Central Line tube stop, turning left into Portobello Road at the Sun-in-Splendour pub. Around the corner they might be forgiven for thinking that this residential street with the colourful cottagey townhouses disappearing into the distance is the wrong Portobello. A further 5 minute walk and across Chepstow Villas, they finally find what they're looking for.
How is Portobello coping?
Portobello is surviving on slim pickings as lockdown brings its own unique challenges. There are signs of life. The bakeries, and I counted at least 10, still have some semblance of normality. Gail’s and Maison Puget which compete for my business are still ringing money through the tills. There’s also a brisk delivery trade judging by the number of parked scooters, riders waiting glued to their phones. Higher up, on the opposite side, The Hummingbird Bakery is making birthday and Valentine cakes for the birthdays and romances which can’t afford to wait for Covid. Quite right.
The first sign of stress is a few doors further up, outside The Silver Fox Gallery. The arcade of antiques is shut but out front on the pavement a trestle table with gingham tablecloth is selling hot chocolate and fruit cups which can be smothered in chocolate from a fountain. It reminds me of my children’s primary school fetes and one of half dozen stalls picking up pin money for a worthy cause. Better to feel like you’re doing something to hang on in there.
The fruit and veg stalls look unphased, still there rain or shine but now having to survive on what the locals bring. I’m sure they can’t wait for it to warm up a bit and the queues to grow longer. Restaurants must have done their sums and decided to remain closed rather than eke something out of takeaways. There are exceptions like the Malaysian Makan Cafe at the Portobello Green end where you can still enjoy authentic wholesome favourites like Nasi Lemak (coconut infused rice with chicken rendang). Nearby, La Plaza Deli, a fully stocked Spanish supermarket and deli has a chalkboard outside encouraging you to warm-up with a hot cup of tea or coffee or try a bocadillo, perfect takeaway food if you’re hungry. Pedestrians are constrained to the pavement for now at that end, while the council digs up the road to lay a new gas pipe. You can hardly blame them.
If the talk of food is making you thirsty, you could wash it down with local gin from The Distillery. Their online Bottle Shop which also sells ready mixed cocktails and wine is open for deliveries. Their temporary warehouse on full view in the public bar is stacked high with crates of mixers.
With home delivery slots for groceries as rare as hens teeth, foraging locally in smaller stores has proved popular. The only queues I saw the whole time on Portobello were outside the small Sainsbury’s and Tesco’s. I noticed the resident female beggar was plying her charms outside one of them. Behind her thick matted hair and filthy jogging bottoms is a beautiful well spoken voice, charming and disarming the first time she explains her predicament. Times will be tougher than usual because she only has locals to tap and they’ve all heard it before.
Some shops have a forgotten feel. Whittard’s (loose tea and teapots) window display gives the impression that someone locked the shop up just before Christmas and threw away the key. The tree and shiny red fake presents are still there gathering dust, waiting for life to return.
One business which has suffered more than most is the beautiful, elegant Electric Cinema. Shutters permanently locked we have to content ourselves with the hopeful phrase on the billboard, ‘We’ll see you soon’.
And what of the bookshops? The one that Hugh Grant was supposed to have run has never actually been a bookshop. At the moment it’s a closed souvenir gift shop which tries hard to keep its notoriety alive when open, but largely gets ignored. The one the tourists flock to is in Blenheim Crescent, just off Portobello. Sadly the original owners of the Travel Bookshop which Richard Curtis got the idea from for ‘Notting Hill’ closed in 2011. The new owners reopened as the Notting Hill Bookshop broadening its appeal beyond travel, a wise move given the current circumstances.