"...and to go away from you, London, is often to come nearer to you in loneliness, in strange places, when a memory of how it feels to ride down the Strand in rain on top of a 'bus is like remembering something lovely about your mother..."
- The Spell of London - H.V. Morton
In part one of this possibly unnecessary epic, we left off in Notting Hill. Let's pick back up there and have a wander through west and central London.
In Threepenny Memoir - Carl Barat's autobiography, which is one of the most beautiful books I have ever read, and one in which the city is a central character, he states, at one point, “London really began for me, though, in Camden and Soho.” I adore those places, and we'll get to them in time, but it's the sentiment of that statement that I'm focusing on, because London really began for me in Notting Hill. The area is obviously familiar to many because of the aforementioned Hugh Grant film, but even before that, it was the first part of London that I really knew. The first time I went to London, I stayed in a flat there belonging to a close friend of my family. Over ten years later, I ended up living in the same flat, in a room with huge sash windows overlooking Westbourne Park Road. I remember, from childhood, Notting Hill in bright flashes, I remember pubs covered with flowers in hanging baskets, and the feeling and strange, gassy smell of an old-fashioned pocket-warmer, and I remember a certain falafel shop under the Westway, and buying fruit from a street stall, and catching a bus down Kensington Church St and seeing the most overgrown pub in the world, literally all greenery, and thinking it was the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen.
Notting Hill, to me, is still always so beautiful – it still overwhelms me to walk around the streets, looking at the houses and the Colerigean “sunny spots of greenery.” It isn't the grandness – though some of the area is, admittedly somewhat fancy – it just gets to me. It's just perfect, in my mind, it's what London is. It feels perfect and timeless and real.
Portobello Markets are a major tourist attraction – on Saturdays, to quote The Movie, “hundreds of stalls appears out of nowhere, filling Portobello Road right up to Notting Hill Gate... and thousands of people buy millions of antiques, some genuine... and some not so genuine.” As much as I like the idea of collecting old brass binoculars and vintage footballs and leather trunks, that part of the market gets a little same-ish as time goes by, and my favourite part of the entire thing is going out of my street, Westbourne Park Road, and turning right, towards the Westway. On weekdays, this stretch is filled with fruit and veg stalls – fruitselling in London still kind of delights me, as well as being, you know, quite handy – and then on the weekend, when the main market takes place up towards Notting Hill Gate, this area plays host to a second-hand and hand-made clothes market, some garage sale type stuff, and some proper vintage collectors. I have bought a fair amount of clothes from here, including some great vintage dresses and coats for £5 each. If you walk under the Westway on the pedestrian path from Portobello to Ladbroke Grove, there's more stalls of new crafts, including unique jewelry and hat designers. You can also walk through the Portobello Green Arcade, which is a tiny shopping complex of specialty designers, from artisan soaps to restorers of vintage eyewear to suppliers of 50s-pinup style lingerie and stockings.
Many of the streets that run between Portobello and Ladbroke Grove have interesting permanent shops – my favourite is probably Elgin Cresent, mainly because I am a fan of The Grocer on Elgin, which supplied me with perfect lamingtons on the days that I missed Australia. Once you enter the area behind Portobello, you're in the strange concentric horseshoes that make up the posher side of Notting Hill – grand houses, most converted into flats, which surround private gardens – beautiful places with large iron fences, only accessible to the residents whose houses are attached. It's nice, and a bit pathetic, to walk around these streets, trying to peer in where you can.
Towards the Notting Hill Gate end of Portobello, there's one of my favourite shops in the world – Hummingbird Bakery. Their cupcakes are a bloody joke, like, they're so freaking good – better, actually, than any of the specialty cupcake places I've tried in America. Hummingbird has several branches in London now, but I believe Portobello was the first. I have a t-shirt from there (which, lol, I'm actually wearing while editing this update,) and a postcard of the shopfront on my pinboard at home. Even further up, the little quiet top of Portobello that isn't a retail thoroughfare, there's a row of smaller houses, more like working-class terraces which are now individual homes, rather than Victorian mansions which are now flats, and they are painted insanely bright colours. A lot of houses in the area are colourful, in pastel tones at least, it's not uncommon to see a strip of Victorian terraces with one white, one pale pink, one blue, one yellow, but these are small, cute, and richly coloured and I want to live in one of them so badly that it hurts. Yes, I have a specific favourite, number 58.
These houses are actually more the style you'd expect to find in a mews, not on a main street. Pro tip – if you ever see a street labelled Something Mews, especially in West London, take a detour down it, because mews houses are the cutest things in the world. A mews was, back in the day, a row of stables, carriage houses and living quarters for staff, separated from the main house by the garden. So for an upper class city house, in one of those big five story Victorian mansions, the main house would face the street, it would have a garden behind, and then at the back, the carriage house, which exited onto the back lane way or mews. And you'd have the carriage houses of the next street facing yours, sharing the lane, in a sort of back-to-back fashion. Nowadays, the mansions are flats, and the mews houses are individual homes. Usually the mews streets aren't driven down, and they're often entered through little archways, and they're just so fucking charming. St Luke's Mews, just behind Westbourne Park Road, and literally 30 seconds from my old front door, is a good example of a lovely mews street, and – this will definitely sell it to you if you have a heart – number 27 in St Luke's Mews was the home of Keira Knightly in Love, Actually – this is where the "to me you are perfect" cue cards scene was filmed.
Heading up Westbourne Park Road, you can walk in the direction of Bayswater and Paddington along Westbourne Grove. Westbourne Grove is posher than Notting Hill proper, it's a fairly expensive but enjoyable high street which has both chain and independent shops, a variety of restaurants that I'm told have good reputations, and a few art galleries. I've seen small exhibitions here of some of the loveliest paintings, one random artist in particular I've never got the image out of my head, so it's worth just walking by. It's a quiet and tasteful area, until you hit Queensway, which is busy and noisy and tacky in a way that I weirdly love. It has a shopping centre – which is pretty uncommon for London, they're all about high streets and department stores, not malls – at one end, a place called Whiteleys which is pretty famous, and then it just heads all the way up to Bayswater Rd, getting louder and cheaper as it goes. I used to work in a hair salon on Queensway. I bought a lot of discount £5 shoes from crappy shops on Queensway. I got hit by a car on Queensway. It has shitty tattoo shops and Asian food and an ice skating rink and it is the very definition of the word “bustling.” I love it, and I have absolutely no idea why, because it's awful. But still I love it.
At the top of Queensway, on Bayswater Road, you can either go left, towards Lancaster Gate, and enter Kensington Gardens, which I love dearly – it's a dreamy place to me, Kensington Palace and its surrounds are a sad fairy tale, and when the light hits the water on the Italian Fountains it pretty much make me weep . Or you can go right, back towards Notting Hill Gate, and then go down Kensington Church Street. This is an extremely pleasant road, featuring patisseries, many antique shops with museum-style window displays, little streets shooting off with perfect parallel white houses and blossom trees, and pubs – including the Churchill Arms, the aforementioned floweriest, vine-iest pub in the world that entranced me when I was a child. That pub has a great, proper smell of old beer soaked into the carpets, and, unusually, serves a menu of Thai food, which I'm told is nice. If you allow yourself to wander, there are a lot of tiny streets and narrow passages and thoroughfares to its west, some of which have bizarre little shops, like a dandyish vintage menswear place run by a man who is approximately three thousand years old.
Kensington Church Street is also – for me most importantly – the location of Adrian Harrington Rare Books. It's quite an unusual location for an antiquarian bookstore – usually you'll find them clustered together in Charing Cross Road or in Bloomsbury – and it's the kind of place that may intimidate you if you're shy, because it looks beautiful and grand and fragile. You might be the kind of person who thinks that they will be sneered at for looking, and you can throw that misconception out of the window. There is extreme snobbery in the rare book trade, but this particular place is run by lunatics. In 2006, I walked into this place in an absolute state, the most wrecked and grief-struck and fucked-up that I've ever been, and it changed my life. I had one of the best conversations I'd ever had with the guy working there, who took two hours out of his day to just show me things – things I could never buy, like a signed copy of Oscar Wilde's Duchess of Padua, and ancient bibles. He took me upstairs off the shop floor to see more of their collection, he horrified me by hitting a £45,000 book on the table to show off its structural integroty, he talked about Harry Potter and Phillip Pullman and he treated broke, depressed 19 year old me like an intelligent equal. It was the first good thing to happen to me in the months after one of the most traumatic and scarring events of my life, and to say it helped me is the world's biggest understatement.
For some reason – I couldn't tell you why - I never returned to that shop while I was living in the UK, and didn't go there on my first visit back to London, in 2009. In 2010, however, I had started to collect books myself (antiquarian books, that is, obviously I've been buying general books my whole life) and I was in the area and had a vague sense memory that shop being around here somewhere and I went in and the guy was still there and he remembered me pretty much on sight. This time, we kept in touch, and three years later, we are now best friends, as in we literally talk every day. I have spent hours sitting at his basement desk in that shop, pestering him while he pretends to work, If you go there and look for him (he's the redhead named Jonathan) and say you know me, he will show you the treasures of the universe. These guys just really love their books and love sharing them with people who may be interested, even if you can't take one home – though there are plenty of affordable volumes there as well as the super insanely rare stuff, and if one of London's book fairs is on, you can get free tickets to attend and see the collections of other booksellers from all around the world. It's like a really niche, hands-on, book museum exhibit.
London is absolutely full of actual museums and art galleries, and unlike many other cities in the world, the majority of them are free. Pretty much any of them are worth visiting – I have good friends who are obsessed with the Natural History Museum and the British Museum – but my personal favourites of the big ones are the National Portrait Gallery near Leicester Square, which is small enough to do all in one go, and just fascinating from Tudor portraits of Elizabeth I as a teen down to Sam Taylor-Wood’s creepy video portrait of David Beckham sleeping; the Tate Britain in Pimlico, mainly for the collection of Pre-Raphaelites, whom I am very attached to, and the V and A, which is just the most overwhelming and gorgeous collection of STUFF that exists in the world. It's billed as the world's largest collection of decorative arts, and basically anything that anyone has ever made pretty, they have a room for it there, from fashion to drawing to furniture to weapons. Books, photography, jewellery, glass... it's definitely worth looking just at the costume collection, and they often run amazing pop-culture based exhibits – the recent David Bowie show they had was hands-down the best, most immersive exhibition I have ever been to in my life. It's a great building, I've gone there just to eat in the cafe a few times, and the shopping in their stores features some of the coolest stuff you'll find in London.
The massive National Gallery in Trafalgar Square is great for people who like to see classic, famous pieces – it features old masters like Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Botticelli, and impressionists like Van Gogh, Monet, and Cezanne. Many people may also enjoy the Tate Modern, built into an old power station on South Bank. It's a great building designed by the same designer as my favourite building in London (the Battersea Power Station, as I mentioned in my last post) and the vista from the top-floor cafe is one of the best free views you'll find in London. I'm not a huge fan of the collection there, or modern art in general, aside from a few pop art pieces, but it has a lot, from Dali to Damien Hirst, and is generally popular with a lot of people. It depends on what you like! These are just some of the really big National Trust-style places. Most neighbourhoods of London have small private museums and galleries tucked away everywhere and if you pass one by you should probably go in. Try the John Soane Collection, the British Library, Leighton House in Holland Park, the Transport for London Museum (and buy me ALL the Underground merch) and, if you like weird/creepy shit, the Wellcome Collection or the Old Operating Theatre but AVOID the Bethnal Green Museum of Childhood, the worst place in London and basically the creepiest and saddest and most sinister place ever.
One of my very favourite things about London is the green spaces, the big parks, the churchyards, lawns with blossom trees in front of housing complexes, the unexpected little squares, the way they look in the summer all full of annual flowers and bright and clean, in early spring daffodils coming haphazardly out of the lawn, in the winter with bare black trees, green green grass and white skies. I love that you can cross nearly the entirety of central London just by using the big four. London parks are better than any other parks ever, and the best are the ones you discover yourself, by accident. I've mentioned a few parks in specific neighbourhoods elsewhere in this guide, but here are some of my top ones in general:
St James's Park - this is my favourite of the “big four” parks in Central London (Hyde, Green and Regent's being the others) – it's between Whitehall and Buckingham Palace. I really love the lake, which is some sort of bird sanctuary – it has dozens of weird and rare duck breeds and I LOVE LOVE LOVE ducks. Feeding the ducks at St James's is also an ongoing activity for the two lead characters in my long-time favourite book, Good Omens.
Postman's Park – this is a tiny pocket-sized park not far from St Paul's, a very quiet little place that's almost a thoroughfare which has quite a history as a former churchyard and is also home to the “Memorial to Heroic Self Sacrifice” - a wall of tiled plaques dedicated to normal people who died saving others. They date from 1900 to today and in the film Closer, Natalie Portman's character takes her fake name from a plaque on this wall, but I pretty much want novels about all of the people – some of them really paint a vivid life story with only a few words.
Holland Park - between Notting Hill and Kensington, this park is sort of bizarre, and was the first London park I really knew, because it's my dad's favourite I first met squirrels there and remember it so clearly... it has an odd structure, from south, off Kensington High St, to north, on Holland Park Ave, which becomes Notting Hill Gate, the park goes from completely organised and maintained to completely wild. The bottom third is literally just sports fields, the middle third is the grounds of the old Holland House, which is now just a few walls and an orangery, surrounded by formal gardens, geometric paths and tidy lawns, as well as a Japanese garden, then the top third is nearly all forest that you can't enter – you can walk the trails in between the areas of arboretum, some of which contain wild pigs, and then the trails emerge at a little lawn behind an old wall at the top end of the park – this is designed as a sun trap and it was here I met the squirrels. In the middle section, there's also a YHA in a heritage building within the grounds of the park, which is pretty much the coolest location for a hostel ever.
Chelsea Physic Garden – this is actually has paid entry, but it's not much - it's a historic apothecary garden down on the Chelsea Embankment. It's quite small and it's so cool and pretty, and very unique. It's considered, by some, the most secret garden in London, it's totally walled and I think it's only open to the public on Wednesdays and Sundays - it may change depending on the season. While you're in the Chelsea area, you can go two streets over from the Physic Garden and look at Oscar Wilde's home in Tite Street, or head back up to shop on King's Road, especially if you care about the history of fashion.
My personal idea of “central London” is the vague rectangle shape bordered by the Euston Road to the north, the Strand – or the Thames – to the south, Hyde Park to the east and Covent Garden to the west. It's all flat – bless London's flatness, I walk much further there than I would anywhere else, I walk everywhere in London – and a few shops and landmarks I personally like in this area are as follows:
Centre Point – this is a random skyscraper at Tottenham Court Road. London doesn't have many truly high buildings, except in the business district to the east, and Centre Point isn't massive, but it's a lot higher than all its surroundings. I've been to a party at the Paramount bar on the top floor and it's got a pretty incredible 360° view of the city from windows on all four sides. The entire area at Tottenham Court Road, where it meets Oxford St, has been a mess of construction for around two years – so some other parts of that area have been demolished, which is a real shame. Directly opposite Centre Point used to be the Astoria, one of London's most legendary and historic music venues, and I will never forget going to gigs there and seeing the drunkest people pour out of the venue at the night and climb into the fountains at the base of the skyscraper.
Foyles is one of the biggest independent new-volume bookstores in the world. It's an extremely famous shop on Charing Cross Road – the traditional home of London booksellers – and it's just amazing. They're also the mortal enemies of @WstonesOxfordSt.
Soho Square is a cute, medium-sized green square just behind the top of Oxford St, separating the tiny streets of Soho from the main shopping strip of central London, and the houses that surround it are the head-offices of some of the biggest media and production companies in the world. I've mentioned Soho Joe's and the Soho Theatre, but the entire Soho area, bordered by Oxford, Regent, Shaftsbury Ave and Charing Cross Rd is – despite being renown as somewhat debauched – to me, has always felt very charming and welcoming and full of life. At night, the streets – which are not technically pedestrian only – are full of people, every establishment is a tiny boutique or club or restaurant or sex shop, but it generally doesn't feel dingy or seedy. It's a very gay-friendly area as well, and it's one of those places that is so famous that you assume it must be over-rated, and then you go there and you realise it's not.
Victoria Station is by no means London's prettiest or most significant train station, but I've got a lot of love for it because it's always been my connection to the city. I know it inside out, I know where every spare power point is and the quickest routes from Tube, coach station and cab... When I'm not staying in London itself, my main hub in the UK is in Kent, about one hour outside of London via train, and that service gets into Victoria. I have loved that train journey every single time I have taken it, which would number in the hundreds – seeing the British countryside, which always delights me and never gets old, then the rooftops, the London brick starting, then Brixton, spotting the Academy before reaching - through the train's right-hand windows - my favourite view of Battersea Power Station before the river. I am absolutely obsessed with that image and it does something to my chest every time I see it. If you look out the left-hand side, you can see the play yards of the famous Battersea Cats and Dogs Home, and people meeting their new pets. The train crosses the river and reaches Victoria, and the high glass roof, the shops, the ever-present chill – everything about stepping into that station hall means, to me, my world opening up.
Hamleys on Regent St is the world's oldest toy shop and it genuinely has to be seen to be believed. It is freaking insane and I am pretty sure all of the staff are on amphetamines. It is almost overwhelming – I do not suggest going there if you have any sort of easily triggered anxiety. It is like something out of a cartoon – about six floors of complete crack, dozens of display stations with people operating the games and toys – toys you've never seen anywhere else. If you want a good LOL go to the top floor and look at the life size Lego reconstruction of William and Kate's wedding, but seriously, this place is CRAZY. The British are not known for their enthusiasm, but I have been to FAO Schwartz in NYC – hell, I've been to Disneyland – and I've never seen staff as totally hyperactive and an atmosphere so busy and fantasy-like as Hamleys. It's not for the weak.
Fortnum and Mason on Piccadilly is basically a very classy department store/deli – like, I believe Buckingham Palace gets groceries from here. They have a tea shop and restaurants and several floors of just beautiful, beautiful goods, like the world's most expensive kitchen towels, and tins of biscuits, and signature teas, and candles, and gloves, and shaving brushes and wine glasses and cheese. It's all beautifully decorated in rich colours, it's about 300 years old, and it's just lovely if you dig that kind of snobby, classist thing – which, I somewhat shamefully admit, I do. I love chivalry and elegance and class, and anything old-world. It's a majorly famous destination, so they have tourists and all sorts of people visiting – it isn't, like, exclusive or anything – but it's certainly very posh, so if that kind of thing makes you uncomfortable, keep that in mind and dress accordingly or do what makes you feel confident, if you do want to go there.
Right down the other end of the class scale is Primark. Primark, like Pizza Express, is one of the staples of Britain that genuinely improves my quality of life. Primark is basically an extremely cheap high-street chain store that stocks men's and women's clothes (and now homewares) for ridiculously cheap prices. It's a step below the standard sort of non-designer high street stores like H&M, New Look, BHS and Marks and Spencer, and it is a godsend, because basically it makes all the current fashions and wardrobe staples for just.. ridiculously cheap prices. To compare it to Australia, I’d say it's somewhat similar to the quality at Cotton On, Target or Kmart, or Asian-import shops like SES, but Primark's clothes are MUCH nicer and MUCH cheaper than those places. Sometimes their clothes fall apart fast, sometimes they last... I would say at least 50% of my wardrobe is from Primark. Shoes and bags and accessories and underwear as well. I do not shop for new clothes in Australia, unless there's a random one-off item needed. I literally go on day-long shopping trips to Primark when I am in London, and that lasts me until the next time I am in the UK. Every British town has a Primark, but the very centre of London has two – one at either end of Oxford St (Marble Arch and Tottenham Court Road.) The Marble Arch one is bigger but can be a bit overwhelming and stressful. The TCR branch is newer and laid out in a way that isn't so intimidating, but it is still massive. I swear by Primark, I live and die by Primark, I have socks embroidered with I <3 Primark. Really.
Covent Garden obviously has huge historical significance to a lot of people, and it really is a nice place, even if it is very done up now. It's still full of street performers, and market stalls in the covered market, and the Actor's Church is still there and still worth looking at, but the whole scene is pristine and shiny, not really somewhere you'd envision covered in mud and rotting vegetables. To quote the Carl Barat book again:
“When I moved there, I'd go back to places again and again, and remember standing in the cobbled square in Covent Garden early one morning with a light mist on the streets and no one around. I fancied I heard the flower market starting up across the way, blooms brought on trestle tables. I imagined Oscar Wilde, the comings and goings of My Fair Lady, I romanticized it out of all proportion and it took me a long time to realize that it was a modern-day tourist trap. When I was working at the theatres I used to go down to the Piazza in my lunch hours and watch the performers, and I'd see people in sleeping bags waiting to perform for the tourists and people a little too drunk for lunchtime, and I realized that the only place that the romantic Covent Garden lived on in was in the hearts of people like me.”
That's all very true, but if your heartstrings are tugged by Victorian London, it's still a place you need to see. Also, there's great shopping, both from beautiful branches of some of the best high street stores on Floral St and Long Acre, and in the rather glamorous stalls of the Apple Market off the piazza. Perhaps more interesting are the little streets that surround Covent Garden, many pedestrian-only stone passageways with antique lampposts and little weeds growing through the flagstones, where the buildings on either side lean in diagonally over your head. A lot of these places are media industry – casting agents, PR, production companies and so on, and you might see someone you rather fancy ducking into these alleys for a meeting. Also worth finding is Seven Dials, a weird road junction sort of north of the piazza. Seven little streets converge on a central point like the spokes of a wheel, and the area used to be one of the worst slums in London. The little wheel-spoke streets are now all full of interesting little shops and bars, all a bit unusual or noteworthy. If you can find Neal's Yard, a little passage there, that's a crazy little street of bright colours, new age places and health food cafes. It also, unsurprisingly, is home to the flagship store of Neal's Yard Remedies, the UK's biggest range of organic health and beauty products. It's pretty easy to get lost around here - it's pretty higgeldy piggeldy - so, remember my advice from part one and keep your A-Z handy!
Righto. This part definitely needs pictures, which I will add out of my own personal collection once I finish this series. Next edition, we'll hit up north London - that's Camden and Primrose Hill, then the East End, as well as some of my favourite fiction-related London locations.