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Westbourne Grove, W11 - Antique Memories

It's always the way with a city as old and dynamic as London that things change rapidly. Areas evolve, people move, new waves of immigrants arrive, fortunes rise and fall, the psychic geography fluctuates in waves. As the dust of redevelopment settles, former inhabitants can no longer afford the area and move towards the suburbs. You probably wouldn't know it now, but Westbourne Grove (London W11, Notting Hill) used to be a famous street for antiques shops. In fact it's where Canonbury Antiques really first established itself for the best part of two decades until the late 90s from our shop on the Grove.

Westbourne Grove, London W11 -  Canonbury Antiques old stomping ground

 

The whole street is filled with wonderful memories, characters and stories as wheeler dealers from all echelons of society bought and sold antiques - and anything else that could turn a profit. Whether Eton educated or a 'boy done good' from the East End, Westbourne Grove was the arena to ply your trade to a similarly socially varied client base - pop stars, Loadsamoney 80s city traders, American dealers, landed gentry, gangsters, advertising executives, restauranteurs, businessmen, actors, Trustafarians, Essex housewives, politicians. You name it - they were here. It's probably this interesting mix and abundance of colour and characters that meant our showroom (and warehouse at the back) was scouted as a location for an episode of Lovejoy starring Ian McShane. In the UK the word 'Lovejoy' is now synonymous with a 'lovable rogue' antiques dealer due to the character. Our American cousins will probably know McShane more for his starring role in the HBO drama Deadwood. Here's a YouTube video of the Lovejoy episode:

Walking down this charming thoroughfare in London now - spare perhaps the 1 or 2 antique dealers still left - you'd be hard pressed to imagine it's former existence as one of London's premier antique streets. Now it's all high end boutiques, expensive organic delicatessens, flag ship Paul Smith stores, Helmut Langs, chi chi restaurants packed with hedge funder managers and their yoga wives.

Westbourne Grove - Helmut Lang's in the area


Some might say the area's lost it's charm and edge. Of course Portobello Road still has it's popular antiques market on Saturdays with many dealers and galleries, although a lot of the wares are a tad bric a brac. For the rest of the week Portobello is a major tourist destination flogging a version of theme park Britain replete with Banksy prints and Cool Britannia ephemera. Of course the out-pricing of locals is nothing new and continues across London (and other global cities). Witness the dramatic change to the whole of East London in the run up to the 2012 London Olympics. Neighbourhoods like Dalston, Hoxton, Bethnal Green and Homerton which used to be fairly rough - some might say grotty - urban areas are being transformed into chi chi enclaves stuffed to the gills with hipsters and young professionals, often to the chagrin of the original working class locals. It's an inevitable process. The Shoreditch effect. There's no point digging your heels in against this change, you'll end up resembling a curmudgeonly luddite. But there's still a lament for the former grit and character of places that are forever lost. I only wish I'd had the money to invest in property in these areas at the time as I'd be sitting on quite a pile. 

Westbourne Grove in the 1970s
(Above: Westbourne Grove in the 1970s)

Personally speaking Westbourne Grove - in fact the whole area of Notting Hill - has many memories for me from working in the school holidays (and some weekends) in the 1980s at the shop and living in my late twenties on Westbourne Park Road next to the famous Westbourne Pub - hence some of my recollections may be a bit sodden. Of course to most people the area - Notting Hill - was really put on the map via a certain film with Julia Roberts and a fumbling baffoon named Hugh Grant. In fact the travel bookshop (sadly no longer in business) on Blenheim Crescent where Grant worked in the movie is still visited by many tourists - mainly American I might add. 

Hugh Grant in Notting Hill
'Er, excuse me, awfully sorry old chap, but, er, where's the, er, hmm, bookshop?'

Westbourne Grove gets it's name from the River Westbourne which starts north in Hampstead and flows down till it eventually joins - via a small trickle - the Thames near Chelsea. The Westbourne has now largely been forced underground due to development and building over it. In fact the River Westbourne is visible from the platform at Sloane Square tube station - albeit inside the green conduit above the platform in which it flows. 


Notting Hill to me always has a romantic and interesting history, particularly post-World War II. In the 1950s the first wave of immigrants from the West Indies (particularly islands like Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago) first arrived in the UK as part of the Windrush generation. The term Windrush in fact comes from the name of the ship, HMS Empire Windrush, they travelled on. They arrived in the UK with the promise of a better life and employment. This first wave of immigrants settled in the bigger UK cities in areas where housing was cheaper which at the time included areas - amazingly, considering how pricey it is now - like Notting Hill Gate. It must have been difficult for the immigrants who arrived trying to assimilate into British culture and life and they faced a lot of discrimination from the police and the population at large. In fact at that time pubs and boarding houses would have displayed the sign 'No blacks, Irish or dogs allowed'.

Westbourne Grove in the 1800s
(Above: actually Westbourne Grove in the 1800s)

In the summer of 1958 London had it's first race riots starting outside Latimer Road Tube station . Interestingly it was out of this that the first Notting Hill Carvnival was held as a response to the riots and in attempt to improve race relations. The Carnival still continues to this day and is the biggest street carnival in Europe and passes down Westbourne Grove. Every August Bank Holiday weekend we had to have the shop boarded over for security.  If you're a fan of reggae music and Caribbean culture in general - as I am - this festival is well worth a visit. The race riots are also featured in Colin MacInnes' novel 'Absolute Beginners' - the eponymous musical / film from 1986 is well worth a watch, starring amongst others David Bowie, Patsy Kensit and Lionel Blair. 'Absolute Beginners' is set in Notting Hill Gate and around the Grove (which in the book is referred to as Napoli). The book is important as it also really charts the first rise of Britain's post war youth culture as teenagers first started to have disposable incomes and hence spending power to start their own youth tribes.  British youth culture (and music) from this day is one of our biggest global exports.  'Absolute Beginners' charts the conflicts between Teddy Boys, rockers and the recently arrived Caribbean immigrants. It's a fascinating fictional snapshot of the time and place.

Absolute Beginners was set in Notting Hill Gate
(Absolute Beginners: Classic 80s Brit flick starring David Bowie)

I digress from my original theme - there's a whole other article about famous films and songs set in Notting Hill which I might come back to at some time - of the change and evolution of urban areas. In the US many people lament the change of New York City as part of the Giuliani effect. As areas become expensive all the creative people move out as they can't afford it and in come the wealthy - and with them Starbucks, Anthropology, Urban Outfitters, Restoration Hardware etc etc - until the area becomes a whitewashed beacon to homogenous uniformity. In some regards this is the case with Westbourne Grove and the East End. The antique dealers started to move out in the mid to late 90s as the street became increasingly trendy and rents increased. Or those who owned shops decided they could get more for renting them out. It's an unavoidable process. In the case of Canonbury Antiques we moved out to a larger warehouse closer to where we lived in Hertfordshire as we found we could sell more via our website to a global customer base. But we still miss those colorful days on the Grove, the characters and ebb and flow of humanity and this is a whimsical lament to those halycon times. 
 

Westbourne Grove dissects Portobello Road

JUL
17
2014
 
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