When I moved to London in 1979 I shared a flat at the World’s End. This caused some amusement, people reckoning that I had it coming anyway.
In fact this isn’t a bit of the map where the seas plummet over the edge into a biblical chasm or a bubble in the space-time continuum where a restaurant resides but a pub at the point where the Kings Road in Chelsea becomes the New Kings Road and Chelsea slummocks into Fulham.
Back then, this was a tatty and surreal anomaly in an otherwise a trendy part of town. Punk royalty – Vivian Westwood and Malcolm Maclaren – had their shop was on the Kink,
a S-bend in what is otherwise a straight road – ironically it sat next to the Conservative Club – the area was full of peacocking humanity and some frankly worrisome unevolved examples of the lumpen proletariat who moved with a kind of strange choreography that probably had a lot to do with the chemicals they had ingested rather than the cha cha cha they were seeking to master.
I learnt to cook at an adult evening class at the Park Walk Primary school, here, in 1980 – ‘Dinner Party Cookery for beginners’. My apricot and almond souffle was the talk of my kitchen, well, until I tried to impress my mother in law, placed the souffle too high in the oven so it rose into the ceiling; the top stayed hanging to the hot surface as I took out the rest – like a rather overdone brown shroud.
Today the place is sanitised and rather samey.
Lots of shopping; many great places to eat; and some ‘beautiful’ people who could easily fit in with the Heroin addicts of yesteryear, given their gaunt features and 1000 mile stares but with higher heels and better teeth – they fill the pavements, weighed down with branded bags and children named after raw materials (Tungsten, Obsidian) or body parts (Pancreas, Ventricle). Small tourist groups stare at smart phones and up at buildings, desperate for a clue as to where they are. Giggling teens in jeans that, twenty years ago would have passed as rupture supports and with more body piercings than an Al Capone target join queues because they can.
It’s a must visit destination but the urban grittiness I remember is gone and no one minds now, expect me and I’m just wading in the sepia tinted nostalgia that comes when the smell is removed – I’m sure if memory was based on smell and not imagery we would have none of this ‘it was better in the good old days’ crap.
Starting at Sloane Square tube with the excellent Royal Court theatre, now not quite as avant garde as back in the 80s,
I wandered down King’s Road. I am not going to emphasis the ridiculous amount of retailing except to say the ugly Peter Jones
is a great store still, in contrast to Harrods which is a beautiful building and a charlatan’s paradise.
First stop is the Duke of York’s Square. This used to be a barracks and when I first moved here the security was pretty lax. The rugby club I trained for used the gym and running track every Tuesday and you attended the gate house, said ‘Rugby’ and were let through.
The old HQ building now home to the Saatchi Gallery
and showing a Rolling Stones exhibition
was until a few years ago the HQ of the SAS. I suppose, with the volatility of the IRA and their bombing that was pretty dumb back then but we treated terrorism differently, dealing with it as we would any criminal event without changing our whole legal system in reaction to it as we do today.
The King’s Road is charming in truth and the residential areas behind it grand and expensive.
Even the old Mews properties that previously housed horses are worth millions.
Blue Plaques abound
– these tell of famous residents though some are now obscure – a lot, not surprisingly given its louche and luvvie history of the area are from the entertainment classes.
One feature common to London but especially affluent London are the little green oasis around which these houses cluster.
Cadogan Gardens is a prime example. They are well maintained, beautiful and very private. Having a key is the horticulturalist’s version of accessing the chastity belt. We mere plebs can peer over the railings with envy.
But still better they exist at all.
I recall many a no 19 or 22 bus ride down the Kings Road to my flat passing the Habitat store, an original of the design guru Terrance Conran and staggeringly popular in the late 70s
and the Old Town Hall where many a celebrity has wed.
Then on to the Bluebird cafe, housed in an Art Deco garage that still serviced motorcars when I was first here. On a sunny day it is a lovely walk.
I caught a bus from the Kink to South Kensington. I wanted to see an old factory, easily the most perfect Art Deco industrial building in inner London
(the Old Hoover Factory on the A40 is the best of all – now a supermarket but still glorious).
This was the Michelin Tyre Factory and now Bibbendum,
named after the chunky Michelin man logo.
It was saved and turned into the restaurant and emporium you see today,
South Kensington is still fabulously wealthy but it has a few grubby areas.
Still, London Transport has a rather good Art Deco office in Pelham Street,
the tube station entrance is a perfect example of what I think of as Metro-land architecture, even if a distance away from what Sir John Betjeman meant by Metroland, this from his poem ‘Middlesex’:
Gaily into Ruislip Gardens
Runs the red electric train,
With a thousand Ta’s and Pardon’s
Daintily alights Elaine;
Hurries down the concrete station
With a frown of concentration,
Out into the outskirt’s edges
Where a few surviving hedges
Keep alive our lost Elysium – rural Middlesex again.
Sorry, but another quick tangent – I love railways and one of the finest poems written about railways and, indeed, written to be performed on film is WH Auden’s The Night Mail – its scanning and metre replicate the thundering rhythms of the mail train – here’s a clip.
From here the inevitable direction of the Kensington visitor is towards the museums – but I’m saving these for another day.
Instead check out the Catholic Church – the Brompton Oratory – that dominates the corner where the A4 – The Great West Road – meets the Fulham Road. In the distance you can spy Knightsbridge and – growl, boo, hiss – Harrods.
This is all you get.
I walked north, the length of Kensington in fact, past Imperial College, probably our finest Science university,
across to the Royal College of Music,
trying to ignore the ugliest building on route, ironically the Royal College of Art and up to the Royal Albert Hall.
This cake of a building is the epitome of Victorian splendour and tasteless expense.
It’s just fabulous. Take in a concert, a prom maybe if you are here for them.
Inside it is grandness personified – I once saw wrestling here – it almost turned a sport of knaves and ne’er-do-wells into a regal pageant.
Beyond the RAH is Kensington Palace Gardens, home of the Albert Memorial,
Peter Pan’s statue,
the Speke monument after the brilliant 19th century explorer,
all situated in the most westerly of the four green lungs of central London,
variously going west to east, Kensington Palace Gardens, Hyde Park, Green Park and St James Park.
It’s a long rewarding stroll through these places, not quite Central Park sized but quite enough for a day.
Instead I headed west towards Kensington Palace itself
and the sunken garden
and Willy III’s rather puckish statue – if there’s one king you’d probably not describe as puckish its the rebarbative and resilient William much loved and loathed in Ireland and up there as a despicable Englishman with Cromwell.
Beyond the Palace,
still a royal residence, is a road or two of Embassies – signs say no photos, but, heck and beyond, I’d just walked 18,000 steps and I wasn’t to be denied my inalienable right to capture an image. I clicked on the Romanian embassy and nobody arrested me. Yet.
Past Kensington Church and onto High Street Ken I emerged
opposite the former Barkers Department store and now home to some shops on ground and basement floors and above,
Northcliffe House, the editorial offices of the Daily Mail, the Independent and Evening Standard newspapers. Back in the way back whens of my legal career we acted for Associated Newspapers, owner of the Daily Mail, when they moved here. It was a complicated and eye opening time in the newspaper world, the 1980s, as first Murdoch and then the other ‘Barons’ broke the stranglehold the print unions had had on the newspaper industry. Frankly both sides were populated with unlovable characters but it was fun. One day I might post about some of those experiences but at this point I turned for the tube,
through another grandly created entrance and home.
Do have a visit, there’s a lot to see and do in Kensington and Khelsea, even if I feel a little of the old charm – aka decay – is sorely missed. London is, after all, at its best when messy and disjointed.
And avoid these sorts of residences if i were you.
From the King’s Road
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