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Destination: London

Notting Like It

Antiques, art, worldly food in newly trendy Notting Hill

March 22, 1998|EMILY LAURENCE BAKER | Baker, a freelance writer, lives in London's Kensington district

LONDON — When I first moved to London six years ago, friends were surprised when I told them some of my favorite hangouts were in Notting Hill, the small enclave north of the very established neighborhood of Kensington. "Oh, I've never been up that way," was the usual response. "Isn't it kind of rough around there?"

While it's true that Notting Hill has something of a checkered past, mostly in the northern sections toward Ladbroke Grove, in recent years the neighborhood has become one of the most popular residential quarters in the city. It's hard to find the words "Notting Hill" unaccompanied by the words "hip" and "trendy." Now when I tell friends I spend a lot of time in Notting Hill, the response is more likely to be, "have you tried the new coffee shop?"

Few tourists discover the delights of Notting Hill, most likely because no traditional attractions are here. But a day here is for wandering around leafy streets, through eclectic shops and hanging out in cafes to watch the world go by.

Boundaries of the neighborhood vary according to whom you talk to, even within the local planning office. The dimensions have grown increasingly elastic as more people seek a W11 zip code on their letterhead, but the outline is roughly from Notting Hill Gate in the south, to Westbourne Park Road in the north, and from Lansdowne Road in the west to Chepstow Road in the east.

In many ways, Notting Hill is a microcosm of England and its extremely stratified class system. Within a very small geographical area, inhabitants range from well-heeled English society to those who scrape by on government subsidies. It's a place where $16,000 bracelets are on sale just a few blocks from one of the poorest subsidized housing developments in London.

Contrast is embedded in Notting Hill's history. In the 1800s, most residents were employed to build and work in the wealthy homes being built to the west around Lansdowne Road. These streets now boast some of London's most elegant homes.

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The neighborhood's most famous street, Portobello Road, has a long tradition of housing immigrants, beginning with Jewish and Irish settlers in the 19th century and more recently, large Spanish, Portuguese and Moroccan communities.

In the 1950s, West Indians came into a pressurized community suffering from an acute housing shortage. Some white residents resented the additional competition for jobs and housing and in the summer of 1958, gangs of white youths attacked Caribbean houses and people. The black community fought back, sparking four days of sporadic fighting. But things have calmed down considerably in recent years. The Notting Hill Carnival--now the largest street festival in Europe--was started by a social worker in 1965 partly in an effort to unite the community.

Although residents tout Notting Hill's ethnic mix as one of its principal attractions, as housing prices have soared, faces are becoming more mainstream. The foreigners that bring Notting Hill its vitality are slowly moving northward as young professionals pay more than $160,000 for small apartments on the northern fringes of Notting Hill.

But even the money here has a different flavor than in the nearby residential neighborhoods of Kensington and Chelsea. Notting Hill residents thrive on the buzz of eclecticism. The neighborhood still has an element of funkiness that entices an offbeat crowd. The bohemian character is maintained partly by an abundance of writers, artists and media executives. And of course a smattering of celebrities never hurts. Tina Turner, actress Theresa Russell, Jade Jagger and Brian Eno have called Notting Hill home in recent years.

For a glimpse of how the privileged live in London, including actor Alan Rickman, CNN correspondent Christiane Amanpour, playwright Christopher Hampton and musician Peter Gabriel, begin a Notting Hill tour on Ladbroke Grove. After exiting the Notting Hill Gate tube, walk west, make a right on to Ladbroke Grove and walk up the hill.

Purists define Ladbroke Grove as Notting Hill's westernmost boundary because this is the Notting Hill. The summit, by St. John's Church, is where spectators stood in 1837 to watch horse races at the Hippodrome racecourse that circled the hill. When the race track failed four years later, the Ladbroke Estate began to be developed with the grand Georgian homes that now exist west of Kensington Park Road and about as far north as Elgin Crescent. "Leafy Ladbroke" spread gradually to include Pembridge Square and Villas and Chepstow Villas and Crescent.

The elegant street plans envisioned by planners were not completed because there was not enough demand for expensive homes. "The houses were left derelict and many were subdivided into flats or rooms before they were occupied," explains Barbara Denny, a local historian. "As Notting Hill has become fashionable, these homes have been restored and become fashionable with it." The grandest homes are on Lansdowne Road and Crescent and surround Ladbroke Square.

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