Sunday, 1 September 2013

Portobello Road

Portobello Road - the posh end
Last Friday I went in search of shoes for my wedding…yup, still looking for those 70s corkers. I went to Paris. I've been up to the East End 'vintage' shops, (since when were denim shorts classified as vintage?). I've searched Camden Passage. On my quest I've met some really interesting and kind sellers, including one who was really quite drunk (at 10 on a Wednesday morning), and another who denounced her neighbouring shop-keeper as a fraud and an ignoramus who 'knew nothing about vintage clothes when she arrived, and knows very little more now than when she came'. (Think I might have stumbled into the middle of a war). I've been given lists of names of shops and sites by these kind stall holders, and visited nearly all of them. These shoes are elusive. The nearest I have come are a pair of magnificent creatures on Etsy which are exactly right - but half a size too small, translating from US to UK sizing, and way too much money.

In the early 80s I had a job in Kensington Market, a mecca for all those cool kids who wanted a bit of street style. I lived in Kilburn so I used to cycle there, through Queen's Park and down the Portobello Road, and on to Kensington High Street. There's a market in Portobello Road and early on a Friday the dealers would pick it over for bargains which would be gone by Saturday when the tourists and general public came. I looked forward to my Fridays, getting up really early, or so it seemed at the time, to find interesting relics from the old days when people burned coal on the fire and used outside toilets. I wasn't really after clothes then, but enamel plates, ceramic door knobs and such. I had very little money to spend - my job paid peanuts and I was signing on. My huge bedsit had a dodgy electric meter which the landlord had fixed to the highest rate, so you had to feed the greedy bugger with 50p every couple of hours. The previous tenant, in response to this greed, had himself secretly fixed the meter so that you could slip a piece of card in and stop the wheel from spinning round, so the supply of electricity was constant. I used to put in a few quid's worth of 50ps so that the landlord was none the wiser to this illicit arrangement. So pennies were scarce and I had to really think about what I spent them on. (Looks like I've come full-circle, now I think about it). Portobello Road market was a good way to feed my second-hand need.

I headed down there last Friday looking for Those Shoes. It was incredible to revisit after so many years. So much was the same. Yet there were differences. I got talking to Jane, who had run a stall but now keeps a little shop in the arcade under the railway bridge. She told me that she used to pay £45 a day for her stall, but she found the winters cruel, the early mornings and late nights difficult, the market manager disloyal and the other stall holders untrustworthy (she thinks they sold her stock while she was getting a cuppa, and pocketted the readies). We reminisced about the market in the old days. It still has a very linear layout, with antiques at the top end, fruit, veg and cheap shoes in the middle, junk and vintage clothes under the flyover, and those strange boxes of wire and flood-goods at the end where Portbello Road joins Goldborne Road. But the number of stalls under the flyover has shrunk by about a third, and the number of specialist-fittings dealers has really dwindled (no enamel plates). There are still a number of vintage clothes stalls, and enough house-clearance clothes sellers (dead-old-lady clothes). But at either end the Portobello Road has disappointingly caved in to the 'developments' seen elsewhere all over Britain. Instead of the greasy spoon cafes there are now Starbucks and chi-chi bars open to the street. Cath Kidston (oh God, really?) has taken up residence at one end, and Orla Keily (or some such) at the other. Even the antique stalls were fewer, and many supplementing their stock with 'fake' antiques - those boxes, coat hooks, loo door signs etc which have been made and aged with paint techniques.

I wasn't disappointed. The nature of markets dictates that they must be fluid - stall holders and stock wax and wane. I'm sure it will survive, and clothes which seem so modern now will grace the stalls there tomorrow. I hope Jane's shop is a success, though she is tucked away and somewhat invisible there.

the fruit market middle

fruit, T shirts and bars

I did not find my shoes. Bugger. But I did have a truly marvellous day out, reclaiming a forgotten, and important, part of the person I am, and resolving to remember it.

Yesterday, in a another attempt to coax The Shoes to reveal themselves to me in a shop, through the ether or by any other means, I had a shoe cull.  I tried not to let the chosen few know in case they ran for cover. It's hard to coax them out from under the bath. The dull ones will make new friends at the dump, and the witty ones will be the life and sole at Traid, or some other charity shop. One crafty pair reminded me of the hours I spend on Ebay looking for 'authentic' vintage, and have renegotiated their way back into their box at the bottom of the wardrobe. They're there now, wiping the perspiration from their anxious insteps, and warning the others to shape up or ship out. Don't worry others, I love you all.

Under the flyover

I think these are something to do with weaving - I nearly bought some

Beautiful old quilt - smelt a bit funny so I resisted it

I had a friend who lived in the house on the left

Wire in Goldborne Road
Up for demolition - shame.


  1. I really enjoyed this post, it reminded me of my student days in NW London and times spent at Camden Market. Jane xx

    1. Hi Jane! Have you been to Camden lately? The lovely old vintage stalls have given way to smart food shops and clubland clothes stalls which hum with vibrancy. It's still fun, busy with dealers making a living, and creativity is still apparent, but it isn't what it was. But now I'm sounding like an old biddy. Oh wait, I am!

      I wonder if we were in north London at the same time? We might have walked past each other in the street.