6 JULY 2006




Nutting Hill or Nothing ill ‘Enter a lunatic: The King of the Fairies, who was, it is presumed, the godfather of King Auberon, must have been very favourable on this particular day to his fantastic godchild, for with the entrance of the guard of the Provost of Notting Hill there was a certain more or less inexplicable addition to his delight… these Notting Hill halberdiers in their red tunics belted with gold had the air rather of an absurd gravity. They seemed, so to speak, to be taking part in the joke… They carried a yellow banner with a great red lion named by the king as the Notting Hill emblem, after a small public-house in the neighbourhood, which he once frequented.’ GK Chesterton The Napoleon of Notting Hill 1904

In Chesterton’s whimsical ‘Cockney fantasy’, the joker king Auberon concludes his address to the Society for the Recovery of London Antiquities, refusing to be drawn into the debate on “whether Notting Hill means Nutting Hill in allusion to the rich woods which no longer cover it, or whether it is a corruption of the saying Nothing-ill, referring to its reputation among the ancients as an earthly paradise.” In Cockney Notting Hill is pronounced ‘Nottin’ Ill’, and the area was an earthly paradise of mostly uninhabited woodland up until 500 years ago, then it was mostly fields for a few more centuries.

Trojans, Celts and Romans The area’s only real claim to antiquity comes from being on the Celtic west trackway, 3 miles from the probable Celtic settlement that would become London. In Notting Hill in Bygone Days, Florence Gladstone mentions posters on the underground in 1916 which ‘stated that Holland Park Avenue was the Via Trinobantia of the Romans, the chief road of the late Celtic kingdom of the Trinobantes.’ According to Geoffrey of Monmouth’s mythological history, Trinobantia is derived from Troynovant – New Troy; the original London of the first King of Britain, Brutus, a Trojan refugee descended from Aeneas, the founder of Rome.

The first Roman roadworks upgraded the original Celtic track to the Great West Road paved way to Silchester, the abandoned Roman town between Reading and Basingstoke. At Notting Hill Gate there’s a change in alignment of the Roman road’s straight trajectory, probably indicating a beacon sighting-point, and in all likelihood there would have been ribbon developments alongside the road. (The Princess Diana memorial fountain in Hyde Park had to be moved when remains of a large Roman farm were unearthed; Hyde Park also hosts a statue of Diana the Roman goddess of hunting and woodland, which may account for the apparently cursed Princess Di memorial.)

In 1841 the Gentleman’s Magazine reported that workmen excavating the foundations of 67-75 Ladbroke Grove had discovered a stone coffin, containing an adult skeleton and bone and ivory pins. Further finds were expected but, as the speculative building boom gathered pace, archaeology wasn’t a major concern and the only other record of Roman remains in the area is in Bygone Days. Florence Gladstone wrote of a ‘trough of broken masonry’ in the St John’s church vicarage garden, thought to be part of a Roman sarcophagus discovered on the site of 1 Ladbroke Square. Although this could merely mean a few roadside burials outside the Londinium city limits, a 70s archaeology survey concluded that the coffins belonged to Romano-Briton residents of a villa at the top of Ladbroke Grove.

Subterania: Underground rivers The Notting Hill area is defined by two streams, which both now run underground, either side of the high ground; the Kilburn/Westbourne/Bayswater stream/rivulet to the east, and Bridge or Counter’s Creek to the west. According to Florence Gladstone, there’s ‘no foundation for the statement, occasionally met with, that a vast lake underlies the district.’ However, the Westbourne is described as augmented by tributaries while the Bayswater area is noted for its springs, reservoirs, conduits and general watery features. Since the 1850s, the legendary lost London river has been conveyed through the area by culvert, no longer along its original course; it emerges across Bayswater Road to form the Serpentine in Hyde Park, the other side of which it can be seen going through Sloane Square tube station via a pipe, before joining the Thames at Chelsea Bridge.

Time Lords of the Manor: The Veres Kensington’s mystical history can be traced back to the Doomesday Book and the weird Norman lord of the manor, Aubrey de Vere. Throughout the middle ages, Aubrey’s descendants were Lord Great Chamberlains of England, Earls of Oxford, and landlords of Kensington – although there’s no evidence they ever lived in the area. And, for the record, back in the day the name was always spelt Veer or just Vere without the de. Lord Macaulay called the Veres ‘the longest and most illustrious line of nobles that England has seen’, while the Victorian historian Loftie noted ‘the popular idea that Vere is almost a synonym for nobility’, and described their genealogy as ‘a mystery, a tangled web of so far unsolved problems.’

Laurence Gardner goes further out there in Realm of the Ring Lords, in which the Veres become mystical elf kings of Kensington, or ‘the shining ones’; descended from Rainfroi de Verrieres en Forez and, through his wife Princess Melusine, the 2nd century King Ver of Caledonia, ancient Irish kings, Scythians, pharaohs, and the Lords of the Rings. Robert Vere, the 3rd Earl of Oxford, becomes merged with the outlaw Robert Fitzooth/oath/odo, better known as Robin Hood, due to being a woodlord claimant to the earldom of Huntingdon. Then there’s a theory that the 16th Earl, Edward Vere, a student of John Dee, writer, poet and ‘friend of the muses’, was Shakespeare. ‘Oberon’, the King of the Fairies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, is the equivalent of Aubrey/Albrey/Alberic or Arthur, and synonymous with overlord, high/light/shining/elf or dwarf king. Peter Ackroyd seems to back up this theory, once noting how the ‘self-locking’ inscription on a sewer manhole cover had worn away to reveal ‘elf king’. In the Inside Notting Hill guidebook, Miranda Davies describes Aubrey House on Campden hill as ‘hidden behind high walls, it retains an air of mystery.’

Ghosts of Princes in Towers: The Rich Kids Holland House is said to be haunted by the ghost of Sir Henry Rich, the first Earl of Holland, who switched sides during the civil war and went for the chop in 1649. Sir Henry’s apparition would enter the Gilt Room at midnight through a secret door, and drift slowly through the scene of his triumphs and disasters with the customary head held in hand.

In the 18th century, Isaac Newton, who features in The Da Vinci Code/The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail as a grandmaster of the Priory of Sion, died at Notting Hill Gate, and the gothic novelist Horace Walpole was almost killed by a highwayman on his way back into town from Hollland House. In the early 19th, Lord Byron was a regular at Lady Holland’s salon, which was satirised in the first local mag The Arcadian; Campden hill subsequently sprouted a host of Pre-Raphaelite painters.

Jack-in-the-Green: Relic of tree worship in modern Europe Bayswater in the 19th century is said to have been ‘enlivened by the May Dance and the Jack O’ the Green.’ In The Golden Bough, JG Frazer describes the Jack-in-the-Green leaf-clad mummer as a ‘relic of tree-worship in modern Europe’, featuring a chimney-sweep ‘encased in a pyramidical framework of wickerwork, which is covered with holly and ivy, and surmounted by a crown of flowers and ribbons. Thus arrayed he dances on May day at the head of a troop of chimney sweeps, who collect pence.’

Notting Hill Carnival in the 1870s In 1923 William Bull wrote in the Bayswater Chronicle of Portobello Road in the 1870s: ‘Carnival time was on Saturday nights in the winter, when it was thronged like a fair… The people overflowed from the pavement so that the roadway was impassable for horse traffic which, to do it justice, never appeared. On the left-hand side (the east side) were costers’ barrows, lighted by flaming naphtha lamps. In the side streets were side-shows, vendors of patent medicines, conjurors, itinerant vocalists…’

Jack the Ripper Park Avondale Park in Notting Dale was landscaped over the former open sewer known as ‘the ocean’, and named after the Duke of Clarence and Avondale. This was Albert Victor, the son and heir of the future Edward VII (then the Prince of Wales), who is now better known as the particularly weird looking Prince Eddy, the Jack the Ripper suspect who died shortly after the late 1880s Whitechapel prostitute murders (as portrayed in the Johnny Depp Masonic Ripper film, From Hell).

As the park acquired its sinister name, the Daily News of 1892 dubbed the surrounding Notting Dale slum area a ‘West End Avernus’, after Lake Avernus, the entrance to hell in classical mythology. Turner’s painting of Lake Avernus at the mouth of the underworld was inspired by Virgil’s tale of Aeneas visiting the grotto of the Sybil at Cumae in the bay of Naples. The Sybil says: ‘First, take my counsel, then securely go; a mighty tree, that bears a golden bough, grows in a vale surrounded by a grove, and sacred to the queen of Stygian Jove, her netherworld no mortals can behold, till from the bough they strip the blooming gold.’

The Hill of Dreams: Arthur Machen The original weird bohemian local writer was Arthur Machen, who lived on Clarendon Road in the 1880s. A great champion of mysticism over materialism, Machen wrote the supernatural horror fantasy novels, The Great God Pan, The Hill of Dreams and The Three Imposters, and compiled occult writings. He was best known for his World War 1 shortstory, The Bowmen, which gave rise to ‘the angels of Mons’ legend in which celestial archers bolstered the British ranks. He was also a member of the occult secret society, the Order of the Golden Dawn, who met at 36 Blythe Road in Hammersmith, along with Aleister Crowley and WB Yeats.

Necropolis: City of the Dead In his autobiography, Far Off Things, Arthur Machen recalls drifting around North Kensington and the phantasmagorical impression Kensal Green cemetery had on him: ‘I would sometimes pursue Clarendon Road northward and get into all sorts of regions of which I never had any clear notion. They are so obscure to me now, and a sort of nightmare. I see myself getting terribly entangled with a canal which seemed to cross my path in a manner contrary to the laws of reason. I turn a corner and am confronted with an awful cemetery, a terrible city of white gravestones and shattered marble pillars and granite urns, and every sort of horrid heathenry. This, I suppose, must have been Kensal Green: it added a new terror to death. I think I came upon Kensal Green again and again; it was like the Malay, an enemy for months. I would break off by way of Portobello Road and entangle myself in Notting Hill, and presently I would come across the goblin city; I might wander into the Harrow Road, but at last the ghost-stones would appal me. Maida Vale was treacherous, Paddington false – inevitably, it seemed my path led me to the detested habitation of the dead.’

The Cemetery of All Souls necropolis was established at Kensal Green in 1832, as London’s answer to Paris’s Pere Lachaise. Before long, as Edward Walford put it in Old London, ‘marble obelisks and urns began to rise among the cypresses in all the variety which heathen and classical allusions could suggest.’ The entrance to the underworld, at the end of the ancient footpath from Kensington to Kensal Green, was originally to feature gothic Camelot style towers and a watergate from the canal. In 1889 the funeral of the writer Wilkie Collins, of The Woman in White fame, occasioned the first local case of fan mania with women in black fighting over wreaths at his graveside.

Paradise by way of Kensal Green ‘But walk with clearer eyes and ears this path that wandereth, and see undrugged in evening light the decent inn of the dead; for there is good news yet to hear and fine things to be seen, before we go to Paradise by way of Kensal Green.’ GK Chesterton ‘The Rolling English Road’ 1914

The Wasteland W10 ‘A rat crept softly through the vegetation, dragging its slimy belly on the bank while I was fishing in the dull canal, on a winter evening round behind the gas house, musing upon the king my brother’s wreck, and on the king my father’s death before him, white bodies naked on the low damp ground, and bones cast in a little low dry garret, rattled by the rat’s foot only, year to year, but at my back from time to time I hear the sound of horns and motors, which shall bring Sweeney to Mrs Porter in the spring. O the moon shone bright on Mrs Porter, and her daughter, they wash their feet in soda water.’ TS Eliot ‘The Fire Sermon’ from ‘The Wasteland’ 1922

Neverland W11: Local elves, fairies and ghosts On a lighter note, JM Barrie’s ‘Peter Pan’ went out of a window of 31 Kensington Park Gardens, the house of the real-life ‘Darling’ family, the Llewelyn Davies’s, to ‘Neverland’. McDonald Gill’s Peter Pan Map of Kensington Gardens features elves cutting down a toadstool and fairies strolling along the Flower Walk.

On Westbourne Grove, the 20th Century Theatre (formerly the Bijou) hosted spiritualist meetings, and gigs by the original Eurythmics performance art group.

The Electric cinema is said to be haunted by the ghost of a manager who slit his wrists in the upstairs office (now the media club) and is associated with the local serial killer, John Christie from 10 Rillington Place, who reputedly worked there as a projectionist. The Coronet cinema’s ghost is an early 20th century cashier who jumped off the balcony after being caught stealing from the till.

To the north, there was a phantom bus scare in 1934. After a fatal car accident at the junction of St Mark’s Road and Cambridge Gardens, a witness reported seeing the ghost number 7 bus hurtling towards the car before the crash.

Bedknobs and Broomsticks Robert Stevenson 1971 Often derided and dismissed as not a real Notting Hill film, Bedknobs and Broomsticks is in fact the most magical local film apart from Performance. The 1971 follow-up to Mary Poppins stars Angela Lansbury as a white witch who summons up the spirit of old England to repel the Nazi invasion. Towards this end, she retrieves the missing half of a magic book, The Spells of Astroth, from a Disneyland Portobello market with her evacuee kid charges. The search begins with the bogus professor David Tomlinson saying, “There’s only one place to get it.” Cue: Portobello Road sign and zoom in on Disneyland London set.

This inevitably involves a 1940 proto-Carnival song and dance routine, featuring Cockney, Scottish, East and West Indian turns: ‘Portobello Road, Portobello Road, street where the riches of ages are stowed, anything and everything a chap can unload is sold off the barrow in Portobello Road, you’ll find what you want in the Porto Bello Road.’ (This song seems like the oldest Portobello number, as the film’s set in 1940, but is at least the fourth.) Then Bruce Forsyth puts in an appearance as a switchblade-wielding spiv. He takes them to ‘The Bookman’, from whom they escape on their magic bedstead into the animated animal world football game. Confirming the film’s local street cred, the novel on which Bedknobs is based was written by the grandmother of Joe Rush of the Mutoid Waste Company.

Getting The Fear In The Ministry of Fear, Graham Greene’s 5th Columnist novel filmed by Fritz Lang in 1944, the key séance scene takes place at ‘Mrs Bellairs’ house’, which Greene describes as ‘old and unrenovated standing among the To Let boards on the slopes of Campden Hill.’ Spiritualism also features in Vere Hodgson’s local wartime diaries Few Eggs and No Oranges, as she worked as a pre-welfare state social worker for Winifred Moyes’ Christian-Spiritualist Greater World Association, which was based at 3 Lansdowne Road. Miss Moyes was a former Telegraph journalist-turned-psychic, who was believed to be a medium for the spirit guide Zodiac.

Rotting Hill Wyndham Lewis gave such groups short shrift in his post-war book Rotting Hill: ‘As to the mysticism, and its big vogue (5 lodges in ‘Rotting Hill’); people troop… to sit entranced before pythonesses who bring tidings from the other side of death to enable them to turn their backs if only for a while upon life – more vile and ill-smelling daily.’

Little Hell Clanricarde Gardens at Notting Hill Gate (Lewis’s Rotting Hill) has a claim to be the area’s weirdest street. Built on the site of an early 19th century shanty town known as ‘Little Hell’, the dead end street features in The Napoleon of Notting Hill, and hosted the 1960s pagan ‘king and queen of witches’ Alex and Maxine Sanders.





home facebook supporters entry form community contact us PFF awards history video cafe talking pictures