11 Oddities To Spot On Portobello Road

By M@ Last edited 11 months ago

Last Updated 09 June 2023

11 Oddities To Spot On Portobello Road
Portobello Road street sign printed onto a banner, hanging before a blue sky, with a union jack either side

Take a stroll along Portobello Road and keep your eyes peeled...

Millions of people flock to Portobello Road each year, drawn by movie connections, antiques, August Carnival, and the all-year pockets of bohemian culture. But here are a near-dozen of the more peculiar things to look out for along this characterful west London street.

Use our map as a guide, and look out for the following 11 oddities.

A map showing the locations of 11 oddities along Portobello Road

1. Made You Look

Scrabble tiles stenciled onto a wall on Portobello road, which spell out Made You Look

This Scrabble-based curiosity has welcomed visitors to Portobello Road since 2007. The playful message is often credited to Banksy, but hard evidence seems difficult to come by. I think not. First, Banksy usually includes his signature on works of this size. And second, there's another clue in the lettering. This is not the British points system for Scrabble tiles. Only Swedish sets score a 7 for a Y and a 2 for an O. Does this hint at the nationality of the mystery street artist?

2. George Orwell woz ere

A blue plaque to George Orwell on Portobello road

Perhaps the reference to "making you look" is a subtle nod to George Orwell, whose novel 1984 posits an authoritarian state in which "Big Brother is always watching". Orwell lived almost directly opposite the street art (although many decades before it appeared), as indicated by this non-official blue plaque. (See our map of Orwell sites for more.)

Orwell lodged in an unheated attic room at number 22 over the winter before moving to Paris. It was so cold that, famously, the young writer had to warm his hands over a candle before lifting his pen. It was from these unenviable digs that he set out to mingle with the down-and-out of London.

3. Mr Gruber's antique shop

Alice's antiques on Portobello Road, a red fronted victorian corner building

It's officially called Alice's Antiques, but anyone who's seen the exceptional Paddington movies will know it as Mr Gruber's Antiques. It's here that the kind-hearted bear discovers the pop-up book he wants to buy for his Aunt Lucy's 100th birthday. The shop, stuffed with sundry treasures, is popular in its own right, though you can almost always spot a Paddington or two in the windows.

4. The Gold Eyes

A three-storey facade whose white face has been chipped away to reveal a face

Portuguese artist Vhils caused quite a stir in 2019, when he chiselled out this pair of eyes along Portobello Road. Apparently, a striking facade of large-scale street art simply didn't fit in with the character of the local area... which is known for its striking facades and large-scale street art. Odd. Plus, it totally fits in with the Orwellian Made You Look themes we've already seen.

The mesmeric mural adorns the front of Gold, a celeb-endorsed restaurant that's replaced the old Portobello Gold pub.

5. First antique shop

A plaque commemorating June Aylward who opened the first antique shop on Portobello Road

A little further along we find this small plaque on number 15. June Aylward might not be a household name, but she's arguably the person who put Portobello Road on the map as a commercial destination. A fresh food market had thrived on Portobello Road since Victorian times, but it was only with the coming of the antiques shops and stalls (from about 1950) that the place hit a wider awareness.

The road became so famous for antiques that people began to believe it was always thus. The 1971 film Bedknobs and Broomsticks features a big song and dance along a mock-up of the road in which we're told its the "street where the riches of ages are stowed". All well and good, but the film was set during the second world war, before the antiques dealers had settled in. Still, Bruce Forsyth makes an unlikely cameo, so all good.

A little further along the road is a plaque to Susan Garth, who turned these small beginnings into the proper, full-on antiques market that still functions today.

6. Electric Cinema

The upper facade of the Electric Cinema on Portobello Road, Notting Hill

Not so much an oddity, as one of the street's most important buildings, which we simply can't leave out. The Electric is one of Britain's oldest cinemas, having opened its doors as far back as 1910. It was also one of the first buildings in the area to be hooked up to electricity, hence its name. Lunch or dinner at the neighbouring Electric Diner followed by a film in the cinema remains a classic London date option.

7. The Blue Door

Blue Door of notting hill from the film notting hill
It's the big fat one in the middle

The navy-blue door on Westbourne Park Road has to be one of the most-photographed portals in London. We had to jostle with four other people to get the shot above — and that was mid-morning on a weekday. Come at the weekend, and you'll find crowds. The Blue Door is, of course, famous as the home of Hugh Grant's character in the film Notting Hill. The movie retains a huge international following, and many foreign guidebooks include the door among their 'things to do' listings. So who are we to leave it out?

8. Notting Hill Carnival plaques

Two blue plaques commemorating Claudia Jones and Rhaune Laslett-O'Brien, who were fundamental in starting the Notting Hill Carnival

Just before the Westway, the pedestrianised Tavistock Road carries two easily missed plaques to a pair of Carnival legends. Claudia Jones and Rhaune Laslett-O'Brien. Jones paved the way by organising the first Caribbean carnival in London, which took place in St Pancras in 1959. Laslett-O'Brien later picked up the baton, organising a series of multicultural festivals in the 1960s that evolved into the Notting Hill Carnival.

9. Spanish Civil War mosaic

A mosaic showing scenes from the Spanish Civil War

If you're walking north along Portobello Road, it's very easy to miss this tucked-away mosaic beneath the Westway, hidden as it is behind a series of columns. The mural shows scenes from the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39, and commemorates Kensington residents who joined the International Brigade to fight in the war, as well as refugees who fled here.

10. Portobello Banksy

A banksy mural of an artist with palette

Unlike the "Made You Look" Scrabble art, this mural towards the northern end of Portobello Road is a verifiable Banksy. The 2008 stencil was covered over for a decade, but now forms the centrepiece of a redevelopment project. The host building has several other celebrity connections. Fashion designer Ozwald Boateng had his first showroom here. On a more sinister hand, serial killer John Christie bought incapacitating medicines from the building (a former chemist).

11. Portobello Wall

A panorama shot showing works of illustration stretching along a wall

The Portobello Wall is a 100 metre stretch of bricks and mortar, which leads to the junction with Golborne Road. Back in 2009, Kensington and Chelsea borough council decided to liven things up a bit by commissioning an annual art or photography display to run the length of the wall. It hasn't been updated for a few years, and taggers have ruined quite a few of the panels on the eastern side of the road. But the stretch to the west still clings on to a long collection of illustrations showing people from the local area.

Portobello Road carries on for a few hundred metres beyond the wall, though we were unable to find any further oddities in this stretch.

All images by Matt Brown