Push and Pull
I had hit the snooze button too many times, I knew it. I pulled the crisp white pillow from off of my head and groggily glimpsed at my phone on the ebony nightstand — 11:00. “Shit.”
We launched ourselves out of bed and got ready in record time — and we were out, wandering the high street, by 11:30.
We made our way up through Notting Hill, towards Portobello Road — the famed street market. Our first destination of the day was just beyond it, so I figured we’d walk through it on our way.
The streets were almost empty, almost eerily so — the tight little rows of buildings hugged the edges of wide, deserted asphalt.
On Moscow Road, we meandered past an Orthodox cathedral bathed in light, and I made my way into the empty street to take some photos. As we kept walking, I peeked into an empty service courtyard behind a restaurant just off of the sidewalk. The black iron gates were open, and the sunlight poured into the low-ceilinged undercroft and shone on the wet pavement beyond. It was such a beautiful little moment — this pedestrian scene, utilitarian beyond all other, so perfect in its normality. I thought to take a photo, but kept walking. Three steps later, I needed to go back. “Sorry,” I told Mark, and jogged back to the gate.
“FUCK OFF, MATE!”
A restaurant worker had appeared in the courtyard and was flipping me off, a cigarette hanging out of his mouth. I yelped “Sorry!” and jogged back to Mark. Yet another moment to only live within my memory.
We made our way to Portobello Road, and as we walked up towards the market, people began joining us from side streets. One, two, then five, then fifteen, then forty. Laughter and shouts echoed louder and louder off of the brightly-colored houses lining the edges of the street. Soon, we were in a veritable crowd, walking down the middle of the street. Just past George Orwell’s house, I stopped to take a photo of cherry blossoms against a pale mauve and purple house, but stopped when I realized that five other people had stopped to take the same photo. The once wide-seeming street had become a narrow tunnel, full of raucous noise.
We glanced at each other, and wordlessly ducked onto a side street, and then onto Kensington Park Road — framed by endless rows of perfectly crisp, perfectly white London terrace homes. Impeccably dressed moms and au pairs pushed prams in pairs down the narrow walks, the rare bright sun glinting off of their baguette diamond earrings and oversized sunglasses. Tight, clipped, quiet Queen’s English mixed with whispered Russian. We ducked into a Japanese housewares shop, Native & Co. for a moment, entranced by the super-minimalist windows. We picked our way quietly around the shop, as a queue formed to purchase. My stomach grumbled loudly — it was time to eat.
I’d marked a potential place for lunch around the corner — Peyotito, modern Mexican. But as I am wont to do, I forgot to add in any opening hours into my master map — and we’d arrived for lunch when they were only open for dinner service. Bewildered by the crowds, and hunger rising, we walked into Kitchen & Pantry. As we fought our way into the front door, we observed blonde ponytailed women circling indoors and out for available tables, planting their oversized Céline bags into any open seats. We had been in line for all of five minutes when Mark turned to me. “Should we try something else? This seems like an overpriced Pret.”
Out the door we went, and we happened to walk past a tiny ramen joint called Tonkotsu. It was chilly, even with the sun, and the warm scent of ramen broth pulled us in. We sat at the front counter and pored over the menu, starved.
Ham-hock ramen with fermented Japanese mustard leaf, ginger-garlic pork gyoza, cucumber tsukemono with fermented chili powder, dry-hopped Japanese saison.
It was exactly what we needed. The space was small, closet-like with a low ceiling and a tiny walkway against the counter. We sat facing the chefs, who almost became blurry at times with their speed. That scent of broth hung in the air, tangible in its heaviness, and mixed with the others — chili, vinegar, beer, hot oil. It was intoxicating.
We finished, paid, and squeezed past the queue in the front of the shop to escape to Blenheim Crescent, and then north on the remainder of Portobello Road. We passed the dregs of the Market — folding tables piled with random assortments of kitsch. Plastic bins in neat rows on the pavement, porcelain dolls and broken crockery spilling from their confines. Electrical cords swinging from shadeless lamps, tattered rugs hung on adjacent fences.
Further along, we turned right onto Golborne Road — our destination peeking above the brick houses.
Trellick Tower is an architectural oddity — a bit of flamboyant Brutalism poking out into the sky above Cheltenham Estate. It was designed by Erno Goldfinger and opened in 1972 as a social housing development. It features a separate access tower containing all of the stairways and elevators — apparently a space-saving quality, and a large part of its iconic appeal. Windows playfully zig-zag across its concrete façade, and the cedar-faced balconies form grids within grids — repeating endlessly.
We stood across the street, snapping photos. The tower was in the middle of a major refurbishment, with scaffolding rising up a third of the building. Plastic sheeting rustled in the breeze, and it carried the faint sound of Elton John down to us on the sidewalk — “Rocket Man,” to be precise. It immediately stuck in my head, and I hummed with the barely audible tune as we made our way into the commercial part of Trellick, and then through to the main street out front.
We passed the surgery and a few shuttered shops, past the blue-tiled façades of Holmefield House, before heading into Meanwhile Gardens — towards the Grand Union Canal.
We walked alongside the canal for a quarter-mile, trying to avoid the ankle-deep mud next to the walk. We kept passing people, standing to the side to let them pass. An older man and his dog, a group of laughing girlfriends, a family with a small child. The family passed slowly, apologetic — the child had just learnt how to walk and was slowly following along behind his parents. Houseboats were stacked along the canal’s edge, long and skinny. Some were opulently decorated and well-kept, others loaded with bric-a-brac and broken planters full of dead foliage. We kept on, and made our way past the graffiti’d skate park, and up a spiral staircase to Great Western Road.
We wanted to head back to the hotel for a refresh, so we walked down Great Western to Westbourne Park Road, to the Brunel Estate, and then south down Chepstow Road to the nearest bus stop.
We stood there awkwardly, trying to figure out the timetable as a group of people slowly assembled next to us. We were almost on the front stoop of one of those white townhomes, their beautiful foliage slipping over into the sidewalk, next to our faces. A flat white wall faced us from across the street, making it feel as if we were in an alley of sorts — even though we were on a main street. It was us, and a few other foreigners. I heard Polish, Mandarin, Russian — all in hushed, quiet tones. We waited patiently as bus after bus drove past. 7, 28, 31, 328… and finally 70, our bus.
A quick refresh — and then back out on the street.
We were headed south to Kensington, so we decided to walk through Kensington Gardens — the west side of Hyde Park. It seemed like the entirety of London was there — they’d descended upon the great green expanse with everyone they knew. Women in quilted hunting jackets and knee-high Hunter boots plodded through the tall grass with their mud-covered hounds. An ice cream van had parked on Broad Walk, in front of Kensington Palace, and little children queued patiently — ever so British. Cyclists lazed through the crowds, seemingly trying to lengthen their commutes and thus their time in the sun. Laughter was everywhere, floating through the kite-filled air.
We exited the park onto Kensington High Street — and took a quick spin through Whole Foods, Mark’s old grocery store of choice. “No wonder you were always broke,” I muttered to him upon inspection of the price tags. A boule of French bread was £8.99. That wouldn’t have been a terrible price in the US if in dollars, but when you convert the pounds and figure out it’s actually something closer to $13… It was a little eye-watering, truthfully. We exited, boule-less, back onto the street and ducked into COS for a browse — we ended up leaving with a copy of The Modern House, a book by the London estate agents of the same name.
Then, down the block to the Design Museum.
The museum sits in a renovated 60s-era building — the former Commonwealth Institute — surrounded by three flat-as-flat-can-be OMA-designed apartment buildings (built to fund the expansion and renovation of the CI building). We walked underneath the first apartment building towards the entrance, and into the main structure. What hit me first was how …schlocky everything was. The exterior curtain wall was cheap and unarticulated. The massive John Pawson-designed, oak-clad interior atrium was too big, and only served as a waiting area for the ticketed exhibition space crammed into the lower floor. The museum is “freemium” — meaning that they have one static exhibit open for free, and then they sell expensive tickets to the traveling shows that come and go. We weren’t really interested in seeing either of them — and the only interesting bit of the static exhibit was displayed in the atrium. It was a massive vitrine, filled with favorite objects picked by designers from across the globe.
We sat on one of the slick oak benches in the atrium, simultaneously up-lit and down-lit by too many LED strips. The atrium was crammed, full of people visiting the Ferrari exhibit in the paid halls below. Giant advertisements were everywhere. It felt bought-and-sold, design-on-a-dime. Too many people in the kitchen, perhaps? I think even Lord Foster had a say in it.
We made our way upstairs to Parabola, the in-situ cafe designed by Barber Osgerby. This was a welcome respite — indigo-dyed oak furniture, dark British racing green velvet, fluorescent floral arrangements. We sat in a booth on the edge and peered out over the ugly apartment buildings over tea. It was almost perfect — but why-oh-why couldn’t I see the namesake exposed roof within the cafe itself? Why drop a white soffit below the entire thing? Why hide the most singularly beautiful piece of the entire building from a spatial moment that could have celebrated it even further? Why wasn’t I thrust further towards it, a few stair treads up into its folds? Such a shame, truly. We spent a while positing why — HVAC requirements? Code? Falling debris? Exhausted, we paid and left — with a short dally into the gift shop. And there, too, sameness reigned. Posters of Ferraris from the current exhibition sat next to the standard museum gift shop selection from Seletti, HAY, Serax… Same, same, same. Why not keep the gift shop a pop-up, and staff it with the newest designers in town? Why not have more local craftspeople on display, literally and figuratively — like, have a London jewelry designer setting stones within a glass vitrine in the corner? Design is all about the craft — it’s not entirely about the shiny finished product. It’s also ever-changing, ever-shifting — how does this static oak-and-cheap-glass box demonstrate that?
We walked back out to the street, exhausted with questions. We lollygagged around the entrance, where the flag court used to be — all of the nations of the Commonwealth were now shown with metal type inset into granite pavers.
“Oh, lovely.” I remarked, pointing with my shoe. “They’ve used Arial.” Arial?! At the Design Museum?! It should be Helvetica, or Gill Sans, or… Futura. Like the next nation over. Two different fonts, one installation, at the bloody Design Museum. I rolled my eyes, and we left in a hurry.
The V&A was our next destination — just over a one-and-a-half mile walk. We were getting tired, and it took us longer than it usually would.
We wandered into the new Exhibition Road entrance, designed by Amanda Levete. Here, new collides with old — the new shiny, sinuous marble and steel against the formal brick and stone of old. Etched marble tiles transform into walls and stairs, and merge with the steel and smoked glass skylights bringing light to the galleries below. Levete’s Futurism isn’t one of my favorite styles — but it worked out fairly well here. The New was subordinate to the Old, revealing pieces of the ancient façades once not visible, and respecting the latter’s scale and pattern. One particularly cute moment was the mosaic floors in the entrance hall — the traditional, existing patterns merged into the new, triangular pattern in exactly-matching tones. We wandered about and found the black, snake-like staircases into the new lower levels. I was entranced by the matte and gloss black paint scheme and stood on the descent for when felt like hours, trying to capture the difference in sheen. We wandered through the gift shop, and found our way up into the tiny 20th-century gallery, just a few small rooms packed with some of the greatest moments in design history. We were transfixed by a rust-colored Atollo lamp by Vico Magistretti — a classic in a long-lost color way that we now desperately needed. As the tannoy echoed with the upcoming closing time, we made our way through the massive bookshop, elbow to elbow with masses upon masses. We glanced at each other again, as before at Portobello Road, and walked back out onto the street, towards Hyde Park, towards the hotel.
A quick pit stop at the hotel, then a stop at Waitrose for more snacks, then back at the hotel to get ready for dinner — and then a Tube ride to Liverpool Street. We walked up Liverpool, into Boundary Passage — right by our old Shoreditch haunts. Then around the circular Boundary Gardens, behind a locked gate, and into the garden at Rochelle Canteen.
We entered the canteen, and we shown our seats at the end of a long table. We disrobed akwardly before sitting, ditching our layers of coats and vests onto the backs of our chairs. The atmosphere was incredibly cozy — everything was white, and lit by candle-light. The kitchen was just opposite us, and we kept staring into it as our waitress slipped the night’s menus onto our table. It was a solidly British menu, but very nouveau at the very same time.
Bread, olives, duck liver pâté with prunes, roast pigeon with turnip tops and potato, ox tail with mash and horseradish, many glasses of red wine.
We sat next to a trio — two women, one man. One of the women and the man were British, the other woman French. The man was camp, to the point of comedy. “Girl!” and “Bitch please!” echoed off of the steel roof of the canteen. It was one of those scenarios where your own conversation dims to a glimmer so you can overhear the entirety of your neighbor’s. They were in fashion, surely — and after some surreptitious Google sleuthing, we figured out he worked for J.W. Anderson. As in, J.W. himself. Apparently, he had worked for Prada forever, under the famous stylist Manuela Pavesi (“Manuela was such a crazy bitch, but I loved her…”). J.W. was sixteen, and looking for a fashion job. Manuela had been obsessed with high-low fashion, and when gifted an interview with her by our tablemate, J.W. wore his pyjamas. And then fashion history was made — as he’s now a thirty-something multi-millionaire creative director of his own house and that of Loewe. “He just loves you,” our tablemate crooned at the French woman, a model visiting from Paris. “Should you ever want for anything, a dress, a ticket to a show, anything — Jonathan would love to help you.” He rose to visit the restroom, and the model asked the British woman why he hadn’t ordered food. “Oh, he only eats solid food one day a week, love. Lives on soup. That’s how he keeps his figure!” Mark and I almost burst out laughing, over our luxurious and certainly solid meal.
We settled up and made our way through the garden, back out onto the streets and towards the Tube. We were excited to get back to the hotel — to the defined confines of our cozy room, to Midsomer Murders marathon on TV, to the sparkling water and caramel wafers waiting in the fridge, to the marble shower, to the crisp white sheets on the bed.
Tonkotsu — 7 Blenheim Crescent — Ladbroke Grove
Trellick Tower — Golborne Road — Westbourne Park
Rochelle Canteen — 10 Princelet Street — Old Street