A very short and nostalgic walk around South Kensington

Yesterday we had to go to South Kensington because my husband needed to have his eyes tested. It was his first train trip (my second) since lockdown started, so a very exciting if somewhat nervous undertaking. As it happened, everything went very smoothly – very few people anywhere, and most of those wearing masks. Uncomfortable, ungainly and unattractive but the law is the law. Or so you would think. The few people who managed to wear them inadequately or not at all made my hackles rise. It was as much as I could do not to call the guards – “Off with their heads, if they can’t be bothered to cover up”. I know, I know, some people are exempt.. but these….? Anyway, I managed to contain my fury and deposited my husband at the optician’s -Joy – what a lovely name, which just happens to be situated on the ground floor of the building where I used to live from 1959 to 1974. Egerton Court. I’ve written bits about it before. But yesterday I thought I’d take a few snaps, especially of things and places that were actually there during my teenagerdom.

I must admit, I thought there would be a lot more.

A very short and nostalgic walk around South Kensington

Starting in the arcade at South Kensington I looked around for some direct memories of the past. I used to spend a lot of time here, waiting for parents when I was smaller, or friends when I was older or dates when older still. I had plenty of time to memorise all the shops. So – no Alice’s Flowers wehre I bought my mother mother’s day flowers, no newsagent on the corner, nor newpaper man at the pillar – five Sunday papers – the week taken care of – with the Sunday Times, Sunday Telegraph, News of the World, (knickers and vicars) Observer and Express. Quite an armful to carry home. (I’d be sent with a pound, still in my pyjamas and an over coat) but no more. The carpet shop sign is still there, but an indifferent pharmacy inside.

There was an optician’s there when I was small. Just not this one.

Outside I crossed the road and took in the view. You can still see the Natural History Museum from this point. What a relief. Apparently not for long now because TFL wants to change the whole aspect of the area. But that’s another story.

Meanwhile the Nat West bank is still there. It had a differnet name then, I believe. They once provided my stepfather with a little moneysack full of 80 many sided thruppenny bits. A whole pound. A present for me. I was about eight at the time I think and ever so excited. The money bag was sweet, but the contents even sweeter. I can’t remember what I actually spent it on – I had to go to the bank to change some of them into bigger coins – but the dilemma of keeping and saving, or changing and spending….. I believe the latter won.

Next I crossed the road by the taxi rank in the middle of Harrington Road. That was always there. We used it a lot! And here is the entrance of Egerton Court. It looks quite posh now. It didn’t then. It certainly didn’t have a chandelier inside. Just some dingy lamps and an ancient Victorian lift, made famous by Roman Polanski in his film Repulsion. I remember Catherine Deneuve and Sharon Tate, when they were filming. But yesterday I didn’t peer inside to see if the lift is still there. Next time perhaps.

I then decided to go for a walk round the block. I went left out of Egerton Court along Harrington Road. Where was Mascalls, the record shop? Gone. Where was the cigarette shop where my mother used to send me with a letter in an envelope for the manager, so I could buy her cigarettes? Gone. Where was the leweller etc, etc? All gone. Except for the French bookshop. Here it is, all tarted up. It used to be just the Librairie Francaise. Very useful for French paperback classics when I was doing French A level. I don’t know why but French books at the time were all printed on really shoddy paper. I don’t know if this was still wartime surplus stock, or what , but there wasn’t much pleasure to be had in the handling of French texts. Paper stock for English books was quite different – and better – by the sixties.

I also liked to go in because there was a very pleasant young man serving in this shop. I am sure he was totally unaware of his charms as I and my giggling friends would go in and pretend to look at the books in the hope that he would ask if he could help us. I don’t think he ever did, just leaving us to our own disappointed devices.

Across the road – the Ampersand Hotel. New name, same old building, the Norfolk Hotel. You can just about make out the old sign. Whne I was about ten my father inadvertently left me outside Egerton Court when the front door was locked. This had never happened before. My mother was frantic, waiting for me on the fourth floor – it was Christmas Day. I could not get in. I panicked – no mobile phones, streets totally empty. Then I had a brainwave. The Norfolk hotel would have a telephone. I very gingerly crossed the road – I’d never done that before by myself – and walked in and promptly burst into tears. Anyway – all’s well tht ends well and I was soon reunited with my mother.

But the hotel holds a special place in my heart. It’s a wonder they haven’t put a blue plaque up to mark the occasion!

I went there last year to go to the loo, but there was no sign of the past. The receptionist didn’t even know it has been the Norfolk Hotel, let alone that there had been such a lifesaving circumstance there!

On I walked. A green grocer’s… used to be Buy Right, but now frenchified. It was however always full of quite unusual things. The only place I ever saw avocados, melons, mangos and aubergines. These were not ordinary vegetables in England at the time. My aunt had been abroad several times, so we had ratatouille. And very exotic it was too.

A very dramatic and romantic street plate. My mother had wanted me to go to Glendower School but the uniform was a hideous purple and I had a tantrum Luckily the fees were too high, and so I went to the local primary instead. Marlborough School., which I loved. That building has gone recently too, sadly.

So on to Bute Street. Still one of my favourite streets in London though it has changed more than considerably. On the corner on the right used to be a cafe called Mardi Gras. When we were asked at school if we knew what Mardi Gras was I answered quite confidently – a cafe on the corner of Bute Street. Of course I knew.

It was a very unusual sort of place because it had outside seating. This was almost unheard of in London at the time. It was considered very continental when that word could be quite pejorative. But they also had water ices – lemon and raspberry which I had not tasted anywhere else. i can still recall the flavour and texture now. A veritable madeleine moment.

Next to this cafe was a delicatessen. Not necessarily this one, but at least the tradition remains. Here you could get, apart from delicious salamis, things like coffee beans in chocolate,or ants in chocolate,or orange peel in chocolate. None of which I particularly enjoyed, but it was worth knowing about, just to be diffeernt. There was a butchers next door and opposite, sadly no longer there.

My favourite shop was called India Craft, which sold all things Indian to tourists and me. The lady who ran it became a sort of fairy godmother to me. I can visualise her perfectly. Middle aged, elegant and the kindest smile. Whenever my stepfather and I went shopping in Bute Street – pre supermakrket days – he would leave me in Indiacraft to look at the baubles and talk to the lady while he did the heavy work. I used to love it in there. The bangles were very colourful and cheap, the wooden animals were very playable with, and the silverware was gorgeous. It was a great source of Christmas and birthday presents and I still have one or two artefacts from that time. My biggest desire however was to own a sari. They were absolutely beautiful – all shimmering silks with beautifully painted borders in exquisite jewel colours. I would ask to look at them and if she had time – and usually she did, the lady would lay them out for me to admire. One day she even let me try one on, showing me exactly how to fold it and tie it about my pudgy little body. I was in heaven.

I associated this lady entirely with the shop of course. I did not imagine her having a life outside. One evening I was extremely surprised to find her in Choys Chinese Restaurant in the Kings Road the same time as we were there. My mouth must have fallen open, because I remember she very kindly smiled and then introduced me to her husband. I must have been eleven or telve with no social graces whatsoever. But she was still always nice to me in the shop. But then it closed

I took this photo because it is something quite new. I also thought the picture of the little girl is quite sweet.

Going the length of Bute Street made me think of the Express Dairy – there no more and of the Priest who married my parents – Ksiadz Adam Wrobel. He lived in a flat with his little yappy lapdogs. He was upset when I didn’t want him to conduct my wedding. I can see why, now, but at the time I thought he was too old. He had also been my husband’s grandmother’s Parish priest in Romanowka in Poland before the war. He really was quite ancient! But he had a nice address. The other famous perosn – if you are Polish and of a certain age, who lived in Bute Street was Zosia Terne, a diminutive singer who survived Siberia and was much admired. Few of her contemporaries are still alive, but she had a very high little girl voice as I remember – just right for the hits of the thirties!

The Zetland Arms. Always here. I’ve only been inside once as an adult, and nothing to report. However it was the favourite haunt of Jean Rhys, of Wild Sargasso Sea fame, who spent many of her waking hours here apparently.

I’ve turned back into Old Brompton Road now and crossing Glendower Street again. Here is one of the first Indian Restaurants in this part of London. I notice they still only have four stars for hygiene. A pity. The food used to be abosolutely delicious – it was a real treat to go there, though all sorts of unfortunate rumours went round about what they served. Didn’t seem to do them any harm, though.

Across the road. The post office. Recently closed as you can see. I used to go there to buy my savings stamps with the picture of Princess Anne on them. Today is her seventieth birthday. I wonder if she ever collected them?

To the left is Rene Aubrey hairdressers. Now they were there always. That is where I had my hair done on my wedding day. Ionly chose to tell them I was getting married as I left the establishment. There was an outcry. I should have told them – brought my head dress – etc, etc. On reflection I should have done, as in the end a friend of mine sewed my head dress into my hair. It was quite a palaver trying to take it off without creating a bald patch!

Next to it Harleys. Im sure that was a dress shop, but maybe not. Tthe name is familiar, however.

The Royal Bank of Scotland. Much in the news. When I was small it was Williams Deacon’s Bank Ltd and had a very elegant logo. This was the bank I was going to use when I grew up. And so it came to pass. I went to Sheffield University and there was a lovely branch of Williams and Glyn’ s (by then)round the corner from my hall of residence. I took in my grant cheque – yes – grant – and deposited it after a long chat with the manager. Real personal service, which continued for many years even after I moved to London. I would phone the branch and ask them to describe the changing view outside – they always obliged. No I didn’t phone them specifically to chat, but all business, loans mortgages etc was conducted over the phone, with the manager.

When we wanted to buy a house in Ealing for £17,000 which had no roof, electricity, bathroom or kitchen, the manager in Sheffield told me I could have a five bedroomed completed house fot that money in Sheffield. He was not willing to lend us the money for a ruin! But he let us down nicely. But that branch has gone too.

Owens cars. Always there. Who on earth buys them?

And the last port of call. Gallops Luggage. They also used to be a cobblers so we patronised them a lot. Next door there was a harp and piano repair shop and I seem to remember a shop with a crinoline /wedding dress in the window. What happened to them I wonder?

There would have been more but luckily for you the battery ran out on my phone.

This was a very short round trip , just two blocks, but so little has remained.

I can’t of course remember everything there had been, but Erna Low, for Sun and Snow, the travel agent, is no longer around, nor Bistro Vino, nor the bakers in Bute Street which sold the most delicious danish pastries and brioches.

Now apparently everything is going to be rebuilt anyway, so next time I do a little walk of remembrance like this it will be to the right of the station, round Thurloe Square and thereabouts.

Please let me know if you remember any of these or other local places. other comments/ questions equally welcome!

6 comments on “A very short and nostalgic walk around South Kensington

  1. I have stayed in South Kensington twice now when visiting London. My friends I travel with stay at the Ampersand. A bit too rich for me, I stay at the Edwardian Vanderbilt. But we met for tea at The Ampersand and it was very nice. I love that neighborhood. I was supposed to go back in May, but everything changed this year.

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    • Thanks so much for this, Basia. As you know, I now live in Onslow Square and loved your trip down memory lane, which opened my eyes to how this area was not all that long ago.
      I also came here in the ’60s and ’70s, mainly for the Proms of course – when will I be able to do that again – and passed through daily on the 14 bus when I lived in Putney and worked in Leicester Square and Covent Garden, not dreaming for one moment that I’d ever live round here! Next time you are in SW7, let me know and you’d be welcome to drop in for a (socially distanced) tea/coffee.

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