Once upon a time the pubs on Portobello Road in London’s Notting Hill were blinding.
Now they’ve been immortalized by an expert, an old regular, Ray Roughler Jones, who was sober enough to photograph its golden age of drunkenness for 3000 Hangovers Later: Photos of The Warwick Castle and Portobello in the 1980s. The photographs, plentiful and grotesque, hark back to a time when the fights were dirty but the pint glasses were always clean.
Before Eighties gentrification, and the ethnic vacuuming of the local Afro-Caribbean community, Portobello was an alcoholic oasis of greasy spoons, West Indian barbershops and beaten up Victorian pubs where, as Roughler Jones puts it, “Lords and bores rubbed shoulders with the pride of London’s building sites.”
He gets it like I remember it. If you wanted to whack Damon Albarn with a skateboard (or scoff a ham and cheese toastie), you drank at the Portobello Star. If you were into watching Chris Evans play a fruit machine with his sidekick from TFI Friday, you drowned your sorrows in the Finch’s (Evans was later pelted with Ginger Nut biscuits by a regular and never returned). If you wanted to score weed or hash, you went to Sledge and the rent-a-dread bombaklats of the Golden Cross or the Colville.
But if you were after sniff, or some funny pills, you took your chances at the Warwick Castle, arguably the roughest and toughest pub on the lane. With its frosted opaque windows, drab grubby décor, sunburst Formica tables, tin ashtrays brimming with cigarette butts, Xmas tinsel hanging from the flock papered walls well into summertime, horse racing blaring on the elevated 1981 television set and local barrow boys plotting to rob the takings of the local Tesco supermarket full volume at the bar counter, the Warwick was a pub of vintage character and characters.
Its location remains significant, too. Sitting on the corner of Portobello and Westbourne Park Road, the Warwick is directly opposite the infamous “blue door house” from the 1999 film Notting Hill. The pub looks pretty sedate on the outside now, but, not so long ago, it was heaving with “vagabonds, trustafarians, rogues, up-themselves bores, tea-leaves, hustlers, minor crap pop stars, underwater poets, idlers, ne’er-do-wells, roughians, toffs, anarchists and taffs”. I should know. I think I was one of them.
Kids, like me, were always coming down to learn about real London life at pubs like the Warwick. Sometimes they were chatted up. Sometimes they got beats. Jones has a lovely anecdote in his book concerning “John the Pipe” the “pub sage and rocking horse maker”. One day a lovely young girl sat at his table. They passed the time of day for a few moments before he asked her name. “Laura De La Mare,” she replied. “That’s not a name,” he said. “That’s a poem.”
Really there should be only one class of person in an English pub, and poshos were not always made so welcome at the Warwick. When an open topped Mercedes Benz full of trustafarians pulled up outside in the summertime, old boys (and girls) from Holland Park Comprehensive booted the pricey motor and soaked them with beer, shouting: “Hey fuckos! Get out of my area!”
Wanky celeb sightings came extra. And it wouldn’t be strange to see guitar heroes like Joe Strummer and Mick Jones from the Clash propping up the bar until last orders. Some rock legends, however, were not so keen on the joint. Jones recounts the time Elvis Costello dropped in for a pint back in the Eighties. Costello didn’t stay for long. “He hadn’t been inside for two minutes when a fight broke out, which sent him and a lady friend scuttling through the exit.”
However, the threat of physical violence didn’t put all of them off. Many drug crazed pop stars, destroyed by early fame and second album writer’s block, haunted the pub looking for a fix or a friend. Justine from Elastica, Loz from Kingmaker, Johnny from Republica, Ben from Curiosity Killed the Cat to name but a few. Rich, famous and beautiful, they were often mocked by pissed up barrow boys and traders from the local market. “Isn’t that so-and-so who had two number ones, three number twos and one number three? Oi mate, when are you gonna have another number one?”
That’s probably one reason why police raids were a regular occurrence at the Warwick. And, surprise surprise, they were always drugs related. I once exited the pub on Westbourne Park Road as a battalion of cops from Notting Hill nick bust in through the side entrance on Portobello Road (phew). And the Warwick played a part in many local murders including the death of the brother of Olympic sprinter Linford Christie, and a dirty assed drug dealer gunned down for selling tree bark wrapped in cling film once too often. The case is still unsolved.
Alas, poor Warwick the local is no more. All of the pubs in Notting Hill have had a 21 Century makeover and the Warwick is now simply known as “The Castle”. “It’s all gone to hell in a handcart,” says Jones with an expert’s authority. There’s no happy ending in 3000 Hangovers Later but at least somebody spray painted anarchy symbols on the white-pillared porch of “the blue door house” from that God-awful Notting Hill movie. That’s some consolation.
3000 Hangovers Later is available now from Amazon and local W11 bookshops