Another year, another roll call of cultural anniversaries to make us all feel ancient: Notting Hill is now 20 years old. Two decades have passed since the story of William Thacker and his unlikely romance with movie star Anna Scott. Twenty years since it cemented screenwriter Richard Curtis' status as rom-com laureate for the nation, and since we all learned that fame is no match for true love, that fruitarians need love too, and that happiness isn’t happiness without a violin-playing goat.
While the film might have given foppish boys the land over false hope about their potential to seduce Hollywood starlets by stammering a lot, it gave pining provincial tweens like me a whole other kind of unachievable crush – on London. Or at least, on the London of the film. Which isn’t, as we all know now, Actual London.
No, the London in the film is a whimsical snapshot of a fictional, quaintly pre-millennial London where men who run failing bookshops can afford to own houses off Portobello Road and pretend to be shabby bohemians. A time before oat milk and homogenous coffee chains, when a cappuccino was considered the height of sophistication and people still bought orange juice from cafés in polystyrene cups. When people walked around their "small village in the middle of the city" with armfuls of flowers, knew every greengrocer and bartender by name, and everybody they knew lived no further away than the duration of one Al Green song.
Even now, having lived in the capital for 13 years, I notice the lingering pangs of what I like to call "Richard Curtis complex". The feeling that I’m not a legit Londoner unless I attend twice-weekly dinner parties in enormous Georgian townhouses with stripped floorboards, abstract art and twinkly, fairy-lit roof terraces. Any time I try to engineer a situation where I affectionately insult my friends over a recipe from the River Café Cookbook, it is my Richard Curtis complex talking.
But most unignorably, Notting Hill the film is an unforgivably whitewashed vision of Notting Hill the place – one in which people of colour are all but erased, relegated to the sidelines as extras in a film about an area built on and defined by its ethnic diversity. While 20 years of hindsight have made this Caucasian close-up all the more stark, audiences weren't buying it in 1999 either. "This mythological city most certainly ain't the London, or the Notting Hill, that I know," wrote author Ferdinand Dennis, who was born in Jamaica but grew up in the area, at the time of release. "It is unfortunate and perhaps unpardonable that Notting Hill, the film, has chosen to ignore the area's rich tapestry of cultures." A decade later, Curtis helped a group of local school pupils make a documentary about the "real" Notting Hill, admitting he was "asking for trouble" with his homogenous take on the neighbourhood.
If it were made today the film would probably be called Forest Hill, or Walthamstow No Not The Posh Bit. But whether or not the film depicted London life accurately (not), or did Notting Hill justice (seriously, not a single reference to Carnival?), it's now undeniably part of the UK’s cultural and geographical lexicon. Portobello Road remains one of the country’s busiest tourist attractions, and they can’t all be there because of Bedknobs and Broomsticks.
So, two decades later, just how much has Notting Hill changed? Is it possible to recreate this fictional romance in 2019 – and would we even want to? I donned my best beret and took my complex to W11 to find out what had become of the famous locations from the film.
Because really, I’m just a girl, standing in front of a blue door, asking a passing tourist to please take her photo.
The house with the blue door
Sad news: The interior of William’s house, which several film blogs have the nerve to call a "run-down bedsit" as though it weren’t my thirtysomething dream home (those white brick walls! That glass-roofed kitchen!), was actually a film set at Shepperton Studios. But the iconic blue door was real, and attached to Richard Curtis’ home at the time – a three-bedroom church conversion reportedly valued at £5 million today. The original door was sold at auction but the owners have generously replaced it with an almost identical blue door, which currently has a 3.7* rating on Google (sample reviews: "The door was damaged and appeared to have a tag on it"; "Nice experience, funny").
Pitch up on any given day and you’ll find a smattering of tourists outside, taking it in turns to do their "nice firm buttocks" pose for the imaginary paparazzi – much to the chagrin of the builders currently working inside, who are obliged to time their activities with everyone’s doorstep photo shoots.
Can I see behind the door, I ask them hopefully? No, comes the polite reply. I’m sorry if you’re here for more intrepid journalism, but this isn’t Horse & Hound.
While the market was a massive fixture of my early 20s, I haven’t been to Portobello Road since Hummingbird Bakery cupcakes stopped being enough enticement to get on the Central line. And as the city’s gravitational centre of cool lurched east and south over the intervening decade, somehow I forgot how undeniably special it is. Even now, even in the steaming July drizzle, even while your face is being slammed into a tourist’s sweaty torso by somebody else’s backpack. Portobello Road, just like Camden Market and Brick Lane and the South Bank and even Piccadilly Circus at a push, is one of those uniquely charming places that jaded Londoners would do well to remember we’re lucky to have. There’s a reason it’s rammo with people: it’s nice here.
Of course, the appeal of those candy-painted cottages has only intensified with social media. And the market is different from the way it looked in William Thacker’s world – fewer cabbages, more knotted headbands, unauthorised Harry Potter merch and oozing brioche buns from Eggslut – but not so very different. Gentrified, yes, but still diverse, a joyful mishmash of culture and commerce; buskers and boutique charity shops and pricey antiques rubbing up against cheap souvenirs, vintage handbags and goth millinery. The weather is less changeable than it was in William’s famous mooch through the market to the strains of "Ain’t No Sunshine". But thanks to climate change, only just.
The real travel bookshop that inspired William’s business is now the Notting Hill Bookshop on Blenheim Crescent, every bit as coy and unassuming as its film double.
Sadly, the same can’t be said for the real shop used in the film, just around the corner, which is now a tourist tat shop called, helpfully, Notting Hill, with a whacking great poster of Julia Roberts in the window. Inside, among the Beefeater bottle openers and hoodies with I Love Scotland on them, you can buy fridge magnets depicting scenes from the movie. Which will throw any self-respecting fan into a meta frenzy because William’s shop wouldn’t sell fridge magnets with his own face on them, would it? RESPECT THE FOURTH WALL.
Bella and Max's house
Lower down on the tourist tick list, the site of Honey’s birthday dinner can be found on Lansdowne Road, one of the swooping crescents of huge, white wedding-cake-style houses a few streets east of Portobello Road. I would eat burnt guinea fowl every day if I got to spend time in a house like this. It makes Fleabag’s dad’s house look like a garden shed.
Despite being minutes away from the bustle of Ladbroke Grove, this is a neighbourhood that feels like a (Richard Curtis) film set. It’s full of blue plaques – writers, botanists, a chess champion – and small, intimidating shops selling things like wicker carpet beaters and a single espresso cup for £62. But most notably, these days, it’s full of influencers. You can barely cross the road without tripping over a millennial in a #gifted midi dress, dutiful photographer lying at their feet. Anna Scott could probably cruise by entirely unnoticed.
The best restaurant in London
Tony Crow’s failed bistro (guess you should have served more than just the one giant fish, mate) is now a greetings card and art supplies shop, on the corner of swishy Golborne Road. I call it swishy not just because everyone here has an impeccable blow dry, but also because it’s home to the nicest, cleanest underground public toilet I have ever had the pleasure of using. Had Anna known about the super loo, she could have cleaned up after orange-juice-gate without having to countenance a bumbling meet-cute with the berk who spilled it on her in the first place. But then it would have been a pretty short film.
If Tony wanted another bash at the restaurant trade now, he’d have stiff competition. Much-loved Nordic eatery Snaps + Rye is just up the road, as is Lisboa Patisserie, dispensers of the best custard tarts in London. Then there’s acclaimed 108 Garage, which is what I call a "comma restaurant" – the kind where all the dishes have names like "Tomato, lardo, whey".
Yet the hospitality industry is even less forgiving now than it was in 1999. Some 1,123 dining companies went bust in 2018 alone, and sky-high rates in central London are posing a challenge to a whole new generation of wannabe restaurateurs. I tell you what you don’t see enough on menus, though. Apricots soaked in honey.
Possibly the first clue for any uninitiated viewers that they weren’t watching a salt of the earth cockney rom-com, William and Anna famously break into one of the private parks that are locked to all but local residents – specifically Rosmead Garden, just behind Lansdowne Road. You can poke your nose through the gate easily enough, but reader, I did not hop the fence. This was partly due to fear of arrest, but mostly due to the fear that I might find Ronan Keating, singing on a bench.
The good news is that nosy plebs like us can gain access to the secret garden on one day a year, as part of London’s Open Garden Squares Weekend. The bad news is that it happened last month, so you’re going to need to wait until June 2020 to have your "whoops-a-daisy" moment.
Possibly nothing dates Notting Hill more firmly in the final sliver of the last century than the fact it features Nobu, a restaurant that for a long time was synonymous with understated, cosmopolitan cool. Even as a suburban 12-year-old I pined after the legendary black cod I kept reading about in magazine profiles with pop stars, imagining it to taste something like a charred fish finger.
Anyone hoping the glitzy Park Lane fusion restaurant might have fallen on hard times and started offering a lunchtime sashimi platter for £7.99 is going to be disappointed. Nobu is still, two decades on, spenny as anything. It also has 45 outposts across the world, so really no more exclusive than Pizza Express, plus it still serves endangered Atlantic bluefin tuna, which is not very hashtag-sustainable.
No, if Notting Hill were made in 2019, William and Anna would most likely be across the city at Brat, wolfing the whole turbot and a side of smoked potatoes while the sleazy bankers at the next table try to creepshot her on their iPhones. And in these post-#MeToo times, her "dicks the size of peanuts" speech would absolutely go viral.
And the rest…
William’s fateful local coffee shop appears to have had its own identity crisis – at one point a branch of Coffee Republic, it’s now called Coffeebello on the outside and Coffee Public (smooth) on the inside. They do sell cappuccinos but not, sadly, orange juice.
The Hampstead Heath stately home where Anna films her Henry James drama is, unsurprisingly, still there. Still big, still old. Still posh.
Aware of it, yes.
Still going strong, you’ll be relieved to know.