If you are new to London, don’t bother with an expensive sightseeing tour bus unless you like an open top in the rain and commentary in 12 languages. Just take the number 11 bus. I would get on it near Manresa Road on King’s Road and it would take me eastwards towards Victoria and thence to the City. It would pass Sloane Square, Victoria, Westminster, Trafalgar Square, The Strand, Fleet Street and the Bank. Get off anywhere and within a short walk you will find most of London’s worthwhile sights.
Although I would arrive at South Kensington station in the morning and walk to college, the most useful bus was the number 11. It would take me to cinemas, clubs, demonstrations, galleries; or I could simply stay on until the terminus at Liverpool Street and take in the sights.
That is, if I wanted to escape from King’s Road. In 1967 it was the epitome of swinging London with new boutiques pioneered by Mary Quant and others, bars and clubs frequented by pop stars, lurid colour schemes applied to both buildings and vehicles, and bright young things in their mini-skirts and paisley shirts.
Of course, I quite liked it. The vibrancy, the music that blared from shops, cars treated as art objects with two fingers in the face of stuffy 1950s London. Here I was in a place that seemed unique and promised to be the centre of a new expanding universe providing what some of us young people wanted.
It might have looked wildly chaotic to the staid observer but it was really not much more than a fashion statement, however revolutionary the mini-skirt and psychedelic colours appeared. The celebrities were pop stars or the entrepreneurs themselves such as Mary Quant and Alvaro Maccioni the restaurant owner.
There were some attempts to show that this was a dangerous place; but King’s Road was no Haight-Ashbury with its free love and drug-taking. I recall a popular sensationalist magazine called Titbits which asked the question ‘Are our girls in danger in swinging Chelsea?’. This headline was above a picture of a group of young women walking down King’s Road arm-in-arm. They need not have worried. These women were all known to me as fellow students and with their knee-length tweed skirts and sensible shoes they were completely incorruptible. King’s Road, with its new shops and restaurants patronised by some of the better-off was something of a breath of fresh air in a London still showing the scars of the Blitz, dirty buildings and grey streets. I had to go to Soho or Covent Garden (still a vegetable market) or the East End to find the darker places where there might be danger.
Not that I could actually go to many places in King’s Road. As a penniless student I could not afford the entry fee or the price of drinks and I knew no-one who could introduce me. Fortunately, there was a new concrete shopping centre called King’s Walk with a Boots and a supermarket where I could buy my essentials. The places I could afford were the Picasso Café where I ate my first proper spaghetti and the Six Bells which served ghastly Watney’s keg beer; I was forced to drink bottled brown ale. I chose this pub because Dylan Thomas had been a regular and they had jazz upstairs on Fridays; this was old bohemian Chelsea. I could buy a meal at The Chelsea Kitchen or The Stockpot. It was free to go into Gandalf’s Garden where you could lounge on large cushions and drink herbal tea. Late at night you could have tea and a sausage sandwich at a stall in Sloane Square; this is where I witnessed the cliched conjunction of a man in evening dress, a drunk, and a ragged homeless man all together at 2am one morning.
In the evening, I would meander back through the streets of South Kensington and take the Piccadilly Line back to Turnham Green and unremarkable Acton.
© Derek Perry 2017