…that’s how Kensington Park Hotel and its proprietor, Vince Power could be described. But the continued existence of this much-loved pub and music venue are under threat from the wave of gentrification sweeping West London.
Sitting in the KPH with my fellow Dandies early one morning was an experience not obtainable at Café Nero over the road. In the upstairs Grove Theatre, a sense of 150 years of history pervaded and stimulated conversations about life, politics, love, incarceration, slavery, music and more. By the time our host, Mr Power, arrived, we were fully absorbed by the ambience of the theatre’s vintage arm chairs, the old photographs and the Beethoven blasting out from the bar downstairs.
On that night was Plurabelles, a performance exploring the evocation of women in James Joyce’s writing, priced at £5. Coming soon might be a luxury penthouse flat for the rich, as speculators seek to acquire KPH and turn a quick profit.
Kensington and Chelsea council talks a good game about preserving the bohemian character of the area, but the council has stripped the KPH of its status as an “asset of community value” on the technicality that the title had been applied for by supporters of the pub, known as KPH United.
Power has found himself embattled. In court, the speculators SWA Developments, in the judge’s words, used the “kitchen sink method”, utilising every conceivable legal method and technicality, to try to force through the sale.
SWA now own the freehold, so KPH’s best hope for survival is to obtain listing as an English Heritage building. Power sees the best case scenario as the pub being bought by the community, which would keep the freehold safe. Without such a move, even if KPH survives in the short term, the speculators will start circling again soon enough.
Power’s legal battle has forced SWA to back down on its plans, revealed in court papers, to change the ground floor “from a public house to another commercial use” but of course this is no guarantee that what replaces the KPH will be anything other than more sanitary gentrification in an area fast losing its charm.
Sitting with him in the bar downstairs, it became clear that profit is not Power’s driving force. In fact, Power had the aura of a Laotian Buddhist monk, speaking with a knowing compassion that cut through ego and put his guests at ease.
As we sit, Power chats easily about politics, society, the local area and music. Having lived between Kilburn and Ladbroke Grove for 50 years, he believes passionately in the multi-cultural London that KPH is a part of. He stated “I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else in London. It’s this mix of people that gives children an understanding of their fellow human beings”.
As he held court, Power broke off now and again from the KPH story to make observations on politics or on passers-by. He seems to understand how all things are connected. At one point he stopped what he was saying and pointed at three women wearing hijabs over the road, holding an animated conversation as they rooted around in their handbags. “I bet those ladies have got some stories to tell” he says. He reflects on gentrification and the destruction of inclusive communities, drawing a straight line between a society in which some people have no sense of belonging and the decision of some Londoners to travel to Syria to join ISIS. And this connects to the UK’s planning laws, which he describes as “so wide that they’re written for the developer” with loopholes that allow investors to evade the building of social housing.
But Vince Power is no nostalgic romantic, he has made things happen throughout his career. The transformation of the KPH has been remarkable and he has balanced the need for change with preserving the pub’s inclusivity. Down the road is a mental health day care centre and Power is happy to welcome its patients for their lunchtime drink, unlike some local landlords. Prior to the KPH, Power made his name running the Mean Fiddler, Benicàssim among other festivals, as well as organising the Sex Pistols’ Finsbury Park reunion. Locally, Power had Subterranea and the Ion Bar, which is now Sainsburys Local.
KPH is a viable, profitable business with great potential. Unlike SWA’s plans for the building, it works. The only access to the rooms upstairs is through the pub, so how it can be changed in to flats while maintaining a public house downstairs is a mystery yet to be explained by the speculators.
The few remaining venues like KPH generate much of the interest in the area that attracts the tourists and investors. They represent the area’s last stand against the imposition of an arid future. The area’s qualities are traded on to make money, but once they’re gone, the value they provided will be gone too. In this way gentrification destroys the thing that was used to attract people in the first place.
By Tom Charles