London Neighbourhoods 2: Great Suffolk Street

Borough is justly renowned across the world for its market, where a super-abundance of delights drain even the most assiduously-guarded wallets. Pigeon, partridge, camel and kangaroo – all there for the carnivorously-inclined, with over forty types of mustard to put on them, not to mention a multitude of spices, chillis, salts and chutneys. More varieties of cheeses than you can imagine fill up the stalls, and if you’ve got a sweet tooth you’ll find endless possibilities for satisfying it.

I lived in the area for four years and had a mixed relationship with the market, loving its produce but frequently a little daunted by the crowds it drew and happy to escape into the relative obscurity of non-market Borough. In the final year I lived ten minutes south, just off the grimy High Street in the middle of a community that I had never suspected of existing here: Great Suffolk Street. Although transient toe-dippers, we lived right in the thick of it, with our bedroom directly above a good old-fashioned butchers and the living room above a good old-fashioned café.

The latter, Terry’s, is the kind of place that cries out for the label “Institution” and its cheery awning beckons you in to a cosy space lined with old framed photos. The eponymous founder is no longer with us, but his son upholds the traditions of solid British food and a takes friendly interest in his customers. Breakfast ingredients are sourced from Smithfield and Borough Markets and are graded on the eye-stomach scale with names like “The Standard”, “The Blow-Out” and (replete with Cumberland sausage, egg, bacon, bubble and squeak, black pudding, beans, tomatoes and mushrooms) “The Works”. Outside, a coffee machine serving another Borough Market classic, Monmouth coffee, used to be operated by a prickly but gold-hearted Lithuanian until she left to work in a pub. Her lattes remain the best I’ve had in London.

Just opposite is Ollie’s, a chippie with the same enlightened attitude to portion size as Terry’s. Its hyperactive Turkish Cypriot owner shovels mountains of chips onto white paper and wraps them up with a mesmerising series of flicks and jerks. Two doors down is the marvellously-named Giggling Sausage café which loyalty to Terry’s prevented me from entering, and in an unintentional allegory, sandwiched between them, is a funeral parlour. I joked that Great Suffolk Street catered for our every need, even death. Shiny hearses were sometimes in evidence, although the best was saved until the day we moved out – a full-blown funeral procession for some local legend that paused outside Terry’s, which stood up en masse to the strains of Dixie on clarinet and guitar.

Next door to Terry’s on the other side of the butcher’s is a Turkish barber, Jeff’s, whose owner deftly flicks a lighted ball of cotton wool into his patrons’ ears, singeing any stray hairs. On my most recent visit he told me he was actually Kurdish and is proud of the fact that he has Turkish staff working for him! His father owns a greasy spoon, also Jeff’s, on nearby Webber Street. Another local business empire is the newsagent OL, run by friendly and unflappable Sri Lankan Tamils. I was surprised, recently, but happy to run into some of them in a corner shop they also own near Clapham Common.

Round the corner is a Homelessness Shelter specifically for people with mental health problems. Its residents are a familiar sight on the street, for the most part benign and a little eccentric although for a period the street’s calm would be shattered by a clearly troubled man who railed at the world at length, mostly in words of four letters. Other familiar street characters include a rueful old lady with dazzlingly colourful shoes, who once told me to enjoy my life because she no longer could. “I had friends once” she said with a sad smile. On Sundays, a number of Nigerian families head out for church, a glorious sight in their boubou and kaftan.

The street packs an extraordinary amount into this short stretch (it’s worth pointing out that north-west from here it extends up nearly as far as the river) and there are plenty more shops on the parade – a bakery-cum-deli called Mustard, an organic fruit shop, a betting shop, a tanning salon, a master locksmith and a florist. There is a pub called The Libertine which serves excellent pizzas but is too brightly lit, and I much prefer The Goldsmith round the corner. Just off the dense stretch of shops is a Chilean Café, El Vergel, which is pleasant and airy although it lacks the uniqueness that marks out Terry’s.

Having lived there for only a year I am under no illusions that we really joined the Great Suffolk Street community. Sure, I struck up some friendly acquaintanceships along the way, and had some excellent food and much-needed haircuts and peppered my banter with the odd word of Turkish or Tamil, but other than the “Where are you living now?” I’ve been greeted with on a few return visits, there is no indication our departure has left any dent in the street’s psyche. And why should it? My upstairs neighbour, in his own words, has lived on the street “for a very, very long time” although clearly not as long as Alfred Smith, the Funeral Director, which was established in 1881. And, as www.greatsuffolkstreet.co.uk points out, the “parade of independent, family-run shops has been serving the local community since the 1950s”. Long may it prosper.

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