This following is adapted from a piece I penned purely for my own amusement in early 2009. A recent return visit to the place in question suggests that it is still a reasonable reflection and I hope it will be the first in a sporadic series of odes to the less celebrated corners of London.
Thornton Heath, on the northern fringes of the London Borough of Croydon is a land that seems little touched by recent decades. Out of the station you step onto a busy road that on first glance is devoid of charm. There are no nice restaurants or shops in sight, the architecture is forgettable and the street-life is seedy without the mitigating vibrancy of Brixton, Peckham or Dalston. Across the road is an infinitely drab Wetherspoons, the Flora Sandes, named after the only British woman who officially served as a solider in World War I. Peer inside and the likelihood is a row will be breaking out between a couple of Caribbean men, ignored by the old Indian crosspatches who drink in silence, enervated by the demands of South London life. In the mornings, belligerent English alcoholics sit joylessly with their pints outside so they can smoke.
But resist the urge to turn back into the station: give the place a chance. With years of intimate acquaintance you might even come to love it. The classic South London hallmarks are all here – tiny jerk chicken emporia presided over by affable mommas; insalubrious kebab joints whose Turkish and Afghan staff produce minor miracles out of all proportion to their bargain prices; halal butchers which have Pakistani names and play Indian music; greasy spoons such as the Brigstock Café where a charming family of Copts serve (arguably) the best bacon in London. And everywhere you will find outlets for the beautification of Afro-Caribbean womanhood – nail parlours, wig shops, make-up salons, the works.
This is a corner of London untroubled by Starbucks, although it boasts a large Tesco, and Subway made it in in mid-2007. I can’t imagine anybody campaigned against either of these in a bid to keep Thornton Heath local. The poshest joint in town is generic Mediterranean and serves meze at passable prices. Perhaps the most famous local amenity, other than the charming 1900 clock-tower, is the Leisure Centure, whose much-loved swimming pool appears to act as a focal point for the community. All are welcome here, from doggy-paddling Punjabi matriarchs to voluminous Jamaicans who bob and sway in the name of exercise to some anodyne derivative of reggae, their efforts magnified in waves across the pool.
Any timelessness you sense is probably an illusion. The leisure centre, for example, only dates from 2004, and required the demolition of an earlier public bathhouse built in the suburb’s Victorian heyday. Indeed, in the late 19th century Thornton Heath was quite something, jolted out of rural anonymity by the arrival of the railway. There was a cinema, plenty of pubs and a bustling parade of shops serving the area’s respectably middle-class residents. But a combination of time and urban development has not been kind. The cinema has long since gone, the pubs are down-at-heel and today’s shops are of a kind that, as a friend once described it “could only survive in South London.” The once-famous Thornton Heath Pond was drained in the 1950’s to make way for a roundabout.
The respectable middle-classes, meanwhile, have by and large upped sticks and made way for a motley snapshot of London’s human tapestry: impeccably upright Caribbean grandmothers and their hooded adolescent grandsons; rambunctious Nigerian taxi drivers; shy Tamils hurrying to the “Ghanapati Temple”; Pakistanis and Kashmiris selling meat, fish and veg; East African Indians such as sweet-natured Surinder from the sandwich shop who calls himself “David”; and, judging by their garb, even the odd Wahhabi hanging about outside the Islamic Centre.
On deeper acquaintance you discover gems, of course. There is a peaceful wooded park on top of a hill, while the Jam Rock café serves an excellent goat curry and the beer garden of the Railway Pub is a fine enough spot for a summer evening. Even the godawful Wetherspoons which, being on the ground floor of the block that used to house my office, claimed more than its fair share of my Friday evenings, turned out in retrospect to be a rich den of humanity compared to the dismal blandness of the successor we appointed when we relocated to East Croydon. A recent reunion there with ex-colleagues reacquainted us with the advantages of good, cheap beer and a spacious saloon bar.
In all, though, not much seems to happen here. Granted you see the occasional police drug search and on some days an Evangelist comes to harangue her fellow sinners while the legless man effs and blinds in his wheelchair over a can of Old Speckled Hen, but mostly you have the sense of a neglected, but oddly content little community lost between London and Croydon. There is no real sign of gentrification – it’s not going the way of Brixton any time soon, let alone Shoreditch – too much effort, and who’d come anyway? For now, I like it like it is.