London Neighbourhoods 3: Streatham

In 2002, BBC Radio 4 listeners voted Streatham High Road the worst street in Britain. Choking traffic, run-down shop fronts and violent crime were listed among its charms and the nation’s eyes rolled as its stereotypes of South London were upheld. I didn’t know this when I arrived in late 2007, although I was hardly bowled over at first. I wrote the place off as rather dowdy, full of traffic sounds and fumes, signifying very little. “It’s London’s answer to Sidwell Street” I remember telling my parents, referring to an unloved street in blitz-affected Exeter for which I nevertheless have a soft spot.

With time I put down the shallow kind of roots that are all a mid-20’s Londoner is typically capable of. I made friends with a Sri Lankan Tamil who ran a newsagent and urged me to get hitched – “Girlfriend life is happy life” were his exact words. I fell briefly in lust with an incompetent Afghan fruit-seller called Jihad before transferring my (ever unrequited) affections to an astonishingly beautiful Iraqi Kurd in an off-licence. I bought mushrooms from an old English couple at the Streatham Fruiterers, stationery from a lonely Ghanaian girl called Ekuya and jars of baby octopus at the Mediterranean Food Centre on the corner of Wyatt Park Road. I would occasionally have a Full English at the Café Vivaldi (Turkish-run, of course – you’d never catch English people serving an English breakfast in London) where a frumpy customer told me how she filled her days riding buses and making up jokes. “Dowdy” was upgraded to “Family-friendly community feeling” and traffic fumes were superseded in significance by pride at living – until 2010 – on the (self-proclaimed) longest High Street in Europe.

While the verdigris shoots of gentrification were in evidence – new bars and cafés continually sprouted up round Streatham Hill station – nothing prepared me for the discovery, from an ex-colleague, that decades ago Streatham had been the Knightsbridge of South London. The nation’s first supermarket (part of the Express Dairies group) opened in the early fifties, followed (unbelievable as it now seems) by the first large Waitrose. Internet nostalgia forums buzz with accounts of the Locarno nightclub that is apparently where Come Dancing (pre-Strictly) and Miss World were first filmed.

The epicentre of this douceur de vivre, however, was Pratt’s, a drapers-turned-department store that became part of the John Lewis partnership. A thriving café scene sprung up around Pratt’s, and wealthy residents (“lots of Jews” a hairdresser told me in a conspiratorial whisper) lived in the gorgeous red brick apartment blocks that line the street.

What happened next is one of those sad stories of urban decay. People moved out to Croydon and Sutton, the traffic volume picked up and everything spiralled downhill. Pratt’s closed in 1990 – I don’t know the full story but the hairdresser blamed Lambeth Council and told me with tears in her eyes about the death of the café life. Lambeth Council planners have since told me that, when consulting on the Streatham Masterplan, dozens of older Streathamites wrote in to say that all they cared about was bringing back Pratt’s. But Pratt’s is gone forever: even the building was demolished and replaced with a half-hearted attempt at architectural “sympathy” now occupied by an Argos, a Lidl and a Peacocks.

Today, though, Streatham seems to be on the up. On the stretch north of Streatham Hill station small boutiques and restaurants (including the marvellous Tapas Bar 61) hold their own among the chicken shops and betting shops. On nearby Leigham Court Road, Fish Tale, a fishmongers-cum-deli has been serving fresh octopus and walnut oil for the past five years. If that’s not to your taste you can brunch on Eggs Benedict in fancy new café-bars and then come back for White Russians in the evening, and if you want to really settle in, a rash of Estate Agents has sprung up to serve your needs.

Further down the road is something I’ve never come across before: a chain halal butchers. This is no scrappy open fronted affair with tinny Bollywood and a little Lebara phone stall at the front, such as are two a penny in Brixton and Peckham. Tariq Halal Meats is brightly lit, spotless and resounds with piped Qur’anic recitation. The man I spoke to in there (in Urdu, as he seemed unused to English) told me this outlet was only five months old, but that there are others in Ilford, Hounslow, Fulham and elsewhere. Lamb’s feet go for 70p, and there are also tastefully displayed delicacies such as ginger-and-lime chicken and smoked guinea fowl.

What struck me on my most recent visit to Streatham was how there seemed to be more of everything. More Polski sklep (Polish shops) including Bartek Express, which appears to be modelled on Tesco Express, even down to the font used for “express” on the sign, although the chicken gizzards and kielbasa inside suggest otherwise. More Somali restaurants on the “Little Mogadishu” stretch down the hill towards Streatham Station, which also has dahabshiil money transfer outlets and the Al Jazeera East African café. More fairtrade organic latte joints, such as Brooks and Gao, decked out according to the unwritten handbook of gentrification – rustic wooden tables, water in a mismatched liquor bottles, sugar in old Japanese tins and a goodish amount of exposed brick.

Meanwhile, the great Lusophone march south from its Stockwell epicentre is in rude health judging by the number of Portuguese and Brazilian shops now open. In one of these I met a lovely girl from São Tomé and Príncipe, who told me that the shop is actually owned by an Indian man with no apparent Portuguese connections whatsoever. Clearly a market worth tapping into, then.

There are still plenty of pawn shops and nasty pubs, and the traffic still roars past, but for every relic there is something new. A ghost of Pratt’s has risen up in the form of Pratts and Paynes, a newish member of the mostly-South London-based Antic group of pubs which serve good beer and better sausage rolls. The Hideaway Jazz venue, meanwhile receives rave reviews and might one day occupy the same space in Streathamites’ hearts as the Locarno did. Down towards Streatham Common (which in my view is one of London’s most enticing open spaces) the most blatant urban renewal of all comes in the form of a Tesco of mind-blowing proportions. It is hard to see this new “hub” (which also includes 250 flats, a leisure centre and a replacement for the much-loved old Ice Rink, another lost Streatham Gem) turning into a new Pratt’s, but who knows what this part of Streatham might look like in a decade’s time?

From Portobello to Peckham Rye: A Guide to London’s Markets

This post first appeared as an article in the SOAS Spirit in November 2014 (p20)

Vibrant local markets are a stock-in-trade of guidebook writing and no trip to Bangkok or Brindisi would be complete without sampling street food and attempting to engage a surly stallholder (who we readily interpret as a “character”) in lively repartee. London is no exception, and punches above its weight in world-famous names – Covent Garden for tourist trinkets, Spitalfields for dubious art and, of course, Camden Lock for international food and the evergreen pastime of Goth-watching. Venturing outside this narrow orbit you hit neighbourhoods such as Brixton and Brick Lane, now firmly hauled out of the economic doldrums by young creatives and bankers, but if this scene starts to pall it’s probably time to cast your net wider.

For a slice of echt South London life, for example, head to East Street (nearest tube Elephant and Castle) where the staunchly un-gentrified daily market (closed Mondays) does a roaring trade in cheap veg, bric-a-brac and household goods. Lining the street you’ll find Afro-Caribbean grocers and halal butchers and for a dazzling range of spices, pick any of the shops at the Walworth Road end. Otherwise expected the unexpected – bargain deals on a mattress announced through a microphone, perhaps, or you may catch the Serbian Roma singing duo (“Like someone strangling a cat” as I heard a disgruntled stallholder describe them).

Staying south, why not check out Peckham (nearest station Peckham Rye) once a byword for gang crime but now yielding to an unstoppable tide of soda bread and soya lattes. Stick to Rye Lane, however, and you can enjoy a scene as absorbing as any London has to offer. Frequently cited as one of the most ethnically diverse neighbourhoods in the UK, the West African presence is easy to spot here – Sierra Leonean restaurants, Nigerian churches and stalls piled with cassava, plantain and all those other vegetables you wanted to know about but were afraid to ask. Chicken feet go for a reasonable £1.99 and, if that’s not enough, a fiver can get you a “Big Hard Chicken”.

If strange fruit and crossing the Thames aren’t your thing, Clerkenwell’s frightfully hip Exmouth Market may appeal. It’s the kind of place where people sit outside pubs in hand-knitted jumpers drinking craft beers while tapping film reviews into their Macs. If that’s not blatant enough, the presence of Gail’s Artisan Bakery should convince you you’re a far cry from Dalston Junction (for the uninitiated, Gail’s is a wayside shrine to sourdough and German rye bread, whose libations of organic milk can be sampled in all the capital’s chi-chiest neighbourhoods – Hampstead, Dulwich, Notting Hill…).

Indeed, the street is mostly about food, be it the excellent English fare at Medcalf restaurant, razor clams at Bonnie Gull Seafood Café or Moorish classics at Moro, where ladies like to lunch on pumpkin salads and slow cooked rabbit. On weekdays there are food stalls at the Farringdon Road end (a brisk 15 minute walk from campus), some run by the street’s restaurants, others including burritos, pulled pork and an incongruous-sounding “German BBQ”. Meanwhile, if you do want to branch out into the non-edible you could always get a tattoo at “The Family Business” or pick up a present at Bookends childrens’ book store before popping round the corner to The Old China Hand to sample their fabulous range of real ales.

Of course this is just the tip of the iceberg. If you’ve been to all the above and time hangs heavy then consider heading south to Deptford High Street, a gem of a traditional shopping street with markets stalls on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday, or west to Goldborne Road (market every day except Sunday) a quirky extension to the more famous Portobello Road and informal hub to London’s Moroccan community. (S)he who is tired of London, as they say…