A friend and I were discussing Marseille and Casablanca, cities that often get a bad rep but ones that we both love. We then got onto the grimmer bits of London. “Basically” she said, linking the two themes “If you don’t enjoy hanging out on Walworth Road, you’re not going to like places like Marseille.”
Maybe the parallel is a bit of stretch – sitting on a traffic-jammed 171 bus in the South London drizzle is a far cry from even the bleakest of pine-clad Mediterranean harbours – but the sentiment is understandable. If Brick Lane and Brixton present the accessible face of urban grit like, say, Naples or Marrakech, then perhaps less-iconized spots like Walworth and the Old Kent Road are the spiritual cousins of equally unloved Casa and Marseille.
I am quite a doyen of the Number 171, as it featured heavily in a former commute, ploughing the length of Walworth Road and its southern extension, Camberwell Road. Today, bent on renewing my pedestrian acquaintance with the place, I start in the Elephant and Castle Shopping Centre. For some, this place is probably hell. It’s no Westfield – the only chains you’ll find here are Tesco, Iceland, Greggs and their ilk – and neither is it anything like the trendy pop-up-opolis that Brixton Market has become. Here, the big draws are bargain stores, Polish and Colombian restaurants, and the inevitable selection of money transfer options. There are also some faintly obscene Shiatsu massage chairs – at £1 for 5 minutes who can argue?
But this beast is in its dying throes, and a much ballyhooed regeneration project promises to deliver “a new pedestrianised town centre, market square, 5,000 new and replacement homes, up to 450,000 square feet of retail space, an integrated public transport hub, five green spaces” in the next decade or so. Indeed one the first sights to greet you as you enter Walworth Road is the Elephant Park plot, where some of these new homes are under construction.
Moving further on, the Latin American vibe of Elephant Castle immediately gives way to a more dominant West African and Caribbean demographic that nevertheless allows rooms for kebab joints and Chinese medicine shops. All the indicators of globally connected financial insecurity are here: betting shops, payday loans, money transfers, and the trademark turquoise branding of pay-as-you-go SIM operators Lebara and Lycamobile, whose Afghan-staffed kiosks promise cheap calls to Romanian, Nigeria, Pakistan… The prize here is the wonderful East Street market which I’ve eulogized elsewhere.
Schwar and Co Jewellers (Est. 1858) and Kaim Todner solicitors hint at a Jewish past and, according to this article there was a Jewish community here, centred around the New Borough Synagogue. This synagogue is long defunct, but other architectural gems remain. The handsome red brick Town Hall and adjacent Cuming Museum are currently closed for refurbishment, but further down St Peter’s Church is a neo-classical John Soane masterpiece. In that typical London trick, it is surrounded by a lovely Georgian Square, just metres from the down-at-heel high street.
Near here is a Nigerian café called University of Suya (tagline “Food of Distinction”). I have a peppery beef suya – often described as a “Nigerian shish kebab” – with jollof rice, and chat to the owner, Ken. He is surly at first, but thaws after I praise the food and ask him about Nigerian London. He is a Yoruba-speaking Lagossian, and believes that Yoruba is a most commonly spoken Nigerian language in London – “South Nigerian people they are many”. Across the road are a Cote d’Ivorian and a Sierra Leonean restaurant, and further down you can find Ghanaian and Eritrean food.
Meanwhile, there isn’t a Café Rouge in sight. Even the pubs are limited. A friend and I once dodged the hostile stares at The Tankard to sample the £2.99 pints and enjoy a refreshing lack of biodynamic wine and hand-cut chips. Today, a glum old couple stare out of the Red Lion further down the road, while towards the Camberwell end most of the pubs have given way to Evangelical Churches and Islamic Cultural Centres. The contrast to what is happening in places like Brixton is remarkable. That said, I spot a “Soya Milk Available” sign in one of the greasy spoons on nearby Westmoreland Road (read into that what you will) and is a new (ish) Lebanese Street Food café, Bayroot, that elicits a tongue-in-cheek comparison to Dulwich from one blogger.
Heading back up towards Elephant and Castle, I spot a sign outside a newsagents advertising the Sri Anjaneyar Astrological Centre run by a Pandith Jayaram Shastry, who promises “100% Removal of Black Magic” and “Gives Life Long Protection”. Curious, I ask the guy the at the shop counter whether they have an in-house astrologist. “Not us. He just rents out a cupboard at the back… You’ll have to ask him, I don’t know anything about it.” And indeed, at the back of the shop is a poky little cell, choked up with incense, walls covered in posters of Hindu deities. A frail-looking young man emerges from a kitchenette and questions me with a look. I ask if he is Pandith Jayram.
“Yes, yes. You first time here? Where you see leaflet?”
“Just outside. How does it work? Do you do consultations?”
“Hand reading, face reading, past, present, future… Five pounds”
I mutter something about having no cash and, taking the leaflet he thrusts at me, make a beeline for the street, thinking it best to leave my past where it is and wait for my future without assistance. At least I know where to go if I want to be reunited with an ex, or get my husband back from another woman. For now, I hop onto the 171, and muse on the road I’ve just walked up and down. I wouldn’t exactly recommend it as a tourist sight, but if a visitor asked me where she could find the “real” London I might just point them in this direction.