An edited version of this post first appeared in the SOAS Spirit (Print Edition) as Lost in the South East: Welcome to Nunhead on March 3rd 2015.
Nunhead. For years it was just a name to me, and not a particularly promising one. I knew it could be found somewhere in South East London, a bedfellow to unlikely-sounding places like Brockley and Hither Green, but that was it. Since I moved to Peckham a few months ago, however, Nunhead has leapt off the map and (almost) onto my doorstep, and I find myself falling love.
Admittedly if you arrive in Nunhead by train, first impressions aren’t inspiring. A Londis. A chippy. A fried chicken shop. Perhaps a knot of morning drinkers near the station entrance. I can practically hear the Islingtonites sneer. But just round corner, on Evelina Road, things pick up in a rather unexpected way. First it’s a greasy spoon caff and a DIY shop, then a traditional butchers and a few doors down a bakers. Next you pass a fishmongers and a retro/vintage shop and before you know it you’ve hit an honest-to-goodness village green with three pubs, a row of alms-houses and that quintessentially English of institutions, a Salvation Army Temple.
“Urban village” is a hackneyed term, but seems to do Nunhead justice. It is as far from the yummy-mummitude of East Dulwich as it is from the rough-and-tumble enticements of Peckham Rye. It’s a modest sort of place that’s never going to be the next Shoreditch. That said, F.C. Scoper (since 1897) has been described by the Observer as the “best fishmonger in London” and I can personally attest to the excellence of its mackerel. The Old Nun’s Head gastropub, meanwhile, gets rave reviews for its burgers and real ales. Nobody is really sure about the story of a nun fleeing a monastery that supposedly gave the pub, and then the suburb, its name, but “Nunn-head” can apparently be found in records dating back to the sixteenth century.
Lest you imagine it’s all craft beer and line-caught halibut, I should point out the takeaway options: Indian, Chinese, Caribbean, Portuguese… there’s even a “Taste of Barbados” (Bajan Spice) which I look forward to trying. Aside from the aforementioned DIY store there is a bike shop (Rat Race Cycles), opposite Bambuni delicatessen. This latter is the kind of place about which epithets like “the best flat white south of London Bridge” are probably bandied. I spent a happy time there ogling fresh bread, posh cheese, craft beers (yes I know, I know…) and cashew butter. The chicken shop-betting shop pairing across the road is a faintly reassuring reminder that you’re still in South London.
Arguably a bigger draw than any of this, though, is Nunhead Cemetery. In the words of Southwark Council it is “perhaps the least known but the most attractive of the seven Victorian cemeteries on London’s outskirts”. Down a quiet road, huge wrought-iron gates open onto a path that leads up to a grimly majestic ruined gothic chapel. Turn around for excellent views of the City and Canary Wharf but then press on into an eerie maze of trees, dense undergrowth and copious graves. There are no real showstoppers here – all the big names are buried in Highgate – but with a bus tycoon here and music hall artist there, there are some attractive tombstones. Most of the names you see are very Anglo-Saxon, but clustered at one end a number of Greeks, Caribbeans and even a Zoroastrian Parsi can be found.
Even better than the view from Nunhead Cemetery is the view from nearby Telegraph Hill, which comprises a delightful pair of parks, set in attractive Victorian suburbia. There is the Telegraph Hill Centre, a much-loved community centre founded by anti-apartheid campaigner Trevor Huddleston as well as a Telegraph Hill Society. Much could be said on the subject, but at this point we’re straying from Nunhead into Brockley, and it’s time to catch that 17 minute train back to London Blackfriars. Nunhead – it’s not as far as you think.