Six months in to London life, I’m still getting to grips with the basics. Weekends are spent browsing quintessential London markets, battling through the crowds on Oxford Street and taking in West End shows. As lovely as this has been, I want to get under London’s skin, and discover the quirks and nuances of the city I hope one day to call home.
Which is why when I was offered the chance to participate in a walking tour of Elephant & Castle, I went against all my instincts – the sum of all my knowledge of the area having come from disparaging rumours and alarmist media reports – and said yes.
Our first stop was the Cuming Museum (Walworth Road). Packed with a vast collection of miscellaneous paraphernalia and obscure historical artefacts, this compact museum houses the collection of the (presumably) eccentric Richard and Henry Cuming. This father and son duo clearly preferred peculiarity to normality, displaying a penchant for hoarding a whole manner of odds and ends, including superstitious ‘hag-stones’, English dolls in North American dress, and a hat covered in actual human teeth. Needless to say, my interest was piqued.
Heading down Amelia Street, I felt like I was stepping back in time. The stretch of Victorian terraced houses, with open communal stairwells, ornate archways and aged brickwork, evokes the feeling of a grand, bygone era. Part of the Pullens Estate, Amelia Street was built in the late 19th century to incorporate artisan workshops at the rear, many of which are still used for their original purpose. The enclosed cobbled street is a haven from the hectic motion of the surrounding roads, a capsule of creativity hidden from the urgency and commotion of everyday London life.
This architectural forethought appears to have benefited the local community, although the same can’t be said for 1970s blunder, Heygate Estate. Soon to be demolished, this behemoth is a relic of misplaced hopes and doomed ambition; deemed partially responsible for the decline of Elephant & Castle’s reputation, it does hold value for local artists and film-makers, who are drawn to the abandoned shell, finding worth in the dilapidated concrete.
Image by J@ck!
We continued north through West Square, past the Imperial War Museum, towards Waterloo. Turning onto Leake Street, the edgy, alternative side to London I crave finally presented itself. The dimly lit tunnel is a graffiti gallery, the walls awash with colourful tags and urban artwork. Parallel with the atmospheric Old Vic tunnels, the area is highly concentrated with performance spaces, theatres and studios.
Looping back towards our start point, we passed the historic St George’s Circus, the world-famous Ministry of Sound nightclub, and two of the area’s main bones of contention: the outdated shopping centre perched on the edge of the area’s baffling, pedestrian-unfriendly gyratory traffic system.
Are these features simply disposable, or icons of this poorly-regarded pocket of Southwark? The jury is still out as to whether Southwark council’s £1.5 billion regeneration of Elephant and Castle will truly benefit the area; there is still much to be decided. Whatever happens, the area’s truly vibrant personality and palpable sense of community seems strong enough to endure whatever changes are ahead, and the depth of social history and culture available to explore here is astonishing.
This local tour of London, led by blue badge guide Sophie Campbell, was provided courtesy of recently-launched Safestay Hostel, providing safe, stylish and affordable accommodation in the heart of up-and-coming Elephant & Castle. The area’s excellent transport links and central location make it an ideal place to stay in London for the Olympics, business trips and sightseeing.
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Category: London Calling