Tag Archives: Herne Hill

The Effra: still flowing under Herne Hill

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Several of these lovely iron plaques have recently appeared in South London to mark the flow of the River Effra, the lost London river that now lies beneath the streets between Norwood and Vauxhall. It’s a wonderful project and Diamond Geezer has more details. He notes that the first plaques were laid in July and the project appears to be some way from completion, with several plaques yet to be installed. But there is a flurry of them around Herne Hill along Dulwich Road, where they make a nice counterpoint to the Effra’s other principal markers, the stinkpipe.

For those interested in the Effra, a book by Jon Newman has also just been published about the river. I once followed the course of the Effra in the company of a water diviner, who got us all lost in the middle of an estate during a snow storm while taking us on a route that bore very little resemblance to those diligently mapped by Effra experts. Still, it made for an entertaining afternoon.

 

 

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Leaving Victorian London

For the past seven years, I’ve lived in Victorian London and now it’s time to leave. In 2009, we moved into a small terraced house in Herne Hill, built in around 1880 and modelled along classic London proportions. I wrote about that “common little London house” here, shortly after we moved in. It had the standard measurements of houses of this era – a front that measured one rod, ie 16 ft 6 in – and is pretty much identical to hundreds of thousands of houses thrown up in this era as London expanded alongside railway lines like Japanese knotweed. Throw out the contemporary fittings – the central heating, white goods, plastic toys – and you have a house that even a Victorian might still recognise.

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I loved the house when I moved into it. I mainly loved the coal hole on the front step but I also loved the way that when I visited friends almost anywhere else in London I would immediately feel at home. Their house or flat was invariably built along similar dimensions, with a near-identical floorplan adapted only for the size, from grand five-storey detached dwelling to the more humble two-storey terraced house I occupied.

Humble. That word scarcely seems appropriate or even tasteful given the prices such houses now fetch. My house was one step up from the traditional two-up two-down and would have been built, I imagine, for the artisan working classes. Now it makes a fine first home for rich young City bankers exiled from Clapham and Fulham, whose first act is to insert white wooden slatted blinds, paint the front door sage and apply for planning permission to build a side return. The Victorian Londoner would have known his social class simply by the size of the home he inhabited, but it is no longer quite so easy, with the traditionally wealthy forced to occupy somewhat dingy homes originally intended for the poor. Instead the status-conscious London homeowner is forced to mark out his superiority to hangers-on and renters via window furnishing, colour scheme and the size of skip required for the proposed extension.

We’ve time-travelled now to the 1930s, occupying a house that is almost comic in its determination to differentiate itself from the Victorian houses on the other side of the railway line. You can see that in the bourgeois stained-glass window on the stairs, and the wide hallway but most notably in the garage that is attached to every house on the street. It’s an addition that perhaps best distinguish the change from urban to suburban, even if, in 90 per cent of cases, the garage has since been adapted for some other purpose as Londoners in any type of house relentlessly look for a way to tack one more room on to any property they purchase.

I loved my Victorian house. After all, my youngest daughter was born right there in the front room, much like a Victorian baby might have been. But I was glad to leave, tired of the living room slugs and the damp bathroom – badly adapted from the old rear utility room and outdoor privy – and endless noise from the new neighbours and their builders. We’ve moved by choice – the area no longer suits us, but even if it did, we couldn’t afford to live there. Gentrification is the process that eats as all, and as we had moved in because the previous tenants couldn’t afford the rent, we were forced out in part by demographic changes that made us no longer feel entirely at home in a place we’d lived for so long.

Shortly after our landlord put our house on the market, I was in the front garden when a car pulled up. A man got out and asked me how much the house was selling for. I gave him the answer, and after laughing, he introduced himself as a former occupant. This was the house he had grown up in with his parents and three brothers forty years before. I showed him round, and as he pointed out old home improvements, old trees he used to climb, he talked about the past, the street back in the 1980s, when the larger homes were multiple occupancy and the neighbourhood was 80 per cent black. And I told him how two doors down, the last black family on the street are preparing to move as Herne Hill’s Claphamification continues apace.

 

Save the Half Moon in Herne Hill

There has been a hole in the centre of Herne Hill since August 2013. That’s when a water main flooded Half Moon Lane closing most of the businesses. All eventually reopened (although some subsequently closed again, defeated by the insurance process) except what’s arguably the most important one: the Half Moon pub, a glorious gargantuan neo-Gothic late Victorian Grade II-listed pub that should be Herne Hill’s crown jewel but has instead been allowed to fester for more than two years, to the lasting shame of landlords Dulwich Estate. This is a fine London pub, which opened in 1896 – a pub has been on the site since the 17th-century – and has featured in graphic novels by Alan Moore, hosted gigs by U2 and Frank Sinatra, comedy shows by Eddie Izzard, and whose former drinkers include Dylan Thomas, who took the name of Under Milk Wood from the nearby Milkwood Road. Now, it’s dead, boarded up, dilapidated and rotting from within.

So how has this come to pass?

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Locally, rumour and counter-rumour have swirled about its fate. The chief sticking point is that there are several floors above the pub – these once contained boxing a gym where I spent an exhausting three minutes being chased round the ring by a former middleweight champion – that represent a huge financial opportunity. Attempts to convert them into residential flats went nowhere and it’s said that Dulwich Estate, who look after the interests of the wealthy nearby private schools as well as a couple of other pubs, wish to turn it into some kind of boutique hotel as they are doing with the Crown and Greyhound in Dulwich Village.

This would almost certainly spell the end of live music at the large function room attached to the pub. This 200-capacity room has a surprisingly rich history as a London venue, as I discovered when talking to Peter Blair, who is leading the Save The Half Moon campaign with the Herne Hill Forum, fed up of the secrecy, silence and endless rumours.

Last week, Blair submitted to Southwark papers that would see the Half Moon listed as an Asset of Community Value that focus on its history as a music venue. He believes that while the pub will eventually reopen – because of the listing status, Dulwich Estate can’t really do anything else with the handsome ground floor bars – the live music component needs to be understood, celebrated and protected. The closure of London’s live venues has reached such epidemic proportions that even the mayor wants to do something about it.

“To have one of south London’s few independent live music venues shut in this way is terrible,” he says. “It’s the flagship of Herne Hill and it just sits there empty on the corner.”

Campaigners have been exploring the pub’s history and have discovered it was a crucible for London’s live blues scenes in the 70s – sessions featured an array of musical talent from the most popular bands of the era including members of the Jeff Beck Band, Rory Gallagher band, Thin Lizzy, and 7th Wave. An account of its history can be seen in this film.

It remained a music venue for the next four decades. In 1980, U2 played an early gig. In the 90s, the house PA was owned by Alabama 3 and gigs included Big Joe Turner and Geno Washington. More recently it hosted Devon Allman from The Allman Brothers and guitarist Albert Lee.

“It’s been a live music venue since the 60s and we can’t lose that live music function,” says Blair. “It has such a great history and was a great venue. Everybody I’ve spoken to says it was such a special place to play. This is a local community pub but it’s also much more than that.”

Damn straight: Leslie Nielsen even filmed a commercial in there.

If the campaigners win their bid to get the pub listed as an Asset Of Community Value, it will mean Dulwich Estate will have to consult the Herne Hill Forum over their plans, finally bringing them out into the open. “Out understanding at this point is that they wish to use the function room as a restaurant,” says Blair. “We want them to explain their plans in full, and to ensure live music is a key component of the new pub, whenever it opens. If it is converted as a hotel, how will that effect the music venue? We have no intention of making it unviable but we want to know what it will be when it opens.” The campaigners have no interest in purchasing the venue, which would cost a fortune but have been in discussion with the nearby Ivy House, who used Asset of Community Value status to purchase their local pub from developers.

There’s also the question of when it reopens. While Dulwich Estate is said to be in negotiations with several pub chains – “everybody you speak to has a different name” – it’s unlikely to open in the next 12 months. Since it closed, no restoration has taken place at all and it’s said the pub, which was at the very centre of the flood and thus under water for some time, is in very poor condition. It seems astonishing that a listed venue can be left to rot by a landlord that is supposed to have local interests at heart, especially when one presumes there is insurance money on hand to fix the damage.

It’s a sad state of affairs for what should be a south London landmark.

To keep up to date with the campaign, see the Facebook group.

Ghost street

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I walk past this corner at least twice every day but only recently noticed the ghost sign painted above the newer enamel one. I assume it was previously covered up, otherwise I’m sure I’d have spotted it at some point in the past five years. Perhaps the jutting pipe points to recent usage.

Much as I like a painted street sign, this one is particularly interesting as it dates back to a time when the street – a short stub of road – had a different name entirely. According to Steve Chambers, who knows about such things, this was one of three name changes in the area – including the eradication of the similar Hamilton Terrace on Shakespeare Road – brought about to tidy up postal addresses.

The ghost sign for the ghost street sits opposite a ghost pub. Hamilton Supermarket occupies the site of the Hamilton Arms, a cosy corner pub opened in 1878 that was captured magnificently in these old photos. It closed in 2004.

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Pumpkins of Herne Hill

I’m of the generation that doesn’t really get Hallowe’en. Growing up in the South London suburbs, it wasn’t something that happened much. There were ghost stories, and one Great Aunt, who had lived in America for decades, would give us extra sweets while waiting forlornly for local children to come knocking dressed as Communists, but trick or treaters were rarely sighted.

For my kids, though, Hallowe’en is a big deal. And even if the temptation is to dismiss the whole thing as a ghastly imposition from America, you can see the appeal. However, it would be churlish in the extreme not to admire the effort some households go to make it a memorable evening for local children. In Herne Hill, one elderly men had spent hours draping his hedges in cobwebs, while another family had a fake gravestone in their front garden. And then there were the pumpkins. As a Hallowe’en neophyte, many of the presumably age-old American traditions – like leaving lighted pumpkins outside to show you are in on the act – are entirely new to me, which meant I’ve rarely seen anything like the intricate carved pumpkins created by Herne Hillers in a magnificent game of artistic oneupmanship.

A selection follows.

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Mount London – a book about London’s hills

Mount London: Ascents in the Vertical City

I am surrounded by hills. North-east is Denmark Hill, south is Tulse Hill, west is Brixton Hill and beneath my feet is Herne Hill. From the highest point of Brockwell Park, I can see the wooded tip of Sydenham Hill and the Autobot mast of Crystal Palace, which sits on top of a stomach-looping hill at Cystal Palace. And there’s more – Knights Hill, Beulah Hill, Forest Hill, Streatham Hill –  all within a few miles, usually to the south on land that slowly undulates into deep suburbia.

One of the things I like about Herne Hill is that the hill it is named after takes the form of an easily ignored road that snakes up towards Camberwell while the town itself sits in a hollow at the bottom, where it often floods. You don’t usually get a flooded hill, but that’s Herne Hill for you. Maybe that’s in keeping with the contradictory nature of London hills. Elsewhere, a hill lifts you above the fray but London hills tend to accentuate the clutter, confirming the claustrophobia of London life.

Tom Chivers is from Herne Hill, and perhaps that prompted him to commission and edit, along with Martin Kratz, Mount London, a book of essays about London hills and other raised areas. A team of 23 urban topographers study 25 spots: famous viewpoints like Parliament Hill, suburban sprawls like Stamford Hill, lost City of London hillocks like Ludgate Hill, plus the odd, witty, wild card – Battersea Power Station’s chimneys or the emergency stairs at Hampstead Underground Station.

Early on, Sarah Butler captures the curious charm of London’s hills  – ‘I’d stand and look,’ she writes in her chapter on Dartmouth Park Hill, ‘and I would always be struck by the fact that London stretched right out to the horizon and as far left and right as I could see. Do the equivalent in Manchester, and you can see where the city ends, the edges fading out into fields.’ London has no edges.

Contributions are a mix of autobiography, psychogeography and history. One of my favourites was Tim Cresswell’s elegant take on Northala Fields, an artificial hill constructed from the rubble of Wembley Stadium and including the remains of London’s failed attempt at building an Eiffel Tower. Londonist’s Matt Brown demonstrates his usual nose for an oddity with his piece on Windmill Hill, a municipal dump on Moorfields constructed from dung and bones. Submarine author Joe Dunthorne takes on the Shard, astutely noting that ‘since the arrival of the Walkie-Talkie, it may not even be the most evil skyscraper in London.’

Chivers tackles Snow Hill – a place I always associate with terrible London-set computer game Driver – and in doing so manages to capture that strange, uplifting sight: the Fleet Valley from Holborn Viaduct. ‘To stand on the Viaduct and look over Farringdon Road is to experience London’s vertical axis; the city not as streetplan write large but a three dimensional environment with depth as well as spread. And even to the untrained eye, the view from the Viaduct is unmistakably that of a river from a bridge.’ This is a perspective almost impossible to capture in a photograph. I have always thought it had to be experienced in person, but Chivers has it nailed.

Chivers and Kratz are poets, and there is a bias towards a certain tricksy type of inward-looking London writing – the school of Sinclair – with particularly abstract or experimental musings coming from Kratz on Richmond Hill and Tamar Yoseloff on Farringdon shitheap Mount Pleasant. That’s fine, but I would have welcomed a little more variety in styles. Mary Paterson brings the only touch of fiction to her piece on Denmark Hill and while I enjoyed Katy Evans-Bush’s supernatural glimpse of Stamford Hill, even this was intensely personal. Amber Massie-Blomfield’s piece on Gypsy Hill is typical, interweaving 18th-century south London gypsies with musings about her grandfather, who once lived in a caravan in Lossiemouth,

But maybe such naval-gazing is in keeping with the very nature of London hills, and also the introspective activity of solo walking. London is not a city that looks particularly good from the air – notable exceptions being Parliament Hill and Greenwich Hill, neither of which feature here. Instead, elevated views merely reinforce the sense that we are stuck in the middle of an endless mega city. The only respite lies within.

‘Some friends once lived in a double-fronted Georgian on Brixton Water Lane,’ writes Karen McCarthy Woolf of Brixton Hill. ‘Their garden was large and L-shaped and a good proportion of it used to be the car park of the pub now called The Hootenanny. Their garden also had a well in it that sank into the subterranean Effra.’

I know that Georgian, I know that garden, I know that well. In London, no matter how high we climb, we will never escape from each other, and from other hills.

Mount London: Ascents In The Vertical City edited by Tom Chivers and Martin Kratz (Penned In The Margins, £12.99).

Bus stops and Brockwell Park: exhibition in Herne Hill

Martin Grover, an artist based in South London, has an exhibition at Le Garage in Herne Hill until Thursday November 1. His paintings are mainly of Brockwell Park, old record covers and bus stops, making him the ideal visual companion to my life.

His bus stop art has now extended from 2D prints into 3D sculptures/installation – in other words, he makes actual bus stops and writes strange slogans on them.

His Brockwell Park paintings are lovely. They are painted from sketches and photographs, although he confesses he makes a lot of it up in the studio, which is why Batman or James Brown might occasionally turn up in one.

Then there are the record sleeves, perfect reproductions of old 45s: often Stax and Motown but also plenty of country and Dylan.

South London Purgatory System at Le Garage until Nov 1, 2012. Mon-Fri, 10.30am-5.30pm; Sat, Sun, 10am-6pm. 

Brixton Bugle: the future of local newspapers?

Even in these days of live blogs, hyperlocal websites and social media, it can be easy to miss news stories. While national attention focuses disproportionately on a handful of big stories – whether that be tweeting footballers or dead paedophiles – smaller bits of news, especially local news, can fall through the gaps of newspapers that often seem to be more interested in filling their pages with the contrived comments of tedious columnists so snobbish, banal and privileged they could be auditioning for a lead role in the next Ian McEwan novel. And the time spent registering a new profile so you can leave an angry comment about their latest inanities makes it difficult for the average person to find those precious seconds when they can check out and absorb the content of a website devoted to your local area.

This is where the traditional local newspaper used to step in, but, er, well let’s not talk about that. But in Brixton, there is a solution. The Brixton Bugle is a monthly free newspaper (affiliated to the Brixon Blog) that rounds up all the most important news in Brixton, Herne Hill, Tulse Hill and Loughborough Junction. Around 7,000 copies are published and handed out for free outside the tube once a month or given to local shops. And it’s really rather good, occasionally breaking news that the bigger but less focused South London Press can easily miss. Visually it can still be a bit shonky, but the content is good and it is easily the best way of keeping locals abreast of the changes, both large and small, taking place in Brixton (such as the plans to knock down the local Rec Centre), especially since the council’s own free paper was scrapped.

This sort of grassroots, hyperlocal newspaper, with low distribution costs, small staff, funded by local advertising and with close and committed connections to the area in which it operates has real potential, which is presumably why the Lebedevs’ Journalism Foundation has given the Bugle a grant and mentoring support.

There are plenty of London areas – the south-east for instance, or Barnet – that do not receive the attention they deserve from the existing print media, but which have strong blogging communities. Their work is impressive and they often get lots of attention when they break big stories, but there is still nothing quite like print for keeping an entire community – not just political nerds and news junkies – involved and aware of local developments that do not have headline-grabbing power. Will they heed Brixton’s trumpet call? Here’s hoping.

My interview with Brixton Bugle co-editor Tim Dickens for Completely London

Brixton riots in SE24: then and now

Chaucer Road, SE24 after the 1981 Brixton riots

Chaucer Road, SE24 in 2012

The top picture is taken from Taschen’s superb new book of London photographs, London: Portrait of a City.

Ain’t it a chain? Pizza Express comes to Herne Hill

One of the great things about Herne Hill is that unlike many parts of London, it has managed to avoid contamination from chain stores, bars and restaurants. We have independent chemists, delis, bakers, florists, a greengrocer, DIY store, bookshop, butcher, restaurants, cafes, clothes and furniture shops. I doubt there is any area of London with as flourishing an independent economy.

It gives the place a distinctive character. You can gossip with the shop owners, get advice in the DIY shop without relinquishing your masculinity, receive and suggest personal recommendations in the bookshop, even get credit in some of the food shops if you’ve been using them long enough. You may pay for these privileges, but it’s worth it.

The only chains are Oxfam and the World’s Worst Sainsbury’s, which is best used as a short-cut between the station and the bus stop and left at that.

Until today that is.

This afternoon, Pizza Express open a branch in Herne Hill.

The site they’ve taken is incredibly awkward. It’s a large wedge, part of which is unusable because it is taken up by a bridge that goes over the top of a large – and hard to fill – lower-ground floor. It’s a space most restaurants would struggle with – indeed two Indian restaurants have failed to make it work – but which Pizza Express can make a virtue of – think of their odd-shaped branches at Charing Cross or Kennington.

The arrival of the Pizza Express behemoth has had a mixed reception in Herne Hill. Some retailers hope it will bring increased footfall into the area, parents are pleased because Pizza Express is excellent for children, but many restaurants and bars are worried it will draw away much-needed custom.

As they should be, because many of the restaurants and bars in Herne Hill – with the honourable exceptions of Number 22 and The Lido Cafe – are shit, serving mediocre food at over-inflated prices and reliant on the fact Herne Hillers have nowhere else to take their custom.

I like independent venues, but I like good shops and restaurants more. If Pizza Express’s decent food, excellent service and good value improves competition, it is doubly welcome.

But there is a fear. Where one chain opens, others follow, chasing the money, extinguishing singularity and turning streets into Clone Towns.  A redevelopment is taking place under the arches by the station. The artist’s impressions says  it will look like this.

But what’s the betting it ends up like this?

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Herne Hill could easily go the way of Richmond and other indentikit middle-class outer-urbarn high streets. Be vigilant people, and support what’s best about our local economy.