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.
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?
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.