It’s all change in Camberwell with headline-grabbing new restaurants, new housing developments, a huge regeneration scheme and maybe even an extension of the Bakerloo Line…
Words: Trish Lesslie
It’s been a creative hub for well over a century, but most Londoners have long viewed Camberwell as nothing more than a place to pass through en route somewhere else. It wasn’t a place you would visit, unless you had the bad luck of landing in King’s College A&E. I grew up little more than a mile away at The Oval, but until I started my first job on Camberwell Church Street aged 17, I don’t think I’d ever stepped off a southbound 36 bus before reaching Peckham. I wasn’t alone.
‘Camberwell never used to be somewhere you would stop off,’ says Jordana Leighton, trustee of The Camberwell Festival and self-confessed Camberwell devotee. ‘Now people travel from all over London just for the restaurants. You can eat your way around the world in Camberwell,’ she says.
Eat your way around the world and eat well. ‘Vietnamese Restaurant Bang Hing is nothing to look at but the food is amazing and Angels & Gypsies has some of the best tapas in London,’ she enthuses. ‘And the salt and pepper squid at The Crooked Well is second to none.’
The bar scene is thriving too. The Hermit’s Cave has been a Camberwell institution for as long as anyone can remember. Now the family who run it have opened the Stormbird craft beer pub just across the road. ‘It’s a completely different crowd so they don’t compete with each other,’ says Jordana.
There’s even a distinctly Dulwich Village feel filtering in. ‘When we opened nearly five years ago we were told by a fair few locals that Camberwell wasn’t ready for it, that it wouldn’t work,’ says Jen Aries, co-founder of the hugely popular gastro-local The Crooked Well. ‘People thought we were brave or stupid. Now look at the area,’ she says.
Camberwell still has its share of shabbiness – and not just around the edges – but there’s now more than a hint of chic among the typical London inner-city mix of supermarkets, nail bars, barbers, phone and chicken shops on its two main shopping streets, Denmark Hill and Camberwell Church Street.
I found cafes serving hipster staple avocado on sourdough, a chip shop offering gluten-free batter and a farmer’s market – all within a few steps of the (still) dingy premises where I began my working life. Even the ‘dodgy old boozer’ next door, the Camberwell Arms, has gone award-winningly gastro having been taken over by the folk who run the legendary Anchor & Hope in Waterloo and the Canton Arms in Stockwell, and is teeming with bright young things.
Of course, Camberwell was drawing in arty types long before Peckham or Brixton vied for its cultural crown. That’s largely thanks to the Camberwell College of Arts (CCA), which boasts alumni as celebrated and diverse as painters Maggi Hambling and Gillian Ayres, filmmaker Mike Leigh and musician Florence Welch.
We were told that Camberwell wasn’t ready for us. Now look at the area
‘A lot of graduates stay local, partly because it’s relatively cheap,’ says Nick Gorse, Dean of the CCA, which is in the process of building new student accommodation as part of redevelopment works due for completion in 2017.
Other residential developments are springing up all over SE5, among them Camberwell Fields (camberwellfields.co.uk), with 282 one, two and three-bedroom flats and seven three-bedroom houses by Notting Hill Housing. Prices range from shared ownership flats from £360,000, available with a 25% share, to £690,000 for a three-bedroom house. There’s Camberwell on the Green, too, a new six-storey development with 92 private apartments with views of either Camberwell Green or the internal communal gardens.
But with so many new residents heading to SE5, some local stalwarts fear Camberwell’s celebrated sense of community could be diluted. ‘I hope it doesn’t change so much that the people who make it special no longer feel they have a place here,’ says Leighton.
For its part, Southwark Council seems to be paying more than lip service to maintaining community spirit. It’s spending £13 million on regeneration, improving streetscapes, sprucing up Camberwell Green and creating ‘pocket spaces’, such as the newly pedestrianised Datchelor Place, all over SE5.
The historic leisure centre has been refurbished and, at a time when neighbouring boroughs are closing theirs down, Southwark made the unusual decision to build a new library. It opened late last year and is proving to be quite the hotspot, especially with local kids.
Councillor Mark Williams is fighting to get Camberwell Station, closed since 1916, reopened as part of the Thameslink network. He’s also a strong supporter of a new Bakerloo Line station. ‘There’s huge demand for a tube station and we’ll continue to push for it,’ he says.
Still, not everyone is keen to see the tube coming to town. In fact, many consider the lack of it as a boon. ‘It’s kept Camberwell under the radar and helped stop rents and house prices getting quite as astronomical as, say, Brixton or Peckham,’ says Jordana.
Tube or no tube, average property prices have increased by over 100% in the past decade according to the Land Registry. Rents have also soared. ‘We had to move out of Camberwell after three years because we couldn’t afford the extra space we needed,’ says Jen, who moved to Streatham to accomodate her growing family.
‘I worry that perhaps regular families will get pushed further and further out which may in turn dilute the wonderful community feel,’ she adds. ‘We could end up with a lot of the same sort of people in one spot. That’s not very interesting, is it?’
But the artistic community has deep roots in the area, which Nick describes as a ‘corridor of culture’. That corridor will get a boost with the South London Gallery opening a new site in the former fire station on Peckham Road in the next couple of years. The new buildings on the CCA site, which include an academic block with larger studios and teaching space, plus a new lecture theatre, all designed by RIBA award-winning Stephen Marshall Architects, will be another asset. Still, residents would welcome more local amenities.
‘We lack a village hall or hub, a cinema, performance space and/or dedicated centre for the arts,’ says Barbara Pattinson, chair of the SE5 Forum, a community group that promotes the improvement of the area.
She moved to Camberwell with her husband in the mid-Sixties, so she’s witnessed more changes than most. ‘People are attracted by the charming green spaces, the village feel, the pubs, restaurants, hipster vibe, good schools, and diverse community,’ she says.
So while Camberwell is changing fast, hopefully some things will always stay the same…