Herne Hill in south east London sits on the border of Brixton to one side and Dulwich on the other, creating a unique atmosphere where the urbane meets village life. The disastrous floods of 2013 caused chaos for the area’s independent traders, and some didn’t survive, but the area has bounced back with a bigger sense of community than ever…
Words: Victoria Smith
When an 88-year-old water main burst on Half Moon Lane in Herne Hill in August 2013, the impact on the area, its homes and businesses was devastating. Where independent traders had once thrived, several closed permanently, and for the rest, the struggle to get back on their feet was tough. Local landmark the Half Moon pub is still to reopen. But one thing that emerged from the devastation was a sense of community spirit that other parts of London can only dream of.
Taking a stroll around SE24, it’s easy to see why its residents are so proud of their area – independent traders thrive, weekends see buzzy scenes as locals cram onto seats outside gastropub stalwart the Florence, while newcomer Milkwood Kitchen & Bar has become the place to head for brunch (it also has a 20-seat boutique cinema club in the basement). And then there’s craft brewery Bullfinch, and Canopy – a microbrewery with tap room under a railway arch on Norwood Road. East London, eat your heart out.
While its long-time residents have always known the appeal of the area, an influx of ‘newbies’ – specifically young professionals and families – has meant that the secret is out of the bag. Herne Hill is a great place to live. No small part of the area’s lure is Brockwell Park, the glorious 125-acre space that not only serves as a recreational facility, but houses some great schemes such as Brockwell Park Community Greenhouses, a local horticulture charity.
The Lambeth Country Show (which returns on 16-17 July) has long been a great vehicle to showcase the park: from craft tents to live music, farm animals to all-day dancing in the sunshine, the event – now in its 42nd year – perfectly encapsulates the diversity of Herne Hill, as well as attracting a raft of visitors, an obvious plus for local traders.
The lido further affirms Brockwell’s status as one of London’s premier parks. Taking a dip in the sunny splendour of south London on a hot day is a privilege reserved for those who live close enough to get there in time to beat the almost permanent summer queues. A coveted pool-side table at The Lido Cafe on a balmy evening is the type of thing that alfresco dining dreams are made of.
80% of the businesses in Herne Hill are locally owned, so shopping in them helps to keep the community spirit alive. Everyone I know loves living here, it’s a happy place with good schools and London’s best park
Daniel Edwards, co-founder of The Lido Cafe, says that the area is ‘like a little village in a way. Having lived here for 10 years, we know absolutely everyone. Like I mentioned, 80% of the businesses in Herne Hill are locally owned, so shopping in them helps to keep the community spirit alive. Everyone I know loves living here, it’s a happy place with good schools and London’s best park.’
It seems the rise of the area is unstoppable, and the jewel in the crown will be the re-opening of the much loved Half Moon. When it first closed its doors after the floods, the future of the site was uncertain, but a successful petition against its closure, and acquisition by brewery Fuller’s, means it’s on its way back. Due to its status as a Grade II listed building, development has yet to start, but Fuller’s is hopeful that the re-vamped site will open in early 2017.
They’ve been working with the Save the Half Moon campaign to ensure the new site represents the needs of the community, although the journey up to this point has been controversial. Peter Blair, who heads up the Save the Half Moon campaign, has been battling to ensure this happens: ‘7,500 people signed our change.org petition to save the music venue at the Half Moon, including local actor Mark Rylance and singer Paul Young,’ he says. ‘Music has been an integral part of local people’s experience of the pub. U2 played here three times in 1980, while La Roux made her singing debut here at an open mic night aged 17.’
Speaking to the Evening Standard about the situation, La Roux made her feelings perfectly clear: ‘The pub is the centre of Herne Hill. Who knows what would have happened if I hadn’t come down here. If the developers want to make a success of the pub going forward then they need to listen to local people.’
‘We failed in our objection to the planning application in April,’ continues Peter, ‘which means that the famous stage at the Half Moon will be demolished to make way for a kitchen and dining space. However, we did win an important concession to retain the back room as a flexible space, which offers the possibility of hosting live music and comedy in the future.’
Proof that Herne Hill’s sense of community is stronger than ever.