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HOW PECKHAM BECAME SOUTH LONDON’S HIPPEST HOOD

From Frank’s Café to John Boyega’s rising star, Living South Resident takes a look at the changing face of Peckham, south London’s hippest neighbourhood

Words: Trish Lesslie

Across the land, Peckham is still synonymous with one of the nation’s best-loved sitcoms, but the vibrant south east London ’hood has come a long way since the days when Del Boy and his motley crew supped pints and spivved it up in the Nag’s Head.

In the decades since the Trotters shacked up in the (fictional) Nelson Mandela house, Peckham has morphed from somewhere with a reputation for poverty, crime and high unemployment into hipster central – and the changes continue apace.

For generations, it’s been one of the most ethnically diverse areas of the UK and, with its proximity to Camberwell College of Arts and Goldsmiths College, had more than its fair share of arty residents attracted by the relatively affordable period properties and easy access to central London.

But the past few years have seen an influx of the kind of cool kids usually found in the East London enclaves of Shoreditch, Hoxton, Hackney and Dalston. They come to party the night away at the Bussey Building – built as a factory in the 19th century and now hailed as south London’s answer to Manchester’s legendary Hacienda club – or chill out in Bellenden Road ‘village’, the artisanal heart of Peckham with its independent shops, cafés and galleries. Having headed south for the nightlife, many have decided to stay put – and the migration looks set to continue.

You could say it all began with the opening of Frank’s Café on the top floor of the multi-storey car park above the Peckham Plex Cinema. One of the London’s original pop-up restaurants, it first appeared in 2008 and is back for another summer stint from 19 May, attracting droves of cool punters from across the capital to the rooftop bar with great cocktails, food and breathtaking views across the city skyline.

If Frank’s and the Bussey – which houses 60 small studio spaces, hosts regular open-air cinema screenings and boasts a 5,000 square-foot rooftop with 360 degree views of London – kicked things off, the arrival of the Overground station at Peckham Rye accelerated the pace of change. Part of the ‘Ginger Line’ extension from Surrey Quays to Clapham Junction, it made the area more accessible than ever by public transport, crucially to East End locations typically favoured by tech types and modern-day bohemians.

Since the Overground connection opened late in 2012 Peckham Rye has evolved into a thriving community of independent start-ups. Award-winning restaurant Pedler, set up by Peckham residents Taskin Muzaffer and Tim Moore who also run local distillery Little Bird Gin, has even attracted acting luminaries such as Ben Whishaw and Josh Hartnett.

Pedler, Peckham, is a great new restaurant pulling in diners from all over London

Pedler, Peckham, is a great new restaurant pulling in diners from all over London

‘We used to walk along this street on the way to the park, and think, “This is really nice,” because it has wide frontages that let in lots of daylight and you get glimpses of the green of the Rye,’ says Taskin. ‘I never really understood why it didn’t take off. And now, finally, everything seems to be joining together.

‘There’s been an influx of new openings in Peckham Rye since we opened in December 2014. From John The Unicorn to Mr Bao and now Bahn Bahn. It’s fantastic that Peckham is becoming one of the top dining spots in our foodie capital and we are excited to be part of that,’ says Taskin, who along with his business partner have a new site, Lucky Gin & The Beautiful Pizza Boy, about to launch on Queen’s Road.

Food critic Jay Rayner, who lives nearby on the Herne Hill/Brixton borders, says there are so many new restaurants popping up that he could easily fill his weekly review column in The Guardian with local launches. ‘There is something particular about this side of south London that seems to be booming at the moment and really interesting things opening up.’

Those interesting things include acclaimed chef Sebby Holmes, formerly of the Smoking Goat in Soho, hosting occasional burger nights, but extend way beyond the thriving food scene. The team behind Pop Brixton, for example, is launching a new creative community on the floors of the multi-storey car park between the Peckham Plex Cinema and Frank’s Café.

Plans are underway to transform the middle floors of the car park into Peckham Levels, a new home for the area’s thriving creative community. The development will comprise a gallery, performance and multi-purpose events space plus artists’ studios, maker workshops, shared workspaces and retail units, spread over 20,000 square feet.

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Inspired by New York’s hugely successful High Line, a 1km ‘linear park’ on top of the disused Rickett coal sidings, running alongside the existing Queens Road Peckham to Peckham Rye railway, is also in the pipeline. It will link up green areas including Holly Grove, Kirkwood Nature Reserve and a proposed new low-level walkway near the Bussey Building.

Other exciting projects include the conversion of the former Peckham Road Fire Station into a new exhibition space by the South London Gallery – allowing the arts centre to expand its internationally acclaimed contemporary exhibitions and events programme – and the redevelopment of Library Square, where the prestigious Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts is due to relocate.

It’s a fitting addition to a neighbourhood that spawned Hollywood star John Boyega (the Star Wars sensation began his thespian career at Theatre Peckham, a performing arts centre for young people on the corner of the 50s estate where he grew up) and boasts official national treasure Olivia Colman as a long-term resident.

John Boyega in Star Wars: The Force Awakens (© 2015 Lucasfilm Ltd. & TM.)

John Boyega in Star Wars: The Force Awakens (© 2015 Lucasfilm Ltd. & TM.)

But with the changes – and the corresponding rise in property prices – comes the risk that locals will be driven out, destroying the very character that makes the area so attractive to its newer arrivals. As the suave Maitre d’ Fred Sirieux of Channel 4’s First Dates says: ‘I bought in Peckham because it was cheap; now I can’t afford my own home.’

For its part, Southwark Council is taking steps to support local businesses. As the narrow, dimly-lit passageways that currently lead to Peckham Rye Station are transformed into a spacious public square, retail tenants currently situated in the units along Blenheim Grove – mainly Afro-Caribbean hairdressers and nail bars – will need to move out, but they’re set to move to a specially designed, palm-tree themed, beauty boulevard, Peckham Palms, due to open this summer.

‘Visitors will have a new place to get a haircut, eat some food and hang out with friends and family,’ says Paul Smyth from Something and Sons.

As Peckham’s most famous fictional son would say: ‘Cushty!’

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