Oh, Balham, how we love thee. Let us count the ways…
Words: Victoria Smith
People queue for brunch in Balham. They stand in a line for 30 minutes, sometimes up to an hour, to go and sit with other locals and devour Instagram-worthy dishes of avocado and sweetcorn fritters, washed down with single origin bean coffee and cold-pressed juice.
This isn’t a bad thing – on the contrary, it’s really quite pleasant (if you don’t mind the freezing cold and have more patience than I do), but what’s astonishing is that it is Balham.
Balham – long known as a leafy suburban neighbourhood with an unremarkable high street, sandwiched between Clapham, Streatham and Tooting, the long-time butt of many a ‘Gateway to the South’ Joke (thanks, Peter Sellers) – is now home to so many brunching 20 and 30-somethings that if you want to stand half a chance of getting your hands on a latte pre-midday, you had better set your alarm.
But what is it that’s transformed Balham from somewhere that was best-known as a sleepy suburb with ‘that pub with the comedy nights in the back room’ (god bless The Bedford) into one of London’s most desirable areas?
Well, it’s pretty well located for a start. Overground trains into Victoria (when Southern aren’t on strike), the Northern Line underground and numerable buses into other parts of south London mean transport’s covered, plus there’s Clapham Common, Wandsworth Common and Tooting Common surrounding it – that’s a LOT of green space for an area that’s pretty small, and it’s a remarkable privilege to have it all literally on your doorstep in London.
What is it that’s transformed Balham from somewhere that was best-known as a sleepy suburb into one of London’s most desirable areas?
The properties themselves are another lure. With a mix of impressive Victorian, Edwardian and Arts and Crafts houses, the Art Deco block Du Cane Court (which has also become a local landmark itself), and some stand-out new developments, there’s plenty of accommodation for all types of resident.
This, says Pamela Janson-Smith, manager of Andrews Balham, is part of area’s unique appeal: ‘Balham has a diverse mix of properties, and has something to offer everyone from the first-time buyer to the very wealthy. Rental investors like Balham due to its popularity with young professionals, and first-time buyers are attracted by the good quality stock along with the transport links and the Balham café society.
Young families love the period houses, the excellent schools and easy access to the three fantastic commons. For those with deeper pockets the stunning early Victorian properties in the Nightingale Triangle and the Heaver Estate offer some truly outstanding family homes.
As to the future, the High Road will no doubt keep evolving and improving, developers will see the area as a highly desirable location for their developments and Crossrail 2, when (if) it comes, will move the transport up to another level.’
It’s not just alluring for residents, though. Understandably, SW12 holds massive appeal to business owners too, who have seen their stores take-off thanks to demand from Balham’s residents, who aren’t just affluent, but also discerning – it’s not the chains that flourish here, and you just need to walk down the (admittedly still not aesthetically impressive, but booming all the same) high road to see that it’s the independents that really seem to thrive.
On the high road, Chadwick’s butchers, Bertie and Boo coffee shop and Season Cookshop are all local success stories, while the once drab Hildreth Street is now home to busy market stalls, Milk cafe, Brickwood coffee, We Brought Beer and a fab new wine bar. Out of nowhere, the once sleepy stretch has become the heart of the town, with people sitting outside drinking coffee in the day, and something stronger at night.
There’s just such a strong sense of community
Independent card shop Postmark has been in Balham since 2004. Owner Mark Janson-Smith has seen the area change since opening up shop. ‘I grew up in Clapham and was working there when I decided I wanted to open a card shop,’ she says. ‘At the time I was living in Balham, and although the area was very different then I could see it had great potential and the rents were much more reasonable than in other more established areas nearby. That said not everyone felt the same and many of my friends and family thought I was mad – they’re now happy to admit they were wrong!’
And what is it about the area that makes it maintain its draw? ‘There’s just such a strong sense of community in Balham. Our customers have been incredibly loyal over the years and there’s great support for small businesses on the high road.’
Newer to the high road – but not the area – is Charlotte Cave, a high-end salon and beauty store that’s brimming with high-end brands you wouldn’t have ever been able to find in the area, but a warm welcome that’s definitely familiar.
Owner Cave says opening the second branch of her business (the first is over in Clapham Old Town) in Balham was a no-brainer: ‘As a local resident to Balham, I recognised a gap in the high street for a business that stocked unique boutique beauty brands that are found in the West End, with services attached to each brand. Balham is a unique community, it has a gentle and welcoming atmosphere that is inclusive to everyone – something that is at the heart of my business model.’
Charlotte Cave isn’t the only opening bringing something new to the area – Japanese restaurant Taro recently opened, and with its only other branches in Soho and the City, it’s a sure-fire indication that the appetite for high quality in Balham is strong.
There’s also Foxlow – from the team behind the much-lauded steak chain Hawksmoor – and recent revamps of old favourites such as The Devonshire pub and Hagen + Hyde. Whatever the future holds for Balham, it seems one thing’s for sure – it keeps going up and up. Seems that ‘gateway to the south’ wasn’t just a joke – it was a prediction.