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South London’s neighbourhoods

From The Shard down to the cusp of Surrey, the south side of the city has plenty of pleasant surprises up its sleeve

South London’s neighbourhoods
The Bussey Rooftop Bar. Image: Nick Warner

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Search for rare vinyl in a shipping container; eat exquisite jerk chicken in a period Victorian boozer; try your hand at laughter yoga on the Southbank; catch a big screen movie in a Dulwich pub; kayak under Tower Bridge. It might only have contributed one street to the Monopoly board, but south London has come a long way in a short time — The Shard helped put it firmly on the map, but Europe’s tallest building is merely the top line of a bigger, more surprising, story.

Dulwich & Peckham

There are few neighbourhoods that bring the city’s diversity into sharper focus than Dulwich and Peckham, which sit cheek by jowl in southeast London.

First to Dulwich, which was actually in Surrey until 1889, when the County of London was created. It certainly has that Home Counties feel, with its lawn tennis clubs, leafy parks and 17th-century boarding school, Dulwich College, which, incidentally, charges £13,160 per term.

Some of London’s most underrated museums are located in this corner of the capital, including the Dulwich Picture Gallery, which professes to be the world’s first purpose-built public art gallery. Constructed in the early-17th century, this grandiose building was often visited by van Gogh and is home to a permanent collection of Baroque masterpieces as well as temporary exhibitions.

Just outside Dulwich is the Horniman Museum, the brainchild of Victorian tea trader Frederick John Horniman, who opened his house to showcase his collection of eclectic artifacts. His legacy endures; this quirky museum is stacked to the rafters with world-class collections of anthropology and natural history.

For a slice of local life, hit Lordship Lane in East Dulwich, a vibrant neighbourhood full of independent shops, yummy mummies, fine restaurants and great pubs like the East Dulwich Tavern, a pleasantly unpretentious boozer with an upstairs film club, The Bigger Picture, where you can sink into leather sofas with a beer and watch movies on the big screen. Profits from the cinema go towards local charities.

Peckham has long since shed its ‘Del Boy and Rodders’ image to become one of south London’s most dynamic neighbourhoods.

Many young professionals have decamped here, enticed by its relatively low rent, vibrant nightlife and burgeoning cultural scene. Yes, you can have a pint in the Nag’s Head, but most of the nocturnal action takes place in and around the Bussey Building, an arts hub-cum-entertainment venue housed in a former Victorian warehouse. Hosting everything from yoga to political discussions and raves, the Bussey Building can be found on Rye Lane, or Little Lagos as it’s often called (on account of the sizeable Nigerian community living here), where I once had my phone repaired by a fishmonger. Diverse indeed.

London Bridge

Nothing represents the changing fortunes of south London like The Shard. Love it or loathe it, Europe’s tallest building has spearheaded the ongoing redevelopment of the London Bridge area. While this gleaming glass-and-steel skyscraper wouldn’t look out of place in downtown Singapore, it seems at odds with the antiquity of London Bridge, whose Victorian railways arches, cobbled streets and blackened warehouses cling romantically to bygone epochs.

Once upon a time, this slither of south London was the capital’s smut-peddling underbelly. All the naughty stuff happened here — the gambling and prostitution, bear-baiting and drunkenness — far from the disparaging eyes of north London.

William Shakespeare knew which side his bread was buttered on: the young playwright based himself here after moving down from Stratford-upon-Avon, and in the year we commemorate the 400th anniversary of his passing, there’s probably no better neighbourhood in which to celebrate our greatest cultural export. Suffice to say, thespians and theatregoers have been descending on London Bridge with a newfound enthusiasm this year, as Shakespeare’s Globe and the Rose Theatre put on fantastic adaptations of the Bard’s greatest works (tickets start at a fiver).

You can also pay tribute to Shakespeare in The George Inn, the site of one of his favourite haunts. This crooked coaching house — the last galleried inn in London — is owned by the National Trust and its connections with literature are not limited to Shakespeare: Charles Dickens was also known to prop up its bar.

The Boot & Flogger is another establishment trapped in antiquity (and all the better for it). It’s all creaking floorboards, antique furniture and wood panelling inside this discreet watering hole, which professes to be London’s first wine bar.

Opposite is another hidden gem, the Cross Bones Graveyard, where local prostitutes — nicknamed the Winchester Geese — were laid to rest in medieval times. Festooned with ribbons and messages for the outcast dead, it’s a solemn site.

Assuming a visit to this necropolis doesn’t kill your appetite, Borough Market, with its cornucopia of culinary delights, would be a logical next stop. But if you’re willing to walk a bit further, Maltby Street Market (Sat 9am-4pm; Sun 11am-4pm) is less touristy.

Pop Brixton, a community project and event space built out of shipping containers. Image: Nick Warner

Pop Brixton, a community project and event space built out of shipping containers. Image: Nick Warner

Brixton

An April Fools’ Day prank doing the rounds a few years ago claimed Brixton was due to be renamed Clapham East. Yes, that Brixton; the edgy former home of David Bowie and chalk to Clapham’s well-matured cheddar. It was just a prank, but few found it funny: gentrification is a sensitive subject in this unconventional corner of south London, where it’s now just as common to see quinoa being consumed as it is cannabis. The rising tide of gentrification has indeed claimed some of the neighbourhood’s best-loved boozers and raised fears its independent spirit is being watered down. Nevertheless, Brixton remains one of London’s favourite nocturnal destinations.

Despite charging more than a fiver for a can of beer, the Brixton Academy is still one of the best live music venues in London — musos come from across the country to sweat it out in the stalls here.

Owing to its vast Caribbean population and David Bowie legacy, live music is in the DNA of this neighbourhood and those who’ve experienced jazz at The Prince of Wales on a Thursday night generally return for more.

Elsewhere, the Effra Hall Tavern is a classic neighbourhood pub dating back to the Victorian era. The period features — ornate bar, brass fixtures and panelled walls — have been faithfully preserved, but this tavern is not constrained by tradition: jerk chicken and jazz are usually on the menu.

Hootananny Brixton is another champion of musical diversity. Around the corner from the Effra, this local institution puts on an eclectic programme of live music that flirts with anything from reggae to gypsy folk.

For a quieter night, you could catch a film at the Ritzy Cinema, one of London’s grandest picture houses. The building dates back to 1911 and screens independent films as well as big budget blockbusters.

Brixton famously has its own currency, the Brixton Pound, and there are many opportunities to spend it in Brixton Village, which has become the destination for budget eating in south London. For cut price cocktails and tasty tapas, pull up a pew at Seven at Brixton, the Spanish-themed tavern. Alternatively, join the inevitable queue at Franco Manca, which has built a London-wide reputation for its sourdough pizzas.

Constructed from old shipping containers, Pop Brixton is a relatively new addition to the neighbourhood. It aims to give a platform to local entrepreneurs by offering discounted rents, which some locals have taken advantage of to launch record shops, clothing outlets and restaurants. Brixton’s community spirit lives on.

Waterloo

Erstwhile Waterloo can hardly be called off the beaten path — its station is where most visitors from Southwest England arrive in the city — but like a leaking bucket this neighbourhood has sometimes struggled to retain those who step off the train here.

You don’t need to be Sherlock Holmes to work out why; just beyond the boundaries of this busy interchange are two of the capital’s most popular attractions — the London Eye and the Southbank Centre — which lure visitors away from Waterloo.

Let’s follow the crowd for a minute, because the latter attraction, in particular, is a worthy diversion. The largest arts hub in Europe, the Southbank Centre is a sprawling concrete Brutalist complex that serves up anything from free concerts to art-house cinema, political discussions and performance art — or you can simply peruse dog-eared paperbacks at its feted book market, tucked under Waterloo Bridge.

However, Waterloo has its own cultural institutions: The Old Vic, a theatre from which Kevin Spacey recently stepped down as artistic director, and its whippersnapper sibling, the Young Vic, which showcases experimental productions and up-and-coming talent.

Don’t just go for the shows, though; the Young Vic has a buzzy bar and restaurant, which attracts theatregoers, intellectuals and anyone with a penchant for imbibing tapas, wine and craft beer. Both theatres can be found along The Cut, a busy street that’s home to some of the neighbourhood’s best bars and eateries, including Tas Restaurant, which brings a taste of Anatolia to Waterloo.

It’s also worth diving into The Vaults, a subterranean arts hub that occupies the labyrinthine tunnels beneath Waterloo station. Accessed via Leake Street, which is renowned for its street art, this impressive venue champions bold productions and contemporary art.

When in South London…

Go to a rooftop bar
A new rooftop joint seems to open every week. Located 31 floors up Europe’s tallest building, Aqua Shard’s lavish bar has arguably the best views in town.

Try jellied eels
London’s iconic pie and mash shops have been around since the 18th century, but are slowly dying out. One of the last is M.Manze, in Peckham — serving Cockney fare for over a century.

Sign up to an Unseen Tour
Unseen Tours is a social enterprise that helps homeless people find work as guides on tours of various city locations.

Go on an adventure
Fancy kayaking under Tower Bridge? Secret Adventures are keen to prove you don’t need to leave London to go on an adventure.

Forage for antiques
At Bermondsey Antiques Market, shoppers peruse anything from offbeat ornaments to Victorian tableware. Fridays from 6am-2pm in Bermondsey Square, early birds catch the best worms.

Published in the September 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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