“It’s strange to see the area so still and silent”: A walk around Elephant & Castle at dawn

The Elephant and Castle shopping centre, which is to be demolished.Credit: Getty

It’s 4am and it’s cool, dark and foggy. There’s hardly anyone on the streets of Elephant and Castle as I begin my dawn wander outside the wildly unattractive shopping centre.

Opened in 1965, it was the first covered shopping mall in Europe, and is today shabby and full of character. It’s home to Latin American cafés, Castle Tandoori – an Indian restaurant largely unchanged since the 1980s – £1-a-go massage chairs, and, until recently, Palace Bingo. The latter shut its doors in April, among the first of many closures to hit the shopping centre in upcoming months as its vendors prepares for imminent demolition.  

During the day, the centre is a lively stomping ground for many local pensioners from diverse backgrounds, predominantly African and Caribbean, and it’s strange to see the area surrounding the centre, usually buzzing with life, so still and silent. It strikes me how strange and sad it will be when it’s no longer there.  

Walworth, like most areas of London, is undergoing extensive change. I’m reminded of this every time I find myself in the area.  As I walk towards East Street, I survey the places that no longer exist: the Tibetan Buddhist Centre that was located in a former Victorian bathhouse, the Cuming Museum, which has remained closed since a fire in 2013, the Heygate Estate – now replaced by Elephant Park. 

I pass by the ArtWorks; an odd ill-placed pop-up of shipping containers housing restaurants, start-ups, and a small library frequented by locals. Just across the road, tucked at the end of Hampton Street behind the 43-storey Strata tower, which was in 2010 voted Britain’s Ugliest New Building, stands the United Reform Church. The church hosts a weekly community canteen run by charity Be Enriched. Locals, often vulnerable adults and rough sleepers, gather at the church to enjoy a free meal and chat about everything under the sun, from zombie apocalypses to the housing crisis and the gentrification of the area.  

An elderly man emerges from the fog; he’s wearing a top hat and hobbling along with his walking stick. Startled, I smile awkwardly and say good morning, he smiles back and nods. I wonder where he’s going at this time. I keep walking down the street, passing by East Street Market, one of London’s oldest, largest and busiest markets. There’s a blue plaque stuck to the building by the entrance marking the birthplace of Charlie Chaplin.

The market, which is notably featured in the opening credits of Only Fools and Horses, will come to life this afternoon, drawing in crowds of people. Its stalls sell everything from fruit and veg to suitcases, antiques, and underwear. You’ll often see the same characters frequenting the stalls, dressed in eccentric outfits and chatting to the sellers. At this time, a few empty stalls have been put out, shrouded in mist, a man stands beside them. I float by.


A greasy spoon on the high street is lit up, the shutters are half closed. There are plasters strewn across the pavement. I pass by shops and supermarkets, bus stops, beauty salons and pawn brokers. I reach the top of Liverpool Grove and glance up. St Peter’s Church, the first church designed by Sir John Soane, the architect behind the Bank of England, stands tall and looks slightly out of place in the area. During the blitz local people would seek shelter in its crypt, 30 people were killed when a bomb hit it. The crypt, recently restored, is now a community space and café. During the colder months it provides shelter to those sleeping rough.   

I keep walking down the High Street until I come to a junction, where I cross the road and wander into Burgess park. I walk up the steep wildflower mounds – relishing in finding a bit of countryside in London. Birds fly over my head; the flowers are beginning to bloom. From the hills, I look out at the Ayelesbury Estate and Divine Rescue Shelter (another soon-to be-gone soup kitchen) and the Shard. 

I walk pass the almshouses in Chumleigh Gardens, established by the Friendly Female Society, the sheltered housing was run by and for women, operating “by love, kindness, and absence of humbug”.  Hidden inside the gardens in the courtyard of the almshouse there’s multi-cultural garden, built to reflect the area’s diversity. In the Islamic Garden at the back there’s a sculpture depicting local hero Kieb Thomas, a community activist and teacher. The gardens, now closed, are a hidden gem providing peace and quiet in an otherwise noisy and heavily populated space.   

I continue through the park, pausing by the lake. Surrounding the much-used outdoor barbeques are piles of rubbish. A fox is trawling through it. A cleaner wearing high-vis is walking around, surveying the damage with an expression of disgust on his face; he takes photos of the litter. I climb the hill, and from its summit I take in the view; the tall glass buildings of Canary Wharf, and the local gems like New Peckham Mosque, a place of workshop frequented largely by the Turkish Cypriot community and housed inside a Grade 1 listed church. Finally, I take a seat on the grass and wait for the sun to rise.  

 
 
 
 

17 things the proposed “Tulip” skyscraper that London mayor Sadiq Khan just scrapped definitely resembled

Artist's impression. See if you can guess which one The Tulip is. Image: Foster + Partners.

Sadiq Khan has scrapped plans to build a massive glass thing in the City of London, on the grounds it would knacker London’s skyline. The “Tulip” would have been a narrow, 300m skyscraper, designed by Norman Foster’s Foster & Partners, with a viewing platform at the top. Following the mayor’s intervention, it now won’t be anything of the sort.

This may be no bad thing. For one thing, a lot of very important and clever people have been noisily unconvinced by the design. Take this statement from Duncan Wilson, the chief executive of Historic England, from earlier this year: “This building, a lift shaft with a bulge on top, would damage the very thing its developers claim they will deliver – tourism and views of London’s extraordinary heritage.”

More to the point, the design was just bloody silly. Here are some other things that, if it had been built, the Tulip would definitely have looked like.

1. A matchstick.

2. A drumstick.

3. A cotton ear bud.

4. A mystical staff, of the sort that might be wielded by Gandalf the Grey.

5. A giant spring onion.

6. A can of deodorant, from one of the brands whose cans are seemingly deliberately designed in such a way so as to remind male shoppers of the fact that they have a penis.

7. A device for unblocking a drain.

8. One of those lights that’s meant to resemble a candle.

9. A swab stick, of the sort sometimes used at sexual health clinics, in close proximity to somebody’s penis.

10.  A nearly finished lollipop.

11. Something a child would make from a pipe cleaner in art class, which you then have to pretend to be impressed by and keep on show for the next six months.

12. An arcology, of the sort seen in classic video game SimCity 2000.

13. Something you would order online and then pray will arrive in unmarked packaging.

14. The part of the male anatomy that the thing you are ordering online is meant to be a more impressive replica of.

15. A building that appears on the London skyline in the Star Trek franchise, in an attempt to communicate that we are looking at the FUTURE.


14a. Sorry, the one before last was a bit vague. What I actually meant was: a penis.

16. A long thin tube with a confusing bulbous bit on the end.

17. A stamen. Which, for avoidance of doubt, is a plant’s penis.

One thing it definitely does not resemble:

A sodding tulip.

Anyway, it’s bad, and it’s good the mayor has blocked it.

That’s it, that’s the take.

(Thanks to Anoosh Chakelian, Jasper Jackson, Patrick Maguire for helping me get to 17.)

Jonn Elledge is editor of CityMetric and the assistant editor of the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

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