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.