Each of the small villages that make up London has its own distinct character; hidden green spaces, independent shops, weekend farmers markets… The le cool Neighbourhood Guides is all you need to explore the far corners of our favourite city.
This week, Karl Webster heads down south, to the depths of Peckham.
Peckham Rye has changed. In the early 90s, plans were actually afoot to demolish a fair swathe of it to make way for a Channel Tunnel rail link. Then, when those plans were unexpectedly shelved, there followed an extended period of regeneration, bringing new business, much-needed new housing, and equally importantly, street furniture.Then, gradually, the spectre of serious crime that made Peckham one of London’s dodgiest areas in the nineties and noughties lifted, and in December 2012, the Overground arrived, connecting Peckham with Clapham Junction in the south and Islington in the north. Since then, Peckham has gone nuts.
As well as masses of wildly exciting places to eat, drink and be merrily entertained, it’s also a Mecca for artists. Besides Camberwell College of Arts on Peckham Road and the artisan-packed railway arches, Bellenden Road – probably the most transformed local enclave – is enlivened with Antony Gormley’s notorious rusting bollards, Tom Phillips’ mosaics and a giant dog-cum-rat by Belgian artist ROA.
As it stands, Peckham feels slightly like it’s split in two; grubby, grimy, wonderfully authentic Old Peckham still clinging to Rye Lane – formerly the ‘golden mile’ and one of the most important shopping streets in 19th century London, and Bellenden Village, as the estate agents now call it, teeming with cafés and boutiques that are cool, stylish and occasionally wildly expensive (yes, we’re looking at you, General Store.
If the weather is good, you’d be a fool not to take a stroll across the park, not least because it has oak trees “filled with angels, bright angelic wings bespangling every bough like stars” – at least according to 8-year-old William Blake in 1765. It’s much more interesting than it initially appears too – head for the Café on the Rye and keep going. Also check out the award-winning library and while you’re there, spend a while perusing the Peckham Peace Wall, a permanent public artwork honouring the moving mosaic of post-it notes that were affixed to the smashed Poundshop following the 2011 riots.
Stroll down Rye Lane too and see if you can spot the remaining art deco buildings before developers get their way and turn them all into flats. Also on Rye Lane, you’ll find the Bussey Building, the roof of which affords great views across the capital in all directions. In summer months, there’s even a rooftop cinema.
There is so much good stuff to eat in Peckham, it’s almost obscene. Just opened on Blenheim Grove is Honest Burger, the grassroots Brixton business that’s spreading across London, serving what may very well be the city’s best patty.
Ganapati on Holly Grove meanwhile, offers the most gorgeous, gorge-inducing South Indian cuisine there is. Make sure to order too much and your doggy bag will thank you. Giving Ganapati a run for its money in terms of quality and popularity (if not yet in terms of the salubriousness of its locale) is the Ottoman cuisine of Peckham Bazaar on Consort Road, which with its labneh, tarator and soft boiled quail eggs will make you feel like you’ve woken up in a Masterchef final. Slightly simpler but equally scrumptious is the local legend that is Persepolis, where, it is said, Peckham meets Persia. Another legendary Peckham eatery is Petitou on Choumert Road, which serves delicious and mostly very healthy food, and has an (indecipherable) aerial map of Peckham on its handmade ceramic terrace. Further up Choumert is Small White Elephant. This place continues to build its reputation as one of the best new cafés in the area, combining a super-friendly atmosphere with painstaking coffee and food and regular jazz. SWE is also currently branching out into Vietnamese noodle soup.
Bringing Taiwanese cuisine to Peckham is brand new bao restaurant, Mr Bao, whose restaurant features a dish called Bao Diddley. I don’t know what it tastes like, but it’s a damn fine joke. Mr Bao, take a bow. Also relatively new to Peckham is Lerryn’s on Rye Lane, a proper DIY, slightly roughing-it but supercool caff selling ‘stuff on toast’ and ‘bloody great marys’.
Just round the corner on Peckham Rye but at the other end of the spectrum in terms of roughing it is Pedler. Winner of a Time Out Love London award, Pedler is gorgeous-smelling, breathtakingly sumptuous and delightfully staffed. The menu changes every day and the food is winning hearts and stomachs all over town. Personally, I haven’t tried it yet. But by God, do I intend to.
A few years ago, there was only a handful of pubs in Peckham that had anything more to offer than fizzy lager and a slightly questionable atmosphere. Now there are heaps. On Choumert Road, there’s the magnificent Montpelier, with fantastic food (whitebait!), DJs on Saturday nights and its own backroom cinema four nights a week.
Further up Choumert is the Victoria, again with great food and booze and reasonably priced lodgings should you end up a little too worse for wear. Underneath the arches on Blenheim Grove you’ll find Bar Story and behind that Peckham Springs. Both serve cheap cocktails with two-for-£7 happy hours and both are very popular.
The Hope is a new basement bar on Melon Road most notable for the hundreds and hundreds of books that grace one of its walls. It also prides itself on ‘proper music and proper beer’. Then there’s The Four Quarters on Rye Lane, the only pub in Peckham with a selection of classic arcade games, including Pac-Man, Defender, Asteroids and Tron. Yes, Tron.
If a garden is what you’re after, The Rye is pretty difficult to beat, and if coffee’s your tipple of choice, just head across the street to the Old Spike Roastery, a social enterprise set up exclusively to provide local homeless people with work, housing and expert training. Currently open to the public only at weekends, the OSR not only make arguably the best coffee in Peckham, but it also roasts coffee beans for local cafes and companies (these guys also catered Banksy’s Dismaland, which is pretty cool). Finally, from June onwards, don’t forget Frank’s Café on the top of the world.
The Rye Lane end of Choumert Road is a beautiful bustling multicultural melange of markets and street stalls, which as well as the usual yams and what-have-you, also sell giant live snails that, presumably, some people keep as pets. Back on Rye Lane you’d be a fool not to pop into Khan’s Bargain Ltd, the Harrod’s of Peckham. Doesn’t matter if you don’t need anything – just ‘walk in & see the variety’. Back on Bellenden is Review, one of the best independent bookshops in the country, and one that happens to have its own long-running literary festival. Quite a few health food shops have popped up in Peckham recently, but none so idiosyncratic as Puzzle Organico, which not only sells quinoa, handmade organic chocolate and tea and coffee, but also has seating, free wifi, record decks and decent selection of vinyl. It’s also one of the friendliest, prettiest shops in London.
Back at the Bussey Building, there’s always something going on, including huge club nights every weekend, pilates and yoga classes, theatre, dance, live music, comedy and until the end of February, Hamlet Peckham, apparently the best Shakespeare London has to offer.
For a wide range of perhaps more experimental literary and theatrical events, you could always try the Peckham Pelican. Or on a lighter note, there’s Martin Soan’s regular comedy night Pull the Other One, which has now returned to The Ivy House on the far side of the park.
Finally, if cinema’s your thing, you could try the East Dulwich Picture House where you’ll pay £13 to see a film. Or, if you’ve got any sense, you’ll stay in Peckham and watch the same film for £4.99. Even on a Saturday night. Is the Peckhamplex the cheapest cinema in London? Yes. Yes, it is. And is Peckham Rye the London’s greatest neighbourhood? Yes. The moment they re-open the lido, yes, it is.