I was thrilled when the Evening Standard announced that they were covering Camberwell in Homes and Property (today, people! Today!). I love H&P. It’s the covetous, property porn jam to my otherwise disappointing Wednesday toast.
And I was thrilled that people were going to see how great the place is. Sarah Waters’ new book, The Paying Guests, has a ‘genteel Camberwell villa’ at its centre, and lots of Camberwell is indeed jolly genteel. So much so in fact that there was much “Wuh?” from SE5 residents on Twitter when Time Out posted a review of the Camberwell Arms (announced today as one of The Good Food Guide’s top 50 British pubs) painting SE5 as a grim, downtrodden haven of grime, and nought else. It was so bewilderingly sniffy that those comments have since been removed from the review.
My brother used to come to Jazz in the Crypt at St Giles all the time, but as far as I was concerned Camberwell was unreachable – largely because everyone told me it was. When I moved here three years ago, I may as well have been moving to Narnia. “You have to walk? To get to a bus stop? For 10 minutes?” I was weak at my under-exercised knees.
I moved from SE1, where I’d been disgustingly spoiled by living a five minute walk from Waterloo station. There was no way I could afford to buy around there, so the estate agent took me down to hutches in Kennington, cellars in Oval, and then to SE5. We drove past the crumbling, half-gorgeous Georgian houses of Camberwell New Road and down through Flodden Road where she brought me out by a park – a beautiful park, surrounded by stunning, Kat-friendly period houses, and I could feel the tingle that tells you you’ve arrived somewhere magical and please, can we stay here if at all possible?
I walked into Twee Flat to the flicker of candles, a cat sitting on a pile of fluffy towels in a laundry cupboard (well-played, previous owners), then handed the agent my phone with my mortgage assurance on and pleaded with her to take the flat off the market that second. Reader, she did. *skips the nightmarish part of actually buying the place*
Camberwell is the first place I’ve lived in London where I’ve really got involved in the area. In my 20s I’d go out in town, and only use home for collapsing. Here, I know my neighbours. There’s the lending of things, drinking wine, and dark talk about the living nightmare that is Lambeth Living. People from choir live here; we throw a big party concert in St Giles each year. I’ve baked for the little volunteer-run cafe in Myatt’s Fields. My church has an excellent group of “The Young” (ie, anyone under 40) who meet once a month. One of my great chums lives just down the road, with another about to join her. That beautiful park that I fell in love with has a Christmas carols concert each year. It rains, almost inevitably, but a gang of us go and sing, get wet and drink mulled wine, and resolve each year to buy better umbrellas.
When I mentioned the Evening Standard’s feature to some SE5 friends on Twitter, I expected everyone to be pleased. Few were, because people finding out that Camberwell is not in fact a stabbing-filled shit hole in the middle of nowhere means that prices go up. Rachel, who I only met earlier this year, drinking Likkel Rascals in Communion during the Camberwell Arts Festival, is leaving after 10 years because the rents have priced her and her other half out.
“We rent and prices have got crazy so it’s looking like its time to move on,” she said. “I blame gentrification too. It’s good, but also really bad for communities. We desperately need rent control and caps in London.”
Hands up, I am one of the Great Awful. Gentrification was what made me so excited to move here: I wanted a home, not an overpriced crap heap. The Waterloo flat had a great location, but it was above a Chinese restaurant and I was visited by cockroaches and non-Disney mice. In Camberwell, there was community, beauty and things happening. Twee Flat was in a place I’d only dreamt of, and crucially, one that I could afford and where I felt safe.
Since I’ve been here, Camberwell has got ever more swish, usually with a lot of community involvement. Even the uncared for corners are – slowly – getting face lifts and new coats of paint, although one estate has been removed altogether to make way for the mystifyingly named Oval Quarter (Oval = 20 minutes walk away), and my friend Jordana is currently at loggerheads with Southwark council about their plans to replace wooden windows with PVC. Camberwell is divided into Lambeth and Southwark boroughs. I am in Lambeth. Do not get me started on Lambeth Living. My rant will not end.
More cheerfully, Camberwell really is as arty as you’d think. The art students are as stunning to look at as their work – kudos to the girl wearing Naomi Campbell fall-over heels at 4 in the afternoon. The Bear pub has storytelling nights, and its own choir. The Remakery is a fledgling design group creating a work co-op out of an old garage. The Maudsley psychiatric hospital has a beautiful art exhibition open to the public, painted by its younger patients. Camberwell’s free film festival takes place in venues all over the place, and the Arts Festival is a feast of creativity and activities: the design duo Mini Moderns live here and designed Camberwell mugs for the festival. Both festivals are testament to the amazing people who put all the work in getting them done.
Then there’s food: Church Street is covered in delicious restaurants. There’s a not-quite-annual Food and Drink festival, the little farmers market each Saturday on the Green, and the big one at St Mark’s in Oval, up the road. Burgess Park – a total shit heap when I lived nearby in 2010 – has been hugely up-tarted, and now has free film screenings as well as ParkRun – again, both organised by brilliant people. And there are a lot of brilliant people. Church is big in Camberwell. A couple of years ago Pastor Mimi Asher was on Radio 4 for turning around the gangs on her estate, and there are always men giving kids intensive-looking football lessons on the Myatt’s Fields pitch, every day of the year.
The pound shop in Butterfly Walk is filled with things that make each day easier – I haven’t paid full-price for Colgate in years. The Morrisons next door has an excellent fishmonger, and £3 flowers to cheer up my mantelpiece. The Pigeon Hole cafe, just opened on Datchelor Place off Church Street, is a gorgeous crowdfunded place near a string of good pubs. At the other end of Denmark Hill, near the cavernous art shop, GX Gallery has the most amazing set-up (go downstairs, now) and does wonderful framing.
Camberwell has bike cafes with old games consoles, nice places to hang out, a beautiful florist at Pesh where I buy my favourite Melt Still candles, supper clubs, and new ventures by sexy restaurants. People speak knowingly and reverently about obscure Chinese food from Silk Road. Camberwell’s not on a Tube, but it’s 10 minutes by bus to Oval, Denmark Hill’s round the corner and you can get anywhere from Holland Park to Queens Park by bus. It also has a good McDonald’s right next to the Camberwell Green bus stop for when you are so tired you just need salt and sugar in your face, now.
“I wonder if it will explode like Peckham did,” I said to H on the bus, on our way to the Camberwell Arms. “It probably won’t, it’s already too nice.” We missed our stop, and as we got off at Coldharbour Lane, walked into the middle of an attempted knife attack. “Probably spoke too soon,” I said once we’d given statements to the police, and H had given the police a video of the scene via What’s App, marvellously.
Everything goes up, and up, and up in London, except wages. I’ve no idea where I would go if I ever needed a house, rather than a flat. For the time being though, I’m peaceful, happy and safe. Camberwell runs through my London life, as mixed-up and gorgeous as the Japanese maples whose red leaves are about to line SE5’s streets.