Up the Elephant

The Elephant & Castle reminds me of the tale about a group of blind men encountering an elephant for the first time. The first blind man feels its tusk and declares that an elephant is like a spear; the second feels its tail and declares that an elephant is like rope; the third feels its ear and declares that an elephant is like cloth. And so on, until you get to the point of the story which, sadly, eludes me.

One thing’s for sure about the Elephant and Castle, it’s not really a place, let’s get that straight from the outset. Like The Angel, Islington and Bricklayers Arms, the name originally referred to a coaching inn. Much of the area was more properly known as Newington but something was required to distinguish it from the dozens of other Newingtons that were springing up all over the gaff.

‘Old Newington’ was rejected as oxymoronic while ‘New Old Newington’ was simply moronic and so, since the meeting was being held in the actual pub at the time (possibly), ‘Elephant and Castle’ was chosen to refer to that area around the tangle of roads just south of the river which, when viewed from above, resembles that box where you keep all your old leads.

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Elephants and Castle

But where did the pub name come from? The delicious story that it derived from locals’ corruption of ‘La Infanta de Castile’ is now discredited, but since history is famously light on fun I nevertheless repeat it whenever I get the chance.

The Elephant and Castle is a populous area despite people (for now) being forced to exist in underground tunnels or high-rise monoliths, while at ground level cars roam free. A substantial Latin American community has developed, with a recent survey by the Latin Elephant website suggesting that there are 80 independent Latin American businesses operating in the area.

While perhaps not as much in evidence as we found recently in New Cross there is also a sizable, if transient, student population due to the presence of London South Bank University (LSBU) and the London College of Communications (LCC). Come to the LCC, trumpets the LCC section of the University of the Arts London (UAL) website, ‘Built around one of the city’s major roundabouts’. It also talks of the transformative power of the current ‘£1.5 million redevelopment’. In fact it’s £1.5 billion. But that’s what you get when you study arts instead of maths. I should know.

The driving force behind the regeneration of the area, overseen by Southwark Council, is to make the area more mixed-income (read: ‘More middle class’) which in turn will lead to more business investment. It was hoped that the area, being so central, would attract those priced out by riverside developments and that they might look instead a mile or so ‘inland’ and share it with the hoi-polloi who already called it home. But would there be enough room for everyone?

This was solved by getting rid of the hoi-polloi. At the Heygate, developers Lend Lease have torn down the the low-rise estates and are replacing them with the tower block parks that have been such a success throughout London, with the exciting social scenes that spring up around their windy bases, the very real sense of vertical community they foster and the lifts that never go out of order. The Aylesbury Estate is set to go the same way.

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Heygate remains

The council claims that there will be more ‘affordable homes’ on the new estates than existed on the previous estates (around 25% of the total). However, as the term ‘affordable’ includes new-style ‘50/50’ ownership as well as capped rent housing it’s not by any means an exact comparison.

So the Elephant is in a state of flux, with the old and the new rubbing shoulders, eyeing each other suspiciously and occasionally telling each other to piss off out of it. Where does this leave us? Those who simply want to get loaded and have a good time?

Confused, perhaps. Conflicted, maybe. But above all, thirsty.

Best Pub

The Elephant & Castle pub is closed at the time of writing (about 3am, if you must know). It has had its licence suspended pending a full hearing after a customer was stabbed in the head with a pen. If it wasn’t in bad taste I’d put in a joke here about the similarity to Deserter editorial meetings, but it is, so I won’t. The closure is a shame since it was a good, central, late-night spot with a covered outside space for warmer times. The pub features in my esteemed colleague’s piece, Top Ten Pubs on a Roundabout.

The Albert Arms is a handsome old boozer which, since it can get very crowded in the evenings, is probably best enjoyed in the daytime. Brilliant. The Prince of Wales on St. George’s Road is pleasantly unreconstructed, the Charlie Chaplin at the top of New Kent Road has the feel of an underground booze-lair, with people generally coughing up bits of their small intestine on the pavement outside, while the Rockingham Arms, being a Wetherspoons, allows you get into holiday mode with a pint at 10am, should that be your heart’s desire.

Our winner, though, is The Ship on the borders of Borough: A classic, sports-friendly Fuller’s pub with a wonderful dark-wood interior and a bright, roomy yard for outside supping.

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Three sheets to the wind

We’re sorry to see that the sumptuous Hampton Court Palace on Hampton Street remains closed despite being bought by a hotel chain over a year ago. If anyone has any news on what’s happening with it, let us know.

Best Cafe

Barista and Baker is a recent arrival on the posh coffee scene, being part of the catchily-named Clarence Centre for Enterprise and Innovation (part of the LSBU) on St George’s Circus. The coffee is excellent (and so, by the looks of it, is the food) but the place suffers a little from that hint of municipal you get in educational establishments. When I was there last, there were people talking about ‘the meeting with Sebastian’ on one table and on another a group was shouting about Human Resources, truly one of the worst things to shout about.

I like the Electric Elephant by the arty enclave of Iliffe Yard where, as well as the ‘damn fine coffee’ from Darlington’s, the £6 lunch of the day is renowned in the area. My eye was drawn, though, by the promise of a fried egg on top bubble and squeak, on toast – a veritable carbohydrate hillock that kept me going until the early hours. When I got a kebab.

La Bodeguita cafe in the shopping centre is also delightful and I shall return to it below, but our winner is the cafe/bar of Southwark Playhouse on Newington Causeway. A rambling, ramshackle place, with mismatched furniture, a piano, art on the walls and as much free wifi as you can suck up. Having conferred with the aforementioned Dirty South, we think it might be the best value coffee we have yet unearthed – £1.20 for a large americano – and the hot wraps and paninis are lovingly prepared and presented.

In the evening it transforms into a buzzing bar and apparently they even put on plays, too.

Green

There is not much in the way of greenery at the Elephant and Castle – even less when the council keeps fencing bits off for developers or to re-present as community initiatives – but Newington Green is a nice place to loiter, take some air and listen to the relaxing racket of outdoor table tennis.

I paused, too, in the gardens of the Imperial War Museum (actually Geraldine Mary Harmsworth Park) and gave thanks to those who gave their lives that I may roll one up and smoke it with a tin of JD and coke.

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Disgraceful eyesore. And the shopping centre

Shopping

Once a thriving shopping centre known as the ‘Piccadilly of South London’, now all the Elephant really has to offer in the way of shopping is a giant dilapidated ’60s concrete carbuncle which has been bought by developers and is earmarked for demolition.

Variously described as ‘a ruin’, ‘stinking’ or ‘a disgraceful slum’, it may not look much but it is my favourite part of the Elephant and 100 times better than the glass and steel units that will replace it once the characterless apartment blocks are built upon it. The hideous exterior masks two floors of independent shops and a lively Latin American cafe scene. I used to pass through it on my way to work. Now I stop and get a coffee and a chicken empanada with homemade chilli sauce at the La Bodeguita cafe and give work the finger.

One day I will spend all day on a stool at the La Bodeguita hatch, sipping beer or a large rum like the Latin American guys, pretending I’m at a beach shack and listening to imaginary waves lapping at the shore. But I’ll be in a shopping centre. It doesn’t get any better than that.

I have already written about the delights of Mamuśka!, the Polish restaurant with the iced vodka that can make any lunch go with a bang, and up top is the London Palace Superbowl where locals defy austerity every day by wrenching out an iota of fun before the apocalypse.

The Elephant and Castle shopping centre. Get it while you can. One day soon the bastards will come and take it away from us.

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Urban beach shack

Any other recommendations?

Corsica Studios operates club nights underneath the shopping centre, accessed from two arches in Elephant Road. I haven’t been, because I’m quite old and worried young folk might laugh at my dancing, piss in my pocket and finger me in the toilets while telling me they love me, but I do like their sister site, Paperworks on Newington Causeway. It offers what they call ‘creative art experiences’ but don’t let that put you off – it’s actually a cracking open-air food and booze venue open Thursday to Sunday.

It’s also worth getting to know someone from the LCC so they can get you into Darkroom, the student union bar. The pints may be Carlsberg and Strongbow but holy footnotes and dissertations, it’s cheap. Also, they have a table tennis table with the word ‘WORK’ emblazoned on it in giant letters. Worth the admission fee alone (it’s free).

What is there to moan about?

It’s a little known fact that the road system at the Elephant is actually an elaborate mechanism for the legalised culling of cyclists in order to reduce the number of those that might be in favour of banishing HGVs from Central London. Southwark, please stop killing cyclists.

Also, the new buildings are all shit. One the Elephant is shit. Two Fifty One is shitter. And Strata is shittest, with its turbines that they had to turn off because they made the building actually shake like a shitting dog.

And they have the nerve to criticise the shopping centre.

Secret

Did you know that there’s a cinema museum tucked away on the Kennington borders? Me neither.

Just south of St George’s Road lies the delightful West Square, now a conservation area with central gardens that are open to the public during daylight hours. Tragically, there was once a pub in the corner.

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Protest outside Lend Lease marketing pavilion

One to Watch

Occupying the site of the old Shell garage on Walworth Road is Artworks, a ‘box park’ reminiscent of the iconic container pop-up mall in Shoreditch. It’s right up against the old Heygate Estate site, next to the Lend Lease marketing pavilion for Elephant Park (as it is to be called). Cynics might suggest that it’s been placed there to take our minds off the ugliness of social cleansing and so it may have. But there’s no point taking out grievances about regeneration and development on the small businesses that have set up there, nor indeed on the incomers themselves; they’re just people looking for somewhere to live too. People with a bit more money.

With this in mind Dirty South and I spent a happy afternoon first in the Elephant Shack, where ‘not loopy’ Rachael chatted to us, served us delicious Brew by Numbers saisons and pale ales and fed us burgers in flat bread until we forgot all about skyscrapers and apartment blocks filled with terrible cunts.

Then we looked in at Six Yard Box where Seb, the proprietor, seems to have heeded our call – some say demand – for a micropub that shows the football, and where we drank beers from Fourpure and Brick Brewery while he showed us some pictures of Dulwich Hamlet FC he’s going to put up on the walls.

And so there it is, the Elephant, the old and the new. On the whole, I prefer the old, but London wouldn’t be London if it didn’t keep trying to change, however crass the results may sometimes be.

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The Elephant, centre of London and therefore, the world

Finally, there is one other satisfying thing about the Elephant, as the Germans knew when they made it the centre of their WWII London bombing target. It is slap bang in the actual very middle of London.

So when you’re sipping an iced vodka at Mamuśka! or racking up a game of pool upstairs in London Palace Superbowl, you can relax in the knowledge that you are as far away from the countryside as you can possibly be in the UK.

Cheers, urbanophiles!

Update: May 2016

Mamuśka! left the shopping centre last year and now has new premises not far from The Stratarse. Glasses of vodka remain £3. Sadly, Elephant Shack and Paperworks have now closed. In better news the Elephant & Castle pub avoided becoming a branch of Foxton’s and will now re-open as an Antic pub.

The underground walkways have now been filled in and as part of the redevelopment of the area, pedestrians are now invited to test their skill crossing the new road system. Sadly, while it’s a good thing to get the people back overground, they seem to have forgotten to get rid of the traffic.

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  • elliotmcv

    Another great write-up. Love the Electric Elephant, probably my favourite place to go for breakfast in London.

    Having to pass the Heygate ruins followed by ugly-as-fuck Strata and garish “One the Elephant” is easily the worst part of my commute.

    • Roger Kojan

      good stuff. My brother lives at the bottom of Dog Kennel Hill and takes me to the Hamlet matches when I am in London so I always enjoy these meandering journals.

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  • lizlizliz

    Lived here for 10 years. Love it, wish I could afford to buy my place. In the meantime, there’s a lot to enjoy about Elephant!

    You missed La Chatica, the Colombian restaurant under the railway arches. Go for a hangover breakfast – either an arepa with scrambled eggs or the steak with rice and beans. Plus an empanada with chili sauce and coffee made with UHT milk for that authentic ‘on your holidays’ effect. Watch as extended families stock up on cakes and mysterious frozen breads.

    I’m spurning the boxpark thing out of spite. Why couldn’t they have put the library on the ground floor? Why are all the shops shut all the time? Why does it always seem cold and windy?

    Elephant’s still lacking in decent pubs though, so it’s The Royal Oak or The Lord Clyde for the time being. Apparently Antic are planning on turning the old shipbuilder’s union into a pub, if it’s as nice as The Old Red Lion in Kennington that’ll be a good bet.

  • Tim Murray

    I love the Elephant. I’ve worked here for a few years now and whenever I hear new colleagues moaning about having to work here, I put them right.

    I love the fact that the shopping centre is still there, like a big middle finger stuck up to the corporate ‘regeneration’ of the area. It’s resisted redevelopment in the past, but I fear that its time will be up in a few years. Let’s enjoy it while it lasts.

    You’re pretty spot on with everything there. The only think I’d take issue with the the Barista & Baker place. It’s a godawful excuse for a cafe. It’s got all the atmosphere of drinking coffee in a conference centre (which I think it actually is).

    Despite the horrible corporate Boxpark copyism, I’ve not shunned The Artworks. There’s good food in the Elephant Shack and Marcel and Sons, and juices from that juice place, whatever it’s callled. Because of its location, and because the developers behind it have no idea how to run and market a place like this, it’s ususually quite empty. So the people who run the shops and cafes are always super-friendly and want to chat and encourage you to come back. I’ve spend a few pleasant lunchtimes doing that. But I fear for their businesses.

    For pubs, there’s also the Duke of York on Soutwark Bridge Road, but I’ve always found it a disappointment. Badly kept ales and food missing from the menu regularly feature.

    Up the Elephant!

  • Dan Daniels

    Don’t say ‘delicious’.

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