Streetlife: Lower Marsh, SE1
Where else can you find vinyl records, rubber dresses, vintage frocks, fine food, Gregg’s food, a licensed knitting shop, a gay sauna and a B&B in which your wardrobe could be concealing a dwarf in his pants?
There is no place like Lower Marsh.
In an ultra-hyperlocal move, we decided to spend one day on one street in Waterloo, starting with breakfast.
If, like myself, you spent the night before in blameless serenity, a pain au chocolat and superb coffee in the eclectic, retro glow of Scootercaffè, serenaded by faultless 50s sounds, is quite sufficient. If, like Half-life, you awoke on the roof of your local, wearing rubber gloves and a tutu, you might need the restorative powers of shallow-fried pig. He favoured the Waterloo institution, Marie’s Cafe, for breakfast, though mostly because you can BYOB.
The problem with spending the day on any street is what to do between breakfast and opening time, when you can’t very well have a nap. Not now Steve’s B&B has closed down anyway, after the bottom fell out of the market for shit-smeared walls, with blood-stained, semen-encrusted linen and dwarf-bearing furniture.
Lower Marsh does offer shopping that lets you know you are not in Anytown, UK, but there are forces at work that want to make the street a bit chi-chi (read: Wanky). And there are those who have traded there for many years who have already made it special and want to keep it that way.
The vintage shops, Radio Days and What The Butler Wore are still there, still good, and still much cheaper than Brick Lane (though WTBW has been forced to move from its home next to the Scootercaffè to No. 108, which they share with JB’s Record Shop). There’s the fetish shop with its ‘bondage attic’, the knitting shop (club and sanctuary) and a men’s shop that screams ‘comfortable slacks’. Plus charity shops, a Jobshop and an aromatic street food market. It has retained a variety fast disappearing elsewhere.
Slowly though, it is changing. The secondhand bookshop has closed and been replaced by, well, no one’s quite sure what it is. The new shops are more upmarket, like the product designer’s whose work aims to ‘provoke dialogue, participation and interaction’. The Lower Marsh Regeneration Project has spent a lot of money (reportedly from the big local hotels) to smarten up the road with four-colour paving to increase footfall and make it more attractive to tourists. To be fair, they have put some seating outside William Hill’s which was much appreciated after my nag went tits-up at Kempton.
But Lower Marsh is surrounded by social housing. Affordable food and community are more important than concepts of minimalism. And provocative dialogue is usually settled the old-fashioned way.
Bridget, proprietor (and raconteur) of What The Butler Wore, preferred the road and pavement before the slick makeover: ‘It’s like straightening David Bowie’s crooked teeth.’ She believes the regeneration has not increased footfall and may even have reduced it. ‘Now we get people who wonder why on earth there’s an Iceland here.’
I worry that the changing nature of the street will see people who have invested 20 years in building up a business and making an unfashionable area desirable, will be pushed out by wealthier newcomers with a dream and a rich daddy. I was so worried I decided to spend £5.80 on lunch. The roast pork and crackling on a bed of rice with an unidentified green vegetable, at the Olympic Cafe, did the trick and I was soon ready for a pint at the Camel. Not a bad spot for an ale and the footy, as it turns out, if only Murdoch had the decency to put a game on Thursday afternoon after our lunch.
Order restored, pints led to ace mojitos at Cubana and a Blue Peter (one I made earlier) on the little green near the Old Vic. At that eastern end of Lower Marsh, it sounds like the legendary Da Vinci bar is to be closed and demolished, along with the surrounding buildings. Shame. It was always the perfect place to pop into if you fancied one about 5am. Half-life remembers it fondly as the place where he snorted ketamine before trying to climb into a painting.
We meandered into the graffiti tunnel, a legal street art gallery, which would have been a breath of fresh air if it wasn’t for the smell. Still, a wonderful wander, especially on this stuff, filled with other people’s wild imagination. The tunnel also leads to The Vaults, a contemporary arts space with a gallery, and theatre in the abandoned tunnels underneath Waterloo Station. The Vaults won Lambeth’s Business of the Year 2014 and Best Start-Up, but don’t let that put you off.
Rule No.1: There are no rules. Rule No.2: Except Rule No.1. With this in mind we then failed to spend the whole day on Lower Marsh as La Barca looked too formal and pricey for us to eat in, in our now debilitated state. So we wandered over Waterloo Bridge, did some staring and went to the incomparable India Club.
Ever diligent, however, we did pop back to Lower Marsh and went to Carriage 34, the bar which sort of resembles a train carriage and has scenic footage sweeping by to simulate train travel. It’s a nice idea, if a bit gimmicky, but by midnight the music was loud and of the banging variety and the passing scenery appeared to be Muhammad Ali punching someone. It certainly wasn’t like any train journey I’d been on. Confused and not terribly welcome, we returned to Scootercaffè, now serving booze, with its customary charm. The owner, Craig, is an expert scooter and coffee machine mechanic who’s combined his passions to bring us joy. Now he’s added a bottle opener to bring us deep joy.
What it lacks in outstanding pubs – the Walrus Bar & Hostel and the Camel are in the ‘not bad’ bracket – Lower Marsh makes up for in boozes in unexpected places. You can have a drink in several of the cafés and at least one knitting shop. Do catch it before money fucks it up.
Update July 2018
We’re fearing for Lower Marsh now gentrifiers have discovered its wonders and how close they are to Tourist Central.
Sadly, What The Butler Wore has closed down but continues to pop up on Etsy and vintage fairs around London, especially South London. WTBW is to be demolished, along with Chariots, to make way for a new hotel.
Coleman’s has entered the Best Coffee on Lower Marsh race with a strong entry.
Carriage 34 has closed, only to be reborn as Vaulty Towers, a kooky, cosy bar brought to us by the dudes behind The Vaults. And we were pleased to discover Travelling Through. Masquerading as a simple bookshop (for travel writing and guides), downstairs it opens out into a cafe, bar and garden. Good to see Lower Marsh can still deliver a tale of the unexpected.
Update June 2015
Do you want the good news, or the bad news, first? OK, the good news is, you’re going to have a swelling named after you.
The bad news is that vintage stalwart Radio Days is to close at the end of 2015 after 22 years of sharp suits, great hats and fab dresses on Lower Marsh. At least it’s not being bought out by Nando’s. Chris, the owner, has had enough of work, which we can all understand. We wish her and Lee the very best of luck avoiding it in future.
The library is going to be sold so Lambeth Council can raise money for, er, libraries. The devil’s advocate would say that for valuable real estate, it’s not being used enough. His adversary would in turn say, why did you spunk a load of wedge refurbing it, then? And, what is more valuable than a space to read and dream? Yes, a space to read and dream and have a pint, but it’s not going to become one of those.
There’s a proposal to demolish Steve’s dwarf-yielding B&B and build a boutique hotel, which tells you everything you need to know about where Lower Marsh is going.
Carriage 34 had its license suspended with the police losing patience after it got a bit stabby. It’s reopened as Lounge 34, marking a stark line between the past and the present.
It’s not all bad news. Love & Scandal is a coffee-obsessives’ cafe (Aussie-run, natch) that’s opened next to What The Butler Wore. Po Cha is an ace Korean restaurant that’s come south from Tottenham Court Road due to Crossrail flattening everything in its path. And the Vaults Gallery reopens in September, along with the new Vaults Kitchen. It even has a bar, giving us that underground, dreamy, boozey, artsy place we deserve.
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