Imagine a riverside locationfilled with characterful buildings, open green spaces and even a small farm. Picture it in London’s Zone 1, just minutes from the Palace of Westminster. What could possibly go wrong?
How about a thumping great five-lane gyratory, an utter fuck-up of eye-achingly awful flats and a new residential tower that went straight into the shortlist for Building Design magazine’s Carbuncle Cup the moment it was completed.
Welcome to Vauxhall.
Once Vauxhall held all of London in thrall. Unlikely as it may sound, its pleasure gardens were for 200 years one of the world’s leading public entertainment venues, finally closing down in 1853. Indeed the very word ‘Vauxhall’ was once synonymous with entertainment, like ‘Disneyland’ today, perhaps, or ‘ITV4’.
Nowadays, if you ask someone what Vauxhall means to them they are more likely to imagine eating pastéis de nata on a giant roundabout while being given a reach round by a mustachioed spy in a leather waistcoat. I know I do, and not just when I’m thinking about Vauxhall, if I’m honest.
30,000 Portuguese and Brazilians live in South Lambeth and their influence extends all the way up the South Lambeth Road from Stockwell to the river. More recently the area has become a multi-destination gay haunt thanks to the proliferation of gay bars and clubs that has built up around London’s oldest surviving gay venue, the Royal Vauxhall Tavern. Indeed, in some quarters Vauxhall has become known as ‘Voho’, although as it turns out, no-one gay has ever used the word and it was dreamed up by idiot breeders trying to sell flats and newspapers.
Lambeth Council is currently consulting on some ambitious regeneration plans for the area which include making the main roads two-way again, opening up the rail arches and creating a ‘high street’ and a public square. While this all sounds good as words in a PDF, you kinda know it’ll end up being a shiny Mediterranean nightmare of glass, steel and brightly coloured paving, with one corner of the square given over to something called ‘Seat Expo ’22’ and another with a giant screen sponsored by Bank of China that shows hilarious Vines of bankers doing shit-bucket challenges to ‘give something back to the community’.
With this proposal in the offing, the MI6 building on the Albert Embankment, the new £620 million US embassy at nearby Nine Elms and block after block of over-priced, under-designed flats, it’s difficult to see the current flawed but wonderfully alternative Vauxhall surviving intact. Although the regeneration work is unlikely to start until 2018, I’m already gearing up to miss the old Vauxhall.
It’s an independent Cask Marque ale-haven done out in red and brown, with lamps and plants and quirky furnishings, in the midst of the housing estates and the cranes. It’s frequented by a fine mixture of locals, office workers, staff from nearby Travis Perkins, pre-party homos, construction workers and middle class tossers like me, sitting there writing this balls.
Situated on the edge of Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, a small open space on part of the site of the original Vauxhall Gardens, Tea House Theatre is a grand cafe in the old Queen Anne strip pub, which closed when its owner was murdered in the Dominican Republic. The size and spaciousness of the interior is redolent of a fancy Viennese coffee house, although whatever you do, do not ask them if they do coffee.
If £6.50 sounds a lot for a pot of darjeeling, that’s because it is. And a fry-up is £9. But if you can find a better breakfast in Vauxhall then I will eat my hat, although not until later because I’m absolutely fucken stuffed.
But I can’t in all conscience pick a ‘best cafe’ where breakfast sets you back the best part of a score. Can a place charging that sort of money survive in Vauxhall, I wondered, situated as it is on the edge of a large housing estate. Are there enough tourists, and maternity leave mums? I had my doubts. But, later, I was encouraged to see a group of local schoolboys sat around on the comfy seats playing an intense game of monopoly. I just hope they like tea.
Of the Portuguese cafés, Estrela Bar is excellent for people-watching and the tiny As Princesas de Portugal, a little further south, is a classic one-tabled Portuguese café where a beer and a presunto roll still comes in at under £4.
Parco Café is a local institution with a loyal following, excellent coffee and a cracking location in Vauxhall Park, but our Vauxhall favourite is Italo Deli on Bonnington Square, not just for its wonderful food and drink and friendly staff, but also for its exquisite location (see below).
Vauxhall City Farm is the world’s most inner city farm, where since 1976 generations of London children have had the ends of their fingers nipped off by wild-eyed goats.
I remember taking my own children there after a trip to Cumbria on which one of them exclaimed, ‘Daddy, look at that funny horse!’
‘That’s a cow, darling,’ I said and made a mental note to learn them some country shit, pronto. It’s one thing to be a street-wise city urchin, quite another to be an idiot.
Exploiting the back passage of Fire and Lightbox nightclubs, its multiple stalls offer delicious, reasonably-priced food from around the world (and elsewhere) with covered seating areas, a bar and the chance to eavesdrop on spooks while their guard is down pushing pulled pork fajitas into their secret faces.
What is there to moan about?
St George Wharf, the riverside development with risible faux flying canopies and sick-green hue, was hideous enough, but now it’s loomed over by the St George Wharf Tower, the ‘tallest residential building in London’ (like that’s a good thing), in which a pinched 1-bedroom flat will set you back £1.2 million.
The architect’s web site states that this giant shit-stick features ‘steps in the façade that will accentuate the building’s verticality’. Believe me, nothing is required to accentuate the building’s verticality. It is unmistakably vertical. And unforgivably inept.
However, with four further skyscrapers on the way, each of which, in a desperate bid to be special, looks more like the last, Vauxhallians had better get used to living behind the ‘wall of towers’. Sure, it’s consoling to know these barren vertical housing estates will all be owned by the brain-dead international rich, the friendless blind and Jeffrey Archer, and that no-one in their right mind would wish to live there, but unfortunately that doesn’t prevent the rest of us from having to live and play in their windy shadows. Those responsible at Lambeth and Wandsworth councils should hang their heads in shame.
Not so secret if you’re local, perhaps, but most visitors would never know Bonnington Square exists, wedged as it is between two main roads, not really on the way to anywhere.
The buildings became famous in the ’80s when, after the council had earmarked them for demolition and cleared out the tenants, squatters moved in and formed a commune. This was back in a time when people were able to move into empty buildings and look after them without fear of being coshed in the night.
The squatters went on to form a housing co-operative and a community garden and were later able to buy the buildings from the council. Part of the scene at the time was the famous Bonnington Café, which remains to this day, offering vegetarian and vegan grub and operating a commendable no-corkage BYO booze policy. Let’s face it, if you’ve only got vegetables on your plate, wine is important.
Today the community garden is open to the public and features an astonishing selection of exotic plants that look as though they have spilled out of the gardens and onto every corner of the square like something from The Day of the Triffids. On a sunny, summer day the aromas are intoxicating and sitting outside Deli Italo you could be mistaken for thinking you’re having a ciggy and a pain au choclat in a rain-forest clearing, with nary a skyscraper in sight.
UPDATE: November 2015
One month after the above piece was published, The Royal Vauxhall Tavern was sold to Austrian property developers, Immovate. Fearing that the pub would be closed and redeveloped as yet more hideous, over-priced flats for Hong Kong investors, locals and regulars started a campaign to have the building listed.
Immovate objected to the listing, citing that, for some reason, the business ‘viability would be compromised’ – and definitely nothing to do with the fact that a listing would make it harder to knock down and redevelop it in ways that are counter to its historical usage.
Well, fuck ’em, because in September 2015 the DCMS announced that, after a recommendation from Historic England, the RVT was to be the subject of a grade ll listing, with the building heralded as ‘one of the best known and longstanding LGB&T venues in the capital [and] an enduring symbol of the confidence of the gay community in London’.
But, as ever, the struggle is far from over. Immovate have suggested that the pub may need to close due to unspecified costs (despite having turned a profit for years) and they have to date refrained from any dialogue with the community group, RVT Future, that was set up to protect it.
We recommend Immovate stop their bleating, pull on their best leather hosen and get their arses over to Vauxhall for a good time. As RVT Future says, ‘See you at the bar!’
On another note, the last time I walked down the South Lambeth Road I didn’t see As Princesas de Portugal and I fear it may be fechado. Though to be fair, I was drunk.