Poor old Camberwell, neglected cousin of Peckham and Brixton, disowned by Herne Hill and cut off by wicked step-uncle, Walworth.
Back when Peckham and Brixton were a bit shit too, at least Camberwell stood among equals. Now the former are hipster havens, with bohemian outsiders flocking to indoor markets and multi-storey car park roofs while Camberwell gets cool-shouldered.
But Camberwell was hip long before Peckham and Brixton got their act together. It was home to the YBAs and ex-alumni of the art college include Syd Barrett, Tim Roth and, more recently, Florence Welch, who built some sort of machine in the area. On the other hand, Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen studied there too, but we’ll high gloss over that. And those that live there know that it offers a social scene based around, well, those that live there.
It’s a young place, due to lower rents than its neighbours, with lots of shared housing for single folk. In Camberwell Grove, Grove Lane and Addington Square it boasts some of London’s most elegant and well-preserved Georgian houses but around and between these are high-density social housing estates and plenty of tower blocks, the 20th century’s contribution to the history of architecture.
So young and old, rich and poor, all rub shoulders together and when you add the staff and students of Camberwell Art College and King’s College into the mix, you find a richer social mélange in SE5 than in any other London district I know.
It is no wonder that Camberwell people like to go out in Camberwell and, FYI, here’s where they go:
Despite a couple of recent closures (House, Johanssons) this is an increasingly competitive space.
Love Walk does a good breakfast, Maloko does a fine galette (I’m told), Cafe Noir is always full and Daily Goods is cool for art school.
But, at Deserter we look for something a bit different, and in The Pigeon Hole, we found it. Tucked away down Datchelor Place this Kickstarter-funded cafe offers coffees, daily lunches and breakfast at the weekends. Bar the coffee machine, everything in the place is for sale, from the art on the walls to the chair you sit on. It’s a fine addition to the cafe scene, and increasingly popular with art college tutors, who are desperately trying to keep it from their students. Good luck with that.
For an alarming period recently, Camberwell closed at midnight. Then The Tiger decided to stay open until 3.30 at the weekends, the Hermits Cave followed suit and Camberwell was back on the full-on Big Night Out map.
Stormbird sells a sensational range of keg and bottled beers and is strategically placed next to Camberwell Baths so as to ruin any fitness plan you might be foolhardy enough to begin. But it’s more of a bar than a pub.
The Joiners is brilliant for a boogie at weekends. Fridays features Camberwell’s longest serving DJ, the incomparable DJ Dazzle, and provides the full Camberwell experience, with all ages and blood-groups liberally represented. Bizarrely, they often run out of booze. Ask for a wine or a draught lager after 10pm and you’re likely to be told to fetch your own supplies from across the road, making it the world’s only BYO pub.
The Dispensary is a cosy hideaway and best for watching the football, though you need to be on your guard for chatty racists. Really, of all bigots, it’s the needy ones that most make me want to glass myself. Plus, last time I was in there I got talking to a man in a pirate-themed T-shirt that read ‘Forget the chest, it’s all about the booty’, so it could be an ideal hang-out for all flat-chested, big-bottomed ladies with a thing for fat, ageing buccaneers.
But our favourite, as it has been for many years now, is Stormbird’s sister pub, Hermits Cave, with its friendly, mixed crowd, well-kept ales and wonderful open-all-day-ness. ‘Best Beer Around Here’ reads a sign on the wall, and it probably is ’n’ all.
Unlikely as it may sound to anyone that hasn’t been to SE5 for a few years, Camberwell has become a foodie destination to rival anywhere else in South London.
More established eateries like Bolu, with its epic mixed grill, The Vineyard on The Grove and even Angels and Gypsies are in danger of being eclipsed by a raft of new, cool places.
Van Hing (Vietnamese) on Camberwell Church Street is sensational value – try the duck and rice platter for a fiver. Also on Church Street, Jay Rayner raved about FM Mangal (Turkish) and the Camberwell Arms, which I have written about previously, here, is definitely worth a visit for some modern English cuisine (with a nice pint).
We’ll pick two favourites, though; one formal, one a feasting free-for-all.
The Michelin Guide recommended The Crooked Well perhaps now falls into the ‘more-established’ category but is consistently excellent. Yes, it can be a bit pricey, but for once you get what you pay for. Treat yourself.
But the talk of the town is Silk Road, a Chinese street food canteen. Try the fat-loaded lamb skewers, the twice-cooked pork and the dumplings and tell me life is not worth living, even in fucking January. One tip: Get a seat facing into the restaurant and then you won’t have to look at the sad, desperate faces of people queueing to get in.
Finally, for something a bit different, try Zeret Kitchen, celebrating its tenth anniversary of serving fine Ethiopian food to discerning Camberwellians – a sentence that sums up how far Camberwell has come since it was choice between burger and cheeseburger for tea.
Aris has been welcoming customers to Cruson, the grocer on Church Street, for 43 years, a charming one-man crusade against the rise of the supermarket.
Rat Records has a high turnover of good quality, reasonably priced vinyl that can save you a trip up town.
Pesh the florist is a green haven on Denmark Hill. Set them a budget and the helpful staff will put together something wonderful for you.
Camberwell Green (see main pic) survives despite having little bits shaved off if now and again so we can squeeze much-needed extra cars onto the roads. Now it offers table tennis tables and a chance to pause on a bench, even if you can’t quite get away from it all due to the attentions of al fresco drinking enthusiasts.
Perhaps a safer bet for a quiet Camberwell Carrot is Ruskin Park, up past the hospital on Denmark Hill, after which you can repair to the local Wetherspoon’s, The Fox on the Hill, which provides capital fare at Preston prices. (We wrote about it here)
What is there to moan about?
Walworth Road is a rush hour nightmare. There was once a Camberwell station but it was closed temporarily in 1916 and locals are still waiting for it to re-open. (This is a joke. It will not re-open, sorry).
The idea of a Bakerloo Line extension to Camberwell has once again been floated. It would certainly alleviate some of the rush-hour chaos, but with it comes the danger of homogenisation as taxi ranks, chicken shops and key-cutters pop up around it, making it a bit like everywhere else.
Worse it might encourage locals to spend the night elsewhere, up town maybe, devoiding the area of precisely what makes it special.
Lest we forget, Camberwell was ruined once by the arrival of the railways in the 1860s, when the place was transformed from a rural idyll into a colony of lepers and vagabonds from north of the river. Is that what you want? Is it?
Ortus. Those who know, know. Those who don’t, don’t need to, thanks. (But if you insist, you can read what we said about it here.)
Cool Cats’ Cafe offers the unlikely experience of live music and table service on Southampton Way.
Cycle PS is a rival to the more established Edwardes bike shop on Camberwell Road. A new one on me, this is a bike shop with a difference. Unlike most bike shops, in Cycle PS you can have a game of pool in the back if you fancy it, or order a pizza, or sit at the bar and have a pint. I’ve no idea what the bikes are like, but the people were very friendly and, at the risk of becoming repetitive, you can sit at the bar and have a pint.
Mind you, they also said, ‘On the streets of Camberwell the tramps are coming at me, banging into me with their tinnies’, which I think speaks volumes for their sense of balanced reporting.
UPDATE June 2016:
We were sorry to see Cool Cats Cafe, always ahead of its time, close last year. Angels & Gypsies’ decline was very rapid and it is also now closed. Opposite, Theo’s pizzeria opened on Grove Lane and really is molto bloody bene.
Meanwhile The Bear, on Camberwell New Road, has re-invented itself as a craft ale bar to rival Stormbird. Can a place have too many fine beer emporiums? Don’t be ridiculous.
At the time of writing Camberwell Green has been closed for nine months for an overhaul that looks like it could have been done over a weekend, frankly. But while Lambeth is busy spending a fortune closing its libraries, Southwark has just opened a splendid new one next to the Green, so we’ll forgive them this once.