Once memorably described to me as ‘that bit between Brixton and Camberwell, where you get shot’ – memorable as I was about to move into the area – Loughborough Junction (LJ) lies beneath a canopy of bridges where south-east meets south-west (SE5 and SW9, to be precise).
The name ‘Loughborough’ comes from Loughborough House, the old residence of Henry Hastings, 1st Baron Loughborough, while the ‘Junction’ comes from the nearby railway junction, which explains all the bridges.
As it happened, someone did get shot there soon after I moved, but it wasn’t me so I forgot about it and got on with my daily grind of writing poems, drinking whisky and playing fruit machines. Back in those happy, carefree days the area was known primarily for secret all-night sound systems that took place illegally in and around the plentiful railway arches.
The last time I visited one it was in the company of a particularly enthusiastic Dutch date who kept trying to unzip my kecks on the pitch-dark dance-floor and release my todger into the wild. In the end I stopped resisting and just let her get on with tugging me off with her hot, dry hand, only for the house lights to suddenly come up mid-song. I’ll never forget the DJ’s horrified rictus as I wrenched her bony fingers from my nether lands.
As well as the guns and the sex, LJ was also known for its rough-house pubs, lock-ins, strippers, drug-dealing and gang fights. Other than that it was a bit disappointing. Now, everywhere you turn there are farms, action groups and ‘arts-led regeneration initiatives’. These are all very well, but what’s it like for messing about in and getting wankered? I put in a call to ex-local, Half-life, and we spent some hours there to find out.
Loughborough Junction has lost all the pubs that once stood on the main thoroughfare, Coldharbour Lane, which for Half-life was something of relief since a good number of people who frequented them would still apparently like a quiet word with him.
Gone is The Crown, The Warrior, The Green Man and The Enterprise, plus a few more that were off the beaten track. The Urban 75 website has published a lovely piece on LJ’s pubs past (Warning: Can be difficult to read through tears).
You might argue that most of them were shit – and you’d have a point – but you can’t help feeling that if they’d only clung on a little longer one or two of them might have been able to turn it around and at least provide a watering hole on the main road. As it is, LJ has a choice of just two boozers.
The Hero of Switzerland is a two-bar estate pub on Loughborough Road catering to the good ol’ boys on one side and pool-enthusiasts on the other. After dark, the interior is lit up like a fire in the John Lewis lamp department, all the better to enjoy the decor, which is part 1976, part 1977.
We found the place very welcoming and – possibly like the black guys playing pool with us – tried to ignore the golliwog that hung on the wall behind the bar. We were sure it was all a lovely, friendly joke. A lovely, friendly, racist joke.
There follows a short video of the Hero of Switzerland featuring, we’re pretty sure, the man himself trying to get in:
LJ’s pub gold, though, is The Cambria in the quiet residential streets just south of the main drag. I’ve written about it previously, when it featured on our P4 bus booze route, so I’ll just say that it’s a handsome, fancy, friendly, back-street pub with the only downside being that on weekdays it doesn’t open until 4pm.
Still cheered by a couple of £3 pints of IPA in the Hero of Switzerland, we agreed that if we can’t get booze, we shall instead get off our tits on coffee and pain au chocolate.
The Beanery by LJ station is a welcome addition for station users and passers-by alike, with a small outside space to take in morning rays (see main pic). The Sunshine International Cafe, down a gated cobbled lane on the other side of the road, offers succour amongst the arts and rehearsal studios, Wednesday to Saturday. But our favourite for an injection of caffeine, decent music and a touch of bohemian what-knot was the Blue Turtle Oasis, run by Adrian, the softly-spoken coffee god.
For eats we headed south to the zany, roomy interior of SEM Cafe on Padfield Street, where the £5 breakfast special is delivered on plates the size of dustbin lids.
‘This is where I used to get the car fixed,’ said Half-life, referring to Andrews Garage next door.
‘What car? I didn’t think you had a licence,’ I said.
‘Correct,’ said Half-life. ‘But I did have diplomatic plates.’
Whereas once it was pubs for which you were spoilt for choice in LJ, now it is mini-supermarkets. A Tesco Express and a Co-op recently joined the Nisa, the Loco and a Costcutter, all of which now vie with one another – and the local independent grocers – for your beer and bread budget.
‘What the fuck?’ said, Half-life. ‘They’re ruining the place.’ A contrary view to some locals who see them as a sign of LJ’s change in fortunes. ‘At last, the first world comes to Loughborough Junction,’ is how one Internet forumite greeted the arrival of the Co-op.
Half-life’s mood was lifted by the presence of Harbour Cycles. As he inspected the bikes on the forecourt I went inside and spoke to Brenton, the co-owner. Harbour Cycles is a bike shop with a difference: Not only does it brew fresh coffee on demand, it also hosts regular themed dinner evenings for which the bikes are cleared away and guests are encouraged to live forever with vegan and vegetarian extravaganzas.
If you say to most people that you’re going to see a movie in Loughborough Junction they are likely to blink back at you and say ‘The Ritzy?’. But no, hidden in an arch down Hardess Street is Whirled Cinema, a cosy cinema showing world (see what they did there?) and art-house flicks several nights a week. It’s got a corner bar and even a little balcony.
Currently there is a waiting list for annual membership, but weekly membership is available throughout the year.
Geography fascists will no doubt insist that Brixton Brewery, operating from an arch on Brixton Station Road, is in fact in Brixton. Whatever. Fight fascism in all its forms by visiting it anyway and downing a couple of glasses of their delicious Electric IPA or the frankly life-changing Atlantic APA.
But wait a minute, what’s this? Holy mash and tun, a new tap room in LJ itself?
This month saw the opening of The Beer Hive, a brewery co-operative launched as a joint-enterprise by Clarkshaws brewery and London Beer Lab. Splendidly situated amongst the hard-core industrial units of Belinda Road, it provides a beer-haven in surely one of London’s most deeply unlikely spots.
However, the tap room was closed when we visited and we needed to kill some time before the Cambria opened.
‘What the fuck are we going to do for half an hour?’ said Half-life with a grin, removing a packet of king-size Rizla from his top pocket.
The grandest nearby space for sitting awhile and adding a different dimension to proceedings is Ruskin Park, named after everyone’s favourite misogynist and social reformer, John Ruskin. More readily available is Wyck Gardens, which is shaping up into a very pleasant green strip in the shadows of the striking modernist monoliths of Loughborough Estate.
But drawn by a sign on Coldharbour Lane, we pottered down Loughborough Park to the small park of the same name. And what a handsome street it is. Much of the area round Loughborough Junction was demolished to make way for an ‘urban motorway’ that thankfully never happened but this street of Georgian and Victorian villas remains intact, at least until you reach the park halfway down it, which is itself a right green treat, what I can remember of it after Half-life mixed my mind.
Still stuffed from the SEM all-day breakfast, we nevertheless noted that LJ offers a number of astonishingly priced food options. A £3 Chinese from Wang Fa was beaten into third place by the £1.99 Jerk Island chicken special next door and M*m*m Chicken’s 1 piece and chips for £1.79. For a tenner you could spend the weekend eating like a malnourished king.
What is there to moan about?
LJ still needs that one, special, go-to, all-day, comfortable, roomy, licensed, friendly gaff where you can meet a couple of muckers and lose the whole afternoon. What do they call them again? Oh yes, pubs. Or at least some sort of modern take on them, like Brixton’s Kaff Bar down the road, perhaps, or even a micropub. God knows there are enough arches and empty shops to accommodate one.
It’s also bloody awful to try to walk around, due to the confluence of busy roads and meagre pavements. Next month sees the start of a trial closure of a number of roads in the area to through traffic, including Loughborough Road, in order to address this. Inevitably, some local drivers have started bleating about increased journey times but as long as service access is maintained for all and traffic flow changes are monitored for adverse local effects, it seems a small price to pay to give LJ the chance to breathe.
Of course the cars will still thrash up and down Coldharbour Lane, effectively cutting LJ in two (a zebra crossing wouldn’t go amiss here), but it’s a start.
One to Watch
Word is that The Beanery is to open a little wine bar/bistro in their back room beneath the station and work was proceeding apace when we nosed around there.
‘Good,’ said Half-life, ‘Stations without bars make me edgy.’ And we wandered up to The Cambria to calm him down and reflect on our day.
Loughborough Junction, or more properly, Loughborough (as no bugger calls it), is as yet unchallenged by gentrification. But it does have the artist and small business communities that can lead to places becoming attractive to potential new residents and one gets the sense that the G-word is creeping down Coldharbour Lane from Brixton.
Some years ago, Mrs Raider and I stopped off for a nightcap at a busy little late night Caribbean joint on Loughborough borders called My Father’s Place. The bar service was lousy but we eventually landed a couple of rums and beer chasers. Curiously, our attempt to pay was waved aside, as it was when we ordered more drinks a little later.
‘Well, that’s very kind of you,’ I said to the guy behind the bar.
‘No problem,’ he said. ‘How did you know the deceased?’
Yes, we had gate-crashed a wake. And sure enough, there was the body laid out in the back room, by the food (which was delicious).
I only mention this because now the premises is known as Shrub & Shutter, where for the price of eating for a week at Dollar Chicken you can sit on a metal stool, sip a bespoke cocktail and pick steak tartare out of your teeth. And all this in the shadow of ‘Barrier Block’, the grim neo-brutalist facade of Southwyck House.
Oh yes, it’s coming. For better and for worse, Loughborough Junction is ‘in motion’. In Foxton’s they already refer to it as East Brixton, the monstrous twats.
Update, September 2016:
London: Turn your back, and it’s all change.
The Beanery fell victim to the expansion of the station and so we never did get to see that back bar. The Beer Hive tap room is closed for the forseeable future as the brewers seek new premises. And even Brixton’s lovely Kaff Bar disappeared.
The new road system was trialled but the car-lovers won and traffic noise and pollution once again vie with vandalism and fly-tipping as the key features of the main junction.
In better news, LJ has another pub. And not only is it another pub, it’s on Coldharbour Lane, from where they were all culled. And not only is it a pub, on Coldharbour Lane, it’s also an absolute belter.
It is called The Junction, sells good beer, has music every night (including an open mic night on Mondays) and has very quickly become the beating heart of a resurgent Loughborough J. Which kind of sums up the area: One that ignores the grime and the set-backs and focuses on the good times, like a tramp on blotter.