In Camberwell

Rosemary Hill

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Not much happened in Camberwell during the riots. Morrisons was boarded up and there was some milling about on the Green one evening, but that was as far as it went. All around us, in Peckham, Brixton and at the Elephant and Castle, there was trouble, but this end of the Walworth Road, properly called Camberwell Road, was unscathed, or rather it remained scathed in the same way as before. From the Green northwards Camberwell presents a collage of changing use and disuse, a continuous Mexican wave of opening and closing shops and businesses, squats, pubs, charities and churches.

It is the religious missions and nail bars that seem to do best, especially the missions. You would not know, from the Camberwell Road, that this is a post-religious age. The Post Office closed twenty years ago and is still derelict. On the wall someone has painted ‘Help Us All’. Next door the last functioning cinema in the area was long ago turned over to bingo, but has recently changed again to become the Rock of Redemption Church, presently festooned with blue and white Christmas lights and the subject of many complaints from neighbours about loud singing and parking problems. Walking on past Mini’s Eye Lashes you come to the Redeemed Christian Church of God House of Prayer. Next is the Castlemead Estate, a humourless Harlow New Town type development of the 1960s with several shops, the architects of which should have known better than to attempt a pub. Flat-roofed modernist pubs never work and the always dispiriting Rock of Gibraltar went through a long period of dereliction before being refurbished in red and gold, to re-emerge looking much more convincing as the Camberwell Islamic Centre.

Back on the main road La Mediterranee Gourmandise, now boarded up, represents a short-lived attempt to bring patisserie to the kebab belt. It is now neighbour to the Christ Arena Ministries. The former Nationwide Builders Merchants is the shared home of the Mountain of Fire and Miracles Ministry and the Gethsemane Evangelical Ministry. Past the Blenheim CDP drug rehabilitation centre, discreet frontage but prominent CCTV, is the All Nations Evangelical Church and then after a brief secular interlude, which includes Iceland and the pet shop, comes the Power Church International, ‘a place of divine solution’.

This is all on the west side of the road. The east has a distinctly different tone, less excitable, more earthly. It too has its slogans though, which answer the west with the same extensive use of present participles. ‘Investing in Burgess Park’ Southwark Council says on some hoardings in front of massive excavations to improve one of the borough’s biggest open spaces. ‘Realising Potential Together’ Cambridge House says from behind some more hoardings. This, when it is fully open, will be the latest incarnation of the older mission culture that sent late Victorian idealists out from the public schools and universities into the inner city to fight poverty with education and better hygiene. This one was an offshoot of Trinity College and now accommodates several local bodies and charities in its warren of large late-Georgian houses.

These must always have been a rung up the social ladder from the smaller, rather earlier houses on the west and the distinction seems to have been transmitted into the 20th century and beyond. Opposite the hard-edge high-rises of Castlemead on the west, the postwar low-rises of the east are named to reflect the nobler aspirations of Beveridge. Keats House, Milton House, Landor, Pope and, surprisingly, Flecker look on sedately while over the way a banner above a closed junk shop shouts ‘Fight gentrification: Squats keep neighbourhoods alive’, a campaign whose first objective at least has been realised. Just beyond it The Nag’s Head, an old-fashioned pub with Edwardian faience tiles and an air of grimy determination, winks from the tinselled-up window: ‘Lushette’s party December 3rd come dressed as Santa.’


  • 26 November 2011 at 11:12am
    zz_james says:
    You sounds like you're not embracing Camberwell, I've been here 15 years and I have many friends here, I don't use the nail bars and pop up churches, but do use the grocers, cafe's, newsagents, bakery, pubs and charity shops all of which the proprietors within give me a smile and a joke. Mary's cafe at the top of Camberwell road is a legend with a loyal fanbase that spreads the word on the best chips and great coffee. Look beyond the superficial, or go live in Dulwich, where that's all you get.