North and South: the great divide of our ‘united kingdom’. Southerners just love to compartmentalize Northerners as uncouth hard nuts who drink too much, whereas Northerners love to pigeonhole Southerners as softies who don’t drink enough. This North & South stereotyping also translates to London where the choice is simple, you’re either one or the other, but definitely not both. It’s an intrinsic and deep-rooted sense of right and wrong, of heaven and hell, where for one, the other simply has nothing to offer, – “not my scene”, “nothing to do”, “dangerous on the streets at night”, “can’t understand their incoherent claptrap”, etc, etc. As you all know, I am a bit of a ‘London whore’, – I’ll go anywhere as long as the money’s right. However, having spent 90% of my life residing above the northern shores of the Thames I can only fairly concede that I am firmly in the North camp. This is not to say that I am quick to dismiss what the South has to offer, on the contrary, on contemplating this last instalment of my Secret Gardens and Hideaways of London, I very much revelled in the idea of getting lost around Borough and Bermondsey. And what else could I expect? For every quaint corner of Clapham, Putney, Dulwich and Greenwich there’s the divergent Tooting, Peckham, Lewisham or Plumstead Common. But maybe these polar vibes are exactly what makes South London so exciting and unique to itself. Up until a while back, South of the river was regarded as outside the city limits. No buildings of great note were built here. The fact that Renzo Piano decided to plant his Shard in the heart of Southwark more recently has indicated that the tide has indeed turned. And so for my last green jaunt of London, here goes the South…
SURREY DOCKS FARM
This working city farm stands intrepidly in the shadows of Canary Wharf and other structural monsters of the Isle of Dog’s Quarterdeck. It gives families the chance to appreciate and observe non-caged animals at close hand. There are educational possibilities concerning not only farming but about food production, animal welfare, cooking and nutrition. The farm’s Café is fronted by Craig Morris, who creates a daily specials board loosely based around the produce of the farm and neighbouring markets. However, don’t be surprised if one of the stray chickens ends up as a luncheon companion. It’s all part of the fun.
LASSCO – BRUNSWICK HOUSE
This lone Georgian mansion stands forsaken amidst the spaghetti junction mayhem of Vauxhall. The architectural salvage company Lassco shares the premises with the Brunswick House Café, where you can sit amongst the random hodgepodge of splendid antiques while perusing the concise yet rather sumptuous menu. The standards for food and cocktails are very high here, in spite of the decors undisciplined manner. It’s idiosyncratic, unique and cool without trying too hard. Jackson Boxer started the café slowly in 2010 with only £1000 saved in tips. He only recently managed to buy a proper oven for the kitchen, showing that he is less concerned for big corporate ideas and targets and more about doing it with thought and care.
BONNINGTON SQUARE GARDENS
The Bonnington Square community has evolved from being a bombsite during WWII to a derelict playground and squat during the 70’sand 80’s, to the co-operative housing and gardens that it is now. The ‘Pleasure Garden and Paradise Project’ has brought local residents together to lay claim to the wasteland to stop developers from buying it. The gardens and square sidewalks are lovingly maintained, with shrubs and tropical plants climbing even higher than the houses themselves. The gardens are an homage to the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens that used to reside 100m north from here some 300 years ago. The community spirit really comes alive at the Bonnington Café that is run by a worldwide co-operative of chefs that offers great homely and cheap food. If you’re lucky, there could be an impromptu performance on the piano. This square is so off the radar, but you’ll be glad you made the effort.
RED CROSS GARDEN
This newly restored community garden has been preserved to its Victorian glory with the help of Heritage Lottery funding. Originally conceived in 1888 on the site of a derelict paper factory it was celebrated many a concert and fete in its heyday. The park reopened in 2005.
URBAN PHYSIC GARDEN
It’s essentially a pop-up physic garden that grows and distributes medicinal plants to community spaces all around the neighbourhood. There are lunchtime talks where guests are invited to listen and have lunch at the onsite café, -‘Rambulance’.
The arches of Maltby and Druid Street have become a popular jaunt for the locals of Southwark who have in recent years become bothered by the hoards of tourists at Borough Market. The queues at Monmouth Coffee are so diabolical these days that you need to arrive even before the early birds. Personally, I blame Jamie Oliver zipping around on his Vespa plucking the most superlative selection of vegetables, for the ruination of one of London’s finest secrets, but hey, that’s how it goes these days. One step better is Maltby and Druid Street that serves as the source warehouse for most of Borough market. Not a market in the traditional sense, but more a collective of producers keen to connect directly with their consumer. For this is where Monmouth roast their beans, where St. John bakes its legendary bakery goods (you haven’t lived until you’ve tried one of their custard donuts, seriously), where you can sample the Neal’s Yard entire range of cheeses as well as the freshest oyster stalls and home-smoked salmon. I only hope Jamie doesn’t find out.
Lauded as an art deco masterpiece of modern design, Eltham Palace was designed by Swedish designer Rolf Engstromer for Stephen and Virginia Courtauld in the 1930’s. Highlights include the Great Hall, the dramatic Entrance Hall and the main bedroom, complete with an en-suite gold bathroom. But for me the true majesty remains in the surrounding gardens that have a whimsical and fairy-tale quality that will stay with you for a long time yet.
See other secret gardens:
AVAILABLE TO BUY NOW: Steve Wheen’s (aka the pothole gardener)