Holy Ghost Zone, Old Kent Road. © David Secombe 2008.
When playing Monopoly my father was always determined to acquire Old Kent Road and Whitechapel, and to build on them as soon as possible. It’s the most modest portfolio on the board, with houses on Old Kent Road, as I remember, costing little more than a hotel on Mayfair. ‘You might laugh,’ my father would tell us in baleful tones, ‘but everybody always lands on Old Kent Road.’
I’m interested in the Old Kent Road as a sort of social counterweight to Hampstead, but my friend David, a South London partisan, is a genuinely keen on it, and gave me a guided tour this week.
Tesco, Old Kent Road. © David Secombe 2004.
‘When the evening sun’s like this,’ he said cheerfully, as we skirted a sofa that had been thoughtfully set out on the pavement, ‘it’s got a sort of I’m-in-a-scary-part-of-LA charm.’ We were walking past the Old Kent Road’s array of cosmopolitan food shops, beauty parlours, international cash transfer places, evangelical ministries, van washing businesses. As the cars screamed by, David would stop every now and again to photograph the lowering clouds over some light industrial unit or brutalist block of flats. He seemed particularly taken with the visual possibilities of the flyover at the southern end of the Road. ‘A friend of mine owns a flat that looks right on to that,’ he said enviously.
I looked at a price list outside one of the Road’s pubs: it advertised a cocktail called a Slippery Nipple, consisting of Sambuca, Bailey’s and Grenadine. You could have a jug of Slippery Nipple for £12.50. Another sign forbade anybody wearing a hat to enter the pub. You knew there was some insight into human behaviour behind this, and that it had been won the hard way.
Re-branding exercise, Old Kent Road. © David Secombe 2008.
‘If Dickens were alive today he’d be down here all the time,’ said David as car came crawling noisily down the Road with only two of its tyres inflated. David then attempted, with windmilling arms, to direct the dazed-looking driver to a nearby sprawling depot called Madhouse Tyres.
As he did so, I reflected that the Old Kent Road does have the look of suburban LA or Chicago – that rangy wildness – and it occurred to me that this is what happens to British streetscapes when middle class vigilance is reduced and planning controls relaxed: they begin to look American.
Chinese Elvis restaurant, Old Kent Road. © David Secombe 2002.
David pointed out East Street, which goes off the Old Kent Road. Its market features in the opening credits of ‘Only Fools and Horses’, in which Rodney and Del Boy inhabit a tower block inevitably called Nelson Mandela House. David took me to Mandela Way, which intersects with Old Kent Road, and where there is a small patch of green space occupied by a tank that has been painted pink and decorated repeatedly with the stencilled word ‘Scab’. ‘If this was North London,’ I marvelled, ‘there would be letters in the Hampstead and Highgate Express every week until it was taken away.’ ‘Really?’ said David, snapping away, ‘it’s been here for years.’*
Tank, Mandela Way. © David Secombe 2004.
In the streets off Old Kent Road, you never know what you’ll find: a battered looking Georgian house with an ice cream van parked in the front drive and a lone security camera staring at it; a tiny house with a sign saying ‘This property is protected by guard dogs’ – that’s dogs, plural; sudden bombsites with rampant buddleia, the scars of the Second World War still seemingly fresh. There are also surprising runs of pristine Georgian and Victorian houses with obviously middle class occupants.
Almshouses, Asylum Road, SE15. © David Secombe 2008.
You could argue that Old Kent Road is going upmarket. The famous old Dun Cow pub is now the Dun Cow Surgery, and the Thomas A Becket, the even more famous boxing pub, built on one of the many sites where the Canterbury pilgrims took liquid refreshment, is now an estate agency, a sign of the times to an extent almost ridiculous. ‘You’d think there’d be a plaque acknowledging what it used to be,’ I said to David. But he frowned and shook his head, ‘That’s one of the great things about the Old Kent Road,’ he said, as we trudged on, ‘a profound lack of sentimentality.’
© Andrew Martin. This article originally appeared in Andrew’s Class Conscious column for The New Statesman in 2004.
(*The tank is a Soviet T-34 placed on Mandela Way as a protest by a disgruntled property developer following the rejection of a planning application.)
Victuallers’ almshouses, Caroline Gardens, Peckham. Photo © David Secombe, 2002.
From Georgian London, John Summerson, 1945/1969:
There were plenty of other institutions, some educational, some charitable, some newly-born, some perhaps half a century old, which housed themselves with some grandeur. Almost all were Greek, with good, simple fenestration, and a portico – Doric or Ionic – to mark the status of the institution. Some of these buildings still stand. There is the pleasant, spacious courtyard and porticoed chapel of the Licensed Victuallers’ Asylum at Peckham, built about 1831. Others were damaged in the war and have disappeared since.
As Sir John pointed out, the Licensed Victuallers’ Asylum at Caroline Gardens – almshouses built for retirees from the brewing trade – is a rare survival in the unsentimental city. The Asylum is pretty enough to make one wonder at how it has managed to avoid the wrecking ball, as its very elegance must have been a goad to generations of developers and civic engineers. It is an oasis of Grecian calm just a few steps away from the bleak, business end of the Old Kent Road, and in its present context its charm seems positively defiant, even heroic: an assertion of a charitable ideal in architecture that is both grand and humane – and a welcome corrective to the lurid, day-glo Toys ‘R’ Us shed across the road.
The Old Kent Road remains one of the strangest of all London roads, as well as one of the oldest; it incorporates part of Watling Street, the Romans’ highway from Dover to London and far beyond, to the wild Welsh Marches. A walk along The Old Kent Road today – between New Cross and the Bricklayers’ Arms roundabout – is impressive by virtue of the vast contrasts in tone and scale. On the one hand you have the massive gas works, the acrid colours of the new retail sheds, the abandoned or decommissioned pubs, the unwelcoming wasteland of Burgess Park, the brutalist road scheme and the endless stream of traffic thereon … yet on the other you can see repurposed evangelical churches in former office units or light engineering premises, occasional glimpses of Georgiana subsumed into offices for tyre warehouses, and little runs of genteel villas and terraces which form tributaries off the churning thoroughfare. (The Victuallers’ Asylum is on Asylum Road, one of the most architecturally interesting streets in south London.) On a summer evening, the Old Kent Road has a strangely foreign quality; one could be in a dodgy suburb of Miami or Los Angeles. This may have something to do with its untended nature; even the Holloway Road doesn’t look this abandoned by civic authority. Perhaps any road in any city, left to its own devices, ends up looking slightly American.
With the repurposing come the artists, and it is no surprise that the ragged districts which line the Old Kent Road are increasingly hip areas for ambitious young artists to set out their wares. I have heard both Peckham and New Cross being described, with varying degrees of conviction, as ‘The New Hoxton’ – a statement which ignores the fact that Goldsmiths’ College has been churning out YBAs for decades, so one might say that New Cross was the ‘old Hoxton’. The Victuallers’ chapel was disused for many years but it has recently been adopted as an arts space by a group that calls itself ‘Asylum‘. Tomorrow, Saturday 8th December, it will be hosting a performance of ‘Christmas Mysteries’, a ‘musical adaptation of the nativity from the traditional Medieval Mystery Plays’. An atmospheric venue for it… photos of the interior of the chapel may be found here.