When we said we were thinking of moving to Lewisham four years ago, the locals in our pub in Bethnal Green thought we were mad. ‘It’s fuckin’ ’orrible,’ one of them said. Coming from people who’d lived all their lives in the East End, this was worrying. Nevertheless, swayed by a cheap ex-council flat, we moved to a hill that runs between Blackheath and Lewisham station.
A good way to imagine Lewisham town centre is as the village in Asterix, surrounded on all sides by the forces of gentrification. Hither Green, Ladywell, Forest Hill and Brockley have delicatessens and artisan bakeries. Deptford has hipsters whereas Blackheath is proper posh, the Hampstead of the south. Even grimy old Catford has a gastropub.
But Lewisham central resists. There’s an ugly red-brick shopping centre, a boarded-up pub and a woman who sells prawns out of a bucket by the market. The high street is a mess of pound shops, phone shops and chicken shops. Getting from the station to the shops involves circumnavigating a roundabout so frightening that I wouldn’t dare cycle around it, and I speak as a veteran of the Elephant and Castle and Old Street roundabouts. The traffic is appalling.
Lewisham should really be better. It’s very well connected, with trains to London Bridge, Victoria and Charing Cross, as well as the Docklands Light Railway to Canary Wharf and beyond. There are lots of big Victorian houses. One of our neighbours said that as recently as the 1980s it was a good place to shop. If you look at photos from that era, you can still imagine the town centre in its Edwardian pomp. She dates the decline to the demolition of Chiesman’s department store in the late 1990s to make way for a police station, the largest and very possibly ugliest in Europe. It was as if the council were deliberately trying to demoralise the locals. The police station squats like an incompetent army of occupation at the top of the high street. It certainly didn’t do anything to deter the rioters in 2011.
Once you get used to the general air of scruffiness, though, things aren’t so bad. Unlike more fashion-able parts of London, Lewisham is handy for everyday items such as school uniforms, sensible shoes and Dad jumpers. There are some useful chains — H&M, Next, a well-stocked M&S and Clarks shoes. Look closer and you’ll find independent gems dotted around: an Italian delicatessen with a pizzeria next door, an extremely good Polish delicatessen, two Turkish supermarkets with excellent fresh bread and two Turkish grill restaurants. There’s a large and well-stocked, if rather smelly, public library.
During the first month in our new neighbourhood, a fierce-looking old man stopped us and said: ‘You’re new here, aren’t you?’ and proceeded to tell us how long he’d lived on our road and how much he loved it. In the neighbourhood there’s a mix of older residents, young families, middle- and working-class, and at the top near the Heath, the black Range Rover brigade. When I leave to go to work on my bike someone always waves a greeting at me. Of course, as it’s London, there are also some full-on mental types as well. Then there’s the men who pick up their children in cars by playing aggressive hip-hop rather than ringing on the doorbell. Never mind. At least the local primary schools are good.
At the moment, though, it has to be said that Lewisham is looking worse than ever. The current diabolical traffic is due (partly) to the development around the station, the great Lewisham Gateway project. Ugly high-rise flats are going up all over the place. But I’m trying to be optimistic; the development will reconnect the station with the shops and they’re opening up the Quaggy — the river that runs from Bromley to Lewisham, Deptford and into the Thames — to create south-east London’s answer to Paris Plage.
The final part of the transformation will be the arrival of the Bakerloo line sometime around 2030. Expect an artisan baker to open up called Baker Lewisham. When I mention where I live to friends now, they say: ‘Oh, I hear Lewisham’s on the up.’
It makes a nice change from ‘It’s fuckin’ ’orrible’.