When my girlfriend had friends over from Paris they threw a party and went shopping for food in the market on Deptford High Street. They bought an old-lady shopping trolley to wheel everything home in, but when it was full to overflowing, the wheels fell off. They took it back to the shop, one of five in the High Street piled high with near-identical household tat. The trader scolded them for mistreating his £10 trolley, but fixed it anyway.
It’s interesting to speculate (and the High Street has seven bookies to quote you the odds) how many of these cheerful downmarket enterprises will survive once the gentrification of Deptford picks up speed. The prospect has been imminent for years, but the hipsters and hedge-funders are taking the slow train to south-east London, and huddling close to the station when they get here.
The most visible change is a neat row of new cafés, boutiques and gift shops in the 14 arches of Deptford Station’s Victorian carriage ramp. The cafés have put out tables (deckchairs, even) on the Market Yard, a new piazza behind the Albany arts and theatre complex.
Back on the High Street on a sunny Saturday morning, a middle-aged black lady in shimmering green and gold was declaiming the gospel through a headset microphone. Along with the hubbub of the market, the African-Caribbean greengrocers, the Vietnamese restaurants and the wet-fish shops open to the street, this kind of quirky humanity has served to gloss over an underlying air of neglect. When I moved here in 2014, the High Street looked in dire need of love, attention and money. Now, imperceptibly, the fabric has improved.
All of London’s poorer boroughs are tatty, but the descent of Deptford was more poignant because it used to be a cut above. It built Henry VIII’s ships, gave Samuel Pepys a mistress and taught navigation to Peter the Great. More recently, a colleague from neighbouring Bermondsey recalls Deptford as a grander place where she’d go with her mum to buy school shoes. But so many beautiful buildings were torn down. The high-domed Broadway Theatre, a sister to the Coronet in Notting Hill, was bulldozed in favour of a sad little square. The elegant clock tower of the Scotch House, home to a four-storey drapery, used to watch over a grand crossroads on Deptford Broadway. On the same plot today is a branch of Lewisham and Southwark College that teaches building trades; a sad irony. In aesthetic terms, this tall but dead-eyed monster is a waste of beautiful red bricks.
But some landmarks survive. A graceful round-cornered building at Broadway and Tanner’s Hill is waiting for a bold enterprise to do it justice. Across the road is a 1930s art deco façade, once a branch of Burton the Tailor and now a cheerful home for the Chairbears day nursery.
Around the corner is London Velo, a hipsterish combination of coffee shop and cycle store which celebrated its first birthday in May. Like other new businesses, it is small-scale and owner-run. There’s Gallop and Waiting Room (coffee shops) and Marcella (Italian restaurant). All three are close to Manze’s, a century-old pie-and-mash shop, and the White Swan, the last High Street pub from a long-ago tally of more than dozen. Near the railway bridge, an excellent bar-restaurant called The Job Centre now occupies the former, er, Job Centre.
In Giffin Square a former HSBC branch stands empty. Neither a candy-coloured paint job nor a jokey string of pearls and necktie on the opposite gable can disguise the forlorn air this adds to the very centre of town, though there is talk of plans for a new pharmacy.
Meanwhile, thousands of new flats are going up on every scrap of land around here. Many of the newcomers are mortgaged to the eyeballs, but they still form a vast new market. Then there are plans to regenerate the site of the old Deptford dockyard, now known as Convoys Wharf. And the Deptford Anchor — an artwork at the end of the High Street that was removed because drunks used to gather there to shout, then sleep — is to be reinstated after several years’ absence.
Back on that sunny Saturday, the dungaree-clad staff at the Dirty Apron café near the station were so busy it took them 25 minutes (and many apologies) to make me a coffee and bacon roll (£5 all in). Perhaps the gentrification train is finally building up steam.