Sunday 13 March 2016

London, my London

I left Borough Market behind and got on the A3 (Borough High Street)-cum-Newington Causeway. The road on which I was now cycling on this rather earth-scorching August day, had taken its name after the village of the same name, Newington. Together with Walworth to the south, these two erstwhile prosperous hamlets sandwiched one London’s best-known commercial hubs: Elephant and Castle.

If all roads lead to Rome, then surely some of them converge at Elephant and Castle: St George’s Road, via Westminster Road from the northwest, London Road from the bifurcation of Waterloo Road and Blackfriars Road, the aforementioned Newington Causeway and New Kent Road (A201) to the southeast. This well-connected maze of streets has made the area popular with bargain-hunters and shop-goers. Amongst the indoor market's many kiosks and stalls one can find a wide range of products, from vintage clothing to household essentials.

Ironically I had been in the area a few days before my bike journey. On that occasion I had been on foot, though, going through the market on my way to Burgess Park. I did manage to stop and talk to some of the traders who told me that the vibrancy Elephant and Castle had been known for had given way to mainly betting shops and discount stores, like in other parts of London.

It was not the only change I was made aware of. A large-scale redevelopment had been underway for some time, as I learned, and the last touches were being put. That much was clear to me as there were still a few scaffoldings around. The shopping centre was not the same I remembered from previous visits. Still, the symbol that bequeathed the market its name, the bronze elephant with the castle on its back, was still there. As was, too, Hannibal House, a 1960s eleven-storey office block that could not fail to attract attention.

Down the A3 I carried on, cycling past Kennington Park on my left and reaching Brixton Road around noon time.

It is hard to believe that the street I was riding on, Brixton Road, could be traced back to Roman times, along with its close relative, the A3, the road I had just come off. This has always been one of the alluring elements about Brixton: its history and culture.

In my previous post I mentioned a fast-growing Brazilian presence in the area. I could have also added a still small but noticeable Spanish-speaking community (not just from Spain themselves, but also from Latin-American countries such as Ecuador, Peru and Colombia). But the one feature Brixton is famous for is its West Caribbean, mainly Jamaican population. Long-considered an influential and essential part of black culture in London, and probably Britain, Brixton has always been a hotbed of creativity and enterprise. Small wonder that this was the place Eddy Grant sang about in his worldwide hit, Electric Avenue, a reference to the street which was first lit in the area in 1880. Like other areas of London, the neighbourhood has seen socio-economic permutations through the years. From the middle-classes taking over the large houses built along the main thoroughfare at the start of the 20th century, to theatre people settling in the area years later and providing an arts-inspired boost.

Today, stepping into the triangle formed by Brixton Road, Coldharbour Lane and Atlantic Road is to walk into a piece of Britain that is as relevant as Buckingham Palace or Bloomsbury. This is a living, dynamic, breathing history lecture. Talk to the traders in the covered arcades on Electric Avenue, have a plate of curry goat or jerk chicken with rice and peas at the five-star restaurant/takeaway Fish, Wings and Tings, enjoy an evening out at Brixton Academy (I still remember a memorable evening there many years ago with my wife when we both watched Erykah Badu and Omar). Although I still had to get to Portobello, as it always happens when I am in Brixistane (the stone of Brihtsige), I decided to stay a bit longer and talk to the locals.

Sadly a reputation has followed Brixton. A reputation that is unfounded, in my humble opinion. The district’s association with drugs and crime has unfortunately tarred everyone and everything with the same brush. Add to this the riots that happened here in the 80s and you might begin to understand why a few locals feel they have been dealt a bad and unfair hand. I have been in Brixton a few times, late at night, the result of enjoying one of the perks of multiculturalism: a chant-rich, percussion-intense, fun-packed Afro-Cuban session that would have not looked out of place in Havana, Cuba. Late at night Brixton is a spectacle to behold. Regardless of the weather, the area around the tube station teems with revellers. The market is one of the few places in London that has not been “Shoreditch-fied”, that is, the recent investment has not yet turned Brixton into a hipster-magnet paradise full of overpriced swanky bars and restaurants. The best mangoes I have ever eaten in Britain, I bought them here. As I purchased a couple on this day, l was glad to see that the same quality was still present.

The excitement for me, as I saddled up again, was the lack of agenda. I knew I wanted to get to Portobello Market, the last leg of my tour. I also knew that up to now I had been on familiar territory. I had driven on these roads. The next stage would be completely in the dark, metaphorically speaking. The sun was already burning my almost-bare back. Still, to be agenda-free was to be free. No map, except for the notes in one of my pockets. No Odysseus-like obligation to come up with a narration, a tale, a story to tell about adventures and dangers. Ahead of me there was only the A23. I pushed my bike off the kerb and began to ride.

Bicycle left "grazing" by owner.

© 2016

Next Post: “London, my London”, to be published on Wednesday 16th March at 6pm (GMT)


  1. I'm always so fascinated and hate for your posts to end. It's doubtful I'd ever attempt Brixton at night; not from fear of others, but because the likelihood of a severe fall would be in the 80%+ bracket. =(

  2. Not having a destination and being free, can lead for a lot of new to see. Sounds like an interesting spot with plenty to see and do by a lot.

  3. Mangoes ... You've given me the best possible reason to revisit Brixton!

  4. Esos paseos siempre van bien, te permiten ver o descubrir lo imaginario, un abrazo.

  5. I've found on my travels that having no agenda is the best way to experience a place.

  6. How I love travelling with you - and getting a new perspective on names and places which have long been familiar - in books.
    Thank you.

  7. Just heading where the whim takes you sounds lovely! I've heard so many good things about Brixton too - as you say, they have a bad rep.

  8. Hi ACIL – I’d like to see the Elephant and Castle area sometime … now it’s been revamped. It’s fascinating about the Roman roads isn’t it .. and the tracks that have been used for 2,000 years or longer. It amazes me that when we lived in West Surrey – north of Woking … it was rural and London Airport only became the main airport in 1948 …

    I knew about the West Caribbean population in Brixton – I have some friends who often visit (their daughter lives there) … and I didn’t know about Electric Avenue – fascinating.

    Brixton does seem to have settled down and is a real melting pot of cultures and traditions … I’ll look forward to your Portobello reminiscences …

    Lovely tour .. cheers Hilary

  9. a city is yours when you can ride in it, not kay el, I don't think

  10. Thank you so much for taking me with you on another amazing bike ride, CiL!
    These highly visual jaunts around our capitol really do make my week.:)
    And I honestly had no idea that Brixton was the inspiration for Eddy Grant's brilliant hit, "Electric Avenue".
    Well...I've learned something new here again today...
    A truly fabulous post! :))

  11. It must be lovely to travel without having planned a destination. I would be too scared of getting lost.

  12. My goodness, you should consider a career as a travel writer. I thoroughly enjoyed your descriptions and observations. And now I have an incredible urge to plan another trip to London.

  13. Ohhh Cubano! You have brought tears to my eyes. I love Brixton and your post makes me long for it like I was born there. I'm glad to hear that it hasn't been hipsterized and that there is a growing Brazilian presence. You have made me consider a return tip soon!

  14. I wish I wasn't so timid about biking--but I am out in the middle of nowhere in any case--over 12 miles to nearest town! (Except when in NYC!) K. All enjoyed. k.

  15. Bom dia, excelente reportagem que me transporta para o seu passeio de bicicleta que privilegia uma melhor apreciação a toda beleza que rodeia.



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