An ode to Walworth

Whenever I meet another Londoner and they ask me where in London we live, I initially answer “Walworth” just to see whether this name is met with a knowing look or blank stare. As it is usually the latter, I quickly add “…near Elephant & Castle.”  This usually helps put them back on solid footing, unless they are a North Londoner who really knows absolutely nothing about this side of the river.

That someone from another part of London wouldn’t know much about our neighbourhood is unsurprising (for my part, I couldn’t tell you much about Chalk Farm, unless they do in fact grow chalk bushes there), but that so many people have never even heard of it, despite its proximity to Central London, is actually quite surprising.

So, I decided it’s time to do my bit and educate you, dear readers, about our humble neighbourhood, even if only so that when you meet someone at a party who’s from Walworth, you can say “Ah yes, I’ve heard of that. Isn’t that where…”

Walworth is an unassuming neighbourhood in the borough of Southwark, straddling the invisible, undefined, but very important line between “Central London” and “Southeast London.” It’s postcode — SE17–  suggests that it is somewhere far away (for some reason, it’s between SE1 to the north, and SE5 to the south) when it’s actually a 15-minute (if even that!) cycle from the Square Mile.

East Street Market

East Street Market

There is perhaps no place that captures the vibrant (and chaotic) ethos of multicultural London as succinctly as Walworth. Classic English pubs sit amongst “Oriental Supermarkets” and Caribbean takeaway joints, and the Arab traders on East Street make a decent effort at speaking Spanish to their Latin@ clientele.

Of course, lots of neighbourhoods in London have ethnic enclaves: Brick Lane is known as “Banglatown,” even for official purposes,  South Kensington has its own seat in the French parliament and Edgware Road is sometimes called the 23rd Arab state.  But it’s rare to find a neighbourhood that, rather than having a large population of this or that group, has some of everyone. But that’s Walworth.

St. Peter's Walworth in the snow

St. Peter’s Walworth in the snow

And it’s not just a melange of people; Walworth is also quite architecturally diverse. Georgian terraces and Victorian rowhouses stand resolutely among the blocks of housing that rose from the rubble of World War II. The neighbourhood boasts St. Peter’s Walworth, one of only three churches designed by famous neo-Classical architect Sir John Soane….but it is also home to the infamous Heygate Estate, a 1970s Brutalist monstrosity which has served as the backdrop for many TV and big screen crime thrillers, and was considered suitably post-Apocalyptic for the filming of World War Z.

If the variety of grocers and restaurants on Walworth Road are testament to the ethnic diversity of the neighbourhood, the disheartening number of payday lenders and pawnbrokers gives a clue to its economic makeup. And as with any working-class neighbourhood so close to the centre of London, the threat of gentrification is always looming. Already, posh, new condos peer over Walworth from Elephant & Castle.

Playing frisbee in Burgess Park

Playing frisbee in Burgess Park

But a rebuttal to the sinking feeling that urban processes are universal and inevitable can be found just at the other end of Walworth: Burgess Park. Whilst most urban parks start out as vast, green expanses, and are slowly frittered away by encroaching developments, Burgess Park went the opposite direction. Indeed, the whole area that is now the park was once factories and houses, but the area suffered significant damage by the Luftwaffe in WWII. Turning tragedy into opportunity, the council decided to carve a park out of the built environment, and so it is that today we have the largest park in the borough. On a sunny weekend, it feels like the whole world has come to Burgess Park, but not in an obnoxiously overcrowded way like some of the touristy parks; rather Burgess Park feels like a series of little festivals.

Anyone who knows the story of my housing search knows that we didn’t seek out Walworth; it just worked out that way. But now, after less than a year, it’s hard to imagine living anywhere else in London.

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