An Ode To Elephant And Castle Shopping Centre

Will Noble
By Will Noble Last edited 10 months ago
An Ode To Elephant And Castle Shopping Centre

In November 2015 we visited Elephant and Castle Shopping Centre.

Like a hulking beast that's been pricked with a tranquilliser dart yet refuses to acknowledge the sedative, Elephant and Castle Shopping Centre is lumbering its way to a slow but inevitable halt. The affront to architecture was earmarked for demolition three years ago but somehow shambled on. It can't do so forever; former neighbour the Heygate Estate is now extinct. The shopping centre itself is in the sights of APG and Delancey, who are, as we speak, plotting how to dispose of it. And anyway, Southwark Council has insisted that you can't polish an (elephant) turd.

Isn't she a beauty.

Who can blame the detractors? At the lynchpin of south east London's traffic flow — and in plain sight of countless Londoners every day — the Boissevain & Osmond-designed shopping centre came into the world kicking and screaming in 1965, ugly as sin. Vaunted as the first covered shopping mall in Europe, many thought it wasn't covered up enough. The years have not been kind; a ghetto of stalls congregate, confused, in a concrete moat. A strange, calcite substance seems to be spreading down the outside walls. Navigating your way from the train station to the Underground, you might as well be tackling the Penrose stairs.

But there's beauty in this beast, and heaps of it. A Saturday spree inside the shopping centre reveals beneath the moribund skin a healthy, beating heart. At the café bar La Bodeguita, parents sip bottled lagers and munch through plates of custard tarts, while their children jig to Latin music from a nearby TV screen. Add sunshine, and this bit of indoor Southwark could be a town square somewhere in South America.

La Bodeguita's cafe bar.

Continuing through, up, down and around the shambolic levels of the shopping centre reveals surprise after surprise. Tesco and a 99p Store play second fiddle to an Asian supermarket, a drycleaners that looks like it was discovered here when they were building the actual shopping centre, and another Colombian — this one dishing up impossible portions of steak, avocado and plantain fritters. Not every surprise is a pleasant one: a fast food chain that somehow dodged the bullet that felled most Wimpy outlets continues to sell grey, limp burgers. The entrance to the name-besmirching Charlie Chaplin pub is half blocked by a guy so inebriated he could do with a bamboo cane himself.

But nipping out for some fresh air (probably 50% monoxide, but still), that ghetto in the moat reveals fresh juice stalls, good Caribbean food, and a place selling dried sarsaparilla and something called 'Joseph Coat'. There are also phone covers, lots of phone covers.

The concrete moat. Afloat with some surprising treasures.

Back inside, you arrive at the mecca of London's cheap Polish food scene —  Mamuśka! Here the chirpy staff and bantery menus suggest the outfit is part of a savvy megachain. It's not though — for now at least there's only one Mamuśka! — only one place where they'll ply you with paté and fresh bread for £2.75, gulasz and mashed potatoes for under £7 and decent vodka at £3 a snifter. The restaurant's website may describe its location as "the pit of despair", but what will be really despairing is when there are two Mamuśka!s in each Westfield, the prices have doubled and there's nowhere nearby you can get your hands on any Joseph Coat.

The shopping centre's crowning glory lies at the tip of the uppermost escalator. After fishing out your £1 entrance fee (or signing for a Palace Bingo gold membership card, which costs the same and sees you through for life) you're met with all the fun of the fair, circa 1987. A cavernous bingo hall is filled with the rancorous sighs of old and young when, time and time again, someone else gets the full house. Elsewhere kids egg each other to lay out a punch bag, and see their strength flicker up on a digital screen. Air hockey tables serve as a poignant reminder that there should be an air hockey table in every single room of every single building everywhere.

A new bar, where you can buy beer with football stickers.

The most glorious quarter of the London Palace is its Superbowl ten pin bowling lanes. On a Saturday night the place throbs with bad music while an attendant takes a cursory glance at your footwear, decides you won't be requiring bowling shoes, and waves you on. You can't take the sport here too seriously, because the surroundings don't. As you roll your first gutter ball, you're back at a mate's 12th birthday party, only this time with pitchers of lager (and an iffier bowling technique). When you mention 'bowling at Elephant and Castle' to anyone who's been, they light up. It even cropped up as a key venue in a comedy routine we watched a few days after.

The landscape around the shopping centre is morphing at a furious rate. Much of this change is positive, like the village of shipping containers immediately to the south, which houses a makeshift library, neat bars like Long Wave, and another boozer where the owner is currently accepting Panini stickers as currency, until his ceiling is fully plastered in footballers. Places like these are a much-needed antidote to the likes of the Charlie Chaplin. But they're also reminders of Elephant and Castle Shopping Centre's impending fate.

The sun will set on Elephant and Castle Shopping Centre sooner rather than later.

When it's gone — and soon enough it will be — south Londoners will miss the shopping centre; at least they will if they ever visited. For all its clodhopping architecture and occasional ambience of doom, it represents London itself — dreary, colourful, ludicrously juxtaposed, and bloody well unapologetic about it. This is the London that's being squashed underfoot by glimmering artist's impressions every day. And while the likes of Giles Coren are right to deplore the dinosaurs intent on keeping London shitty, not all mess is bad.

Elephant and Castle Shopping Centre is a beautiful beast; let's make the most of it before they put it to sleep for good.

Last Updated 26 October 2016

Kay

Brutalism is not ugly, it is the most mis-understood movement in human history. The reason? It is not architecture, it is a philosophy, and humans don't always get philosophy, particularly when governments post-socialism in Britain have done everything in their part to destroy that very philosophy and make us all mindless consumerists. We can no longer appreciate the art and ideals of that beautiful concrete project, we only see the forced and near planned neglect. Where capital reigned supreme on Brutalism, I'm thinking of places like the Brusnwick centre, we no longer see them as ugly. What makes this different to that philosophically? The Brunswick centre didn't start its life as a much coveted trendy spot in central London, but this is exactly what it became. At least they saved the structure. Now they want to demolish this and other landmarks like that. If they'd do it to Earl's Court, a much more widely appreciated structure, then they have no problem in demolishing this and other concrete giants. Britain is intentionally eroding a vibrant and rich part of its history that stood for something. Shame.

Monkeycat

You also need to check out Castle Tandoori. The best British Indian restaurant in London. It still has all the original fixtures and fittings, down to the flock wallpaper, personalised carpet, and even the original hand dryers, soap dispensers and tiles in the toilet.

Until recently there were a couple of shops that still had their 60's fittings as well. They have just been gutted. I was gutted.

Monkeycat

If you don't believe me, check out the Trip Advisor reviews on Castle Tandoori http://www.tripadvisor.co.uk/R...

Daft Asabrush

Will.....
you missed the curry stall on the ground floor where £3.99 will get you a chicken leg, veg curry, rice, and salad and an excellent spicy green chile sauce. I've been living on it for years!

Nicolas Chinardet

The 1965 building is actually rather nice and not dissimilar in looks to the Royal Festival Hall. It's all the rubbish that's been appended to it over the decades (mostly in the 80's it seems) that makes it look so bloody awful.

It's main problem though is that, as most 1960's architecture, the building is quite unapologetically not about the people using it, hence all those damn ramps and stairs the punter has to negociate to access that huge whale beached on its own far away island between a railway line and a motorway (in all but name).

Richard Trenholm

While I appreciate the effort, I've lived there for years and never found anything to recommend the place. The endless MC Escher underpasses, the complete black hole of decent pubs, the shopping centre whose shops chiefly stock despair... It's pretty grim.

That said, the bowling alley sounds fun, I've only been once. And the Coronet is cool.

Janelle Tucker

well now I will have to go back in and see some of these places you mentioned, cause I went in there last week and vowed to never go back. When I first saw the place I thought "that looks hood" and I was right.

Mamuśka!

Hey Will. Great
Article. I may not agree with your conclusion that it needs to be
preserved, but those of us who live and work here cannot deny the sense of
community that has fostered within the concrete walls. That said, the community
gets attacked quite frequently by people who presume because it looks neglected
they can come and get away with whatever anti-social behaviour they may choose
to engage. It's the broken window theory, and it is real. Whether
we choose to accept it or rebel against it, a building this old and poorly
designed (no daylight, too many blocked sight lines, asbestos, etc.)
subconsciously will always attract a type of predator that recognises neglect
and vulnerability. And
unlike the dedicated neighbourhood police team, the incident response police
teams have long given up trying to maintain a decent standard of behaviour at
night, as have Savills, who managed the centre for Delancey. There is no recycling due to it being designed in
the 60s when there was no recycling, and no one even has a drawing of either
the plumbing or the electrical systems. When we asked for a gas connection we were told
the pipes leading from the street are too old and cannot carry any additional
load. The lifts cost more to repair than they would to
buy knew and one breaks down every fortnight. The list goes on. We work here and the experience has been
exhausting but uniquely rewarding all at once. But we truly look forward to working in a place where
we can see the sunlight, recycle to our hearts delight and still serve a plate
of 10 awesome lovingly handmade pierogi for under £8. We will be expanding, but
trying to keep something of the Elephant and Castle Shopping Centre with us as
we grow, for as long as we can. And for the record, we are NOT
going to Westfield!
; )

MH1984

No one will miss this. I was recently studying at LSBU and would get the train into London Bridge a good 10minute walk away because I couldn't face walking through the shopping centre or the subways. Sooner the bulldozers move in the better

td

Good riddance to this monstrosity!

Trish Casey-Green

I grew up on Kennington Lane - 2 mins walk from the Shopping centre. I guess the trendies would describe my end as Newington these days. :). My Saturday mornings were spent taking the shopping trolley up to Tesco with my mum. As a treat I used to go into Smiths to buy a book. I come back to my childhood home every fortnight and relive all that nostalgia. We - that is my forty something friends and i - were devastated when the Leisure Centre was knocked down recently. The replacement apartments are prohibitive to us all. And we'll be devastated when the Elephant goes too. A relic to the past, sure, but also a relic to an affordable city home too.

Hannah

I will never forget being chased through Elephant and Castle shopping centre by my friend with a can of fart spray and buying my mum one red carnation for 20p for mother's day. I too went to the the leisure centre as a kid; with the bumpy slide, the frog slide and of course the elephant slide AND it had a wave machine, awesome. I remember almost drowning when I squeezed under the frog slide. We would always stuff our face with sweets (wham bar) after a swim. There's not much left of old elephant&castle. And now the subways being got rid of. It would seem you can't smarten an area without destroying a neighbourhood.

John McGill

Lived next to it for 3 solid years, literally across the road. Its a bloody horrible area, the Elephant, but not generally because of the residents who are, on the whole, alright really. Its the roads - the multiple roundabouts and busy main roads all joining together and occasionally crushing cyclists/runners that makes it awful. The elephant shopping centre had its uses - even if it was a dark and dirty retro nightmare, It was cheap, quick, and relatively social during daylight. I dont mind them ripping it down for something better though - if gentrification was ever actually needed in London, the elephant certainly deserves to get squashed and replaced. It wont be missed by many.

hooliaaa

I always enjoyed walking through the mall in the mornings. It felt like an unexpected trip to South America. Sad it won't be around much longer.

Lucy

'Ghetto' are you serious

mishky

please keep the pink elephant - it HAS to be saved.

Tim Murray

Got to say, I've worked in the area for a few years and I've grown to love the E&C shopping centre. I don't find it grim at all. It looks pretty ugly on the outside these days, but inside it's bustling and vibrant (and not just in the estate agents version of the word). There's a shop for most stuff you need on a daily basis. And that prehistoric dry cleaners mentioned in the article also charges prehistoric prices, which is a bonus.

I love the fact that it's still there, a massive middle finger raised to the horrendous corporate regeneration of the area. It'll go eventually and what it's replaced with will be far worse than what we've got. You can imagine the bland, sterlile Pret 'n' Starbucks place the develiopers have in mind. And I bet there'll be no room for all the Columbian shops and cafes in the new E&C. After all, their vision is rich foreigners. You can't have your south east Asian 'investors' being put off by phone cover stalls and Joseph Coat, can you?

I'm really going to miss it when it's gone.

Tommo

More importantly than all of this, in which bar can I trade my many Panini stickers for beer? My Saturday is already planned! Sticker beer, bowling and Bigos!

Tim Murray

AND... don't knock the subways. They're great too. Sure, some are dingy and they can be smelly, but there are some great tiles and murals. I especially like the ones on the London Road side which depict the history of the area.

They're the best way to get around the Elephant quickly. Anyone with a half-decent sense of direction shouldn't have too many problems. Once they're gone and you have to wait several minutes to cross a massive road, you'll miss the subways. Just wait...

Ed Murray

Elephant and Castle
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
I have seen where Hell and Hades meet,
On a leafless, leaden London street.
A place that taste forgot,
Of shopping carts and urban rot,
Where the A roads pinch and skewer
A God-forsaken prefab sewer,
And a roundabout of gravelled grey
Ushers in a junkie's day.
Elephant & Castle, that place of ill-renown,
The concrete blight of London Town --
Even thick-skinned pachyderms object
At being linked to such neglect.
Croydon is its Cannes, Bow its Biarritz --
It's been all downhill since the Blitz.
Around the Ministry club -- vomit.
The rivers of piss run from it.
The fetid pants of a wasted wench
Slung low across a rusty bench.
And in The Bricklayer's Arms, the learned,
Downing the dole in one -- they've earned it.
A triple stroller loiters in an underpass --
No better stall for ma's A-class.
Yet the kids still get their five a day --
Coke, hash, meow-meow, heroin and K.
And daddy double jobs, so check your scorn,
Cooking meth by day, by night it's housewife porn.
Fools may hanker for Waitrose, but please --
In the Elephant, it's starve or eat Sainsburys.
And though many a hipster has vainly tried,
The Elephant just won't be gentrified.
Their moustached skulls litter its edge,
Civet coffee beans in hand commemorate their pledge.
A few subsist on the alchemist's dream--
Disadvantage transmuted to benefit scheme:
Cheap fuel and subsidised rents!
But the scourge of the Elephant never relents.
Someone dreamt a dream once here,
In the hairline cleft between despair and fear.
But the postcode was wrong for that singular teen
Who envisioned a band called SE17.
So throttle all hope and quell every dream,
And add your lung's worth to the residents' scream:
"Lord, grant me death, for life's more hassle
When your days are spent in Elephant & Castle."

Londonwanderer

A really good piece. Thank you.

thegrumpyoldsod

OK, it might be an eyesore....but it's OUR eyesore..complete with the bright pink elephant.

mpurser

I remember going to the 'grand' opening as a kid. Not so much struck by the architecture, but the fact that they were giving away lots of free samples of sweets and snacks that we had never seen before. Some lurid coloured cheesy wotsit-type snacks seem to be etched on my memory for some reason. To the inhabitants of SE London, it was as though an exotic space ship had landed in our midst.

Although it was a bold statement for the time, it's position and that of other buildings around it, meant that (unlike the Southbank Centre) it was always hard to appreciate its architectural merits. For those of you who are too young to know the old E&C through the ages, the fact is that it was a commercial disaster from the start and never liked by the public. I was born in Camberwell and my family never bothered to use it - preferring to shop in Rye Lane in Peckham. Later on, in the 1980's, I lived just off Walworth Road and the E&C had deteriorated considerably and I never had any reason to visit any of its shops, even though I had to wait for a bus outside every day, after getting off the Bakerloo line.

And here is the significant difference to other run-down London landmarks - they were once loved and have a place in people's hearts. Very few people have such memories of the E&C and the vast majority will be glad to see the back of it. For me, I will never forget the opening day - and I still can't get the orange die from those bloody snacks off my fingers!

Jimbim

My earliest memory of elephant and castle, would you believe, was calling there at the end of a school trip in about 1975. We had been by coach to somewhere in london, might have been the natural history museum and driving back to Sussex, where else would you stop! Shops loos, carpark....We were about 9 or 10 years old and easily impressed.
When I went back there as an adult and living in London in the early 90s it brought back such a clear memory of that first visit. It obviously made more of an impression on me than the cultural visit!

Have to add tho, I won't be sorry to see it go.

Dave

The band elephants and castles take inspiration from such Brutalist architecture - here's concrete love https://soundcloud.com/elephan... (an ode to Metro Central Heights designer Erno Goldfinger) plus an old picture of the band inside the centre.
Often misunderstood, the band think buildings of that era should be celebrated as soon most will have been demolished.
Featured on this site for their debut 'Fashanu' check out www.elephantsandcastles.london

mpurser

I can still remember going to the (not so) grand opening of the shopping centre as a child. Even then, it was a massive disappointment and the day was only saved by free samples of new fangled snacks (such as toxic cheesy-wotsit type things which stained my fingers orange for days).
Part of me feels a pang of sorrow at its passing, but it was never a great work of architecture and should have been demolished decades ago. Unlike other brutalist buildings, it was always appallingly impractical and too many compromises were made to the final design and quality of the construction materials.

Katie

I was brought up around here and while I moan about how hideous it is I will genuinely miss it, however a lot has changed around here since I lived in the area so I think the crappy version I will pine for has long since vanished.

I guess it's like a ugly relative who made up for their bad looks with bags of personality and eccentricity.

I haven't visited the area in a good while so maybe I should have one last wander before it becomes completely unrecognisable.

Also does anyone know if Corsica Studios is going to close as part of the 'regen' project? I used to work there and think it was probably the best thing about E&C, that and the random Colombian bar next to it. That slightly sketchy area right there screamed London to me.

thegrumpyoldsod

An eyesore it may be.....but it's OUR bloody eyesore. I just hope that when the grim reaper's wrecking ball delivers the coux-de-gras that majestic old pink elephant survives somehow, & doesn't end his days arse-upwards in a skip!

Tiffany

This is a really special place...some photos here:
https://medium.com/@tiffany...