The East London Line opened its south-east section on 23rd May, inducting a whole new swathe of London into the world of roundels. Given that, for a lot of people, south-east London might as well be populated by dragons, we asked some locals to give you a tour round their gaffs. Today, Brendan Dodds, writer and comedian best known for his work with sketch act Pappy's Fun Club, takes us round Penge West.
Hop off the East London Line train at Penge West and a great class division awaits you. To the West the muzak of Homebase summons the middle-classes to Sunday worship, while to the East the eclectic product range and pushchairs of Wilkinsons await. We'll take a stroll Eastward because there's a bit more to see, missing out on little more than a run of take-aways as we turn away, the huge TV transmitter at the top of Crystal Palace park looming behind us.
The short walk to the main stretch of the high street is leafy and pleasant, with parklets, school playing fields, churches and neat rows of terraced houses. The gothic facade of the Almshouses on Watermen's Square is a lingering reminder of Penge's past life of Victorian splendour, wealthy families drawn to the dinosaurs and cultivated landscape still found in the nearby Crystal Palace park. It's no longer an exclusive area, of course, and the high street quickly becomes a collection of pubs, chain stores and discount shops that will be familiar to South Londoners and pretty much anyone who's ever seen a town.
There's something about poundshops and the way they cheerily abstain from getting caught up in the usual quest for cleanliness, customer service and quality. All such values fall on the sword of economy, to the battle cry of 'all items for a pound or less'. The best of these stores could find a way to cut corners from a perfect circle. Poundland in Penge is one of the best. From the moment you walk in, see the merchandise littering the floor and feel the impact of prams and high-velocity children against your ankles, you know you're in safe hands. Imported canned drinks, dry-boxed prawn paella and perfume brand-a-likes jostle on the shelves for your attention, along with the regular brands that they're somehow, quite mystifyingly, able to reduce to the £1 mark. I write all of this with a genuine affection. I just bought myself a Tweetie Bird Wheelie-bin Beautification Kit that I didn't know I needed until I saw it.
Elsewhere the high street is predominantly made up of the usual chain stores, bakeries, charity shops and newsagents you'd expect to find on any South London main road. In shop-fronts, Greggs sausage rolls sit beside the elaborate show cakes in an Eastern European bakery, cheap reclaimed meat somewhat overshadowed by the towering cherry-topped architecture next door. Superdrug and Boots compete from opposite sides of the road, each silently yelling 2-for-1 offers from their shop windows, while Barclays, Natwest and Santander compete to offer the worst customer service.
Beside Santander, unbelievably, a child waits patiently in a pram outside William Hill for the unseen parent to finish his or her investments. Fortunately it's a rare exception in a friendly, good-natured neighbourhood. Many ethnicities combine without clashing, joining forces to contribute a good mix of cultures, most easily apparent in the little independant delicatessens and cafés that are sprinkled around Penge. One of my favourites is a small subtly-styled North African cafe called The Casbah, where earlier today the owner introduced me to Chorba Beida - a wholesome chicken broth, packed with spinach, onion, chickpeas and lemon. Back home in Algeria, the owner informs me, it is particularly popular to break the fast of Ramadan. If you're passing through, stop for a coffee or an authentic-tasting Chicken Tagine. You won't be disappointed and they could probably use a little more trade - as I left for home I noticed Subway signage being erected next-door.