Yes, this is a lament for Catford. Not for the Catford that is, but for the Catford that will be. Lewisham Council has plans for Catford; gentrification has plans for Catford. Come visit the giant fibreglass cat while ye may — it could soon be the last vestige of what's great about the area.
Where much of zone 2 and 3 in south east London has fallen under the spell of middle class gentility — Dulwich, Brockley, dear god Peckham — Catford seemed unimpressed. Lewisham gets Model Market? Catford gets a Kaspas (a glittery waffle house-slash-ice cream parlour, notable chiefly for its neon pinkness. The waffles work, though). Forest Hill gets Canvas and Cream? Catford gets two Costas. And yet, and yet. All those lovely period houses, all that green space, all those decent schools. Long-time Catford resident and Guardian columnist Lucy Mangan may have described the area as "the only place in all of London and the south-east set to remain impervious to gentrification", but when that same paper ran its 'Let's Move To' column on Catford last summer, the game was surely up.
But we love Catford as it is. Time got to about 1997 here and then stood still, arms resolutely folded, refusing to move on. Those aforementioned Costas stand out — Catford doesn't wear its branding so shinily. It prefers to secrete its wonders away from the gaze of potential housebuyers; go away, we don't want you here. Come back when you've lived in Sydenham for five years and taken the time to get to know the place.
The Blythe Hill Tavern, for instance, from the outside looks like a tired and decrepit flea pit. Inside, however, it's one of CAMRA's south east London favourites, genuinely Irish run, frequented by locals and stocked with magnificent ales and ciders. A day is easily lost in here. Similarly outwardly misleading is Sapporo Ichiban, the greatest Japanese restaurant in south east London (and certainly the best value for money — ask for the all you can eat buffet menu). Another treat is getting to sit at traditional low tables with sunken floor for your legs, even if it makes getting up again when stuffed with katsu a touch tricky.
It's also easy to walk past the area's best pub, the Catford Constitutional Club, hidden as it is down an alley. Allow us a brief detour into recent history, if you will. The Antic chain was originally invited to take over the Catford Bridge Tavern by the council and local police, after it all got a bit stabby. They did a magnificent job of turning the pub around but were then turfed out by the landlord, who tried to turn it into flats and a mini supermarket (a local campaign put the dampers on that idea). So they moved into the old Conservative club, serving a range of decent ales and excellent food, in a cosily dark, cavernous space with rickety old parquet flooring and splendidly decorated toilets.
We've been known to sniff at what we're terming 'Anticification': the way Antic pubs seem to be the vanguard of gentrification in any given area, but they do run excellent pubs. Which makes its imminent demise, courtesy of the Catford Plan, all the more galling. The Catford Constitutional has set up a petition to have its lease extended, as it currently runs out in October 2016. It's addressed to the council and the Catford Regeneration Partnership Limited, the company created to buy up all the leases in the shopping centre. Because Catford is about to undergo a significant, top-down regeneration project, which will create around 1,700 new homes on sites like the old greyhound stadium, Wickes and civic centre sites — and the Catford Centre.
As with many of these schemes all over London, businesses face uncertainty — at the very least. We got in touch with the people at the Catford Constitutional to find out what's happening, and they just don't know. Several plans have been mooted — one of which, for a bigger version of the existing Tesco store, would mean the CCC being flattened completely — and the Catford Regeneration Partnership has not, as yet, answered our requests for clarification. But even if the buildings survive, experience from other schemes tells us that business rents will increase, perhaps beyond the means of the Catford stalwarts. And you don't need us to tell you what happens to residential rents and prices when gentrification comes.
And then there's this. It's a crowdfunding project to bring a "vintage style shop and tea room" to Catford. We're sure the project owner's heart is in the right place, and we also know that — despite this being an area that venerates a massive plastic cat, perhaps indicating not the tenderest of sensibilities — a café with chintz and bunting will probably do very well. But it's not very Catford, is it? It reminds us of that Onion article, Sometimes I Feel Like I'm The Only One Trying To Gentrify This Neighborhood. We'll make an exception for the planned Good Food deli, though is it telling that one of the shop's aims is to "offer practical and unbiased advice, without being pretentious or condescending"?
For now, Catford is still unassuming, prosaic, congenial Catford. If you want to celebrate it while it's still here, mark 21-25 July in your calendar for a silent movie night, history talk, quiz at the CCC (21 July), promenade theatre and exhibitions dotted around the area. And raise a quiet glass to what could be Catford's tipping point.