The Community Hidden Behind Elephant And Castle Station

Will Noble
By Will Noble Last edited 64 months ago
The Community Hidden Behind Elephant And Castle Station
Marcela, selling flowers outside The Artworks

"It's a big free billboard for me," says Marcela, as she carefully wraps roses in cellophane on Valentine's Day morning. Wearing a t-shirt — though it's only a few degrees above freezing — she explains how she loves her spot outside The Artworks at Elephant and Castle. A double-decker whooshes past every few seconds, not to mention thousands trickling by on foot each day. Marcela's stall is probably more effective than the actual billboards for meatballs and Southwark Council, plastered on the adjacent rail bridge.

"I've always worked in floristry," she says, "finally I came across this place one day. I decided that I'd give it the go ahead."

The Artworks is a compact community of pop-ups that's been on The Elephant Road since August 2014, all the time Elephant Park sprouting bigger and bigger behind it. If you've gone by on the 343, you may have dismissed this place as a shoot-off of Boxpark — its colourful sea containers, stacked like play bricks look familiar, after all. But the setup's a little different here.

You can start your day with a yoga class at The Artworks, and end it with jiu jitsu. While The Athenian cooks up juicy souvlaki, start-up companies converge in the courtyard, drinking coffees from the Long Wave chalet. Later on in the evening, locals crowd round the TV at Six Yard Box — a pint-sized football bar where you can trade football stickers for beer. There's a library on the top floor, and even the occasional theatre production.

The talk's too often of London's dissolving communities; at The Artworks, the roots of a new community have been well planted.

(From left to right): Michelle, Conan and Fiona

Marcela also has a tearoom in one of the containers, selling brews flavoured with petals, rhubarb and liquorice. "You don't really go into a flower shop unless you need something," she says, "and I think that's so unfair because flower shops are so pretty." The tea shop lures people in with warm drinks, and sees them leave clutching handmade bouquets, or perhaps a potted cactus — all the rage with young Londoners: "People were like 'do you have cactuses, do you have cactuses?' And I was like 'well I'm going to have to buy cactuses!'", Marcela laughs.

For many tenants, The Artworks has allowed them the step up from stall to semi-permanent premises. Both The Athenian and Cupcakes & Shhht were on Camden Market before this. "It's a nice opportunity to get somewhere that's affordable and a fixed permanent location," says Sophie from Cupcakes & Shhht, "it's what we always dreamed of."

Michelle, who runs Petershams Millinery Supplies, has a slightly different reason for coming to The Artworks. "We came here because someone spilled a beer on me," she laughs, explaining that the guys who did it consequently gave Michelle a much-needed business tip-off. "I was looking for a shop," says Michelle, "And they were here, so I came here.

"Now we get people every day from all over the world coming to Elephant and Castle!"

Petershams is London's only dedicated Millinery supply shop; a cave of coloured materials from dyed Philippines sinamay to rolls of Petersham ribbon, after which the shop is named. It's far preferable, says Michelle, to the chilly Bermondsey warehouse they were in before this. The place is guarded loyally by Conan (the Dogbarian), who has a foe in one of The Artworks' other canine inhabitants. You get the impression that's one of the few bitter relationships around here.

"No one can afford to live in north London anymore." Iain, Ideas Made

And if you think all that talk of 'community' is wide-eyed bunkum, Iain from tech start-up Ideas Made proves that's not so. His company has just started doing some guest lectures at London College of Communication — an interesting example of a setup that does much of its business online, nipping across the road to make friends face to face.

Iain does admit that the company is here first and foremost because rent is cheap, and that many of the employees live in south east London. "These are OK," he says about the shipping containers, "but winter here isn't the most pleasant experience. We would like somewhere more permanent.

"But I think we'd stick around here to be honest," he adds, explaining that he's realised there are a lot of start-ups around Elephant and Castle. "There's no reason why you can't be in south London. There's plenty of opportunity round here."

Elephant Park sprouts up behind The Artworks

As every tenant in London must acknowledge, all good things must end; The Artworks has something of a spectre hanging over it in the form of Land Lease's Elephant Park. These colourful boxes sit on precious building land, and it won't be in this corner of Elephant and Castle too much longer. Ironically, it may not far outlive the 1960s shopping centre, which has been holding on for dear life for some time.

But whatever The Artworks' future, and wherever it winds up next, it's important that Elephant and Castle 2.0 - however many Prets it accrues — somehow harnesses the good work being done here.

"We get all our meat and bread from Greece": Georgia, The Athenian
A mural on at The Artworks, depicting local heroes
Conan sniffs around in Petershams
"In Camden it's a lot more passing traffic. Here it's more local." Sophie, Cupcakes & Shhht
A bright corner of Elephant and Castle at night
Bowie peers at passers by
Take your pick

Last Updated 16 February 2017