What It's Like To Live In London's Little Portugal

What It's Like To Live In London's Little Portugal
Vauxhall is better-known as the site of the MI6 headquarters, rather than its vibrant Portuguese community. Photo: Rob Fahey.

Exiting Vauxhall tube station you emerge onto South Lambeth Road a hub of Portuguese restaurants, hairdressers and delicatessens, which have gathered here over the last 30 years, earning the area its nickname 'Little Portugal'.

As we wander from Vauxhall to Stockwell, a rumble of laughter erupts from Portugal Café and Tapas Bar, where a group of middle-aged men are dining. Locals can be heard conversing in their mother tongue — the area is popular among African, Latin American and other Portuguese speakers.

This country gave me everything. Portugal hasn't given anything to me. That's why I stay here. - Antonio Lopes

But casting a shadow over this tight-knit community are cranes and scaffolding, which signify the arrival of luxury apartments, including what will be the UK's tallest residential brick tower. Like much of London, this is an area in flux.

Antonio Lopes, owner of Fumeiro, a small restaurant attached to a store selling authentic Portuguese goods says he feels torn between his English and Portuguese identity. "When I watch football and England are playing against Portugal — always I'm half and half, believe me," he says. "I like England to win as well, you know — because this country gave me everything. Portugal hasn't given anything to me. That's why I stay here."

But making a new life in London hasn’t been easy; Lopes went through a divorce and suffered a stroke he attributes to the stress of a seven-day working week. When he arrived in the area 30 years ago there was only one Portuguese restaurant, on a street lined with dilapidated shops.

O Fumeiro at 52-54 Wilcox Rd, Vauxhall. Photo: Google Maps

As we talk over a counter laden with bolo rei — a Portuguese crown-shaped Christmas cake encrusted with colourful, dried fruit — Lopes continues to serve a regular stream of customers who mouth their 'obrigados' and 'tchaus' before departing. There are over 35,000 Portuguese speakers living in Lambeth alone, making it the second-most spoken language in the borough.

When you live outside your home country, there is often a deep desire to stay connected to your roots, to your language and to your culture. - Catarina Demony

Lambeth attracts young people of working age from the UK and abroad, particularly those countries severely affected by the Eurozone crisis. With this influx of new arrivals in search of employment, it's little wonder so many of the older generation voted for Brexit. 51% of the population is aged between 20 and 44 — around 163,000 people — while 28% are aged between 25 and 34. But it's the latter group who are increasingly defining the character of the area. Catarina Demony is a switched-on 23-year-old and co-director of Little Portugal, a website for collecting and disseminating the stories of people living and working in the borough, which launched as a reaction to the outcome of the EU referendum and the sharp increase in hate crimes against minority groups.

Catarina interviewing Natasha, a young Portuguese woman working in a radio station in Lambeth for Little Portugal. Photo: Michaela Ordosova (2016)

Demony agrees that Portuguese stories are underrepresented in the media and in narratives about London generally. "To be completely honest, I think there are still some stereotypes about what a Portuguese person looks like, and what a Portuguese person does," she says. "Back in the 60s and 70s, when Portuguese immigrants first arrived in London escaping an authoritarian government, they were looking for a better life. Jobs in construction work or cleaning were common. Even though some Portuguese people still work in those industries, the community has progressed, and now London is also home to Portuguese-speaking CEOs, activists, politicians and businesspeople." The website provides a space for their stories.

Originally from Lisbon, Demony moved to London in 2011. She says: "When you live outside your home country, there is often a deep desire to stay connected to your roots, to your language and to your culture. And this was our way to do it." Similarly, despite his admission that Portugal gave him nothing, Lopes doesn't want his children to lose touch with their Portuguese heritage, shelling out a small fortune on Portuguese language tuition for them.

Mount Anvil is building the UK's largest residential brick tower block on South Lambeth Road

The future of this community is uncertain. Hoardings that read 'Move up in the world' and '#VauxhallVibes' line this stretch of road, promising an aspirational lifestyle inaccessible to most who already live here.

Once upon a time Vauxhall's vibe was rooted in working-class culture; when the Lambeth Walk, a song taken from the 1937 musical Me and My Girl, inspired a dance craze recognised around Europe as the exaggerated way a cockney struts. (See 1939 version below). Now the street market of Lambeth Walk Road, the heart of Cockney London has gone and #VauxhallVibes is another way of advertising a club lounge, spa, pool, gymnasium and 24-hour concierge.

Mount Anvil, the developer who made a tidy £25m profit in 2015, is building towering apartments in an area where lack of affordable housing means 55% of homeless households are placed in temporary accommodation outside of the borough.

Lopes is worried about the impact of development and the new Nine Elms tube station on his business. "The people who buy these flats are not me or you — it's people who have a lot of money to spend. Maybe it will be better for me, maybe not. If the rent gets too expensive then the Portuguese community will go away from here, believe me."

But not back to Portugal.

"Maybe they will move out to the Norwood or Croydon area because it's cheaper to live over there," Lopes says.

According to the Lambeth State of the borough 2016 report: “Vauxhall is the gateway to one of Europe’s largest regeneration zones, with 25,000 new jobs and 20,000 new homes coming to the Vauxhall, Nine Elms and Battersea area.” Source: Nine Elms London

Demony echoes Lopes's sentiments, explaining how when Portuguese immigrants first arrived in London in they were concentrated in areas such as Notting Hill. "But gentrification rapidly made that area way too expensive," she says, "so they moved to Lambeth, particularly to Stockwell. But now history is repeating itself. Lambeth is becoming more and more expensive, and the Portuguese community (as well as other immigrant communities) is being pushed out to areas like Croydon."

Rent in Lambeth has risen by 31% since 2011. In 2015, you would need a salary of £70,000 to afford a house in a borough where the average income is £45,000.

Jose Rodrigues owns Grelha D'Ouro with his partner Sandra Pranto. Photo: Kyra Hanson (2016)

However, Jose Rodrigues, who owns Grelha D'Ouro with his partner Sandra Pranto, is more optimistic about the changes. Portuguese pop music blares from the multiple television screens; it's Monday and so far we're the only customer. In five years, says Rodrigues, the restaurant's rent has gone up by £9,000. Does he worry about new development pushing people out? "No," he replies. "It's going to be better for this area because it will be busier than before.

"Of course, everything is going to be more expensive, and the rent is going to be high, but I think people moving here will use the local restaurants. Of course, high rent means I must put the prices up a little bit. But I think I will survive because we've always had regular customers."

We communicate through Sandra, who translates our questions and her husband's answers. It becomes apparent that many first-generation immigrants still struggle with English, often the first diagnosis of a closed community. However, the government is funding an Anglo-Portuguese bilingual school, which is due to open in 2018. Equally it's a community eager to share its food and vibrant culture — in very generous portions, if you show an interest.

Casa Madeira

The best time to experience this community's hospitality is at the weekend — as long as you book in advance. Last Saturday all generations came together under the railway arches at Casa Madeira to eat, dance and enjoy each other's company. Couples swayed to singer and keyboardist Sergio Campos, and by the end of the night the dance floor was a writhing throng of sequins, lace dresses, antlers and racy Santa outfits.

Even the teenagers were up on their feet – albeit while clutching their mobile phones.

A typical Saturday night at Casa Madeira. Photo: Kyra Hanson (2016)

We hadn't arranged to meet, but by chance, manager Antonio Luis recognised us at the bar and began telling me about Madeira Patisserie over drinks he insisted on paying for. "Madeira London is one of the biggest sellers of the pastel de nata, on average producing 20,000 per day which are sold for retail and wholesale." His family established the café here in 1988, when the railway arches were mostly occupied by car repairers and garages. Now the business encompasses a restaurant, bar, shop and a couple of cafés.

South Lambeth Road and Albert Embankment haven't yet been homogenised by the Prets and Costas that have spread like wildfire elsewhere. (Thankfully: Portuguese coffee is much nicer.) During our visit, staff recommended speaking to their friends, who were more often than not former employers; Antonio Lopes worked in Luis Deli for 15 years before opening Fumeiro; Jose Rodrigues was a chef for four years at A Toca on Wandsworth Road before taking over Grelha D'Ouro, and so on.

This gives the place a warmth and friendliness that only exists among a community with deep-seated connections to each other and the area. Long may Little Portugal remain.

Follow @LPortugalLondon on Twitter.

Last Updated 28 July 2017