Jessica Cargill Thompson goes in search of the soul of Old Kent Road.
It's tough when you are so famous that everyone thinks they know you, even though they've never met you. Even worse when that identity is used as the nation's go-to metaphor for anything that's shabby and worthless, and you find yourself constantly the butt of running joke.
That's what's happened to the Old Kent Road, south London's ancient route of pilgrimage and procession, now reduced to 'the cheapest square on the Monopoly board' and indelibly associated with a sort of drab, rusty brown. Few Londoners — even those living in the same borough — engage with it other than through the window of one of its stream of buses on one of 11 routes.
All change for Old Kent Road
But the image, and the infrastructure, of the Old Kent Road are changing. The Bakerloo line extension is likely to stop off here by 2030 on its way down to Lewisham. The Borough of Southwark's draft Area Action Plan is proposing to add 20,000 new homes, 10,000 new jobs, and three new schools to the area — the equivalent to the make-up of a small town.
On 29 October 2018, the council gave planning permission for two residential towers over 40 storeys high (somewhat controversially, and against the pleas of several local campaign groups), a massive departure in scale for this unassuming area, setting out its stall for the future, and sending the property speculators wild.
So before one of London's last remaining pockets of pre-gentrification disappears behind the developers' hoardings, let's get of the bus and go in search of the soul of this historic road.
From triumphant kings to pearly kings
First, a whistlestop history lesson. And the best place for this is 'The History of the Old Kent Road' mural on the corner of Peckham Park Road and Old Kent Road. Created in 1965 by Polish artist Adam Kossowski, it is made up of 2,000 individually cast glazed ceramic tiles that tell the story of the area.
It begins with the Romans — the Old Kent Road forms part of Watling Street, which led from Dover to Londinium and across Britain to Wales — before charting a succession of previous users. The Canterbury Pilgrims, Henry V returning victorious from Agincourt, Jake Cade leading his doomed rebellion, Charles II returning from exile to take up the throne, and finally alighting on the jolly street scene of a Pearly family watched by a jolly bobby, while industrial chimneys smoke, modern estates loom and traffic rattles by in the background.
Further down the road towards New Cross, another, harder to spot, mural fills in an important gap. Above what was once the Kentish Drovers pub, now a Vietnamese restaurant, is the peeling paint depicting fields and market gardens with said drovers herding their livestock up to the markets at Borough and Smithfield. Try to imagine the bucolic scene as you admire it from the shadow of the gasholder tower, breathing in the fumes from the four lanes of traffic and nearby waste management facility.
Site of subversion
One of the Old Kent Road's, nay London's, best landmarks has to be the tank. That's the Soviet T-34 tank that has stood at the end of Pages Walk and Mandela Way since 1995. It's a witty touch of subversion, a subtle 'up yours' to the Southwark planning authorities that encapsulates the Old Kent Road's non-conformist outlook.
When the owner, property developer Russell Gray, was refused planning permission for a small residential block on the site, he applied instead for permission to locate a 'tank' there. And was granted it. Only thing was, the council naturally thought he meant a water tank… until it arrived. Legend is that the gun was originally trained on the council offices.
Neighbours love their tank and came out to celebrate it at its summer open day, queuing for a look inside. Local artist Mr Tee ensures it always looks smart, applying regular themed paint jobs using salvaged paint (although tagging gets short shrift, he told me — not all subversion is welcome!).
Land of the traditional boozer
Until about a decade ago, the Old Kent Road was lined with pubs. Locals liken its past life to the Wild West and love to tell scurrilous stories. One (now closed) late-night dive became notorious: "It always seemed like a good idea to go to Scribbles," says one pub patron who'd prefer not to be named. "But the moment you get to the doorway you'd instantly regret it. One of our barmaids was in there when a guy had an argument and shot him from under the table…" A massive crime crackdown cleaned up the area's act, but shut most of its pubs in the process.
Today there are only two pubs left on the Old Kent Road itself — The Lord Nelson at No. 386, and The Windsor at No. 888 — and it's important to stress they are definitely NOTHING like Scribbles. Several more, such as The Victoria (68-70 Pages Walk), are tucked away behind estates and down residential streets, such as the Victoria. All charming, salt of the earth traditional boozers, unapologetically ungentrified with patterned carpets and their original wooden bars.
The Victoria lies at the end of the old cottages of Pages Walk opposite what was once the huge railway depot of Bricklayers Arms (the vast rail lands closed and built over in the 1980s). It's a pretty sight, with window boxes and climbing ivy. Landlord Pat has kept the bar for 34 years, with another ten year's service before that as a DJ. While the pub's interior might be delightfully old fashioned, including an antique till, Pat's kept abreast of drinks trends, stocking an array of gins to put any Soho bar to shame, as well as boxes artisanal ciders.
"Years ago, when you would venture down the Old Kent Road, there were the pubs and clubs — the Frog and Nightgown, the Gin Palace, the Dun Cow, the Green Man… further down there was the Prince of Wales…" remembers Pat, the local go-to-guy for stories of the good old days. "They were really thriving. There was a mass of girls or guys queuing up…"
The Lord Nelson, at No 386, run by a no-nonsense Irish landlady, also called Pat and also in residence for more than three decades, caters for a local crowd with Sky Sports and a pool table. But its interior is a wider talking point, dominated by a huge horseshoe bar and paying homage to the navy admiral with glass cabinets stuffed with vintage nautical ephemera.
Perhaps the road's most famous watering hole is the Thomas A Becket, an ornate late-Victorian landmark currently sitting closed and abandoned on a corner by Burgess Park. It was mentioned in the Canterbury Tales, but during the 20th century was the epicentre of the local boxing scene with an upstairs gym where 60s heavyweight champion Henry Cooper trained.
South Londoners over 40 remember it well. "My dad used to take me," recalls another drinker. "It was great. Everyone would go. All the stars were there." Sadly the Thomas A Becket ended its days with a reputation more as a place of unregulated violence than gentlemanly pugilism, and was shut down in 2015 after a serious assault — in the pub, not the ring.
The world in a high street
Like most of London's old Roman roads (Kilburn High Road and Kingsland High Street, for example) the Old Kent Road has gone from being alive with the sound of costermongers and clutter of ironmongers to a land of exotic fruit and veg displays and the chatter of a dozen different languages. Walk from Bricklayers Arms to Tesco and you pass cafes and grocers, barbers and clothes shops catering to every different community: Latin American, Chinese, Polish, Greek, Nigerian, North African, East African, Caribbean. Get a high top in the Dominican barbers; buy your Afghan flatbread alongside the hijab-clad women in the grocers a few doors down.
In the evenings, the pavement is full of men playing cards and puffing on shisha pipes, the atmosphere overtly (some say oppressively) masculine. During the day, though, the lone female can find comfort, cakes and sweet Algerian mint tea in Le Panier a Brioche (267 Old Kent Rd), or ice cream, empanadas, or even a full English in The GB Ice Cream Parlour (220 Old Kent Rd).
Traymakers to the Queen
Past Tesco, as the Old Kent Road heads down towards New Cross, pedestrians are scarce, the road widens, the edges fray into carpark-based retail, and a huge sky opens up. From outside B&Q, a clear sightline emerges to the glittering towers of the City — a reminder of just how close it is physically, though several worlds apart in every other way.
These windswept sites are where Southwark Council proposes, through its draft Area Action Plan, to build several 35+ storey towers.
What's invisible from the street, however, is that far from being empty land, this is a highly active area. It's just that most of the industry is hidden inside blank warehouses and low-rise sheds. A 2016 audit by Cass Cities showed the area to be a vibrant economy hosting more businesses than central Glasgow, serving central London with an eclectic array of goods and services. These range from West End Christmas decorations and specialist metalworking, to carnival costumes, Mexican-style cheese, and, of course, craft ale.
Mark Brearly, whose company Kaymet produces handmade trays by royal appointment, says: "The Old Kent Road's been through the wars. Several decades of demolition and reconstruction. So it looks pretty scruffy to most people."
A forceful campaigner for local businesses via pressure group Vital OKR, Mark thinks this invisibility, and a prejudice against the messiness of industry, has left the Old Kent Road's industry vulnerable to regeneration proposals, citing many longstanding businesses that have shut up shop and others living with uncertainty.
"There's a sense that the economy, especially the stand-alone businesses, are getting pushed through the organic process of change, for sure, but also actively and intentionally by the local authority… That's bad because what's being expelled is not without value and it's not without consequence."
Outside his factory he makes his point by flying bespoke naval flags signalling the message 'This is not nothing'. Another of the road's great subversives.
In search of Old Kent Road's canal
Several traces of the Old Kent Road's industrial heritage can still be seen — the listed gasholder tower, a couple of tall brick chimneys, and vestiges of what was the Grand Surrey Canal, dug across from Surrey Docks to Camberwell in 1802, with a spur added down to Peckham in 1825-26.
It was filled in during the 1970s, but the old route is discernible in a clear path across Burgess Park and down to Peckham Library, barges now replaced with cyclists. You can follow it further via traces of canal walls at Glengall Wharf and at the back of the Asda car park, the industrial brick chimneys and old warehouses along Bianca Road, and the listed Regency terrace known as Canal Cottages. Southwark's draft Area Action Plan proposes resurrecting the canal as a green route across the area that will reconnect North Peckham with South Bermondsey.
Older residents still vividly remember the canal from their childhood. Ken Bowden, who runs traditional plumbers merchants Kenon (360 Old Kent Road, famed for its window display of St George's flag loo seats) says: "When I was a child I lived in Peckham and the Surrey Canal came right up to Rye Lane. We used to go fishing down there for sticklebacks. I remember when Whitten's timber yard [still there] used to have a big shire horse pulling the barge up there to unload the timber." Under 40s share the memory through the vintage photos mounted onto the rear of the Friary Estate.
A quick and totally unscientific scroll through the mentions of the Old Kent Road on Twitter shows that 50 per cent of the time it's still just used as a metaphor, by people who probably couldn't pinpoint it on a map. But the other tweets are different. The narrative is changing from a rundown place not even worth £60 should you have the misfortune to land there, but one the money-makers actively want to invest in.
Between past reputation and future plans, what's missing is the celebration of the what's-there-now: the highly mixed community and everyday activities that bring it to life, the rich heritage that gave it form and that still lives on in the collective memory.
A collection of local community groups are currently fundraising to set up Urban Room OKR, a community engagement space on the Old Kent Road to discuss regeneration plans for the area. Find out more or donate online.