"Springfield is America's crud bucket, at least according to Newsweek," Marge Simpson once sighed. A similar phrase could surmise the media's view of Orpington. Its reputation as a suburban no-man's-land was best established in Hanif Kureishi's breakthrough 1990 novel, The Buddha of Suburbia, but since then it has endured a plethora of less artful attacks, ranging from Honda adverts to Ricky Gervais video blogs.
Yet Gervais of all people should know better. The Simpsons episode he penned himself begins with a real-life version of the show's iconic opening sequence. And where was it filmed? Orpington! Still, perhaps residents should welcome the bad press: where the beige wave of hipdom is washing over nearby areas like Lewisham and Peckham (not to mention nearby Croydon), Orpington's lame reputation has kept its market town charm largely intact… for now.
It's trying to gentrify, but doesn’t really know how
Despite its stuffy appearance, Orpington has a lot to offer. The transport links are a big pull (see below), but it also has great proximity to many well-regarded schools — some of them, dare we say it, are grammars — pubs, restaurants and local markets. While rising quickly, house prices will still get you more bricks for your buck than inner London, and it's mere minutes away from the centre of Bromley, which the Sunday Times recently listed as the top destination in the UK for young buyers.
Because of all this, the town is desperately trying to move away from its reputation as a retirement home for Nigel Farage lookalikes. In efforts overseen b Jo 'Brother of Boris' Johnson, the MP for Orpington, the high street has just opened a swanky new Odeon (one of the few in the country with 4k digital projectors, for cinema buffs), with a surrounding eatery complex to complement the rising number of frothy coffee shops and bistros.
Yet for all its hopes of going upmarket, Orpington just doesn't really understand how to be cool. An ice cream parlour, for instance, appeared on the high street a year or so ago, and the town got so excited that it opened up two more just metres away… right in time for, er, winter. Furthermore, the biggest recent development has been a Premier Inn, with the next major project set to be a new Nando's. Not so much gentrification as dadification.
A convenient gateway to London… or Kent
For every young person growing up in Orpington, the struggle is real. You wear the right jeans, do your best to integrate at house parties in Shoreditch, but just at the moment when you feel like a true London hipster, someone asks where you come from. "Oh Orpington, that's in Kent, isn’t it?" they respond drily.
Actually, you argue, it's complicated. Yes, it has a Kent postcode and, OK, it doesn’t have an '0207' phone number either. On the other hand, it is in the London borough of Bromley, and in zone 6 of the train network — it even accepts Oyster! In fact, the train station is disproportionately big for the size of the town, and you can get to London Bridge or Charing Cross in an incredible 20 minutes. Try doing that from Hackney Wick.
By now you've thoroughly blown your cover, but at least demonstrated the main law of Orpington. If you're under 40, it's in London; if you’re over 40, it's in Kent.
The Romans lived here... and left their mark
The upcoming Nando's would do well to brush up on Orpington's rich heritage, which includes a breed of chicken named after the town. Poultry aside, a number of other things also take its title: the Orpington car, which enjoyed brief fame in the 1920s, and the Orpington man, which was pithily used to describe the lower middle-class 'everyman' politicians tried to appease in the 1960s.
Stretching further back, stone age tools have been found across the town's parks and, indeed, the jewel in its historical crown is the Crofton Roman Villa — located next to the station. Occupied from around 140AD to 400AD, this country house had up to 20 rooms and its remains were discovered in 1926, revealing a treasure trove of coins, pottery shards, tiles and animal remains.
The only other place in Orpington to show similar indestructibility is the Edinburgh Woollen Mill shop, which over the years has appeared impervious to the struggles of most other clothes retailers in the area. Gentrification, you have met your match.
All photos by Michael Bellotti.