The area in which I am organising sits astride the Camberwell Road. But only a few yards north the Camberwell Road becomes the Walworth Road, a busy thoroughfare (A215) that has served the shopping needs of this traditionally working class community for decades, if not centuries. Walworth was one of the sites of riot / protest in the summer of 2010 but today shows few of the scars of that day. As a long single shopping street, it has its own way of dividing out the different sorts of shops and customers.
To the north lies Elephant and Castle currently undergoing a massive redevelopment of its own. The Elephant acts as a major transport hub for this part of Southwark providing both Northern and Bakerloo tube lines as well as mainline railway services linking to most of South London. The bus service that runs south down the Walworth Road distributes visitors from Elephant to a huge area and gathers them again to fill the trains into central London. To the south of the Walworth Road, Camberwell Road continues in an unbroken line to run parallel to the mainline railway and once through the area in which I work, Camberwell Green forms a natural centre of lively entertainment and east-west travel.
Running down from the Elephant
Whilst the Walworth Road runs mostly straight, it also includes some shimmys to one side and the other. Up near Elephant, it runs past the huge decaying emptiness that is the Heygate estate today. At this northern end, there is the Cuming Museum and the Newington Library. New Oriental supermarkets have recently joined the famous Cantonese restaurant The Dragon’s Castle and new build student accommodation alongside the Walworth Health Centre provides an institutional feel to the street fronts. Beyond this first phase, the road has a number of key businesses such as Baldwins that has remained serving positive health remedies since 1844. The first cross route also brings the first signs of corporate commercial interest: MacDonald’s opposite the large local GP practice and surgery on the corner of Manor Place. Cheap clothes shops, charity shops and many locally owned shops front a narrowing road preparing for the next main attraction.
East Street Market is a controversial centrepiece for the Walworth Road. Whilst it is a long standing daily open-air market (except Mondays), the nature of the stalls and the shops has changed out of all recognition in the last ten years. Many long term residents feel it has been stolen from them and taken over by the West African – and increasingly by the West Asian (Kurdish, Afghani, etc.) – communities who are the largest group of local incomers. But the shops alongside the stalls have often remained and continue to offer an unrivalled range and diversity of inexpensive merchandise. With one of two exceptions the several pubs that used to be part of Walworth Road life have closed and been converted into more commercial spaces. The majority of the national chains that have a presence on the Walworth Road are clustered just south of the end of East Street: M&S, Foot Locker, KFC, etc. The largest local supermarket Morrisons finds its home here near the largest off street parking area together with Barclays and Nat West.
Beyond the Market
A stretch of the Walworth Road now provides several cafes and restaurants for different sorts of food. Up by East Street is the only South Asian restaurant but here south of East Street, the West African cuisine comes into its own. Dotted through the shops are more nail bars, pound shops and pawn brokers than absolutely necessary and the cash loan and gold exchange shops are also flourishing. Barclays and Nat West have stayed put. The Anglican parish church St Peters and its church-sponsored primary school is set back in Georgian splendour from the bustle of the Walworth Road up Liverpool Grove. Opposite is Iceland and just beyond sit Santander, Peacocks, Argos and Superdrug together with another betting shop (Betfred). A recent addition of a Tesco Express has added further pressure to the complex mix of grocery outlets.
Down here the divide of East Walworth from West Walworth is more marked. Walworth Road acts as no-man’s land between on the East side the old Church Commissioners’ estate and the Aylesbury estate and on the other the rather more fashionable Victorian terraces on the West. The Road becomes wider again and Coral and the Money Shop face off against William Hill. Carpet Right and CostCutter stand opposite the best bakers in the area, the Mixed Blessings Bakery. The Red Lion keeps pub culture alive round here and we pass by the greatest institution of the Walworth Road: Arments the pie, mash and eel shop on Westmoreland Road. The last few yards before the bend that leads to Burgess Park and down to Camberwell is a mix of tatty shops, a great Turkish grocery shop and Mary’s, a fantastic cafe / greasy spoon. The final view before the end of the Walworth Road is the Walworth Methodist Church, the largest Methodist congregation in the country at 350 each Sunday.
So the Walworth Road is a vibrant mix of many different facets of the local community. It’s vast array of shopping options draws people from all across South London but also appals many old and new residents. The settled white working class residents no longer recognise the shopping street and market of their childhood. The more affluent incomers with professional incomes and middle-class values find it all rather overwhelming and yearn for a good cappuccino! When you ask people what they want to see happen to the Walworth Road, everyone seems to be convinced that too many betting shops and nail bars are making the shopping experience less enjoyable. Most seem to want to see a culture of small local shopkeepers being maintained and enhanced yet most also agree they see the chains moving in and small business people going to the wall.
The Council is set on a path of encouraging gentrification. They are selling off any street-level properties that come vacant to the highest bidder. Their plans for the Heygate and no doubt the Aylesbury in due course focus on creating a new army of leaseholders who will bring with them fresh demands and new expectations. Such upwardly mobile prices as these new flats will no doubt achieve will only fuel the price inflation that is increasingly denying young people any hope of buying their own home in their own area. And of course this will also impact on the nature of the Walworth Road.
I’ve had several discussions with local residents over a couple of months that have focused on the future of the shared shopping area of Walworth Road. People take a range of positions that in the end will be at the behest of economic factors dressed up as commercial and social ones. The shops on the Walworth Road reflect a community in transition. The change is hardly over and may be only just beginning. My hope and the hope of many I have spoken to is that however the change comes there remain many more spaces where bridges can be built, where communities potentially at loggerheads can meet and feel comfortable with each other. Shopping is promoted as the great leisure activity of the moneyed classes; round here there are just too many people without much in their pocket and their place in the future of the Walworth Road is under threat.
How do you sustain a strong local commercial economy under the dual pressures of the internet and the muscle of the big chains?
What hope does a ‘town plan’ have in shaping the area’s future, given the larger economic factors?
What role does housing tenure play in determining the mix of shops on the high street? Does disposable income play a larger part?
Mark Baxter and Darren Lock (2011) Walworth through Time Amberley Publishing
Mark Baxter and Darren Lock (2012) Walworth through Time – a Second Selection Amberley Publishing
Portas Pilots: Improving High Streets and Town Centres – current Coalition programme to pilot Town Teams in 27 locations across England
Mary Portas (2011) The Portas Review – government sponsored review of high streets with 28 recommendations
new economics foundation (nef) Reimagining your High Street – following their work on Clone Towns, nef delivers resources to help create a vibrant local economy