You can tell a lot about a place from the local shops.
I once saw a stand up comedian, at The Cavendish Arms in Stockwell, do a routine about how the poorer and more run down an area was, the more fried chicken outlets it would have. He lived in a part of South London where within yards of each other you could find a KFC, Chicken Cottage, Chicken Hut, Chicken House, Chicken Shack, Chicken Stop, Chicken Chicken, Chicken Hotel, Chicken Village, Chicken Villa….you get the idea.
As a teenager I briefly had a job in a Miss Millie’s Country Fried Chicken shop on Gloucester Road in Bristol. I didn’t last long: apart from the smell, charging people for chicken rather than chips (the till had a 1PC button – for one piece of chicken, not one portion of chips, whoops) upsetting a tired and emotional regular by informing him that we had no brown sauce to pour over his meal and reading Pride and Prejudice at the counter did for me.
‘It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of some fortune must be in want of two chicken wings, beans, fries and a sachet of garlic mayo’
The stretch of shops Miss Millie’s was a brief part of, is sometimes celebrated as one of the longest and most diverse stretches of independent shops in England, but in my ‘doing the shopping for Mum and Dad’ years I used to curse the need to go to about 14 different small shops to get everything. However, in between the various grocers, hardware stores, fishmongers and bakers, there were bookshops, newsagents, toy shops, comic stores, Nobby’s Hobbies, the modelling shop and Disc N’ Tape my first port of call for records. Window shopping heaven for a cash-poor, wish-list rich teenage boy.
In these days of online shopping, mega-malls, out of town leviathan supermarkets and their ‘local’ cousins, such high streets are becoming increasingly threatened. More and more of them are either becoming homogenous retail areas, with the same tired old national chains strung along them, or are simply closing down.
In some places, such as Rotherham, boarded up city-centre sites are the norm. There’s a poignant chapter in Paul Kingsnorth’s Real England all about the slow death of the high street, that’s well worth a read, while a major report published last year says that Britain’s high streets are in ‘deep decline’.
“Small, local, independently run shops are a key part of the fabric of our urban landscapes. Whether a high street is a patchwork of independent businesses or a dreary mess of corporate pottage has an impact on the kind of country we live in. It makes a difference to the character of neighbourhoods, the quality of jobs, the diversity and quality of products. It makes a difference to the kind of country we end up living in.”
Paul Kingsnorth, Real England
Where I live now we are within easy, though hilly, walking distance of two quite distinctive sets of local shops. Uphill in Crystal Palace, around three sides of the triangle, can be found a collection of, mostly, independent shops to rival once proud high streets across the land. Although there is now a Foxtons, so it’s not all glory up on the Triangle.
Downhill on Norwood High Street and Norwood Road, things are a little different.
In a post I wrote last year, Inbetween Norwood, I wandered around the area trying to get a sense of what the Guardian had then recently termed a South East London ‘Anytown’ in a Let’s Move to piece.
That involved conducting a range of sociologically and scientifically rigorous activities such as standing in the park looking towards the Shard whilst imagining a giant Sauron-like eye blinked from the top, buying second-hand Sundays 12” singles that I already owned and trying to find a second exit to West Norwood cemetery.
This time I wanted to take a closer look at the shops on Norwood High Street, Knights Hill and Norwood Road, to see what they could tell us about the changing character of London SE27.
In my fantasy alt. career as an academic specialist in the field of street studies, this piece would be a kind of Jane Jacobs/Marshall Berman/Walter Benjamin Frederic Jameson-esque ‘reading’ of the high street, in which I’d conduct a scintillatingly brilliant analysis of the mutable semiotics of retail premises in South East London.
Realistically I can’t sustain that intensity for an entire blog post, so I instead head off on a mental riff about what a celebrated Travel Writer – Bruce Chatwin for example – might have had to say about the place, if, rather than sending him off to Patagonia, an intriguing memento in his grandparent’s house had inspired him to seek out West Norwood.
I imagine Chatwin spending an afternoon meandering in and out of Tulse Hill station, pondering the strange borderland nexus that is the foot tunnel, uniting the pretty suburban side streets at the outer edges of Dulwich, with the urban grit and car exhaust on the other side, where the South Circular shoots off Norwood Road towards Streatham and the West.
Eventually he’d slip away on a number 3 bus, enjoying the roll call of stops that sound more like country stations in Sussex than South East London – Pymers Mead, Lings Coppice, Ildersley Grove – as he sailed down Croxted Road, while in the drains below a branch of the Effra bubbled and swept down towards Herne Hill, where Chatwin would take tea and discuss Nomadism with an elderly Russian émigré poet.
Snapping out of this reverie, I refocus on the shops and look back in time.
At home I have a reprinted map of West Norwood from 1894 and on the front cover there is a black and white photo of a row of shops. At first glance these could be almost anywhere – a typical stretch of smart late-19th century shop fronts.
However this picture shows a particular section of Norwood Road called The Broadway, which stands between Chatsworth Way and Lancaster Avenue. It is a slightly curving row of classic Victorian red-brick buildings, with flowery stucco or plaster detailing higher up the frontage.
Every store in the photograph has an awning pulled down, forming a kind of English high street Bazaar. There is a date stamped on a stone above The Norwood Surgery at No 483, which is about half-way along the row, this is the same as the vintage map – 1894. Today if you look up at the stories above the shop fronts, you can still catch an echo of that smart Victorian confidence. The row is in someways not unlike Crouch End’s Topsfield Parade, albeit in a rather different setting.
The shops themselves provide a snap shot of the changing nature of the area, as London’s property bubble continues to inflate, pushing even previously unheralded ‘anytown’ parts of the capital towards the attention of a whole new audience, while great swathes of West, North, East London and more locally Brixton, Herne Hill and West Dulwich slip beyond their means. This of course has a knock-on effect on the people who were already here, or there. The shops here are beginning to reflect the areas sense of flux.
In The Broadway stretch of Norwood Road you’ll find charity shops, a payday loans store, nail bar, pizza delivery, baby and betting shops alongside hairdressers, delis, cafes and one of two general stores.
A similar mix can be found all along Norwood Road, Knights Hill and the High Street. Currently these are mostly small independents, with a few chains dotted inbetween. There are indeed a few fried chicken places to be found, but also traditional caffs, trendy coffee bars, self-storage units, bakers, pawn-shops, cheque-cashers, clothes shops, chemists, ophthalmic opticians, florists, Polish/Brazillian grocers, a garden centre, Jamaican Pattie shops, pet shops, hair-extension supplies, funeral directors, estate agents, bookies, bars, pubs, Halal butchers, cake and interior design shops amongst others.
I’ve always felt that having a decent greasy spoon makes a street a deal better, and near Jackie Brown’s Hairdressers, is The Electric Café, its swirling Victorian handbill signage a reflection of its long history as an eating house. They serve bubble and squeak too, which I take as a good sign.
Back towards St Lukes Church at the confluence of Norwood Road, Knights Hill and Norwood High Street, there are further interesting pointers to what’s changing and what’s not. The Tesco on the corner of Robson Road and the high was once a pub, as so many sites of local supermarkets once were.
An internet search informs me that the former pub where Tesco now stands was Jack Stamps in the early 2000s, a haunt of drug dealers, rundown, big and expensive to run. Before that it was called The Thurlow Arms. On a 322 bus recently, I overheard two old blokes talking quite fondly about the pub in that earlier incarnation.
On a West Norwood thread on the website Urban75, from about 10 years ago, someone called Slanny, shows that change isn’t anything new round here. Slanny used to live in the area between the 1960s and 1980s and talks about returning in the 1990s to find that the bookshops, stationers, shoe shops and artist materials shops, that used to be found on the High Street had gone and the place seemed to be going very downhill.
Not everything is subject to unwelcome change though. In John Coulter’s history of the area Norwood Past, he notes that a shop adjacent to the former Thurlow Arms, was Vincent & Son Ironmongers in the 1890s – “Where the Pooters of West Norwood bought their tins of red paint”. Looking closely at the old photograph, I’m pleased to realize that the same spot is now home to LDM (London Decorator’s Merchants) and in a Peter Ackroyd-style example of retail continuity, continues to supply the locale with paint, brushes and tools (if not continuously – apparently in the late 80s/early 90s the store was a sports shop called “Goal Post 2” and in another incarnation, may even have served time as a curtain store). Perhaps now it is fulfilling its destiny as a paint shop.
The Victorian era wasn’t all well-scrubbed propriety though. Urban 75s Slanny might recognize both aspects of the Norwood shops in the early decades of the 19th century. Referring to an 1838 directory listing shops in West and Upper Norwood, Coulter says that there were around 108 shops in the area, 45 of which in West Norwood, with 35 trades represented in total and more grocers than any other type.
“The shops were the respectable façade of Knight’s Hill, West Norwood High Street, the Triangle and eventually Portland Road. Behind them there developed stinking networks of alleyways and courts with fragrant names like Soot Street and Hog-sty Row.”
Cross over the road here and head up Knights Hill towards the station and another pub has undergone transformation. This time into a different kind of pub. The Norwood Hotel, until recently a slightly rough-and-ready local boozer, has become the Great North Wood. Packed with excited crowds at the last Norwood Feast, the place has gone so gastro that instead of serving peanuts as snacks, it offers dried salted broad beans which, once I got over a bout of inverted snobbery, I found to be surprisingly tasty. There is also a wide choice of real ales on offer, a more varied, if expensive, selection than the nitro-keg stuff available previously.
One night I was in there a fifty something greybeard was upset that food orders had finished for the night: “but my friends have come all the way from Canterbury to eat here!” He said. Outraged. Few, I suspect, made a pilgrimage from Canterbury to ‘The Norwood Hotel’.
Round the corner, under the West Norwood Station bridge, another former pub is now The Book and Record Bar, but nearby, two more traditional locals continue, The Hope on the High Street and The Horns on Knights Hill.
A little below The Horns, you might notice the historic façade of the Old Library, the building is now serving time as the Current library while the New one is refitted and repaired across the road. When the original building opened in 1888, it was the first public library in Lambeth, commissioned by local dignitary Sir Henry Tate – and built by Sidney Smith, architect of his employers’ even greater monument, The Tate Gallery.
Another notable West Norwood building can be found on the opposite side of St Lukes – the old fire station – now The South London Theatre. Designed in Gothic Revival Style, this red-brick glory is one of a number of Fire Stations, designed by the London Fire Brigade’s architect of the 1880s – Robert Pearsell, who also designed the magnificent, recently closed down and taken over by developers, station on Roseberry Avenue.
It is outside this building that I experience the first part of a brief nightmare vision of the future as I head for Tulse Hill station. Crossing the road I see a dead fox, smashed to the tarmac by a car racing up the High Street; one last bloody rictus snarl fixed to its outraged face. Having noticed this early-morning death, I start seeing signs of decay and dereliction all along the street – in plant form.
Buddleia is not something I usually pay particular attention to but suddenly this purple-headed Sino-Tibetan invader seems to be everywhere: looming over garden fences, cackling from the top of high walls, taking over semi-wasteland car workshops, leering out from in front of the Salvation Army hall. I’m reminded with a shudder of a Tom Baker era Dr Who adventure, called The Seeds of Doom, where the Doctor takes on a rampaging giant alien plant.
Is this the future for the high street? Long stretches of derelict shops slaughtered by Amazon and the supermarkets, then taken over by untamed ranks of Butterfly Bush? Revelling in space beyond the garden fence and railway embankment.
Things are not that bad yet, in some ways Norwood’s shopping streets are thriving, but I wonder if rents and house prices continue to rocket, what kind of retail activity will be here in 5, 10, or 20 years time.
Wall-to-wall estate agents, expensive fashion boutiques and bars? Kensington style silent streets with no life after closing time as the owners of the nearby homes don’t even live there? Maybe a new cycle will kick in as young people, artists, restless job seekers head away from unaffordable London and look elsewhere to make a start, or get a break, in Manchester, Bristol, Cardiff, Leeds…
I’ll look out for the 2094 edition of my map.
Links & References
Norwood Past, John Coulter, Historical Publications, 1996
Old Ordnance Survey Maps of London, West Norwood, 1894,
Alan Godfrey Maps, 2007
Inbetween Norwood – another post of mine searching for the heart of Norwood
Real England, Paul Kingsnorth, Portobello Books, 2008
Daily Telegraph report on The Grimsey report