Best London Neighbourhood: Camberwell…
I can’t honestly say I’ve visited every neighbourhood in London, but I have visited a lot of them over the many years I’ve lived in the city and I’d say that Camberwell is pretty damn awesome. In fact, I would say it’s the best London neighbourhood I’ve seen!
Now, you might say I’m biased or that I’m seeing my home area through rose tinted spectacles. You might even point me to some of the pictures I took of the area when we returned from Mexico in April 2017, pictures of mattresses piled up on the road or pictures of brutalist high rises all around. But, I’d come back with pictures of stunning hidden parks, beautiful old buildings and some bullshit about this being a real community (which it is).
Ok, ok but still, look at the parks, even on a drab winter’s day…
So, if you’re planning on visiting London any time soon and want to get a feel for what it’s really like, if you want to see the London that is the reality for Londoners, let me introduce you to my neighbourhood; Camberwell, a hidden gem in South Central / East London.
Where is Camberwell?
This is one of its best selling points to people who don’t know much about the place. It’s surprisingly close to town and transport links are great (although if you are an old tube grouch, like my darling husband, then the lack of tube line will make you whine and annoy me a lot).
Main train station: Denmark Hill (this station has a surprisingly nice coffee shop that locals use regularly). If you do insist on arriving via the underground then actually it’s only a short walk (15 mins or so) from Brixton (Victoria line), Oval (Northern line) and Elephant & Castle (Northern and Bakerloo lines). Buses are plentiful and run regularly too.
If you love to walk then Camberwell is easily explored on foot from almost anywhere. I walk a lot and I regularly walk from Waterloo or Victoria, even from Picadilly, Trafalgar Square, Westminster or Oxford Street. These walks all take in a good deal of history and are a fun way to see the both sides of the river.
Camberwell is surprisingly green
Camberwell and its neighbouring areas are surprisingly green for an inner city area (because, make no mistake, you are definitely in inner city London in Camberwell).
Green spaces within walking distance of Camberwell include
- Camberwell Green: A recently refurbished Green at the heart of Camberwell. I believe it is the oldest remaining Green in London. A good place to sit and watch life happen all around you.
- Lucas Gardens: On Camberwell Church Street. It has a good play area for small and older kids.
- Myatt’s Field (techinically an area in its own right but given that both are small areas it is quick to reach). This park is really something special and quite often makes it in to top ten parks in the city. Not only is it strikingly beautiful but it also has a really good community cafe (Little Cat Cafe) and regularly hosts community events. It certainly made it in to my list of best places to take kids in London. An added bonus, of course, is that Myatt’s Field is home to the superb Mulberry Preschool, an urban-nature preschool (basically, if you want your kids outside as much as possible, this is the place to send them!). This isn’t just any old preschool, it’s truly a part of our community and we were lucky enough to have our daughter there. The park also hosts Marisa’s nature play sessions in the nature garden, by the cafe.
- Ruskin Park, just up the Denmark Hill, past King’s Hospital.
- Brunswick Park, hidden off Peckham Road
- Just behind St Giles Church on Camberwell Church Street is yet another tiny and basically unknown park
- Burgess Park, down the Walworth Road (gotta say the Walworth Road if you want people to think you’re a local!) is a large green area that was recently redone. Today it boasts a large pond where people fish, two play areas, a bike track, some actual history in the form of a dry canal, tennis courts, some lovely formal gardens, an art studio and a great cafe.
So what is there to do in Camberwell?
If you don’t feel like hitting the green space then Camberwell is still a great place to check out. It has a vibrant arts scene, possibly because the Camberwell College of Arts (part of the University of the Arts, London) is here and it is regarded as one of the UK’s foremost art and design institutions.
There are regular tours of artists’ studios organised and an art market pops up every now and again. Check out camberwellarts.org.uk for more information on when these events are happening.
Just a short hop and skip down Walworth Road will find The Artworks, which is a food court and artsy type area in a collection of brightly painted shipping containers. It bills itself as a ‘creative hub’ for the community.
And this isn’t all. Camberwell has two art supply shops, the better being Cowling & Wilcox, the largest art shop south of the river. Located on Orpheus Street, which also boasts one of London’s sad white bikes.
And how about browsing the, surprisingly located, GX Gallery, a fairly pricey art shop on Denmark Hill, or heading a few minutes down the road to the South London Gallery? This latter gallery has been open for over 125 years offering art, exhibitions, film and performance events. It also has a great cafe on site.
I admit to never having visited the Peckham Levels, it is an old multi storey car park that has recently been converted in to a place to help creative locals get ideas off the ground. Having spent some time mucking around on their website I’m determined to get down there before we leave London in, oh shit, nine days time! It looks like an amazing place to explore the creative arts scene and grab a bite to eat.
One last place really stands out for me as somewhere to visit whilst in the area and that’s the Black Cultural Archives in Brixton (on Windrush Square next to the Ritzy Cinema). It is the only national heritage centre dedicated to celebrating and preserving the histories of African and Caribbean people in Britain. Their work and exhibitions recognise the importance of untold stories and provide a platform for enquiry and dialogue. It is also the place that first introduced me to ‘intersectionality’ during a fascinating discussion with a woman working there. Personally, I’ll never forget this place and think it is one of the most important institutions I’ve visited in South London. Also, their coffee and cake are fabulous and my kids are always made to feel so welcome in their cafe.
Eating and Drinking in Camberwell
So after all that fun in the parks and culture all over the place, you need somewhere to rest and have a drink, right? Well, my friends, you are still in the right place! Camberwell has an incredible array of options any time of day or night. Seriously. Coffee culture has well and truly hit Camberwell, and not in a cheesy ‘we want to be hipsters’ kind of way but in a ‘we know about coffee’ kind of way. I won’t list every coffee shop because this article is long already, so I’ll just offer up a few of my favourites:
- Daily Goods (Camberwell Church Street) – this has recently turned from an arty coffee shop in to a skate shop and coffee shop. Doesn’t meant they don’t know their coffee though. This is probably the best coffee in town and is well worth stopping in for a taste and one of their scrummy homemade cookies.
- Art Deli (Cold Harbour Lane) – this is another popular hang out for locals. It is run by a wonderfully welcoming woman who I think is Brazilian / Italian. Her salad selection is stunning and I love the baked goods she brings in from elsewhere, particularly the macarons. It truly is an ‘art deli’ as they run art sessions on certain evenings and also the place also serves as a local deli, selling artisan type foods.
- Love Walk (corner of Denmark Hill and Love Walk) – this little cafe is a proper Camberwell institution. It’s rare that you won’t have to queue here but the staff are so friendly and the decor so interesting, that you’ll find yourself ok with the wait. Definitely come for breakfast or just grab a smoothie on your way past (also, take a walk down Love Walk as it’s a lovely little road).
- The Pigeon Hole (Datchelor Place, just off Camberwell Church Street). This one is a relative newcomer but I still rate it because it has a) outside space that’s a total sun trap in summer and b) the staff are super friendly. The iced coffee is delicious (can you tell I mainly spent time there in summer?).
- Brewbird Cafe – If you’re willing to walk just a little further then this is a real treat. Tucked away around the corner, in Georgian House, on Camberwell Church Street, this is a cafe well worth supporting. It was set up a couple of years ago by the brilliant St Giles’ Trust (based in Camberwell, funnily enough) ‘to give some of the most excluded people in society another shot by teaching them skills free from judgement or stigma’. It is my favourite place to hang out with friends if I have time for a long and lazy brunch as the food is delicious, the coffee great and the space so very welcoming.
I could keep going, so plentiful are the coffee shops in Camberwell. No space here to discuss awesome pubs, of which there are many in the neighbourhood (because Camberwell is a hidden gem, remember?) but I’ll move on to restaurants now:
- Silk Road (Camberwell Church Street). No article about Camberwell is complete without a mention of Silk Road, the most interesting and delicious Chinese food you’ll find in London. When I say we eat their food once a week I’m barely exaggerating (it’s our Friday treat). You must must must try the home style aubergine because it is officially the most delicious dish on the planet. It’s like eating sunshine and happiness all rolled in to one. Maybe even order two.
- The Crooked Well (Grove Lane) is also a bit of an institution, being the nicest pub restaurant in the area. It also belongs to a friend of my brother but I didn’t know that until after I fell in love with it or I’d have been shouting from the rooftops to try and get free stuff!
- Maloko (Camberwell Church Street) – if you’re in the mood for a pancake then this quirky little place is the option for you. It is apparently a ‘Cameroonian Creperie’ and boasts yet one more nod to Camberwell’s love of art. Diners are encouraged to add their mark to a blackboard. Everything is pancake based here, from sweet pancakes to savoury galettes, which are also wheat free since they’re made with buckwheat.
- Falafel and Shwarma (Camberwell Church Street). Yes, truly, that’s its name but don’t let the lack of naming imagination put you off what must be some of the scrummiest food on offer. Choose from a mixed meze, a falafel or shwarma wrap, combine it with a fresh juice and on a sunny day, join others guzzling it down on the Green! I was told by staff that when the owner had a moderate win on the lottery she invested all of it in improving her restaurant. Go in, have a chat and ask her yourself. I love this place for a meal post swim in the Victorian Baths next door.
- Viet Cafe (Denmark Hill) is my final food offering. They serve rice / noodle dishes and street snacks including incredible Vietmanese sandwiches, most things laced with coriander, which is just the way I love my food. Everything is so fresh and tasty here. They also offer salads and more traditionally English fillings for sandwiches too.
It isn’t a restaurant but it’d be remiss of me not to include TFC, Turkish Food Centre, a supermarket on Camberwell New Road that stocks foods from around the Mediterranean. It is a veritable hive of interesting things. Their pide (turkish bread) is freshly baked every day and is just yummy. The olive bar is also worth visiting and my mum loves their olive based toiletries too, she says they’re fab.
So there you have it. I’ve written nigh on 2,000 words on awesome things to see, eat and drink in Camberwell and the surrounds and I know I’ve barely even scratched the surface. So what did I miss? What do you love about my home patch? Go on, drop me a comment and tell me!