diamond geezer

 Sunday, July 17, 2005

Random borough 6: Southwark

The London borough of Southwark has pretty much everything. It stretches five miles top to bottom, from the historic south bank of the Thames through the multicultural estates of Camberwell and Peckham to the green suburban avenues of Dulwich. Just for once I was spoilt for choice for where to visit, so the borough's comprehensive tourist websites were most useful in planning my itinerary. I hope I've managed to sum up Southwark's diversity and vibrancy in what follows. Part one today, part two tomorrow.

Somewhere retail: Borough Market
When Waitrose isn't good enough, where better to buy food of quality and distinction than underneath the railway arches beside Southwark Cathedral? There's been a market here for 250 years, but it's only recently that Borough Market has evolved into a foodie gourmand's paradise. Assuming you like scallops and camembert, that is. This is more of an open-air delicatessen than your normal fruit and veg market. The food divides subtly into traditional British fare (like game, strawberries and chutney) and fine European specialities (like chorizo, falafel and dolmades). So, every weekend, the dark arches beneath Borough Viaduct buzz with those special kind of people who love to spend all day faffing about with food. The morning's for shopping ("hmm darling, venison or partridge?"), the afternoon's for cooking ("could you chop the samphire, dear, and throw in the olives?") and the evening's for slow, glittering dining ("heavens, these quail's eggs are divine, and the smoked eel is to die for"). Personally I couldn't resist a fine steak, kidney, herb and ale pie (from Bristol bakers pieminister - highly recommended) for a bit of top quality lunch-on-the-go. But I suspect, having spotted a Sainsburys on the high street and a Lidl down the road, that very few of the Borough Market shoppers actually live locally.
by tube: London Bridge

Somewhere pretty: Dulwich Art Gallery
Like many London other suburbs Dulwich started out as a small hamlet but, unlike most other suburbs, it still retains a little rural charm. That's probably because Dulwich College (established by Edward Alleyn in 1619) owned most of the land around here, so when the railways came they were careful to restrict the impact of suburban sprawl. And now Dulwich is about as sought-after as it gets (hell, even Margaret Thatcher bought a top-notch gated pad round here). The avenues are broad, but the houses are broader. Dulwich, Common? It's nothing of the sort. So you'd expect the local art gallery to be a bit special, and it is. This is Britain's first public art gallery, opened in 1817 to house a bequest of top European paintings. The gallery is small but perfectly formed, just a handful of high-walled rooms subtly lit by overhead roof-lanterns. The collection covers the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries - a lot of portraits and landscapes, and a fair spattering of cherubs and peasants. But it's still pretty impressive to stumble across works by Rembrandt, Gainsborough, Canaletto and Rubens - here in the quiet London suburbs. At the moment four of the galleries are given over to the 20th century artist Graham Sutherland, a brief but fascinating restrospective of twisted red and yellow landscapes, and bombed streets from the 1940s. I bypassed the modern cafe on the way out and headed instead for a chocolate ice cream across the road in Dulwich Park. And I can quite see why Charles Dickens chose to retire Mr Pickwick in a Dulwich cottage, "contemplating the pictures in the Dulwich Gallery or enjoying a walk about the pleasant neighbourhood on a fine day."
by train: North Dulwich, by bus: P4

The London Olympics 1948
Somewhere sporting: Herne Hill Velodrome
Southwark is surprisingly under-endowed with top sporting venues. There may have been bear-baiting pits on the southern bank of the Thames 400 years ago but thankfully they've long gone. There is still top Ryman League action down at Dulwich Hamlet (at the foot of Dog Kennel Lane, next to a giant Sainsbury's), but they were playing a pre-season friendly in Surrey on Saturday so I didn't stop off there either. But in 1948 the cycling events at the London Olympics were held here, on the western edge of the borough at the Herne Hill Velodrome, so that's where I went. The very place where good old Reg Harris stormed to win the silver medal in the 1000m matched sprint. I knew it wasn't Olympic standard any more, and I knew there had been some serious leasehold problems here recently, but I hoped I'd be able to gain access or at least peer inside. No such luck. The velodrome lies hidden and locked away behind a veil of houses, and a smokescreen of bitterness. Southwark Council's lease expired six months ago but, with £7m needed to refurbish the stadium, the Dulwich Estate rejected their request for a five year extension. Instead they have plans to develop the site as a "leisure facility", which might mean more cycling or it might mean a casino, you never know. There's certainly no love lost in this bickering bureaucratic row, with the unfortunate two-wheeler brigade left watching impotently from the sidelines. Further details at the Velodrome's official site, or get your cycle clips on and pedal over to onionbagblogger. [July 19 update: Velodrome reopens Aug 5!]
by train: North Dulwich, by bus: 37


(more tomorrow, including a riverside walk and a big festival in a park)


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