Elephant and Castle is a funny old place. Funny ha ha because it has a silly name – there are no elephants or castles for miles around, and where else in the world could you get on a bus, say ‘Elephant please’ and have the driver reply ’70 pence’ without batting an eyelid? – and funny odd because it’s a kind of anti-place. All it really consists of is a roundabout, a shopping centre, a station and a subway system designed to flummox even the most seasoned navigator. But it’s not without a certain charm. There is a standard set of words used to describe E&C in the media. For reference, these can also be applied to Peckham, Brixton and anywhere else in south-east London which is considered to be a bit intimidating. It’s ‘lively’ (there’s always something kicking off), ‘colourful’ (black people live there) and ‘full of ‘character’ (ugly as sin). It’s also ‘undergoing urban regeneration’, which the Government appears to offer as a last-ditch alternative to bulldozing the area completely or throwing a giant tarpaulin over it and pretending that it doesn’t exist. Sorry, had one foot on my soapbox there. More on regeneration later – let’s rewind a bit first. The shopping centre is the focal point of E&C. This grim hunk of concrete was erected in 1965 and painted sludge green (before my time), then shocking pink and most recently red, but whatever the colour it’s an eyesore. The inside is okay, whilst being unlike any other shopping centre I’ve ever been in, with a few high street stores like Boots and Woolworths, and an indoor and outdoor market. Most of the stalls seem to sell hair clips, hair products or bacon butties, and no matter how hard I think about it I can’t figure out why that should be, but there you go. We live in a strange world. The one shop really worth visiting is Tlon Books,
which sells books about all kinds of things and not just tlons. Because of the proximity of several university campuses, it’s a great place to pick up your whole reading list for a tenner (all the books are second-hand and dirt cheap). The universities, for anyone who’s interested, are South Bank, the London College of Printing and Camberwell College of Arts (about a mile away). I had a brief spell at Camberwell when I was 18 and thought E&C was the scariest place in the world, but that was before I’d been to Leyton. Anyway, aside from the shopping centre, the most notable feature of Elephant is the roundabout (oh, the thrills, the spills). This is a great place to catch a night bus to virtually anywhere, but there are many perils. First, every road leading off from the roundabout looks the same so orientation can be tricky; second, there are two 24-hour kebab shops which somehow convince you with their buzzing orange lights and odour of meat fat that you ought to waste valuable minutes therein. You will buy chips so foul you would not normally offer them to a dog and you will quite enjoy them, until someone is sick on the night bus. My recommendation is to force one member of your party to remain sober and remind you of the last time you went in said kebab shop. For all the good it’ll do. There is a network of pedestrian subways under the roundabout which is intimidating by day and a complete no-go by night, although it’s a lot better than it used to be. It is the domain of beggars and nuisance poster salesmen rather than dealers and proper crims (if you’re looking for a dealer or a proper crim by the way, I’m told the place to look is the Heygate estate off Walworth Road). If you’re brave enough to use it, don’t assume you know where you’re going – follow the arrows! Strange things happen within these tunnels, like the world above ground rotating by 90 degrees. Or maybe
I have a really bad sense of direction. Hmph. There are basically four places you can emerge (apart from the shopping centre) if you complete the subway challenge. The first is Elephant and Castle station, which has an overground and an underground bit. The tube is on the Northern and Bakerloo lines; the mainline services are run by Connex and Thameslink, so you can actually get to some useful stations like Kings Cross and Victoria, but also some stupid ones. I’m not naming names – cough – Bat and Ball. Honestly, who thinks of these? The second is Newington Causeway. Ministry of Sound is on a side road from here (Gaunt Street), but cards on tables here: don’t bother. A victim of its own success, Ministry is now irredeemably naff. The actual venue is only one notch above average, they play ‘Ibifa choons’ and think that £3 is an acceptable price for a can of coke. It isn’t. And that was in 1997. Anyway, Newington Causeway eventually turns into Borough High Street, which links E&C to London Bridge. There’s not an awful lot there – mostly offices and sandwich shops – but it’s perfectly pleasant. The third is New Kent Road, which leads to Old Kent Road, and then you’re on dangerous ground. A lot of shootings and stabbings have happened here, and all the shops seem only to be masquerading as shops to cover up something more sinister. On the plus side, there’s a massive Toys R Us. The fourth is Walworth Road, which links E&C to Camberwell. As an area, Walworth is a bit rough round the edges, but it has loads of cheap greasy spoons and a fantastic market on East Street. It’s a fairly typical inner city market – bargain string vests, lighters etc – but there’s this one stall run by a Japanese girl which has all the Sanrio and Miffy stuff being sold for stupid money in Hamleys at the moment. (A note for any boys reading: Sanrio
is the company responsible for Hello Kitty, Bad Badtz, Chococat and a load of other characters that girls go mad over.) Okay, I have to put in a bit about the name ‘Elephant and Castle’. A debate arose in the comments page of my last op (and I’ve done a bit of research since) – in the blue corner we have Malu and the Enfant de Castile theory; in the red corner we have MykReeve and the Cutlers’ Company theory. THE ENFANT DE CASTILE THEORY This one dates back to C14 when England was bilingual (as hard as that is to believe, given our current senseless reluctance to learn other languages). An English prince was due to marry the daughter of a French nobleman by the name of Castile, and the marriage became the subject of pub gossip much as celeb marriages do today. The daughter was referred to simply as ‘l’enfant de Castile’ (the child of Castile), and a south London innkeeper decided, rather ass-kissingly, to name his tavern after her. (Thank heavens publicans have more sense these days – who wants a local called Zeta Jones?) The good old Cockneys, who for the most part spoke only English, had trouble pronouncing the name, and thus it mutated into Elephant and Castle. Bless ‘em. THE CUTLERS COMPANY THEORY This theory centres around the same pub. From the thirteenth to eighteenth century the building belonged to a craft guild called the Cutlers’ Company, who made knives and tools with elephant ivory handles; the guild emblem was an elephant with a (castle-shaped) howdah on its back. When the premises were converted into a pub in 1760, the landlord saw this logo printed on the walls and decided to name the building after the images. Even though the castle wasn’t really a castle. Where were the Cockneys when the brains were given out? Down the pub. Oh well, it makes a good story. I don’t know which of these two I would subscribe to, personally, althoug
h the first one makes a better anecdote. Maybe they’re both wrong, and it’s named after a real elephant and a real castle. That’s the thing about history, there’s a lot of trust involved. It may all be lies. But it’s still on the national curriculum... I think I threatened a paragraph on the E&C regeneration project, didn’t I? In fact it’ll probably be more than one paragraph, because I’m fascinated by the plans (although if they pull it off I’ll eat my hat, scarf *and* mittens). Whether or not it can be called regeneration when they’re destroying its defining features is another matter entirely. Anyway, the aim is to transform the area from a grubby inner city wasteland to a great place to live, work and play etc (insert cliché of choice). They’re also going to re-brand it as ‘London South Central’. While I can see the sense of doing this (giving the district a completely new identity and making it sound less, well, common), it hardly has the comic appeal or memorability of Elephant and Castle. And I don’t think Londoners are going to buy it somehow. Okay, suspend your disbelief for a second. This is what they reckon they’re going to do to Elephant: - Tear down the existing shopping centre and replace it with a sky-scraping ‘eco tower’ containing offices and shops - Build a luxury hotel to encourage investment in the area - Re-route traffic underground and pedestrianise the roundabout, creating a ‘European-style civic piazza’ with trees and fountains - Demolish the notorious Heygate estate and build new council and keyworker homes (Ken Livingstone has promised to provide more affordable housing for London’s essential workers – teachers, nurses etc – who are being priced out of the capital) - Erect a new leisure centre, art gallery, theatre and music venue, healthy
living centre, IT centre of excellence, library and museum - Create a ‘world class transport interchange’ (topped, apparently, with a glazed canopy) Full details are at www.designforhomes.org/projects/planned/elephant/elephant.html, if anyone cares. Now excuse me for being cynical, but…well, it’s a bit of a challenge they’ve set themselves, y’know? I actually think they’ve got a good chance of success, because the location is superb and totally unexploited (zone 1, two stops from Waterloo and five from Oxford Street), but it’s a bit like making a harrier jet out of Duplo. One other thing which might work in its favour is the current national penchant for ‘destroy-and-replace-with-shiny-stuff' schemes (see Stratford in the east end, which has suddenly become terribly fashionable, or Changing Rooms). It remains to be seen. I’d love to see it work though. I really would, because then maybe the Government would start pushing more money towards the rest of south-east London instead of ignoring us. It would also set off a chain reaction (I hope) and put us on the map a bit more, and possibly even stop people from Kensington saying things like “Oh, Lewisham. Isn’t that near Gipsy Hill?”. Then again, maybe not. Oh, and by the way...’a tapdance hen tells’ is an anagram of ‘Elephant and Castle’. I couldn’t think of a title.
The Elephant and Castle is not a pretty part of London. It’s never going to win any awards for well maintained green spaces, architectural innovation or outstanding urban planning. In it’s present state, it will never be considered a desirable place to live in the Notting Hill or Kensington mould. I freely admit that my own first impressions of the area were not positive ones. But, as with many places in London, you’ll find that if you look below the surface, there is some hidden beauty in this little part of the capital... Let’s get the bad stuff out of the way first: The Elephant looks awful. Whoever designed the architectual monstrosity that is the Elephant and Castle shopping centre should be shot. Whoever then decided that it should be painted what I can only assume was once a shocking red and has now faded to a dingy pink should join them at the firing range. The roundabout that dominates the centre of the area is ugly, the advertising board in the centre of the roundabout is uglier still. High rise blocks, hangovers from the urban planning nightmares of the fifties and sixties, surround the area and make it appear closed in and claustrophobic. There are no green spaces in the immediate vicinity. It is not aesthetically pleasing. If you’re looking for pretty parks and grand old buildings, go to West Hampstead instead. Now for the good stuff. The Elephant and Castle makes for a great night out. There are several excellent pubs in the area, Ruby Tuesdays and The Elephant and Castle pub are my regulars; try them – you might be pleasantly surprised. There’s a lovely pizzeria called Pizzeria Castello where the food is scrumptious and you may even spot a few lesser known stars on a Friday or Saturday evening. For clubbers there’s the famous Ministry of Sound. There’s very little trouble in the area in comparison to central London on a Friday or Saturday night. Now for a rea
l hidden gem which I discovered while wandering through the Elephant shopping centre in search of Iceland : The Elephant Bookshop. This is a bookworms dream; a well presented, brightly lit and welcoming secondhand bookshop stuffed to the rafters with books on every subject from cookery to phobias to petcare to fiction. The books are all in excellent condition and at giveaway prices. I recently purchased the latest Stephen King novel for £2, and can often be seen staggering out of the shop under the weight of about ten or fifteen books which I haven’t been able to resist. I can spend hours in the place - and frequently do! The owner is friendly, courteous and rightfully proud of the store. This is absolutely my favourite bookshop in the world, and a good enough reason for me to pay a visit to The Elephant and Castle as any other. As far as all the bad stuff goes...There ARE plans to improve and rejuvenate the area, although I haven’t been able to ascertain exactly what they are, and I understand they have been delayed for a couple of years in any case. I hope the delay doesn’t last too long, as there really is a lot of potential in the area and with just a few improvements (paint the shopping centre a different colour – PLEASE!!) it could be so much nicer. My Mum remembers the area from her childhood and it has always been a colourful hive of activity, but these days its overshadowed by the ugliness of the architecture, poor urban planning and underfunding, and that’s a real shame.