BBC television has been running an interesting series recently, called ‘The Secret History of our Streets’. The series looks at – and I quote the BBC website – ‘how London has changed since Charles Booth’s survey recording social conditions in 1886, returning to six archetypal London streets.’
Let’s not detain ourselves with argument about whether London streets such as Camberwell Grove or Caledonian Road really are archetypes (an ‘original pattern or model from which all things of the same kind are copied or on which they are based‘, according to the kind of online dictionary that tends to be consulted by lazy bloggers).
Let’s not even bother with the side roads presented by the work of Charles Booth. Except to note that interesting as his poverty maps are, we should perhaps treat with caution a classification that colour codes some streets as ’Lowest Class – Vicious, semi-criminal’ (In detail: ‘The lowest class which consists of some occasional labourers, street sellers, loafers, criminals and semi-criminals. Their life is the life of savages, with vicissitudes of extreme hardship and their only luxury is drink.’), while describing more middle class areas as: ‘Higher class labour and the best paid of the artisans…men of good character and much intelligence.’
These are not my reasons for writing today. In general the series is an entertaining look at some fascinating corners of London. My concern is more specific and parochial. The first programme in the series shone its spotlight on Deptford High Street. I live near Deptford and, while I don’t have first-hand knowledge of the events described (even I am not that old), I do have some familiarity with the street. And sadly, as so often seems to be the case, knowing something about the reality throws into relief the superficial and partial way in which television presents its version of that reality.
Others have commented on the Deptford programme (see the excellent Brockley Central blog, or the post on the equally enjoyable Caroline’s Miscellany.) The thesis of the programme, put crudely, was that Deptford High Street was once a thriving shopping street, the Oxford Street of south London. It was surrounded by streets of respectable working class housing, with extended families living close together and running market stalls or shops locally. In a fit of hyperactive and misguided town planning, Lewisham Council in the 1960s and 1970s demolished most of these streets, uprooted the families in them (some exiled to places like Eltham for heaven’s sake), and put in their place modern blocks of flats that soon became unpopular and hard to let. The inevitable result: a Deptford that lost its sense of community and connection, descending into poverty and rootlessness. Betting shops replaced pubs, winos replaced hard-working market traders. And so on.
At the heart of this is no doubt an accurate enough story. I have no doubt that ‘regeneration’ locally has been badly handled. The programme makes a convincing case that local people’s wishes came very low on the list of priorities. And modern Deptford does have an air of a district that time forgot (or, more accurately, time passed overhead with tons of bombs intended for the shipyards and then tried rebuilding with its eyes blindfolded, while social and economic change sucked money out of the area).
The problem for me was that I didn’t fully buy either of the main premises on which the story stood. The narrative of disreputable and unnecessary demolition, and poor-quality regeneration, is convincing enough. But I struggle to swallow the depiction of the former Deptford as this working class nirvana where everyone knew each other, all pulling together, playing hard and working hard, where you could leave your door unlocked and the worst your neighbours would do is come in and clean your house for you. A sepia-tinted lost world of jellied eels and street football and coach trips to Margate in summer.
Maybe I‘m wrong. Maybe it was once that great. But I know for certain I‘m not wrong on the other leg of the BBC‘s story. Whatever image problem Deptford may have, it simply is not the shit-hole that the programme would lead you to believe it became. It certainly has its rough edges. But it remains fascinating and enjoyable for a number of reasons. One is that it is a rare example of an urban high street that has neither succumbed to the clone chain stores that make most other town centres indistinguishable, nor has it given up and become a parade of pound shops and boarded-up properties.
True there are too many betting shops and no longer enough pubs. But it has a thriving street market and some fantastic fish and grocery shops. After a rough patch a few years back, some decent cafes and restaurants have established themselves. And it’s not just any old street market. Where else can you find a stall with an enormous box seething with giant African land snails? (People eat these, you know. Click here for an entertaining video on cooking them. You’re welcome to that, by the way.)
One of the comments on the Brockley Central blog captured my thoughts on how modern Deptford was being traduced. Southlondoner said: “what made me really sad, was that they didn’t show the lounge, or the albany, or laban just down the road or any of the cool and interesting cafes (like the railway carriage and big red). They showed the “dirty deptford” that people so love to see. how “working class people” aren’t as nice as they used to be, and it was a shocking representation of black people in deptford.”
My son and I had a fun walk through the area recently. We had coffee and home-made scones in the railway carriage café parked near the station.
That in itself was worth the trip, but even more enjoyable was finding traces of Deptford’s rich past. One of the things that makes living in London so fascinating is the small signs that crop up here and there of the city’s buried history. To many people (stuck in their cars on the perma-traffic jam of Deptford Broadway), Deptford High Street probably looks like a shabby patch of inner London with nothing to offer them. But get out of the car and walk and you quickly find the signs of the area’s history.
It goes back a long way. The Roman road from Dover to London crossed Deptford Creek at a ford near the Thames. More recently, the area became important after Henry VIII set up the Royal Naval Dockyard here. Explorers like Drake, Raleigh and Cook set off from here, and Elizabeth I addressed the sailors at Deptford before they left to fight the Spanish Armada. There aren’t many signs left of those events, but there are still some fascinating traces of the past, peeking through the modern facade.
I particularly enjoy the sight of the plaque above this charity shop, recording the fact that Tsar Peter the Great of Russia worshipped here in what was then a Quaker Meeting House, during his visit to England in 1698 to study its navy.
During the new building of yuppie homes on the river, a bizarre statue was partly-funded by Russia to commemorate Tsar Peter’s visit. It’s in the photo that heads this post. I confess I don’t know if Peter is the little guy or the tall one with the tiny head. Or maybe the little one went on the big one’s shoulders and they shared a big coat. That would earn you the title ‘The Great’, I guess!
Anyway, try Deptford on foot, and keep your eyes open.