Exploring Elephant and Castle

Beyond the disorienting concrete roundabout, the derelict hollow hallways of the doomed Heygate Estate and the few Colombian restaurants I’ve been to on numerous occasions (La Bodeguita and Leños & Carbón), I admit I don’t know too much about the Elephant and Castle.

I was invited on a walking tour of the area last week with blue badge guide Sophie Campbell. She lead us first to the Cuming Museum on Walworth Road, a tiny place with an odd selection of objects.

I’m not a museum person, but it did have some interesting stuff. Bear grease imported from Russia, used to smooth men’s hair in the Victorian days. Information about Southwark’s connection to the slave trade.

We stopped into London’s oldest apothecary G Baldwin & Co. Poked our noses around the glass jars with interesting labels and the very old sets of catalogue drawers.

The rain started to spit down, as it has been doing incessantly this summer, but we made our way down to Amelia Street, a fascinating little piece of history, Victorian terraces with open front doorways backing onto Pullens Yard.

This is a fabulous little cobbled alleyway, quietly inviting, lined with artist studios, most of which are still used for their original purpose.

100 years ago or so, these red-door studios included everything from industrial clog makers for the Fire Service, manufacturers of x-ray machinery, bookbinders and furniture restorers.

There was even a ceremonial swords maker to the Lord Mayor of London.

Now, in Pullens Yard, you will find ceramicists, jewellers, graphic designers, web-designers, furniture designers, film makers, photographers, writers and film-costume makers to name a few.

Many of the doors are open. Twice a year, the artists hold open studios for the public.

At the end of Pullen’s Yard, we came to the Electric Elephant cafe, where a kind woman brought us cupcakes with elephants on them.

The address for the Electric Elephant is 86a Crampton Street, Walworth, London SE17 3BF. If you mention my blog until July 31st, you’ll get a free coffee.

We chatted about the controversial plans for regeneration of Elephant and Castle, the street art of Leake Street and the very interesting history of the original building that now houses the Cinema Museum.

It used to be a workhouse where families who were poor would be sent to work.

The men separate from the women and the kids send down to a school in another area of the city. Charlie Chaplin spent some time there as a child.

At this point, we headed up to the Imperial War Museum and I skipped out on the second half of the tour to run back to work.

There is a very interesting mixture of architecture.

And buried in it, tons of stories.

Parts of it have that fun Latino vibe and a great place to pick up food from South America.

The shopping centre with its dodgy characters hanging about the traffic jammed road system really don’t do much for offering a first impression.

I have a few friends who lived there for ages and they just adore the area.

I don’t often go on tours in London, but it made me realise that although it still feels like a dodgy part of town, there’s plenty to explore and a whole lot of history in the old Elephant and Castle. It’s definitely a colourful place.

New Staysafe Hostel in Elephant & Castle

I’m pretty sure my nights of sleeping in hostels are finished, but if I had to stay in one in London, I’d be pretty happy to stay in the new Staysafe in Elephant & Castle.

I was invited to check it out for the launch along with a tour of the area (photos from that tomorrow). The hostel itself is in the old Labour party headquarters.

Elephant & Castle doesn’t have the greatest reputation so I was intrigued about the name of this place – Staysafe. Why so sure?

The explanation was that all of the doors, including within the hallways, require a touch card. There will be locked lockers under the beds a suitcase can fit into as well. And it actually did feel quite safe.

In fact it felt a bit like no other hostel I’ve been in before.

My most memorable hostel experience would probably be a toss up between a campsite hostel hut in Venice where we drank at the bar at 9am or the one in Athens that turned into a raving club and didn’t have any toilet paper.

This one has a totally calm vibe. You walk in to cushy carpets, bright colours, a relaxing mix of high and low lighting.

There’s Banksy prints on the walls and so far the bathrooms are pretty pristine.

The breakfast room is huge. There’s a pool table, a bar, and my favourite part – a lovely sculpted garden.

The staff were friendly and inviting.

And the rates for the rooms start at £18 a night if you want to share with 4-8 people.

You can also book a private room for 1-3 from £58.

All the rooms are en-suite with separate toilet and shower – a wet room.

The private rooms include tea and coffee and a TV. All rooms include breakfast.

Not bad for a hostel, eh?

Website: Staysafe Hostel, Elephant & Castle

Listen to a Londoner: Lisa Bolton

Listen to a Londoner is a weekly interview with a Londoner – someone who lives in this city, born here or elsewhere. If you’re up for being interviewed, email littlelondonobservationist@hotmail.co.uk.

Lisa Bolton

Lisa is a northern lass from the French countryside who is integrating into London’s Colombian community. She’s trying to get used to overcrowding and living like battery hens whilst growing very fond of cultural diversity, chips and Primark!

LLO: How long have you been in London, where are you from originally and what brought you here?
LB: I’ve been in London for 2 and a half years. I was born in Salford, Manchester but have lived in nearly all my life in a forest in Normandy France which is where I call home. I came here for work and a new beginning. After finishing my studies and working in Spain for 2 and a half years there was little work in France so I made my decision one morning to come to London and find a new job!

LLO: Which area of London are you most familiar with and what’s the best thing about it?
LB: Having lived in various areas in London I really love Elephant and Castle and Brixton. As I said I grew up in a forest 2km outside a village of 467 people. I had a pretty sheltered life to say the least. I had heard so many horrible things about these 2 areas I was scared to death, but there is a really sense of community. Even though I have moved away from the area now I still enjoy going to Weight Watchers every week in Brixton and the Ritzy cinema is brill and there is a lot of different shops. And Elephant is the best place in London as there is so much going on, transport is excellent and you feel as if you are in another world. You can walk into central London in 30 minutes!!!

LLO:  Tell us about your favourite unique London discovery.
LB: Uhmm, quite hard. I think it depends on what you are into and unless you are in that scene you wouldn’t know about it. Thanks to my circle of friends which is made up of Colombians I suppose it would be the Vallenato sub-culture and the private parties, functions, festivals and carnivals.

I would also say that the Fitzrovia live radio performances are a great discovery and brilliant. They often perform at the Globe’s pub The Swan. I discovered this through my friend and ex-flatmate who is an actor.

But of course my most precious unique London discovery is my fiancé Carlos who I met here.

LLO:  Where are your top choices for a night of dancing?
LB: I LOVE dancing but mostly salsa. However, I REALLY like G-A-Y to let your hair down and for cheap drinks! People there are really friendly and will come up and dance with you.

I don’t really like the “Latin” places here. The music is not that great and the dancing is quite the same. I believe La Floridita is great and it has been recommended, but I’ve never been. There is one place in Brixton called “La Mazorca” which is a bit of a dive and there are a few dodgy characters BUT if you go in a group they play great music and have a great dance floor. Otherwise, I have always had the best dancing time at improvised parties in various little bars and open air festivals like “Carnival del Pueblo”.

LLO: Give us an unusual or quirky idea for a date in London.
LB: To be quite honest I have no idea, probably not been on enough dates to know. But I recently met up with a former flatmate who told me he had had a few dates since we had last seen each other and one guy took him to a taxidermist shop! Needless to say he didn’t go out with him again!

LLO: If I only had one night in London and wanted to head away from the tourist trail for food and drinks, where would you send me?
LB: Gosh, this is a hard question as it depends what type of food I fancied. I have my favourite Colombian restaurant, French restaurant and Indian restaurant! But I suppose if I weren’t here I would be living outside the country and therefore it would probably have to be a pub where I could have steak and ale pie and chips. It’s not off the beaten track but the Horneman over-looking the river on the south bank near London Bridge is easy access and the food is quite nice also, but most good pubs could probably do the same.

LLO: If you want to experience another culture in London, what’s your first choice and where do you head to find it?
LB: WOW, the choice is incredible as London in itself is a cultural mish-mash. The first time I went to Whitechapel, I thought I was in some Asian country. It was incredible. Elephant again springs to mind. Latin American and African cultures are predominant and you can get by just speaking Spanish!

LLO: Tell us about a London memory that could only have happened in London.
LB: I am an English teacher on Oxford Street and I have large, very culturally diverse groups of people who maybe have never left their country before. They have strong preconceptions about different nationalities, colours, cultures, sexual preferences and, of course, religion. As a Teacher it is very hard to approach such sensitive subjects especially concerning homophobia and the stigma which every Muslim/Arabic student is viewed with. Some Latin American students have never met a Muslim let alone a woman in traditional dress. But one day in a class in which I had Baptists, born again Christians, Catholics, Buddhists, Russian orthodox, Shintoists and Muslims (from Turkey, Russia and North African countries) the debate turned to religion which I allow as long as everybody respects each other’s beliefs. The students all found common ground within their different religions and traditions using English. They all got along so well and were respectful of each other. I know sounds corny, but I really warmed my heart that despite all the war and hatred in the world, people from  incredibly different walks of life found they were all the same.

LLO: Who is the most interesting Londoner you’ve met and why?
LB: Everyone in London has had an interesting life and a story to tell. But one of my students, Maria, had come from the slums of Lima, Peru, and had been to a school run by nuns and financed by fundraising from Europe. She had worked her way up to become an English teacher and came to England to better her skills.

Doing the job I do has been a real eye opener to see that intelligent, highly qualified people who are psychologists, engineers, lawyers, film directors etc… perform menial jobs due to their legal status and language skills in order to learn the language. It really angers me when you see office workers ignoring cleaners knowing that they are probably for more qualified than them. It cost nothing to smile or acknowledge someone.

LLO:  If you were to move away from London in the future, which five things would you miss the most?
1) Cultural diversity
2) The choice of different products and restaurants
3) The different events
4) Primark
5) Public transport especially the tube (despite all the strikes, hahhaha!)

Thanks Lisa!

For more Listen to a Londoner posts, click here.

Listen to a Londoner: Esnayder Cuartas

Listen to a Londoner is a weekly interview with a Londoner – someone who lives in this city, born here or elsewhere. If you’re up for being interviewed, email littlelondonobservationist@hotmail.co.uk.

Esnayder Cuartas
(Photo by Pablo Salgado)

Esnayder is the manager at Latin American restaurant, Sabor, in N1, with six months travelling the length and breadth of South America (all but Paraguay). After growing up in Colombia, he has now spent nearly two decades in London.

LLO: How long have you lived in London, where are you from originally and what brought you here?
EC: I have been living in London for 18 years. I come from a town called Quinchia in the coffee region of Colombia. I came initially to London to learn English and subsequently business studies. I chose London, instead of going to the US to learn English there, as I thought that the culture is very interesting. It is a cosmopolitan city and due its geographic position is a good base to explore Europe.

LLO: Tell us why we should immediately book a table at your North London restaurant, Sabor?
EC: Sabor is a South American restaurant that offers nuevo latino food, which combines the traditional cuisine of South America with modern gastronomic techniques. Sabor shows a contemporary Latin American culture, in a modern and fun space, where the warmth of its people, smooth latin rhythms in the background, imaginative cocktails and freshly cooked latin flavours make all your senses travel though South American in the heart of Islington.

LLO: What sort of atmosphere can we expect?
EC: Fun, cool and mellow, very friendly. That is latin for you.

LLO:What top three dishes would you recommend?
EC: Empanadas are a Latin American staple. These cornmeal patties are light and crispy with fillings like beef and potato, chorizo and plantains and fish.  They are served with aji which is a spicy tomato relish.  Ceviches are one the classic dishes of South American food. They are fresh fish ‘cooked’ in a citrus marinade and finished with chilli and coriander. This is full of flavour and very light for those trying to watch what they eat.  Aji de Gallina is a chicken breast that is marinated with Aji Amarillo, a  smoked Peruvian chilli, that has enough heat to get you taste buds going but leaves you able to taste the other flavours, such as tumeric.

LLO:And to drink?
EC: We do the classic latin cocktails like mojitos, cahipirhinas, margaritas, pisco sour, but we also like to showcase latin flavours, so we have our own cocktails such as passion fruits margaritas, mora (the south American blackberry) cahipirhinas and much more. Our wine list is mainly South American, and we have a list of latin beers too.

LLO:Besides the food, where else in London do you go when you’re craving a bit of Colombian culture?
EC: For Colombian culture, I particularly look forward to Autumn when Colombiage, a London-based team who promote contemporary Colombian culture in the UK organise a series of events, such as films, literary talks, art exhibitions, etc. Sometimes I go to Elephant and Castle Shopping centre to buy some Colombian snacks and get a feel of the more mainstream Latin culture.

LLO: What’s your favourite London discovery?
EC: The South Bank Centre. Since my early days, I used to go there between schools at midday and get a free concert. All year round it’s full of cultural activities. The recent festival about Brazil was amazing. I love the view from the Royal Festival Hall at sunset all year round.

LLO:Biggest challenge you’ve faced as an expat in London?
EC: The biggest challenge was learning the language. Once you can communicate, you discover that there is so much that you can do in London that never ends.

LLO: What’s the best part about living in your postcode?
EC: I live in E14. The best thing is the river and the canals. It feels that you are in a different london – people greet each other while they are walking by the canal. It’s that mixture of old and new architecture, nature and the sound of the water.

LLO: Tell us about a favourite London memory that could only have happened in London.
EC: Had a champagne tasting in Bermondsey, follow by a coffee at Bar Italia, then went to see Jose Feliciano, a huge latin star, at Ronnie Scots, followed by a Lebanese meal in Soho all in one night. That is London – the city where you are spoiled for choice. Every time that I’m flying over London, I feel at home.


Thanks Esnayder!

For more Listen to a Londoner posts, click here.