Heron Island, Great Barrier Reef, Australia

Saturday, 21 June 2008

Deptford High Street

Mention Deptford to most Londoners, and if they don't say "Where?", they'll quite likely pull a face. At best, it has the image of just another featureless sprawl of council housing and Victorian terraces interspersed with grubby small factories and warehouses, like so many of the parts of London that most Londoners actually live in. At worst, it's thought of as rather rough.

It's the bit between Greenwich, New Cross and Rotherhithe, just across the river from where I live. It has its place in history. Somewhere here, Christopher Marlowe was murdered; later it became the dockyard where Pepys laboured to build up the Royal Navy, Peter the Great came to study shipbuilding (and ruined his host's garden), and Captain Cook left for his journeys around the Pacific - and to Australia.

Following up on a suggestion from a neighbour and this intriguing post on Going Underground, I went for a wander down Deptford High St this afternoon. Unfortunately for me, my camera decided to give up the ghost this afternoon, so I don't have any photos of my own to show.

But what do you know, it's a real High Street. We don't really have one where I live, for all sorts of historical reasons, but this is a High Street, not quite as they used to be, but not mucked about by drastic redevelopment. Along either side, the buildings remain two-storeyed, and the shops are nearly all independent businesses. The reason is fairly clear: most of them are pound shops or charity shops or catering for local niche tastes, chiefly African or Caribbean, but there are also shops specialising in sewing machines, car parts and even nothing but balloons.

This is not a street where the major chains feel there's room for their kind of shop. Thank goodness, for what is there is a lively street market: not just the usual range of things for mobile phones and clothes that oughtn't to go too near naked flames or electrical circuits, but the complete range of household bits and pieces, fruit and veg, secondhand books and records, nuts, fish (even lobsters!). The pound shops are as fascinating as anywhere I've seen: saucepans and hair curlers, crockery and mysterious kitchen gadgets, plastic flowers, a fibre optic fairy (with wings that move!) and a pink mosquito net (uh-oh). Ooh and a big bumper pack of pot-scourers, which was handy since I'd forgotten I needed some more. And what's more, plenty of jolly banter, which doesn't happen everywhere else.

This must be the only part of London that claims a Ugandan-Senegalese restaurant: there's also a Chinese (with red-glazed chickens in the window), a Nigerian and two Vietnamese, and that (now rare) marker of classic working-class London, not just one tiled pie-and-mash shop with hard church-pew cubicles, but two - Goddard's on one side and Manze's almost opposite.

There's one latte-and-cappuccino café already, and of course the Deptford Project café-in-a-train. I hate the "X is the new Y" formulation, but this has the feel of the next place for "alternative" gentrifiers.

Walking further on to the riverside, I could see money's clearly gone into things like the biggest adventure playground I've ever seen, and there's an interesting-looking real ale pub I'd like to go back and investigate some time. There are various industrial premises being converted into housing for sale: famously, one of the council tower blocks on the riverside was controversially sold off to developers for conversion to much more upmarket housing. And round the corner there's just a trace of the old village around St Nicholas's church. A jocular description of the undeveloped riverside as the "Deptford Riviera" now looks like a gift to the estate agents.

Arriving at the riverside, I was stopped on the way to the boat home by a couple of people planning a mural to go on that controversial tower: would I just talk into their recorder about my thoughts and feelings about what I could see along the river and around the area? Would I? Well, what do you think?

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