New Bermondsey Shows its Street Credibility
Just like Islington, Battersea and Notting Hill before it, Bermondsey's star is in the ascendancy, says Jane Barry.
If you'd been asked to list London's most fashionable areas a few weeks ago, would Bermondsey Street have sprung to mind? But now the trumpets of publicity have sounded for Zandra Rhodes's orange and pink Fashion and Textile Museum, and suddenly Bermondsey Street is right on the button. Alexei Sayle's already a resident, Kylie Minogue's been looking, media folks are flocking to snap up loft apartments. Is this the recipe to bring an area up? Could Vivienne Westwood work the Zandra Rhodes trick for Finsbury Park? Would Bromley buzz if Gordon Ramsey opened a restaurant there? Would Willesden be transformed by an Anoushka Hempel hotel?
Well, not exactly. The truth is that Rhodes and Ricardo Legorreta, her flamboyant Mexican architect, are simply setting the seal on a transformation that's been going on in Bermondsey Street for the last 5 years and, in the last year alone, has taken the price of loft apartment space from around £250 per sq ft to £300-£350. Rhodes, who is funding her museum herself, used her acute eye to spot the trend right at the start.
The area had the three key ingredients fashion demands: the right properties, the right prices and, most crucial of all, the right ambience. In many ways its rise is reminiscent of Islington in the 1960s, Battersea in the 1980s and Notting Hill in the 1990s.
Once the centre of London's leather industry, Bermondsey Street is well supplied with warehouses and light industrial buildings for today's must-have loft conversions (Rhodes's museum is a former cash-and-carry warehouse) and prices are still very reasonable.
But where the area really had the edge, over say, Docklands developments is atmosphere. It's partly the authentic London streetscape, mazed with alleys and courtyards, partly Southwark's policy of designating buildings mixed-use, which means IT entrepreneurs in offices, sculptors and photographers in live-work space and apartment dwellers all rub along cheek-by-jowl. Throw in a couple of one-off restaurants (Delfina and the Honest Cabbage) a vast antiques market every Friday, 3.00am-1.00pm, and that other vital element - the frisson of a wild-cat locale that's only just been tamed. It all adds up to buzzy, brave and bohemian.
Although Bermondsey Street is close to the City and London Bridge, "It's not the City guys who are going for it," says Mark Williams, of local estate agents Williams Lynch. "It's media people, newspaper people, internet people, designers, architects, people who are want something unusual and unconventional."
But Bermondsey Street beware. Fashion kills the thing it loves and the atmosphere of Bohemia is as evanescent as smoke. If the City guys are not yet going for it, they pretty soon will. Consider Islington, and the raffish ambience of Camden Passage antique market which drew the trend-setters in the Sixties, along with such fashionable names as chef Robert Carrier. Parts of Islington still retains street-cred, but the lure of Georgian terraces and a talked about locale have driven up prices over the years and turned areas like Barnsbury and Canonbury into respectable enclaves for the not-at-all bohemian rich while Camden Passage is now pricey and posh.
Battersea, says John D. Woods's Maggie McKenna, attracted people in the Seventies and Eighties as Chelsea became more commercial. "There was a drift over the river, a lot of people felt Battersea was a more bohemian place to be."
Super chef Nico Ladenis opened Chez Nico in the grim wastes of Queenstown Road, antique and craft shops flourished. Now Battersea is leafy suburbia, 4x4 school run territory. And then, of course, there's Notting Hill the ultimate boho area with the Portobello Road market and wonderful one-off shops and restaurants. Except that the inexorable rise of business rents and property prices is turning Notting Hill, too, from Bohemia to Bankersville.
Let's hope it's some years before Bermondsey Street becomes the victim of its own success. But with the sheer lack of space in London, it's bound to happen eventually. Prices will rise and Bohemia will have to move on to another location. So just hold on Finsbury Park, Bromley and Willesden. You could still get your fashion museum/must-be-seen-in restaurant/break-the-mould hotel.
from London Living, September 13, 2000
pictures by Bec Wingrave and Sara Epstein