Long memories, new ideas

Fri 5 April 2019, 10:24 am

The area around Elephant and Castle is undergoing significant transformation, with a range of regeneration projects in the pipeline. Garth Cartwright reports

With a history dating back to Roman times, Elephant and Castle is entering a new era in 2019, with long-awaited redevelopment projects for the Old Town Hall and to the northern end of Walworth Road both in the pipeline.

The area, once known for its shopping centre and urban blight, has shaken off its rough and ready reputation and has emerged as one of London’s brightest new prospects. But the area is already far more famous than would be expected of a place not necessarily on the tourist maps.

From Charlie Chaplin, Michael Caine and even Buddy Holly (who played his first ever UK gig at the Trocadero in Elephant and Castle in 1958), to Greg Wallace, Tinie Tempah and Aphex Twin (who was rumoured to have lived inside the Faraday memorial on the roundabout in the 1990s), many famous characters have a connection to this fabled junction. Fortunately, Elephant and Castle is in no danger of becoming a historic monument. Reinvention is continual.

Brutalist housing estates, the shopping centre and urban motorways were all introduced in the early 1960s as a then modernist response to an area still shattered by Luftwaffe bombing campaigns.

The failure of this development – in recent decades the Elephant has been infamous for congestion and pollution – has led to a widespread desire to reinvigorate this gateway to south-east London, accounting for the new buildings, squares and Elephant Park, the largest new park in central London for the past 70 years.

Behind the shopping centre, Elephant Park occupies a space on the north side of Heygate Street and connects with Sayer Street (a new street). The area where the Artworks Elephant container retail area stood on the park’s far corner until December 2018 is now also being redeveloped.

This southern section of Elephant Park stands on what was once part of the Heygate Estate. Plans are in place to put back the missing section of Walworth Road, where once a seamless high street connected Walworth Road with the Elephant and Castle before the area was demolished and rebuilt in the 1960s.

Walworth Square, tucking in neatly between Walworth Road and Sayer Street, is home to a new sculpture by Kenny Hunter that serves as both the Southwark war memorial and peace monument. Hunter’s horizontal sculpture comes with an inscription from the late Scottish poet, solider and peace activist Hamish Henderson’s poem Elegies For the Dead in Cyrenaica. Hunter hopes the work expresses human endurance and the persistence to keep going in difficult and traumatic circumstances.

Appropriately, the sculpture stands directly north of the Old Town Hall, which survived its own traumatic circumstances after a fire swept through and heavily damaged the Grade II listed building in March 2013. The town hall once housed the Cuming Museum, which featured artefacts from all over the world and a permanent exhibition on the history of Southwark.

One-hundred-and-twenty firefighters and 20 fire engines tackled the blaze in the two-storey building on Wansey Street. The Old Town Hall suffered significant damage, particularly to the roof structure and old council chamber which were completely destroyed. In addition, extinguishing the fire resulted in water damage to the lower floors.

Since then, the council has committed significant public funds to dry out and stabilise the fabric of the building and reinstate the Vestry Hall roof on Walworth Road. Initially, the council hoped to turn the Old Town Hall into a civic and community centre, but as the project progressed, more detailed costings raised questions about its affordability. The town hall’s fire damaged history and status as a listed building meant a thorough and quality finish were required.

After considering its options, the council selected private partner, General Projects, which will make a significant investment to restore the listed building. Alongside a distinct community and arts and culture space, public access to the building will be extended by a cafe and programmed events. Workspace for the creative industries, including a range of studios and an arts hub will introduce a dynamic destination at the heart of Walworth Road.

The road is one of London’s best kept secrets and is brimming with hidden gems. Historic shops like Baldwin’s Apothecary – one of London’s oldest herbalists – and Threadneedleman – proprietor George Dyer is bespoke tailor to the stars – should find increased foot traffic as Elephant Park and the reopened Old Town Hall will bring in new residents and employees to the area.

This is a shortened version of this article. Read the full version in the latest edition of Southwark here.