Welcome to my hometown: why I can never escape Brixton’s evocative contrasts
During confinement, many of us made the pilgrimage to our family homes – and rediscovered them with fresh eyes. Half guide, half love letter, “HometownsâIs a series in which we celebrate where we come from.
Being stubborn and very suspicious of authority have always been my defining characteristics. These are traits that have seen me try – and fail – to leave Brixton and make my own way on several occasions. Throughout my twenties, I moved to East London, Newcastle, Nepal, Thailand, Australia and most recently Rome. Yet every few years I find myself in this tangle of oddly suburban streets between Brixton and Tulse Hill, listening to buses 2, 432 and 415 go by.
Unfortunately, these character traits have also led to a void in several basic life skills. Until confinement brought me (again) back to my childhood home, I categorically refused to learn to ride a bike, despite encouragement from my wonderful parents. The origins of this childish grudge were lost in the mists of time, but my aversion remained – until the spring of this year.
Lockdown’s ominous silence particularly resonated in Brixton, which has once again become a cacophony of trafficking, hawkers and people falling from bars after one too many. The streets hadn’t been so quiet since the 19th century, when the newly constructed Vauxhall Bridge saw what had once been a polished middle-class suburb flourish into a large shopping center, with the UK’s first department store. Uni, Bon Marche (now Morleys).
In 1948, 300 new residents traveled from Jamaica to the Windrush Empire, and Brixton became the beating heart of London’s Caribbean community. Breadfruit and salted fish appeared on the stalls of Pope’s Road, and the sound of reggae replaced the playful music hall jingles that drew crowds to Brighton Terrace before the World Wars. Seeing the streets as calm as a cat napping in the sun, I realized the time had finally come to put my pride behind me and asked to borrow my mom’s bike.
After a few false starts, I hurtled down Effra Hill past the Curry parking lot – sometimes the site of spontaneous dance parties on summer nights – to St Matthew’s Church. This monstrosity of the Greek revival has been a local landmark since 1824; curiously, its crypt conceals a cocktail bar whose predecessor was the only place to accept my false teenage card.
Just across the road, the cobblestones of Windrush Square are a gift for a novice cyclist – and also an important community gathering point. On the night of Maggie Thatcher’s death, a man climbed to the roof of the Ritzy Cinema shouting âMaggie Thatcher: Milk Thiefâ through a megaphone as hundreds of people danced to the sound of the bass.
Of course, it was under the Iron Lady that some of the most infamous events in the region’s history took place. In April, the square saw the unveiling of a memorial to Cherry Groce – an innocent woman shot dead at home by Metropolitan Police – whose tragically unjust death sparked the Brixton Riots of 1985. It is also home to the Black Cultural Archives , the only national heritage center dedicated to preserving and celebrating the stories of African and Caribbean peoples in London.
I wobbled past the station and the David Bowie Memorial, swaying to Atlantic Road. As a child, I loved to look through the window of the wig store, truly believing it to be the scalps of people who had committed terrible crimes – sneaking out of bed to help themselves to cookies, maybe. The carcasses of cows hanging in the halal butchers across the road only added to my fantasies.
But it was enough to hurtle down the hill of Brockwell Park and dive into its Art Deco lido for my faith in the magic of the neighborhood to be restored. As I rolled my bike, I had coffee in the park cafe and watched flocks of parakeets melt between the plane trees as the city’s skyscrapers glistened in the distance.
Despite the wave of gentrification that has seen some of the fastest increases in property prices in London, Brixton’s unique energy still comes from its contrasts: old boys in front of barbershops making jokes as dry as the Jamaican sand and young professionals sipping flat whites; aunts rolling grocery bags through the market; raves, riots (most recent in 2011) and of course there’s always music. The region’s drugs of choice remain communal and controversial; despite all my attempts to forge a new identity, I suspect that I am more of a kid from my hometown than I want to admit. Here’s how to get the most out of a visit.
Feel the beat
From The Clashes’ Guns of Brixton to Eddie Grant’s “Electric Avenue”, few regions can boast of having a soundtrack like Brixton; not surprising given that David Bowie, La Roux and Adele all grew up nearby. Filling the iconic dome of the O2 Academy with screaming fans was a defining moment for many big names, but there are also plenty of more intimate venues: try Hootananny, The Windmill (not to be confused with the real windmill). Brixton Wind, the last one in London) and the Effra Hall Tavern, where a local jazz band has performed every Thursday for years.
Raise a glass
Whatever your poison, you’ll have to work hard to keep Brixton sober. Specialist Cellars in Pop Brixton serves their own Kiwi wines, while The Shrub and Shutter’s cocktail list is inspired by market flavors. These days Brixton Village is filled with the sound of popping Pet Nat caps, but I think the area’s drinking scene comes to life in rowdy beer gardens such as Prince Albert and The Duke of Edinburgh. Be careful on the way back, the steps of the station are often slippery and its elevator forever out of service.
Scratch your plate
Sticky jerk chicken, stylish small plates, experimental Indian and slow barbecue: Brixton’s culinary offerings are as eclectic as its residents. Salon serves produce grown on his land in Dulwich, while local restaurant critic Jay Raynor raves about Mama Lan’s pork and cabbage dumplings. Fish Wings & Tings offers a range of home-cooked Caribbean comfort food, Negril has a dedicated vegan and vegetarian menu, and if you don’t mind getting on a bus, the Tulse Hill Electric Cafe is run by the same family. Cypriot since 1978.
Soak up the street art
Brixton wears his creative heart on his sleeve. From Stephen Pusey’s “Children At Play” on the side of the O2 Academy to Christine Thomas’ Edenic “Big Splash” at 20 Strathleven Road, the walls of the area are like a living, breathing gallery. In July of each year, the urban art fair sees the leafy sidewalk of Avenue JosÃ©phine lined with works by local artists.
Half Moon, Herne Hill is 20 minutes from Brixton via Brockwell Park. It’s a renovated gin palace with a proud history in music – U2, Van Morrison and The Police all performed in its wood-paneled dining room – and 12 boutique rooms, starting at Â£ 89. At the other corner of the park, the Tulse Hill Tavern is a very comfortable 19th century coaching inn; Feast on modern British cuisine before heading to bed in nine charming bedrooms. Double from Â£ 81.