In The London Adventure Arthur Machen referred to the vast area south of the Thames as “unshapen”, “behind the scenes of the universe”, “shapeless, unmeaning, dreary, dismal beyond words”.
Yet there are plenty of adventures to be found in my particular corner of London, the northern end of Lambeth. My story “Lambeth North” was actually provoked by Machen’s tale, “N”, where wonders are revealed in Stoke Newington. But arcane sights from beyond the veil of reality can also be found south of the Thames. Noted former resident William Blake had a more flattering view of the area when he wrote of “Lambeth’s vale where Jerusalem’s foundations began”.
Compared with the hectic pace of Brixton, where I used to live, North Lambeth can be quiet. Yet it’s just over the river from Westminster, basking under the watchful gaze of MI5 and MI6. The area is sandwiched between high-profile ‘regeneration’ zones, so look either way and you see galaxies of red crane lights marking the skyline: west to Nine Elms, east to Elephant and Castle. Look over the river and you see whole galaxies of them too. Do their patterns transmit messages or hint at monstrous shapes? Those lights make an appearance in another story, “The Pleasure Garden”, which is set around Vauxhall and Nine Elms.
Blake’s old gaff used to be around the corner from me, on Hercules Road. This is where William & his wife Catherine enjoyed sitting naked in an apple tree in their back garden. The road is named after Hercules Hall, which was built by Philip Astley – riding instructor, horse-trainer and known as the inventor of the modern circus
The actual building where Blake lived is long gone, demolished in 1917. Instead, there is a Corporation of London housing estate that is named in his honour and marked by a blue plaque.
Several railway underpasses in the area feature mosaics based on Blake’s drawings and paintings. Created over 2008-13 they form galleries in dingy underpasses on Carlisle Lane, Virgil Street and Centaur Street. This relatively recent addition has turned into a historical landmark very fast. When friends from out of town visit, the Blake mosaics are one of the things I show them.
If you walk down Lambeth Road and make a left just before Albert Embankment you come to Lambeth High Street. I discovered this street in 2004 when I first moved into the area. High street, you call it? It’s characterised by the lowest of murmurs. A hush settles upon an area that is only yard from the constant rumble of traffic on the Albert Embankment.
It’s an eerie spot. The background noise of machinery completing the towers at Nine Elms contrasts with this subdued little street that was once was bustling; its row of shops once included a boat-building workshop as well as a grocery. Before I even knew about the history, I always felt there was much more going on here than what met the eye or ear. The barrier between now and then feels indeed very thin – just as Mr Machen found in certain squares in Holborn, Bloomsbury and Stoke Newington…
Down the high street you find a small park that was known as Lambeth Recreation Ground. Now it is Old Paradise Gardens. It had once been a burial ground for cholera victims and parts of the pavement and boundaries on the paths are made from old grave stones. It is surrounded by a well-kept council estate on three sides and bordered by Lambeth High Street on the other. Over the road there was a tower where guards once maintained a lookout against grave robbers.
Down to the corner of Black Prince Road is the old Doulton pottery building, now called Southbank House. This building features some extraordinary tiles along its walls: geometrical floral designs similar to Celtic knots in blue, purple and green glazes. Cylinders adorned with wheat and foliage designs cover other surfaces. Above the door, a frieze depicts people making and selling crockery, including a woman with a cat sitting under her chair as she paints on a pot.
Despite the number of times I’ve passed here, it’s only recently I’ve discovered the full extent of this building’s intricate design. About six months ago I across a website with photos of gargoyles and owls that crouch along its upper ledges, plus a shocked face with a toothy gaping ‘O’ of a mouth. Had I not been observant or looked up high enough? There’s always something to discover here.
Going west you come to Vauxhall. This was once an area of squats and derelict sites, stowed next to one of the biggest and most unpleasant roundabouts in London. I lived around here between 1981 and 1986. Two adjacent squares, Vauxhall Grove and Bonnington Square, were being emptied out and then left to rot in the 1970s. However, they were squatted and rehabilitated and various initiatives sprung up, including a community cafe and garden. A house on the corner was taken over for gigs and events. The cafe still gets write-ups in Time Out as a ‘hidden gem’.
Bonnington Square links Diane, the protagonist of “Lambeth North”, and Daniel in “The Pleasure Garden”. They both lived in this square but at different times. Daniel hasn’t been there for a few years and he’s astounded by what he sees from the train when commuting to a freelance stint for a publisher based in Teddington: a massive building site on both sides. And there he sees someone who looks familiar skipping along the scaffolding, a lithe young man very recognisable and unchanged from the old days of a now-defunct gay pub called the Pleasure Garden. Could this be more than an old flame, but the very tangible and attractive spirit of queer Vauxhall?
I’ve written other stories that touch upon this area: “These Boots” describes a move from Brixton and a bright pink pair of boots that makes a walk between there and somewhere else entirely. “Living in the Vertical World” is a near-future exploration of what happens when some of those towers at Nine Elms end up empty… squatting and vertical DIY agriculture perhaps? And in “The Peak” we cross the river to Millbank Tower and the time it was occupied in anti-austerity demonstrations in 2010.
“The Pleasure Garden”, “Lambeth North”, “These Boots”, “Living in the Vertical World” and “These Boots” appear in my collection Resonance & Revolt, published by Eibonvale Press and nominated for the British Fantasy Award. (https://www.eibonvalepress.co.uk/books/books_resonance.htm).
Paperback at Amazon:
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Paperback at Amazon:https://www.amazon.co.uk/Resonance-Revolt-Rosanne-Rabinowitz/dp/1908125519/