LONDON, April 20 — Fifteen years ago, Londoners would have quailed at the thought of stepping out onto the mean streets of Brixton.
Head the wrong way, and you might have found yourself among gangsters, prostitutes and pimps. Small businesses would have had grilles up on their windows and doors, while school children would pass by drug dealers on the street on their way home.
How things have changed.
Although some bemoan the gentrification that has hit Brixton — and it is, by far, not the only London district to be affected by such change — London postcode area SW2 and SW9 is undeniably safer, cleaner, and more friendly.
And one of the best things about the area is that it remains culturally diverse, much like Singapore, with strong community ties. Once you are part of the Brixtonian family, you feel yourself to be safe, and at home.
I moved to London six years ago, and there was no question that I would be a Brixton girl. My partner had been living in the area since 2008, and I had grown to love the area in my many visits to see him.
Change took hold firmly in 2011, when the iconic Brixton Village Market, (10-11, 8LB, Coldharbour Lane, London SW9) was reformed. It rose from the ashes of what was formerly the old traders’ market, which had then been declared a heritage site, by virtue of its cultural importance and contribution to the social and economic history of Brixton.
It has since flourished, and now houses a mix of traders, old and new. Today, market stalwarts will meet all your meat, fish, vegetable and giant land snail needs; the new guard have brought with them restaurants, cafes, bars and niche boutiques. The market’s renaissance was the main catalyst for the revival of Brixton, and its transformation.
Although it would be impossible to run through every place I think you have to visit, I will give it a go.
Before beginning your day, I would advise changing your English pounds to the local currency, the Brixton Pound. The Brixton-only currency was devised to keep money within the community, and is printed with the visages of local landmarks and residents made good — think David Bowie and Chicago Bulls basketballer Luol Deng. The best way to get your hands on the currency is to obtain some from the Brixton-Pound vending machine located at the Electric lane entrance of Brixton Market.
Food for thought
Brixton is now home to a buzzing food scene, but you do have to know where to go.
I would begin the day with a bit of breakfast at Burnt Toast Cafe (Unit 88, Brixton Village Market). The French toast, baptised in maple syrup and topped with honeycomb crumbles and bacon, is guaranteed to add sunshine to any grey London day.
A quick step outside the market takes you to Bookmongers (439 Coldharbour Lane,SW9 8LN), a cosy, secondhand bookstore stuffed with a great selection of books, from old Christmas editions of Dandy comics to Russian classics. Although the space may seem a bit of a muddle, just ask the owner for what you are looking for, and he will unerringly point you in the right direction. Remember to give a cuddle to the resident bookstore dog, Rosa.
Digestive break over, I would suggest a snack of juicy dumplings at Mama Lan’s (Unit 18, Brixton Village Market), the beef and carrot ones being a personal favourite. Then toddle over to Federation Coffee for the best flat white in South London and a gooey salted caramel brownie. You will always find the inevitable regular seated there, who will discuss just how much Brixton has changed.
Taking a respite from the village, I would take a stroll down to the David Bowie mural on the side of the Morley’s Department Store (472-488 Brixton Rd, Brixton, London SW9 8EH) on Brixton High Street. This iconic mural was front and centre for Bowie fans to pay their tributes at when the beloved, Brixton-born musician died last year.
I like checking out the new messages and mementoes that are still being left by fans.
Or I would head over to Brockwell Park (Norwood Rd, London SE24 9BJ), to walk off some calories and take in one of the views of London from the top of the Brockwell Hill. The park has the honour of hosting the annual, well-loved Lambeth Country Show, and you truly have not lived until you have seen the dancing sheep. The fair is on July 16 and 17 this year, and you will also find live music, as well as locally made cider, homemade cakes and other refreshments.
Back for a pint
Walking and exploring is thirsty work, so slake your thirst with a pint at the Effra Hall Tavern (38 Kellett Rd, Brixton, London SW2 1EB). This watering hole hosts amazing live music nights, where bands blast out anything from ska to jazz once the sun sets.
Come dinnertime, if Brixton Village lures me back, I will usually head for the granddaddy of the Village food joints, Franco Manca Pizza (4 Market Row, London SW9 8LD). The Neapolitan-style sourdough pizza is all tasty, chewy goodness, with toppings sourced from the best in British and Italian produce, and none costing more than £9 (RM50.65). If your taste buds are craving some heat, there is always KaoSarn (Unit 2, Brixton Village Market) for cheap, cheerful and completely authentic Thai food. Its Tom Yam Kway Teow has nursed me back to life from many a hangover.
If there is a special occasion (birthdays, parental visits, your cat turning one, etc), pay a visit to the Naughty Piglets (28 Brixton Water Lane, Brixton, London SW2 1PE). Every dish in this husband-and-wife run Anglo-French wine bar and bistro is sublime, and the wine list is lovingly curated. The staff are genuinely warm, very knowledgeable, and could not care less if you walked in wearing flip-flops or an evening gown.
The other alternative is the all-in-one Pop Brixton (49 Brixton Station Rd, Brixton, London SW9 8PQ). Something of a mini-Brixton Village, this is one of those places with constant music being played, either on the sound system or via a live band. All the restaurants, bars and shops are housed in converted shipping containers.
It has its own restaurant gems, a personal favourite being the Basque-style taparia, Donostia Social Club. Head there for tapas that rival any from San Sebastian and cheeky banter with the blokes behind the bar.
I would wind up the night with a nightcap at the legendary Ritzy Cinema (Brixton Oval, Coldharbour Lane, Brixton SW2 1JG). Opened in 1911, it is one of the oldest purpose-built cinemas in England, and still going strong to this day. The cinema bar is always bustling and occasionally hosts bands or spoken-word poetry nights.
So, if you ever find yourself in London, I hope you take a day out of the usual tourist spots and spend a day in my neighbourhood. You might very well like it. — TODAY