I’m finding it extremely difficult of late to define the location in London where I live. It’s not quite Stockwell; it’s not The Oval either (wherever / whatever that might be…) Vauxhall is slightly wayward off my radar.
But within the geographic boundaries of the Stockwell / Oval / Vauxhall Triangle, there lies a definite identity that is unique to this area. That self-awareness isn’t a physical manifestation, but a cultural, possibly even spiritual presence around SW8.
Yeah, yeah – sixth form psycho-geographic babblings at a base level. But there is something to be said for the theories of Iain Sinclair, Peter Ackroyd and yes, even Will Self, the Stockwell urban literary landscaper supreme.
Of course every micro local patch in London is unique, but I feel a real sense of personal calling to the figures of past and present that I see and imagine around me in Stockwell.
This emotion has no doubt heightened in recent days with the discovery of the illuminating Victorian photos, shot right outside my doorstep that landed in my inbox. They have awakened a stream of thought within, observing every brick wall, blocked out window or even rogue road markings, leaving me pondering the social history of the very same streets that I am walking right now.
The feel of the SW8 triangle is most certainly not urban; it is far from rural as well. There is a balance bought about by the co-existence of diverse groups or organisations, people and nationalities, and even buildings and architecture. Look around the area and you will find examples of this paradox at every opportunity.
The St Peter’s Residence of the Little Sisters of the Poor, proudly sits adjacent to The Oval cricket ground. On Test match days, the enterprising women of the cloth have no shame in pimping out their car park for lovers of bat and ball at £10 a pop. Two very different organisations, both united by a form of religion and worship.
Stockwell may not have an identity but it most certainly has a smell. The old Marmite factory is long gone, taking away the aroma of the thick black stuff wafting southbound across the borough. But the scent of SW8 now is something all the more sweeter.
Once again it is a hybrid, comprised of two different sources and somehow making sense, only in Stockwell. The lovely lavender garden at the epicentre of Vauxhall Park provides a fragrance for the area, flaming open South London nostrils with every delicate blowing of the lavender scent around Stockwell. You can pick this scent up as you first cross Vauxhall Bridge, and then still be riding high with the sensation when you’re halfway down Fentiman Road.
Not so much competing, but almost contemplating the roots and shoots aroma of the lavenders is that of the rich smell of cakes, pastry and bread being baked. If Stockwell has any one defining industry right now, it is that of the finest pastries in all of London. The stretch of Little Porto along South Lambeth Road is pastry heaven. I feel like I have died and gone to custard cream heaven whenever I’m doing the South Lambeth Walk.
Keep striding down towards South Island Place, and the scent thickens with Di Lieto’s fine olive bread – a smell so irresistible that Lambeth Council even tried to ban it. The Council lost of course. You can take away our public libraries, but keep yer thieving local authority hands off our olive bread.
Ah, South Island Place – a pyschogeogrpaher’s wet dream. The road itself is a heavily fortified street furniture rat run between Brixton Road and the Clap’ham Road. Maybe this is the source of the intrigue, a passage that tries to unite the madness of Brixton with the Bright Young Things of SW4.
Above ground and South Island Place is relatively insignificant. There’s a strange old lock up adorned with the fading glamour of art deco mosaics lighting up any traveller at the Western approach of the Place. But below ground and South Island Place encapsulates the spirit of Stockwell.
The Northern Line sidings that run directly below are the last resting place for the ghost of the SW8 tube tunnel worker. Defined by the carrying of a Tilly lamp, a flame is kept burning for the industrial past of the area, lighting up the subterranean reaches of Stockwell for the past fifty years. Underground, overground – South Island Place is another examples of two worlds colliding within one area.
Perhaps it is the proximity to the river that helps to form the unique sense of Stockwell. It’s a ten minute walk to Vauxhall and the more repugnant aroma of South London’s lavatories being flushed out and carried downstream. Vauxhall has an industrial tidal heritage. This trickles down towards Stockwell, but is not the defining feature.
The old factories for the fishmongers can still be seen along Palfrey Place, now converted into the painfully trendy urban living spaces. And so not quite a riverside catchment area, but still somehow showing signs of an aquatic existence. If Stockwell were a sea creature, it would be a mermaid – half in and half out of the water.
Of course it’s the community that really defines the area. And that definition is one that is impossible to linguistically define. People are people, shaped by their surroundings, bonded together in an urban patch and finding their own ways of managing their existence around the immediate local environment.
I’m perpetually torn between a love / hate relationship with Stockwell. It’s a give and take situation, and one that I’m sure I’ll miss once I’m gone. Forever searching to find Stockwell, continually surprised when I don’t.