Feb 07, 2018
It’s only a short walk from Tower Bridge but Bermondsey feels like London’s best-kept secret. Once a slum area immortalised in Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist, its wharves, warehouses and railway arches have been regenerated into hip bars, cafés and galleries.
Topnotch restaurants, a thriving street food market and a flourishing craft beer industry have combined to create a culinary hotspot with a fiercely independent spirit.
The heart of the area is Bermondsey Street, with its buzzing village atmosphere and streetscape of Victorian shopfronts and old warehouses. “What’s special about this area is that it has rejuvenated itself without losing its character,” says Dale Gibson of Bermondsey Street Bees, which produces honey.
Norman Ackroyd, one of Britain’s best landscape artists, was an early convert to the district’s charms, buying an old Victorian leather factory here in 1983. Back then, Bermondsey was a no-go area – the parks were dumps and the streets run-down – but Ackroyd was happy. “I liked the architecture, the history and how central it was,” he says. He’s seen warehouses turned into apartments, and shops and restaurants move in. “I have fantastic French and Spanish restaurants 50 yards from my house.”
Evocative street names – Tanner, Morocco, Leathermarket – recall the area’s leather-trade past. “It has such heart,” says Laura Sullivan, who is co-founder of gin producer Little Bird and runs a speakeasy-style bar. “You can sense its dense and dark history.”
It’s not the easiest area to navigate and many of the bars and cafés are tucked away through viaducts and down cobblestoned alleyways, Little Bird included. But the sense of discovery only adds to the experience. “Bermondsey’s like that,” says Sullivan, “as if you’ve discovered something secret.”
Kickstart your day at The Watch House on Bermondsey Street – a café in a whitewashed 19th-century guard house originally used by watchmen protecting the graveyard next door from body-snatchers. The building has been beautifully renovated with oak counters and Victorian floor tiles, while the exposed-brick walls and blazing fire mean it’s the cosiest spot around for a caffeine fix. If the weather is favourable, take a seat at one of the outdoor tables overlooking the pretty churchyard of St Mary Magdalen, where parts of the tower date back to the 13th century, making it the oldest building in Bermondsey.
Suitably fortified, go for a walk along the banks of the River Thames between London Bridge and Tower Bridge. Head towards Hay’s Galleria (1 Battle Bridge Lane), a restored 19th- century warehouse and wharf where tea clippers from China and India once docked. Turn right on the riverside boulevard and enjoy panoramic views across to the city on the north bank of the Thames. A clutch of dramatic, contemporary high-rise buildings dominates the skyline, including Norman Foster’s Gherkin and 20 Fenchurch Street, known as the Walkie-Talkie, designed by Uruguayan architect Rafael Viñoly in 2004. Somewhat more low-rise but still impressive, the sprawling white Georgian building that is Custom House is the hub for tax collection in the United Kingdom.
On your way to Tower Bridge, you’ll pass HMS Belfast moored on the river. This decommissioned Royal Navy ship is open to the public and is great fun to look around. A little further on is the Bridge Theatre, London’s first new theatre of scale for about 80 years. At Tower Bridge itself, pop in to the exhibition to marvel at the huge Victorian engines once used to power the lifting of the bridge.
When it’s time for lunch, loop away from the river. On the weekend, there’s no better place to eat and shop than at the delectable Maltby Street Market, hidden away on Ropewalk, a narrow lane fronted by rows of industrial Victorian railway arches. The space is packed with stalls selling an impeccable selection of London’s most delicious street food and local produce.
For a grab-and-go lunch, graze the 20 or so street food stalls at the market, such as The Gyoza Guys (delicious doughy dumplings), African Volcano (towering burgers with Mozambique-style hot sauce) and The Cheese Truck (toasted sandwiches oozing with artisanal cheeses; the Cropwell Bishop stilton with bacon and pear chutney is a favourite). Top it off with a sweet fudgy treat from the beloved Bad Brownie stall.
Prefer to sit down? There are several brilliant options in the arches for a relaxed lunch, including 40 Maltby Street, a chic little wine bar with a distressed, industrial look – think exposed-brick walls, polished concrete floors and pallets as tables. It’s run by a wine importer so the back half of the arch is piled high with crates awaiting delivery. The small yet lovingly prepared menu changes daily but will often include a flavoursome fish stew with tomato, fennel and aïoli.
Don’t leave Maltby Street without having a decent poke around the LASSCO warehouse in arch 37 at the top of the street. It’s a treasure-trove of vintage furniture, artworks and collectables with a quirky café and restaurant.
It’s back to Bermondsey Street for a relaxed adventure, browsing the unique shops and galleries. First stop is the uber-minimalist White Cube, one of the world’s most influential contemporary art galleries representing modern luminaries such as Tracey Emin, Damien Hirst and Gilbert & George. The vast space occupies a stark 1970s warehouse and is worth a look for its sheer, gleaming scale.
Walk a little further to the Fashion and Textile Museum with its striking orange and hot-pink exterior designed by Mexican architect Ricardo Legorreta. Founded by fashion designer Zandra Rhodes, the museum hosts excellent exhibitions; coming up is an exploration of the history and culture of the T-shirt, followed by an exhibition devoted to the work of Irish designer Orla Kiely.
Now for some retail therapy. Don’t miss Mary’s Living & Giving Shop, a charity store selling gorgeous designer pieces, or London Glassblowing, where you can see contemporary glass artists in action. Lovely and British (132a Bermondsey Street) has a fun mix of UK-made jewellery, gifts and homewares, while 167 Bermondsey sells beautiful men’s shirts designed by shop co-owner and former Burberry designer Michael McGrath. If you’re feeling hungry, Giddy Grocer is a traditional grocery store with an enticing selection of fine local produce. It offers a weekday lunch box of ham, roasted meat or cheese with a hunk of sourdough and chutney for £6.50 (about $11.50).
Late afternoon is the perfect time for a palate cleanser so it’s over to Bermondsey’s thriving microbrewery district. Start
on atmospheric Druid Street, where boutique breweries
have taken over many of the Victorian brick railway arches. Most have basic taprooms
(with trestle tables and benches) and are open for tastings in the latter part of the week. Known as the Bermondsey Beer Mile, the 2.4-kilometre path weaves down the lanes and alleys of
the neighbourhood and takes
in Southwark Brewing Co., Anspach & Hobday, Brew by Numbers and Partizan Brewing, finishing at Fourpure Brewing Co. next to South Bermondsey Station.
Time for cocktails. Head to Ropewalk for an aperitif at Little Bird, Laura Sullivan’s darling gin bar. Cocooned in a cosy railway arch, it’s all vintage chic with deep-red table lamps, mismatched timber furniture and fresh flowers spilling from cut-glass vases. The cocktails are made using small-batch Little Bird London Dry Gin and served with a signature slice of grapefruit.
Choosing a restaurant for dinner on Bermondsey Street is a difficult business. The tiny and much-loved Casse-Croûte serves authentic Gallic fare in a bijou bistro setting. The tables are closely packed, the tablecloths are regulation French red check and the blackboard menu (posted online) changes daily.
Down the road is José, a convivial tapas and sherry bar set up by acclaimed Spanish chef José Pizarro. Diners cram into the tiny corner shopfront to feast on authentic jamón Ibérico, Padrón peppers, croquetas and daily specials. It’s standing room only when busy but that just adds to the fun.
If you’re up for a nightcap, head to The Woolpack pub. Once a colourful local for dock workers, it has been gentrified but still retains a charming “old Bermondsey” feel with its tiled frontage and leather banquettes. If the night is clear, there’s a lovely garden with fairy lights out the back.
Photography by Celia Topping
SEE ALSO: First-timer's Guide to London