A Village Called Camberwell: the South London Neighbourhood Where Community Comes First

The London borough of Camberwell pairs top-notch foodie kudos with a longstanding community-focused outlook. A new grocery store, opening this month, continues the tradition.

During the first throws of the pandemic, food stores became our connection to the community beyond our front door. Timid and tentative, we'd edge down our street towards the butcher and baker and candlestick maker (poetic licence firmly engaged) in order to fill our fridges, but also to reconnect with a world that had become shut off and distant overnight. Independent corner stores became one of the few public spaces we could inhabit beyond the four walls of our home, the traditional grocery shops once dismissed in place of convenience offering a precious opportunity for human connection.

It was something Stanley Allen and James Dye both noticed. The south London duo, stalwarts of the city's restaurant scene, noticed the change when independent shops became community lynchpins. "We saw suppliers having a hard time, but we also saw a need for people to be able to go out and still enjoy some kind of food and drink experience during the pandemic," Stanley explains.

Stanley Allen and James Dye, the founders of Gladwell's in Camberwell
The site of Gladwell's, Camberwell's new community-focused grocery store

Inspired, the pair decided to launch their own shop, Gladwell's, which opens next week. A grocery store, deli and off licence on Camberwell Church Street, it will champion small-scale producers based in the capital. Formerly a bank, then a solicitors' office, the building the shop is taking over has been a mainstay of the neighbourhood for generations, albeit one of the grand old ladies that south Londoners scuttle past en route to the bus stop without a second glance. The Gladwell's team are restoring the space, making the most of its fine Edwardian features by maintaining the double-height windows and art nouveau facade.

If you’re going to open a business, you have a responsibility to be part of the community and give back in meaningful ways

Importantly, Stanley and James wanted to build on what they saw as a strong community ethos in the area. Weekly grocery boxes will be available for home delivery, with £5 from the sale of each going to the St Giles Trust's Pantry, one of the area's social justice charities.

"If you're going to open a business, you have a responsibility to be part of the community and give back in meaningful ways," Stanley says. "We wanted to do something that wasn't tokenistic. As a food business, helping to combat food poverty and food inequality felt appropriate." They landed on the St Giles Trust after hearing about its pandemic initiative, the Pantry, which works in a similar way to a food bank, but with people being given a choice about what they want to go in and buy, at a subsidised rate. In future, Gladwell's has longer-term ambitions to work with the trust on employment training, weaving the shop into the Camberwell community's fabric.

FROG Bakery's selection of sweet treats
Oliver and Rebecca, the founders of FROG Bakery

Stanley sees Camberwell as an overlooked south London district; the quiet crawlspace between the two boisterous neighbourhoods of Brixton and Peckham. To some, it's just a stop on the 436 bus. "Out of all the neighbourhoods in south-east London, it didn't have an independent grocery," he says. "It's such a known destination for food and drink if you want to go out to eat, but it didn't have that place to buy produce."

Gladwell's will stock products from small businesses across London, with an ambition to offer, where possible, hyperlocal goods made - literally - just down the road. Bread, for example, will come from the new FROG Bakery, just around the corner. Cheese and eggs will be provided by the city's Neal's Yard Dairy and Mons Cheesemonger.

Cheese on offer at Camberwell's new grocery store, Gladwell's
Bread on offer at Camberwell's new grocery store, Gladwell's

You'll find other community projects popping up elsewhere in the old borough, too. Camberwell's residents - a ragtag collation of art students, historic diaspora groups and young professionals - has long fostered establishments and institutions that serve local needs. The South London Gallery, while showcasing internationally renowned art, remains a local space at heart; beloved boozers happily accommodate grizzled regulars beside mulleted art students, offering a sanctuary to all in a city famed for fuelling loneliness. Well-established mom-and-pop-style restaurants - such as Silk Road, which serves up Xinjiang cuisine - are just as popular as the more recent PR-hyped spots nearby. It's common to compare areas of London to villages, but for Camberwell, the metaphor fits. Charming, leafy, and lacking a tube stop, life has a slower pace, and a friendlier face, in this "Ginger Line" neighbourhood.

Where to eat, drink and hang out in Camberwell, London

To Eat

Food and beer at The Camberwell Arms

bar

The Camberwell Arms

London, United Kingdom

James Dye of Gladwell's had a hand in pushing this column-fronted pub-turned-eatery to the fore of the area's food scene. Portions are generous and dishes rich in Levantine flavours: think grilled mackerel served on a bed of charred leek with preserved lemon, and blushing lamb leg steak surrounded by chickpeas and cime di rapa. Sunday lunch options - served to share in the family way - include aged Hereford rump, slow-cooked beef osso buco and crisped up roast pork belly.

Address

65 Camberwell Church St London SE5 8TR

Food at Nandine in Camberwell, London
Image credit: Grace Lund

restaurant

Nandine

South-east London's Kurdish community has been busy of late - case in point being the candlelit Hanar Kurdish Restaurant, opposite Peckham Rye station, with its excellent BYOB offering. But this pastel-painted SE5 spot is the area's pride and joy, beloved by food critics and Camberwell Church Street regulars alike. Run by a Kurdish family, mum, Pary Baban, is in the kitchen, sending out vibrant mezze plates. Expect everything from börek to baklava and - in the mornings - excellent breakfasts.

Address

45 Camberwell Church St, SE5 8TR

Pizza at Camberwell restaurant, Theo's

restaurant

Theo’s

Pies worth prioritising, those served at Theo's are heat-speckled by the wood-fired oven, their crust exactingly crisped on top, with just-caramelised tomatoes and puddles of molten mozzarella to boot. Round things off nicely with the superb tiramisu - a decadent, cream-layered coffee delight.

Address

2 Grove Lane, SE5 8SY

Xinjiang noodles

restaurant

Silk Road

Camberwell's beloved Chinese restaurant is best experienced as a group: step past the steamed-up windows and huddle around one of the long, wooden communal tables to feast on specialities from the Xinjiang province. The boiled lamb (a hunk of rich, creamy meat doused in onion sauce) is a classic group favourite, but we'd recommend ordering a few portions of the fried noodles and red snapper kebabs, too.

Address

49 Camberwell Church Street SE5 8TR

To Drink

Crullers at Corner Store, in Camberwell, London

restaurant

Corner Store

Does anyone know where the Peckham-Camberwell border sits? It's hazy, but we're hoping the invisible divide lassoes this laid-back neighbourhood coffee shop into the Camberwell portion. Coffees, cakes, coolers and crullers are the mainstays of the all-day menu at this airy café. What's a cruller, you cry? A deep-fried, doughnut-like pastry in various exotic flavour combos, of course. Come on a weekend morning to sample the excellent breakfast menu. We're talking banana bread french toast, and thick-as-Kim's-hips lox salmon bagel sandwiches, with lashings of cream cheese.

Address

31 Peckham Rd, SE5 8UH

The interior of Good Neighbour, Camberwell, London

bar

Good Neighbour

Shrugging off viticultural pretensions, this cosy wine bar is the aperitif stop of choice for bottle buffs dining out in Camberwell. Squeezed between a low-key sushi joint and a poster-plastered vacant storefront, the bar's diminutive window booths are packed out by Thursday evening. Head in to sample Old and New World bins, well-balanced cocktails and moreish snacking plates.

Address

21 Camberwell Church St, SE5 8TR

To Do

A musician playing at Jazzlive at the Crypt in Camberwell, London
Image credit: Daniel Devlin / @susakpress

bar

Jazzlive at the Crypt

London, United Kingdom

Every Friday and Saturday, the gothic arches of the crypt beneath St Giles church reverberate with the syncopated rhythms and soulful blues notes of south London's best jazz musicians. Running since 1995, it's a regular haunt for some of the city's top improv masters, and so beloved across the community that the organisers were recently awarded "Freedom of the Old Borough of Camberwell" in acknowledgement of how their work enriches the community.

Address

St Giles Church Camberwell Church Street SE5 8JB

To Shop

Baklava

shopping

Sophocles Bakery

You'll smell this popular Greek-Cypriot bakery before you see it, the morning air filled with the inviting aroma of warm yeast. Sophocles is a gastronomic temple for a fading Camberwell community, but grey-haired, coffee-slurping morning regulars continue to frequent the store, holding the stretched edges of a once thriving south London diaspora together, as honey binds the filo pastry in the bakery's excellent baklava. Shuffle between the chin-waggers to order a generously filled sandwich - they come packed with Cypriot ingredients.

Address

24 Camberwell Church St, SE5 8QU

Rat Records in Camberwell, London

shopping

Rat Records

Join Camberwell's musically inclined thumbing through cardboard sleeves at this secondhand record store, which opened in 1999. Owner Tom Fisher travels across the country to source vinyl for his shelves, resulting in an eclectic collection of records that stretches from 80s cult pop classic to reggae, rock, garage, funk and more. Ask if you're overwhelmed - the staff are generous with their recommendations.

Address

348 Camberwell New Rd, SE5 0RW

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