Where's good to live in London?

#1 DULWICH

By Jonny Finlay

13.01.19

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Imagine a big house. The sort of building most of us would not recognise as a “house” but would instinctively call a mansion or a castle. This house has stood on the same spot (as houses do) for decades, maybe even centuries, and the refined old married couple who live there look like they have too. But they don’t get it to themselves. To their frustration and cost, but nonetheless occasional shameful delight, their wayward child still lives with them despite having ceased to be a “child” in anything but emotional maturity. The child lives barricaded in their bedroom facing the property’s eastern perimeter, and every so often leans perilously out their window to holler at the cool kids in the converted council estate beyond the fence. The parents feel like their genteel arcadia is colliding with an altogether younger, noisier and less settled world.

Anyone who has only ever known the parent “Dulwich”, that strange land of colleges and woodlands, picture galleries and village greens, with its eerie tranquillity amidst the whirl and rush of the metropolis, could never imagine its unruly millennial progeny to the east. But that is what East Dulwich is, what it seems determined to be in the face of its parent’s tutting disapproval.

 

It’s never really clear when you stop being in East Dulwich and start being in Camberwell or Peckham – if anything, the change of scenery is starker on passing through the beautiful park into Dulwich “proper”. Like a self-indulgent humanities postgraduate with a broad theoretical understanding but no settled ideas of their own, “East Dul” revels in this liminality. You almost imagine you could wake up tomorrow and East Dulwich would be in a slightly different place, but nobody would notice because nobody was sure where it was to begin with. Like the bright young things who inhabit its myriad period conversions, it’s just taking one day at a time, but has mastered the art of looking like it belongs.

This resoluteness of youthful identity coalesces around the throbbing artery that is Lordship Lane, which in its vague boundaries and eclectic architecture constitutes a playful middle finger (think Kate Winslet in the lift down to steerage) toward the Ordnance Survey picturesque Dulwich Village. So, while Dulwich Village has the elegant Rocca Di Papa for the anniversary dinner, Lordship Lane swaggers up with Franco Manca – the sourdough Neapolitan upstart beloved of sprightly artists and junior consultants. Gail’s Bakery in the Village might be the perfect place for a respectable rose cake and Earl Grey, but the heart would sooner race at the hedonistic promise of Oddono’s organic gelato down the Lane. There is an M&S, yes, and there is also a Co-op for that retro social democrat feel. But the real stars of the street are the numerous independent grocers stocking all those unpronounceable superfood shibboleths that no twenty-something’s larder should be without, and which the supermarkets will struggle to accommodate. They also let you pretend that we still live in a nation of shopkeepers, whose harissa-lined dugouts will be the last line of defence when the Ocado ordering system finally gains sentience and instigates total war on all human interaction.

I must now tendentiously mention some irrelevant and not unique bugbears – the gym, although gloriously free of charge to Southwark residents on weekends, appears to have piped in its air conditioning from a sauna in Nairobi, and all of Dulwich falls victim to South London’s iniquitous dearth of Tube connections – for the sole purpose of then being able to raise undoubtedly the finest achievement of ED civilisation. The East Dulwich Forum (or EDF as it is known to those in-the-know) appears to be an online message board, but is in fact a sort of anarcho-syndicalist laboratory. Although organised by some well-meaning people into thematic “categories”, it is really a complete free-for-all in which everything is discussed, from freecycling offers, to internet connectivity, to celebrity sightings in Franklins Farm Shop, to – and I troll you not – a game of word association which has been running non-stop for nine years. It’s basically reddit for people who prefer to have some real-world point of reference, and with its endearing early-noughties interface, it feels more authentically like a “community” than any glitzy social media experience. Just don’t look at the lost pet threads – it will destroy you.

East Dulwich, then, is the gregarious, bubbly, party-going and slightly kooky offspring of the Dulwich family. It’s kept at an aloof distance from the moyenne bourgeoisie of The Village – they may bump into one another in the kitchen (when ED isn’t just ordering in a Meat Liquor), but they’re careful not to sing too loudly in the shower. And yet one suspects that North, South and West, like the genteel parents who started our story, every so often permit themselves a guilty smile at the hipsterish exploits of their rambunctious seedling. After all, they were young once, and they quite like the idea that East Dulwich will be forever.

Image by rachbailey85

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