Where's good to live in London?
By Jenny Rowe
New to London? Let our writers paint a picture of each area for you.
Google will tell you that Croydon is a good example of bad town planning - “New York built in Poland” - basically good for nothing except its transport links. Actually, Croydon is a great example of why you shouldn't judge a book by its cover.
It’s the kind of book that might put you off with a crude title and a brash graphic, which both intrigues and intimidates you in equal measure. You’ll want to read it but you’ll have your doubts, opting instead for comfortingly popular names like the most recent Val McDermid or Sally Rooney’s newest. But don’t let the publisher’s bad choices obscure the author’s brilliance. The problem with Croydon is that it used to have a bad rep and nowadays it’s misunderstood. Probably because it’s loud, it’s mad and it scares you off before you can get close enough to see it. You don’t really know what Croydon is like until you’ve lived there.
Let’s begin with those preliminary pages, or what you might see in a whistle-stop tour. I’d be lying if I didn’t start with the high-rise flats - that architectural monstrosity (I prefer controversy) that is the purple and red Saffron Tower, and the aesthetically-displeasing but affectionately-named ‘50p building’, aka the grey office block that greets as you step into the sunshine out of the din that is East Croydon station.
These intrusive landmarks are the crusts of Croydon: the worst parts, but necessary, because they’re the bits that’ll make your hair curly.
With a population of about 380,000, if it were a city, Croydon would be the 13th largest in the UK (beating Coventry, Leicester and Newcastle). Its own tram system has been trundling since 2000, giving it the autonomy deserved by virtue of its sheer size (even if it is still denied city status). It doesn’t rely on London for anything. There are thriving running, athletics, swimming and tri clubs. There are also options for yoga, lots of gyms, an Ikea, retail parks and hotels.
Hooked? Explore further still, and you’ll discover the more complex and sensitive nuances of the story. Croydon is confused; it’s a cosmopolitan-countryside hybrid city, with one hand still held by its traditional, sedentary neighbours in Surrey, namely Purley, Addington and Coulsdon. Then, though the ginger line dribbles into West Croydon almost as an afterthought, Croydon itself, stubborn and ambitious, forges its own high-pressure arterial channel into the heart of London by way of the rail connection. With its other hand then, Croydon grapples towards the big boys: London Bridge, Clapham Junction, Victoria and Gatwick Airport, all of which are no more than 15 minutes away, bringing a new demographic to the melting pot, and one thirsty for entertainment.
Vulnerable to the tidal wave of city workers who pour out of the station and onto its streets each evening, this Surrey-esque suburbia was easily persuaded to begin its next chapter with gentrification. It was bullied into getting a buzzing Boxpark - bigger and better than Shoreditch’s original version - a new climbing wall and F45 fitness studio, and looming on the horizon is the promise of Croydon’s very own Westfield centre (proof that if a concept does well elsewhere in the capital, they’ll soon come knocking on Croydon’s door).
The media now claim that Croydon is on the brink of a boom; a sleek phoenix rising from a downtrodden dump of ashes.
Of course, flashy boasts like these are impressive and important, but blind many to the fact that Croydon remains surprisingly and gloriously green and hilly. Selsdon Nature Reserve is ten minutes south-east and the sprawling wilderness of Lloyd Park, a stubborn statement of its Surrey-ian credentials, is a parkrunner’s paradise - a proper cross-country challenge and the most difficult London route there is. Croydonners don’t need no tarmac tracks.
Ostensibly made of tougher stuff, it’s the characters that give this chronicle the most credit; the people who make its streets and bus rides more enjoyable and friendlier than any other.
Nowhere else would you see a grown man in a dinosaur fancy-dress tail and headdress running for the train at eight in the morning. Or an older man, eating an ice cream in sub-zero temperatures and driving sleet. Or a man on crutches struggling to walk but choosing to do so down the middle of the road and a woman, laughing, trying to persuade him that he should opt for the pavement. In Croydon, an elderly lady, dressed to impress at the crack of dawn with metallic eyeshadow, hair in pigtails and sparkly pink socks, walks her tiny dog on a washing-line-long extendable lead. Meanwhile in Croydon, another lady kisses a cat that’s not hers every morning as she walks to work. Only in Croydon.
And the Croydonian families! If you’re ever travelling through central London and spot the kind of sweet familial interactions that make you break into an involuntary smile - a grandma applying bright red lipstick to a gleeful toddler on the Northern Line or a father helping his daughter write her diary on the train - you can bet your bottom dollar that they’re on their way home to Croydon.
Like any great book, Croydon is revelatory. You’ll learn about the world and about yourself. This surely must be what life is all about. Living in Croydon is an experience in itself. And those experiences are by no means limited to the typically “London” theatre shows, brunches and craft workshops. In fact, you won’t find many of these. Instead there are countless barbers, multi-cultural supermarkets and fruit and veg stalls. Croydon doesn’t do swanky, or even cool when it comes to restaurants. It’s all-you-can-eat Chinese, Vietnamese done proper, or don’t eat at all. Go elsewhere for a taste of yuppie life.
In reality, Croydon isn’t the up-and-coming city clone some imagine; it will always be a grotesquely beautiful amalgamation of soulful Surrey and lively London.
A mixed bag: nothing fits together, so everyone fits in. Truthfully, it’s the kind of book you might be reluctant to get out on the tube because you’re not quite sure how you’d be judged. But that’s no excuse. Dare to read it anyway or you’ll never find out what it has to teach you. Maybe it will change your life - and then there’ll be no stopping the recommendations.