New business in an unusual location: AL Coffee Roasters, a Colombian coffee roastery on Culvert Road

We’ve written about Culvert Road before. The rather dismal tunnel, and set of storage and industrial uses, just north of the Shaftesbury Estate. Few people know that hidden just north of the tunnel is a warren of small storage units, let to a variety of tiny businesses – which is currently facing an uncertain future with plans to redevelop it to a more modern set of business premises. Even fewer people have ventured inside. But an interesting new business has set up on one of the units right next to the entrance: if you go through the somewhat uninviting looking gates and immediately turn sharp left, you’ll find AL Coffee Roasters.

AL Coffee Roasters is a small family-owned coffee roastery with a Colombian angle, making small batches of interesting Coffee; and when we visited Andres (pictured below) was very happy to show us round the roasters and the technology being used to make a proper coffee. It;s quite rare to see a roastery in action from start to finish, but this is what Andres has assembled in a small storage unit.

Most of the coffee produced is sold to businesses, but Andres has a proper coffee machine on site and sells various beans, as well as takeaway coffees. It’s an exercise of how to fit a lot of equipment in a small space, with everything just about fitting in to about ten square metres.

Andres’ business is not the first coffee roastery on Culvert Road: Caffe Nero’s UK-wide coffee roastery is just across the tracks in the Parkfield industrial estate, hidden away between all the railway tracks , and roasts coffee for thousands of branches right around the UK. The Nero roastery is the source of the occasional roast coffee smells that pass right across Battersea from time to time – we have often wondered if local coffee sales increase when everyone wakes up and smells coffee.

If you fancy a decent freshly-roasted coffee from an unusual location – AL Coffee Roasters is open most days. Head through the gates in the picture above, and turn left. There’s no website yet but the business is on Google Maps with up to date opening hours (at the time of writing: Tuesday to Friday mornings, Saturday afternoons, and most of the day on Sunday). AL Coffee Roasters, 105 Culvert Rd, London SW11 5AU.

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In pictures: Wandsworth’s newest Council estate

‘Luxury’ flats are flying up everywhere – but it’s not every day that you see a new estate made up entirely of rental properties owned by, and run by, a local Council. But that’s exactly what has just been completed at the bottom of the Gideon Road estate (to the north of Lavender Hill), with four new buildings containing a mix of 15 flats and three large terraced houses. And when we say large we mean it – these houses have up to six bedrooms! The artists’ impression below (from when we first write about this) shows the layout of the new buildings.

Gideon after aerial.png

Work started in 2019 and it has taken rather longer than expected for the works to finish including a lengthy pause that was partly Covid-related where nothing happened for many months, much to the frustration of residents of the existing estate who had to put up with a closed car parking area and construction hoardings just a few feet in front of their front doors, with only a narrow pathway for access.

But now that the estate is finished and the estate has returned to normal, we have to say, these flats and houses are pretty good quality, and a significant improvement on the old garage area. There are balconies on all the flats, and a surprising number of both the flats and the houses have their own private gardens at the back. As our photo above shows, the development has also been fully gardened ahead of occupation, with planting in all the public areas.

The flats and houses have generously sized windows, which is always a good way of telling there has been a reasonably good overall design and build quality. One of the easiest ways of making something cheap to build is to include tiny little windows, as the windows cost more than the walls, and it makes it easy to meet insulation standards ‘on the cheap’ if you hardly include any glass in the structure. This is why so many suburban housing estates built in the last decade or so have so little natural light that you need to have the lights on in the day. Luckily that hasn’t been done here.

There are two small parks included in the development, pictured above and below. These create a little more green space, which has long been one of the challenges of the original Gideon Road estate: while it actually has a lot of outside space it is broken up in to lots of tiny bits, most of them overshadowed by tall buildings; the only proper open space is the paved playground area and even it is probably overdue for a refit at this point. These two new parks do have the advantage that they catch the sun a bit and bring something a bit new to the immediate area.

This new estate is built on a bit of land previously used for car parking and garages, and the development includes a replacement car park for the Gideon Road estate, hidden away behind one of the buildings. Car parking is quite a complex issue here: a fair few residents of th eexisting Gideon Road estate had bought their flats and in doing so had acquired rights to use the existing open-air estate car parking within this part of the estate. These rights could not be changed after the sales, which meant that the ‘on street’ spaces lost in the redevelopment have had to be reinstated in the new car park area. The situation was different for the lockup garages, which took up quite a lot of the land (pictured below) and which remained in the ownership of Wandsworth council, who rented them out to whoever wanted one. Demand was declining as the garages are too small to fit many cars, so they tended to be used for storage (but being old and damp, weren’t especially useful for this either). Because the lockup garages were kept by Wandsworth, and never freely available to leaseholders, they can be redeveloped without trampling on the rights of the leaseholders. This explains why so many of the new build projects involving adding buildings within existing estates are on existing areas of lockup garages – whether at Battersea Church Road (where about 50 garages are being replaced with a new tower block including 101 flats) or on Taybridge Road (where a set of four garages in a tiny little estate was sold off and redeveloped as a very cleverly designed single house).

Nine storage sheds that were lost in the redevelopment have been rebuilt at the side of the site, and there is also a covered bike shelter.

Before anyone gets too excited about being able to move in here, we should say that these flats are not going to have much effect on the waiting list for Council accommodation. Instead they’re mainly designed to accommodate residents who are being moved out of the Winstanley Estate ahead of its partial demolition and redevelopment; and to accommodate people with particular needs that Wandsworth struggles to handle in other estates – hence the really big houses for extended families. Our new neighbours will do quite well out of this move, as these new buildings are built to a much better quality than most on the bit of the Winstanley that’s being redeveloped.

The flats are all currently empty (with a security guard on site) but we expect they will be occupied within days or weeks. By and large, this new development looks like a success so far, and it makes for a tidier and more attractive edge to the existing estate; while it is a shame it took so long to complete it’s good to see that care has been taken in the landscaping and finishing. There’s nothing architecturally ground-breaking here and this has been built on a tight budget and a complicated bit of land – but these are decent quality homes that have been thoughtfully designed and which will be good to live in. It’s a credit to the developers that these do a fair job of looking like they have been here from the start, tying in to the existing Gideon Road estate and to the newer Westmoreland apartments next door, while not completely clashing with the Victorian properties to the north.

Our one regret is the way the existing path through to Grayshott Road has been changed. It used to go straight through to the end of the car park as a nice wide footpath with good visibility, and now it has been rerouted and become a complicated mess with blind corners and big fences either side, that is not really overlooked. Even the paving here is badly done, changing several times along the length of the path. This is bound to end up as one of those quiet pathways that always has rubbish dumped in it, that smells slightly of urine, and that you may want to avoid if you’re alone after dark (and we said this back at the planning consultation stage too). But this is probably the only aspect that is badly done, shows that overall this feels like a successful project.

This stage of the building is all finished but there may be more to come: when these plans were originally approved, three further buildings were also involved, shown on the map below and labelled ‘Lavender Hill Garages’ (next to the Crown pub) and ‘Tyneham Close’. We understand there was some thought of also ‘filling in the gaps’ directly facing Lavender Hill as well, but this was discarded (just as well, as the large trees would have been cut down, and the three parallel blocks of flats would have lost a great deal of daylight if the area had been built on). As yet there is no sign of action, but we suspect these other buildings will be built in coming years.

Site map.jpg

As one final curiosity: this map shows the original plan for the Gideon Road estate.  It’s maybe surprising to learn that it was designed in the early 1970s as a single coordinated plan for around 200 houses and flats (as a partial redevelopment of the Victorian-era L’Anson and Townsend estates that were previously on the site), as walking around it it often feels as though it’s really several separate and unrelated estates that are loosely combined.

Gideon Road Estate.png
Original plan of the Gideon Road Estate, (c) Wandsworth Borough Council
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London photographer Ricky Leaver has a pop-up gallery, on Lavender Hill until 16th October

For the next two weeks there’s a pop up gallery on Lavender Hill showing a selection of Ricky Leaver’s work. Ricky – who’s almost local, living in Putney – is an artist whose work you have almost certainly already seen without realising it – not least as he was the picture editor of the Evening Standard website when it first went live in 1997, and in 2001 founded the Londonstills Picture Library – which supplies a images of London to newspapers, magazines and all sorts of other commercial and creative users, with a huge range of pictures (over 10,000!). He has since made a small selection of his work available as photo fine art – some of which is on display at the Lavender Hill gallery (with limited edition prints on sale), and some of which features on his own website.

It’s s not surprising that some of his photos capture areas familiar to many of us with an artistic eye. He explains that his cityscapes capture London as a colourful, throbbing, metropolis, ever changing, while still retaining its timeless quality. Ricky also has a gallery in his home where visitors are welcome; and this pop-up gallery will bring his work to a wider audience, and provide an opportunity to meet someone with a long career photographing our city. It’s at 125 Lavender Hill, SW11 6JN (the corner of Stormont Road – about half way along Lavender Hill), which will be open – free! – every day until Sunday 16 October from 11am to 6pm. Do visit!

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Donna Margherita: back from the brink?

We’ve written a few times about Donna Margherita, at 183 Lavender Hill – one of our longest serving Neapolitan restaurants with two decades on Lavender Hill, and a firm favourite for years. They made it through the Coronavirus – opening a delicatessen along the way to serve the takeaway trade, with a wide range fo Italian produce. But as the Coronavirus faded and they reverted to being a restaurant disaster struck – with a major fire in the kitchen in April 2021 causing quite substantial damage and leading to immediate closure. Undaunted, and following the usual insurance uncertainty, the owners set about to create something brighter and fresher than what had gone before, with a new look – including bringing light in to the back of the restaurant area, a curved new feature ceiling in sky blue, and a crisper, simpler overall design – while of course keeping the all-important pizza oven at the back of the space.

Things were actually coming on pretty well, to the extent that by September 2021, five mkonths after the fore, we could start seeing what Donna Margherita 2.0 was going to look like; and the builders we spoke to were proud of the way things had progressed. Donna Margherita’s Instagram was clearly showing the enthusiasm too:  “Ciao Amici! We’re still full-on working hard on our Donna Margherita 2.0, works are proceeding great but unfortunately, it might take a few more months before we can safely open our doors.We appreciate every single one of you reaching out and we hope to see you as soon as we open! This is the longest break we took in over 20 years and it will probably be the longest one we’ll take ever, we love our job and making you smile with our food!“.

But then everything stopped.  We hoped it was just a case of struggling to find people to do the finishing touches in a very tight market in the building trades. But weeks turned in to months, and we were unable to detect any signs of activity, or contact anyone involved. Back in May this year, over a year after the fire, our post “Donna Margherita: Is this goodbye?” got a fair bit of attention, and if nothing else it showed that there is strong loyalty to a proper neighbourhood restaurant that has been with us for so long. There were clearly still people hoping that the restaurant could return – but the site remained as in the photo above for many more months. Extended closure is a dangerous place to be for any business, with business rates to pay but no income, no matter how understanding the insurers are, and amid the silence many started to wonder if it was all over for Donna Margherita.

But this may yet be a story with a happy ending. Because work has since resumed. As our photo at the top of the page shows, there are now new fridges and delicatessen displays in place for a kitchen area at the right hand side of the premises, the electrics are fully finished, the floor is polished, even the first seating is in place. It looks like Donna Margherita will be coming back to Lavender Hill after all. It’s been quite a journey for what the owners initially hoped would be an eight week renovation. We’ll make sure everyone is kept posted, and able to give them a warm ‘welcome back’.

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All welcome to help build the community garden next to Battersea Arts Centre

Back in 2018 we first reported on Battersea Arts Centre’s ambitious plans to turn a private, ‘dead end’ road full of car parking in to a community garden. This was an ambitious and imaginative project and we loved it – and we wrote about it again as it took shape, and as the accidental sculpture created as a girder was bent and twisted in the major fire was installed facing Lavender Hill.

The garden went through a brief phase of being mostly weeds, but gained a wider mix of plants during the various Covid lockdowns, when it came in to its own as a traffic-free outdoor space in an otherwise densely built bit of town. It’s now fully up and running as a community garden (and occasional outdoor seating area for the Freedom Tap Room – formerly the Scratch Bar).

The aim of the project had been to turn the roadway into a growing space with wildlife-friendly herbaceous hard-wearing plants, including fruit trees and shrubs, to produce regular, low-maintenance harvests of edible things. The garden aims to be wildlife-friendly, and it includes plenty of ornamental plants as well as a surprisingly wide range of edible foods. Kayode Olafimihan & Susannah Hall from Permablitz London (who coordinate several community-led gardens around the city) created the original garden design that helped Battersea Arts Centre win funding towards the project from the Greater London Assembly, Heritage Lottery Fund and Wandsworth Council.

It’s been an impressive transformation, from what was originally a bit of a blot on the landscape – a badly paved section of road dominated by parked vans and rubbish storage – to an open and welcoming space that does justice to the old Battersea Town Hall next to it. Our photo below shows what the site used to look like before work started.

Current view

The garden now works on a community basis, with Battersea Arts Centre running it in partnership with the Permablitz team behind the original design – and they are keen for us to all be involved! This is done with a regular series of ‘Permablitz’ days, where they are keen for everyone to come and help with the gardening.

A really important part of these Permablitz days is that everyone is welcome on these days regardless of age, style or gardening knowledge – don’t worry if you’ve never done any gardening before, since coming along to one of these days is a great way to learn, as well as to meet people in the Lavender Hill area. There are always a variety of jobs to do, whatever your experience or physical ability; everything from making plant labels (above) to settling new plants in; when we visited the audience ranged from about four years old to ‘old and wise’!

When we last visited work was underway to plant trees and plants, as well as to introduce worms (pictured above and below) to the various planters so that they could get to work on the soil. We had never previously realised you can get big parcels of live worms delivered to help with gardens – and picked up plenty of knowledge on what will settle worms in and keep them happy in their new homes,

These days, which are run roughly once a month, are also great opportunity to meet new people in the immediate area, and help develop the community garden. All the tools and gloves you might need are provided (including ‘worm proof’ gloves at the request of the four year olds present), as is food and drink to keep everyone going.

The next Permablitz day is on Sunday 9 October 2022, from 10am-4pm. Lunch will be provided and there will be activities suitable for all, including children – everyone is very welcome! Mini workshops will run in the morning (11am) and afternoon (no later than 3pm). Topics will include learning about the crucial role that earthworms play, and understanding the permaculture design of the garden. It’s all completely free! But the organisers do ask that you please book a place in advance so that they can know numbers for lunch, which is provided, and give you all the specific details. If this sounds interesting – book your place by emailing communitygarden@bac.org.uk. More details about the garden – as well as future Permablitz events – are on the Battersea Arts Centre website.

And even if you can’t make it – do have a look at the garden as it settles in and becomes an increasingly established and well used part of Lavender Hill.

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Up for sale: The Asparagus pub on Falcon Road

Some time ago we reported on the opening of The London & South Western, Wetherspoons’a newest pub, at the western end of Lavender Hill. It was notable that opening the new pub left Wetherspoon’s with two pubs within a short walk, at either end of the Falcon Road. We wondered about the future of their existing pub, The Aparagus: while both seem quite busy and profitable, the new pub was more central and more typical of the city centre pubs the company has increasingly been developing. Sure enough, about two years later, the Asparagus is for sale, as one of about 40 pubs on the market.

Exactly what is being sold is a little complicated. Wetherspoons are selling the pub as a going concern, including midnight / 1am licenses, as well as the freehold of the building, including full ownership of the whole of the ground floor, part of the first floor that houses the WCs, and the basement that houses the beer cellar, manager’s office, staff room and stores. It adds up to a sizeable area at over 6,000 square feet, and also comes with the outside terrace that catches the sun on the south side of the building.

But the rest of the first floor and the second floor have previously been sold off to someone else on a long lease, and are in use as offices. This restricts what can be done with the building, and means it’s unlikely to be of interest to anyone looking to quickly redevelop the whole site, which might otherwise be the most likely outcome given several rather taller developments of flats have recently gone up in the area. This complexity on the property does increase the likelihood that a new owner will carry on running it as a pub, rather than being focussed on building something much taller on the site. The list of companies looking to take on new large pubs isn’t an especially long one right now, but there are people out there opening pubs, as we saw with the Queens Arms.

The sale particulars don’t say much about the pub’s trading performance (and we can safely assume that it is not one of the most profitable sites for the current owners or Wetherspoon would not be seeking to offload it) – but it’s in a busy area with both a loyal clientele and a hugely growing population, so should be able to turn a decent profit in the right hands.

But there’s inevitably a risk new owners will want to do something else with the site. With a 3,600 square foot area on the ground floor it’s precisely the right size for a small supermarket, and there have long been plans to redevelop the building a few doors down that currently houses Tesco – maybe they might seize the opportunity to relocate. There’s also a seemingly insatiable appetite for new gyms, and while the prominent corner site may be a bit too expensive for a gym, it’s still a possibility. But we’d be sad to lose another pub. In the end, only time will tell. The agents suggest that prospective buyers make ‘discreet customer visits in the first instance’ – so keep an eye out for new customers having look about! It’s always an unsettling time for the staff when the business is for sale, but fingers crossed the pub will find an enthusiastic new owner.

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The ‘Commercial Buildings’ ghost sign on Lavender Hill is back

We always like finding a ghost sign – those big faded advertisements in the ends of buildings that date back to before the era of poster boards and LED displays, advertising local businesses and products. There’s one at the junction of Lavender Hill and Kathleen Road, a building we’ve only written about once (in the context of the oddly short-lived Mrs Le’s restaurant being taken over by squatters) – where a very faded painted sign said ‘Commercial Buildings’, presumably from when these buildings (which would have been on the main road, between the railway station and the original Battersea town hall, back when Battersea was still a Borough) would have been used as offices rather than flats.

The building has been undergoing major work for some time now, to a pretty good standard by the look of it – including a substantial extension at the back, and up in to the roof.

The work has created a series of terraces at the back, as well as one at the front with a door opening out over the roof of the restaurant unit.

The work has also seen all the UPVC windows replaced higher quality sliding sash windows that are in keeping with what the building would have had when it was first built. All in all, this looks set to be quite an improvement for a building that had become rather tired and run down. The brickwork has all been cleaned, which sadly often means the end for ghost signs – and we assumed that the end would be near for the very faded ‘Commercial Buildings’ ghost sign. But in a slight surprise – the work has seen it carefully repainted and restored. In the photo at the top of the article the repainted sign is visible behind the scaffolding.

The old one was not especially visible – fortunately an article by Roy Reed on Ghost signs of Clapham includes a photo of the sign before work started, reproduced above, where it remained visible but had faded substantially. He also has photos of a good few other signs in the Lavender Hill area – our favourite of which is the one advertising Redfern rubber doormats in Wandsworth Road (pictured below), and has recently published a book of these signs, and an online map of where you can find them around central London. When the building with the Redfern advert was refurbished in to four flats a few years ago it was reported that it had previously been a rubber factory; we haven’t seen much other detail on it but the unusual structures at the back do suggest some sort of prior industrial or commercial use, before it became flats.

It’s maybe a bit of a shame to lose the faded character of Lavender Hill’s ‘Commercial Buildings’ ghost sign in favour of a new version – but at the same time give that the alternative in a big brick cleaning and re-pointing project tends to be complete disappearance, we’re pleased to see this one maintained and look forward to the scaffolding coming down.

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The Cedars Road Estate: A tale of two ambitious architects

Estate agents all love the Shaftesbury Estate – and it’s easy to see why, with hundreds of oh-so-desirable little cottages just waiting to be snapped up by well-heeled buyers. There’s a lot less said about our other estates like the Cedars Road Estate, at the eastern end of Lavender Hill. But there’s rather more to it than meets the eye, and while it may not have Victorian charm, it’s been a remarkably successful development we felt it was time to look at in our occasional local history series.

The Cedars Road Estate isn’t the first thing built on the Cedars Road. The original Cedars Road was a row of very large and grand detached houses, with generously sized front and back gardens (pictured above). These were built by local resident and Victorian property developer James Knowles, and were the first part of what he wanted be a much larger development called the Park Town Estate, going most of the way to the river and directly connecting Clapham Common with Chelsea Bridge.

James was building an extremely high-end development, and doing it at considerable cost. His aim was to create a really upmarket ‘Belgravia of the South’ neighbourhood, that would have rivalled parts of Chelsea.

The two large blocks of what were originally really giant terraces of seven-storey townhouses at the south end of Cedars Road, facing the Common and with their own separate stable blocks, set the scene for the development as a whole, and are still probably the largest terraced houses ever built in Clapham or Battersea.

No self respecting estate at the time could be built without its own Church, and half way along Cedars Road roughly where 190 Cedars Road stands today, James had built St Saviour’s Church as its grand centrepiece – pictured above in a photo from Lambeth Borough Archives. It started life in 1864 as chapel of ease (a sort of outpost, where a nearby Church – in this case Holy Trinity – would run services for those who struggled to make it to the main church), going on to become a fully-fledged Parish Church in 1876.

As the map extract shows, these really were large houses with large gardens. Cedars Road was built in style, and so were some of the show homes half way along the south stretch of Queenstown Road (around the church). The next phase of the project was supposed to see a similar sort of development built along Queenstown Road and in the Queenstown Diamond – and James acquired a huge plot of land to continue the development, shown in grey on the map below.

Everything looked good for this upmarket new neighbourhood, with its grand houses and big green spaces far from the crowds north of the river. But things didn’t go to plan for James – thanks to the railway builders. They were pretty powerful and had the ability to compulsorily purchase land, and did just that to buy the top end of James’ huge estate, and buy a vast tangle of railways and bridges near Queenstown Road station. This was a huge headache for James – because it chopped up the northern end of his large estate in to several rather useless small triangles, but above all because it introduced a messy set of criss-crossing railway bridges right in the middle of the grand avenue he had planned between the estate and Chelsea, ushering in precisely the sort of smoke, noise and industrial uses that they had tried to avoid. He battled the railways or as long as he could, but quickly realised that rather than catering to the upper classes, his grand development was going to be in the middle of a dense industrial area – and that he’d need a new plan if he was to make any money out of it. The original plans for the buildings along Queenstown Road were radically redesigned to replace grand mansion terraces with red-brick blocks of flats, and the streets around to small terraces. The way the Park Town estate to the north ultimately got built is a fascinating story that we’ll cover in a future article (and it’s well worth a look at Silver Linings, a lockdown project by local architects daab design who created a guided walk round the estate).

But for the following 60 years the Cedars Road remained – as an impressive street that somehow didn’t fit in with its neighbours, and a sign of what this corner of Battersea might had been without the railways. These large houses in an otherwise unglamorous bit of town had not attracted the wealthy residents James had originally envisaged, and with time they became increasingly occupied by other uses. The photo above shows 3 Cedars Road in about 1930 – which by then was in use as the Gregg School. Number 9 was an auxiliary military hospital, while three houses half way down the road were joined together as one large institution – pictured below – and became the Cedar’s Road Home Institution for the Elderly (also known as Cedar’s Lodge), run by London County Council to provide a home for elderly men as part of its work to care for the poor. These three are still in place; for some years they were a ‘wet’ hostel for recovering alcoholics, which acquired a bit of a local reputation as a magnet for antisocial behaviour. The houses remain part of the charity but have been converted to self contained flats, with more peaceful residents.

We have often seen it reported that the Cedars Estate took on so much damage in the second World War that it had to be destroyed. But this was one of the first surprises of writing this article: in the map below, drawn up by Ordnance Survey soon after the end of the war, we have highlighted the bombsites – where buildings were destroyed – in yellow. There are a pair either side of the corner of Cedars Road and Lavender Hill, which remained empty for several decades before being redeveloped as the buildings that now house Sainsbury’s and Caffe Nero. There was also extensive damage further along Lavender Hill, in what is now the Gideon Road Estate.

But the striking thing is that most of Cedars Road survived the war. Number 31 is a Ruin, and others will have seen some damage – but most of the street is clearly still standing. The most notable casualty was St Saviours, James Knowles’ first church, which is shown as a distinctly Church-shaped ‘ruin’ below. But there’s a bit of an open question as to what led the London County Council to pick this particular street in the early 1960s as a redevelopment site, as they started to rapidly buy up properties along Cedars Road and Victoria Rise – with plans to build a major new housing estate.

The houses had large gardens and the Council presumably realised it could fit a lot more flats in the space with a new building. This wasn’t the expensive bit of London it is now, and we understand that these houses which were a mixture of residential, institutional and business uses, weren’t in the best condition – so acquiring the buildings may not have been especially difficult. But the Council’s level of ambition was clearly enormous and it’s still quite impressive to compare the map above with the new estate below, as someone managed to get hold of almost sixty houses to clear enough space for the new estate – every house in the street apart and number 190 (which is mysteriously still standing, albeit much modified) and four houses (three of which are the old Cedars Lodge) on the west of Cedars Road.

This is also where our second ambitious architect enters the story. Local authorities aren’t the place you go now to see ambitious and creative building work – but in the early 1960s things were very different, and places like the Greater London Council were very actively developing huge new areas of housing, aiming to replace the tired and run down housing that covered much of London with something better. Colin Lucas – pictured – was an architect who had started his career building some impressive private houses, and could no doubt have carried on doing so, earning good fees and building his personal reputation – but he instead decided to join the Greater London Council’s architects department to work on the big new housing estate, working mostly anonymously in a bigger organisation, because he believed that building better social housing would enhance people’s lives.

By the time the Council was assembling the land at Cedars Road Colin’s group had already completed the ambitious (and now Grade II* listed) Alton Estate, which includes a series of giant blocks overlooking Richmond Park modelled on Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier‘s landmark building in Marseille. The Alton Estate had been built on a large open piece of land where anything was possible – but here at Cedars Road Colin was presented with a more complicated and oddly-shaped plot, crossed by two existing roads, scattered with large trees, and with a layout broken up by several buildings the Council hadn’t managed to get hold of – so he tried something a bit different.

Colin didn’t develop this single-handedly: Most of the estate was designed by architects Roy Stout and Patrick Litchfield, working in Colin Lucas’ architecture group within the Council – a duo who had also built a good number of interesting and unusual houses and flats.

Despite having 382 flats, the resulting estate was deliberately built in a low-rise and intimate scale, with small clusters of flats each with their own layout grouped round courtyards, echoing the individual houses they replaced.

Many of the flats are duplexes, spread across 61 interconnected three- and four-storey blocks of flats, many of which are dual-aspect. Most of the flats are duplex (two storey), but there are also a handful of blocks with single-storey smaller flats, as well as a entire terrace of sixteen more accessible bungalows with gardens at Lyncott Crescent on the western side of the estate.

From the moment it opened in 1966, the estate was a success: generously sized flats built with solid materials, lots of natural light, and around half of the flats having their own private outdoor gardens in addition to the generous public green paces.

The estate fitted together really well – with an impressively large central garden area that many of the flats have direct access to. By designing the estate around many of the 60-year-old trees from James’ original back gardens, rather than taking the easier path of cutting everything down and starting again, they had given the estate some immediate character.

Colin is also the man behind some of Battersea’s most recognisable tower blocks: working with Philip Bottomley, he developed a tower block plan that had three floors of two-bed flats, followed by a floor of one-bed flats, repeated five times; two of these towers are shown below in the Somerset Estate near Battersea Square. These buildings used the same robust materials – concrete and brick – as Cedars Road, and are in each case surrounded by lower-rise three- and four-storey buildings that definitely have something in common with Cedars Road; and again the generous spaces and good natural light mean these towers have remained popular.

More clusters of this design were built near Wandsworth Road station (the Durrington and Amesbury towers – pictured below), as well as in Canada Water, and a huge cluster in Camberwell. Colin was clearly happy to repeat what worked, and refine what didn’t, and looking at the lower-rise parts of these estates it’s clear that he liked the design of Cedars Road’s concrete-roofed and ridiculously robust storage sheds, as they are exactly the same – as is his preference for clusters of flats in courtyards rather than corridors and passageways.

Not everything Colin built worked: his next big project was the Ferrier Estate in Kidbrooke, which was frankly a disaster. Just like Cedars Road, the Ferrier was huge and ambitious, but unlike Cedars Road it had none of the careful planning of spaces and flats that created a community in Cedars Road, and it became a notorious sink estate, plagued by crime. The Ferrier Estate has already been completely demolished.

Even Cedars Road has design faults – but they’re minor ones. While a good number of arched garages were carefully incorporated in to the design (as well as a generous number of ground-level storage sheds that can be rented by residents), it soon became apparent that demand had been underestimated and more were needed. A large group of rather shoddy, cheaply-built garages was therefore added in a rather haphazard courtyard in Wilderness Mews at the eastern edge of the estate, replacing what had (for the previous decade or so) been a rather short-lived British legion Clubhouse, whose original design is pictured below (from the surprisingly comprehensive Lambeth archives).

These garages gradually became a rather tight fit for modern cars, and the whole garage area now feels like a waste of space, and a missed opportunity to have built something more like the rest of the estate. Tellingly, the remote-feeling and poorly-laid-out garage area has needed CCTV while the rest of the estate hasn’t really had any problems.

But 55 years after it was built, there’s no doubt that Cedars Road was a complete success: carefully designed accommodation that has quietly provided a good place to live. It’s always been a popular estate, and a remarkably large proportion of the flats – about half of the total – have been bought by former tenants; a wise investment given that the two bed flats now sell for over half a million pounds.

Its location was always an advantage, being in what has become an ever more desirable bit of London just a stones’ throw from Clapham Common. Being sandwiched right between two consistently popular primary schools, Macaulay CofE and the unusual part-state, part-private, bilingual Wix school just across the borough boundary, has also been attractive to young families.

Today Cedars Road is run as a tenant management organisation, and compared to many of the other estates in Lambeth the high standard of maintenance is immediately apparent, with weekly gardeners and proper green landscaping. There’s a fully updated and well-maintained childrens’ playground, a basketball court, and a residents’ organic garden where plots are available to hire. A few years ago the entire estate was fitted with an external insulation layer to improve its efficiency; this was a slight shame in that it hid the original high quality white brick that had been used throughout the design, but it did make the estate cheaper to run. There’s been a steady flow of building improvements, including service upgrades, new boilers and repaving works. All in all the Cedars Road Estate may not be as well known as some of the others in Battersea – but it’s no ordinary estate, and that’s testament to James Knowles’ vision that never really came to pass, and Colin Lucas and his team’s vision that did – which have given generations of residents a good place to live.

Posted in Housing, Local history, Street by street | 3 Comments

Tough times at No Boring Beer

It’s not an easy time to be in retail. Budgets are squeezed, and costs are up – especially gas & electricity. And until recently, businesses were particularly in the firing line as they have not benefitted from the price caps applied to householders: stories are emerging everywhere of stratospheric estimates for small traders. And even with Lavender Hill probably in a better place than most thanks to a significant number of high earners living nearby who are likely to be able to keep spending, this is hitting our traders. Case in point: No Boring Beer, who opened a year ago at 22 Lavender Hill (and who we wrote about before and after they opened). A notice now confirms that energy prices may be the straw that breaks the business’s back, with a closure date pencilled in of 24th September, mainly as the (presumably one-year-after-opening) electricity contract renewal costs just aren’t sustainable.

There may still be hope, and the team at No Boring Beer is clearly working to see what is possible. And things may be moving in a helpful direction in Government: new PM Liz Truss gave an energy announcement as part of her very first actions as Prime Minister, declaring that a new energy price cap for homes and (for the first time) businesses will be set from 1st October. This is a relief after a turbulent time that had led to business owners fearing the worst. During her speech, the new PM supported businesses and public bodies giving them the “equivalent support” to what households woudl receive for the next six months. This will still represent a sizeable cost increase for many (and what happens after the winter in six months’ time remains uncertain) – but the completely ridiculous prices we have seen small businesses being quoted in the news recently may not materialise. 

In the meantime – No Boring Beer is still open and needs our support. They are a small business created by beer enthusiasts Nikita and Roman; who already ran two other shops in south London – in an arch in the square next to Deptford station, and one on Tower Bridge Road. Their beer tastes are clearly adventurous – with over 200 beers from local breweries and a large seasonal beer assortment. They’re not just selling bottled & canned beer either, with rotating draught lines in all three shops.

There’s a pretty eclectic mix of ales, lagers and ciders, and No Boring Beer has found a loyal audience in Lavender Hill. Initially one side of the lavender Hill shop was dedicated to ambient ales and wines, and the other to a large assortment of canned ales, lagers and ciders – pictured above – but the layout has evolved to give more room for tasting, as well as to create a small outdoor seating area. A selection of beers on tap is on offer to refill growlers (reusable beer bottles).

We hope a solution can be found and they can keep going – particularly as we see an ever expanding number of small local breweries, including established players Mondo and Sambrooks, and joined by the Distortion Brewing Company near Wandsworth Road station, Belleville Brewing Co at Wandsworth Common, and the very smart Battersea Brewery in the power station complex. And that’s far from the only Battersea alcoholic beverage business, with the likes of the Blackbook winery and the Doghouse Distillery both hidden away among the railways near Queenstown Road. We still plan to run a future article on these.

No Boring Beer, at 22 Lavender Hill SW11. Open in the afternoon from Wednesday to Saturday.

Posted in Business, Politics, Retail | 2 Comments

New occupant of the old Cornerstone Bookshop: Thermomix

Back in 2021 we wrote an article about the end of long-running Christian bookstore The Corner Stone, which was one of the street’s longest standing shops until owner Ulrike Warner decided to call it a day and head for a well earned retirement. The premises were put up to let for around £90,000 a year by Bells (a local estate agent who specialise in commercial property) and were quickly snapped up. Work got going to give the somewhat dilapidated premises the makeover it had needed for a while, with new double glazing, flooring, air conditioning, and a complete rewire – pretty much everything had to be replaced. The exterior has also seen a bit of a repaint, but remains much the same design – we had expected the right hand to be brought level with the pavement when new windows were installed, but they have chosen to keep the classic 1960s angled shop front in place.

And we now know who is occupying the store: at some point next week Thermomix, a maker of high-end kitchen mixers which can also cook food, as well as tell you what to do to make specific meals, will open this as their demonstration and training kitchen, showing them off to prospective buyers as well as running classes on how to make the most of them for people who already have one. The shop is being fitted out with a large counter, plenty of display space, and all the things you’d need to be able to cook.

Thermomix is quite an interesting business. The firm doesn’t sell from mainstream retailers, and is instead only sold by self employed agents – ‘Thermomix Consultants’ – who manage and run operations in particular areas, in return for a commission on sales. This may remind readers of the ‘multi level marketing’ favoured by Avon in cosmetics, and a variety of more dubious nutritional supplement businesses that look more like pyramid schemes. That said, in Thermomix’s case it seems a more structured setup that is closer to a franchise business, with fixed pricing for the product (at the time of writing, precisely £1,189) and commission rates for the consultants. The shops like the one opening on Lavender Hill are also about making sure that anyone who spends what is, by any reckoning, a pretty hefty sum on one of the mixers gets the most out of it, and keeps using it in the long term – and from what we’ve seen from people who have one, both the products and the after sales classes are very popular and the ‘word of mouth’ effect from satisfied customers is strong.

There’s no debate about the quality of the mixers themselves, which have been sold since the 1970s, and – many iterations and developments later – continue to be made in France and Germany. Unlike ordinary food processors they can heat food as well (up to 120°C), they have a built in weighing scale, and they have a screen to access a large online recipe catalogues, with the ability to order the ingredients you’ll need for specific foods. Thermomix is a part of Vorwerk, maker of arguably the best vacuum cleaners in the business. Their after sales service is reputedly second to none, and you can expect a Thermomix to last a very long time. Which is what you’d expect for something costing £1,189!

This isn’t a new venture for this Thermomix team: they have been trading from premises at Chelsea Harbour for a good few years. We can see why they’re moving: Chelsea Harbour is a very unusual bit of London, with numerous flats and a marina, but also an enormous 1980s glass-roofed ‘Mall’ that no-one has ever really heard of, despite it being a centrepiece of what was the biggest single construction projects in the UK for decades. It was initially designed as a centre for general upmarket shopping and entertainment, but it completely failed within just a few years with almost all the shops and restaurants closing, mostly because of the remoteness of the site. It has since found a new purpose as the Design Centre Chelsea Harbour, a large cluster of specialised design-focussed businesses who run showrooms in what had originally been expected to be shops and restaurants, while another building next door houses mostly offices (and the previous Thermomix studio). However we can imagine that the sheer remoteness and quietness of the site will have been problematic for a business like Thermomix, which is a huge contrast with Lavender Hill.

Update: Works are now complete, with lots of Thermomixes in place and opening scheduled for the 3rd October.

Thermomix South London Branch Studio, 299-301 Lavender Hill, London SW11 1TN.

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