The word lavender conjures up the sun drenched, hazy fields of Provence. Or perhaps some choppy, warm-toned Impressionist masterpiece. Or it's a section of a busy thoroughfare in South Central London. Yes, it’s probably the latter. If it’s February, Tim must be attacking the slopes of Lavender Hill.
One thing you won’t find much of on Lavender Hill is, well, lavender. Maybe some discarded pizza boxes, plenty of rubbish strewn waste bags, an upturned supermarket trolley or a decaying Christmas tree thrown onto the street. But not much lavender. The shrub that gave this area its name has gone. Long gone.
My entrance and exit point to this urban dreamscape is Clapham Junction railway station. Not sure what a junction is, but as to the Clapham part, well, that’s a little bit of historical postcode snobbery. A fib. This is Battersea. Not Clapham, which is posh and a mile away. Battersea is working class. Engineering and manufacturing back in the day. Less so now. Maybe we could rename it Lavender Junction? Help shift those new million pound apartments, no?
There’s a pub. There’s always a pub, isn’t there? The Falcon is pretty special though. One of those big pubs you only get in London. The ones dripping with large baskets of flowers, partitioned rooms, and back lit smoky glass. This one sports a famous horseshoe bar (the UK’s longest apparently). I don’t drink there though – nor the Slug and Lettuce next door. However, the facilities are handy so I’m pretty much a regular.
So up we go, up Lavender Hill, ambling wistfully through these London fields. Past the retail splendour of Arding and Hobbs, sprinting past Fitness First, KFC and numerous Lebara money transfer shops where bored staff sell cheap booze and fags, whilst conducting mobile phone conversations that sound important, but probably aren't.
There was a girl once. There's always a girl, behind the memories, driving the words. We were students at South Bank University on Wandsworth Road. I used to catch the Number 87 bus up and down Lavender Hill to Clapham Junction. If I was more observant, as I sat on the bus all those years ago, I would have noticed a local oddity – a genuine London eatery – the Pie and Mash shop. The historian in me likes the fact that this relic of old London, of its working class eating habits, is still there. I like that. But I don’t go in. Not a fan of eels unfortunately. But it's cheering to know it’s still there nestling amidst the numerous Thai, Indian, Italian, Japanese, Chinese and assorted restaurants.
Battersea Library, police station but, most wonderfully (and where this drivel is mostly written) the Grade 2 listed building that used to be Battersea town hall but now doubles as Battersea Arts Centre. They used to build beauty, those Victorians, put the effort in, make buildings things of wonder and aspiration.
However, money was always an issue, even in the 1880’s. None more so than The Church of the Ascension, a big, bold - God is terrible, God is almighty, repent ye sinners - church at the top of the hill. It’s a massive stone structure with Byzantine influences by way of Carcassonne. It should have been adorned with an equally gigantic phallic tower but the original architect pissed the money away, was sacked and the church was completed sans spire. Nerdishly, I own a copy of the original architectural plans from 1875.
And then we're walking downhill. Go past - hurry! - The Crown pub. Last week, as I was leaving, I witnessed some ritualised urban ballet as two drug dealers squared off to each other out on the street. Held back by their various women folk screaming, "Leave it out Jon, he's not worth it!" I waited for my Uber to take me to the station as the performance played out. Don't know who won. It's probably on YouTube somewhere.
This part of Lavender Hill is all shit council flats and massed ranks of mopeds parked on the pavement outside nondescript takeaways. Let me explain lest you live in a town where cuisine laziness hasn't yet set in. Every eatery on Lavender Hill - and there are many, so many - has a fleet of mopeds waiting to take the indolent, the obese, the time poor banker-wankers, their genuine, wood fired Neapolitan pizzas. This, children, is what decadence looks like. Fight, fight, against the dying of the light and cook from scratch you lazy bastards!
There are many places that offer a 'massage'. Strangely they always want to massage - for extra, for cash only - those parts that don't often get massaged in - say - more mainstream establishments. Happy endings are promised. Not always delivered. I avert my eyes, clutch my pearls, lift up my skirts, and run from these places.
And so, after a mile or so, Lavender Hill finishes at Cedars Road and hands the A3036 baton over to Wandsworth Road in a fistful of Tesco Expresses, coffee shops and Premier Inns. We are now entering Lambeth and our story must end here.
And so where does all this take us? An old London Street. Full of Victorian buildings. What signifies?
Well, everything. And nothing. From the confident Victorian public buildings, to the sturdy 19th Century housing for the workers, to the bold and confident Anglicanism. To the many, many cultures that have taken root here, left their mark on the shops, restaurants, even the pizza delivery boys that criss-cross unknowing through this urban thoroughfare. To the pubs, open and closed, converted or renovated, silently bearing witness to wars and coronations, disasters and triumphs. History shines through, hiding amongst these stones, these relics, peeping shyly from under the brim of modernity. The breath of London, old London, still blows gently in this cityscape. And if you look hard enough, you will find some lavender. Yes, even on Lavender Hill.
All pictures of Lavender Hill, Tim Robson February 2017