The Camberwell Society

Society for those living, working or interested in Camberwell

Many shades of green

Mick, Stephanie, Steve and John at the bar of the Camberwell Royal Naval Association Club


Robert Wainwright hears the stories of some of the people who live near the Green, the heart of Camberwell for more than a thousand years

It’s early on a Friday night and the regulars at the Camberwell Royal Naval Association Club are starting to arrive. The navy in Camberwell, two hours from the sea? Yep. Tucked away in Harvey Road is a discrete hall which houses this unlikely social club.

No-one can recall its origins other than it used to be on the top floor of the Camberwell Arms pub: “That was 40-odd years ago,” says Steve, who is one of the longest standing members. “Then we took over this building.”

Perhaps the answers lies in the Royal Naval School that was established in Camberwell in the mid-nineteenth century, but whatever the link, reminders are everywhere. Club walls are filled with naval photographs and memorabilia. There are no former serving seamen or women left among the 70-odd members. Instead, it has become one of the most important social hubs for, let’s say, the more mature residents living in the Camberwell Green area.

Steve is having a quiet beer with mate John and chatting with barmaid Eve when the CQ arrives. The only others in the bar are Stephanie and Mick. They have taken a table at the back. “The place will fill up later,” Stephanie, blinged-up in a yellow jacket and matching beads for the Friday evening, assures me. “Mick and I like to be out early. We’re usually home by 9pm, but others like to kick on.”

It says much about this part of Camberwell that the members generally live within a few streets of one another. Most live on one of the estates that dominate the landscape between the Green and Burgess Park.

“You’ll get no trouble in here,” promises John. “We all know each other and it feels very safe and an important part of the community.”

Outside can be a different story. Steve was a recent victim of street violence, mugged as he walked up to Camberwell Church Street: “It’s a reality of this neighbourhood,” he says, flicking through his camera phone to recall the date of the assault and show his bruises. “But then I guess Camberwell is no different to most places in London. It can happen anywhere, particularly now when things are so tough economically.”

The impact of Covid and now the recession is felt strongly around here. Many older residents felt isolated during the pandemic and it is taking time to venture out again. Likewise, the area still harbours the problems of inner-city inequality and issues such as drugs and poverty.

There has been an almost constant alteration to the neighbourhood over the past two decades as modern apartment buildings gradually replace post-war housing. Just outside the Naval club stands the biggest example of change – the future of the now defunct Camberwell Green Magistrates’ Court.

Perhaps this regeneration is the chance to harmonise the neighbourhood, particularly with its position next to the Camberwell Library which has proven a great success since it opened eight years ago. The notice boards are filled with opportunities for community engagement, from reading groups to sewing workshops, English classes for migrants, computer tuition, knitting, crochet, poetry and even puppetry.

“It’s a vibrant place,” says library manager Eugenia Atta. “People come in here not only to borrow books but to study and meet in groups, learning new skills such as the coding classes we are about to start.”

Val Fenn with the letter informing her of her MBE.

Honour in the Elmington

Val Fenn lives in a ground floor flat on Brisbane Street and opens the front door via remote control to invite the CQ inside. It makes life easier for Val who is wheelchair-bound although her drive and energy belies her physical challenges.

Val has been chairwoman of the mid-Elmington Tenants and Residents’ Association for almost two decades and was recently awarded an MBE for her tireless community work. She didn’t believe it when the phone call came:

“I thought it was one of those scams, particularly when the lady on the phone asked me my age. I just kept saying ‘Yeah, all right love. I always wanted to be famous. Thank you. Bla bla’. I didn’t think much about it until my councillor Kieron Williams called a few days later and congratulated me. ‘So it’s real then?’ I asked him. ‘Of course it’s real,’ he replied.”

Val gets her medal in the summer – “I’ll have to get a hat and a suit and get my hair done”. Till then it’s back to work on behalf of estate residents, whether it’s a playground for children, resurfacing the basketball court, getting bigger rear gardens or improved security doors and ramps for elderly residents who feel vulnerable. She also organises bus trips and likes to liaise with nearby housing estate TRAs. “We always get more done together than we do apart.”

“There will always be problems and issues like drugs, but it’s a decent community and we need to look after one another. I’ve started to do work on getting security doors for the older residents. People have a right to feel safe in their own homes.”

It’s coffee morning in the community room at the nearby D’Eynsford Estate and social committee chairwoman Clava Jameson is running a story-telling session. On other weeks there might be bingo or a quiz and even baking. Group member and personal trainer Emmanuel Cole is also about to start a fitness class.

“It’s a way of engaging people who otherwise might stay at home,” says Clava who has lived on the estate for almost 40 years. “Covid affected a lot of people with loneliness and we want to encourage them to come back out and meet people and become involved again.”

D’Eynsford was built in the 1970s as social housing, but the 300 or so residents are now both public and private homeowners: “There is a lot of change, much of it through gentrification,” says Clava. “One of the positives is that there is less anti-social behaviour. Ten years ago it seemed that every time I looked out of the window there was blue lights flashing from police cars but in recent years it has been a lot better.

“The problems are still there, of course, and I think more needs to be done to provide facilities and incentives for young people to get out and get involved. There used to be youth clubs around there, but not anymore.”

Gary Edwardes behind the counter of the family shop where he has been selling bicycles for more than 60 years

Cycling and the downside of drugs

Gary Edwardes is in a talkative mood, which is fortunate given that his normally busy cycle shop on the Walworth Road is quiet on a cold January morning.

One of Camberwell’s most recognisable business figures, Gary has been selling bikes for more than 60 years and is unlikely to retire any time soon. He is as enthusiastic today as when he first stood behind the counter at the age of 14: “I could retire,” he says, “but what would I do? Anyway, I love coming here and dealing with people.”

Gary’s grandfather, Jack, was a successful track cyclist at Herne Hill. He decided to open a bike shop in 1908, not only for racers. There was a surge of interest in recreational cycling at a time when a trip to Camberwell was considered to be day in the country. When he retired, Gary’s father and uncle took over the business. By then it had expanded to several shops across south-east London. Later market conditions forced a reduction to the main shop. Now it’s up to him to keep the family business going.

Local customers are Gary’s bread and butter, like the woman who brought her son in the previous week: “My mum brought me here for my first bike so now I want one for my boy,” she told him. Others come from further afield, like a Birmingham woman: “I bought a bike from you years ago and just liked the way I was treated,” she told Gary.

There are new customers as well, particularly as the neighbourhood changes: “A lot of South American families have moved in around here. And they all like good bikes and are prepared to spend a bit.” There are other realities of running a business that fronts the trouble-plagued Elmington Estate: “We’ve had a couple of bikes nicked here and there but we’re pretty much left alone. The thing that bothers me is why they stab each other. We used to settle things with our fists.”

Diego Quattrone lives and breathes Camberwell’s drug problems every day. Not only does he live in the new Peabody flats above Camberwell Green from where he can see any untoward activity but he is also a consultant psychiatrist at Kings where he runs an intensive care unit and is an academic researching psychosis associated with cannabis use: “I decided to live here in Camberwell because, as a professional, it’s important to understand the people you are trying to help.”

Dr Quattrone’s unit is now running research, plotting the incidence of psychosis in Camberwell using data that goes back to 1965. The study so far shows that it has risen three-fold in that time, caused by a complex series of events beginning with the filling-in of the canals of Burgess Park and subsequent closure of factories and businesses: “The Camberwell of old was not a rich area but it was a place of work and opportunity,” he says.

Two waves of immigration to the UK, in the 1960s and the 1980s, brought migrants to Camberwell, exposing following generations to the problems of inequality and an inevitable link to drugs and crime. This has been compounded more recently by the change in the makeup of the drug itself into one much more dangerous version than the “weed” associated with the film Withnail and I and the infamous Camberwell Carrot joint. (The CQ covered this issue, including an interview with Dr Quattrone, three years ago.)

“Most of the patients admitted to my ward are young black men who don’t realise what they are doing to themselves. We estimate that 30 per cent of psychosis would disappear without drug abuse. I know that’s not possible but it shows that there are solutions.”

Benhill Road Nature Garden volunteers John Turpin and Tony Atkins with new recruits Theo and Fiona on a frosty morning

Little green dots in the townscape

Major parks such as Burgess, Ruskin and Myatt’s Field adorn Camberwell, but smaller ones are equally important, breaking up a landscape that otherwise would be all concrete and brick. The Secret Garden on the D’Eynsford Estate is one such place, as is the Benhill Road Nature Garden, created in the early 1980s on the site of demolished prefab housing but then left to rot behind wire to become a dumping ground for mattresses and household rubbish.

Then nine years ago it was given a rebirth with an injection of council funds and the enthusiasm of a knot of volunteers who spend a couple of hours every Sunday, even in the frost of January which is where the CQ met three stalwarts, Anne Roache, Tony Atkins and John Turpin. They were blooding two new recruits, Fiona and Theo, in the art of composting.

“We do it all ourselves and get very little help from the council which is a bit frustrating,” says Anne, who holds a degree in ecology. “Volunteers come and go – after all, people have busy lives – so if John wasn’t here several times a week it would be unsustainable.”

The little garden packs a punch, bordered by cockleshell pathways from the dipping pond where dragonflies and water boatmen skim the surface, to an exploration area surrounded by mature apple, birch, cherry and hazel trees, hawthorn and blackthorn hedgerows as well as ornamental flower beds and a wildflower meadow. There is a stag beetle loggery, bat boxes and a dead hedge for invertebrates.

The joy for Anne and the other volunteers is seeing the area being used by children to play, yoga enthusiasts or just residents looking for a quiet place to read. Students from the nearby Brunswick Park school do nature classes and work with the wildlife charity Froglife. John Turpin wrote a poem a few years ago, The Ballad of Elmington Green. It is a delightful verse about children discussing what they see here and includes these two lines:

During five decades of dust and decay, nature survives,

A garden slowly comes alive for all to wonder at

The same could be said of the Camberwell Green neighbourhood and the resilience of its people.

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The Camberwell Society was formed in 1970 and is the recognised amenity society for those living, working or interested in Camberwell.

The Society’s objectives, as defined by our constitution, are: to stimulate public interest in Camberwell, to promote high standards of planning and architecture in Camberwell, and to secure the preservation, protection, development and improvement of features of historic or public interest in Camberwell.

We are a charity and raise money for local charities. In the past we have raised money for Southside Rehabilitation Association, St Giles Trust, Cambridge House, the CamberwellCommunity Choir, the HollingtonYouth Centre and the Camberwell Arts Festival