The pace of change in London is relentless. Half the City seems to have been replaced since I started working there – now Broadgate, sparkling new when I was a fresh-minted graduate, is coming down to spawn a new generation of office space.
Restaurants open, last one year and then close as the next big thing arrives – one year it’s tapas bars, the next it’s Vietnamese cafes – while skyscrapers seem to sprout like weeds in an untended garden.
But in Lower Marsh, SE1, the pace of change seems to have stalled. Change is certainly there – with a natural foods supermarket and a vintage clothes shop of some distinction – but the old style caffs, laundrette and menswear shops are still there as if the 1950s have never left the platform.It’s a quirky little street. At one end, the grungy bit of Westminster Bridge Road, and at the other, the Old Vic and the restaurant paradise of The Cut. Looming behind the road to the north-west is the Victorian glass of Waterloo Station, only visible where a couple of alleyways cut through the houses. It’s not a soaring cathedral of train shed like St Pancras or Liverpool Street; it always looks to me like a B&Q greenhouse that got a bit over-ambitious.
You can eat well in Lower Marsh. Breakfast is easy – baked beans at Barbarella’s, a proper traditional family run caff (yes, a caff, from the years before we started calling the places cafés – and before so many of them became just greasy spoons). The beans come with a lovely smile, which always helps get the day off to a good start. Or you could choose breakfast at one of four or five other caffs further along the street; at Coral Bay, you can get a Turkish Cypriot breakfast including olives and feta cheese, as well as the traditional full English.
For more substantial meals, Lower Marsh offers a choice of many cuisines. Marsh Ruby has Indian food, with a Supper Club at just £7.50 (but it’s bring-your-own-bottle). Or there’s sushi, or Thai food, or a selection of different soups, salads and quiches at Coopers Natural Foods (it does a chai latte too, as well as porridge for breakfast).
There’s a little tent set up in the street which houses a proper Breton creperie – passing my personal test for authenticity, it does them with chestnut puree. And there’s also a pub, the Camel and Artichoke, in a fine Victorian four storey building – the kind of building that looks as if it should be a pub; it serves Greene King beers and proper pub food.
This isn’t just a street for eating, though. There’s a second hand bookshop, which had a tempting window when I last walked past (but alas wasn’t open); there are market stalls selling cheap vegetables at the Old Vic end of the street; Ian Allan’s book and model shop, a couple of crafts galleries, an old style watchmakers’, a solitary Rymans office supplies shop, and South Bank Cards if you’ve forgotten a birthday (or just fancy a browse).
I particularly like the contrast between the two menswear shops on the street. Trussons menswear shows shirts and a flat cap in the window and looks like the kind of shop you got your school uniform from back in the 1960s, while David Fullerton’s bespoke tailoring shop features a periwigged bust in the window (David used to work as a costumier in the National Theatre so the shop’s closeness to the Old Vic is quite appropriate).
Lower Marsh is a slightly unusual street and even on a rather ordinary Tuesday morning in June, it had a couple of surprises for me. In the window of the Casse Croute restaurant, a fiddler was sitting playing jigs, the sound spilling out into the street; and a personable tabby cat wandered out of What the Butler Wore to inspect me. I don’t think I passed muster; he rather patronisingly accepted a tickle behind the ears but then turned tail to take shelter among the racks of vintage clothing.
If visiting Lower Marsh stimulates an inner desire to experience service from a bygone era (without compromising on any of the essential mod-cons), you might want to come home to Hotel 41 – a 5 star boutique hotel near Victoria which is currently ranked number 1 on TripAdvisor.
Words by Andrea Kirkby. Image by jonny2love