London is comprised of 32 boroughs. Each of these contain a multitude of quirky little neighbourhoods and villagelike pockets that often flow seamlessly into the next making it somewhat difficult for visitors to distinguish one spot from the other. Grand architecture snakes harmoniously through the city, echoing the River Thames as it branches out from its source, interlacing its watery fingers throughout the city and connecting the heart of London to the surrounding landscape. London, or Londinium as it was known in ancient times, was originally the core business and trading centre for the Romans who settled here in 47AD in what is now known as the ‘square mile’. Since then, modern London has spread outwards to encompass territory that would once have been divided into smaller tribal communities and farming land. The London that we know today reaches far beyond its original ancient city and envelops an expansive 607 square miles. Thankfully, the days of warring tribes has passed and rather than fighting amongst each other for land and food, Londoners compete on more contemporary topics – like whose neighbourhood can lay claim to the best flat white, or which local pub turns out the tastiest and most authentic scotch egg.
Living in such a chaotic and densely populated metropolis, it is only natural that Londoners seek to transform their own little pocket of city life into a haven, somewhere tucked away from the throngs of visiting tourists and famous landmarks. Those who call London home are drawn to the lively, vibrant chaos that resides here. The absorbing museums and galleries, the abundance and variety of restaurants and cafes, and the sheer diversity of entertainment is what draws many to lay down roots here. However, with all its lure and charm, London can be positively overwhelming. Even those of us with a keen sense of adventure and a spirited curiosity still require a little respite. The city’s vast array of exuberant neighbourhoods feel like autonomous hamlets, each with their own unique atmosphere, where independent shops, eateries, and green spaces thrive. London neighbourhoods may not be sleepy or serene like Miss Marple’s St. Mary Mead, but they are as authentically London as you can possibly get.
Every neighbourhood has its own distinctive personality with special points of interest and historical charm, and I enjoy visiting them all. However, there are some that I return to continuously, always finding something new and wonderful to marvel at. Bermondsey, in the borough of Southwark in the city’s southeast is one of those areas I come back to time and time again. No doubt the diverse number of eateries, bakeries, and delicatessens that dot this relatively small inner-city neighbourhood are magnets for my insatiable love of food. There are top notch restaurants serving handmade pastas and mouth-watering Spanish delicacies presented artfully on share plates and served by equally attractive waiters. The imposing brick viaduct that carried the 19th century railway now provides a home for both Maltby Street Market and many other food and beverage traders in the area. Cavernous railway arches underneath the train line have been transformed into spacious stores filled with a rotation of vendors selling artisanal cheeses, freshly baked breads, and international street food made using traditional recipes. And then there are the bakeries, boulangeries, and bread shops filled with wonderfully aromatic aromas of vanilla, butter, and dough. Growing up along the east coast of Australia my childhood was full of salt water, sunshine, and sand – it was a magical place to be a child. The only thing missing was a decent bakery. When I began to travel, I made it my unspoken rule to purchase something delicious from any good bakery I saw. London has some of the best bakeries in the world, and some of the city’s finest pastries can be found in and around Bermondsey. Oh well, a rule is a rule!
Of course, there is far more to Bermondsey and its namesake street than just delicious food – although, the cuisine alone is reason enough to visit. Bermondsey Street, with its long and layered history, is a conservation area where historic houses and old industrial buildings – now home to artisans and small businesses, coexist harmoniously with contemporary London life. Berm, as it is so fondly called by the locals, was originally a working-class area with its roots in food production, leather work and tannery due to its close proximity to the trading highway along the River Thames. Pitted olives, sourdough breads, and pricey cocktails are now served in swanky basement bars that only a century ago were full of industrial machinery and stacks of drying animal hide.
The village feel of Bermondsey is in full swing during the annual Bermondsey Street Festival when every summer the street overflows with market stalls, live music, maypole dancing, and even a dog show run by local volunteers. Although the area, much like any hip inner city locale, is continuously evolving there are a few things that have etched themselves permanently into the ever changing landscape. Zandra Rhodes became synonymous with London fashion in the 1970’s and 1980’s and her unique use of bold print, fiercely feminine silhouettes, and theatrical use of colour cemented her as a leading designer of her era. Originally deemed too outrageous by the traditional British manufacturers of the 1960’s Zandra Rhodes decided to make garments from her own fabric designs and pioneered the special use of textile printing as an intrinsic part of her creations. The Fashion and Textile Museum was founded in 2003 by the designer who has since become a Dame by Commander of the Order of the British Empire for her lifelong service to British fashion and textiles.
The museum is housed within an old industrial warehouse and was redesigned by Mexican architect Ricardo Legoretta in a combined vision between himself and the designer. The striking modernist structure is painted in lurid colours of shocking pink, burnt orange, sunflower yellow, and electric blue reflecting the fashion designer’s adoration of colour and her theatrical personal style. Housed within is a permanent collection of textiles and clothing from some of London’s leading designers in what is the city’s only institution dedicated to showcasing contemporary fashion and textile design.
Today we are visiting to see the current exhibit Beautiful People: The Boutique in 1960s Counterculture, an exhibition exploring how a handful of Chelsea boutiques sparked a fashion revolution in the mid-1960s. During this revolutionary era in both fashion and culture, the boutiques of Chelsea were focused on individuality and freedom of expression and promoted the opposition of established values of the time. Fueled by this creative exploration, a generation of radical young designers emerged, catering to an elite group of artists, aristocrats, and musicians: The Beautiful People. The collection showcases garments and outfits from some of London’s most iconic boutiques of the 1960’s such as Biba, Dandie Fashions, and Granny Takes a Trip, whose collective creations clothed some of the most fashionable musicians of the decade such as The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, and The Rolling Stones.
Upon entering the exhibition, the fanciful world created within transports me back to my twenties when I was working in a vintage store and exposed to the magical fashions of the 1960’s. I consequently fell in love with the outlandish and colourful silhouettes of the time. As I wander from room to room hypnotised by the mass of swirling colour and eccentrically patterned fabrics, I become mesmerised by the kaleidoscopic lighting and artfully arranged mannequins. What a visual treat it is to see these garments first-hand and to imagine the excitement and vibrancy of the day-to-day trading in those shops when the likes of Mick Jagger and Jimi Hendrix would wander in to purchase these treasures. The finished details and exotic fabrics are stunning in real life. Stepping back outside into the reality of contemporary London is a little shocking, though tempered slightly by the vibrancy of one of the city’s most alluring neighbourhoods. To prolong the delights of the day, we head home with a couple of buttery pastries packed carefully into our tote bags.
I hope you enjoyed exploring Bermondsey with The Sunday Londoner. Please leave a comment below, I’d love to hear from you!
Lovely places to eat
José Tapas Bar has a cult following in the London scene as the go to place for the best tapas, serving a daily changing menu written on the black boards along with 50 Spanish wines & sherries served by the glass. Dogs are welcome and receive a well earned drink of water on arrival – cute!
Pizarro is José Pizarro’s second London restaurant. Found one block away from José’s original tapas bar on Bermondsey Street. The restaurant serves a menu of small tapas style and more substantial dishes that can be served as starters and mains or as tapas for sharing. The food is influenced by José’s passion for the best quality seasonal Spanish produce cooked in an open kitchen.
Flour & Grape Perfect hand made pasta and excellent wine (including helpful recommendations for each pasta dish) in a friendly and bustling setting. The pasta prices are very reasonable for the quality and the area, and attract a lovely mix of locals of all ages. Highly recommended!
Casse-Croûte is exactly what many out-of-France French restaurants claim to be but actually aren’t – authentically French! Owner Hervé Durochat, who is also a partner in nearby José and Pizarro, has created a tiny slice of old world French charm in his corner restaurant with its worn signage and the French radio crackling softly in the background. With an evolving menu (written only in French) that changes daily featuring classic and bold French bistro style food that won’t be overshadowed by the atmosphere. What a sensory treat!
The Garrison is a lovely green tiled gastro pub with exposed brick walls and vintage chic decor that serves excellent pub food with an emphasis on quality over quantity. If you love an English pub with a little more refinement then you will love The Garrison. One of my favs!
B Street Deli is a lovely upmarket corner delicatessen packed with superb produce from fine charcuterie, to homemade quiches, pies, and sandwiches, to mouthwatering flaky pastries sourced each morning from the nearby Borough Market to enjoy with your perfectly balanced flat white. There’s also a great selection of wines which make B Street Deli practically perfect! FYI the pastries are ALWAYS excellent and if the weather is good sit at one of the few tables outside – the perfect place to soak up a little Berm atmosphere.
Maltby Street Market is an outdoor weekend market below 19th century railway arches with 30-plus fresh produce stalls. A foodie paradise!
Comptoir Gourmand is a small, family run French bakery with delicious sweet pastries and cakes made each morning in their nearby kitchen in Maltby. Excellent quality with that perfectly caramelised French puff – no pale, insipid looking pastry here! They also have a stall at Borough Market if you’re feeling especially greedy.
6 thoughts on “Bermondsey – A Vibrant Village in the Heart of London”
What a fantastic virtual tour of Bermondsey! And the fashion of Zandra Rhodes. So colourful, flamboyant, outlandish, bold and vibrant. Reminds me of Jenny Kee, Australian designer. City life is good, but as you said, we all need respite from the buzz. I love to retreat to somewhere quiet to recharge. Cheers.
Thanks Sandie! Yes me too, I love Jenny Kee! They were really pushing the boundaries between art and fashion, so inspiring. Yes me too, when we win the lotto we can buy a town and a country house!
Oh wonderful! This is definitely a neighbourhood I want to visit. I am so upset I missed that exhibition too as that was my era and I loved those fashions. The food choices seem wonderful -can hardly wait to go there!
Bermondsey is definitely one of my favourite areas Paula, so many fantastic eateries and interesting things to see. Hopefully there will be something equally wonderful to see at the textile museum when you visit!
Great informative blog post, thank you. I love Casse-Croûte though had no idea of the link with Jose. Also enjoyed your colourful and inspiring pics. Completely agree that Berm is a great area for foodies and people who like a bit of art, design and architecture. It’s also good for dog-spotting – so many cute pooches (& stylish owners!) – and it’s close to the Thames for good walks east & west. I wouldn’t live anywhere else if you paid me!
Thank you Helen, I’m so glad you enjoyed my post! I think I could visit Bermondsey time and time again and always see something new to marvel at. And the food will always lure me back! I do love the dog culture here in London, dogs in pubs and cafes mingling with the locals, it’s just so lovely to see. I can understand why you love living there, you have the best of everything at your doorstep.