Jonathan Galton, MA Social Anthropology
Initially, all I knew about Nunhead was that it was somewhere in South East London and that it was a bedfellow to unlikely-sounding places like Brockley and Hither Green. Since I moved to Peckham a few months ago, however, Nunhead has leapt off the map and (almost) onto my doorstep and I find myself falling in love.
Admittedly if you arrive in Nunhead by train, first impressions aren’t inspiring. A Londis. A chippy. A fried chicken shop. Perhaps even a knot of morning drinkers near the station entrance. I can practically hear the Islingtonians sneer. Nevertheless, just around the corner on Evelina Road, things pick up in a rather unexpected way. First, there’s a greasy spoon cafe, followed by a DIY store and then a traditional butcher’s shop. A few doors down, there’s a bakery followed by a fishmonger’s market and a retro/vintage shop. Before you know it, you’ve hit an honest-to-goodness village green with three pubs, a row of almshouses and an institution so quintessentially English that is the Salvation Army Temple.
“Urban village” is a hackneyed term, but it seems to do Nunhead justice. It is just as far from the yummy-mummy atmosphere of East Dulwich as it is from the rough-and-tumble enticements of Peckham Rye. Simply put, it is a modest sort of place that is never going to be the next Shoreditch. That said, Nunhead does house F.C. Soper, an establishment since 1897, which the Observer has described as the “best fishmonger in London”. I for one can personally attest to the excellence of its mackerel. Meanwhile, the Old Nun’s Head gastropub gets rave reviews for its burgers and real ales. Rumour has it the pub – and eventually the suburb – got its name from a nun who was beheaded during the Suppression of the Monasteries in the 16th century. There is no evidence for this, however.
Lest you imagine it’s all craft beer and line-caught halibut, I should point out the takeaway options: Indian, Chinese, Caribbean, Portuguese and even a “Taste of Barbados” (Bajan Spice) which I look forward to trying. Aside from the aforementioned DIY store, there is also a bike shop named Rat Race Cycles, opposite the enticing Bambuni delicatessen. The latter seems like the kind of place where epithets such as “the best flat white south of London Bridge” are bandied about. I am happy spending my time there ogling fresh bread, posh cheese, craft beers and cashew butter. The chicken shop-betting shop pairing across the road is a faintly reassuring reminder that you’re still in South London.
Arguably a bigger draw than any of this, though, is the Nunhead Cemetery. In the words of Southwark Council, it is “perhaps the least known but the most attractive of the seven Victorian cemeteries on London’s outskirts”. Down a quiet road, huge wrought-iron gates open onto a path that leads up to a grimly majestic ruined gothic chapel. Turn around for excellent views of the City and Canary Wharf but then press on into an eerie maze of trees, dense undergrowth and copious graves. There are no real showstoppers here, as all the big names are buried in Highgate, but with a bus tycoon here and music hall artist there, there are some attractive tombstones. Most of the names you see are very Anglo-Saxon, but clustered at one end a number of Greeks, Caribbeans and even a Zoroastrian Parsi can be found.
Even better than the view from Nunhead Cemetery is the view from nearby Telegraph Hill, which comprises a delightful pair of parks, set in attractive Victorian suburbia. There is the Telegraph Hill Centre, a much-loved community centre founded by anti-apartheid campaigner Trevor Huddleston as well as a Telegraph Hill Society. Much could be said on the subject, but at this point we’re straying from Nunhead into Brockley, and it’s time to catch that 17 minute train back to London Blackfriars. At the very least, you now know Nunhead is not as far as you think.