Our recent trip to check out the gardens in Bonnington Square left us sorely in need of refreshment – and fortunately the area is very well endowed on the catering front. On this occasion we chose to get our caffeine fix at Italo, a bustling, fragrant and by all accounts popular deli-cafe which kind of spills out on to the pavement when the weather is warm enough.
The place is run by a pedigree partnership of the Di Lieto family, who ran Di Lieto in Stockwell for over 20 years, and Charlie Boxer, erstwhile novelist and closet foodie (and, incidentally, father of Frank, of Frank’s Campari Bar fame). As corner delis go, this place has got it all: piles of beautifully packaged bits of Italy (with quite a lot from other bits of the Med thrown in), a great range of hot home-made foods and general lunch fodder, cheeses, salamis, and hand-crafted cakes. But it is the smell of coffee which entices and domninates – and jolly good coffee it is too.
The coffee is Caffe Dolce, a fairly exclusive blend being offered at just a few London outlets. Our expresso was a full and manly affair, with a pleasant nutty aftertaste. None of that weird fruitiness that you get with some coffee. All in all Italo is definitely worth a detour next time you swing by the Oval or are Vauxhall bound.
Italo is at 13, Bonnington Square SW8 1TE, and is open Monday – Friday, 9.30am – 7.45pm, and Saturdays from 9.30am to 2pm. Tel: 020 7450 3773.
What is it? A two-for-the-price-of-one offering this time: Harleyford Road Community Garden is an apparenty shape-shifting (for which read ‘compact but easy to get lost in’), shady nature garden replete with benches, swings and a pond. Bonnington Square Pleasure Garden is a small but perfectly formed green patch fashioned from an old bomb site. The two are connected by a secret passage.
Where is it? Harleyford Road is actually a stretch of the A202 which is one of the busiest arteries of South East London: the Oval is but a strong-armed pitch over over the road, and the upper levels of MI6 are quite visible. The rather chi-chi Bonnington Square is just over the hedge and behind a row of buildings: the two gardens are all but joined at the hip. (And seemingly enjoyed by the hip.)
Why has it tickled our fancy? Because both plots truly are blooming examples of what community effort can do. It was the community (which at that time included garden designer Dan Pearson) that took control of the Bonnington Square space from the council in the 1990s, and it remains community led and fed and watered. The use of ‘Pleasure Gardens’ in the title also offers an affectionate throwback to the original gardens near the site: the Vauxhall Pleaure Gardens. The inclusion of the old waterwheel, and sundry bits of architectural salvage and mosaic, make this a delightful and quirky spot to while a way an hour or so on a sunny July afternoon. Not that Londonist gets two hour lunch breaks or anything.
Nature notes: There is nothing wild or particularly random about these two gardens – they are well maintained and full of well-thought out blooms (including an awful lot of pretty thistles). When we visited there were murmurous bees, and butterflies, and it was all, well, just so. The Harleyford Road garden has just enough overhanging trees and nooks and crannies for one to think that it might perhaps come alive more at night….
Anna Odrich began squatting in a square of derelict, condemned houses in Vauxhall, south London, in 1982. She later bought the house.
“Mine was the last house occupied on Bonnington Square so it was in the worst condition. It had huge holes in the roof, hardly a floorboard left – everybody else had used them to make fires or bookshelves – no gas, no electricity, no water.
“I started work. I would find things in skips: doors, floorboards, window frames, a bath. It took years to have amenities you could regard as functional. My first water was a garden hose from the ground floor. I learned a lot. When you’re not a professional things don’t always work out. I built about seven kitchens – they got better all the time and moved around the house.
“It makes me very annoyed when people say squatters have it easy. When we bought the house five years later the owners, the Inner London Education Authority, got a lot more money as all our work had made it more valuable.
“It’s very dangerous just to point fingers. There’s all kinds of squatters. There are freeloaders – I know all about this; at one point I had someone living on my bathroom floor for two months – but there’s freeloaders everywhere. There’s no reason to destroy it all for the sake of a few people.”
To walk into Italo is to see all of the reverence and care of his mothers approach to food married with a relaxed aesthetic that is Charlies trademark. With an emphasis on Italian produce, home-made fresh ravioli and great bunches of herbs sit next to plump tomatoes and crusty fresh bread, while staff bustle behind the counters, making coffee and generously stuffed panini for customers to linger over at an outside table. Its the very picture of bonhomie.
Three years ago, a boarded-up shop occupied this now-thronging corner of the square. Its owner, who had stoically seen the area was fought over by squatters and developers, had retired; the squatters won and created a peaceful network of streets abundant with greenery and a mildly eccentric personality. Into this scene stepped Charlie, with no retail experience but an abiding passion for Italian produce and a fan of the square, after soaking up the atmosphere from the Bonnington Café opposite. He, with his friend Luigi – whose own family had closed their deli not far away – decided to create their own shop. “I have a very strong dislike of expensive food shops and that whole Borough Market thing – the effect where quality translates into high prices and exclusivity,” says Charlie now. “People can feel excluded from the food revolution going on.”They dont at Italo. The shop stocks essentials and store-cupboard basics unusual and good-quality brands, often Italian, along with wine, Rococo chocolates owner Chantal Coady was once a Bonnington activist and treats including Gelato Delight ice-creams – worth a detour alone.Sadly, one item no longer in stock is Arabellas home-made terrine. “I was making two a week, which was fun, and they were very popular,” she recalls. “But it was quite tedious after the hundredth.” Lucky visitors, however, may spot her on one of her occasional visits to her sons shop.
Also a semi-regular fixture at Charlies shop is his son Frank, 24. Frank is the wild-haired, youngest of the clan, and his zest for life and what his brother Jackson calls “enormous charm, enthusiasm and grit” make him an asset to the familys operations, which he helps in the long gap between his bars opening months of July to September.
In the early ’80s Bonnington Square, only minutes from Vauxhall Bridge, was almost entirely inhabited by squatters. The film, telling the story of this urban community, revisits the inhabitants that created its bohemian setting. A utopian story of successful communal living, it stresses the idea of cohabitation based on teamwork. The use of animated decoupage of drawings and archive photos creates a video collage that relates well to the artists whose story it was in a warm and inviting way. This film was the best in the entire series.
In the early 1980s a large number of properties in Bonnington Square, Vauxhall, were acquired for demolition by the then Inner London Education Authority in advance of proposals to build a new school on the site. They were left empty and would have become derelict but for the intervention of a group of people who could see how they could be brought back into use on a temporary basis
They formed a housing co-op and negotiated with ILEA which eventually agreed to lease the properties to South London Family Housing Association, which handed over the management to the co-op. The co-op did up the houses, transformed the area and even opened a community café.
Years later plans for the school were eventually dropped and of course the properties had been saved. Today, there are various forms of tenure in the Square ranging from tenants to shared owners and even owners, but the amazing thing is that it was saved from dereliction and has gone on to provide a much sought after place to live.
It’s a brilliant example of how buildings can be preserved, money can be saved, people can be housed and how the environment can be enhanced!.
Funded by grants and local sponsorship, the garden includes a water wheel and lush, sub-tropical planting. Widely reported in the media, the Pleasure Garden is today regarded as one of the finest community gardens in London.
What’s going for it?
If you believe what you read in the property pages (I wouldn’t), Vauxhall and Nine Elms are where all the cool young daddios are. There’s still a cluster of nightclubs hunkered under the viaducts, and the gay village remains thriving. But now the swanky apartments have moved in, for how long? To cap it all work begins soon on America’s new fortress – sorry, embassy – complete with moat. Vauxhall is not for the faint-hearted. Still, all its hideousness equals good value, especially for its location, by the Thames, opposite Tate Britain. And hunt behind the roaring roads and you’ll find secret nooks of peace: Vauxhall Park, the grand terraces of Fentiman Road, Oval cricket ground, the Portuguese delis of South Lambeth Road, and the little community utopia of Bonnington Square, proof that even in the harshest of habitats, life can thrive.
The case against
Less a place, more a circle of hell. An unrelenting urban experience. Thundering roads as wide as the ocean. Trains overhead. Viaducts beneath. Blades of grass and trees rare as hens’ teeth – those nine elms are long gone. Patches can be unsafe after dark, even with MI6 in the ‘hood. New development’s not much improved it: the incomparably ugly St George’s Wharf will be in your eye sockets every day.
Tremendously. Vauxhall is on the Victoria line (zone one), and has trains to Waterloo and Clapham Junction (both five mins, every three/four minutes) and farther south. Super bus station, too.
Primaries a mixed bag: Wyvil, Ashmole, St Mark’s CofE and St Anne’s Catholic all “good” says Ofsted. Secondaries better: Archbishop Tenison’s “good”, Lilian Baylis “good” with “outstanding” features.
via The Guardian