My semester was magical because of the accident of where I lived during those months. Ten other Oberlin students and I were crammed into an old Georgian row home in Bonnington Square, in Vauxhall — a London neighborhood on the south bank of the Thames. We were all English majors, and we were spending a semester taking a class on the history of the “masque” and going to as many plays as we could fit in.
It was an incredible semester, and Bonnington Square was at the heart of it. The old 18th century Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens — so notorious, so perfectly naughty, and now dwindled to nothing but a bare, dock-infested expanse of lawn — were 100 meters away. We used to walk across that scrubby green and wonder if the sex, the thrills, the theater of the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens had soaked into the earth, or whether they were gone –dissipated into the sky.
A new garden – Bonnington Square Garden – was being crafted on our doorstep. It had been a bomb-site, and then a wasteland of stinging nettles — now neighbors were coming together to make it into something rich and wondrous. Our neighbors to the left were squatters with the most amazing sense of style — we watched as they transformed their house from a Georgian ruin into a grungy, post-industrial palace. An array of caravans painted with mysterious symbols turned up each month at the full moon, disgorging druids and witches – apparently a “ley line,” an ancient path that some said was a source of magical power, ran through Bonnington Square. Down the road the Bonnington Square Café, which had started as a squat café and which served up rib-sticking vegan treats by candlelight, drew us in at lunchtimes, and we would stay all day, wondering if there were anywhere like this, anywhere at all, in America.
We adored Bonnington Square. My friends and I, rolling out of bed late after a long night at the theater and then in the clubs, where we dressed like fallen angels and danced until we saw god, used to sit on the steps drinking our coffee and watching the square. There the squatters would come, heaving some talismanic metal object they had found in the defunct marble factory around the corner, or discarded on the street. There was the community coalition, digging in their patch of bomb-scarred earth. A druid leaned against his caravan, sucking on a cigarette and watching us through narrowed eyes. His girlfriend stuck an arm out a tiny open hatch, and he passed the cigarette through to her.
Charlie’s mother is Arabella Boxer, a great cookery writer and a close friend of my own mother. She used to babysit me, and taught me all about cooking – my mum thinks food is something you eat so you don’t die, but Arabella taught me how to peel tomatoes and grind pepper. Charlie now has two sons, Jackson my godson and Frank, and owns Italo. That’s where all three of us started our businesses; it’s where Frank was before Frank’s Café and Campari Bar in Peckham; where Jackson was before he opened Brunswick House around the corner; and where Tommy Adams and I were before we started Pitt Cue. I met Tommy when I was working here in 2010 and he was at the Blueprint Café with Jeremy Lee, who brought him to a charity evening at the Bonnington Square Café, opposite Italo. We got talking and discovered a mutual interest in wine, and a few months later he ended up working in the kitchen with me. I needed another chef to realise my barbecue food truck dream, and it turned out Tom had been making smoked food since he was a boy. We opened the truck in May last year on the South Bank, and our Soho restaurant in January.I love this square so much that I moved here last summer. Everyone thinks of Vauxhall as just a hideous roundabout, but this place is quiet, and there’s a real sense of community. The Boxers are the closest thing I have to a family here, and I eat breakfast with them at Italo almost every day. They are a sort of South London mafia, and I’m the godfather.
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There have even been royal sightings in Vauxhall. Prince Harry and Kate Middleton were separately enthusiastic visitors to the roller disco nights at the Renaissance Rooms on Wandsworth Road back in 2008 and 2009.
To add to the mix, the railway arches not occupied by clubs or showrooms are home to the Portuguese Casa Madeira and Pico Bar and the Italian restaurant Moratti, foodie overspill from nearby Little Lisbon on South Lambeth Road.
There are plans afoot to encourage these lively venues to put out tables on the Pleasure Gardens at the back, as well as Albert Embankment at the front, where diners can stare at the MI6 building, at Jeffrey Archer’s penthouse atop riverside Alembic House, and downstream to Westminster.
Bonnington Square, run for years by a housing association that planted a community garden and lined the streets with palm trees, is now home not only to its original vegan café but also to the cool Bonnington Square Bed and Breakfast and a lovely deli, Italo, run by Mark and Arabella Boxer’s eldest son Charlie with the scion of the south London de Lieto baking clan.
My best find (thanks to Time Out London) was Bonnington Cafe (11 Vauxhall Grove, www.bonningtoncafe.co.uk), not far from the Kia Oval cricket ground, which puts it off the path. But I did have a sit-down lunch of vegetarian squash/chickpea curry over rice and a nice green salad for $8 (also open for dinner). It’s about the dishes, not the decor, at this community-run eatery. Afterward, stroll around the square and you’ll see Bonnington’s pocket park (and head over to the Harleyford Road Community Garden while you’re at it). Because especially in the coming weeks, London promises to be anything but an oasis of calm.