On the New York Times' interesting and useful "In Transit'' blog the other day, I caught a reference to a new food shop and culinary school, established by British celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, in what nytimes.com called "London's chic Battersea district.''
Chic? Battersea? Trendy, maybe. "In transition,'' definitely. But, chic and Battersea are two words that seldom go together - all the less so for those who have known the Thames-side district for a long time.
My English-born wife grew up in Battersea, when the south London area was a decidedly gritty and emphatically downmarket place. A working-class district across the Thames from posh Chelsea and long-dominated by the massive Battersea Power Station, Battersea was heavily bombed during World War II, due to the presence of the power station and the nearness of Clapham Junction, with its tangle of railroad lines. The house my wife's parents lived in before she was born was destroyed by a German bomb shortly after they providently moved out; the church up the street from their new flat on Rush Hill Road was similarly obliterated. The church was rebuilt, but when we visited Battersea to see her old haunts a few years back, there was still a vacant lot and an impromptu peoples' park where my wife's parents' house once stood. Most of Battersea has been rebuilt, but much of it looks worn and weary.
Still, the old 'hood is changing, if in fits and starts. We toured the former power plant - its high roof caved in, a pair of peregrine falcons nesting in the upper reaches, the station's four landmark smokestacks stabbing the sky - in a golf cart. We were shown around on a press tour by a hard-hatted developer with ambitious plans to renovate the cavernous abandoned plant with housing, retail and dining, complete with a new fleet of swift water taxis. That project appears to have stalled, though riverside Battersea Park right nearby has been brightened, new riverside housing has been built and other changes are afoot.
Walking up Lavender Hill after taking the 137 red double-decker bus from truly chic Mayfair, we came to a stretch of road that hosted no fewer than eight estate agents' shops hawking real state. Humble flats of the type my wife grew up in were selling as condominiums for staggering sums. The old town hall is now a lively and innovative nexus for new art - the Battersea Arts Centre (www.bac.org.uk). The grotty old pub at the foot of Rush Hill Road was now a smart cafe called the Lavender. The old news agents' shop is yet another estate agents' shop. The run-down old mews where shops took delivery in back is a gated community. We stopped in at an Italian restaurant and had some of the best pizza imaginable.
So far, so encouraging - but chic? I don't think so, not yet. Just off Lavender Hill, the bright re-dos give way to blocks of fixer-uppers and dog-fouled streets. Most of the buildings are Victorian-era and dreary. Clearly, Battersea is seeing better days, and this is all to the good; realistically, it has a ways to go before becoming a bona fide part of gentrified London.
So, Battersea is a work in progress, but an interesting work. If you are traveling to or around London, you might want to check it out. Battersea was until recently considered so marginal, it is one of the few parts of Greater London that doesn't have an Underground station. There is talk of extending the Northern line to Battersea, but so far, it's just talk. In the meanwhile, the district is linked by taxis and especially buses to the rest of London.
The aforementioned Jamie Oliver's food store/culinary school, called Recipease, is located at 48-50 St. John's Road, tel. 44 203 006 0001, www.recipsease.com. Not far off, foodies can also find a wine bar, Artisan & Vine, founded last year, that features "natural and organic' wines. It is located at 126 St. John's Hill, tel. 44 207 228 4997, (www.artisanandwine.com).