'Its voice has the rasp of trams, trains, trucks.
Its eyes have the blaze of street stalls, eel stands, pin-table arcades and chestnut cans.
Its anatomy is decked with sooty bricks, cast-iron spines, and the marble pillars of pubs.
Its heart is that of its people - kind as a housewife, rough as a worker, busy as a tradesman, wide as a wide boy.' - The Elephant & Castle (Picture Post, 1949)
This writeup is now tremendously out of date. I had to move away, at long last priced out by the gentrification alluded to below. The Heygate is gone, the shopping centre is no-more, the Coronet has closed. The pubs now serve craft ales and expensive coffee shops abound. Even the roundabout has become a strange contraflow junction.
I have lived in Elephant and Castle for a year or so now. Through a stroke of luck I have found a small house that I share with two others down a quiet side-street away from the main roads. By bus Elephant and Castle is a mere fifteen minutes from Covent Garden and ten from London Bridge. Geographically it is the centre of greater London and as such convenient for those of us who shun suburbia. However, it retains the stigma of being south of the river and an area of some social and economic deprivation with the result that I have had trouble convincing people to visit me here. Gentrification however, is underway - arguably I am part of it - though I confess to a degree of cynicism about its merits.
Elephant and Castle has no fixed boundaries but roughly speaking it extends to Borough Street in the North, Old Kent Road and Great Dover street (part of the old Roman road Watling Street) in the East, and a fuzzy boundary with Kennington in the South West. The area is served by a large number of bus routes and by both the Northern Line and Bakerloo lines. Its two underground stations are combined so that it is possible to reach either line from either entrance. This creates something of a subterranean labyrinth particularly if one wishes to access the Bakerloo from the Northern Line entrance - a path which forces the traveller to actually walk through the southbound Northern Line platform. This is somewhat perilous for the unwary or the drunk as if there is a train present and sounding the doors-closing alarm it is all too easy to forget that it is going in the wrong direction and on the wrong line, a fate that has befallen me on more than one occasion. Also notable are the lifts which, when they are working, emit what sounds like a BBC Doctor Who style sound effect as the doors open and close.
Exiting the station, one can see that the area centres upon a large roundabout where several major roads meet. In the day, the roundabout is fairly nondescript, mostly surrounded by tall blocks of flats and a crumbling shopping centre. Its most notable feature being the Faraday memorial which is basically a stainless steel box. At night however, it takes on a different character. The lights from the never-ending stream of traffic and from the surrounding residential tower-blocks give the area the feel of a disreputable claustrophobic city-centre. One skyscraper in particular is uplit by two grimy neon-green floodlights that would not look out of place in a cyberpunk nightmare. This seems to be what the architects had in mind when they designed the latest addition to the area, Strata, a tall, slim building three-quarters encased by a white and blue sheaf out of which juts a dark sloped tower shaped like a combination of Barad-dûr and a cylon helmet.
At present the overriding atmosphere is one of urban decay but there is also some residual edginess and vitality. The buildings are largely darkened by polution and ill-maintained. New Kent Road is dominated by the ill-concieved Heygate Estate, now empty, but formerly a hulking crime-ridden monstrosity of Brutalist architecture and social deprivation. A regeneration project is ongoing and the estate is to be demolished. According to the artists impressions it is to replaced by another high-rise but this one will be set in perpetual sunshine in which beautiful people will while away the day lying on its grassy lawns. With remarkable and disturbing honesty, the artists seem to envisage the ethnic diversity of the district giving way to homogenous whiteness. The demolition was scheduled for 2006 but has now been postponed until 2012. The area centres on the shopping centre, the surrounding parades of shops and the market. These largely catering to the immediate demands of us local residents - fried chicken takeways, kebab houses, polish grocers and off-licenses, an all-night Afro-Carribean barbershop, a Tesco Express and bowling alley. There is also the Coronet Theatre night club, a 2200 capacity venue with an unusual art-deco interior that advertises its forthcoming shows via a scrolling red-on-black news ticker.
There are several pubs in the area but I am unqualified to give much of an opinion on them. I know there is a grottier-than-average Wetherspoons and a pub named after Charlie Chaplin who used to live around here. There is also the Elephant and Castle pub itself, the successor to that which gave the area its name. Unfortunately the only time I have been in there I had already missed last orders and so cannot comment save to say that it did not appear to serve any real ale. Sadly the pubs in the immediate area do not really cater to my tastes and as a consequence I tend to be found in the Roebuck on Great Dover street which is pretty much over the border into Borough.
As alluded to above, Elephant and Castle is undergoing some regeneration. Heygate is eventually to be demolished and more expensive housing built. The shopping centre is also to be replaced, so too, eventually, is the roundabout and subway network itself. The area's location gives it the potential for regeneration along the lines of other formerly deprived areas of central London. I am skeptical about the timescales and funding - already plans for the cross-river tram have been shelved by the Mayor and I suspect that without a major cultural venue like the Dome in North Greenwich or economic centre like the Docklands it will be some time before the area receives the necessary attention. Nevertheless, even at present the area maintains a distinctive if disreputable character.