Elephant and Castle: heaven in hell

For some odd reason, I love Elephant and Castle.

The South London ‘hood is being razed and rebuilt over the next ten years, but for now it’s still the Elephant. And it’s up there with Sadr City and Tivoli Gardens as one of the worst places on earth.

It’s one of those 60s civic planning dreams that cracked and faded like the cheap concrete they were built from. A time when big ideas – separate pedestrians and traffic, define walkways between dwellings, cluster shops together in single buildings – had to be executed by people who had no idea how they’d work in practice. And so we get urine-soaked subterreanean hellholes, sink estates where only the dealers are happy, and fearful rat runs home where there’s never any light at the end of the tunnel. Today, Elephant and Castle screams Failed Project so loudly that councillors, planners, residents and redevelopers all agree on what happens next: bulldoze the buildings, fill in the tunnels, and bury this cauldron of humanity beneath the next soaring vision. I love the place.

I love it because – like the Barbican, another concrete hellhole that would have looked terrific as an architect’s model – if you give the walls a thousand-yard stare, it’s still possible to see what the original planners saw. The hope they thought they could ingrain. The communities they wanted to create. The dreams they wanted to build, and – at the time – genuinely believed they could.

It starts with the tiles. The kilometres of tunnels that crisscross the area – built with the noble aims of keeping people and traffic apart, but which ended up alienating the people from their surroundings – are lined with millions of coloured tiles, patterned tiles arranged with thought and care. However filth-seeping and mugger-infested they’ve become, it’s still possible to imagine how they’d have filled the residents with bright sunbeams of hope.

Then there’s the centre itself. Elephant and Castle shopping centre, complete with elephant and castle on the top. A strange, empty place today – where some businesses still thrive, despite the low passing trade – it’s eclipsed by the outdoor markets around the Tube entrance. Selling everything from lightbulbs to saris, and often for pence, the retail area is proof that commerce thrives no matter how close to the edge you are.

And the Tube station. Oh, what a Tube. Barely a building; it’s a collection of tunnels, intimately interwoven with the dank corridors of the estate itself, less a station than a mark on some of its walls – and a few turnstiles. Here, the tiles have come down, removed or perhaps fallen with the hot breath of thousands of commuters who fill the passages like rats. No colour here, down in the depths of the Northern line. The walls are crumbling; I’ve seen abandoned Tube stations in better shape than this.

And that’s why I love Elephant and Castle. It’s a real place; somehow the failed dreams of planners resulted in somewhere that feels earthy and genuine. The Elephant will be gone soon, and unloved by most. But for now, I’ll keep on appreciating every damp crack in its crumbling concrete.

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