Green and pleasant Peckham

Urban villages are everywhere, if you know where to look. Daniel Synge explores
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The Independent Culture
peckham on a saturday afternoon. "The highest murder rate in Europe," is how a local policeman consoled a friend who had recently been mugged in the area. Teenage mothers with prams, likely lads with bull terriers and Pinteresque men, seemingly trying to get to Sidcup, rub shoulders along Rye Lane. Ragga music pounds from a BMW parked on the kerb.

Just around the corner, an iron gate leads into a charming row of 46 two-storey Victorian cottages, where the smell of exhaust fumes is banished by eucalyptus, mint and basil. And silence. More like Rye, Sussex, than Peckham Rye, south London.

A woman in a barbour jacket runs out of her front door to call her dog: "Lucy, come back - you're going to get eaten," she shrieks as it runs along the long path between the rows of facing cottages. Two men are purposefully cutting rosebushes in the communal garden and putting them neatly into wastebags. "Morning Nigel," they shout sarcastically to a neighbour who has just emerged from his one-bedroom cottage in blazer and chinos. Like many in "the square" (as they refer to their idyll) all three men came to live here following divorces, and seem surprised by the area's bad reputation.

"We love Peckham," says Jamie Pearson, who is "something in the BBC".

The square, like any village community, thrives on gossip, and though "even the local people don't know it's here", the proximity and openness of the dwellings make it hard to lead a secret life.

"We've had a page-three model, an ex-diplomat and a gay vicar. Ten years ago a barrister was seen running along the path with only his socks on," remembers Sean Irwin, a resident of 14 years. "It's like any village in the country," adds Nigel Hogan, a refugee from "boring suburban" Sydenham.

In summer, the flowers and trees further enhance the oasis and the cottagers dine out in their tiny front gardens and hold street parties. In winter, it's drinks parties and carol singing. Add the village green, and John Major's vision of Britain is encapsulated - and not only in Peckham.

In neighbouring Camberwell, the traffic thunders along Church Street behind which stand eight cottages, originally built in the 1820s as stables or servants' quarters for a larger estate which has since vanished.

In this miniature village, only three miles from the city, mother of two, Sharon Lopez Cera, explains that the small piece of land opposite has become a haven for wildlife, such as foxes, hedgehogs, jays and a "mountain of cats". Though she shops, not at the village store, but at Safeway, and admits to "feeling a bit like living in a goldfish bowl" when curious strangers gawk at her home, she insists: "It's the only place that I would live with my kids - they have such a great time."

London's cottage-dwellers are not exclusively professionals who bought during the 1980s property boom. Many, like the Turner family who live at Gable Cottages near London Bridge, are descendants of the original almshouse residents, housed by Victorian benefactors following the Great Reform Act of 1832. Octavia Hill, a co-founder of The National Trust, was responsible for building the 12 cottages in Sudrey Street.

Now dwarfed by tower blocks, and only minutes from Elephant and Castle, these "two-up, two-downs" would not look out of place in a Hans Christian Andersen tale, with their pointed, tiled roofs and mock-Tudor plasterwork. Though not strictly almshouses themselves, the immaculate front lawn and shrubberies echo the nearby Hopton's Almshouses built to house old gentlemen of the Parish of St Saviours, Southwark, on a site near Blackfriars Bridge.

There are only a handful of domestic cottages left in inner London, but their existence in the face of rapid development and growth of the city shows that it is not only the countryside which offers community spirit, fresh flowers and peace and quiet.