For almost 200 years, the New Spring Garden at Vauxhall was a focal point of pleasure and revelry for Londoners, a place where all sections of society would gather, listen to music, watch themed exhibitions and make merry. The sort of place that Peter Mandelson probably dreams of.
How times have changed. Londoners are much more likely to run in droves to flee Vauxhall today, put off by its constant traffic, uncrossable roads and the fact that its most famous resident is Jeffrey Archer. However, the furiously urban setting is an an effective disguise for a diverse set of sub-cultures - the "one way" signs in Vauxhall should be read with a pinch of salt.
As sub-cultures go, Military Intelligence, section six - otherwise known as MI6 - is about as impressive as it gets. Its striking sandy-brick and green headquarters (above) sit to the south of Vauxhall Bridge, within nodding distance of its official cousins just down the river in Westminster. There is no visible entrance to the building, and even the waterfront benches have a Le Carre-esque air - their deep-seated, enclosed design means that it is impossible to see one's neighbour on the next seat along.
A few steps along the river towards town is the swish reception of Peninsula Heights, the swanky penthouse pad of Jeffrey Archer and setting for the BT ads. Worth noting from this vantage point are the Tate Gallery on the opposite bank and, doubling back, the heroic bronze statues reaching from Vauxhall Bridge, which opened in 1816. The four on either side represent Pottery, Engineering, Architecture and Agriculture on the upstream side, and Science, Fine Arts, Local Government and Education downstream.
Another vibrant sub-culture in Vauxhall is the thrusting gay scene. The Vauxhall Tavern by the station hosts Duckies, a cultish mixed night, complemented by the Market Tavern on Nine Elms Lane, while harder-core options include Fist at the Dungeon and the strictly leather/ uniform scene offered at The Hoist. Mainstream clubbers have options too - Cloud Nine on the Albert Embankment and the Colosseum, again on Nine Elms Lane.
For a complete change of scene, Vauxhall City Farm on the edge of the former Pleasure Garden is home to some bewildered-looking, but well-tended animals including a Ewe called Blanche, and Squeaky the ferret. It is worth a visit, if only to remind yourself what manure smells like. The open ground to the north of the farm is all that remains of the once vast New Spring Garden site.
Given the marked absence of peaceful ambience around Vauxhall, there is a surprising number of good restaurants. The Gallery is a wonderfully mellow and stylish Spanish tapas bar which occupies the first floor of a corner site opposite Vauxhall Bridge. The Bonnington Centre Cafe, in Vauxhall Grove, is on the wrong side of the tracks, but is at the heart of a bohemian oasis formed around Bonnington Square. The cafe is open in the evenings and offers cheap veggie nosh in extraordinary tranquillity.
Vauxhall has undoubtedly changed beyond recognition in the last 150 years, but as the closing lines of the above-quoted contemporary ballad - and a visit to any of the area's uproarious clubs - demonstrate, not that much.
"Here they drink, and there they cram/ Chicken, pasty, beef and ham/ Women squeak and men drunk fall/ Sweet enjoyment of Vauxhall."Reuse content