The discovery of Herne Hill has been reported in the press. Again. It happens, on average, once a decade. Yet, like America, it was always in plain sight. Of course, Columbus, to his dying day, believed he’d sailed to the Far East, and in any case he spent almost all his time exploring the so-called West Indies rather than the American mainland. And the Vikings got there before him – not to mention the aboriginal inhabitants, wherever they came from. But one can take an analogy too far… what was I saying before I rudely interrupted myself?

Back in January 1988 the Evening Standard ran a property feature called “What’s So Great About Herne Hill”. Not a lot, apparently: a couple of decent French restaurants, Brockwell Park, a railway station and some Victorian pubs, “picturesque from the outside”. However, the “Herne Hill Society … strives manfully to give the area unity, identity and a true blue sense of pride.”

A bit down at heel, but picturesque in parts

“You will still hear and see the rag and bone man pass with his horse and cart”: cue the Steptoe and Son theme.

Happy days, when you could bag a five-bedroom house in Elfindale Road for less than 120 grand – and it would have cost you only half of that in 1985 (now that’s what I call inflation). We read that “fresh-faced first buyers who come to Herne Hill in search of residential property at reasonable prices are struck with a tricky but not insuperable problem. Describing – especially to north-side friends – exactly where it is.” I carry a bag of chips on my shoulder, but the implication, as always, is that London proper is North of the River, whereas South London is – if not entirely beyond the pale – where you live if you are desperate. I mean, surely everyone knows where Kingsbury is?

***

That little feature appeared 34 years ago, and yet we remain undiscovered. According to a recent article in the Financial Times (6 October), our patch of South London was a “low-profile residential pocket … until it was reported that former prime minister Boris Johnson was … making the short move to Herne Hill from Camberwell. [Herne Hill] is quieter than Brixton and yet not quite as fashionable as next-door Dulwich”.

Oh dear, we’re still not as fashionable as Dulwich

But with the imminent arrival of Mr and Mrs Johnson we shall inhabit terra incognita no more. We can look forward to the return of astronomical house price rises; according to the FT they only rose in Herne Hill by a miserable 7% during the last three years.

That the Johnsons were poised to move to the boondocks of SE24 has been an open secret here for a long time. A neighbour identified a house that was under offer. But a house with no drive? Really – or was it a smokescreen? Now I hear that they will be moving into another substantial property. But even if I knew for sure I wouldn’t put it in writing because I don’t want to start a riot in my own back yard. According to social media reports, “the locals are up in arms about it”. Doubtless this is true of some, but the general attitude seems more like studied indifference or even mild amusement. Of course, we are famously welcoming, open-minded and liberal – on most matters – and every second person here seems to be French, Italian or German. 

Herne Hill was, and probably still is, more “Remain” than almost anywhere in the UK. Moreover, in 2019 it returned (as part of Dulwich & West Norwood) a Labour MP with a majority of 27,000, and is home to two more Labour MPs as well as several Labour councillors. Obviously the Johnsons would have been aware of that, but in any case there are hardly any Conservative-held boroughs left in Central London these days. And unlike one of his heroes, the virtuous Cincinnatus, Boris doesn’t seem ready to embrace country life. 

Talking of publications associated with doctors’ waiting rooms, an article in Tatler (October 2022) by a certain “Isaac Bickerstaff” is an impressively detailed guide to the shopping options the current Mrs Johnson can enjoy once Dilyn and the sprogs are settled in. How many of their potential customers read the Tatler I could not say, but the plugs for Wild and Lees, Lowie, Jarr Market, Seasons of England, Jo’s House, The Flower Lady, Myla and Davis and Llewellyn’s will doubtless be appreciated by their proprietors. 

As Carrie Johnson owned a flat just up the road in Camberwell it is hard to believe that any of this will have come as news to her, but the Tatler is what it is. Posing the burning question of the day: “could she soon be the Queen Bee of the Herne Hill mum set?” Pseudo-Bickerstaff name-checks Daisy Hoppen (niece of designer Kelly, I learn), Jasmine Hemsley (me neither), Liz MacCuish (ditto – has five kids and a dog), Dolly Alderton (famously single journalist… a clue, perhaps?) and Erin O’Connor (even I know who she is). I must get out and enjoy a macchiato with the super-influencers more often. We could do with them on the Committee.

I close my eyes but I still cannot picture Boris in the Prince Regent, nursing a pint and chewing the fat with local heroes Jay Rayner and Sir Mark Rylance while Carrie has her hair done. But it’s been a funny old year.

As published in Herne Hill magazine #155 (Winter 2022)

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