I have a vague memory of my first encounter with Elephant and Castle. We were going to visit one of my distant relatives in the hospital near Waterloo, and I remember getting stuck on the massive roundabout at E&C, and seeing the Elephant out of my window, looking sad and paint-flaked.
I can't remember how old I was - maybe twelve? - but I do remember thinking, 'God this is a scary area.'
Fast forward a few years, and I applied to do an MA in Screenwriting at London College of Communication, without really thinking about where the campus was based. I duly trotted off to the interview, emerging from Elephant and Castle tube station and promptly getting completely and utterly lost trying to navigate my way through the frankly terrifying underpass. I made it, eventually, relatively unscathed. And was offered a place on the course. For the last two years, therefore, Elephant and Castle has featured more heavily in my life than I ever would have anticipated as I stared out of that car window.
On the first day back of my term this year, we were told to go to the shopping centre and follow someone around for half an hour, making notes about them, which we would then use to create a semi-fictional character. I'd never really bothered to leave the university building before - apart from obligatory trips to the pub after class - and so I'd never been to the shopping centre.
I was amazed. It's easily one of the most interesting places I've ever seen in London. It's like a time warp - and walking around reminded me so strongly of my childhood, and the kind of shopping centres I used to visit with my Mum when I was little. It's so eighties - everything from the old shop signs, to the swirly orange-and-green carpet, the garish multi-coloured fascias and the escalators leading up to the London Palace Bingo. It's kind of amazing, in a rather run-down, impoverished way. Not so much shabby chic as shabby bleak.
When we got back to class, I squirreled my iPhone onto my lap and began researching the area. There was so much I didn't know about it. Apparently, in Victorian times, it was known as the 'Piccadilly Circus of the South' - with shops, cinemas, dance halls and a direct tram line. But it was heavily bombed in the war, and then in the 1950s, plans began to build the largest enclosed shopping centre in Europe on the site. In comparison with contemporary beasts like Westfields, the neo Brutalist centre was relatively modest in size, but the whole thing was designed around the core belief that the future of transport lay with the car. Which goes some way to explaining the way it now lies squashed in on all sides by busy roads. The underpass which transports pedestrians around the area - clearly the design of someone who can do the Rubik's cube with their eyes shut - is confusing, bewildering, smelly and not somewhere you'd want to be late at night. It's hard to believe planners and developers ever believed it would appeal to shoppers.
The shopping centre was a failure from the very beginning, with only 29 out of a possible 120 shops trading when it opened in 1965. It's not a huge surprise to see why. To quote postwarbuildings.com: 'The centre is essentially a windowless box topped by a steel-framed meccano-like office block called Hannibal House.'
Hannibal House? Could they have made it sound any more like the location for a horror movie?
Nowadays, most shops in the centre are actually open and trading, but many are scruffy 'money transfer' type places, with the odd chain store sticking out less than you'd think thanks to their retro signs (I swear the Boots sign hasn't been upgraded since 1984). There's been a market outside the shopping centre and tube station since the 1990s, and this is definitely where you see most signs of life. It seems busy and bustling and there's a large Latin American community in the area - several people from my course ended up following people who spoke Spanish.
Like many run-down areas of London, E&C is in the middle of a regeneration at present - recently developers unearthed 500 medieval skeletons while digging out the foundations for a new leisure centre. The shopping centre itself was meant to have been demolished in 2010, and apparently the large amount of asbestos on the site means work won't even start till 2015.
It's going to be replaced with another similar mall. Maybe they'll call it the 'Westfield of the South'. I can't help thinking it's a shame, somehow. Terrifying and scruffy it may be, but at least, at the moment, the area still has a personality.