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Elephant and Castle Mall

The Elephant guarding the Elephant Mall

The Elephant guarding the Elephant Mall

The Mall . . . Britain’s first ever indoor shopping mall. I still drop in. I feel almost affectionate for it now, this decaying hulk that has been so central to my London for going on twenty years – ever since I first moved here as an adult in the fall of 87, not a month before the stock market tanked just as it did last week.

The mall feels embattled, though I wonder how long this feeling will last if the credit crunch deepens. At what point will the plug be pulled on all those new towers going up north and west of the roundabout, at what point will the ‘revitalization’ of the Elephant be put on hold? In the late 1980’s, when I was living in Montreal, you could walk downtown and see empty lots everywhere. Empty hi-rises and luxury shopping malls as well, with vacancy rates of 50% and up. You’d go on the top floor of Cours Mont Royal and see mannequins stacked up in the empty storefronts . . .

The Heygate Estate is half sealed off. Talked to my old flatmate last week and he said he was being moved out in a couple of weeks. Yet somehow, the mall survives. The little Columbian cafe in the middle of the second floor is almost pleasant with the Columbian accordion music in the background. On Sunday, when I was down, sunlight poured through the open doors and the traffic was minimal so you were spared the usual traffic roar that makes anywhere in the Elephant feel like the edge of an expressway.

Stairway to the Bingo Palace

Stairway to the Bingo Palace

You can never get away from the basic airport terminal feel of the mall’s upper level, with the terrible muzak played a little too loud, the concrete ceilings with the water sprinkler plugs, the flourescent lights reflecting off those strange pink and orange pillars- more than an hour there has a curiously deadening effect, but all malls feel deadening to some extent. In the evenings it is mostly empty but for a few stragglers off the trains, and people in the cafe. yet the doors remain open, so you can continue off the tunnels, through the mall to New Kent Road – I guess the Bingo Palace must stay open late.

It’s never menacing like it seemed when I first came to the Elephant in the late 80’s. One evening I came in to find a bunch of kids breakdancing in front of all the funky, council-issue graffiti on the billboards covering the empty storefronts. The main floor has not one, but two, excellent second hand bookstores and Le Bodeguita, the Columbian restaurant with the big glass windows in the corner, has dancing and great food. The Bingo Palace has been refurbished and does a good business, and there is some sort of bar on top with tables out on the roof. The Polish deli by the entrance to the train station has good sausage and Polish deli stuff cheap. An artist has taken over one of the storefronts, displaying drawings in an exhibition called Elephant Hotel. By the main roundabout entrance is a Chinese Herbalist advertising remedies for ‘man problems.’

You may not want to hang out here, but for an hour on a rainy day, the Elephant Mall is a little more interesting than most shopping malls.

Flourescent Elephants

Flourescent Elephants

6 thoughts on “Elephant and Castle Mall”

  1. I find it a little bit fascinating, and yes you have captured something about the place, but I do hate it.

    I didn’t realise it was the first undercover Mall in England. That’s amazing! I walk through it every morning and every night, and have done for two years. I know it’s old now, but the thing about the place is; you can see it has NEVER quite worked. The disabled lift seems to have been removed, and the ATM opposite the Polish shop has never worked. The escalators are down a couple of days every month, and outside, you can see where patches of brickwork have been removed for repair decades ago, and never replaced, but covered in plywood and painted red, or simply left. See above the market stalls below the Tube station. It’s never had full occupancy. I heard that they painted it pink once so it wouldn’t be seen as a white elephant. Even the ugly tower block that rises above seems aptly named “Hannibal House”.

    Like the Heygate Estate and the pedestrian subways, it’s a big ugly example of how wrong we can get it sometimes. All of Elephant is like that. It should almost be preserved like some of the filthy ugly 60s Soviet buildings in beautiful Baltic cities like Riga; just to show how ugly those times were.

    The big steel and aluminium box on the traffic roundabout is actually a monument to Michael Faraday, but few people know it. It was originally supposed to be glass, to show off the London Underground Electricity Substation within, but deemed dangerous, so became what it now is, and since 1962 has been in a spot where humans can’t get to anyway.

    I’ll be glad to see the back of the whole Elephant!

    Great article though. Thanks!

  2. Great comment! Thanks!

    I love the part about nothing working. It’s so true and always has been. My most vivid memory of the first time i went to the mall in 1987 was trying to make a phone call and not a single phone box worked. Not one. And yes, I do believe it used to be white, or maybe off-white before they painted it pink in the early 90’s to cheer the area up.

    I didn’t know the Micheal Faraday monument was supposed to be glass. I wonder how long it would have lasted if it had been.

    I think I like it now mainly out of nostalgia. And you’re right, everything from the roundabout to the mall to the Heygate should be preserved and turned into a theme park. Maybe make the Alexander Fleming Building back into a dole office and bring back the masses of drunks in the tunnels. Just to remind us all how things really were.

  3. when i was little i used to go there with my mum and dad it was great then i was moved into care i always imagened it to be diffrent but i was wrong its still the same.

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