London area watch: Forest Hill, SE23

Families love bohemian Forest Hill because of its roomy villas, quirky shops and fast trains
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Havelock Walk
© Barry Phillips
Havelock Walk, where a number of artists have set up studios. One mews home belongs to sculptor David Mach
The arrival of the east London Overground train service has turned Forest Hill into a favourite with families who love its roomy, good-value homes and easy 25-minute commute to Canary Wharf.

A leafy south London suburb with breathtaking views over the capital, Forest Hill sits near lively East Dulwich, Brockley and Sydenham and has long been a draw for actors and musicians seeking homes among its Victorian villas and art deco blocks.

'To everyone’s astonishment, Jay-Z and Beyoncé turned up at From The Forest, a local café, last summer'

The award-winning Horniman Museum sits on the top of the hill, while closer to the high street, Havelock Walk has become an artists’ colony of renovated mews houses; one is home to sculptor David Mach, whose statue of King Kong made of 3,000 coat hangers was the hit of the 2010 Royal Academy Summer Exhibition.

Good quality four-bedroom Victorian houses can be found in dozens of streets for £380,000 to £500,000. First-time buyers can still find a one-bedroom flat for £165,000 to £250,000, while a two-bedroom garden flat in a smart period conversion costs £250,000 to £350,000.


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For years Forest Hill was held back by having a run-down town centre — it is bisected by a curve of the South Circular — but now boutiques, delis and galleries are springing up.

Secret supper club Gingerline has held a series of pop-ups around Forest Hill and neighbouring Honor Oak. To everyone’s astonishment, Jay-Z and Beyoncé turned up at From The Forest, a local café, last summer.

“There is something for everyone — from greasy spoon cafés to gastro pubs via eclectic coffee shops,” said Richard Hibbert of the Forest Hill Society.

“London’s centre of gravity seems to have shifted east, making Forest Hill perfectly placed for commuters"

Art lecturer Joanna Gore set up Canvas and Cream as a “new concept art space and dining experience” in London Road with her daughter Emily last year. “The restaurant funds the gallery and we also have studio spaces that we let out to artists.”

Canvas and Cream
© Graham Hussey
Joanna Gore and her daughter Emily, owners of Canvas and Cream restaurant and gallery, say the area has a real community feel
The creative upcycled interior — chandeliers decorated with whisky decanters, recycled front doors, a bar left over from a film set — is a selling point. “Cafés and restaurants in these outsider areas are so much more interesting,” said Emily, who has a background in event management. “The guy at the bar recognises you, it’s much more genuine and community-based.”

Fundraiser Sarah Cook has seen great changes in the 10 years she has lived in SE23. “I couldn’t afford to buy in Camberwell. But I got so much more space for my money. Forest Hill is a great place. The new shops are very cool, and it’s a much more bohemian, mixed community than East Dulwich.”

Innovations include a monthly food fair outside Forest Hill station to allow traders to test the local market before committing to a local lease. Aga’s Little Deli has taken a shop in Dartmouth Road, while the owners of The Butchery in London Road, Nathan Mills and Ruth Siwinska, feature in Raymond Blanc’s new TV series on slow cooking.

Dartmouth Road is becoming an increasingly arty hang out. Funky haberdashery Stag and Bow is run by textile artist Pascale Spall (sister of actor Rafe Spall) and her husband, furniture designer, Cyrus. They sells crafts, furniture and jewellery.

The Butchery
© Graham Hussey
Nathan Mills, left, of The Butchery. Nathan and co-owner Ruth Siwinska will feature in Raymond Blanc's new TV series
“Our emphasis is on the handmade — so it’s a way to showcase the great designer-makers around here,” explained Pascale. “When we first signed the lease in 2010, it was a risk,” acknowledged Cyrus. “There were 19 empty shops, but in the past couple of years it has gone crazy.”

Across the road is not-for-profit artists’ gallery Doopo Doopo, the Dartmouth Arms gastro pub, and Sugar Mountain sweet shop. At No 33, you’ll find Montage, a new vintage shop, café and gallery set up by three enterprising Polish artists. It’s a lovely place to listen to Forties jazz over a cup of tea.

Even the former Sixties post office has been turned into a cool bar called Sylvan Post, with cosy, low-lit banquette nooks, leather armchairs and Royal Mail souvenirs.

“London’s centre of gravity seems to have shifted east, making Forest Hill perfectly placed for commuters,” said resident Ian John, who uses the Overground to travel to the Hunky Dory vintage clothing shop in Brick Lane that he runs with his partner Ian Bodenham. Ian has spotted another telling trend: “I keep seeing trendy people with beards in Forest Hill and thinking, where have they come from?”

Horniman museum
© Graham Hussey
The award-winning Horniman Museum sits at the top of the hill
The Hob pub is famous for its stand-up comedy; local boy Micky Flanagan performs there. Meanwhile, Forest Hill Pools in Dartmouth Road — built in 1884, London’s oldest swimming pool — has had a multimillion-pound refurbishment, incorporating the Victorian frontage of the original building and featuring a 25-metre pool and new health and fitness suite. Even the town’s local McDonald’s has become a gym.

Forest Hill: local websites

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