The north-south divide:is the other side of the Thames really that different?

From a smart north London house to a bright loft with views of the Shard, one Londoner compares living north and south of the river...

When I broke the news, my friends were appalled: “We’ll never see you again!” It’s not Vilnius or Nanjing, I explained patiently. You can take the Northern line. Or cycle. It’s only four miles. 

But they sighed and shook their heads, wondering how we would live without Ottolenghi and Sweaty Betty.

My husband and I moved to Islington from Deptford in 1990, to a two-bedroom flat for four times my then-meagre salary. In 2001, we crept further north, to a Twenties semi in Highbury with a big garden and no central heating. It hadn’t sold, the agent told us, because it reminded English people of their grannies’ houses. My granny lived in a high-rise in Miami, so I was immune.

Fifteen years passed and I felt suddenly restless. Highbury was lovely, but perhaps too suburban? In a matter of months, our daughter would be leaving home. Did we need three bedrooms? Perhaps it was time for a change, but where would we go? California? Scotland? 

One day while messing about online, I stumbled on an open plan photographer’s loft in an industrial building with 16ft-high ceilings, a pitched glass roof, and permission for residential use. 

It was exactly the place I had dreamed of in my twenties, when home was an overpriced slum in Manhattan, a fifth-floor walk-up with the bathtub in the kitchen. And the loft was priced £500,000 less than our modest north London semi. “Do you have any idea where Borough is?” I asked my husband. “Not really,” he said. We Googled it.

Despite my daughter insisting she was not moving during her A-levels, I put in an offer. “Writers need to change the view from the window,” I said pompously, when everyone asked how we could possibly move south. 

We moved the day after my daughter’s last exam. The new neighbourhood has no Waitrose, no Whistles no Cocktail Club. But the Globe, the Tate Modern, the National Theatre, the Old Vic, the BFI and the Thames are all 10 minutes walk away. Even on the greyest day the place is flooded with light. And the sound of rain on the roof reminds me of camping.

There are downsides. Every morning I have to drive the dogs to Burgess Park and every afternoon I interrupt work to take them out to whatever scrap of park I can find within half a mile. 

I miss Hampstead Heath and Clissold Park, where my dog-walking friends gathered in gossipy groups. But Burgess Park has the world’s best café and the dogs love swimming in the lake. They don’t seem to miss the garden.

I’ve swapped the Holloway Road Waitrose for Lidl in Old Kent Road. I love Borough Market, and after six months, we’re discovering the good local restaurants. It’s grittier down here, younger, and friendlier, too. 

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So much to see and do: Meg Rosoff says her daughter’s uni pals love the view of the Shard from her new south-east London home

 

Everyone says hello and complains about the road diversions and the pneumatic drills. Nothing is automatic any more; my brain has to forge new pathways every time I leave the house. The pubs are amazing but maybe at 58, I’ve outgrown pub life. When my daughter comes home from uni, she and her friends congregate on the roof and stare at the Shard, feeling unbearably trendy.

My husband misses the Arsenal stadium. I miss the winter flowering cherry tree he planted when I finished cancer treatment.

South London feels like an entirely new city. And we need new friends. For 25 years we met people and befriended them because, “you live just round the corner, come for a drink!” Our north London friends have all come to visit, tentatively, like Neil Armstrong stepping foot on the moon. “Wow,” they say. “It’s amazing here.” And then they scurry home. 

I’m trying to convince them all to move south. “You’ll love it,” I tell them, and they smile politely.  I want to add that, after 26 years, London feels brand new, as thrilling and fresh as it did in 1977 when I first left America and knew at once that I would settle here forever. 

I’ve changed the view from the window. And it looks great.

 


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