It’s worth going south of the Thames

In one of London’s blandest suburbs, Warren Robertson finds the best place to people-watch in town.

Away from the city centre, London is a cold city. Twisting streets, stark buildings, steel bridges, and clattering railways compete for attention with brightly lit 24-hour kebab shops, Wetherspoons pubs, and big-name brand stores. It’s a world most tourists won’t see as they wander the Thames, gaze up at the parliament buildings, or stop in at the British Museum, never once venturing south of the river.

The Borough of Lewisham is one of these unremarkable places. Tucked away in Zone 2 south-east of the city centre, it’s possible to get there on a train from Charing Cross station which takes roughly twenty minutes, but most people wouldn’t bother.

A clustered mess of old blocks of flats, and side streets filled with subdivided townhouses, central Lewisham’s greatest claim, apart from its rundown Lewisham shopping centre, is that it’s really near the famous Blackheath – where the main attractions are an annual Guy Fawkes fireworks display, its once famous association with highwaymen and the fact that it was almost certainly used for the disposal of the dead during the “Black Death”. Entirely unremarkable.

However, it was where I found myself living in 2008/9, battling to find work in the midst of the banking upheaval at the same time. Eking out a living in London, far from the city centre, I found solace in a place that’s still there.

If you head out of the train station and immediately turn left under the bridge, you will note a small, green-fronted, nondescript store called Maggie’s Cafe on your left. At all times of the day, it’s bustling with people who crowd around the little wooden tables, and if you’re even the tiniest bit adventurous you should go in and order yourself a breakfast.

During my impoverished time in the city, Maggie’s was a must-have, and to this day it’s one of the first places I stop when I’m in town. A traditional London “Caff”, Maggies is the type of establishment that was once popular in the capital city which is now full of bistros stocked with expensive branded sandwiches and “babyccinos”. Warm and vibrant with something of my old Scottish granny’s living room about it, Maggie’s also offers the greatest deal in the city.

For just £6.95, in today’s prices, you can build yourself breakfast from over 20 items that they will gladly bring you on three dinner plates without batting an eyelid. As you work your way through the sausages, bacon, eggs, black puddings, beans, bubble, beans, hashbrowns, liver and the like, Maggie herself, who feels as out of time as her restaurant, will come by to ask how your meal is going in her soft Irish accent, and top up your tea or milky coffee.

The last time I was there, a table of men in suits sat across from two dreadlocked students drinking beer with breakfast, while a crew of young rappers practised rhymes next to a bridge club of old ladies who were furiously debating local politics. A cluster of potbellied, white-plaster-dusted workmen in the green safety vests queued silently while a uniformed police officer ordered a coffee.

Outside the rain drizzled down, and each tinkle of the doorbell brought a burst of cold air and a new collection of people into a room that was warm with body heat and the smell of the grill. Forget a cafe on a Parisian street, if I am asked where my favourite place to people watch is, I always say Maggies in Lewisham.

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