In Dickens’s time, this snaking Southwark side street was called Dirty Lane – and rightly so. To the north: a prison that held the young Charles’s dad. To the south: a second prison. And to the east: oh, just another prison. Creeping between them was a grubby back road dedicated to the manufacture of candles, fur goods and guns, along with dubious taverns and the dubious people who lurked in them.
Fortunately, you can come to this part of town with greater expectations nowadays. The renamed Great Suffolk Street is renowned for feelgood grub and a burgeoning arts scene but still has some of that old rough-and-tumble about it. Boxing gyms cram themselves under railway arches; late-night raves clatter away in disintegrating Victorian warehouses. The result is a reassuringly imperfect patch of central London.
Lying in the shadow of Tate Modern’s towering chimney, this is classic post-industrial Bankside. Old and new Southwark give way to one another at the junction with Union Street, a culinary crossroads of sorts. Here, fresh produce from Borough Market is carted into workmanlike cafés where rowdy locals squish on to tables with culture pilgrims who got lost somewhere near the Oxo Tower. Those dirty Dickensians would not believe their eyes.
Pie and mash at Terry’s, a nostalgic cockney caff. Booming owner Austin greets every customer personally.
Fit-to-burst tacos at El Vergel, a cavernous Latin eatery set back from the road but reliably filled with lunch-hour clamour.
Moreish Italian platters at the Union Street Café, a former warehouse that is surely no stranger to industrial-strength language: its proprietor is Gordon Ramsay.
A few jars in The Lord Nelson. What looks like a humdrum estate pub from a distance turns out to be a wacky, graffiti-sprayed boozer inside; it’s famous for burgers made of horse and zebra.
A cheap morning cuppa at Frank’s Café round the corner, in Southwark Street: proudly nothing to do with the hip rooftop bar in Peckham, this is a place of simple pleasures in a sometimes overdeveloped area.
A liquid lunch at pub-cum-pizzeria The Libertine. You’ll be down for a blissful, carb-induced afternoon snooze after a visit here.
An old-school bag of groceries from The Fruit Tree, catering for any vitamin C enthusiast who’s concerned that nearby Borough Market will be too full of Instagrammers.
Arts and crafts from the new Africa Centre HQ, where occasional pop-up markets offer products from across the continent.
See a play or musical at the Union Theatre. It’s just moved from its old archway to a new location, so performers no longer have to compete with the rumbling of trains overhead.
Take out the day’s stresses on the punchbags at the Ring Boxing Club. At one of the beginner-friendly ‘Berserker’ classes, there’s no worry about being hit back.
Raise an eyebrow at the modern art installations at Jerwood Visual Arts, a multipurpose venue down nearby Union Street, with a tranquil conservatory-café that feels a long way from Zone 1.
And if you only do one thing…
Club the night away in the atmospheric Victorian tunnels of the Great Suffolk Street Warehouse. Thanks to nearby Southwark station, this is also rare night-tube territory south of the river.