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24 Hours In Vauxhall

Morgan Meaker

Vauxhall may be best known for its nightlife but it also boasts a creative district that has tempted art world mogul Damien Hirst to open a gallery here and there’s talk of Mayfair dealers following close behind, in search of cheaper rents.

At first glance Vauxhall looks unremarkable. Chains like Nandos, Pret and Starbucks skirt the river of cars; earlier this month, it was here a cyclist met his grizzly end. A bus station composed of razor blade architecture stands marooned in the middle of relentless, surging traffic. 

This is the kind of place that’s no good at first impressions but beneath its surface, it’s entirely unique - undiscovered despite its central location. But it’s an area that struggles with its own identity. Yuppie residents seethe with resentment against the 24-hour party culture.

Kennington Lane Café serves solid fry ups for under a fiver and the manager has an attitude you thought only existed in an Eastenders ‘kaf’. He makes visitors feel immediately welcome, sparking up easy conversation – as if they came every day. 

Vauxhall may be best known for its nightlife but it also boasts a creative district that has tempted art world mogul Damien Hirst to open a gallery here and there’s talk of Mayfair dealers following close behind, in search of cheaper rents.

Already the area can claim contemporary spaces such as Gasworks, Space Station and Beaconsfield. The art leaks outdoors; recently Vauxhall One teamed up with guerrilla gardeners to create a pop up sculpture garden, featuring the nomadic structures of Royal Academy artist, Katie Surridge.

Tamesis Dock is the perfect setting for an afternoon pint. The anarchic-looking boat floats in view of Big Ben and the London Eye, claiming a character-laden atmosphere that’s becoming rare in central London. Plants grow out of metal buckets and the setting compensates for the Boris Johnson accents of the office crowd.

Along the Albert Embankment, Vauxhall couldn’t seem more confused in its layout. SIS, the MI6 building stands aloof on the riverbank; it’s imposing green glass echoed by the riverside residential blocks. On the road’s opposite side is the epicentre of the area’s gay culture. Gay bars, clubs, gyms and spas linger behind corrugated iron, beneath railway arches. They sit side by side with shops selling kitchens and motorbikes. Neighbouring Portuguese restaurants add a misplaced continental aesthetic with bright red chairs and oversized umbrellas.

Behind the station lurks Dirty Burger, one of London’s best burger joints offering food that is sloppy and gloriously indulgent. The fries are underwhelming, a bit like frozen oven chips. But the “onion fries” - slippery onions encased in an orbit of batter - are entirely delicious.

For dinner, The Bonnington Café is a charming, bohemian restaurant which sprung up in the 70s to feed the surrounding squats. Across the road from Bonnington Square Gardens, the setting is idyllic and the vegetarian menu good enough to satisfy carnivorous friends. With £3 starters and desserts, £8 mains and a BYOB policy, it’s budget friendly. The cook changes every night, adding to the ramshackle, community vibe.

Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens comes alive with different crowds at different points in the week. On a Friday night, the park’s atmosphere is relaxed, with scatterings of people sat on the grass, drinking and smoking. Police vans often lumber by on the grass as vagrant teenagers wander from group to group, asking for weed.

Yet by Sunday, the park will descend into chaos. Burnt out part goers will holler at passers-by and lurch to music only they can hear, driven mad by weekend revelry. During the week, the mood will completely transform with the series of outdoor summer screenings attracting fresh faced hipsters wearing scrunchies and dungarees.

At the weekend, Vauxhall never sleeps and nights stretch out for days. Lightbox is a dark archway where coloured lights lick the walls and ceiling. Every Friday sees the weekly night Recipe, where top class dance music does complete justice to the psychedelic space. On Sunday afternoons Lightbox hosts Volume, the “terrace party” which moves the DJ from the dance floor to the smoking area.Here, a sparse crowd will shuffle from one foot to the other – most wearing sunglasses despite dreary, overcast weather.

Union specialises in the early hours, with parties stretching from 2am to beyond sunrise. This isn’t just a weekend affair and throughout the week, clubbers are unleashed into the mobocracy of the morning commute. The night Wrong! advertises itself as a “mixed party”, hinting at the area’s efforts to attract a more diverse crowd than the solely gay audience for which Union is mostly known.

Those with little need for sleep head to Sub Terrania, which runs from 5am to midday. Priding itself on an “intimate, family vibe”, the recurring event is held at Fire  – a cavernous club linked to Lightbox (for special events, clubbers can wander between the two) and is no stranger to big name DJs.

Vauxhall offers a refreshingly unpretentious crowd, ready to abandon conventional inhibitions. In the cold morning light, it may seem grittier than your usual London “hotspots” but its club culture and diversity is unrivalled.

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