Once a major port town, Deptford is today an area of South East London where modern regeneration meets long-established roots and identity. The street market alone would be worth a visit, but the area also offers trendy bars and cafes, creative hubs, and remarkable bits of local history.
In 2009, the New York Times baffled South East London residents by featuring Deptford in its travel section. A “boisterous concoction of blue-collar aesthetics and intermittent hipsterism”, the article read, which some locals found oblivious of worrying crime rates and deprived living conditions. Ten years on we might want to forget about words like ‘hipsterism’, but the trends that were spotted in their early stages have grown enough to balance out the parts in the concoction. Art galleries, foodie destinations and quirky cafes are now as defining of Deptford as greasy spoons and council estates. All of which is underlined by maritime heritage and a strong sense of community.
The full-scale anchor leaning back at the foot of Deptford High Street leaves one wondering. Today it may not look much like it, but the 2,000-year history of this London neighbourhood has always been one of fishers, dockers and seafarers. The original settlement stood on the marshes where the River Ravensbourne flowed north into the Thames, forming a deep ford and spawning the village’s name. A royal dockyard since 1513, Deptford thrived as a port town for centuries, its activities ranging from shipbuilding to biscuit-making for the navy.
Opposite the anchor, a large mural intimates an even earlier time, reminding visitors that the adjacent road was originally paved by the Romans. Other murals brighten up the mismatched houses of the high street. One standout depicts the satiated belly of Henry VIII, even claiming the king had a full English breakfast on the site. It’s so outlandish that it’s fair to grant it the benefit of the doubt.
St Paul’s Church is the street’s architectural standout. The grand Baroque construction is where architect Thomas Archer was able to put into practice the notes he took in 17th-century Rome.
Another church worth visiting is St Nicholas, to the north east of the high street. A plaque half-hidden in the yard marks the resting place of Christopher Marlowe, whose early death is often wrongly blamed on a pub brawl. Instead, the Elizabethan playwright was killed in a nearby upper-class house under circumstances which have never been fully clarified. Involving romance, religion, politics and espionage, the many theories regarding his death make for Deptford’s own unsolved celebrity murder case.
Dating back to 1872, Deptford’s is one of those old-school street markets where visitors get to meet the local community. The stalls are up on Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays, joining the permanent shops of the high street and doubling up the usual offer of fish, produce, clothing, fabric and housewares. Things get more bizarre in the adjoining Douglas Way, with its random displays of bric-a-brac, junk, antiques and oddities. Impromptu exchanges involving vendors and passersby are likely to distract one’s hunt for a hidden treasure.
Douglas Way is also home to The Albany, a historic London venue featuring theatre, film, comedy and music. This arts centre stood on the nearby Creek Road until it was destroyed by a suspicious fire in 1978. At the time, social conflict and violent incidents accompanied the integration process between new and established communities, and The Albany had taken a strong progressive stance by repeatedly hosting socially-minded shows committed to the fight against racism. That these views prevailed in the long-run appears evident in today’s multicultural Deptford, and there’s no better way to experience it than a walk around on market day.
If the street market is an expression of traditional Deptford, regeneration has provided the area with a modern marketplace too. Located next to the train station, the Deptford Market Yard is home to a host of local independent businesses ranging from quirky bars and cafes to design shops and yoga studios. The restored carriage ramp which houses some of them is London’s oldest railway structure.
Along the river
Starting from the 19th century, urban development and the gradual closure of the dockyards loosened the bonds between Deptford and the water. The neighbourhood is now centred away from the river, and the banks carry hardly any echoes of the bustling port they once hosted. A Thameside walk, however, still provides glimpses into the area’s maritime heritage.
At the mouth of Deptford Creek, a curiously tiny-headed statue overlooks a U-bend of the Thames. It is of Russian Tzar Peter the Great, who studied shipbuilding at the Royal Dockyards in 1698. A heavy drinker, Peter didn’t let work get in the way of more ludicrous activities during his three-month stay. Reports of misbehaviour included paintings used as target boards and frenzied late-night races on wheelbarrows, which amounted to an unpaid £300-worth of damage. It was perhaps in line with such debauchery that the memorial was originally meant to include several court dwarfs baring their buttocks! Instead, the only courtier actually featured is soberly holding a ship and a globe, while the six-foot-eight tzar gazes far away towards Saint Petersburg, the city he founded five years after leaving Deptford.
Going upriver, the next landmark to seek out is a flight of stone steps leading to the foreshore, topped by an iron gate. A local narrative claims these steps hosted the knighting of Sir Francis Drake by Queen Elizabeth I. Regardless of the exact location, the famous privateer was indeed knighted in Deptford on 4 April 1581, on returning from his history-making circumnavigation of the world. A replica of Drake’s ship, the Golden Hind, is a popular tourist attraction moored near London Bridge, but the original is believed to be still buried at the bottom of Deptford Creek.
The arched buildings behind are also vestiges of old Deptford. Victualling gradually replaced shipbuilding as the dockyards’ main purpose, and these period warehouses used to stock rum barrels, which were a common supply on sea expeditions. They now form part of the Pepys Estate, a 1960s residential project topped by the 29-storey Aragorn Tower. Over its 50 years of history, the estate has gone through successful social housing, decay and controversial regeneration, reflecting the area’s changing community and ongoing gentrification.
Restaurants & Cafes
A cafe-bar open all day, Isla Ray (37 Deptford High St) brings a tropical vibe to the high street. The menu covers everything from breakfast and brunch to evening snacks, featuring an assortment of bagels, sandwiches, salads and more. Baked goods and craft beer are sourced locally, while wine and cocktails are also available. What’s more, the leafy and brightly-coloured interiors play host to cultural events from art exhibitions to music gigs, making Isla Ray a lively creative hub in the heart of Deptford.
Hailing from the Southern Italian region of Puglia, Alla Salute (2 Indiana Building, Deals Gateway) promotes healthy and genuine Mediterranean cuisine. As such, the kitchen revolves around seasonal ingredients, local suppliers and traditional methods, and everything from pasta to desserts is made from scratch. If the pizzas are the core of the menu, sharing platters and hearty main dishes are not to be overlooked either, conveying the true spirit of a Southern Italian trattoria. The wines are also focused on Puglia, featuring some of the best options Italy’s ‘heel’ has to offer.
Manze’s (204 Deptford High St) is one of the go-to names when it comes to traditional pie and mash in London. Michele Manze opened his first shop near Tower Bridge in 1902, starting a family business which peaked at 14 branches by 1930. Despite current food trends suggesting the days are numbered for these old-school diners, the Deptford shop keeps dishing out crispy meat pies and fluffy mash flooded with a typical parsley sauce known as liquor. White tiles, marble tables, wooden benches and a neighbourly service complete this authentic cockney experience.
Festa Sul Prato (222 Trundleys Rd) translates to ‘party on the lawn’, the lawn in question being that of the Folkstone Gardens. This park-side cafe and restaurant has charmed the local community with its Italian-inspired menu, enhanced by carefully-selected suppliers. Salads, sandwiches, main courses and desserts are sided by a changing list of pasta dishes available both in small and large portions. Drinks include classic aperitifs such as negroni and aperol spritz, as well as local craft beer and Italian wine. This friendly neighbourhood joint is located 15 minutes away from Deptford Station.
The Waiting Room (142 Deptford High Street) is a vegan and vegetarian coffee shop. The options range from Brick Lane bagels filled on the spot to burgers and hot dogs, not to mention sweet treats such as brownies and pancakes. The coffee also enjoys some reputation among the locals, and so do the friendly prices. Customers sitting out front may indulge in people watching over the high street, while the cosy back garden provides a more secluded area.
Bars & Pubs
Craft gin and premium Belgian beer sounds quite the combination. At Gin and Beer (Unit 2, Resolution Way) they specialise in both, and the resulting concept is an original fusion between a laid-back beer hall and a chic cocktail bar. Draught and bottled beers range from sour to trappist, featuring both rare finds and well-known options. The cocktail menu is possibly even more inspired, aiming to please purist and adventurous drinkers alike. Negroni enthusiasts will find the classic version as well as several variations, and the chosen ingredients reveal an excellent eye for quality and detail.
First opened in Deptford in 2013 as an homage the owner’s late nan, Little Nan’s (Arches 13 – 15 Deptford Market Yard) then wandered across London as a pop-up bar for a couple of years. It found its way back home in 2016, and has since become a Deptford institution located underneath the historic carriage ramp that forms part of the Deptford Market Yard. Boozy afternoon teas pass by to the clinking of signature teapot cocktails, while bottomless brunches, music events and private hire are also available.
Aptly named after the former use of its premises, Job Centre (120-122 Deptford High St) is now a watering hole overlooking the high street. The local junk market provides a constant supply for the spacious interiors, where vintage décor and quirky furnishing create a charming and easy-going atmosphere. Whether it’s beer, cider, wine or cocktails, the bar menu offers plenty of options to choose from, while the food includes snacks, small plates, and filled brioche buns. Regular music events take place at weekends.
Run by Hop Stuff Brewery, Taproom (2 St. Paul’s House, 3 Market Yard) is the place to go for craft beer in Deptford. This modern beer parlour offers bright and spacious interiors, where tasting sessions take place in a relaxed and laid-back atmosphere. The extensive set of taps pour both signature and guest beers, while the food menu lists a tempting variety of sourdough pizzas. It’s an excellent stopover while perusing the bric-a-brac market around the corner.
iyouall (3 Carriage Way, Deptford Market Yard) is a creative studio and design store specialising in high-quality lifestyle products. The store selects brands ranging from Scandinavia to Japan, including prominent London designers as well as products designed by the studio’s own creative team. Including cards, prints, housewares and stationery, the display reflects over ten years of experience in creative design.
Just opposite the train station, Rag N Bone (140 Deptford High Street) is a vintage shop selling quality second-hand items. From chic accessories and casual clothing to silk scarves and elegant dresses, the wares on display are carefully selected by a family-run recycling company with over 100 years of experience. They’re also specialised in period clothing and accessories.
Music enthusiasts passing by the market yard will be naturally drawn to the underground vibes of AAJA (Arch 2, 4 Deptford Market Yard). A vibrant bar and record store, this space is also home to a live-streaming radio station. Check out the events listings for music gigs and pop-up vinyl sales.
Two of Deptford Market Yard’s stores are dedicated to green thumbs. Forest (Arch 133, Deptford Railway Station) stocks a variety of plants and flowers as well as pots, vases housewares and spa products. They also hold monthly workshops focused on flower arranging, terrarium building and wreath making. Just a few steps away, The English Flowerhouse (Arch 5, Deptford Market Yard) specialises in seasonal flowers, foliage and plants to create bunches and bouquets for all occasions and budgets.
Enclave (50 Resolution Way) is an artist-run infrastructure promoting critical art practice through an experimental economic model of rent control. Eight rolling spaces host mid- and long-term projects spanning performances, workshops, site-specific exhibitions and immersive sound art.
A recently-established gallery, SEAGER (Distillery Tower, 2 Mill Ln) focuses on the connections between art and digital technology, seeking to reflect on the effects of digitalisation on society and the contemporary world. The exhibition programme includes solo and group exhibitions, live events and guest shows.
Art Hub Studios is a community-led company running artists studios in South East London. Their gallery in Deptford (5-9 Creekside) provides an exhibition space to members, external artists, students and community groups.
Two art galleries are located on the high street. BEARSPACE (152 Deptford High St) promotes emerging talents reflecting on contemporary culture and philosophy, while Gossamer Fog (186a Deptford High St) features work focused on art and technology.