Sydenham is changing. Some would say for the worse, most would say for the very much better. It was the type of place that if you knew of its existence it was probably because you needed to drive through it to get from one place to another. Empty shops, decay and grottiness were the order of the day and none a good reason for visiting its high street. Not anymore.
In 2012 Sydenham, along with neighbouring Kirkdale and Forest Hill, was selected as a Portas Pilot area. Mary Portas, the erstwhile ‘Queen of the High Street’, was commissioned by the Government to come up with recommendations for improving the economic vitality of high streets. In a nationwide competition towns and urban districts, were invited to make their case for securing a government grant. SE26 was a winner.
Money can’t buy everything, but it certainly has helped Sydenham. Awarded £80,000 by the Portas Pilot scheme, Lewisham Council put an additional £137,000 in the pot of cash earmarked to reinvigorate Sydenham’s dreary high street as well as the shopping precincts of Kirkdale and Forest Hill. TfL is also pumping £3.5m into improving the high street landscape.
“The scheme has three main strands,” says Louise Brooks of the town team at SEE3, the organisation managing the Portas Pilot scheme for the area, “retail pop-ups, street markets and community meeting places.”
Pop Goes Sydenham is an initiative aimed at attracting visitors to the high street. It includes refurbishing four empty retail units and offering businesses the opportunity to take on an initial three-month lease as a pop-up shop.
One of the four new start-ups on Sydenham Road is N’Damus, a pop-up that is occupying the old Victorian train station ticket office that sits on the High Street. “We’ve had a great reaction from people,” says shop manager Adelaida Ospina.
N’Damus sells handmade leather bags and accessories, designed by Nneka Onyenakala, with goods on display in a minimalist way that makes the most of the confined yet quirky space.
A short walk down Sydenham Road is Gunpowder Cherry Pie and Flash Trash. If you like eclectic and retro then this will push your buttons. The shop feels like an emporium, which is great for browsing and rummaging around a mix of contemporary jewellery, vintage furnishings and clothing.
“It has created a buzz and people have been excited and interested in what we are doing,” says Mark Vaughan, one half of the team behind the shop. “Hopefully we’ll be here until the end of the year.”
Wander a bit further down the High Street and at number 172, you’ll find Love Harlem. The shop is not an ode to Harlem, New York but the moniker of co-owner Erica Rutherford who runs the shop with her sister Aretha. Erica and Aretha are experienced businesswomen who first started trading online; the pop-up is their first foray into a bricks-and-mortar business.
“We’ve done festivals and markets as well as having our online business,” says Erica. “Opening the pop-up happened very quickly. One minute we were searching online for information about Sydenham, saw the opportunity to take on a shop with a short lease as part of the Portas project and here we are today. It’s really exciting being part of the regeneration of Sydenham.”
The Rutherford sisters sell a mix of gifts, cards and home-wares as well as their own range of natural care products for Afro-Caribbean hair.
Across the street The Middle Clash focuses on designing and producing fashion for those who want something different. “A typical customer is a t-shirt junkie who wants something no-one else has,” says owner Stuart Simmonds.
The Middle Clash has only been open for two weeks and Stuart has already has plans to develop his business. “I see the shop as more than fashion. I’m looking at organising events and giving people the chance to be part of a dynamic space.”
What is striking about these business owners is the enthusiasm and effort they have put into turning their visions into a reality, and striving to make their unique businesses a success. These budding entrepreneurs of the pop-up shop revolution are creating a retail stir that’s transforming Sydenham High Street one shop at a time.
Pop Goes Sydenham runs through the summer and more information can be found on the Portas Pilot website for Sydenham, Kirkdale and Forest Hill.