If you pass down Choumert Road from Peckham Rye station, you may occasionally stop to look at a locked metal gate protecting a verdant alleyway. Ordinarily, only those who live within can turn left into first-class accommodation*, but just once a year, all and sundry are invited within.
Choumert Square has been here since around the 1800s, and was built as a row of small mostly one-bed cottages and all without any back gardens.
One side the back is actually the front of a row of shops and the northern side the back was once a dark alley, and now a posh gated community.
Between these two sits another gated community, but Choumert Square is the sort of gated community that would destroy the loathing felt by some for gated communities, for it is truly a community.
And a seemingly rather eclectic one.
Every single one of the little cottages has a small patch of garden, and every single one of them has been tended with some degree of care, whether it be a small patio for sitting in, or a riot of planting.
On this the annual open day, the residents didn’t just put on a display of gardens, but a display of their characters. Books for sale, pots for sale, paintings for sale, brick a brac for sale.
Tea, cakes, pimms, music, all the fun of an English summer fair, squashed into a narrow alley in a way that meant squeezing past people often caused most un-English levels of intimacy.
While most of Choumert Square is more of an alley, there is indeed a hidden square at the far end. Well, a hidden rectangle to be accurate. Less planting here, more communal space and a momentary respite from the tube-style intimately of the narrow space behind.
There is barely space to swing a cat, although about a dozen cats live here, including one astonishingly handsome chap who loved tummy strokes. The owner suddenly realised she could have charged 50p for a cat stroke to raise money for charity on the day. Maybe next year.
The open day is a charity fund raiser, with the £4 entry going to the National Gardens Scheme, and some of the other items sold within the same.
Such is the riot of planting that bees were seem being busy almost everywhere, and totally ignoring the sweet cakes and drinks handled by humans.
A couple of police men popped in for a look, and left with a massage for one and a cake for the other. I left with another unexpected addition to my cup collection in the form of a Choumert Square branded cup, and a cup of tea in a poly cup.
Balancing two slices of cake, I learnt about the egg-free 1916 Trench Cake, which I am assured is interesting, although they hadn’t sliced that one up for tasting.
One old lady held court at the top end regaling anyone who asked with lengthy tales of the history of the area. Some locals were measuring people’s height and declaring them to be The Queen, or a footballer, or someone else equally famous and sending away with a label on their chest proclaiming their celebrity association.
Others sat in their miniature gardens showing off art works, pottery, paintings.
Just moments from the hustle and bustle of Peckham was a very different sort of hustle, and a very pleasant hour it was.
If you want to go, then you’ll have to make a note for next year, or sign up for my weekly newsletter, where such things are advertised.
Meanwhile, the Peckham Peculiar has 46 strange and amazing facts about the 46 little cottages of Choumert Square. They are less amazing than the overall package of a small human community that thrives as much as the plants seem to.
*It’s a claim that some celebs make that they have never turned right on entering an aircraft and always turn left into first class. If you hear that, shake your head in mock sympathy as they obviously never travelled on Concorde — where everyone turns right when entering the plane.
Article last updated on June 8th, 2021 at 09:00 am