Mad For It
Le Gothique isn’t your average local. But then Between the Commons isn’t your average area. Popularly known as Nappy Valley, it has more nannies per square metre than anywhere else in Europe. And your corner shop is a Parisian meringue bakery. A Saturday visit to Le Gothique isn’t without its perils: nannies’ day off. But a residents’ Privilege Card tips the balance so we’re off. It may be a five minute Uber ride from LVBHQ but on a gloriously sunny afternoon the stroll from Northcote Road across Wandsworth Common is simply too delectable to miss. The starched whites of cricketers contrasting with the rich greenery could be a Lowry painting negative. Going to Play. So quintessentially English. It’s like a Surrey village scene. Actually, it would’ve been a Surrey village scene over 100 years ago. The London Borough of Wandsworth fell within the County of Surrey back then.
The building may look like a Victorian madhouse but that’s about the only use it hasn’t been even though it was originally called the Asylum. Orphanage (1858), hospital (1914), orphanage again (1919), spy centre (1939), training college (1946), school (1952), empty (1970) and of late, 27 apartments, 20 studios, 15 workshops, two offices, a drama school and most importantly, Le Gothique bar and restaurant (1985). Major Rhode Hawkins was the original architect; Giles Quarme was the restoration architect. The Building News reported the Royal Victoria Patriotic Building as ‘bold, picturesque and effective’. There’s more than a passing resemblance to our almae matres: Belfast Royal Academy and Queen’s University Belfast. Country Life contributor Dr Roderick O’Donnell recognises the influence of Flemish town halls in the architecture and lots more besides. “This is a secular gothic rather than ecclesiastical. There are also tones of Scottish Baronial. The rhythm of a central tower with balancing towers either end of the façade was very popular during this period.”
In the corner of this cloistered existence, a door leads down a stone lined corridor to Le Gothique. The bar and restaurant spill onto the enclosed garden on clement days like today. The pram count is surprisingly low; quietude pervades. It’s hard to imagine while we’re scoffing salade niçoise and downing lemonade that this oasis of calm wasn’t always so tranquil. Orphans once lined up in this outside space to be hosed down with cold water as part of the harsh regime. The ghost of an orphan named Charlotte Bennet who accidentally burned to death here in 1901 is rumoured to haunt the cloisters, a small lonely figure appearing at dusk before fading into the shadows. If these walls could cry…