In 1825 the Brecknock Road was born. Once a beautiful and lush green lane, lined with elm trees and wild flowers, until the 1850s its only building was the Brecknock Arms Tavern, now the Unicorn. A country ale house, famous for its tea garden and sports ground, it was a bastion of harmony and peace – until Lieutenant Colonel Fawcett was shot there in a duel in 1843, and proceeded to die in what is now everyone’s favourite new gastropub down the road.
The Brecknock road was named after the Earl of Brecknock, John Jeffreys Pratt, formerly the 1st Marquis of Camden. It took the path of the ancient Mayde Lane, which became Maiden Lane by 1735. Running from Highgate to Kings Cross, it was a vital artery into the city for traders and farmers alike from the middle ages until the nineteenth century.
Fast forward a couple of centuries and Brecknock Road is a bustling example of multicultural Britain. There are English, Pakistani, Ethiopian, Italian, Indian and Jewish communities – and a touch of the gentrifications in a new vegan footwear shop, a fashion boutique and the deli, Salvino. How far London is removed from the days of a country lane dotted with wildflowers.
The Bumblebee Natural Food Shops opened their doors in January 1980 and have been promoting and supporting healthy living ever since. Within a decade of opening, the Bumblebee had mushroomed into four shops clustered together, before finally slipping back to three.
Thirty two years on, little seems to have changed: the shops remain a sanctuary for the health conscious hippy and organic foodie alike. They exude an unpretentious bohemian air; it’s like walking into a memory of an easier, less complicated time. Old wooden floors creak under the footfall of browsing customers, while vintage shelves are piled high with mis-shaped fruit and vegetables. The enormous wooden troughs for nuts and seeds are charming and, in the age of packaged goods, a novelty.
What’s more, this health food paradise is intricately entwined in the fabric of the local community. On our visit, the softly-spoken owner Mr Ogilivie stressed the importance that the shops stay community-focused and remember their customer base. His primary concern? For Bumbleebee to provide good healthy food to local residents at reasonable prices.
However over the past number of years Bumblebee was forced to don its armour and wage battle over plans for its landlord Sunil Devalia to re-develop one of its shops. The move could have proven disastrous, as the fourth shop contained the kitchen facilities used to produce its renowned hot food. After a community-wide campaign to overturn the planning permission granted in 2010, Bumblebee was forced to face defeat in January 2012 and move out of its fourth and largest premises. However, the shops have proved resilient and have flourished.
Although a little battered now, Bumblebee is a grassroots health movement in itself (it also gave birth to Earth Natural Foods), promoting and selling natural produce to local residents. Blink and its atmosphere recalls Brecknock’s bucolic origins – as a lane through a flourishing country estate, an echo of a leafier, greener Britain.
Sources: Gosling, Gwynydd, ‘An Affair of Honour’, (Camden History Review 13) and Streets of Kentish Town (Camden History Society).