Why we love Bumblebee – and the story of Brecknock Road


The Bumblebee Natural Food Shops opened their doors in January 1980 and have been supporting healthy living ever since. You mean you haven’t ever been in?



Bumblebee:
Bumblebee: still a sanctuary. Photo: KK
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 the famous 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 King’s 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 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.

But there is one gem that continues to battle against the UK’s tides of obesity and processed foods.

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.

Since 1980: Bumblee has a strong presence on Brecknock. Photo: KK
Since 1980: Bumblee has a strong presence on Brecknock. Photo: KK

Thirty plus 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.

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Words & Pics: Karrie Kehoe
Sources: Gosling, Gwynydd, ‘An Affair of Honour’, (Camden History Review 13) and Streets of Kentish Town (Camden History Society).

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  • local

    Have you tried the new Ethiopian on Brecknock? Muya Restaurant, we went about three weeks ago and was pleasantly surprised! Lovely family style service, ethiopian beers and spicy food the way we like it! They even do an Ethiopian style Tartar if that’s your thing, just ask for it raw. Couple of items were a bit salty for us but other than that, perfect! And the presentation was second to none! A nice change from the non authentic Nepalise place across the road!

  • Tom Storr

    Kris Wines down the road sell an excellent range of local beers: http://www.kriswines.com/