A few years ago this vibrant community café at the top of Telegraph Road in the south-east London borough of Lewisham didn’t exist. There was just a derelict and damp undercroft space beneath a small community centre.
Fast forward to today and The Hill Station on Kitto Road is a bustling place where local people meet, tell stories, share ideas, teach, learn, do business, enjoy art and, yes, eat and drink too.
We paid a visit to the cafe in 2015, ariving at the same time as a man who’d come to fix the piano in the small performance area. Hugh said he’d found Hill Station by accident when he took a detour to avoid a traffic jam. Now he’s a regular, playing saxophone and piano to entertain customers, performing in return for the occasional meal.
A thriving community café
The long wooden table by the window is full of mums and toddlers happily tucking in to mid-morning snacks and the place is soon buzzing with the busy lunch time trade.
So how did the transformation from run down space to community café come about?
Jacqui Shimidzu and Stephen Carrick-Davies, movers and shakers of the community centre’s rebirth as a social enterprise, agree it’s entirely down to the local community.
“People living here have always had a strong sense of belonging and when a number of local residents set up a charity in 2010 called Bold Vision it inspired others to get involved. In a relatively short space of time we had an army of volunteers giving up their time, skills and money to make it happen.”
Stephen says the appetite for change was enormous. “At first I just helped out with the fund-raising but it was soon clear this was going to be a project that was really going places. At a time when politicians were talking about the Big Society we were creating a small society that was actually getting things done – it was amazing!”
Community in action
“Neighbours put on concerts, hosted football matches and dropped newsletters through 6,000 local homes inviting everyone to share the dream of building something together. We raised £60,000 to completely transform the wasted space into something warm and welcoming. People who were short of cash provided ‘sweat equity’; helping to dig out the floor, decorate and lay the decking. Even the name, Hill Station, was decided by a local competition.”
At that time Jacqui was running a mobile café in the park opposite and she soon became involved. When the first manager decided to move on, Jacqui and Stephen joined forces, each bringing different skills to the venture but both with a common aim.
Jacqui laughs. “We like to say the answer is ‘yes’, now what’s the question? Anyone’s welcome to come up with an idea to benefit the local community and we will do our best to help them make it happen.”
Patrick is the perfect example. A keen cook, his caribbean barbecue is the talk of the neighbourhood, but he admits he doesn’t have marketing skills. “The café is great for me. I can concentrate on making great tasting jerk chicken, rice and peas and coleslaw along with my secret sauce, and the café team helps me promote the events.”
Over the years the café has developed an impressive range of activities.There are community cooking classes where teenagers, young mums and older couples meet to swap recipes, tips and food stories. They host seasonal events like Burns Night and Valentine’s suppers and there’s a Grow Wild course which teaches about foraged and home-grown foods.
A shop in one corner of the café provides space for locals to sell their home-made goods, everything from jam to jewellery. In return each person staffs the shop on a rota, increasing their confidence and skills while helping others.
Talking of helping others
The café acts as a collection point for the local food bank other local charities use its premises for collecting items to sell.
It also hosts “Friendly Fridays” where they stay open late, show a film and provide a relaxed place to meet. There are open mike events, “Family Sundays” with a full roast dinner and the occasional pop-up restaurant evening featuring different cooking styles.
Hill Station never stands still, it’s always on the lookout for new ideas like barrista training. Jacqui explains. “I get so many youngsters, desperate for work and really keen to do anything, but they don’t know the first thing about serving in a modern café. If I can train them to use the equipment, to make excellent coffee, in all the varieties that people expect these days, then that’s a valuable skill on their CV. It might help them get a job next time, even if we can’t employ them here.”
Stephen says it’s influence spreads far and wide. “It may be a community café and people may drop in once out of loyalty, but if we don’t serve a wide variety of good, reasonably priced drinks and tasty food they won’t come back. Goodwill only takes you so far, then it’s up to you to provide a service that people want.”
Good coffee, good food
Based on our experience they are doing just that. The coffee is everything you’d get in a high street chain and is competitively priced. We tried the home-made burgers; Pork Belly had the traditional beef and I went for a vegetarian bean version, both delicious and well-presented.
Pork Belly couldn’t resist topping that all off with a slice of cake, made by Agnieszka who came to England several years ago with her husband and small son. She had no job and very little English so volunteered to help in the café. “The best thing is I can do what I love, serving nice customers, working for nice bosses who pay a good wage. I live close-by and it’s near my son’s school so I have no need to commute.”
Stephen is sure she will do well. “The staff here join us for a while, become more skilled and then leave us. That’s sad in one way but is exactly what should happen. Given Agnieszka’s drive and determination I expect her to be the boss of her own business before long.”
But it can’t be easy, running a small café, in competition with the big high street brands, especially when it’s part of your ethos to pay the London living wage and use local suppliers wherever possible.
Stephen admits it’s tough. “We run on business-like lines, even down to computerised tills registering exactly what we’ve sold and when, so we can use real-time information to make plans that are firmly based in reality. We have support from our local councillors and we rely heavily on the goodwill and loyalty of our customers. We hope those who have a bit of spare cash to spend will support us so we can in turn pay it forward to those who need more help.”
“Any big business can give something back, employment, use of rooms, charity collections and so on, but we’re different because we are embedded in the community. People can come to us for really key support such as basic food hygiene, business cards, marketing advice, putting people in touch with each other so they can be helped to help themselves.”
Everyone we spoke to on our visit agreed.
Young mum Magda is a regular. “It’s really good for the community and you meet lots of different people. The menu’s great too, with gluten-free and organic options.”
Her friend Jenny is a first time visitor. “I was a bit worried as I wasn’t sure what to expect from a community café but I’ve really enjoyed coming here – it’s very child-friendly and the staff are happy.”
Bridget Mckenzie is one of the original supporters, still using the café as a meeting place. “What drew me in was the idea of creating a community vision. As a freelance cultural consultant it was a chance to put ideas into action. A lot of people work from home around here, myself included, and that’s likely to increase in future. Somewhere to meet and fight isolation is increasingly important. It’s also a great venue for art and cultural events.”
Stephen sums it all up. “Hill Station Café is not a food project, it’s a people project. It’s a hub where people meet and make connections. If you ask me where we will be in five years I’ll say ‘I honestly don’t know’ – and that’s how it should be.”
Additional photographs © Hill Station café