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10 of the best arts venues in south London

Kate Abbott, commissioning arts editor for the Guardian, selects the capital's best arts venues south of the river, from a cinema museum to vast chambers under the streets of Bermondsey

Old Vic Tunnels

The dank, atmospheric tunnels under Waterloo station were discovered by director Hamish Jenkinson when he took a wrong turn at Banksy's Cans Festival, kicked down a mystery door and trespassed into this epic space that had been unaired and unexplored for 20 years. He has since replicated that sense of magical discovery for punters, with a rich programme that began with 228, a Punchdrunk collaboration. Subsequent projects have included visitors being wheeled in on gurneys for Cart Macabre, and Steve Lazarides's Hell's Halfacre extravaganza. This year will see the pitch-black space become a minotaur's lair. Outside, it's still a graffiti tunnel, preserved just how Banksy would want it to be.
Station Road Approach SE1,

Old Police Station

The only thing that marks out the Old Police Station Art Centre from the police station next door is a gnome on a pole, suspended where the blue Met lamppost once hung. It feels as if the police have only just left – there are posters everywhere, detailing best practice for fingerprinting, and what officers should do in the event of a bout of excited delirium from a prisoner. Next to the pop-up Boozer bar are the cells, now doubling as exhibition spaces or toilets. In the courtyard is a large shipping container that houses Cartel, an additional space curated by Agency Gallery, and artist studios for hire. The site also has a recording studio and a radio station, not to mention a former interrogation room.
114 Amersham Vale SE14, +44 (0)798 168 1842,, open Fri 7pm-1am and when there are exhibitions Wed-Sat noon-4pm


Beaconsfield is set just south of the Albert Embankment, in the girls' half of the former Lambeth ragged school. Train lovers often pop in, mistaking it for an old signal house, only to find a double gallery. One half is found up the heavy flagstone stairway in the resurrected Victorian classroom, complete with original raked floor. The other is in a dim railway arch where exhibitions are accompanied by the low rumblings of trains. The Ragged Canteen is open for weekday lunches and weekend coffee and cake stops. While you're here, wander to Man and Eve on Courtenay Street, another local gallery, in an old sea scouts hut.
22 Newport Street SE11, +44 (0)20-7582 6465,, open Tues-Sun 11am-5pm

Brunel Museum

This Bermondsey museum sits in the engine house above the first construction project Isambard Kingdom Brunel ever worked on, aged 19 – the Thames Tunnel. Its gardens are decked out with benches shaped like later Brunel bridges, myriad murals and a Frankenstein tree. Every Tuesday at 6.15pm prompt you can take a tour from Bermondsey station along the river, before creeping through a tiny entrance into a huge underground chamber – half the size of Shakespeare's Globe – where Brunel nearly drowned in 1828. This arena, inaccessible to the public for 145 years, now hosts a miscellany of events, from cancan dancers to choirs and theatre festivals. Recover from your subterranean trip with a drink in the bank-side bar.
Railway Avenue SE16, +44 (0)20-7231 3840,, open daily 10am-5pm,Tues 10am-9.30pm

The Cinema Museum

An Aladdin's cave for cinephiles. Every inch of wall space is taken up with memorabilia, from 1930 ratings boards with the certificate H for horrific (a precursor to the X rating) to MGM posters inviting punters in with the promise "that lovely lion is here today!" The owner – who has single-handedly built up this mind-boggling collection – takes visitors on tours. At first, there's the in-house cinema with period seats and art nouveau house lights. Then there are film star head shots and a room stuffed with ushers' outfits. This listed site is the former workhouse where Charlie Chaplin reputedly arrived as a destitute nine-year-old in 1898. Fans of the Tramp will be particularly in awe here.
The Master's House, 2 Dugard Way SE11, +44 (0)20-7840 2200 (call to arrange tours),, adults £7, children and concessions £5

South London Gallery

Like its north London counterpart the Camden Arts Centre, South London Gallery is an innovative public space. It opened in 1891 to enrich the cultural lives of local folk, and has recently undergone an elegant, Riba-nominated expansion by 6A architects into derelict buildings across the way. These accommodate the cultural overspill that comes with curating 10 shows a year and housing a bulging collection featuring Antony Gormley, Anselm Kiefer and Tracey Emin. The tasty new cafe is in the former living room (now gold-stencilled) of the Victorian terrace façade at No 67. But don't miss the shows, the interactive Sunday Spot workshops for families, and the Thursday night Art Assassins programme for imaginative teens to get stuck in.
65 Peckham Road SE5, +44 (0)20-7703 6120,, open Tues-Sun 11am-6pm, Wed 11am-9pm

The Agency Gallery

This gallery in a Victorian terraced house in Surrey Quays is known for nurturing new talent, having put on some of the earliest exhibitions by artists who have gone on to great things, such as Turner prizewinner Douglas Gordon and Rebecca Warren. It's painted a stern black outside, but inside it has a deconstructed finish with raw exposed brickwork that somehow never detracts from the displays. It moved here from its former Hoxton site in 2009, a shift that may prove that the new home of inventive art lies in the capital's south-eastern reaches.
66 Evelyn Street SE8, +44 (0)20-8692 0734,, open Wed-Sat 10.30am-6pm, last Friday of the month 10.30am-9pm


It takes a while to recover from the gardens, the beautiful square of former almshouses and the Victorian gas lamps here. You feel miles away from London and modern times, but this is Peckham, and there's a Toys R Us round the corner. And that's just the exterior. Inside, Asylum is a curator's and a photographer's playground. A former chapel, founded in 1827, it has been taken over by two local artists who curate group shows and community events. It was bombed in the blitz, and the entire place was gutted, but somehow the original stained glass windows survived. This weighty historical legacy means that artworks have a lot to contend with, and there are also remnants of vandalism adorning the walls, but that adds to the charm.
Caroline Gardens Chapel, Asylum Road SE15, +44 (0)7796 684834,

CGP/Dilston Grove

A white cube gallery with a twist, CGP offers up a double whammy of contemporary art and enviable community engagement across two rough-and-ready spaces in Southwark Park. Café Gallery straddles the lake in the centre of the park, with three interlinked white cubes showing contemporary art. The DIY allotment out back, bejewelled with bunting and wild flowers, is ploughed by locals as part of the Friday morning club run by Frances Ward, who also anchored the Tate Modern community garden. In the south-west corner of the park, Dilston Grove is a massive gothic hall with light walls and heavy-set rafters showcasing experimental installations.
Southwark Park SE16, +44 (0)20-7237 1230,, open Wed-Sun noon-6pm in summer

Danielle Arnaud

It's not often you enter a stranger's home and pootle around alone and unwatched, but that's the effect Danielle Arnaud is after. This gallery in a home has to be rooted out – there is no sign on the door, which Arnaud believes puts visitors in an inquisitive mindset before they enter; a quest to search out affecting art. It is a grand Georgian house, and the light offsets artworks naturally, with no need for nondescript whitewashed walls or distracting commercial lighting. The artists shown here, from Phyllida Barlow to Laure Prouvost, have to navigate the domestic fittings, fireplaces and furniture.
123 Kennington Road SE11, +44 (0)20-7735 8292,, open Fri-Sun 2-6pm © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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