I was first introduced to Ben Sassoon through a mutual friend 20 years ago, when I moved to the area. Ben had been in Peckham five years prior and he recalls his first year living in Peckham and experiencing Peckham Rye; “I remember thinking…Whoa! This is like Mumbai in rush-hour.” Ben wasn’t put off by the vibrancy and diversity of the area “I thought it would be fun to live here. I am originally a Fulham boy, I actually went to Chelsea Grammar school, so I am a refugee of west London, coming down to Peck-harm!”

Ben and his family arrived in the UK after immigrating from Israel and settled in South West London. Though fluent in English, he wasn’t proficient in reading. But, by reading voraciously he passed the 11+ exam.

Setting up Bar Story

Ending up in Peckham was what one would call fortuitous, a chance encounter if you like. Ben never intended to move to Peckham, ‘Whilst cycling through Peckham I saw a derelict house up for auction and I thought this could be a nice project to do’. He became the proud owner of this house, where he still lives today.

Not satisfied with just having his own property project to contend with, he used his practical skills and a degree in architecture to design and build a bar in one of the arches under Peckham Rye train station and called it Bar Story. Bar Story is unique, the build ethos of the bar is of reclaimed materials, functional and not about form. The outdoor seating are railway sleepers, tabletops are made of discarded oak flooring and the bathroom walls are reclaimed angle iron.

As time’s gone by, the bar has become heavily frequented by students from Goldsmith’s in New Cross and Camberwell College of Arts. More recently, students from the recently built Mountview drama school have been known to soak up the atmosphere of what Peckham and Bar Story have to offer. There is something about Peckham that draws creatives from across the world.

The Best and the Worst

There is a juxtaposition of the best and worst bits about Peckham –“You can’t have one without the other - they intertwine with each other, so you can’t really tease them out because the best makes it the worst and the worst makes it the best. What’s interesting is that everyone seems to be aware of each other in Peckham and know who everybody is. Some will wave to you, and others will make enemies of you. The worst/ best bit is the griminess; without the griminess then you wouldn’t get that sense of energy or edge. And, that edge is loved by art students, college kids that attend the Camberwell College of Arts; they want that kind of backdrop of edginess, they see it as cool. It makes them feel kind of special because they love being adjacent to it all; ‘cheek by jowl’ is the phrase that comes to mind”.

Since opening the bar, Ben has acquired 8 other arches in and around Peckham. A few years after opening Bar Story, he opened The Sassoon Gallery. Followed by Peckham Springs, which is primarily for the young and ‘slick’ crowd I am told. The arches are used for weddings, occasional funerals, Ted Talk like discussions and Pop-Ups and food stalls. The two bars in Peckham Springs are massively busy on the weekends.

Ben’s latest venture is opening a wellness concept, Y-Oga; offering Yoga, 100% plant-based food and growing micro-greens. Y-Oga is in the next arch along from Bar Story and is now opened following their official launch at the beginning of January 2020.

Giving Back and Moving On

Ben’s businesses contribute a lot to the community, he has an influx of students and young people working at the bars and gallery; who tend not to stay longer than 6 months. As far as Ben is concerned, they should move on to better things. “I see Bar Story as a finishing school, anyone that stays for a length of time, I start to think there is something wrong with them. You should be thinking of travelling.” Ben likes for anyone who works at his establishments to go on and do much bigger things, and a couple have achieved that. Will Jarvis of ‘The Sunday Painter’ was once a chef at Bar Story; he is now a renowned art director with regular shows at the Frieze Art Fair. There is also DJ Bradley Zero, who worked behind the bar. “He asked me whether he could jump on the decks one day, I said OK, but don’t play anything too heavy or too loud.” Bradley Zero practised his craft whilst working at Bar Story and has now gone global.

Peckham has changed over the years for Ben. The word gentrification is bandied around a lot these days. Some long-standing residents and businesses are nervous that this could mean being pushed out to make way for a new crowd. “Gentrification is a strange term because the very success alters the flavour of the area. So, you can take a snapshot and say it’s the best place ever, but you cannot keep it that way; it’s like a lava lamp.” Ben believes that nothing is ever permanent, and places always shift in different directions. “It all depends on the micro-economy of an area.”

It’s fair to say that Ben Sassoon has had a massive impact on Peckham, seeing the vision of what could be done for the area in terms of businesses, by starting this trend under the arches. Practically all the arches on Blenheim Grove are now occupied by either bar owners, restaurateurs, tattoo parlours or brewers. This has increased the footfall to Peckham, which has attracted the new developments currently happening in the locale.

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