Living in Balham

The most striking thing about Balham is that it's not very striking. Quite the opposite; the vibe is refreshingly down-to-earth and relaxed. With that city rush lacking, the pace is rather more suburban than in neighbouring Brixton or Clapham and Balham is all the greater for it. Immortalised by Peter Sellers in 1958 in his comic send-up of the town's backward-thinking attitudes, Balham, Gateway to the South, in many ways much has changed; though there remains a total lack of pretension and something of a charming understatement. Perhaps that's down to its agricultural roots, or maybe simply because anyone with airs and graces saves it for more well-to-do destinations a few stops in either direction on the Northern Line (think Clapham Common or Wimbledon).

It could be just that lack of pretension that's drawing in the cool crowd though. In the last 10 to 15 years, Balham has seen a formidable increase in the number of strong independent traders, restaurants, bars and boutiques. They mix in with the longer standing family-run businesses - butchers, bakers... No candlestick makers, mind you, but some equally quirky commerce. You can swing by the wig shop on Balham Hill, grab a massage at the Chinese herbalist, before heading to Balham Bowls Club, not for a game of precision and skill, but for a pint and a homemade sausage roll.

Yet, it still attracts the high street hitters, Sainsbury's, which has reportedly been there for over 130 years, Boots, WHSmith, Waitrose, and all the banks. So Balham isn't altogether off the wall; just a random collection, a shopping hub, where some have stood the test of time rather better than others.

Housing

Living in the shadow of Clapham can have its upsides, not least that prices aren't nearly as inflated. Balham also benefits from a less desirable zone 3 transport location, which keeps rents low and isn't the end of the world, let's face it. It's also blessed with cheapest-in-the-country Wandsworth council tax, making the area an altogether sensible choice.

The local housing can be split into three broad types. On the north side of Balham, towards Clapham Park, there are ex-council converted flats and some basic terraces at seriously low prices for the area. The accommodation is the bare minimum, but is a cheap alternative to pushing further out to Tooting or Streatham. Other low-priced rentals can be found above the shops along Balham High Road, but caution should be exercised when looking into these places. Reportedly, it is so noisy along this arterial road that the bus announcements can be heard from some kitchens: "One-five-five... to... Tooting St George's Hospital". Then, on the roads lateral to the main street leading down towards Wandsworth Common, Balham ups its game, with generous family homes, four bedrooms plus. What else would you expect on leafy lanes named Chestnut Grove, Balham Park Road, Ramsden Road and Nightingale Lane?

Shopping

Balham has a strange mix of super smart and rock bottom budget shops, with relatively little in the middle. Hildreth Street is the place to start for all sorts of purchases, as it is home to the small market as well as funky boutiques. Balham Bou was ravaged by Mary Portas and now stocks some great labels, but a lot of the gift/clothes places rival it, in particular Bunka. Clothes wise, Oliver Bonas is also getting in on the act, spying a prime location on Balham High Road.

An independent organic butchers, Chadwick's, Sunday farmers' market and the organic supermarket, As Nature Intended, are other hints towards Balham's affluent side. On the other hand, there are umpteen hardware stores selling anything you could think of, the obligatory 99p shop, and some brilliant charity shops. Especially well stocked and always impressive are FARA and Waldorf School Charity Shop, both on Bedford Hill. The rest are predominantly on Balham High Road. They're reasonable, but very busy and less friendly, probably down to their prominence.

Eating Out

The range in Balham is quite astonishing considering its size and relatively shallow ethnic mix. The 2001 Wandsworth census puts the white British total at almost 70% compared to nearby Tooting where it's less than 50%, meaning Tooting curry beats Balham hands down. Indian restaurants aside, however, there is much on offer. The Paddyfield is a fantastically authentic and good value BYOB Thai place, where the food tastes like Thailand and not a British regurgitation. For Mexican street food, Tacuba is pretty reasonable, or for another great budget option, Ciullo's makes for a friendly Italian feast.

At the higher end, Harrison's, which was opened in 2007 by Sam Harrison and Rick Stein, has a fantastic brasserie-style restaurant, more informal breakfast room that's perfect for brunch, and a sexy cocktail bar serving some of Balham's most professionally poured drinks. For French, Gazette is smart, if a touch pricey. And for a good old steak and bottle of malbec, the Cattle Grid opposite Balham overland station serves up great slabs of beef. Their ordering system is a little more American than some might like (think GBK order-in-advance-and-queue-at-the-till style) especially when you throw in the rather unromantic high benches, but as expected they know their meat. Lamberts also has class, with a modern European menu.

You also can't move in Balham for tripping over coffee shops and - pardon the terminology - brunch stops. To name a few: Des Lys Patisserie, of course serving gorgeous pastries, Le Petit Bistrot, a winner with breakfast smoothies and anything on toast, or Chris's Cafe, a good old-fashioned greasy spoon with a mean hangover fry-up. Bertie and Boo's, whose name you might miss as they are too busy screaming about being an independent local coffee shop, is good to curl up in a window seat with a cupcake and a book, and is also very child-friendly.

Pubs & Nightlife

For most, Balham nightlife is synonymous with The Bedford and its renowned comedy nights. For all a visit to Friday evening Banana Cabaret is a must, there are many decent pubs with lateish licences that should not be overlooked. Always friendly, quirky and just a little bit cool is The Clarence. Rave reviews are well-deserved, and you can't go wrong no matter what time you rock up, as the atmosphere is great whether you go for Sunday comfort food or an all-out Saturday night party.

Further up the road towards Clapham South, The Devonshire has a much less welcoming feel, but is at least consistent with food and drink. A better Young's pub in the area is The Grove, more subtly located off the main drag and with staff who not only know what they're doing but don't come across like smiling is an added bonus. They show sports (well, rugby) here as well. The Avalon has come on leaps and bounds since the days of The George. Now an awesome gastropub with decent dining and a superb summer garden. Weirdly, The Avalon shows sports too, including football, and gets guys in shorts stopping by for a pint or two after a kick-about on Clapham Common. Weirder still, this doesn't put off the diners.

Doing something a bit different, The Exhibit has an independent cinema, three bars and a restaurant. The cinema can be hired for private parties and packages can be put together. Midweek, there is a film and dinner offer too. Drinks are a bit hit and miss, but this unique venue is worth a look, even just to go to a bar with a bit of a difference.

Kris Emery