With its counter piled high with a colourful array of salads, quiches and cakes, Café at Jamyang certainly tantalises the taste buds.

“Our food is made freshly every morning using mainly organic, seasonal and local ingredients and it’s all delicious” enthuses chef and manager Ilaria Mezzogori.

“We’re famous for our quiche” she adds. “The recipe was passed on by the previous chef and it’s always popular. People also love our cakes, especially our raisin and coconut flapjacks.”

Cafe at Jamyang
Café at Jamyang

And there’s lots more to choose from too, with a seasonally changing menu that includes soups, falafel and bruschetta along with tagines and risotto. Vegans are well catered for with a daily vegan main course and a totally vegan menu every Monday, plus there are gluten-free options. “And it’s all very good value” says Ilaria “you can eat here for less than £5.”

Café at Jamyang, which opened seven years ago as part of the Jamyang Buddhist meditation and study centre, is very much a local community hub. The organic sourdough bread they serve is baked every morning at nearby Kennington Bakery and they operate as a weekday pick-up point for orders. Seasonal fruit and veg come from Sutton Community Farm, a not-for-profit organic farm in Carshalton and, every Thursday, customers can collect their Vegbags.

“We have lots of different people coming through the door and they all get a warm welcome, from pensioners to students to local workers” says Ilaria. “There are a few teachers who use it as an extra office; families drop-in from the nearby Mary Sheridan Centre and people going to the Cinema Museum, next door, like to eat here too. It’s a really relaxed atmosphere.”

It’s a stark contrast to the building’s original use as an imposing Victorian Gothic courthouse, where Charlie Chaplin’s father was once held while his son was in the adjacent workhouse. It went on to serve as a maximum security court for special remands and regularly appeared on news bulletins featuring suspected car bombers, terrorists or gang leaders.

four former jail cells have become what must be London’s most unusual B&B

After it fell into disrepair in the 90s, English Heritage made it a Grade II listed building. Jamyang Buddhist Centre bought it at auction and a team of volunteers and local people set about restoring it to its previous splendour.

“It’s quite a transformation” says Ilaria. “The courtroom, which used to be lined with lead and had bullet proof glass, is now the Shrine Room, complete with a Buddha where the judge used to sit.”

The 35-seat café dining area, with its homely wooden tables and colourful wall hangings, is in the former legal library, while the old clerk’s office is the café’s food preparation and service area. Some of the former cells are now used as a larder and Ilaria points out the names of prisoners that can still be seen etched on the door frames.

Other cells have been converted into accommodation for volunteers, whilst four upstairs cells have become what must be London’s most unusual B&B. The rooms are available for rent at £30 a night and include a help yourself breakfast with Dove’s Farm cereals, Monmouth Coffee and Clipper tea.

The high-security courtyard is now a tranquil walled garden with a 6ft long gold Parinirvana Buddha statue – carved by sculptor Nick Durnan who studied at the nearby City and Guilds of London Art School.

When the weather’s good, customers can eat and drink outside and there’s also a new greenhouse where they plan to grow more of their own food for the café.

“It really comes into its own in the summer” says Ilaria. “When the garden’s in full bloom it’s wonderful. Like a little oasis.”


Read more about the people who live and work in Elephant and Castle

A version of this article was first published in the Elephant Magazine, Spring 2016