Is Herne Hill Finished?

Half Moon with Skip

It’s more than a year since the Great Flood of Herne Hill and while most of the shops and businesses that were affected have subsequently re-opened there were fears for one venerable old venue this week as news circulated on Twitter that the Half Moon pub will remain closed for a further two years. Freeholders, Dulwich Estate, bought out the lease and are pursuing plans to convert the upper floors into flats before (in theory, anyway) re-leasing the pub to new tenants. At which point, no doubt, cue complaints from the new residents above who don’t like the noise – despite it having been a pub and music venue since before they’d ever heard of Herne Hill – and a campaign to have it closed down.

It grieves me, but I’m going to switch to the past tense.

The Half Moon was once the beating heart of this half-pretty, kinda-leafy suburb, with its convivial mix of old regulars, incomers, the North Dulwich Triangle set, children of the North Dulwich Triangle set, cyclists, yuppies, footballers, students, labourers and drunks. It was a large pub – it had to be with that lot in it – and its handsome interiors were light-filled by day and oddly intimate at night. The ale could be hit and miss but I did have my first ever pint of Sambrook’s Wandle in there – it was the best pint they ever served and I will remember it forever. The Moon did decent pizzas and pub grub, you could watch the football there and as a music venue it hosted many top bands. And U2 played there.

Now it stands empty. And my guess is that it will remain so, or, at best, re-open in a few years as an anodyne version of its former self, with limited services and an emphasis on dining – as long as you do it quietly.

So with the grand-daddy gone, what can Herne Hill offer now? Here’s our verdict:

Best Pub

Outside the 'Mersh on market day
Outside The Commercial on market day

The interiors of The Commercial, Railton Road, are comfortable and inviting but it’s the advent of the piazza outside the station that has made it once again the go-to pub in Herne Hill, a position it last held in the ’90s. Don’t bother with the food, grit your teeth at the service, just treat yourself to a well-kept pint and sit out front watching people be busier than you.

Best Food

Jay Rayner has rightly praised Saz on Norwood Road, Pullens does good value lunches with the benefit, again, of dining al fresco in the piazza, weather permitting, and Lombok is open again on Half Moon Lane after the flood. But for the best food in Herne Hill you have to go, thank God, to a pub again – The Prince Regent on Dulwich Road. Yes, it’s a gastro-pub, but it’s not too formal and still feels like a pub with a food area rather than the other way around (and, in fact, you can eat anywhere in the pub). The portions may be smallish but much of the food is so rich – heavy even – offering such incredible reductions and intense concentrations of flavour that you probably won’t make pudding. Plus there is good beer.

Shopping

The Oxfam on Half Moon Lane is good for second-hand vinyl. Dugard and Daughters, in an arch on Milkwood Road, is good for first-hand meat. Meat and vinyl. That’s enough shopping.

Any Other Recommendations?

Herne Hill Market, Sundays, 10am-4pm, is every town-planners’ wet dream. Food stalls steam, music wafts, art is crafted and folk wander up and down with their dogs, stroking their beards and smoking pipes, maybe. Try Marsh Produce Ltd for some more meat. Having said that, the gluten-free chilli-battered deep-fried veg of Mother Bhumi’s Whambam Wagon is enough to turn even the most hardened carnivore’s head. Once again, outside The Commercial is the best place from which to watch the bustle.

Brockwell Park. A proper park, with a hill, some wilderness, a cafe, ornamental ponds and a cracking lido. The walled garden is a fine place to pause for a sweet-smelling cigarette if you’re that way inclined, which, fortunately, we are.

What is there to Moan About?

There are no pubs left in which to watch football. The Commercial might put on the tennis, the Florence might show the odd game of rugby with the sound down, but for a big match atmosphere you have to go to the EDT in East Dulwich, the Hootananny in Brixton or the White Hart in Tulse Hill. Gentrification gone mental.

image (4)Secrets

Sports Clubs. If you do find yourself in Herne Hill with two minutes to kick-off, all is not lost. Hidden down alleys along Burbage Road are two Sports Clubs – Dulwich and Edward Alleyn – which show the games on Sky and also offer the chance to watch live football and cricket in a delightful country setting. As long as you’re polite they are happy to serve you, and if challenged you can always dead-pan that you’re checking on the quality of the squash because you don’t want to sign up to a club at which you’d routinely crush all-comers.

Up Herne Hill itself is a lost jewel, the Temple Bowling Club on Sunset Road, which offers all-day bowling, snooker, croquet and boozing. Croquet is the game to be playing when receiving a call from your bank about your overdraft. The phrase, “Let me call you back, I’m just about to peg out after a six-hoop break,” can be surprisingly reassuring for them to hear.

127 Bar, AKA “Joseph’s” at 127, Dulwich Road for a late night rum and a maybe a chat with regular, Linton Kwesi Johnson.

One to Watch

Currently embroiled in a licence challenge due to almost five complaints about the live music running past 11pm, Off The Cuff is a hidden gem tucked away in the old timber yard next to Herne Hill station. It leads on wine, cheese and… furniture? And is consequently a bit like taking a tipple in an antiques warehouse crossed with Peckham’s Bar Story. Yeah, sounds alright, doesn’t it.

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Off The Cuff Bar

With plenty of space, good coffee and free wi-fi it’s also a good day-time place to sit and write, which I am doing now, as I write. Apparently, weekend membership is to be introduced at some point but for now it’s open daily to all, with live music on Thursdays and film nights on the big screen on Wednesdays. Shame there is no draught beer, though.

Given the closure of Herne Hill’s finest old pub we are all for new places opening and therefore recommend signing Off The Cuff’s petition to show Lambeth that there is demand in the area for an out-of-the-ordinary venue offering multiple services.

The Half Moon is dead, long live Herne Hill.

UPDATE April 2015

Off The Cuff is now fully licensed.

Number 22, the excellent modern tapas restaurant, finally re-opened after the flood but since closed again citing delays in recompense by Thames Water.

The Dulwich Estate’s application to turn the upper floors of the Half Moon into flats was rejected by Southwark planners. Dulwich Estate is considering its next move, rumoured to be a request to turn it into an hotel, which in fact it was when it opened in 1896. Concerns would of course remain that the noise from a drinking and music venue would not be welcome by hotel guests. In the meantime, our position remains quite straightforward: Open up our bleedin’ pub you money-grubbing feudal overlord bastards.

Meanwhile Network Rail is to serve notices of eviction on the businesses in their premises on Railton Road in order to refurbish the upper floors and commercially develop them. All the businesses – from the launderette to Bleu and including Dickson’s off-licence on Milkwood Road – will be asked to move out during the development, with no guarantees that they will be allowed to return. This includes Walters the butcher that has been trading there for 45 years and whose proprietor, Nick, fears retail units will be knocked through to create larger premises to attract a different sort of trader.

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Businesses affected by Network Rail evictions

‘Do we need a Costa in Herne Hill?’ he asked, when I stopped by last week. ‘Either way, I will not be able to afford the new rent. I pay £9k at the moment and I know the refurbished arches on Milkwood Road go for £30k plus. I might be taking early retirement.’

And spare a thought for George Dickson of Dickson’s, round the corner, who has just completed a £30k shop re-fit only to discover that in six months time he may be out on his ear with no recompense.

‘The re-fit was verbally signed off by Network Rail,’ he told me. ‘And now this. Re-fit costs aside, I’ve heard my rent may double [from £15k currently]. Even if I’m allowed to stay, I don’t know that I will be able to afford the higher rent.’

Perhaps this is price of change, the price of smartening the area up, but is it a price worth paying? I’d like to think Lambeth Council could intervene at the planning stage to at least insist shop uses remain broadly similar, but then we are talking about the muppets that allowed Tesco to open a shop next door to Sainsbury’s…

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