Looking for Brockley

Brockley signposts

Update: 28 May, 2015
Cities are a little like marriage. They can unite disparate tribes and, though we may arrive there by accident, people tend to stay in them on purpose. Consequently, they’re something to be celebrated. Brockley’s community includes a Caribbean influx that goes back to the 1940s, young artists drawn here since the 1960s and the Jenny Come Latelys attracted by the sexy houses and strong cuisine. Brockley Max, SE4’s arts festival (kick off, May 29th), does a fine job of reflecting the locale, from Ras Keith’s roots reggae to the mother and baby choir, the Hummy Mummies.

The nine-day celebration, which includes a beer festival, has even sparked a union between Brockley Brewery and the official best chippy in London, Brockley’s Rock, to make a Pale Ale Beer Batter, a marriage unmatched in heaven (we’re assuming heaven has a chippy).

The smallest library in London
The smallest library in London

But Brockley’s not all about big ideas, like beer and chips. It’s also home to a micropub and a micro-library, so you can combine learning with forgetting, in a never ending cycle, in tiny premises.

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Brockley, September, 2014
It’s not unusual for me to be lost in the small hours, but anytime I’m in SE4, day or night, I’m unsure if I’m in Brockley or Crofton Park. It’s like being drunk for free.

That’s because there is no such place as Crofton Park, or at least there wasn’t until some herbert made a bid for immortality by naming a railway station from his mind. Gladly, posterity failed to record his name.

In 1892 the new station couldn’t be called Brockley because there was already a Brockley station in a place that was Not Quite Brockley. The area around Brockley station became Brockley. And the area around the Brockley Jack, formerly Brockley, became Crofton Park, like some kind of geographical sex-change.

Even the oldest building in Brockley used to be in Deptford. Typical.

The name Brockley probably comes from a wood where badgers are seen, derived from broc, the Old English word for badger. The wood at Brockley was badgerly. Not croftonparkly.

Wherever it is, it does have some nice places though:

Best Pub*

Don’t tell me we don’t work hard. Starting at Jam Circus, we ventured north to the Brockley Brewery, popped in The Orchard, ploughed on to the Wickham Arms, back to The Talbot and through Hilly Fields to the London Beer Dispensary and the Brockley Jack. That’s when our motability scooter batteries ran out, just when Half-life finally conceded it was his round.

The Wickham Arms is a backstreet treat, with a lovely aspect at the front, pool, footy and a beer garden with actual grass. On a street that would once have been filled with shops, at a junction that used to feature three pubs, it is the lone survivor, serving the community with good times. I had to overcome the urge to say: ‘Well done.’

London Deer DIspensary
London Deer Dispensary

The London Beer Dispensary, next to Mr Lawrence’s delightful wine bar, brings light where there was once darkness, hope where there was once fear, and specifically, eight cask ales, five ciders and three kegs from Late Knights and other small independent brewers; all delicious, served by pleasant, enthusiastic young uns. It’s got good vibrations, amazing burgers and beer prices that would help my flagging economy if the beer itself didn’t invite further expenditure. There’s no bar, you just ask for your beer and someone gets it, like we’re members of some kind of advanced species.

But in a very close race, my head was turned at Jam Circus, an Antic pub, by the kooky but warm environment and by a light, golden ale. Burning Sky Brewery’s Plateau elevated me to my happy place at least until Half-life’s satisfied belch woke me from my reverie.

Best Food

We’d hoped to dine at the highly recommended Gantry but it was closed for lunch. ‘Well, it’s not a proper pub then,’ moaned Half-life. ‘No, it’s not a pub,’ I confirmed. ‘That’s what I’m fucking telling you, innit,’ he railed.

A shame, but at least I’ll have to come back. Hopefully, alone.

The food looked very good at The Orchard, a surprising bar and kitchen with some superb South London gins from jensen’s (Bermondsey) and Little Bird (Peckham). Gin so good you could have it neat. I had jensen’s Bermondsey Dry with ice and basil, while Half-life had the Little Bird with pink grapefruit, claiming it was his first vitamin C since his Christmas clementine. It might not sound enticing but it was delightful and a much needed health break from drinking ale. Like a gin spa.

Babur is fully deserving of its reputation as one of the best Indian restaurants in London, with a menu that includes scallops, quail, ostrich, venison and rabbit, all beautifully spiced, with well-chosen wines. How often do you get to say, ‘I’ll have that quail to go’?

But I bow to The Dulwich Raider’s knowledge and love of La Querce, (though I’m still not sure if it’s in Brockley, Crofton Park, Honor Oak Park or Forest Hill). He says: ‘Bad: View out over MOT garage. Good: View out over MOT garage. The prices seem high, at least until the food comes out and you start working out when you can come back.’

Best Café

The Brockley Mess
The Brockley Mess

Browns of Brockley has plenty of supporters for best coffee in the area, but £3 for a flat white almost saw Half-life soil himself until he remembered his wallet was safely at home, as usual. I was also worried he would again publicly tell how he once got a hand-job for £3. He was in prison, mind.

As noted on the internets, the £3 coffee has become the £4 pint. Not that any amount of money is going to ever stop me buying a pint. Ever.

Arlo & Moe is another of Brockley’s swanky cafés with a good menu that includes ‘sexy toast’, in a handsome setting.

We liked The Brockley Mess best, doing a fine trade with its groovy surroundings, comfy vibe and varied menu. The coffee was good and the wi-fi allowed me to lose £20 on the next Palace manger before lunch.

Shopping

Aladdin's Cave
Aladdin’s Cave

Brockley Market is a cracker whose reputation exceeds its locale. Like Borough Market before it stuck its head up its arse. And it’s near Aladdin’s Cave where you can buy virtually anything (except apostrophes). They even have puppet masks should your puppets’ faces so sicken you, you need to hide them.

What else?

Lovely to meet Peter the brewer at Brockley Brewery, performing unpretentious miracles with hops and yeast in the backstreets of Brockley. Good to see their output supported in the local pubs too. Their Golden Ale is trific as is their Pale Ale when fresh and in the right hands (preferably mine).

The Off-West End theatre at the Brockley Jack is the admirable heart of the area’s creative vibrancy. Not that I’ve been, but one can still applaud.

What is there to moan about?

All this time I thought I’d been enjoying Brockley, I’d been in Crofton Park, which doesn’t exist. Furious.

Rivoli Ballroom
Rivoli Ballroom

Secrets

The Rivoli is no secret to locals but most of town is yet to discover the only intact 1950s ballroom in London and one of the capital’s best night outs. Apart from the sheer splendour of the place they have a monthly gay and straight night where anyone can come along for some old time dancing, provided they are either gay, or straight, or both. That’s just enlightened.

For £12.00 a year you can step back to a time when a packet of Golden Wonder crisps and a bottle of pop constituted quality child care, at the Brockley Social Club. It’s one of those unchanged clubs like the ones Antic have been taking over, except still occupied by card-playing old boys mystified by the modern world, but gaining comfort from their mutual bewilderment.

Green

A look at the map shows nearly 50% of the area is green. Admittedly much of it is given to the ungrateful dead in two lovely cemeteries. But Brenchley Gardens and Hilly Fields are delightful for gambolling lambs like ourselves. Great stuff to stare at. What the map doesn’t tell you is how tree-lined the roads are, embellishing residential areas already handsome with house porn.

One to watch

It will be interesting to see how The Talbot develops on Tyrwhitt Road. Just off the A20 isn’t perhaps a prime location but it’s in the process of being done up and had a really nice selection of ale, even if they’ve got some work to do to keep it as well as Jam Circus and the London Beer Dispensary. Half-life also fell hard for the barmaid there, promising to have her name tattooed on his neck, if he could remember what it was.

Brockley epitomises why I like South London so. There’s plenty going on in terms of kookiness and culture, yet it still retains enough grit to keep its balance, for the time being, unlike myself at the conclusion of my SE4 adventure. The fear is that a £3 coffee is nothing compared to what is happening to house prices here now the Ginger Line has arrived. I don’t mind the dull rich, but I wouldn’t want them moving in next door.

The Sound of Brockley

A playlist of music from artists or musicians who have at one time been associated with Brockley, from Kate Bush to Professor Green.

*Despite having picked Jam Circus as Best Pub, every time I return to Brockley I go straight to the London Beer Dispensary. Even when I’m supposed to be picking up milk.

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