It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was closing time. A happy day in SE13, brought to its end by the inevitable bell of woe, was remembered for the ends of a high street literally going in opposite directions. One is developing organically, with nice pubs and probably some other stuff, the other is being bulldozed into modernity with an invitation to build.
The northern end of Lewisham is suffering regeneration, making it a building site that reminds you that if you drive in London you must have a lot time on your hands (Is that why people drive? Because life’s too long?). The plan is to connect the area around the station to the High Street and build flats and facilities for hungry shoppers. Meanwhile, the other end of the ’Sham is quietly getting on with sharpening up, like neighbouring Ladywell, Catford, New Cross and Hither Green.
The local council want Lewisham to be like Bromley or Croydon, which is a bit like Arthur Smith‘s motivational speech: ‘Go for bronze’. It’s the shopping centre that makes them think they have to compete with other places with shopping centres, places campaigning hard for my inattention.
I have to admit that a pub hosting a Ladies Night with strippers, to which gentlemen are not admitted until 10.30 caught the eye, but there is little to recommend The Anchor unless ‘opens late’ is sufficient for you. Like terrible food that comes in huge portions.
At The Rising Sun, my preconceptions of a Millwall pub were shattered, as, during an England game, musicals dominated the conversation. I found myself unable to contribute anything to the debate over whether Miss Saigon was better than East is East.
The Joiners Arms is a decent Irish pub in the High Street with an emphasis on Guinness, shamrocks and the nags, as it should be. All three show the football but have no cask ale, making lengthy stays virtually impossible.
The other end of the High Street though boasts three crackers, all in easy wobbling distance. The Fox & Firkin is a huge live music pub, featuring everything from reggae to metal, with an ace garden and a community vibe. Just down the road is the Ravensbourne Arms, an Antic pub offering some tasty ales and the king of pub games, bar billiards, for the paupers of athletic achievement, like myself.
But squeezed between these huge taverns is the Jolly Farmers, a small, shy, brown beauty. A welcoming boozer, serving Brockley Golden Ale to a diverse bunch of punters, it sits next to Casa Transylvania and Hirst’s baker’s. You’ve got bread and stickies, all the Romanian goods you could ever need and our winning pub. What more do you want?
Though the grub at Levante and the Ravensbourne Arms looks excellent, it’s hard to get past Meze Mangal, one of London’s best Turkish restaurants, up Lewisham Way. There are plenty of delicious, virtuous items on the menu but you can also satisfy the urge for meat cooked with fire. And being a simple creature, I did. The food was very good, even if the environment is a little too large to be loved.
If you think the greasy spoon is dying out, come to Lewisham. There are plenty of establishments dedicated to cardiac strain. Maggie’s Cafe, is the local institution however. It’s been there yonks and Maggie still brings round a pot of tea for never ending refills. It has an outside space for al fresco pig and egg and does a fine trade fuelling the numerous builders with enormous breakfasts, on plates built for fat giants.
Maggie’s fully earns its place as a South London legend. You can choose from over 20 breakfast items, (including breakfast liver) and even if you order them all, like Spider did after the South London Funeral, it’s still only going to cost you £6.95. Maggie doesn’t like waste though and told him ‘You’d better fecking eat it.’ I can’t think of a better place to sort out your hangover. You might even get a dram of whiskey with breakfast on St Paddy’s Day.
Too stuffed to try anywhere else we did pop to the cafe at the Glass Mill where we could find no one to serve us anything at all. The leisure centre staff huffily informed us the wifi was ‘not for customers’. Shame. The cafe looked nice, but, it seemed it was ‘not for customers’ either.
The daily market continues to thrive, offering fruit and veg at remarkable prices. The shopping centre seems a dated concept, good mostly for getting out of the rain, apart from the Poundland where I bought Mrs South’s Valentine’s Day nipple tassels, which she later forced me to wear. It also has a Tiger shop, a wonder of affordable Scandiwegian design that included a very impressive Finger Football game for just £2. That’s Christmas and Valentine’s sorted for £3. No wonder I felt I’d earned a pint.
During the summer months, the Model Market makes for one of South London’s best nights out. The dilapidated old 50s indoor and outdoor market is a perfect backdrop for Street Feast’s micro diners and old vinyl. It’s not a cheap night, but you’re getting amazing food and great sounds in a unique, kooky environment.
And there’s the bowling alley, probably the only pensioner/teenager hang out there is. It was heartening to see how much its still being enjoyed by locals.
What is there to moan about?
The search for a combination of good coffee and free wifi was not a rewarding one, until we bumped into Ladywell, which reminded us why we’re ambivalent about gentrification. Not everybody needs it, of course, but it does feel old-fashioned not being able to put a tenner on how many corners there’ll be in Wales v Bosnia, over a macchiato.
It’s not often I’d recommend a pub that doesn’t serve cask ale, but the Holly Tree is a special backstreet boozer in which we felt immediately welcomed by both staff and customers. You’re unlikely to stumble across it, but if you do, you’ll be inclined to stay longer than intended, or indeed than your employer could have dreamt. We made do with Guinness and Dublin Porter, listened to eclectic jukebox selections and swapped stories of obscure gigs, tattoos and narrow escapes. Another Irish pub, it is dedicated to chat, sport and lost hours. It was even shut down by copper spoilsports last year after a cannabis farm was discovered above the bar, fussy pedants of the law that they are.
Lewisham’s not endowed with too much park space but, near the hospital, Lewisham Park is nice for a stroll with the hope your limp will attract the attention of a comely nurse. But a pint in the Ravey Arms can lead the easily distracted to wander in the graveyard opposite and onto Ladywell Fields, a lovely spot, with a contender for Lean of the Century over the River Ravensbourne.
One to watch
Who knows how the regeneration of the ‘Lewisham Gateway’ will pan out? It promises a town square, a park where the Ravensbourne and Quaggy rivers meet, shops, bars, restaurants and cafes – all good things, on paper. Let’s hope they’re reaching for the stars, not Croydon.
The Model Market is a fantastic innovation, using what was sitting empty in Lewisham, creatively. Already at Glass Mill it’s clear you need more than a shiny new building to create somewhere people want to be.
Update Sept 2018: The Holly Tree and the Ravensbourne Arms are no more, sadly. But Antic have opened Sutton’s Radio at the Clock Tower end of the High Street, which is a cracker, plus the Lewisham Tavern has opened where the old White Horse was, showing sport and willing, along with the Dirty South pub on Lee High Road.
The traffic around the station has been rerouted but is still an absolute bastard. We had more recent trip to Lewisham which you can read about right here.