Talk of Tulse Hill

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‘Tulse Hill football-dayer 12pm,’ read the text from Half-life, sent at 4am, Sunday morning. It’s all about advanced planning with him. He’s like a drunk project manager.

I had meant to spend Sunday afternoon dismantling the rickety piles of junk that had accreted in the garage so, understandably, even the arrangements of a madman were too much for someone of my flimsy resolve to resist. Maybe, if I didn’t overdo it, I could get to the garage in the evening.

But I did overdo it and I’m pleased to say I started overdoing it almost immediately.

The first person I ran into after alighting from the 68 bus was The Prof, an old friend and respected political academic, who was standing in the middle of Station Rise with the air of a man for whom inner peace was a constant companion, possibly something to do with the enormous spliff he was toting.

‘Alright, Prof?’ I said. ‘What are you up to?’

‘I’m in the Railway for the game with the kids,’ he said. ‘They’ve just finished playing football themselves.’

‘Oh yeah? How did they get on?’

‘They won 11-0. Though to be fair, the opposition keeper was probably legally blind,’ he said, passing me the joint.

‘Cheers. First thing past my lips today,’ I said.

‘Bud and breakfast,’ he shrugged.

Swansea vs Liverpool

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The Hart of Tulse Hill

The Prof hadn’t seen Half-life so I left him to the Railway and dropped into The White Hart to see if he was lurking in there. He wasn’t. Figuring he’d turn up sooner or later I texted him and eyed the limited beer options. I decided a Kronenbourg 1664, that well-known breakfast ale, should be the next thing on the menu.

‘Pint of numbers, please,’ I said, and settled into a deep, comfortable armchair from which to daydream my way through the last knockings of the early game.

The White Hart has had a chequered recent history and has, for a while, been the talk of Tulse Hill. Less than three years ago it was a hardcore, old school boozer offering a simple, no nonsense alternative to the more gentrified charms of the Railway Tavern by the station. Then at the end of 2013 new management arrived and introduced real ale, pizzas and music nights, all of which was widely deemed an improvement, or at least to have made the place more inviting.

Then in 2015 they abruptly disappeared and some guys from the East End took over. In what was possibly a misguided experiment to recreate an optimal Shoreditch-style customer, the new management first took it upon themselves to ban people wearing trainers, then to forbid drinking at the bar, or standing anywhere in the pub (presumably it was OK at the urinals) and, in a final straw for some, even barring locals.

In response to a deluge of disbelieving posts on its forums, local website, Brixton Buzz, gave the place a gentle pasting and invited a response from the management. None was forthcoming and it wasn’t wholly surprising to watch the place first struggle to attract a crowd, then start opening erratically and then eventually call time once and for all.

In January this year it re-opened under new management, closer in style to the original management than anything that had followed it. Now it’s lively, friendly, they show the football, the sun is still lovely in the afternoons and Friday night karaoke is very different to anything you’ll get elsewhere in Tulse Hill. Sure, it could use a few more interesting beer options, but overall this feels like a victory for non-gentrification. Half-life would be happy.

So where the fuck was he? It wasn’t like him to miss a Liverpool game. Having finished my pint I went to look for him in the Railway. Before I got there I spotted him smoking a fag outside Carlos’s, the small Portuguese cafe next door, with a clutch of locals he’d befriended: Davis, Arnie and Chelsea Kev.

Man Utd vs Leicester

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Cafe culture

Carlos’s was a revelation. Not only do they knock out bottles of cold Portuguese beer for £2 a pop, they also bring round free plates of chorizo, cheese and crisps, which finally allowed me to get some solids down. Furthermore, they show the football. A chalked sign on the wall declared, ‘No wifi, talk to each other and get drunk’. Really, who were we to refuse?

The football was a feed from the Internet so there was a little bit of buffering at first, but it soon settled down.

‘It only seems to freeze when there’s a bit of action,’ said Arnie.

‘Sounds like my missus,’ said Davis.

‘Can you blame her?’ said Chelsea Kev.

‘I bloody love cafe culture,’ said Half-life. ‘Whose round is it?’

Tulse Hill is quite well off for cafes, as it happens. As well as the genius of Carlos’s, the Portuguese theme is continued by Castle Delicatessen in the alley down from the station, a local institution in which a super-sized presunto roll, cappuccino and a pastel de nata is not much more than a fiver. It’s a sister cafe to what must surely be Tulse Hill’s most popular restaurant, Castelos, on the main thrash – I don’t think I’ve ever seen it empty.

For more traditional caff fare, the Tulse Hill Cafe is much loved (and, wifi fans, does offer the connectivity we crave), but my favourite remains the Electric Cafe, just over the West Norwood border, wherever that is. I’ve mentioned it before, but for the sake of the hand cut chips alone, it bears repetition.

Southampton vs Man City

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Is-it-inside-is-it-outside?

For the third game of the day, me and Half-life finally made it into the Railway Tavern, just in time to see them turn down the sound and switch off one of the terrace screens. Shame. I like the Railway for the football. Yes, it gets busy, and yes the crowd is relentlessly youthful, but the large is-it-inside-is-it-outside? terrace at the back makes for a great holiday feel. It is a spot that must surely be logged for daytime football viewing during the Euros, particularly on those glorious three-match days when the pub is all you need. They usually have a decent beer on, too. But given the reduced football experience we decided to push on.

‘Fancy Peabody Hill again?’ I said.

‘You have got to be fucking joking,’ said Half-life. And I was.

I was referring to an unfortunate visit there some months ago after we’d already been on a long hike round West Norwood. I’d been curious about the patch of green that appears on the map to the north of Tulse Hill station, between the rail lines where they diverge towards Herne Hill and Peckham. It was where ‘Tulse Hill’ was actually written on the map and yet I’d never heard of Peabody Hill, so after a couple in the Railway, I’d persuaded an already weary Half-life up there to explore.

‘Can you let us through the tunnel?’ I had asked the station guard at Tulse Hill ticket barrier.

‘Where are you going?’ he said.

‘To the other side,’ I said.

As he looked us up and down we got the impression this was not a common request. I guess most people simply walk round the long way. The idiots.

‘50 quid,’ he said, at length, and opened the ticket barrier for us. ‘And I take cheques ’n’ all!’

The other side of the tracks, I recall, had seemed immediately quieter and more rarefied (the South Circular aside) and as we made our way up the hill past the allotments, the air became fresher, almost breathable. Peabody Hill, it turned out, is a large 1970s housing estate but beyond it, there was the green patch I’d seen, open to the public and now known as Peabody Hill Woods.

Covering three hectares, it’s a fine swathe of woodland and briefly offers something a little wilder than anything in the magnificent but comparatively manicured acres of neighbouring Brockwell Park. With its smattering of nitrous oxide canisters and the rusted skeleton of an old car nestling in the foliage, it’s obviously something of a playground for local youth, too.

Long term car park, Peabody Hill Woods
Long term car park, Peabody Hill Woods

‘Why should they have all the fun?’ I remember Half-life saying as he skinned up on a fallen log.

We headed down the hill on the north side towards Rosendale Road, where Google Maps showed two further exits/entrances to the woods. We found the nearest exit blocked off due to building work and were obliged to trudge back up the hill and down again to the other, Half-life muttering expletives. But at the end of this path, too, and despite the absence of any warning signs, our way was blocked by a padlocked six-foot fence. We peered over the fence into another building site, where a lone builder was sitting on a pile of pallets having a fag.

‘Don’t worry,’ said Half-life. ‘I’ll sort this.’

‘OK,’ I said. ‘But don’t make a scene.’

‘Of course I won’t make a scene,’ said Half-life, a little hurt, before bellowing at the builder, ‘Oi! Fucknut! Get this fucking gate open before I kick the cunt down!’

Despite this intervention, or perhaps because of it, we were forced to walk all the way back up the hill and down the other side – the way we had come in – and I was commanded to buy a hot, flustered and exhausted Half-life premium continental lager in the Tulse Hill Hotel until his face returned to its normal colour (green).

Today, then, we decided to forsake Peabody Hill and go straight to the Hotel (although I am pleased to report that both of the northern gates to the woods have now been re-opened).

As we were leaving the Railway, we bumped into the Prof again.

‘Fancy one in the Hotel, Prof?’ I said.

‘Better not, I’m live on CNN in an hour,’ he said, lighting up another spliff, and we left him to collect his thoughts on the Syrian crisis or the US presidential election.

‘I don’t know how he does it,’ I said.

‘Well, it helps, doesn’t it? Gives you insight,’ said Half-life. ‘Like, I can only do those Rubik’s cubes when I’m smoking a blunt.’

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Handsome devil

The Hotel’s previous incarnation, Tulse Hill Tavern, used to offer two types of shit lager, Mother’s Pride sandwiches, hard stares and cocaine in the lavs. Regulars probably knew the game was up when the new owners advertised for an ‘experienced chocolatier’. Now, in its new incarnation, it’s a gastropub as well as an hotel and very handsome it is too, inside and out. We had a quick pint out front on the terrace overlooking the gyratory.

‘Unless you mention it, you don’t notice the traffic,’ said Half-life, mentioning it and making me notice it.

There are plans afoot to return the one-way system to a two-way junction, which, if it calms it down a bit, I’d be all for. But nothing is likely to happen until 2020. My own personal preference – to turn the whole sorry mess into more allotments – was politely rejected by the Tulse Hill Forum as the unhelpful rantings of a simpleton, but where would we be without the dreamers?

With no football on at the Hotel, we pushed on down Tulse Hill towards Brixton. Before the railway station arrived (in 1868) and shifted the idea of Tulse Hill south, this was where the manors of the Tulse family lay, dating back to the Commonwealth. In the early 19th century Upper Tulse Hill Road and Lower Tulse Hill Road were laid out and it was the latter, now known as simply Tulse Hill, that we headed down.

There’s not much to see on it, to be honest, and in fact, when the park’s open, only a fool would choose to risk lung failure by walking down it. We turned into Cressingham Gardens, the lovely low-rise estate that Lambeth Council let fall into disrepair so that they can knock it down and redevelop it because… it’s too expensive to repair (they claim). What with this, the closure of its libraries and the ridiculous Garbage Bridge, one can only draw the conclusion that Lambeth has simply stopped listening to the people that actually live in the borough. 

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Cressingham Gardens

From here we wandered through the bucolic splendour of Brockwell Park as far as the Tulse Hill gate, where we rejoined the last bit of Tulse Hill. We noted a couple of new cafes and were pleased to see that Haircut, Sir? was still going strong, the barber’s from which Andy (and now his son) have buzzed out flat-tops for nearly 40 years.  

The Hootananny may not, quite, be in Tulse Hill but if you live on this side of Tulse Hill, it will certainly be a venue on your radar. The flags flying outside announce that as well as being a cracking music venue, it’s very much a football pub and we watched the second half of the City game in there. Until a couple of seasons ago the Hoot would show a Saturday 3pm game (Arsenal, if they were playing) but sadly this excellent service seems to have been curtailed, probably due to something called ‘the law’.

Finally, we dropped into the Effra Social, the Antic bar in the old Conservative Club, and a perennial favourite. Its time warp front bar offers half-memories of large G&Ts, Ladies’ Nights, Herb Alpert and Players No6, while the cavernous back room is another great venue. It can get very busy so it’s perhaps no surprise that our favourite time to visit is late afternoon, when we have the place more or less to ourselves.

It also provided the best pint of the day even if, as is often the case here, it was served a little on the warm side.

‘Shall we have another one?’ I asked Half-life.

‘I dunno. I’ve got a Rubik’s cube that needs sorting,’ he replied, and we sauntered down to the Curry’s car park for some puzzle time.

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