Streatham Stories

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Half-life was telling us about some young ‘client’ who had called him from Brixton the other day, wondering if he was in the vicinity.

‘I told him I was in Streatham and wouldn’t be long. “Where’s that?” he says. “Streatham?” I said, “Up the hill. About a mile away.” “Never heard of it,” he says. Christ almighty. He lives in Brixton and he’s never heard of Streatham? Talk about a sign of the times. These people don’t know they’re born.’

‘Or where they are,’ I said.

‘Or whose round it is,’ said Dirty South, eyeing his empty glass.

Art & Craft

We were sitting outside Art & Craft by Streatham Hill station, enjoying an unexpected bottle of Brewdog’s Elvis Juice in an ex-grocery turned mini art gallery, bottle shop and ale bar. Half-life had wanted to show us (for some reason) where he used to sign on but we’d come across a large road sign that read simply, ‘Good Beer’, and had, thankfully, been distracted.

But I vetoed another beer. We had a lot to get through and the road was long. Quite literally. Streatham High Road stretches for 3km and since our plan for the day was to ‘walk up and down it’, it didn’t take a mathematician to work out that meant a journey of some 3.72823 miles.

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A good sign

It will come as little surprise that Streatham means ‘hamlet on the street’, a name so prosaic the elders felt obliged to jazz up ‘street’ with a wild ‘a’ in case future generations thought they were unimaginative, which we do. But modern Streatham has been anything but prosaic.

Last century, its shops, ballroom, theatre, cinemas and ice rink led to it being dubbed ‘The West End of the South’. From the ’80s, though, shops closed, discount retailers moved in, night-time crime increased and prostitutes walked the streets. Streatham lost its mojo and now, despite substantially cleaning up its act, Brixton noobs can’t quite place it.

‘Tragic really,’ said Half-life. ‘Got offered a blow job for a fiver once, round the back of Safeway.’

‘Tell me you didn’t…’

‘Can’t remember much about the blowy but I do remember we walked off with each other’s shopping, after. Crazy days. First time I ever tried avocado.’

Tearing ourselves away from Art & Craft, we set off down the High Road. Half-life had promised to show us some of his favourite haunts – including his ‘Pub of the Year’ – adamant that we’d never find them without him, which is entirely possible.

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Your search for a cab is over

Streatham High Road is part of the A23, the main London to Brighton road, and is as noisy and busy as that implies. But the pavements are wide and closed shops are being reversioned as cafes and bars, which is nice, though walking past them all does tend to make you very thirsty.

‘Not far now,’ said Half-life as we passed the Odeon cinema, a rare thing: An inter-war purpose-built cinema that is still a cinema. Though the fact that it once housed one big screen and now offers eight smaller ones may explain its longevity. ‘I was down to the last two to be manager there once,’ he added, and I caught Dirty South’s eye.

‘What happened?’ I asked.

‘Oh, they gave it to the other bloke. After I told them my idea.’

‘What idea?’

‘One word: Porn night.’

Leigham Arms

Half-life led us down Sunnyhill Road away from the traffic noise until we came to a fork in the road, in the middle of which sat what looked like a little country pub, a cute cream and green dream, the Leigham Arms.

‘This is the bar for normals,’ said Half-life, striding through the front bar. ‘This is the Gay Bar,’ he said in the middle snug bar, and the men within nodded benignly. ‘And this,’ he went on, coming to rest in the end bar, ‘Is the Naughty Bar.’

‘Where you belong,’ said the barmaid to Half-life, giving him a wink. ‘Salad cream in your roll, no onion?’

‘You know it,’ said Half-life.

‘Why is it called the Naughty Bar?’ I asked, but the barmaid just smiled. At Half-life.

Two screens were showing Paramore’s That’s What You Get very loudly, which sounds worse now than it did in 2008, if that’s possible, so we took our Guinnesses and ham salad rolls out into the yard, where another screen, mercifully off, hinted at the pub being a decent place to catch a game.

‘Best sports pub in Streatham,’ confirmed Half-life.

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Call to Arms

Streatham’s own claim to sporting fame is the Streatham Ice Hockey Club. Founded in 1932 their future was recently secured by the building of an ice rink in the new leisure centre after their old rink was demolished. Until recently they were known as the ‘Streatham Redskins’ but last year they changed their name, adding the less divisive nickname ‘Redhawks’ earlier this year, after a public vote.

‘Course, the same thing happened to the Boston Redskins in the States,’ said Dirty South. ‘They changed their name too.’

‘Right. What did they change it to?’

‘Washington Redskins,’ he said.

Less rosy, perhaps, is the future of Streatham Rovers FC, which has been gaining notoriety for squabbles between rival groups of their own supporters, the unpredictable ramblings of manager, Taff Goose, and the unprecedented turnover of players (87 used so far this season). One to keep an eye on for the worst of the Extermin8 Rat Poison League.

Holland Tringham

Back on the High Road we were disappointed to find new-ish pub Pratts & Payne closed until 4pm, as is the case with so many Antic pubs. If there’s one thing Sadiq should get on to, it’s the late opening of so many of our boozers. This is South London, for crying out loud. We’re not bothered about working. We want to go to the pub.

Fortunately, the Holland Tringham next door was open for business. The hanging flower baskets, oversized menus cluttering the tables and the reassuring hum of all-day drinking told us this was a Wetherspoons pub, which – with its Cold War prices – at least meant Half-life might put his hand in his pocket.

‘What I like to do,’ he cheerfully informed us, ‘Is get a £2 pint here, go out front and ponce a fag off some cunt with a beard and then stroll into Pratts with me drink. Now that’s what I call an antic. No offence, like,’ he added, noticing – possibly for the first time – that Dirty South and I were both sporting beards.

Holland Tringham, who resided in Streatham from 1891, was a renowned Victorian artist and illustrator who received royal patronage and exhibited at the Royal Academy. When photographic reproduction came in, though, there was less call for magazine illustrators and the commissions stopped coming. Appropriately enough for our surroundings, he turned to booze in a big way and died aged 45 in a loony bin after a local bobby thought he was acting oddly on a trip to the Isle of Man. A salutary tale, and one that informed my next choice of drink.

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Streatham Green by Holland Tringham

‘What the Um fucking Bongo are you on?’ asked Half-life, when he saw it.

‘A San Pellegrino Blood Orange on ice with a slice of blood grapefruit,’ I said.

Why?

‘It’s really quite delicious. Also, I have elevated liver enzymes.’

‘Congratulations,’ said Dirty South.

‘It’s not as good as it sounds.’

‘Mate, this has 33 grams of sugar in it,’ said Half-life inspecting the can.

‘Fuck, really? Is that even possible?’ I said.

‘That’s what’s doing your liver in. It’s full of fucking syrup piss. Stick to beer, that’s the safe option.’

‘Thanks, Doctor.’

Pratts and Payne

Next door, I chose a Southwark Brewery Topaz and order was restored.

It may not open till four, but Pratts and Payne is a lovely spot; a large but homely booze palace with signature Antic zany furnishings, a separate area for dining and a pretty garden in which to enjoy a sugar rush topped up with ethanol. And the name provides another couple of Streatham stories.

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Shopping & sex

Pratts was a department store – latterly part of the John Lewis Partnership – that stood proudly on the High Road from the 1850s until 1990 when, despite still turning a profit, it was closed. Demolished a few years later, new units were filled with retail sadness in the form of a Lidl, a Peacocks and an Argos.

Streatham’s historical importance as a shopping centre is further underlined when you consider that not only was it home to the first Waitrose, which opened in 1955 (since closed), but that it also lays claim to Britain’s first ever supermarket, Premier Supermarket, which pioneered the idea of the counterless shop in 1950. Whether they, too, offered car park blow jobs is not recorded.  

And the ‘Payne’? As any Streathamite worthy of the name will know, this refers to Cynthia ‘Madam Cyn’ Payne, who threw sex parties from her home in Ambleside Avenue, offering services in exchange for Luncheon Vouchers. Frequented by businessmen, clergy and MPs, lurid stories of the parties kept newspapers in business throughout the ’70s and ’80s. A newspaper cartoon at the time has a vicar being accosted by a police officer at one of Mrs Payne’s do’s: ‘I wish to consult my lawyer,’ he cries, ‘Who’s in the next room.’

Cynthia Payne died in 2015 and she never, as far as we know, visited Pratts and Payne. Had she done so she would, I’m certain, have felt very honoured.

The Manor Arms

Our next stop took us through the little Streatham Green up to the Manor Arms, very near Ambleside Avenue as it happens. Here Half-life led us out to the back yard snug where, as an ex-Winner, Babyfoot Championships, Aphrodite Village Naturiste, he was able to soundly thrash us at table football, though thankfully with his clothes on.

Back yard snug, Manor Arms
Back yard snug, Manor Arms

The Earl Ferrers

We headed next down Natal Road to the backstreet brilliance of the Earl Ferrers. Thank God for Half-life (and it’s not often you hear that). This place is off the beaten track, tucked between the railway tracks and ‘Streatham Hub’ (which turns out to be the enormous new Tesco plus the leisure centre) but well worth a detour.

We were warmly welcomed, provided with fine ales and took a seat outside to watch suburbia come and go. As far as we’re concerned, Tesco can do one: This is the Streatham hub.

The pub is named after a line of British peerage that includes the renowned Laurence Shirley, the 4th Earl of Ferrers. At the age of 20, Shirley dropped out of Oxford and nicked off to Paris, where he lived it large until he inherited his title and vast estates from his mad uncle at the age of 25. He returned to England, continued to drink like a fish, separated from his wife after his illegitimate children kept turning up and, on a particularly bad day, shot and killed his steward, for which he was tried and hanged at Tyburn in 1760.

It is said that he requested to be hanged with a silk rope, the dreadful toff, but that this was refused.

‘Good,’ said Half-life, and unusually for us, we drank to The Law.

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Old bag

Crossing back over the High Road we arrived at Streatham Common, a green oasis on which we abjured fresh air in favour of smoky toxins and giggles. Against their will, I dragged Half-life and DS up to the Rookery, the formal garden laid out on the site of one of Streatham’s historic mineral wells. It is here, in a disused barn, that Tom from Art & Craft had told us that their sister company, Ink Spot brewery, is to be located, and plans to sink a borehole in order to use Streatham water for brewing.

‘Let’s hope there’s a tap room’, said Half-life, looking around. ‘It’s fucking dead up here.’

The Bull

He cheered up as he led us back down to our last scheduled stop of the day and his so-called Pub of the Year, The Bull. As we drew near though, he became agitated.

‘It’s changed colour,’ he said. And then: ‘It’s changed name!’

Previously the Pied Bull, it has recently undergone a refurbishment by owner, Young’s, which makes it look a bit like all the other Young’s pubs that have recently undergone a refurbishment. A bit of a shame, though the hoppy Twickenham Summer Sun was tasty and plenty of original features remain to make it feel more pub than restaurant.

One thing Young’s had left intact was the small roundel above the entrance proclaiming the pub, as Half-life had insisted, ‘Pub of the Year’.

‘Told you,’ he said.

Closer inspection revealed that this was an Evening Standard award from 1973, but, you know, a gong’s a gong.

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Pub of the Year, 1973

The Railway

Post-pint, it became apparent that we were not in the physical condition required to walk all the way back up the High Road and so DS and I put Half-life on a bus back over the hill to Brixton, where he claimed to be dining with ‘that Binky off Made in Chelsea’, and we pottered down to Streatham Common station to catch a train.

Here, we were confronted by one last boozer, The Railway.  

‘I suppose we should,’ I said.

‘That’s psychogeography,’ said Dirty South. ‘Like it or lump it.’

Inside we were invited to join a wake party that was in full swing and plied with their leftover food. We were also thrilled to discover it was ‘Happy Beerday’, a once weekly event (Thursdays) which allows you to buy one bottle of local beer and receive another gratis.

Through a combination of greed and idiocy we ended up with four bottles all on the go at the same time and we drank to egg sandwiches, Beerday, liver enzymes and one Bob Michaels (deceased) whose story, like this one, had come to an end.

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Image credit: Main image by Matt Brown, used under this licence

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