East Dulwich’s oldest road runs from Forest Hill borders in the south to Goose Green in the north (and, for the avoidance of doubt, back again). Whereas now pollutants invade the air, once Lordship Lane meandered through airy fields and market gardens and as the area developed, particularly during the 19th century, the road became a retail centre to service the Victorian homes that sprang up all around it.
More recently it has attracted the attention of the anti-gentrification brigade, to which we all belong, of course, until you can’t get wifi, fresh coffee and a pulled pork bap. Poorer people have been priced out by rising rents and house prices, expensive shops (on expensive leases) have started to move in and plans are even afoot for a new cinema and a Marks & Spencer. Not to mention the Foxtons the size of a five-a-side football pitch with its most disappointing array of display chillers, filled as they are with bottles of water and soft-drinks. What, no beer? Really, the only thing likely to tempt me into an estate agent would be the chance of getting paralytic at their expense.
I arrived on Lordship Lane at the crack of dawn (about 9.30am). My brief was to stay on the street for 12 hours, ‘notice shit’ and see how well it could sustain a man in mind, deed and, most importantly, stomach.
Talking of which, breakfast.
The Dulwich Cafe has dominated the Lane greasy spoon cafe scene for a long time but now it has a worthy rival in Johnnies, sister caff to the much-loved eatery on Coldharbour Lane that has serviced a million hangovers. You know you’re in East Dulwich, though, because here it offers table service.
I’d heard that the bubble and squeak was good so I ordered a plate of egg, bacon and bubble. And chips. It was an excellent feast, delivered by friendly staff, and gave me the strength required for my journey to the southern summit of the Lane, all the way up to the start of the Horniman gardens. I’m nothing if not thorough, plus I thought I could snaffle a pint in The Plough on the way back.
After a hike of nearly 15 minutes I thought to myself, I’d better hop on a bus or I’m going to be here all day. That’s the whole idea, my mind reminded me. Fuck my mind, I thought, and jumped on a 185.
Opposite Wood Vale at the far southern tip of Lordship Lane – where once Lordship Lane railway station stood before it was closed in 1954 – there lies a little road off it that, curiously, is also called Lordship Lane and which now leads into an housing estate called North Crofts. I walked down it but it ended abruptly at a locked wooden gate in a plain wooden fence. Behind this gate, I presumed, was the actual source of Lordship Lane, but today I was not going to be lucky enough to glimpse it.
Heading north, back down the hill, Lordship Lane is residential and the first bit of real action you come across – bar a happy wiring box, enjoying the company of his phone mast chum – is at the junction with Dulwich Common. Here, there are shops like Tile Giant and Bathstore which, although I would like to pass comment on them, fall, for me, into the category of ‘shops for other people’.
My eye was taken instead by The Grove pub, on the junction itself. Formerly a watering hole for the stars (Richard Burton and Liz Taylor would swing by at weekends for the buffet), and more recently a Harvester, now it stands deserted and shuttered, as it has done for nearly two years, with its lovely garden sealed off.
Landlords, Dulwich Estate have assured the Dulwich Society that it will one day re-open as a pub but, frankly, we’ll believe that when we see it. With the same fate befalling the Half Moon pub in Herne Hill (Landlord? Why… Dulwich Estate), it doesn’t take a planning and development genius to discern a pattern. A pattern in which anything fun and interesting that services the community is borked by unimaginative antiquarian lackeys in blind pursuit of financial gain for the Estate’s beneficiaries (mainly local public schools – yes, the ones you have to pay for. To the wealthy, the spoils.)
Dulwich Estate has done much to protect this corner of London from over-development, granted, but Edward Alleyn’s original vision for his Dulwich foundation was to educate the poor and assist those in need, not to provide handouts to the privileged at the expense of the community at large. If he was alive today he’d turn in his grave.
Furious, I determined to take a calming beer with my tapas at the only remaining bar in sight, Barcelona Tapas. Unfortunately, I hadn’t reckoned on it still being before noon and it was closed. I haven’t been for years and so can’t make a personal recommendation but given that 80% of restaurants close within two years and that Barcelona has now been going for 23, then x, y and, quite possibly, z.
I marched on past another residential section of the Lane until I reached Dulwich Library into which, in times gone by, one might have popped to read the papers for free. It’s a fine, handsome building which I ignored in favour of The Plough, opposite, well-known as a bus destination, but also, as luck would have it, a pub.
The Plough is a Cask Marque pub that advertises ‘up to six cask ales’, a phrase that, to be fair, clearly includes the number ‘1’. London Pride was the only one on offer on my arrival (and even that wasn’t quite right). Time was, the presence of London Pride in a bar was a cause for celebration. Nowadays, if that’s it, you’re entitled to feel a little underwhelmed. Barely refreshed, I pressed on.
I passed The Patch, a gastro-pub which for a while, I recalled, had had some very good food reviews, but lately word of mouth has been less generous. Although it was open, it was empty. Empty on a Monday morning. What is wrong with people?
Between breakfast and lunch my mind, like that of most men, turns to thoughts of lingerie. And so I was intrigued to spot Bloomers next door, a saucy underwear shop that offered the promise of silk and satin if one could negotiate the overflowing bins outside. Not so Horniman.
It’s down by the closed police ptation at the junction with Whateley Road that Lordship Lane really starts to come alive and we start on what is known as ‘the strip’. Although perhaps only by me.
I wanted to look in at Franklins Farm Shop on the junction with Bawdale Road. It’s known locally as the ‘saw you coming’ shop, where a kilo of pomegranates will set you back £6.80, organic shallots £6.20. A 4-pack of Tunnock’s Caramel Wafer Biscuits costs £2.50. In Sainsbury’s it’s £1. But I guess that’s the point – you’re not in Sainsbury’s. You’re in Franklins Farm Shop, fingering spicy duck and squeezing Stichelton, living the dream.
But it’s not my dream. I think I was still on lingerie when I found myself drawn now to the other Franklins, back across Bawdale, for another try of a pint. It’s a restaurant, yes, but it also has a charming bar area that is both discrete and convivial. Plus they always have a couple of good ales on. Yes, they are £4+ a pint, but for once, it’s worth it.
Out front there are chairs and tables with heating and an awning in the event of drizzle. From here you will be able to watch progress on the talk of the town, the East Dulwich Picturehouse, which will be in the old St Thomas More Hall.
I never visited the Hall, but I hear it has (or perhaps, had) a wonderful sprung wooden dance floor, which I suppose will now get routinely covered in over-priced popcorn and be swept by underpaid youngsters who will have to live three to a room in order to survive on a sub-London Living Wage.
I wondered if anyone at Cineworld had considered the damage being done to the Picturehouse brand by their refusal to pay the London Living Wage to staff at The Ritzy, Brixton. Have they, balls, I figured. Picturehouse, incidentally, is owned by Cineworld, which has UK & Ireland half-year EBITDA of £32.5m.
My wrath piqued, and fuelled by an excellent Boater golden ale by Head in a Hat, I crossed the road to take the piss out of William Rose, the butcher, which people bang on to me about endlessly and which routinely attracts absurdly long queues of patient, wealthy carnivores. I considered opening with, ‘Do you mince prolapsed Sheep’s anus?’. Or perhaps ‘How much distended abdomen can I get for a pony?’ which confused even me for a moment.
But, hang on, what’s this? Pevensey Marsh lamb for £7.95 per kilo? Rare breed Red Poll beef for £9.65 a kilo? That’s very good. This place is wonderful. Why did no-one tell me about it?
Meat may well be murder but it also makes me hungry so I decide to mix it up now and pick a place for lunch. Seacow does a nice bit of grilled fish, I recalled, but the chips are a let-down. Plus it’s so gloomy-looking in there in the day-time.
Le Chardon is a very pretty-looking place, with a wonderful tiled interior, but it is cursed by the most miserable, surly maitre d’. If you’ve been unfortunate enough to experience him, you’ll know who I mean. Fearful that he may be on duty today, I discounted it, which is a shame because despite the overlong menu the food can be pretty good.
At length, I chose the most consistently fine eatery on Lordship Lane for the last five years, The Palmerston, which now offers a lunch menu. At £13.75 I don’t consider it a cheap lunch option – especially not once you’ve added a carafe of wine-booze – but you do get two finely crafted courses in lovely surroundings with dependably un-surly staff. My main concern was to get it down before long-term nodding acquaintance, Half-life, arrived and I had to buy one for him too.
As I was finishing my wine I received a text from him saying simply, ‘Mojo, bring £££’. I was momentarily confused. Who was this Mojo? Was it me? But it transpired that Mojo Audio is a basement shop (beneath the Dulwich Cafe) that specialises in vintage hi-fi equipment and vinyl. I found Half-life in there reclining in an armchair with a coffee, chatting to the owner about valve amps versus solid state amps and clutching a Vibrators album and a Southern Death Cult 12”.
‘Where the fuck have you been?’ he asked. ‘Can you pay the man for these? I’ll sort you out later.’
As it turned out, they weren’t the last thing I was going to be buying him, either. In St. Cristopher’s Hospice, the largest of Lordship Lane’s charity shops, Half-life was smitten by a sideboard.
‘Nice.’ he said.
‘For a sideboard’, I rejoined.
‘Teak,’ he said, ignoring me and inspecting it more closely. ‘G-plan. Yep, gold stamp. ’60s probably. Maybe ’50s.’
‘Right’, I said, blankly.
‘I’m having it. Can you do the honours? I left my card at home because of this “card clash” scare.’
‘Oh, for fuck’s sake. You already owe me the best part of a grand’, I said.
‘Yeah’, he said, and started opening and shutting all the drawers with his concentrating face on.
‘I’m adding that to your bill,’ I said when I returned from the pay desk.
‘OK. Grab that end, then,’ he said.
‘What? We’re not taking it now, surely.’
‘Because everywhere we go we’ll have to carry a bastard sideboard?’
‘Think about it – we’ll always have something to put our pints on.’
And so it was that we found ourselves outside The Bishop with a jug of Pimms and a sideboard, watching the good people of East Dulwich. If the gentry is usually a white, moneyed type, we didn’t see much evidence of them taking over the area that afternoon. It’s fair to say East Dulwich has got a bit more white and middle-class over the last 30 years but we nevertheless saw a remarkably eclectic mix of ethnicities and all ages and social groups.
Sure, the shop opposite was called White Stuff, but it turns out this was down to an historical connection with ski-wear rather than a place to buy sun-tan lotion and St. George flags on long poles.
‘Look,’ I said to Half-life, giving him a nudge as a lesbian couple passed by on the other side of the road, hand in hand. ‘That’s the second lesbian couple I’ve seen holding hands today.’
‘They’re the only ones who do any more,’ he replied, unexpectedly, and flicked his roll-up at a pigeon.
With England playing a Euros qualifier that evening, we discussed our options for a pre-match dinner. One aspect of Lordship Lane that hasn’t changed since I first visited in the ’80s is the quantity of Indian restaurants. I counted six on my visit, though I may have included Mirash which is not (quite) on Lordship Lane. In fact, the curry houses were only out-numbered by the estate agents (11).
Local folklore has it that they’re all decent because of the competition, which sounds plausible. Back in the day, the Dulwich Tandoori was the go-to first choice. Now, I tell Half-life, it is Swadesh.
‘That’s that sorted, then,’ he said.
‘They don’t sell alcohol though,’ I warned him. ‘And you can’t bring your own either.’
‘That’s that sorted, then,’ he repeated. ‘Where else?’
We considered the exquisite lamb doner at Hisar but I was keen to try somewhere I hadn’t been to before so we carried the sideboard over the road to Toast, a new-ish ‘restaurant and wine shop’. And what a find. Smartly devised dishes of seasonal food on a well-thought-out menu offering small plates that ‘come when they’re done’, like kinky English tapas. And while you wait you can sup quality ‘bulk’ wines drawn from enormous vats in the side room.
‘I’d like to get into one of them,’ said Half-life, not entirely joking.
Watch out Palmerston, there’s a new kid on the block, offering the kind of style, quality and enterprise that you would usually have to be much further north to experience. About 3 miles, I reckon, at 40 Maltby St in Bermondsey.
Once, deciding where to watch the football on Lordship Lane would have actually involved a decision. Every pub showed it: The East Dulwich Tavern, The Bishop, The Lord Palmerston, The Magdala, The Plough… the lot. Now there is just one, the East Dulwich Tavern, or EDT. Fortunately it’s also the best pub on the Lane, with a pleasantly kooky decor, lots of room and a great selection of well-kept beers. It was the Antic collective‘s first pub and, if you are familiar with their work, you’ll know they don’t know how to do a bad one.
In the EDT they offer up to three screens of football and a ‘house ale’ (Adnams’ Lighthouse) for £2.80 – the cheapest pint on the strip, we were told. They also do decent food but by this stage we had gorged ourselves so, there was only room for beer.
After the game we were intent on an entirely unnecessary night-cap. I rued the passing of Inside 72, a pop-up bar before pop-up bars even existed, that operated from No.72 Lordship Lane, the site of the Adventure bar (also now closed, but possibly not as missed, I suspect). Inside 72 was ideal for that last large JD on ice, a blast of great music and a smoke in the bus shelter outside.
Instead, we headed to legendary late-night hang out, Kebab and Wine, where we were ushered into the back room, no questions asked, and offered beers. Or possibly wines. Or maybe both. At this point, I’ll level with you, my recollections start to become a little hazy. I do remember Half-life arm-wrestling a dwarf across the sideboard at one point – not bad going for a Monday night. My last sighting of him was trying to drag the thing onto a night bus. The sideboard, that is.
Looking back, if I’m honest, I came not to praise Lordship Lane but to bury it. I believed all the hype about rampant gentrification and subsequent loss of character. Yes, there are boulangeries and cake shops and, sure, it’s easy to deride the more extreme examples of gentrification – that farm shop, maybe, or Lila’s the jeweller, where you can pick up a £3000 second-hand ring – but as it stands, these new places have added something, not taken anything away. It’s still a varied, socially mixed, lively (edgy, even) and largely independent high street.
Maybe the toffs will move in and quieten it down. Perhaps, with globalisation, the independent stores and restaurants will be replaced with more generic places. But a thought came at me through my hangover the next morning: Right now, it might just be the best it’s ever been.
Update, July 2015
The East Dulwich Picturehouse is now open with three screens, a garden and a menu featuring beetroot and goat’s cheese popcorn. Whatever one’s thoughts on the London Living Wage, I’m bound to say the food looks delicious and the space is quite wonderful.
‘Sustainable restaurant’, The Patch, turned out to be unsustainable and is now The Lordship, from the team behind Exmouth Market’s The Easton. The EDT’s house bitter is now their own Volden Vim bitter. The Grove Tavern remains closed, I hardly need to say.
I understand Bloomers’ lingerie is in fact tremendously popular amongst the sexy ladies of East Dulwich, which warms my cockles tremendously. And a new addition to the strip is groovy yé-yé café-bar, The French House.
Half-life sold the sideboard for £400. I have yet to be re-paid.