Whenever you call old Deserter chum, Half-life, he’s in a pub. It’s one of his special powers, along with blagging and the ability to reject hangovers. He is literally always having a better time than you. ‘What’s up?’ he’ll say as glasses clink above background chatter and women’s laughter, and you feel that you’re on a hot-line to party HQ.
This time was different, though.
‘What’s up?’ he said, over the usual pub-hub-bub, and then, ‘Ladies, please, I’m on the blower.’
‘Ready for that pint, mate?’ I said.
‘Already started,’ he replied.
‘Right. Where are you?’
‘At a garden centre,’ he said. ‘In Penge.’
Penge Ha Ha
Penge has long been the butt of jokes. First of all – and perhaps most importantly – it sounds funny. Then musical hall comedians with a penchant for slagging off wherever they were playing, gave it some serious stick in its two massively popular music hall venues (King’s and, later, The Empire), a trait that was picked up and recycled by the likes of Spike Milligan, Douglas Adams and Terry Wogan, who liked to pronounce it Pawnge, as if it was French, the silly old con.
Perhaps it was also to do with Penge being known as a well-to-do suburb, an archetypal commuter town, which it became on the back of a Crystal Palace being dumped up the road in what had been Penge Place.
Now the High Street is quite ordinary, with a surfeit of charity shops and fast food outlets, but beneath the surface there is bubbling an alternative Penge looking to reclaim its go-to status. And as usual, if there’s something going on, Half-life wants a piece of the action.
Best Garden Centre
The garden centre in question was Alexandra Nurseries on Parish Lane. It’s the first use of a garden centre category on Deserter and, I’d imagine, the last. But bear with me.
By day it sells plants and vintage home and garden ware and offers fine teas, coffee and cake in its delightfully ramshackle outside café, but on this particular Thursday afternoon a minor miracle was taking place. Local brewery, Late Knights (now defunct, but sort of evolved into Southey Brewing), had set up a stall selling their heavenly ale, while also flipping their legendary burgers with which to soak it all up.
Originally a one-off event, the Thursday ‘Late Night with Late Knights’ has been such a storming hit that owners John and Sarah repeated the event every Thursday for a while. (Southey continued the beer, burgers and nursery tradition last summer.)
‘I’ve forgotten what I’m doing in here,’ said John to no-one in particular as he came to a sudden halt in his shop amid the throng. He shot me a look as I queued for the lav.
‘I used to be with it until they changed what “it” was,’ he said, channelling Grandpa Simpson. ‘Now I’m just anxious and confused.’
He’s also on to a winner. It was so good that we decided to leave just so that we could come back later, when we would run into Steve and Mik from Late Knights and Paul from the splendidly named Penge Tourist Board and hear some news that would blow our simple, beery minds.
Penge was once famed for offering 25 pubs within its square mile and I was looking forward to sampling a few of those that remain. Half-life was less enthusiastic, as he’d once lived in the area.
‘There are people in Penge that are still looking for me,’ he said, grimly. But it doesn’t take much persuading to get him into pubs. It’s getting him out again that’s the problem.
On the night we were out to play, a new pub from Antic was opening in the old Goldsmiths Arms, so we made that our first stop. Perhaps it was because it was the first night, or perhaps it was down to the Penge Christmas lights being turned on, or more likely both, but the place was rammed at 6.30pm. Not just full, but swamped with folk baying and stumbling, gesticulating and swearing, while drinks were spilled and children ran wild like some Hogarthian nightmare.
‘Fuck me,’ said Half-life, as a small girl punched her brother in the goolies next to the outside table to which we had escaped. ‘Bloody kids.’
‘You were one yourself once,’ I said.
‘Was I, bollocks,’ he replied, gnomically, and I had a disturbing mental image of him being born fully formed, holding a pint and a lit fag.
A troop of boy scouts passed and gave us revellers a disapproving look.
‘Little cunts’, said Half-life.
‘Were you ever in the scouts?’ I asked him.
‘Cubs,’ he said.
‘What was that like?’
‘Fuck knows, I was off me nut on grass most of the time,’ he replied, and drained his pint.
Interesting as it was to see a pub completely chokka, like the old days, the next day I felt that I hadn’t really been able to get a sense of what the new place was like. You could always go back and see, I thought to myself, and a smile played about my lips. So for the second time in 24 hours I stood at the bar of the Goldsmiths, ordering more excellent cask ale to reward my clever mind for coming up with the idea. I felt a tap on my shoulder and it was Paul from the tourist board again, practising what he preaches and putting Penge through its paces.
‘Did you actually make it home last night?’ he said, and for a moment I couldn’t be certain.
Now, at 4.30pm on a Friday, the pub looked very different: Much calmer, very spacious and the signature low-lit, kooky shabby-chic that characterises Antic pubs more clearly visible.
‘Perhaps a bit more shabby than chic,’ was the consensus in the gents, but it’s early days and work is clearly on-going. And when the skylight in the back-room started leaking and ice buckets had to be deployed to catch the rain-water, it only added to the atmosphere.
We looked in at half a dozen other places on that first night, but none had the energy or the vision of the Goldsmiths Arms, and none bar the Bridge Tavern, up by Penge West, offered proper beer. Penge’s newest pub is also its best. But for how long…?
Has Penge got another brewery? I don’t know, to be honest, but even if it did, Late Knights (see update below) would still be the best.
They do have open days at the brewery, and of course, as covered previously, are involved in top-notch bars in Brockley, Peckham and Gipsy Hill, but they have long harboured the desire to offer a permanent watering hole in their native Penge.
‘We think we’ve finally cracked it,’ said Late Knights’ Steve, when we were back at the Alexandra Nurseries, hanging out by the hand-thrown Burmese pots.
‘Great!’ I said, ‘Can you say where?’ And he nodded across the road, to where the old Alexandra pub stood empty and shuttered.
‘The Alexandra!’ I breathed. ‘Blimey. Is that a scoop?’
‘It might be for you,’ he laughed, cruelly, ‘But it’s probably the worst kept secret in Penge. It’s perfect. Right next to this place and I’d say about a 7-iron from the brewery.’
Steve was confident it was going to happen in weeks rather than months now, and fingers crossed we’ll soon be back in Penge for another opening.
What with the nurseries, the new Goldsmiths Arms and now a new Late Knights bar, this was a lot to take on board. I mean, one ‘happening’ is good. Two is great. But three? That’s a scene.
‘Shopping?’ said Half-life, not unreasonably.
‘Yes,’ I said, ‘Shopping,’ and I left him in The Crooked Billet while I went across the road to have a nose through the window of Twang Guitars, Penge’s great guitar and music shop.
Just try a little test, as I did. Ask anyone who has used Twang Guitars what they think of the place. If they respond negatively, I will personally buy you a G-string.
At the heart of Penge lies the unexpected loveliness of the Victorian Watermen’s Almshouses, built around 1840 by the Company of Watermen and Lightermen of the City of London for retired company Freemen and their widows.
Retired company men and their widows lived there happily until 1973, when they were all shunted off to Hastings and the buildings developed into private homes.
A bit like what happened on Elephant & Castle’s Heygate Estate, except that, unlike whatever they’re bound to throw up at the Elephant, they look nice.
As my colleague Dirty South so rightly points out, cafés fall into two types: The ones you might go to for wifi or fresh coffee, and the ones you go to with a hangover.
The Blue Mountain café on Maple Road and, confusingly, the Blue Belle cafe on, er, Maple Road, are the best of the former, in which you are liable to be exposed to local art or receive an unexpected salad with your toasted cheese sarnie.
For hot pig, chicken eggs and deep-fried potato, on the other hand, try the Penge Cafe or the Hardedge Cafe next door, both of which offer an al fresco dining experience on Penge’s little piazza.
But our favourite in terms of the space and the atmosphere is, you guessed it, back at the garden centre (main picture).
There are some nice little open spaces in and around Penge but of course the monumental Crystal Palace Park is Penge, too, and as we have noted previously, it’s a very special place.
What is there to moan about?
A common gripe amongst Pengeneers is that they are looked down upon by the poshos of nearby Beckenham.
The irony, given the common perception of Penge over the last 150 years, is that Beckenham is the real suburb, the real commuter town. Penge feels better than that. Penge feels like London.
Update Feb 2019: As mentioned above, Late Knights is no more, but out of her ashes came the mighty Southey Brewery, with the same genius brewer, Sam Barber, at the helm. They still provide their delicious potions to their bars in Brockley, Dulwich and Brighton and their tap room has become the jewel in Penge’s crown, having been named as one the best in Europe, by The Guardian. Southey are also the brewers of the amazing Deserter IPA.
Another child of Late Knights, Holler Brewery is doing some fine work in somewhere called Sussex, I’m reliably informed.
And The Alexandra did open eventually and has become a fine gastropub with a nice line in craft ale.
Sadly, it looks like the Blue Mountain Cafe is no more. A shame, but you’re never far from some bacon and eggs, are you?
And finally it would be remiss of us not to mention Penge’s status as a mecca for street artists. You can’t visit without being struck by extraordinary work by artists from around the globe.