Borough has a vibe all of its own. Grungier than modern day Soho and less self conscious than Shoreditch, it has survived the arrival of the Shard, the loss of wonder club Shunt and its proximity to the suit ghetto of the City.
Everyone knows about Borough Market and that if you can get past the tourists, you can find exceptional food for just the price of a small fortune. But it’s Boozeland I want to talk about: Borough’s theme park of amusements that has made it a playground since Chaucer was a nipper.
When London Bridge was the only Thames crossing, Borough was the starting point for all journeys to the South East, so up sprang the coaching inns. Each pub was a starting point to a different destination, like modern day railway terminals, but infinitely better. The legendary Tabard Inn would take you to Lewes, for example, The George to Canterbury. And all would get ye verily pickled.
In Elizabethan times, when the City banned theatre, Southwark became the place to go for a mess about. Theatre, bear baiting, cock-fighting, brothels, booze and an absence of rules rendered it London’s pleasure garden. It became a lawless haven of drunks, criminals and prostitutes. How it has changed. You hardly see any prostitutes now.
Yes, there are many reasons for visiting Borough, many of them culinary, but there are even more reasons for staying all night long and cancelling tomorrow. Here are some of the liquid-based ones, steeped in the fabric of a fun-seeking nation:
The Rake If I could kiss a pub, I would give The Rake a proper tonguing. It claims to be a beer bar rather than a pub (whatevs) but it has much in common with the micropub. It’s small, always has exciting fresh beer on and the food menu consists of pork pies, scotch eggs and Monster Munch. It has an outside deck when the weather’s clement and when it’s not and they raise the giant umbrella, you can smoke by the bins like a true champion.
The Gladstone Another intimate boozer, The Glad is a backstreet gem, serving decent ale and pies in a convivial atmos. Music is important at The Glad, and they put on some incredible acts you’ve never heard of. Conversation is also valued, and you could easily find yourself chatting to an old boy who’s lived round the corner for decades and who appreciates a bright exchange. Lovely smoking deck upstairs too.
The Orange Circus Band play at The Glad on Dec 13th, 2014
Royal Oak An absolute classic that provides a step back in time to when men were men and so were women. A beautifully restored Victorian corner boozer, it only serves Harvey’s ales, but that is fine by me. The food is old skool; hearty and massive and tastes like its been cooked by your mum before her first gin. Deserter ally, Half-life, once threatened to stab a man’s testicle over the last remaining steak and kidney pudding, though his adversary suffered a sudden loss of appetite and they became great mates.
The Old King’s Head I’m still surprised the OKH hasn’t been taken over by gits and turned into a gastropub, serving wilted spinach and shy beans. But am gratified it hasn’t. It’s a proper football boozer, down its own little cobbled street, just off Borough High Street. It can still get sketchy late on but, on the plus side, you can often watch two games at once, if you’ve got swivel eyes, or – and this is what makes it special – watch a game in the alley outside with a pint, as God intended.
Lord Clyde The pub of choice for lovers of the turf, the Clyde is another throwback. It may be the best place outside of Cheltenham to enjoy the Gold Cup, packed with characters and chancers in a fevered atmosphere of disappearing wealth. It’s a pub for an older, local crowd, in comfortable slacks, making it a lovely change of pace from much of London. It’s a comfort knowing that the Fitzpatrick family have been running it for three generations. At least after you pop, you know some good things will remain.
The Roxy Bar & Screen A fab late night venue, especially if you’ve convinced yourself that cocktails are the way forward, the Roxy is also a great place for watching the footy on a cinema screen with a (bottled) pint and some scran. Having a bar and a screen together also made it tempting to match Withnail & I drink for drink, a decision I was later to regret, as would my fellow passengers. But really – music, film, footy, boozes, nosebag and late opening; if this was a job interview, they’d be hired on the spot.
The Boot & Flogger If you’ve just had a fat one by Cross Bones graveyard and contemplated the burial of thousands of prostitutes in unmarked graves, you are going to need a drink immediately, if not sooner. Turn around and you’re at the Boot & Flogger, a charming olde worlde wine bar, serving fine food and excellent wine with the waft of Empire, but without the racism, violence and looting. It takes some charm to make an offer of cold ox tongue appealing after what I’d been through, so it was a credit to the staff there that they managed it.
The Sheaf A subterranean winter pub (see main image), the Sheaf is partly included for its association with the old Wheatsheaf in Stoney Street, where it was once the best pub in the freakin’ world. Now the original pub has been robbed of its market-driven atmosphere of fraternal miscreants, the old Guvnor, Danny, has moved round the corner to the stunning Hop Exchange building. The Danny Show still persists, especially at closing time: ‘Will those without tickets to the orgy, please make their way home!’ he’ll bellow. The funny thing is, there are no tickets.
The George Inn OK, it’s the tourist pub, but it’s such a thing of beauty and history, it can’t be excluded. It’s owned by the sodding National Trust, for godsakes. It’s likely that both Shakespeare and Dickens visited, maybe Chaucer, and it is rumoured, Half-life, though only one of them has performed there naked apart from his boots.
The Britannia A lovely backstreet boozer, the Britannia only loses points for not being open at the weekend. Admittedly when it was, I was the only one in there, but I couldn’t see the problem with that. Very good food, excellent beer and a locally famous array of single malts, it’s a good un if you fancy going into a different pub every day for a month, within a mile of each other, which I do.
Market Porter Any pub that opens at 6am is worthy of attention, but the Porter is also a lovely rustic real ale pub with a huge selection. It boasts world class leaning facilities, with great views of other people busying themselves in the market and an ace restaurant upstairs. It’s inevitable that it gets busy, but the corralling outside makes you feel a little cattle-like, albeit like cattle enjoying a top notch pint of Sussex Best.
The Miller Boisterous boozer right by Guy’s Hospital that attracts students, and, to my optimistic mind, a plethora of nurses. It’s a good, fun pub, which is a departure from all the leaning and smoking that tires me out so. It has an energy that frankly I don’t share, but appreciate. With a rehearsal room, gallery and roof terrace ping pong, it’s got it all going on. The place is rocking at the weekend with DJs and good times. If only they’d let me back in.
Blue Eyed Maid In my dreams, they make pubs with curry houses upstairs, yet this fantasy has become a reality right on Borough High Street. Furthermore, you can have your curry in the pub, with a pint, watching the football. One note of caution is that you have a 50/50 chance of the beer being OK. But sometimes, like James Bond, you have to take bad odds for big gains. Another note of caution: Karaoke is an ever-present threat, turning dreams into nightmares.
The Ruse The Ruse gets in because it provides a unique experience. It’s the unofficial South London HQ for Liverpool football club supporters and as such, provides a stirring place to watch a game, even if you’re not an LFC fan (which I’m not, but God knows I know enough of ’em). With You’ll Never Walk Alone, sung with gusto in a packed pub of red, it’s the next best thing to being at Anfield for displaced Scousers – and the closest Liverpool fans who grew up in Putney will ever get.
The Horseshoe Inn There’s nothing better than trying to find a hospital and bumping into a pub instead. What are you supposed to do? It’s because of that first meeting, I’ve always held a certain fondness for The Horseshoe, even if it’s nothing spesh. Like so many Borough boozers, it’s one you just happen to run into from time to time but can never quite remember where it is. Sometimes I think it’s only really there when I truly believe in magic. Or when I’m truly stoned.
So, Boozeland: Borough’s irrepressible and ancient amusement park, where you walk in the wobbly footsteps of history. With no gift shop, no entrance fee and no obvious exit.
UPDATE June 2017:
Danny has moved on from The Sheaf, but it’s still a key Borough destination, along with its German sister next door, Katzenjammers, which this Sunday (June 18) hosts a Fuck Hate Fundraiser for victims of the Borough attack, from 6pm.
Of the 15 bars above, only The Ruse has fallen to the developer’s curse. South London’s Liverpool fans have moved on to the Roxy.
The Glad did close down, but has reopened under new management.