As Henry VIII was about to piss off the Pope, half of Europe and more wives than you can shake a sceptre at, he decided to build ships closer to his armoury at the Tower, so his navy could cruise the Channel proper tooled-up.
The choice of Woolwich as a Royal Dockyard began a procession of royal patronage that would see the town house the Royal Arsenal, the Royal Military Academy, the Royal Artillery and the Royal Herbert Hospital, the world’s first hospital for herberts.
One by one, the Royal sites closed down, like bejewelled Bejams. Now pound shops are the closest Woolwich gets to sovereigns.
Henry called his giant Woolwich-built warship Henry Grace à Dieu. It was better known though, as Great Harry. The most powerful ship in Europe was later honoured by having a Wetherspoons named after it on General Gordon Square (which was itself later honoured by being set on fire in the 2011 riots).
And it was at General Gordon Square that we arrived, thoroughly confused one morning.
‘It looks like Birmingham,’ declared fellow Deserter, Half-life, with barely concealed disdain.
The grassed levels of the square slanted towards the big screen, such a hit during the Olympics, but on this day, audio only. If a giant blank screen is what you’re after when you listen to rolling news with breakfast cider, this is the spot for you. Wardens patrol the square though, and they’re after your booze.
With the square surrounded by tired shops, police, pretend police, mid-morning drinkers, a Carbuncle Cup Winner and the repaired ’Spoons, I feared that those who challenged us to come to Woolwich were right. Maybe it was a shithole. Maybe there was no hope. But then I saw it – the miracle of the square.
The Woolwich Equitable, a beautiful Art Deco building, formerly a building society HQ, had been transformed into a lovely pub, like Cinderella with hand pumps.
Until the arrival of the Woolwich Equitable, Rose’s was the undisputed queen of Woolwich pubs, without even trying. It hasn’t changed much since Moses’ balls dropped, with its wood panels, Thames mural and old boys supping stoically at the bar. Two more recent additions are the bearded dragons, Ronnie and Reggie, whose ‘mustn’t grumble’ demeanour fits right in. Good ale, darts, footy and the racing ensure there’s little else one might need. Thumbs up, even to the mentally ill punter having a vigorous debate with his imaginary friend about Brian May’s marital status.
Dial Arch, Young’s Royal Arsenal pub that sprang up where Arsenal Football Club was born, is a convincing conversion of an historic building. Half-life loved the lawned square out front but only because he could smoke while watching two grown men having a fight. The beer selection was excellent, but the non-Woolwich prices nearly made Half-life start another ruck.
‘Good luck with that’ was the common chuckled response to the news that Antic were investing in Woolwich, but their conversion of the Equitable is typical of their pioneering spirit. They’ve only taken over the lobby of the old building, so it’s not cavernous, thankfully, and its been spruced up with taste and sympathy. There’s a lush little corner room overlooking the square, which you can hire, or, if you’re Half-life, sprawl in, regardless.
As you’d expect, the ale is fab and the staff amiable. The location was seen as a risk, but the pub has settled down with a nice, mixed crowd already, defying expectation with rockin’ good times. A bank had become something useful, something admirable. And if I’m ever voted in as Chancellor it will serve as a template for all financial institutions on our nation’s road to recovery.
At the time of writing, the internets have the Blue Nile Cafe as the top-rated restaurant in the capital of the world. The family-run Eritrean-Italian is as sweet as it is tasty, serving amazing food I’d never heard of. They’ll do you a lasagne if you’re in less adventurous company, but I had a piquant lamb stew and a stunning unknown vegetable dish and pancake, washed down with a refreshing spicy tea. £6.25. While the food is excellent as well as novel, it’s the charm and warmth that ensures five-star reviews, I reckon. Now, where is this shithole called Woolwich everyone was telling me about?
It’s not just new pubs that indicate change in Woolwich, it’s the cafes. Koffees & Kream is an unfussy, table service cafe with trad food, banquettes, decent coffee, wifi and a few bottles of booze behind the counter. Even Simply Red’s greatest hits didn’t put me off my fry-up, which costs three nicker when the special’s on. They’re trying hard and it shows.
Another cracker is Cornerstone Cafe, in the Royal Arsenal, with lush home made stickies, good coffee and tempting lunches. A contender for best food, it’s a little more chichi and adventurous than Koffees and even has a licence to serve the Hop Stuff.
However, I must mention the Gurkha Cafe in the Covered Market too, as who doesn’t want to have breakfast in a giant shed?
The markets are tatty, tacky, cheesy and chintzy. And I sort of love them. The Covered Market is horribly dilapidated, like it’s waiting to be put out of its misery. The outdoor market is bargain basement too, which works for fruit and veg, but I’ve not yet reached the point where economy pants are the way forward.
One local greengrocer hopes to see good local food available in a permanent Woolwich market. Why the hell not?
What else is there?
Woolwich is rich in beautiful buildings: The Town Hall, the Academy on Woolwich Common, the old cinemas and the Royal Arsenal are all stunning. But it’s the Hop Stuff Brewery that is the local treasure as far as I’m concerned.
Most of the pubs in Woolwich serve some of HSB’s excellent ale, which is great to see and even better to drink. Once in a while they open their doors, set up a bar and serve their amazing ales directly into your system. I tried them all – and they made me feel special. The final pint, the Gunnery Porter, at 7.4%, saw me wave adieu to my senses and order another.
The place has a lovely ramshackle vibe; it’s clearly a working brewery, a place where you talk to strangers. Two such gents, one from Yorkshire, the other, Australia, made the mistake of challenging me and Half-life to a game of table football, not knowing that my chum was the Village Naturiste Aphrodite Babyfoot Champion (1988-89). Still, Half-life is no longer speaking to me after I let in an own goal (his), which was apparently my fault, leading us to narrowly win 19-1 on aggregate.
With two stunning cinemas closed and turned into churches, the last thing Woolwich needs is to for the Woolwich Grand, a community arts venue offering film, theatre and even rollerskating, to close. It’s hanging on by a thread under the ever-present threat of development into shit flats. All the fabulous things in town are down to local people doing something magnificent, not Council planning. The least they can do is get behind people trying to make stuff happen. Even I need something to do other than go to the pub, occasionally.
One to watch
One thing the Royal Arsenal misses is another bar. It’s a big space to wander around without any hope of stumbling across a backstreet boozer, tucked away, with a nice lean. Hop Stuff are apparently looking for a location and if they find one, you can be sure it will be awesome.
What is there to moan about?
The Royal Arsenal Riverside is in danger of becoming a middle-class enclave, separate from the town centre. Historically, it’s always been separate, but that’s because it had places known as ‘danger buildings’, where even horses had to wear rubber shoes to avoid sparking an explosion. This is different. It’s a gentrification border skirmish. Getting a balance for the wants and needs of the wealthy, the poor and the inbetweens, is a huge dilemma, even for a place that spent 400 years as the engine room of a warrior nation.
Woolwich has incredible history and architecture, good booze, food and transport, but no key tourist destination, in contrast with Greenwich. Maybe its history is too ambiguous to turn into visitors. But for all the preconceptions, I judge places on whether I can have a good time in them. And that wasn’t very hard at all.
Update: March 2019
The Woolwich Creative District hopes to be South London’s second South Bank, further relegating the rest of the world behind the might of the transpontine.
The Woolwich Grand has been demolished but at least we got some shit flats in its place, eh?
There’s better news on the bar front. Hop Stuff opened their taproom in the Royal Arsenal site, though they moved their brewing operations to Thamesmead. The Taproom‘s pretty swish, but great ales and very good pizza.
I should have given a mention to the Earl of Chatham pub – a lively boozer with music till 4am at the weekends, footy on the box and a poker league.
Street Feast took over the Covered Market when it closed down, which it was fun while it lasted. But they too were forced out after maintenance issues and with the site now awarded Grade II listed status, the Spray Street development is likely to be delayed.
And we still await that riverside bar.
A playlist of some of the bands people claim to have seen at the Thames Poly in Woolwich.
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