When I first met Deserter ex-girlfriend, Roxy, she was still living with her mum in Lee, the district squashed between Lewisham and Eltham, in the cleavage of suburbia.
‘I’ve been to paradise,’ I told her. ‘But I’ve never been to Lee.’
‘You’ll never see paradise again, with lines like that,’ she replied, tartly.
It’d been years since she’d been back to SE12 and so it was with a mix of excitement and apprehension that she agreed to meet me at With Jam and Bread.
‘But what is it?’ she asked, innocently.
‘It’s a kooky cafe and gallery on Lee High Road.’
‘Oh my weekdays. Kooky coffee on Lee High Road. Christ on a Lambretta, I’ve heard it all now.’
But she hadn’t. Not by a long chalk.
This used to be easy in Lee, but I love it when choosing the Best Pub gets harder. The Lord Northbrook has gone from getting awards for being the worst pub in South East London, to winning awards for being the best. I could gauge the change in the place from Roxy’s open jaw as she gazed at the stripped-back walls and cosy armchairs by the fireplace.
‘Am I in Doctor Who?’ she gasped. ‘I feel like I’ve been here before, in some kind of alternate reality.’
I explained it was probably the 1990s. Her discombobulation wasn’t helped on hearing someone order a Venison Sausage Roll and Game Scotch Egg. I eased her back into society with a lovely pint of Hop Stuff and a good sit down by the fire. I wondered if something other than the flames might be flickering when she said:
‘Right. Let’s get out of here.’
‘No, you twunt. To the park to smoke a beast!’
We had previously visited the Duke of Edinburgh, which I already knew to be a really friendly old-fashioned pub with all the sport and a nice beer garden lean over the River Quaggy. What surprised me was getting a nice pint of Brockley Pale. I love it when old and new come together to celebrate the important things.
The Old Tiger’s Head is also old-fashioned, but not in a good way. It just feels like it’s been left behind, with none of the warmth of the DoE.
The Duke had perhaps fooled Roxy into thinking not much had changed in Lee, as could the perennial best pub in the area, the Dacre Arms, where we ended up later. Even though the longtime landlord, Terry, has passed away, nothing has changed, except his dog, Barney, no longer hoovered up your crisp crumbs. The family have kept its simple charm by changing nothing, in some sort of lesson for somebody or other.
By the time we arrived there, it was nearly 4.30pm, so we were a little worse for wear.
‘Oh hello, love!’ said the barmaid.
Hold on. She looked exactly like the barmaid in the Duke of Edinburgh.
‘I think we are in Doctor Who, Rox,’ I whispered. ‘The barmaid’s been cloned by a more advanced species.’
‘Have you got a twin?’ I asked her. ‘Slightly younger.’
No, it turned out she worked in both pubs. See, there’s always an explanation, even in science fiction.
I’m done with writing about best food. I sort of can’t bear being waited on, plus I’ve only got a fiver to spend on lunch, partly due to freeloading friends, like Half-life and Roxy.
A feature of Lee is the newer places are multi-purpose. Ruby & Norm is a prime example. It’s a vintage shop, art gallery and internet cafe all at the same time.
‘You can have anything you want, Roxy,’ I said. ‘Up to the value of five pounds.’
‘I’ll have a massage,’ she said.
Anyone could have taken that the wrong way, no? Apparently they also do massages, for a fiver. I had a sausage roll and a telling off.
I was having a lovely time at With Jam and Bread until Roxy showed up. It’s a nice place, with good coffee and good tunes. Then in she came and suddenly nothing was good enough.
‘£2.70 for coffee!’ she moaned. ‘You’d think they could afford to turn the heating on.’
I had already gorged on a Full English at the Centre Cafe in Leegate, the greasy spoon in the decaying 60s shopping precinct. It’s everything a proper greasy spoon should be, curing hangovers with chirpy bonhomie and healthy disregard for cardiac wellbeing. Noticing that I was reading The Independent, the waitress took pity on me and brought me The Sun.
But my, not Roxy’s, favourite cafe was Pistachios in the Park, which is in the park. They also do a Full English, along with other, less life threatening options, with a bit of al fresco action. Roxy also liked it but said it was ‘ruined by being massively child-friendly.’
Shopping in Lee is mad. There’s a knitting shop, a bike shop, some good charity shops, a shop for anglers and a fireworks’ shop. Great if you want to go fishing on an explosive bike in some nice mittens.
None of these are in Leegate however, which is now being threatened by progress in the form of bulldozers and a giant Asda. It was recently dubbed the worst shopping precinct in the country, by the Standard. Roxy welled up, looking at the state of the place.
‘Where’s Mad Mike’s?’ she wailed.
‘Mad Mike’s?’ responded a morning drinker outside the Edmund Halley, the Wetherspoon’s that’s just one vowel shy of being named after a famous astronomer.
‘Blimey, Mike must have died ten year ago now. Where you been? In a coma?’
He was right about the locally legendary Army surplus store, but it comes to something when your consciousness is questioned by a man pioneering breakfast ale.
Leegate has gone downhill ever since the giant Sainsbury’s arrived across the road. Most of the shops are boarded up, apart from a struggling butcher and the lovably ramshackle Faction Bookshop. There’s a lot of God around Lee too, with obscure churches all over the shop. God’s got three offices in Leegate alone. Suddenly I started to believe in Asda.
In the 2011 riots some numpties set fire to the Sue Ryder building in Leegate. Really, who torches a charity shop?
It would be lovely if something creative could be done with the place, instead of tearing it down and building a giant supermarket opposite another giant supermarket, next to a Wetherspoon’s. But there is something inevitable about the owner’s ‘consultation’ and uninspired proposal.
What is there to moan about?
There’s the huge, closed Dirty South pub, which used to be a cracking music venue. It had some connection to the Alabama 3, I believe. Dodgy played there and Kate Bush’s first gig was there (when it was the Rose of Lee). It got trashed in the riots and hasn’t opened since. Again, bravo to the rioters. You really stuck it to The Man there.
Shame to see the Portuguese restaurant, Villa Moura, go too, along with the Greek Taverna and Lithuanian supermarket. When, oh, when are we going to get some foreigners who will stay in this country?
We found a little path to the Dacre behind Lee High Road and another from the Dacre to Blackheath, not far from the Hare & Billet, which had escaped Google Maps. Finding alleys to pubs makes you feel like your time on Earth hasn’t been entirely wasted.
The other secret is for astronomers only. If you are an astronomer, don’t move to Lee, because if you do, you are going to die. There are three Astronomers Royal buried at St Margaret’s, in Lee. Three! And for all their fancy horoscopes they didn’t see that coming.
Roxy and I did agree that Manor House Gardens was special, a bona fide lovely London park (see main image). It has a pretty pond with a fountain and all manner of feathered wild life. Birds, she called them.
There’s a pop up screen and bar in the summer and, impressively, an icehouse dating from around 1773. In the olden days, it was the height of sophistication. Before their arrival, no one had ever heard the clink-clink of a G&T.
‘Poor buggers,’ reflected Roxy, as she fired up a beast and we took in the peace and greenery.
MHG also has the tennis courts where Roxy first blew me away. Her in her short skirt and me with my short attention span. We were made for each other. For about three weeks.
‘Fancy a quick knock up, Rox?’ I asked, fishing in my bag. ‘For old times sake?’
‘Have you got rackets?’
‘I brought a skirt,’ I said. Followed by, ‘Ow. What was that for?’
UPDATE: November 2015
Leegate struggles on while the council thinks about making a decision, partly thanks to the efforts of community groups like Lee Green Lives. But the biggest news since our visit is that The Crown has reopened on Burnt Ash Hill. It’s giant, with a somewhat over-designed refurb, vast dining room and smart outside space. It’s a welcome development for a part of Lee that’s missed its local.