Streetlife: Bermondsey Street, SE1
With its upmarket restaurants, galleries, delis and boutiques it is as if a ribbon of Chelsea has been laid upon the SE1 badlands, where sallow-faced purse-snatchers still lurk, ready to pounce from their two-wheeled steeds.
But the gentrification must be more than street-deep, because Bermondsey Street is filled with people with new coats and clean shoes eating, drinking and discussing which is better, art or property prices. Presumably they are residents of the blocks of new flats that have sprung up in the area. In addition, the street hosts visitors to Bermondsey Antiques Market (Fridays 6am-2pm) and nearby Maltby Street market (Saturdays), the insider’s alternative to Borough Market.
It used to be something of a stamping ground for me, back before the The Garrison went gastro and when The Woolpack was still the London Scotia Bar, installing and servicing hangovers for Scots in search of a better life, in a pub.
I may as well state right off that I liked Bermondsey Street in the old days, when it was a sparse, windy backwater with a pub at either end and another couple in the middle. I’d heard much about its ascent into the gentrisphere, how it had become a foodie destination, and now it was time for it to stand up and be counted.
Antico, Zucca, Ticino, Jose, Pizzarro… Am I counting in ‘Modern European’? Don’t be daft, I’m listing the highly regarded restaurants on B-street, as I believe the locals call it (they don’t). Jesus, I thought to myself, I can’t eat in all these places. With a glass of drink, I wouldn’t get out from any of them for under a score. I had a brainwave.
‘Hello,’ I said to the young man in Tanner & Co. ‘I’m from a blog about doing fuck all. Can I have free food, please?’
‘You would need to book ahead for something like that,’ he said.
‘I am congenitally unable to do things like book ahead,’ I replied.
‘Then I’m afraid we won’t be able to help you,’ he said with a smile.
‘May I speak to the manager?’
‘I am the manager,’ he said. And there followed a short silence while I considered my response.
‘Can I have free food, again?’ I said.
Back out on the street, I devised a new strategy. I’d just link to a site that had reviewed all the restaurants already. Why invent the wheel, when you can just point at someone else’s wheel? So here it is: Thanks, Samphire and Salsify, and thanks The Internet.
Excellent, now I could do something else. I wondered what. I decided to go to a pub and have a drink about it.
With all the lovely bench seats in The Woolpack taken by roaring diners, I took my pint up the spiral staircase and tried to settle into the ‘faux baroque’ upstairs room with its elaborate black and gilt wallpaper, golden chandeliers and unavoidable ceiling mural. Think Boy Georgian gothic, with a hint of Jedwardian.
A woman on the next table with a North American accent asked me if I knew the way to ‘Burrow Station’.
‘Burrow Station?’ I said. ‘What are you on about? You mean Borough. Borough. Bor-ough.’
I wondered later if I might have been in a bad mood. I mean, it was January, I was still coughing up the last of the Widowmaker, and, really, that ceiling. Anyway, I got over myself and had a nice chat with the American lady and her simple (or mute) husband about the area. I told them locals call it B-street.
Now starving, I ducked into EATalia (I know). I explained to the staff that one of my New Year resolutions was, the next time I was very hungry, to actually eat a horse. But the stable was bare, so I settled for an excellent lasagne at £4.50, with a tap water thrown in gratis.
Earlier, I had breakfasted at Al’s Cafe, the last greasy spoon on B-street, where a fine egg, bacon and chips sets you back a mere £3.60. So even if there is no hope for the poor, at least there are fry-ups and lasagnas.
Fortified, it was time for The Arts.
Inexplicably, old Deserter comrade, Half-life, had free entry vouchers to the Fashion and Textile Museum, so I met him there and we spent a pleasant half an hour watching girls watching knitwear. Thence to White Cube, the swanky gallery run by Jay Jopling and to which, delightfully, entry is free.
It featured an exhibition by Liza Lou who ‘explores glass beads’ by creating lifeless monochromatic ‘canvases’. The process is, apparently, demanding and arduous and after the third room it becomes clear that her time would be better spent doing almost anything else.
Worse, the North Gallery was showing works by Senga Nengudi created from ‘panty-hose, masking tape and found objects’.
‘Oh my fucking God,’ said Half-life, a little bit too loudly. ‘Have you ever seen anything so shit? I’ve got to get some of this.’ And he started snapping away with his phone.
‘Mind the guards,’ I said.
‘What are they going to do, throw me out?’ He said. ‘They’d be doing me a favour.’
As it turned out, you are allowed to take photographs in White Cube, as you should be in any gallery. You are not, however, permitted to smoke. Not even while watching a short film in the auditorium. Not even if you’re Half-life.
‘Art fascists!’ said Half-life, as we were escorted from the premises. ‘Where to now?’
‘You fuckoffee?’ I said.
‘Do what?’ said Half-life.
‘You for coffee?’ I shot back, quicker than Dynamo, slicker than Derren Brown, the mind-mixer.
‘Whatever,’ he said.
There are a decent amount of coffee shops on B-Street. Hej, on Bermondsey Square, is excellent, with friendly staff and a lovely colour green. The Watch House at the entrance to Mary Magdalen Churchyard is charming. But, inevitably, the one everyone is talking about is Fuckoffee (née Bermondsey Coffee), with its candid slogan, ‘Come happy, leave edgy’.
A little while ago they stuck up the sweary sign, made of Lego (see main pic). When I first heard about it I thought it was a bit naff, a bit obvious, even. Then people started complaining about it and now I think it’s fucking brilliant.
‘I had to shield my children’s eyes as we left the White Cube gallery’, bleats some dreadful red-trousered twunt. Get out of my fucking town, and take your God-awful children with you.
A little while ago I tweeted a picture of the Fuckoffee loyalty card and the owner got in touch to say, ‘We get into a lot of trouble about the cards, but mainly from Daily Mail readers, so fuck ’em.’ Which made me warm to them still further. What’s more, the coffee is great.
‘I’m thirsty,’ said Half-life, despite actually drinking a flat white while moaning. ‘You owe me drink for the free ins to the girl museum.’
But I was way ahead.
‘Absolutely. I know a great place on Bermondsey Square,’ I assured him.
We walked down via the churchyard, a lovely bit of local green space, where we tarried by a bin, lit up and lamented the loss of the horizon now that Bermondsey Square had got itself all built on and ruined.
‘Listen,’ I said, when we reached the square, ‘I’ve just got to make a quick call. That’s the place I meant,’ and I nodded at the Bermondsey Square Hotel. ‘Amazing cocktails. Order whatever you want, I’ll be there in a tick.’
Off he went and I pretended to make a call. Oh, this was going to be good. You see, the Bermondsey Square Hotel (and the GB Bar and Grill on the ground floor) got a new ‘Asian investor’ in November and as a consequence no longer sells alcohol. Not a single drop on the entire premises. Any second I expected an ashen-faced Half-life to re-appear at the door, or perhaps to be forcibly removed by security, shouting about boozes.
I gave it five minutes. I gave it ten. Where was he? After fifteen minutes I was getting cold so I went in to find him. He was sitting at a table eating steak.
‘Don’t sit down,’ he said, ‘Cunts have run out of grog so I got the rib-eye. Can you pay the geezer and we’ll fuck off.’
In the warming bosom of the Marigold pub, back up the road, I told Half-life about the BSH’s no-alcohol policy.
‘Explains why it’s empty,’ he said.
I reminded him of the old joke, what do you call a meal without wine? Answer: Breakfast. But he didn’t laugh. Largely, I suspect, because for him this isn’t always the case.
The Marigold – in which the ceiling is reassuringly brown – is, along with the Shipwright’s Arms at the northern end, the most ‘pub’ you’ll get on the street. But this end, you’re away from the numbers. There is only one ale, but it offers basic, reasonably-priced grub (Pukka Pie, mash, peas and gravy, £6.75), shows the football and if the kitchen’s shut you can order in whatever you want, which we duly did.
As Half-life helped himself to my pizza, I reflected on a day spent on this good-looking, wonky Victorian street, with its jumble of ex-warehouses, factories, townhouses and shops dating back to its days at the forefront of the leather and wool industries, and beyond. Now, despite the gentrification, it services a healthy mix of suits, artists, luvvies, entrepreneurs, tourists, well-heeled incomers and bemused locals.
If you’ve got the money, it’s got it all. It could only be improved by offering more in the mid-price-range and by getting rid of the traffic that forces visitors and locals alike onto the narrow pavements.
Well, good news.
Firstly, a planning application has been made to turn an old tobacco warehouse into a vast two-level indoor and outdoor street food market, with stalls, micro-restaurants and a bar area. Done properly, this could mean reasonably-priced food and more young people encouraged to visit the area. Difficult as they are to love, with their impossible good-looks and easy charm, let’s face facts, without young people there is nothing but, well, old people. And no-one wants that.
And secondly, the pedestrianisation of Bermondsey Street is one of five projects recommended for funding in a report being considered by Southwark Council. It seems almost facile to say that Bermondsey Street would be improved by being closed to through traffic, because, you know, what street wouldn’t?
After a long day we were heading off to Burrow Station when Half-life’s sixth sense twitched and he spotted a light coming from a public convenience near where Bermondsey Street meets Tower Bridge Road. But it was no longer a public convenience, or rather, it was, but in the form of a wonderful underground bar called the The Bermondsey Arts Club & Cocktail Bar. We descended the tiled stairwell, pushed open the door and ordered a warming nightcap amongst the lively throng.
‘Must be the first time I’ve ever had gin in a toilet,’ I said.
‘Fucking lightweight,’ said Half-life.
UPDATE: APRIL 2016
After receiving a joyless letter from solicitors acting on behalf of their landlord, threatening legal action, Fuckoffee decided to star out the U and become ‘F*ckoffee’ instead.
Read the full letter below, as posted on Fuckoffee’s Twitter feed. The little penis is by Fuckoffee.
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Image credit: Get a Job by Half-life, used in return for one English pint.