There’s nothing like a bar full of students to make you feel old and out of shape, or if you’re Half-life, hungry and sexy.
The impact of Goldsmiths is unmistakable throughout New Cross, the bottleneck between Peckham, the Old Kent Road, Deptford and Lewisham. Good music is everywhere. Booze is omnipresent. Bars open late and mornings go missing. Students give New Cross an alternative vibe, a temporary population of the excitable young, with the potential to become dull or brilliant, but for now, happy to drink, dance and explore each other’s minds and undergarments.
But the most immediate sign you’re in Studentville is that there is more physical beauty around than you’re used to. I could see it in distracted Deserter compadre, Half-life, as he peered past my shoulder at a stunning young American woman.
‘Brush’, he said.
‘Brush. Brush. Brush.’
Half-life believes that by saying ‘Brush’, the casual observer will think he’s having an intelligent conversation, while his mouth is drawn into a warm, benevolent smile. He picked this trick up from Alan Clark’s Diaries. The rake and politician used ‘Brush’ when being photographed, it being less ebullient than ‘Cheese’. That’s all very well with Clark’s Eton tones, but with Half-life’s Northern accent he looks more like a pouting gibbon.
The Amersham Arms is exactly what a student pub should be, with drink deals, burgers with comedy names and a great space for gigs. Carl Barat (The Libertines) is DJing this week in between eight live bands from every branch of the indie church, including, according to the blurb, the oft-neglected ‘hypnotic folk-soaked’ variety.
New Cross Inn is another pumping music venue. It’s open till late, when it gets a bit sketchy, so it’s just the sort of temptation you need when you’re building your future. Who wants a job that requires morning attendance anyway?
At the Marquis of Granby you’re more aware that it’s not just students in New Cross. It’s still old skool South London. The Marquis provides cheapish pints in the kind of old man’s pub that can make you feel alive with the tingle of danger. Grumpy old soaks stare at you as if you’ve just kicked the testicles of their dangerous dog, which was an accident, to be fair to Half-life.
We sat away from the men with spite in their eyes when Half-life again muttered:
‘Oh, for God’s sake, man. Get a grip!’
Half-life pointed at a picture behind me of Brush Shiels, an Irish rock legend, sitting, for no apparent reason, on a tractor.
Two pubs vie for top slot though and, despite being a bit pricey, they’re still packed with students. The Rose (formerly The Hobgoblin) has reopened with its original name. The place has been transformed, with stripped brick walls, a conservatory, upstairs room and large beer garden, providing plenty of places to hide from actor, performance artist and ‘actual cannibal’ Shia Labeouf (see video below), who has form in the old Hobgoblin.
In the end, I went for the tasteful refurb of New Cross House, with its persuasive ales and funky inside/outside area out back. There’s a lovely snug with just room for me and two girls and the ‘tree house’, the ivy-covered playroom where you can feel bohemian and slightly childish at the same time, whilst ordering pizza on the pub’s phone app, like the Lord of Studentville.
It’s a leap from the days when it was a brilliant sticky-carpeted dive that did the best ska and reggae night around. Magic like that can’t last forever, and now it’s got different magic. As long as there’s sorcery of some kind, I can be sated.
As well as tons of live music venues and dubstep nights, New Cross gave us James Blake and Klaxons. Some credit it as the birthplace of New Rave, the brave sound of the Noughties for people who liked the sound of punk, electronica and sirens.
It also had a hand in the formation of Blur while everyone (like Oasis, Radiohead and Pulp) played The Venue. Nowadays The Venue hosts tribute bands, like Coldplace.
There are plenty of options to eat deep-fried beasts along the strip and there are decent under-a-fiver Chinese meals at Yao Kee and Uncle Wrinkle. But the much-loved Goldsmiths Cafe has been treating hangovers with the contempt they deserve for a long time, with aplomb. Hats off.
The Rose’s Crispy Pig’s Ears also caught my eye at £3.50, giving you not only change from a fiver but improved hearing. That’s science and maths.
It’s a strong field in New Cross as if there’s anything students need apart from booze, music, drugs and lots of sleep, it’s coffee. Birdie Num Nums and the veggie Cafe Crema are both lush and licensed, but my firm favourite was The London Particular. Cosy and sparse, with a big shared table and nice vibe, it is mysterious that they have to go next door for your coffee, but wherever it comes from, it is excellent. The food is both unusual and comforting, which is unusual. And comforting. I especially liked the meaty baked beans. If a vegetable needs a vegetarian option, I’m in.
On Friday and Saturday nights, Birdie Num Nums is taken over by Little Nan’s, the legendary cocktail bar that started in Deptford. It’s marvellously kitsch, serving tasty boozes in teapots and china. I had a delicious dark rum and ginger concoction in a Charles and Diana mug, while Half-life chugged down a teapot full of Dame Judi Dench (gin, lemongrass, prosecco, etc) and alarmed the staff.
‘Is he alright?’ asked a beautiful girl with big glasses and tiny eyes.
New Cross is also the UK’s home of three-sided football, the wondrous game of alliance and betrayal, with three teams and three goals on a hexagonal pitch with just one ball. Whoever concedes the least wins, but how many you score is a matter of indifference. D3FC play a game of three thirds on the first Sunday of every month at Fordham Park, in their bid to win the possibly prestigious Luther Blissett Trophy.
Prangsta, the extraordinary costumiers on New Cross Road, was the site of one of Gingerline’s secret supper clubs; special theatrical culinary events that occur around the stations of the London Overground, anywhere between Canonbury and Crystal Palace, that we can’t tell you about or we’d have to kill you over the internet.
Once you’ve got your corset sorted at Prangsta, you can pop along to groovy greengrocer The Allotment for some ‘forced rhubarb’. I’m not a fan of rhubarb but I’m slightly more tempted on hearing it’s being ill-treated. They do sell a broad range of specialty ingredients as well as the humble potato, but the fact they sell Brockley Brewery ales too is truly impressive.
There’s not much green around, which is ironic as it’s a great place to score some. Fordham Park is small, with a sobering memorial to the victims of the New Cross Fire. Last year it hosted a superb free music festival, which I hope will return. It’s worth walking off the beaten track to Telegraph Hill for a good view and a pause before the kids get out and ruin it with their joyful play.
One to watch
The Montague Arms is a kooky pub and venue, away from the strip and possibly too far for some students to walk, at nearly half a mile from college. It’s decorated with taxidermy, divers’ helmets and a moped, but it has always been gloriously wonky and is only returning to its tradition now it has re-opened after a period of closure. Back in the day, the NME described it as ‘a mock Gothic fun pub for morbid tourists’, in a legendary interview with Nick Cave, Shane McGowan and Mark E Smith that took place there.
Tasty ale, good music and a feeling you may have entered a portal to a planet of acid trip jumble sales make The Monty a characterful diversion, still.
I underestimated New Cross, somehow forgetting it brought us Alfred Hitchcock, Steve McQueen, Antony Gormley, Lucian Freud, Mary Quant, a thousand sweaty bands, cocktails in teapots, a pub with a treehouse, three-sided football and more.
Maybe I was subconsciously irked by its 24-hour gridlock. Ironically, it’s worth spending time there on purpose.
Update: February 2016
Vegan caff Cafe Crema has turned into Out of the Brew, a cafe-bar-gallery-garden. Happily the garden is a beer garden, the very best kind of garden.
And now, pubs: Steampunk boozer The Montague Arms is promising an in-house microbrewery to go along with its oddities, craft beer and live music. We wish them the best of British. The Telegraph at the Earl of Derby has earned its status as the hidden gem of New Cross, tucked away towards Telegraph Hill. It doesn’t open till 5, unfortunately, making it hard to skive in, unless we take on night work. And lastly, the Old Haberdashers’ pub has reopened as the Fat Walrus to general acclaim, with a focus on good food and keg craft beer. Well done everybody.