At last, a place where we don’t have to worry about creeping gentrification.
There are no greasy spoons, football pubs or kebab shops to be squeezed out of the ‘Hampstead of the South’. So unless Boulangerie Wars break out, or the price of roast swan goes through the roof, you can expect the tranquility of this twee corner of South London to remain unbroken.
I first came to Blackheath as a kid, for a football tournament. I couldn’t believe my eyes: All those football pitches and no fences. I could never be locked out. Now my football and my muddy knees have been replaced by a thickening middle and a tin of worldly vices, the unbound green fields spell the same unfettered freedom to fuck about.
Yet Blackheath is an anachronism, with its chocolate box church by an actual village, with its butcher, baker and gelato-maker and its plague of estate agents, just 12 minutes from London Bridge and that Shard peering over the heath, uninvited. You can appreciate the unchanging space, the villagey feel, but at the weekend the influx of cocktail lovers with nice teeth can also send you scurrying to the dirty city. Or at the very least, Deptford.
The Railway has a nice roof terrace and is a natural port of call should you find there is anything more than seven minutes until your train arrives. The Princess of Wales has better ale and a grand view of the heath. On sunny days you can loll outside on the grass like you’re at a festival where thankfully none of the bands have shown up.
Zero Degrees deserves a mention as it’s a microbrewery, with some outside space and a view. Taking a mini-keg of their pale ale on to the heath with a bag of blow is one of life’s no brainers. But though they seemed ahead of their time when they started brewing, beer has changed since and they haven’t kept up. They’re probably happy with their sizeable pizza-munching yummy mummy crowd, but what’s wrong with catering for the unemployable beer snob market?
The best pub though, is just far enough out of the village to dissuade the less discerning. Who needs ’em? The Hare & Billet wins best pub for one simple reason: The beer. It is always in peak condition and they always have at least one that elevates me to my special place. It is pricey, but it’s hard not to choose the best pint I can find. After all, I’m worth it.
Like the Princess, it’s by a pond and more heath – the perfect location to get bamboozled between jugs of visceral ale.
With the absence of greasy spoons, your hangover needs can only be fulfilled by posh breakfasts, with no sign of recovered meat or scrag ends. This might not be a bad thing, but sometimes only further desecration of your system will do.
Only your bank manager would be disappointed by the breakfasts at the Village Deli or Chapters, but the excellent Hand Made Food does a fab Sunday brunch that includes roast potatoes with your bacon and egg; a happily gilded lily of a breakfast.
North of the heath, at Blackheath Standard, The Scullery Cafe has done a grand job of taking over the much mourned Gambardella’s by keeping the original 60s Italian cafe fixtures and adding quality ingredients from local sources. Even the veg tastes nice, which is just weird.
Evenings are of course, made for boozes, but if you must eat, the Buenos Aires Cafe is to be recommended if you like tearing the flesh of beasts with your teeth and washing it down with fine wine, as I do.
What is there to moan about?
The commercial rents are so expensive that it’s virtually impossible for anybody to try something interesting in Blackheath Village. And despite the inherently conservative nature of the place, it is crying out for something more wonky than a bakery. Shops come and go, and when they do go, locals await another estate agent with trepidation. Sadly, there is no incentive for the owners of retail space to give a fuck.
Jack Cade’s caverns lie several hundred feet below Blackheath Hill, where he and his rebels hid before marching against King Henry VI in 1450. Rediscovered in the 18th century, the largest cavern was fitted with a bar and chandeliers as naked dancers joined revellers in wild, louche, drinking parties. The authorities closed the entrance in 1854. Boo.
A more contemporary secret is the Chart Bar at the Clarendon Hotel, perfect for when you’d like to be somewhere you’ll never fully comprehend. It has an odd nautical theme and, as with most hotel bars, closing time is as flexible as you are.
Blackheath has a treasure trove of Georgian, Regency and 1960s architecture but of those with stories, I like The Pagoda, a folly designed by the same architect as Somerset House, Sir William Chambers. Princess Caroline was banished here by her husband, the Prince Regent, mostly because he couldn’t fucking stand her. He was a corpulent waster, living beyond his and the country’s means, whereas she was the Diana of her day, in that she was fashionable, well-loved, estranged from a twat of a husband and famously fruity. At The Pagoda she comforted herself in her exile by entertaining a Prime Minister and an admiral or two.
A beer shop has now opened serving a vast selection of craft beers, so you can now enjoy happiness in the home.
The heath really is the star of the show. It’s the starting point for the London Marathon, it’s where 100,000 people gather for the fireworks, it hosts the On Blackheath music festival, but with over 200 acres of protected common land, there are plenty of spots to daydream away your best ideas. The strange convex bow of the land makes it feel like you can see the curve of the Earth, until you realise you’re probably drunk.
The north end of the heath runs into Greenwich Park, their twin expanses ensuring you never, ever have to visit the countryside.
One to watch
The British Oak suffers from being not only outside the village, but also a stretch from Blackheath Standard, but it’s a handsome two-bar Victorian neighbourhood pub that’s trying hard to punch above its weight. With live music, good characters, nice staff, pies and ales, it’s doing a lot right. It’s the kind of pub I’d be delighted to find when I’m lost and the newish management are doing their best to help people find it on purpose, without changing too much (though I’m sad the bar billiards has gone, like any athlete).
I do sort of love the Age Exchange Reminiscence Centre. Apart from doing admirable work with the elderly, they also house a mini-library and a nice cafe and garden, surrounded by artefacts from the past – and wifi. Half-life used to call it the ‘Age Swap’ and once tried to trade in his weary torso for a 20-year-old, causing a kerfuffle and subsequent lifetime ban.
Blackheath is also the oldest open rugby club in the world, and is consequently simply referred to as ‘Club’. More importantly, they have three bars serving lovely ale, and you can take a jug of it outside to watch the game without having to hide it from the prefects, or whatever the fuck they’re called.
Mycenae Community Cinema is virtually unknown even to locals, but they put on interesting, often European, films in their 80-seater auditorium and, happily, they’re licensed too, just in case it’s shithouse.
My CV proudly declares that I studied at the Blackheath Conservatoire of Music, the arts centre and cultural hub of the village, without doubt the pinnacle of my academic and artistic career. Indeed, without the three ukulele lessons I attended I wouldn’t be where I am today.
To conclude, Blackheath is a glorious place in which to Desert, of an afternoon, with its vast expanse of outdoors in easy reach of several laid-back pubs, bars and restaurants. Peeking over the top of Greenwich Park, Canary Wharf is mercifully cut down to size from this high plateau. You’re on common land that’s meant to be enjoyed, in bald contrast to the heavily guarded, sterile, joyless zone of the bankers’ lair across the water.
At the weekends, though? That’s what the train station’s for.
Update: May 2016
How could I have left out the Blackheath Tea Hut, which, as reader Tim Decker points out has been serving ‘people of the night’ for decades? It’s open 24/7, has been the subject of an affectionate arthouse documentary and is a favourite of bikers, bobbies and lovers of bacon rolls.
The other criticism was the omission of The Crown on Tranquil Vale, but frankly, it’s a pub I’ve never warmed to. It is however in a cracking location which comes into its own when the sun comes out, with plenty of outside seating facing the heath. Opposite The Crown, the French wine bar Le Bouchon is worth a mention, particularly if for some reason you don’t fancy a pint (though admittedly, in these circumstances you should probably visit a doctor).
The return of Sky Sports to O’Neill’s means live football is available in the village again – a great leap forward. Going backwards slightly though are Hand Made Food, who have seen some lovely people leave, and the Hare & Billet, who have lost a well-loved manager to some pubco bullshit.