Reputations can be hard to shift, like blood stains, or fat people.
Eltham, where London rubs up against Kent, just south of Woolwich, is struggling to shake off notoriety and remind us of its moats, its medieval palace, Art Deco mansion, tropical hothouse, theatre and well-to-do homes. Its famous sons and daughters have left no trace of stardust. Even Deserter pal Half-life bought into the infamy:
‘When I was at uni there in the ’90s, the students were scared to go into the pubs,’ he told me.
‘Hold on. You? At uni? Doing what?’
‘Selling weed. What did you think I was doing? Eco-fucking-nomics?’
One Eltham pub manager we met alarmed me by muttering ‘touch wood’ when telling us there hadn’t been a fight in his gaff in the year he’d been there. It’s one way of measuring progress, I suppose. Fighting in pubs sounds so retro – and not in a good, comedy sideburns, way.
Half-life, however, thought my concern about violence was that of a middle class twunt.
‘Fight snob,’ he chided.
Indeed, it wasn’t Eltham that hosted a massive knife brawl in its high street recently, it was Borough. But Borough has a lush market and sells organic bergamots and three-cornered leeks, so its rep remains fragrant.
So if a palace and the finest example of Art Deco architecture and design in Britain can’t influence the perception of a place, what on earth can? As with so many things, the answer is: Pubs.
In Eltham, Best Pub is a race between a classic old skool boozer, The Park Tavern; a micropub in the Kent tradition, The Long Pond; and Antic’s converted sorting office, Eltham GPO. They’re hard to compare, but only drinking in all of them can make the choice clear.
I’m not sure Eltham was ready for Antic. The shabby chic look seemed to offend the eyes of punters used to wearing slacks and neckties while supposedly relaxing. Antic truly are frontiersmen of the London pub world, taking their retro style to lands where it’s not yet retro. After initial resistance, the GPO has established a clientele, a younger crowd that likes music with their boozes. The ale is good, though the sign outside advertising Doom Bar and Amstel speak of their struggle to convert locals to their vision of a kookier Britain.
The Long Pond is a very smart micropub in Eltham Park, the first bar in the area for at least 115 years. The locale was dry thanks to the committed temperance of philanthropist Archibald Corbett, the man responsible for so much housing around Catford and Hither Green. While his good intentions planned communities with shops and churches, he was unaware that life is essentially meaningless, so people would need to get splatted on booze to make it all seem tolerable and have a chance of a shag.
Pond Publican, Mike Wren, serves a fine house beer, Pond Life, along with a good selection of local ales. It has a nice little snug, and otherwise adheres to all the micropub principles of ‘keep it small, keep it simple’. No music and no mobiles mean conversation is the only entertainment, as God intended. It does mean you need to choose your friends carefully, but at least beer will make them seem interesting.
Our winner, the Park Tavern is a gem. A handsome, old fashioned pub on the outside, its good looks are matched by exceptionally well kept ales destined for my inside. It is no wonder it was nominated for South East London’s Pub of the Year. The Purity Pure Gold was perfect, the welcome was warm and despite the appearance of being an old man’s boozer, the crowd was mixed. It looked like the students were no longer afraid to come out in Eltham, though they did cower from Half-life’s suggestion for further recreation at his place with a bicycle pump and some lube.
While the moated Tudor palace and gardens that Henry VIII played in are impressive, the lavish Art Deco conversion undertaken by millionaires Stephen and Virginia Courtauld in the 1930s is extraordinary. Palaces are usually admirable because they’re old and still there, like Barbara Windsor. But Eltham Palace is amazing because some rich people went bonkers updating it using innovative architects and a cutting edge interior designer.
It’s like being in the movie Westworld where you stumble from one recreated world into another, though sadly without the option of a bunk-up with a robot – though with admission priced at £14 some form of mechanical relief would present better value.
The Courtaulds had every possible convenience that the 1930s could muster, built in. They used to host glamorous, decadent parties with royal and celebrity guests like some kind of South London Jazz Agers.
English Heritage have opened up new areas, such as the basement air raid shelter and visitors can try on the clothes of the era. Half-life did so with relish, causing a kerfuffle by trying to escape wearing a flapper’s dress and Doc Martens.
‘You can keep me kecks,’ he bellowed, before being persuaded of the wisdom of wearing trousers in Eltham after dark.
It’s got a giant unappealing high street if you like that kind of thing.
The Woodnut Cafés (there’s one on Westmount Road and another on Court Yard) will do you a builder’s breakfast that includes everything you could want, plus liver; an outstanding contribution to the construction industry. They’re both nice places, with friendly staff serving good value scran to get you through till the sun passes the yardarm.
Eltham is an incredibly green part of town with parks all over the shop. Sadly, Eltham Park North and South are bisected by the open wound of the A2 and the railway, meaning a constant racket. The North side is wilder and quieter, and the Long Pond that gave the pub its name is a nice spot for a bifta, or would be if they put the road and rail in a tunnel so I could get some peace.
Avery Hill Park’s Winter Gardens have been described as ‘Eltham’s answer to Kew’. What was Kew’s question? Presumably, have you got a hothouse?
The gardens are looking a bit shabby these days and should definitely not be getting into a Q and A with Kew. The University of Greenwich want to flog the site and abandon Eltham, though the council reckon they will protect it from developers, which sounds a bit like putting a fox in charge of animal welfare.
Well Hall Pleasaunce, where The Railway Children author E. Nesbit (1858-1924) once lived, is a beautifully tended park of sunken and Italianate gardens, but before you drop off, what’s this? A pub? A pub in a park? With a frigging moat? (Of which more below.)
One to watch
The Tudor Barn is a 16th century building in the grounds of the Pleasaunce that serves as a family pub/restaurant. It’s a beautiful old barn, with grounds for kids to play outside and seats backing on to the moat that runs around where the old Well Hall manor house used to stand. It’s a quite lovely spot and as far from the image of Eltham as the Palace is, in its own way. Any pint next to water is a good pint, as I believe St Peter once said to the Apostles, and it’s hard to argue when you’re chugging down an Adnam’s Lighthouse by Eltham’s second best moat.
The Bob Hope Theatre. The actor, comedian and vaudeville star Bob Hope was born in Eltham and his rescuing of the Eltham Little Theatre led to it being named after him. I always think it’s a good sign when a place has a theatre, even if nothing could persuade me to actually visit it. It did launch the career of Jude Law, which some of you may have feelings about.
Just like we found in Thamesmead, there is more to Eltham than an unwanted reputation. It’s got some good boozeries, plus, in the Palace and the Pleasaunce, places of great beauty that reflect a grand history. We found a welcome everywhere we went and were able to turn a Thursday afternoon in Eltham into an adventure without much difficulty and not even that many drugs. It just doesn’t seem quite ready to believe it’s in London yet.
Update June 2016:
The Long Pond has been named South East London CAMRA 2016 Pub of the Year runner-up, despite being just a baby in pub years. Impressive.
And the Tudor Barn will host an outdoor pop-up cinema in August, screening classic blockbusters. Surprising.