Not long ago, finding himself with nothing to say to a good-looking estate agent at a party, Deserter bro, Half-life, heard himself asking, ‘So, where’s the best place to buy at the moment?’
‘Well, we know…’ said the beautiful realtor, tapping the side of her nose conspiratorially.
‘No, we don’t know,’ said Half-life, ‘That’s why I’m fucking asking you.’ The estate agent laughed prettily, making full use of her thick skin.
‘No, not we know,’ she said. ‘WeNo, as in West Norwood.’ Half-life looked at her for a moment, stupefied.
‘Fuck me,’ he sighed. (And she may well have done, for all I know).
And so it was that when I told him I was visiting West Norwood for an afternoon mess about, Half-life said he’d accompany me.
‘Just so’s I can twat anyone who calls it WeNo,’ he said.
‘Obvs,’ I replied.
I arrived at Tulse Hill station around noon and leant on a lamp-post to await Half-life. I like leaning on lamp-posts. It allows you to observe without being noticed. If you simply stand in the middle of the pavement you risk looking like a loon, but lean on a lamp-post and you’re unobtrusive; you disappear into the scenery.
My artist friend (and come to think of it, local resident), Tym, advocates the use of a walking stick for such purposes. Recovering from injury some time ago, he would take regular breaks on a walk down to the shops to rest and lean on his stick, blending effortlessly into his surroundings. He enjoyed the experience so much that once fully recovered he repeated the exercise, stick-less, just standing awhile on the pavement, smiling and watching the world pass by.
Someone called the police on him.
That’s why I like to use the lamp-post.
Of course, as regular readers will testify, the problem with waiting for Half-life is that you haven’t the faintest idea when he might arrive, despite any previous arrangement. Having leaned on the lamp-post using my left shoulder, my right shoulder, my back and – less successfully – my front, I was forced to move off and reccy some cafes ahead of his appearance.
If there was one thing I observed from my lamp-post it was a surfeit of cafes. Within metres of the station there was Carlos’s, The Lazy Rhubarb and the closed Pause, plus others on the busy A125. I spotted another, Creative Aroma, across the road and on peering into its window I saw a familiar figure sitting at a table, hunched over a sandwich and thumbing a magazine on interior design. What the fuck? I went inside.
‘Half-life,’ I said, for it was he.
‘Oh, there you are,’ he said. ‘Fuck at ya?’
‘Focaccia?’ he said, offering me half of his meatball sandwich. It was so delicious I forgave him and ordered an intense americano to go with it.
My plan for the afternoon was to walk south from Tulse Hill to the end of Norwood Road, staying on the western side, then head east towards Norwood Park, then back north to Norwood High Street and back down Norwood Road to Tulse Hill on the other side of the road. A walk of probably a little less than five miles. Or, as I told Half-life, two miles. He’s not a walker.
As we set off up the Norwood Road I asked him if there was anywhere in particular he was looking forward to visiting in West Norwood, on our afternoon of pissing about looking for local places of interest.
‘Jack Stamp’s,’ he said, ‘Gypsy Queen, Norwood Hotel, of course, where Ralph lost a finger.’
‘That’s what I call room service,’ he added, mysteriously.
The first place to catch our eye was The Electric Cafe, a classic family-run greasy spoon now sporting a wonderful recreation of their original sign. Even more alluringly, the sandwich board promised ‘hand cut chips’.
‘If you hadn’t filled me up on fuck-at-ya I could have sampled them,’ I said to Half-life, but he was already through the door.
‘Portion of chips, please,’ he said to Stavros at the counter. ‘And I might as well have an egg with that. And throw on some bacon. And another egg.’
Replete (and then some), we set off once more. We stopped to peer into the windows of the ex-discount store, This That And The Other. For some time now the groovy pub chain, Antic, has been working on turning the place into a pub-cum-dining hall to be called Knowles of Norwood which, if their other places are anything to go by, should be an excellent addition to the street. Structural issues have caused some delays, apparently, but all being well it should open before the autumn.
‘Adele used to live in one of these flats above the shop,’ I told Half-life.
‘Oh yeah?’ he said. ‘I bet she’s well pissed off she moved now there’s a pub opening underneath.’
Given she’s moved to a 10-bedroom Surrey mansion I very much doubted this, but it’s always a privilege to be treated to Half-life’s straightforward worldview. A little further up Norwood Road he came to a standstill and stared at the Tesco Metro on the other side of the road.
‘We’re not actually supposed to be looking at that side yet,’ I said, like a berk.
‘Fuck me, they’ve killed Jack Stamp,’ he said.
‘Oh,’ I said. ‘That’s a shame.’
‘Is it?’ he said. ‘It was a shit-hole.’
‘But oh, Jesus, the acid you could get there…’
I popped into a newsagent to get some baccy and left Half-life outside reading the small ads in the window.
‘Fancy a full body to body massage?’ he asked, alarmingly, when I returned. ‘Says you can have it sensual or stern.’
‘Shall we just have a pint?’ I said.
‘Yeah. I certainly couldn’t take stern. Not after two breakfasts.’
We pushed on up the hill towards West Norwood Station, past the renowned Rosebery’s auction house at which, Half-life reminded me, Mong Martin had acquired his penny farthing.
‘Freak,’ I said, and we got the giggles about the time Mong Martin used it to chase down a mugger on Larkhall Park.
‘The new leisure centre is down there, apparently,’ I said, pointing down the road opposite the station, but Half-life just looked at me as if I was speaking Mandarin and led me across the road to the Norwood Hotel. Except it is no longer the Norwood Hotel. It is now The Great North Wood pub (a reference to the ancient woodlands that gave Norwood its name).
Last century I’d occasionally drop into The Norwood Hotel to watch the football. Back then it was dominated by a gang of coked-up cunts who would stagger about, staring people out with their red-rimmed eyes, looking to start a scrap. At half-time they would routinely head across the road to the handily-placed (and now defunct) ‘massage parlour’ to get pulled off by sad-eyed prostitutes before trooping back in for the second half, visibly more relaxed.
Now the same light and airy building plays acoustic MOR tunes and offers bowls of homemade crackling and apple sauce. There are no gangs or dealers in sight and alongside a fine selection of draught and bottled beer we were offered a cocktail featuring artichoke liqueur. That’s the weird thing about gentrification: It’s good and bad at the same time, like foie gras.
Due to being on an economy drive, I picked up a couple of tinnies for later at an offy and we strode up the not insignificant hill to what is known as Crown Point. Though this is probably the official border of West Norwood we nevertheless crossed onto Beulah Hill and into what was marked Croydon as I wanted to check out The Conquering Hero, a pub that has been in the news recently as it has had to bar one of its regulars for head-butting customers and stealing their food and beer.
The regular in question is Frances Bacon, the biggest micro-pig I’ve ever seen, now banished to her garden pen. We admired her over the fence and sat in the sunshine refreshing ourselves with a couple of delicious pints of Hereford Pale Ale.
Afterwards, I managed to dissuade a wearying Half-life from taking a short-cut through a convent school – nothing good would have come of that – and at length we made it to Norwood Park, where instead of visiting the popular Park Tavern pub, we sat on a bench and Half-life saved money by drinking the beer I had bought earlier.
Norwood High Street, our next destination, is a rather forlorn-looking strip. Perhaps it is here that the estate agents recommend buying, as gentrification creeps in its petty pace along Norwood Road. We might have looked into Scandals bar and nightclub but it was firmly closed, just one of the many obstacles with which day-time party-people have to contend.
We were delighted, though, to discover that while the old Gypsy Queen pub had closed down some seven years ago, it had been given a new lease of life as The Book and Record Bar. There are only a limited number of ways in which you can improve pubs and fortunately filling them with books and records is amongst them.
Over a large Jack Daniels on the rocks, proprietor Michael gave us a potted history of the place and told us about the soul nights, vinyl nights and other gigs he puts on there. Apart from requiring a third hand, boozing while browsing vinyl felt like the most natural and obvious thing in the world, indeed possibly the most advanced a man can be.
‘God, that JD was good,’ I said as we reluctantly waved goodbye to Michael. ‘I feel like I could do anything now.’
‘Or nothing,’ said Half-life and so we wandered down to the cemetery.
As we have previously noted on Deserter, West Norwood Cemetery is an ideal stop-off for a herbal pick-me-up. Indeed, as we have seen, in its north-eastern corner there is a bench dedicated to it: The Smokers’ bench. Commemorating the lives of Bill, Ambrose and Elsie Smoker, legend has it that local stoners even leave little ready-rolled gifts for each other to enjoy, though as this legend was told to me by one slightly-out-of-it Half-life, I have no way of knowing if it’s true.
As we wobbled back up Norwood Road, bumping into locals, we saw a pretty deli with a little outside seating area and, crucially, the word ‘beer’ on a chalkboard. It was called Beamish and McGlue and we took a table in the sun.
Despite the beer being served warm, and with glasses so small I was slightly worried about Half-life swallowing them, and not to mention a five-minute panic about the whereabouts of a bottle-opener, Brixton Brewery’s magnificent APA got to work on us and before we knew it we were experiencing the day’s high point, that moment at which all sensory excitations combine to create a perfect moment. To top it off, the next beer we ordered was from the fridge.
Having enjoyed a high point, there is only really one appropriate course of action to the committed reveller: Try to have another one. This we did by dropping into The Railway Tavern at Tulse Hill for a final pint in the lovely, expansive garden there. We took a seat in a private raised wooden hut and surveyed the spring-time scene.
‘You could do whatever you want in here,’ said Half-life, and so we did.
As we smoked and drank, we reflected on a well-played afternoon. Once a fine looking suburb with green spaces and grand buildings, West Norwood fell into decline from the ’60s onwards and I recall people routinely describing it as grim or – worse – boring. The West Norwood we’d seen was quite unlike that, with plenty to offer the casual wanderer.
Add the proposed cinema and library complex at Nettlefold Hall and refurbishment of the South London Theatre into the mix – not to mention the Portico Gallery and monthly festival, Feast – and West Norwood is becoming quite the destination.
‘We know it,’ I said.
‘Twat,’ said Half-life.
Update July 2016:
While the Lazy Rhubarb has closed, Knowles of Norwood is now open. The interiors are gorgeous, the beer and food are tremendous; the garden area is coming on lovely and all in all it’s the sort of place, re-opening on a tired high street, that makes you glad to live in London, let alone West Norwood.
(Just to be clear, Holly in Antic PR didn’t even send us any beer to say that. Or if she has, I haven’t fucking seen any of it.)
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Image credit: St Luke’s at dusk by Craig Freeman