Micropubs, the tiny, one-room boozers where asking for lager is a criminal offence punishable by stern looks and bellicose tutting, have finally taken a foothold in South London.
London rents had stopped micropubs flourishing here like they have in the rest of the country. Late Knights Brewery stretched the concept to include larger premises and hot food to make their lovely South London bars viable in Brockley, Peckham and Gypsy Hill. And The Beer Shop is an austere delight in Nunhead. But now the Kentish phenomenon is truly upon us. Shops, previously without hope or hop, have been converted into small rooms with booze and conversation, a bit like the kitchen at parties.
The London Borough of Bexley, on the very fringes of civilisation, has three micropubs and another on the way. And so we are able to make our own capital micropub crawl, negating the need to ever leave London.
Half-life and I visited the Long Pond in Eltham, the newly-opened Broken Drum in Blackfen and Bexley’s Pub of the Year, The Door Hinge in Welling. We then headed back to the Pond as Half-life insisted he would only go as far as Crayford’s Penny Farthing in a taxi, at my expense.
The Long Pond, Eltham
Half-life spotted a polling station and the offices of both the Labour and Conservative candidates near our starting point. People were popping in for a pint after voting and you could hardly blame them.
‘If anybody starts talking politics to me, I’ll shout my safe word and you get me out of here, pronto, yeah?’ ordered Half-life.
‘Sure,’ I said. ‘What’s your safe word?’
Typically, he then couldn’t shut up about politics. He told a Conservative that he was to the far-left of Trotsky and a Labour voter that he was to the right of Genghis Khan, before I ushered him away.
The Eltham Park boozerie run by Mike Wren has been a roaring success and the perfect place to fortify ourselves for our voyage. There were dangers ahead. Hills, for a start. But also other pubs inbetween the micropubs that might tempt us in a like a beautiful siren or a naked pint.
Leg 1 – Eltham to Blackfen: 2.3 miles
We eschewed a smoke-up at Avery Hill Park and headed, for the first and probably only time ever on Deserter, to Blackfen. Half-life had never heard of it; no one’s ever heard of it. It’s sort of Sidcup: A suburb of a suburb. Something that’s worse than something that’s worse than something else. On first sight, Half-life said:
‘What sort of cunt grows up here?’
‘I grew up here,’ I had to admit.
Our first test was The Jolly Fenman, a giant pub about the size of Cambridge. Back in the ’80s, the Jolly Fenman brewed its own beer out back: Blackfen Bitter and Fenman Fortune Ale. Now it’s a Barras pub, so it’s a cheap and cheerful, football and family pub. It has a bouncy castle in the garden and kids’ rides inside, like a pub for children where adults are tolerated. We pass. We were in Blackfen for its micropub: The most exciting thing to happen in Blackfen since a burst water pipe in 2004 which almost made it the subject of local headlines.
Passing the Church of the Good Shepherd on Blackfen Road I was reminded how I was turned against God there as a child. A cleric managed to persuade me and some other kids into the church-cum-hall with the promise of an indoor football match if we listened to his Biblical message first. After his talk, he revealed that he didn’t actually have a ball but:
‘The good news is you can play just as well with a small cushion.’ That’s when I knew God was dead. Or if He wasn’t, He was a Fucking Idiot.
The other pub in Blackfen is The George Staples, another big pub owned by a pubco; in this case, The King’s Feast (‘Where Size Matters’). It is also home to the rare ‘Get your 7th pint free’ offer; perfect if you’re out solo, but liable to provoke argument in company. It has upped its ale game since the micropub opened 2 minutes away, and, like the Fenman, is a family value pub. It used to be called The Woodman and until recently had a reputation for being fighty. The calming influence of chintzy furniture and showroom lighting seems to have worked, along with renaming it after the man who built and ran it until his death in 1859.
My father was barred from The Woodman. A difficult man of fiery temper and, after a couple of pints, swinging fists, he takes umbrage at the entire younger generation with particular venom for ‘what they call music’. Consequently, when he found the jukebox ruining his pint, he cut the speaker wire and finished his drink in silence before being thrown out.
The Broken Drum, Blackfen
Named after a bar in a Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series (whatevs), The Broken Drum opened in April, in an old nail bar. Andy Wheeler knew he was about to be made redundant and immediately set about making a pub, like a hero. The Drum is breathing a bit of life into Blackfen, even if it’s mostly benefitting gentleman of a certain age and predilection.
The Staples and The Fenman are both busy of an afternoon, unlike the Drum, but they attract different crowds. If you like the Staples, you probably won’t like the Drum. I liked the Drum. It’s simple and unfussy, in the micropub tradition and doesn’t need curved cream leather sofas to make me feel special. It only took two delicious pales at £3 a pint at the perfect temperature, plus a sausage roll on the house, to do that. Though some would say I’m easy.
Leg 2 – Blackfen to Welling: 1.1 miles
With no pubs to interrupt our stroll to The Door Hinge, we popped into the rather lush Danson Park. We were at the wrong end for the lake, but a bifta on a bench was a very welcome mood enhancer after what we’d been through (several lovely ales). It left us giggly, wobbly and giggly, in that order.
The Door Hinge, Welling
Having laid claim to being the first micropub in London, The Door Hinge had a storming first year. Now it’s not so much of a novelty, owner Ray is finding the going harder and the burden of the publican greater. You have no social life and your day is spent watching other people have one.
The Hinge has added a nice little snug and it feels like an old pub, rather than a converted shop, with the dark wood and walls of beer mats and hops. It’s all very nicely done.
I’d ordered a Wantsum More’s Head, when Ray asked Half-life:
The subsequent misunderstanding led Half-life to the precipice of confrontation and was not greatly helped by my exclaiming, ‘Fist me!’ repeatedly.
However the cross-purposes were settled in the time-honoured tradition of a pint and we continued our pilgrimage, wiser and tiddlier.
Leg 3 – Welling to Eltham 2.8 miles
I must say, the Romans made pubs crawls very easy with their straight roads, which may well have been their downfall. From Welling we walk up the High Street to Shooters Hill, which takes us past the Rose & Crown, the Nag’s Head, the Plough & Harrow, the We Anchor in Hope and The Bull.
‘You can get anything in the Nag’s Head,’ Ray had told me. He was talking about the food but I remember Half-life buying 200 Es in there back when an E was a proper E. You knew where you were then. Unless you’d had an E.
Half-life’s sheer terror at the scale of Shooters Hill led to emergency measures; we got a bus. It was against all the rules, but I simply refused to carry him.
The Bull, near the brow of Shooters Hill, and therefore a candidate for highest pub in South London, is the best of the bunch, a nice little unvarnished local with tatty carpet, good beer and plenty of regulars. It is reputedly haunted by ghostly footsteps. I’m not a scientist but I wonder if they might easily be confused with unghostly footsteps.
Cutting through the wondrous Jack Wood, we paused for some green. The way the dappled light trickled through the leafy canopy… yes I was stoned. We were within striking distance of the Long Pond, to complete the circle, or triangle, or whatever the fuck it was. If only we could find our way out. Half-life suggested that if we were still there in August we could gorge on the ripening blackberries. He began talking about death and wanted me to know that even though I was a bit of a cunt, he would always accept a beer from me. The prospect of a month living like savages in the woods with Half-life almost had me praising the Lord when we found our way out.
The Long Pond, again
Back at the Pond, nothing had changed, except us.
We still got a warm welcome though and within 15 minutes of opening time were outnumbered by ladies of the female persuasion. In no time at all, The Long Pond has become a focal point of the community, not just for the beards and bellies of CAMRA, but appealing, sensibly, to the much-coveted lady boozer too.
Some micropubs are quite militant with their signage, listing all the things they don’t do (lager, tolerate mobile phones, alcopops) rather than things they excel at. The Long Pond feels more open than that, even if the rules are the same. If I’d wanted to see a load of commands, I’d’ve gone to an office instead of a pub.
Just as I had expressed the view that everyone knows the score in micropubs and that lager drinkers shouldn’t be baited or insulted, in walks a man who asks:
‘Got any lager?’
Mike politely told him he didn’t and that in this brave new world he’d need to walk up the hill in the heat to the High Street to find any. And that’s what he did. The twat.
Update: June 2016
Late Knights have added Beer Rebellion Sydenham to their collection of lo-fi beauties, while The Long Pond was named the SELCAMRA 2016 Pub of the Year Runner-up. Hats off!
Also on the borderlands, One Inn The Wood is an outstanding micropub in Petts Wood that made Bromley CAMRA pub of the year and Greater London CAMRA Regional Pub of the Year. Impressive. It serves local ales and has a charity fine box for mobile phone use.
And finally, Tooting’s The Little Bar might not be considered a micropub by some, given its wine and cocktail list, but it’s tiny and does cracking ale, so what’s not to love?
Listen to Dirty South and Dulwich Raider talk about Micropubs and other vital matters in our first podcast:
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