The Ballad of Peckham Rye
And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England’s mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On England’s pleasant pastures seen!
– William Blake
Peckham Rye, mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086, developed over succeeding centuries into a playground for South-east London’s workers, not just for walking up and down on on Sundays and high days, but also in the form of its legendary ‘Fayres’.
King John is said to have granted the right to hold a fayre after enjoying a particularly good day’s hunting there, or ‘thayre’. Initially held for two or three days at a time, the locals soon realised this was much better than working and increased it first to two weeks, and then to three weeks, at which point it became such a gargantuan Bacchanalian romp that the authorities banned it and sent everyone back to the office.
Now Peckham Rye is limited to an annual fête in the first week of September, hardly the place to get so blootered you wake up days later on the Rye, naked from the waist down and devoid of all bodily fluids.
With this in mind I arranged with some usual suspects to get gently cajoled into ecstasy by sun, company and daytime drinking on an historico-literary parkside piss-up in honour of our revelling forefathers.
Hop Burns & Black
I met Dirty South and Roxy at Hop Burns & Black on East Dulwich Road, a shop dedicated to beer, chilli sauce and vinyl in the little parade of shops that features Zandra Rhodes’ pink bus stop and kooky bollards. While ale, hot sauce and the crackle of vinyl are three of my favourite things, I do hope that they are the favourite things of enough other people so that it can keep going, because this place is brilliant.
We sat outside at the new benches and over a flagon of Siren Craft Brew’s fruity Undercurrent we discussed the day’s itinerary, which was broadly: Literature, pub, archaeology, pub, history, pub, pub and pub.
We’d all but finished our beer when Dirty South texted Half-life to to see why he was running late.
‘I’m not running late,’ came the reply. ‘I’m eating a bacon sandwich.’
Eventually we spotted him trucking down East Dulwich Road in a Luftwaffe jacket and we scrambled to escort him down to the Rye.
Kings on the Rye
Where East Dulwich Road meets Peckham Rye there now stands a half-hearted attempt at a modern block of flats. This was once the location of The King’s Arms pub. Bombed in The Blitz, it was rebuilt and latterly became a pub-cum-nightclub known as Kings on the Rye.
‘That was rough-house in there,’ said Half-life. ‘It had its own cab office because no-one else would pick up from there.’
‘Have you actually been to every pub in London?’ asked Roxy.
‘Does the Pope shit in the woods?’ said Half-life.
The White Horse
Turning north towards Peckham proper and the northern end of the Rye we noticed immediately that this gritty little stretch was changing, with estate agents, coffee shops and health stores in evidence alongside the chi-chi new restaurant, Pedler, sister to Peckham’s Little Bird Gin distillery which soothes the frayed nerves of Maltby Street market-goers.
The White Horse pub, though, set back a little from Rye Lane, remains untouched by downlighters and Farrow & Ball. It is one of several pubs around the Rye that get a mention in Muriel Spark’s The Ballad of Peckham Rye and probably looks exactly as it did when she wrote it, in 1960.
Spark’s novella is about the effect an interloper has on the mundane existence of Peckham’s working class, for one of whom marriage and saving to put down a deposit on a house are the only things that matter. Ironically, this is a prospect now rapidly being denied to Peckham’s working class, along with the middle class, upper class and every other class except the foreign investor class.
The Nags Head
To Muriel and me, the pub that stands at the northernmost point of the Rye is better known as the Morning Star, which it was called until the turn of the century. No-one seems to know for sure, but one struggles to escape the conclusion that its name was changed to The Nags Head in order to cash in on the success of The TV Show That Must Not be Mentioned.
This, coupled with the fact that it does no real ale, was enough for us to skip it on this occasion. I did however unearth the following review by Bertrand on Beerintheevening.com, which I think bears republishing verbatim:
‘we come here wiht how freinds from pekham, it was were del-boy ant rondey are form, the pum is the same as only fooles and horsers , they do’nty do pizza! here it is quiet big and it is near t’e chikceb place and cinese is ar’gross the road, thyre are bus tops here and train starton, thier are lo’ts of butcher to do shoppinge and to get stu’ff>’
As the next poster comments, I’ll have a pint of whatever Bertrand’s been drinking.
Heading back south, now on the eastern side of the Rye we arrived at The Rye pub, the last of Muriel Sparks’ Ballad pubs that we can still visit (a fourth, The Heaton Arms, is now demolished and the fifth, The Harbinger, was fictional).
Out back, The Rye offers table tennis and pétanque in its sizable garden but it also has a handsome interior that can get very busy (and loud) at the weekends, so we elected to sit inside and enjoy having it to ourselves – the 3pm crowd.
It wasn’t long, though, before Half-life was greeted with hugs and kisses by first one striking yummy mummy and then another in quick succession.
‘Come on,’ he said, ‘I’d better get out of here before any more show up.’
‘I don’t know how you do it,’ said Roxy.
‘Big cock,’ said Half-life, with a shrug.
‘Oh, God,’ said Dirty South.
Opposite The Rye pub there was once a pond that was popular with local bathers and in 1923 this activity was formalised with the building of the Peckham Lido.
The lido closed in 1987 and fell into disrepair, and when Southwark Council failed to find a buyer to do it up it was demolished and filled in, with the land returned to general use as part of the Rye. Recently a campaign to get it rebuilt has gathered momentum.
Little evidence of the old lido remains today but we were delighted to find, hidden from view behind some trees, the remains of the fountain.
‘This is like fucking Time Bandits,’ said Half-life, sitting down on it to roll a fag.
‘Timewatch?’ I said.
‘About half three,’ he said, the idiot.
Peckham Rye is supplemented by the separate but conjoined Peckham Rye Park, into which we now mooched. Years of restoration work led by the Friends of Peckham Rye Park has paid off handsomely and the park is now once again as it was in its Victorian pomp. The bowling green looked most inviting and we might have stopped for a game had it been open.
‘Only open on Saturday and Sunday?’ said Dirty South. ‘That is an affront to the man of leisure.’
To the south of the bowling green lies the popular Sexy* Garden. This wonderful ornamental garden was first laid out at the end of the 19th Century and later renamed ‘Sexy Garden’ after the splendidly-named, Colonel J. J. Sexy, the London County Council’s first Chief Officer of Parks.
Beyond the charming lake, which I can honestly never recall seeing before, we paused on a little bridge under which ran a rivulet. We were looking at the River Peck, a stream that was mostly enclosed in 1823 but that emerges briefly into daylight in this part of the park. The Peck is what once filled the swimming pond at the northern end, as the waters passed on their way to the Thames at Deptford Wharf.
The Ivy House
There could, I suppose, be some debate about whether or not, on a tour of Peckham Rye, Nunhead’s The Ivy House should count as a Rye-side location. Fortunately, we couldn’t give a toss either way. Our love of the place has been recorded previously in our Nunhead round-up, so unsurprisingly we walked firmly up Stuart Road, purchased some pints of Beavertown’s brain-twisting Gamma Ray and settled on the outside benches like dons.
Out front at The Ivy House is a magical early evening sun-trap but we were relieved to be a little early and able to enjoy the shade on a day that was turning out to be a scorcher.
‘I see you’ve got your sandals out of the attic, Raider,’ said Roxy.
‘I won’t be wearing socks again until October, Roxy,’ I said. ‘Someone has to make a stand.’
‘My hero,’ said Roxy. ‘Can we just stay here all day now?’
‘But we’ve got to find Blake’s tree, where he saw his angels,’ I said.
‘The naked angels,’ said Half-life.
‘I’m not sure they were naked, mate,’ said Dirty South.
‘They bloody were,’ said Half-life, clearly enjoying a vision of his own. ‘And if we find this tree I’m getting in it with ’em.’
Back on the Rye, armed with a growler of London Field’s Hackney Hopster (and four plastic glasses) from The Ivy House, we took the path that runs beside Homestall Road, named after the farm that was acquired to enlarge the Rye as part of Peckham Rye Park in 1893. Here the Rye opens out to its full width with a majestic bucolic sweep and London seemed quite distant.
It was in the summer of 1765 that poet and artist William Blake, then aged 8, visited Peckham Rye and claimed to have seen visions of angels in a great oak tree. No-one (least of all us) knows the location of The Angel Oak, as it came to be called, and anyway it’s certainly now long gone, but in 2011 artist, John Hartley, re-planted an oak sapling to commemorate the original.
Pictures from 2013 show the sapling in a very sorry condition and we feared it may have perished, but after inspecting a number of possible small trees in the north western corner of the Rye, opposite the Harris Boys’ Academy, we found the tell-tale shape of oak leaves on a tiny sapling.
True, it stood barely six inches high and was almost swamped by the grass in its wire plant support, but it was unmistakably an oak.
‘Jesus, is that it?’ said Half-life.
‘That’s it,’ I said.
‘I’d like to see you get naked in that,’ said Dirty South.
‘Don’t encourage him,’ I said.
‘Although to be fair, Half-pint, it is about the only thing that would make your cock look big,’ said Roxy, and Half-life tried to stuff bits of grass down the back of her neck while Dirty South and I sat down and poured the beer.
Largely unfêted during his lifetime, Blake is now considered to be one of the finest artists these lands have ever produced and the critic, Northrop Frye, considered him to have produced a body of poetry that ‘is in proportion to its merits the least read body of poetry in the English language’, which I’m pretty sure is a compliment.
‘Turning and turning in the widening gyre,’ said Half-life, ‘The falcon never hears the falconer.’
‘That’s John Donne, you fuppet,’ I said.
‘Fuppet?’ said Roxy.
‘I think it’s a contraction of fucking and muppet,’ I said.
‘Nice. Who needs Blake?’ said Dirty South.
‘I’m on a ride and I want to get off,’ said Half-life.
‘But they won’t slow down the roundabout
I sold the Renoir and the TV set
Don’t want to be around when this gets out’
‘What the hell is that?’ I said, and Half-life took a long draw on his rolly.
‘Duran Duran,’ he said.
‘Fuppet,’ said Roxy.
We watched as people came and went on the Rye; dog-walkers, joggers, strollers, mothers and children. Londoners going about their business.
‘There’s something wonderful about sitting here, isn’t there, with the sun on your back and the smell of the grass, and yet in the heart of a great city,’ said someone.
‘Yeah, it’s like optimal England,’ said someone else.
We fell silent for a moment to take it all in, lost within our individual thoughts and daydreams.
‘Pint?’ I said.
‘Too fucking right,’ said Half-life.
The Herne Tavern
With a reputation as a family-friendly gastro-pub The Herne Tavern can get very busy at weekends, but at 5.30pm on a sunny Thursday it felt more like a country pub with a relaxed, airy vibe and we sat inside to get some respite from the sun and compare freckles.
The Clock House
Afterwards, we wandered down to The Clock House where I recall once grimly informing a friend that his hot nurse girlfriend was now my hot nurse girlfriend.
‘Don’t worry about it,’ he said. ‘Soon she’ll be someone else’s girlfriend.’ And she bloody well was an’ all.
The Clock House provided the official Best View of the Rye from a Pub of the day, framed by a mature wisteria and aided by the calming influence of plate glass wind-breaks or ‘break-winds’ as I inadvertently rechristened them.
‘You don’t want plate glass break-winds,’ said Half-life, ‘You’d lacerate your A-hole.’
The G Cafe down the road – an ‘artisan kitchen and coffee house bakery’ – is actually licensed, but as it is part of something called ‘Gymboree’ aimed at pre-school children we thought we’d better push on. And anyway, we felt compelled to complete the circuit by returning to Hop Burns & Black, where the proprietor, Glenn, welcomed us travellers back for a final flagon.
At least I think it was a final flagon. On a day of visions, I do have half-remembered snatches of Half-life being a dancing naked angel at some later point. I’m just hoping it was in The Harbinger and not the East Dulwich Tavern.
*Errata: For ‘Sexy’ please read ‘Sexby’ throughout; the ‘John Donne’ lines turn out to be by William Butler Yeats, the fuppet.
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Image credit: Peckham Rye by Kate Tierney, licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons