‘You know I’m allergic to tourists. They bring me out in headbutts,’ protested Half-life, when I suggested he join me for an SE10 wander.
We had previously visited East Greenwich but this time the plan was to go west, still avoiding the town centre, heading around the Ashburnham Triangle, to its borders with Blackheath, Lewisham and Deptford, where we would find backstreet boozers, gastropubs and two pubs next door to each other.
‘What? A pub next to another pub?’ he bellowed.
‘And vice versa.’
‘Well, why didn’t you say so?’
What I didn’t expect was for Half-life to show up three hours early, having not been to bed, dressed like an extra from Poldark, in frock coat and breeches.
‘Where can I get a pint around here? I’m starving,’ he said, having caught up with me at Royal Teas, a sweet, cosy and popular café on Royal Hill.
‘It’s 10.15,’ I told him. ‘I’m still on cafés.’
Suddenly his post-drug hunger hit him and he really did need solids. Royal Teas’ vegetarian menu would not suffice for a man from the 18th century in need of pig (and not in a David Cameron kind of way).
He eyed the shelves full of stickies and declared: ‘Veggies are just people who like cake more than meat, aren’t they? That’s why it’s not a real religion, for me.’
We popped in the Buenos Aires Café where Half-life became entranced by their Maradona shirt on the wall. The café has a nice, relaxed vibe, with genial sounds and sofas, laptops and mummies. They do a lush Argentinian beef empanada and charcuterie but the breakfast options are toast and jam or muesli.
‘Fuck my lives!’ moaned Half-life as we tramped down the hill to the Plumtree Cafe on Greenwich High Road, where we awaited breakfast with a cuppa.
‘This is the best tea I’ve ever tasted’, said Half-life after a noisy slurp.
‘Right, OK. You wouldn’t be hungover by any chance?’ I asked. Then I tasted mine.
‘That is the best tea I have ever tasted,’ I said.
Turns out it was from Joe’s Tea Co., the award-winning blenders in Bethnal Green who are doing spectacular things with leaves. That was followed by a superior Full English that lined our stomachs for the trials ahead. There’s nothing like bacon and sausage to help you work up a thirst and it was either that or hard physical labour.
Royal Hill pubs
Halfway up the hill we came to the conjoined pubs. First the Richard I, known locally as The Tolly, sitting happily beside The Greenwich Union, like a pair of boozey old mates. They reveal a rare slice of planning genius and the easiest start to a pub crawl imaginable. They’re two establishments of very different character and both good in their own way.
The Tolly’s recent makeover thankfully spared its lovely bowed glass windows that also provide the best seats in the house. The rear of the pub was the subject of a great deal of local tutting as a conservatory was built to house diners, taking over half the garden. It had come a long way from the old simple days when Jools Holland would get on the old Joanna out the back. Thank fuck he’s stopped all that now and you can eat in peace without his boogie woogie bullshit.
What was the public bar still feels the more intimate area of the pub, where everybody knows each other but welcomes strangers. That’s always a good thing – unless you’re out with Half-life.
We tucked into a Hackney APA as Half-life told his new friend ‘in the storage business’, Dom – who he’d christened Nice But Dom – about his previous weekend.
‘I had this big puffer jacket on I’d found in a cemetery, which got me into a dispute with the coat check girl, which quickly escalated into a kickboxing exhibition with the bouncer – you know what’s it like when you’re fucked on booze and MDMA, eh, Dom?’
‘Erm, well, I…’
‘Here, you’re in storage, right? Can you look after some shooters for me till the heat’s off, like?’
Nice But Dom muttered something about it not being that kind of storage. I’d assumed he meant data storage, but he kept viruses. He stored samples of all sorts of infections for use by big-brained scientists.
‘That’s ace, Dom!’ beamed Half-life. ‘Here, can you get me some bubonic plague? Only some cunt down the George owes me for a bag of sniff.’
Dom suddenly had to leave, for some reason.
Next door, The Union is a long, narrow craft beer bar with dozens of bottles from America, Germany, Australia, Japan, Belgium and the Netherlands. Trouble is, I always want a pint, and bottled craft beer is an expensive way to lubricate the afternoon, especially when you’re paying for two. The Union is a Meantime pub, which means disappointingly fizzy, but local beer. I really wish I was more fond of Meantime, but Yakima Red is as good it gets from them as far as I’m concerned, and that’s just OK. I went for a Redwell Pale on keg, somewhat guiltily. Half-life had no such sentiments and had the Rogue Nation Brutal IPA from Oregon, the most expensive beer on the menu.
The Union (formerly the Fox & Hounds) has a more excitable crowd than The Tolly, but it’s one that’s never less than affable, even when the youngers get messy. Both pubs have nice gardens out the back and out front, in the seats for comfort smoking. Everyone at The Union seemed to agree: they would go straight back to work after the next pint.
There was a third pub just a few steps up the hill, but the Prince of Greenwich (formerly the Prince Albert) was closed for a refurb to become a pub with Italian food, under new management. A few more steps and we reached The Hill (née the Barley Mow), now a fully-fledged Mediterranean Restaurant (with a Latin American twist) after giving up on being the fourth pub in spitting distance, at the top of a hill.
‘Where are all the pubs?’ cried Half-life. He had walked nearly 3 minutes without one and immediately returned to the Union-Tolly treadmill for the rest of the day.
Royal Hill also harbours an ace cheese shop that sells craft beer, a proper butcher’s, florists and greengrocers. It feels very villagey, away from the tourist madness but with a shortcut to Greenwich Park for one of the best smoking vistas in all of London. It’s a delightful corner of town, plus you can step even further off the tourist trail by turning off to find its backstreet boozeries.
The thing I liked best about the Ashburnham Arms is the approach. You’re walking down a residential street, past what were once affordable houses, when suddenly you find yourself in a pub. Now, that’s magic.
It is a Shepherd Neame pub, which is always a shame, but The Ash has a lovely neighbourhood feel about it, where people say hello because they don’t know you.
I once looked at a flat opposite and was thrilled to find the baby monitor would function at the front of the pub. I was also excited at the prospect of leaving for the pub at 10.55pm – possibly in my pyjamas – only to find it open till 12. However my deep feeling for the architectural merits of the property were overruled on the basis of damp, or rats, or ghosts, or something.
The Guildford Arms was a surprise too because it’s very much a gastropub and a handsome one at that, something you don’t expect in the avenues and alleyways. While the food is very good indeed, the upstairs restaurant is a little too formal for scrubbers like me. I’m not one for the finer points of culinary presentation and am put off by food that is better dressed than me.
You can just pop in for a pint though, as I did, and take in the surprising garden: ‘a contender for best in the city’, according to Time Out.
The third of the trio looked less than promising from the outside, but The Morden Arms is a winner. It was already busy by mid-afternoon, but we were instantly welcomed and ridiculed by the landlord, David, a charming old character with a tale or two. There’s a real sense of community, in a pub that I’m told has a ‘colourful history’. It retains its liberal leanings, focussing on live music and comedy. The Brockley Brewery Golden Ale was most welcome too.
The Junk Shop is true to its word, packed to the rafters with taxidermy, tribal art and tremendous tat. If shopping was normally like this, I might be tempted to do some occasionally. There’s a lovely tea shop out the back (see main pic), along with a feeling there could be a secret passageway to another dimension.
Nearby, the Greenwichwest Community and Centre Arts has activities for kids, plus classes on Kung Fu, yoga, flamenco, Russian art and Cheerobics, which I suspect doesn’t involve exercising the pint arm, but should. Cheerobics reminded me of the time Half-life spent a month lifting pints with his left arm to improve his balance.
Exiled on main streets
Main roads make for very different premises to the backstreets, isn’t it? On the borders of the triangle formed by Greenwich High Road, Greenwich South Street and Blackheath Road, there’s a piano bar, a wine bar, a gay bar, an old man’s boozer, a backpacker’s and a chain pub, all, apart from the oldies pub, providing something other than somebody’s local.
There’s the North Pole, a piano bar/restaurant for dating the young and shiny, or old and in denial. There are no stools at the bar but there is a mirror ball, which tells you all you need to know. It’s all chandeliers and leather, but there’s a Shisha Lounge and a basement bar, the South Pole, which is open till 3am if you still haven’t pulled.
The George & Dragon is open even later and, as well as drag cabaret from the likes of Tanya Hyde and Titti La Camp, it has a happy hour from 6-10pm, according to its web site, which is all the more impressive as it doesn’t open till 8.
Opposite the George is The Graduate, a pub I’d been past a thousand times and had never ventured in. I’d been told it was grim, which should have told me that I would ruddy love it. It’s an Irish pub, an old man’s boozer, focussing on Guinness, pool and darts. It also serves as an unlikely warm-up for those waiting for the George to open, or the 21st century to begin. It’s a comforting and likeable anachronism.
The Lost Hour has a cracking name, but it’s a chain pub and it shows. It has sports and cheap eats though and on Mondays, a decent selection of cask ales for £2.55. So it’s thumbs up for a Monday night game, and it’s elsewhere the rest of the week. Even home might be better.
Residents of West Greenwich wouldn’t think of the long-closed Thames pub on Thames Street as being on their patch, but the compass doesn’t lie. Good news has reached us that all might not be lost. In the last couple of months, planning permission has been obtained to extend and refurb the pub, indicating that the owners have the noble intention of reopening it at some point as a boozer. May they be rewarded with an open bar in heaven.
Ironically, it is likely that the pub’s proximity to the resurgent Deptford and improved access across Deptford Creek is of more significance than its adjacency to Greenwich town centre, which has never done it any good. Whatever, it’s cause to celebrate and if it all goes tits up, at least we will have had a good time.
UPDATE December 2016:
While it appears The Thames pub may be not long for this world, the re-opened Prince of Greenwich ‘Museum Pub’ has proved itself a valuable addition to the Royal Hill pub scene. With fine Italian food and an Italian cinema club, plus live music and booze, it’s now a crucial port of call on any West Greenwich crawl.
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