Beyond My Kennington
I was alone.
Dirty South had to wait in for his hairdresser, Roxy was locked in ‘crisis talks’ with Current Boyfriend and Half-life wasn’t answering either of his phones (though to be fair, it was only 11.30am and the last time Half-life stirred before noon was the day Princess Diana died, and that was only to change channel).
So I struck out for Kennington alone. It’s an important aspect of Deserterism to be comfortable in your own skin, I pondered, to not have to rely on the company of others, to be self-sufficient.
‘I’m out on my own today,’ I said brightly to the waitress at Cable Cafe on Brixton Road, where I landed to plan my day.
‘That’s nice,’ she said.
‘Yes,’ I said, sugaring my coffee. ‘It’s important, isn’t it? A chance for meaningful communion with oneself, to dance – howsoever briefly – to your inner rhythm…’ But when I looked up, she had gone.
I had a suck on my americano and fired up Google Maps to see what it had to say about Kennington’s notoriously elusive borders. Surrounded as it is by Vauxhall, old Lambeth, the Elephant, Stockwell, Camberwell and Walworth, you can be happily strutting about in Kennington staring at your feet and suddenly find that they’ve taken you somewhere else entirely, the pair of idiots.
One of the many admirable things about local blog, Kennington Runoff, is its straightforward approach to toponymy: Vauxhall is described as West Kennington, Elephant & Castle becomes North Kennington, and so on. If in doubt, it has been annexed by Kennington. Brilliant.
‘Sod it,’ I said out loud, ‘It’s all Kennington.’ The old lady at the next table looked up.
‘They do love the sun.’ she said to me.
‘My cats,’ she said, and I was provided with a glimpse of why being alone may not be all it’s cracked up to be.
The other thing with Kennington is that it doesn’t have a centre, which gives you the sense that you’ve never quite arrived. This is largely due to the wide boulevards filled with traffic thrashing to and from Central London. But plenty of people call it home, and not just lawyers, brokers and politicians.
Between the noisy main roads lined with handsome houses, there are dozens of housing estates, ensuring that there are people who actually live here all week and don’t piss off to the Mendips on a Friday afternoon; normal people who drink coffee and have cats, who buy groceries and go to the pub. People that keep Kennington real, dynamic and interesting.
‘Where would you say is the centre of Kennington?’ I enquired of Cat Lady.
‘How many do you have?’ she replied. ‘I’ve got seven.’
Cable Cafe, named after the cable trams that once ran from Kennington to Brixton is an oasis of peace on a busy road, run by the people behind Lower Marsh’s Scootercaffe. The wood-panelling is lush and, let’s face it, it’s always nice to have a coffee in a place that looks like a bar. (In fact, like the Scootercaffe, it is also a bar and stays open into the evenings.)
But if it’s a fry-up you’re after – and who isn’t? – then the place to go is the legendary Parma Cafe on Kennington Road, a classic greasy spoon in which if the prices aren’t quite 30 years old, the interior design certainly is.
To counteract a post-breakfast lull you basically have two choices: You can either go back to bed or you can do what most Londoners do and neck neat gin from the bottle.
Fortunately, tucked away round the arse-end of the Oval, in the shadders of the iconic gasometers, stands the Beefeater distillery. They offer tours of the distillery but I was far too busy doing fuck all to consider this an option. Instead I purchased a small bottle of gin in the gift shop.
‘Would you like a bag for that, sir?’ enquired the counter assistant.
‘No thanks, I’m going to drink it in the street like a vagabond,’ I replied.
‘Oo, can I come?’ she said, splendidly.
Pressed to point to the middle of Kennington you’d probably put your finger on Kennington Park, my next hang out, across the road from the Parma.
In fact it was the hang out for quite a number of people up until 1800 as criminals were routinely hanged by the neck there, and some of them drawn too. What type of monster would wish to sketch such a scene one can only imagine, but that’s the old days for you.
Much of the park is taken up with sports pitches but the main claim to sporting fame in the area is of course the Kennington Oval, home of Surrey County Cricket Club, which provides a wonderfully grand experience without being as stuffy as, say, Lord’s.
My host there recently, Pompey Dunc, recalled a time when he’d visited Lord’s with his Surrey membership card, which allows him to sit in the Pavilion there. It was a sweltering day but being conscious of the rules peculiar to Lord’s, Dunc kept his jacket on until the temperature exceeded a certain point, at which time, his research had told him, he was permitted to remove it.
Seeking refreshment, he then made his way into the bar area only to be stopped by a steward and asked where his jacket was.
‘I thought I could take it off when it got to 29.5 degrees,’ said Dunc, who is nothing if not meticulous.
‘Oh, no, no, no, no, no,’ said the steward, highly amused. ‘That’s just outside, sir. In the Pavilion a jacket must be worn at all times. May I see your membership, please?’ Dunc duly showed him his card.
‘Oh, Surrey!’ said the steward, delighted. ‘Well, that explains everything.’
I’ve never visited as generally speaking I prefer peace to war, though I appreciate that every now and again you have to stand up and be twatted. I consider the IWM a shrine to those brave souls who fought for our right to relax in the afternoon with a pint and a bag of peanuts. And like me, it’s free.
Another delightful bit of open space is Cleaver Square. Originally laid out in 1789, the square suffered a considerable period of neglect in the first half of the 20th Century but has since been returned to its former glory. Even better, there’s a pub in the corner – the Prince of Wales, which I made my first pub of the day.
Back in the last century I was barred from the PoW, as many of us were, for rejecting the advances of the terrifying dipsomaniac landlady who prowled around her lair armed with a low-cut blouse and a gin and tonic in each hand. But today it was manned by a pleasant mid-European lad.
‘On your own?’ I said, when he’d poured me a pint of the guest ale (it’s a Shepherd Neame pub, sadly).
‘Yes,’ he said.
‘It’s important to be on your own sometimes, don’t you think?’ I said, but he went off to the other end of the bar to serve someone, even though there was no-one there. Odd.
The PoW opens at noon, does ‘dinners’ and is gorgeous inside and out. If it hadn’t been for Half-life, it would have been my pub of the day.
The Tommyfield at Kennington Cross is a modern gastro-pub/hotel, which put me right off it, though I did note it shows football. Across the road is The Dog House, an altogether more laid-back proposition with a rambling downstairs layout and a large airy upstairs room from which to survey the traffic with a pint of London Beer Factory’s Chelsea Blonde in hand. Deserter friend, Don J, says it’s his favourite pub in Kennington, ‘Purely due to the nominative determinism that results from a visit there’.
I was saddened to find the Royal British Legion bar on Braganza Street was not only closed, but looked like it might not be re-opening any time soon. Bang goes my £2 pint, I thought. The White Bear on Kennington Park Road is a theatre that looks like a pub (or, you might say, acts like a pub *titter*) and it came to the rescue with a well-kept pint of Young’s Ordinary for a not-so-ordinary £3.15.
Walking up to the junction of Kennington Park Road and Kennington Lane, rain started to fall, light at first, then middling, then full-on fucking torrential. I was wearing a T-shirt, shorts and oxymoronic ‘action sandals’. I had to make a snap decision whether to take shelter in one of Kennington’s kookiest bistros, The Lobster Pot, or Toulouse Latrec, the brasserie next door.
I was drawn to The Lobster Pot by a sign in the window that announced, ‘I cook with wine. Sometimes I even add it to the food’. But I got the feeling I’d be obliged to eat and I didn’t have the requisite £33.50 for le plateau de fruits de mer upon my person.
I ducked instead into Toulouse Latrec, where a few late diners were finishing lunch as I made my way upstairs to the little bar area and ordered a vin rouge from the barman. I took the leather love-seat in the corner and gazed out of the window at the busy traffic on the rain-wet street, framed by Strata and, in the distance, The Shard.
I was the only one in the place. Even the barman had disappeared after serving me. I was alone again, free to let my mind wander, to let my innermost thoughts bubble to the surface… So I went on Twitter and tweeted some pics of my wine.
Back out on the street when the rain had eased, I headed to Maximo, a little Italian bistro I’d heard good things about, but by now it was closing so instead I treated myself to a £1.09 Italian chicken roll from the Payless (ingredients: ‘Chicken, Italian sauce’).
Right, time for a pint.
Oaka at Mansion House offers its more-than-decent house ales (from Oakham Ales in Peterborough, sister company to the pub) and the award-winning Citra (£3 between 3pm and 5pm) is certainly not to be sniffed at, but the decor is modern and a little soulless and not a patch on The Old Red Lion next door.
I am, however, getting fed up with pubs that don’t open until 4pm. Do you want to be a pub or not? Well?
To make matters worse, I’d first passed the ORL at 3pm, noting the 4pm opening time. On returning at 4pm I discovered a handwritten sign blowing about on the pavement outside informing me that today it wouldn’t be opening until 5pm. I mean, really.
Any pub you have to visit three times before you find it open had better be good, and fortunately this one’s great. It’s an old school cracker, a woody heaven with lots of original features, including the old half-size doorways between bars. It was filling up with beautiful young things canoodling, playing board games and having earnest discussions over fine ales.
I sat in the back room to start writing up my day and had written almost nearly a whole sentence when my phone rang. It was Half-life.
‘I’m coming over. See you in The Oak,’ he said.
‘The Royal Oak?’ I said, ‘Isn’t that Vauxhall, strictly speaking?’
‘Not that one, you penis,’ he said. ‘Fitzalan, Fitzalan.’
The Royal Oak lies tucked between the terraces and flats halfway down Fitzalan Street, facing the Lambeth Walk Doorstep Green. Inside, its walls are adorned with antiques and oddities and there is evidence of ‘vintage sales’, jewellery workshops and off-the-cuff supper and music nights. Yet when I arrived it was dominated by locals from the surrounding estates. Has it pulled off the impossible dream, of being taken over, renovated and yet remaining open to everyone, old and new?
As if to underline its local credentials, when I took a seat at the large table that sits out front there were furtive glances and I heard someone say, ‘Button it. Stranger on the firm.’ Conversely, when Half-life finally bowled up it was all hugs and high-fives and, ‘I’ve still got your jumper!’
I don’t know how he does it. I thanked him for pointing me to such a distinctive and heart-warming boozer.
‘Maybe I’ll make it the Secret,’ I said.
‘I wouldn’t, there’s Moore.’
‘More? I don’t think I can take any more,’ I said.
‘No, Moore,’ he said.
‘No more,’ I agreed.
But there bloody well was Moore.
Half-life led me expertly between the thoroughfares back over towards Kennington Park and the Brandon Estate, a high-rise estate completed in 1958 to house people dislocated by the slum clearance of Lambeth and Bermondsey. It was obviously a time when councils had a little more money and a lot more largesse as it transpired that London County Council had in 1962 bought the estate a sculpture by one of Britain’s greatest sculptors.
We headed down Royal Road and out into a clearing between the towers and there sitting – or rather lying – alone on a grassy knoll was the quite wondrous site of Henry Moore’s Reclining Figure No. 3.
Apparently local nippers use it as a climbing frame and Half-life surely can’t have been the first to use the plinth on which it stands to roll a spliff, and we whiled away five minutes smoking in the fading light and admiring this special gift to the people of Kennington.
‘Come on,’ said Half-life, breaking the spell. ‘Let’s get out of here before the muggers come. We’ll have two in The Greyhound and see if South London Pacific is open. I’m in the mood for tiki.’
‘That explains the shirt,’ I said.
Yet more pubs
These days The Greyhound turns out to be, for some reason, The Brown Derby. But it’s not a bad refurb, with a retro feel that apparently nods towards last century’s LA diners of the same name, and it played host to a decent smattering of locals, some of whom, I noticed, were contentedly drinking alone.
‘Have you ever thought about being alone?’ I asked Half-life. ‘You know, completely alone?’
‘Not until right now,’ he said.
UPDATE Oct, 2016:
The White Bear has had a refurb and while it looks very handsome, we’re sad to report that a pint of Ordinary is no longer £3.15, nor anywhere near it. The wonderful Royal Oak on Fitzalan Street, for the avoidance of doubt, is also known as Oxymoron.
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