‘Don’t talk to me about Bermondsey Market,’ grumbled Half-life, giving the impression that he didn’t want to talk about Bermondsey Market.
‘Bad memories,’ he went on. ‘I was just coming back from a sex party at Spider’s, off my pineapple on blotter, when William Pitt the Younger winked at me in Bermondsey Square.’
‘I’m just going to go talk to somebody else,’ I said.
‘No, no, it was William Pitt. This geezer was flogging an original painting by fucking Gainsborough for a hundred nicker.’
Subsequent research told me that a Gainsborough and a Reynolds were sold at Bermondsey Market in the early ’90s, thanks to an obscure medieval law that allowed not only the sale of stolen goods, but the legitimate transfer of ownership, provided the transaction took place before sunrise at a designated market, of which Bermondsey was one. It wasn’t until 1995 that this mad law, the ‘thieves charter’ as it was known, was struck off.
It’s no wonder Bermondsey had a reputation for criminality. It’s been recently underlined by Danny Baker’s BBC nostalgia-com Cradle To Grave, where Baker’s docker father, Spud, was forever flogging hooky gear that fell into his hands on the docks.
Two Gainsboroughs and the Reynolds had been stolen from Lincoln’s Inn Hall and were worth £3.7 million each. Half-life was not fortunate enough to pick up a masterpiece for a ton though.
‘I didn’t have any money on me,’ he moaned.
‘You surprise me.’
‘But, as I walked off, I noticed a ten pound note smiling at me on the ground. Then another. Then another. I stuffed hundreds of pounds into my pockets. I went back to the feller but he’d already agreed to sell it for £90 to some git. I told him I’d give him £200 and showed him my wedge. Get this: the cunt selling stolen goods threatened to phone the police on me. Unbe-fucking-lieveable.’
‘Well, at least you were up hundreds of pounds.’
‘Yeah well, in the morning I found my pockets were stuffed full of leaves. Fucking acid man, it shouldn’t be allowed.’
Half-life was escorting me around Bermondsey, a place that has also seen fortunes come and go. At the antiques market, we were near the site of the old Abbey, which, when it was founded in 1089, announced that Bermondsey had arrived, just like today when a Nando’s opens on your high street. From the 12th to 15th century the Abbey was patronised by royalty.
After the Great Fire of London in 1666, Bermondsey became the new home of wealthy Londoners, fleeing the decimated city and when, a hundred years later, a spring was discovered, it reinvented itself as a spa town. Since then, the area has seen hard times and suffering; poverty, cholera, war, Danny Baker. Now Bermondsey is on the up again, it finds itself housing its traditional working class constituents amid a wave of more wealthy newcomers: London in an organic nutshell.
Beer and leather
We stopped nearby at Simon the Tanner, a lovely little pub on Long Lane that misses out on the Bermondsey Street crush. Its name is an echo of bygone times when Bermondsey was the centre of the leather industry. A third of the country’s shoes, saddles, belts and kinky boots came from Bermondsey.
We had a glorious pale ale from The Kernel Brewery, brewed less than a mile away, in one of Bermondsey’s six superb breweries, another reflection of its past. There has been brewing in Southwark since Chaucer’s time, at least, and the Courage brewery was founded nearby in 1787.
The trouble with taking on a Kernel beer as your first pint is, your day can only go downhill. Each mouthful is a finely crafted taste of heaven. Where do you go from one of mankind’s finest achievements?
‘Pie and mash?’ suggested Half-life, helpfully, as I was unable to afford lunch for two on the ‘ribbon of Chelsea… laid upon the SE1 badlands’, as the Dulwich Raider described Bermondsey Street.
We turned onto Tower Bridge Road and approached Manze’s traditional pie shop. The sight of eels on the menu persuaded me to pass, so we wandered into Sobo, a nice, simple cafe with good coffee that also suited my budget, before it came to Half-life what he really wanted for lunch.
‘Let’s have another pint,’ he said, firmly.
It was a shame that The Other Room Beer Bar was closed for some fixes after its ‘soft opening’ last week, but at least we could visit the backstreet beauty that is The Victoria in Pages Walk. It’s a classic neighbourhood boozer from its Victorian architecture to its affable regulars and welcoming landlord. It offers cheap, hearty food, wifi and a fine pint. It is the Evening Standard Pub of the Year. 1972. Indeed, it used to offer much more, if Half-life was to be believed.
‘There used to be a prostitute who plied her trade here,’ he reckoned. ‘Lovely lass. She’d show you her knickers for 50p.’
Confusingly, the next Bermondsey pub we made it to after The Victoria was called The Queen Victoria. It was the kind of pub you could come to for a half, then stay for the racing and leave a millionaire. I left it five pounds poorer, as Half-life borrowed a fiver to back Catastrophe at 22/1 to win. It didn’t.
Further up Southwark Park Road is The Blue, the heart of Bermondsey proper. With its locals’ market, community cafe and butcher, it feels like Not London, with its mustn’t grumble, three-for-a-pound vibe, yet is more London than the riverside flats of the Jeremy-Come-Latelys nearby. The pubs (The Blue Anchor, the Ancient Foresters) are solidly Millwall, so there’s no funny business and there’s no decent beer, though they’re as welcoming as anywhere.
Near The Blue is the old Peek Freans biscuit factory that gave Bermondsey the nickname, Biscuit Town. For 126 years Peek Freans was a major employer in Bermondsey. It was here that the Garibaldi and Bourbon biscuits were developed, for which my childhood is thankful, though I could have done without the Twiglets.
‘I loved Garibaldis, until I was about nine,’ said Half-life. ‘I’ve always liked benign dictators, and, to be fair, biscuits.’
‘What happened at nine? Did you upgrade to Haribo?’
The last pub we visited on Southwark Park Road is the Stanley Arms, whose landlord, Roy Nicholls, has just been refused permission to knock down the Victorian building and replace it with nine flats. It’s an impeccably kept pub (though ale-less), but Roy reckons the changing demographic of the area makes the business unviable. That would be a shame, though there is always the option to cater for the new crowd, who you would expect to utilise the fine park it sits next to and would appreciate good beer and food.
Southwark Park is one of London’s older parks, with a Victorian bandstand and art gallery amid 63 acres of trees, gardens and history. The duck pond is a lovely spot for some puff, especially if you don’t intend taking advantage of the sports facilities and do want to visit the gallery in the appropriate state for art appreciation.
The other fine walk is by the river, once you’ve crossed Jamaica Road. There are some cracking views over to Tower Bridge and an opportunity to get down on the foreshore for river-level tokery. There’s also the admirable public sculpture, Dr Salter’s Daydream, named for the man who did so much to alleviate poverty and disease in the area as both an MP and GP, along with his wife, Ada. It’s the second version of Alfred Salter to be cast in bronze after the original was swiped, doubtless to be sold as scrap, along with the souls of the herberts who nicked it.
But before you can enjoy the view, you are pretty much forced by cosmic powers beyond your control to pop into The Angel, Bermondsey’s outstanding riverside boozer. It’s a Samuel Smith’s pub, which means a beautiful pub but terrible bitter at a terrific price. But Half-life showed me that there are ways to enjoy a drink in this strange Yorkshire family chain.
‘Imperial Stout for me,’ he told the barman confidently.
‘An excellent choice, sir,’ said the barkeep.
‘Two, please’ I said, as he reached into the fridge. Result. How much could two halves of Sam Smith’s be?
‘That’ll be £11.50.’
As nice as it was, it was hard to enjoy at that price, even at 7%, though the view from the balcony (see main image) makes it worth the trip. There you can smoke, get your feet wet at high tide and listen to your friend tell you that the expensive beer you’ve just bought him isn’t as good as he remembered.
The next pub along used to be called Old Justice, a name that’s always scared me. If there’s any kind of justice I don’t want to meet, it’s the old kind. It still has the old sign but has reopened as a community pub, The Winnicott, which isn’t scary at all.
Between Old Justice and the thoroughly gentrified Shad Thames lies what used to be Jacob’s Island, the notorious slum immortalised in Oliver Twist as the location of Fagin’s den and Bill Sikes’ house. Partly thanks to the slum clearances and the generosity of the Luftwaffe, who dropped around 25,000 bombs on Bermondsey, only one Victorian building still stands in the area. New Concordia Wharf is now luxury flats, overlooking the houseboat community that has moored at Reeds Wharf for 200 years, stoically resisting attempts to move them on, bless their kooky little socks.
Up until the mid-’60s you had to have a connection to the area to get a council place in Bermondsey. It kept outsiders from moving in and preserved it as a white working class enclave. Its council looked after its own, in housing, in pioneering public health and in the environment, through its Beautification Committee. When the Metropolitan Borough of Bermondsey was subsumed into Southwark Council, that changed and it was admitted into the un-elite club of cosmopolitan London.
50 years later, the pubs are getting swankier and Bermondsey houses the gastronomic wonderlands of Bermondsey and Maltby Streets. Just up from The Blue, two bars reflect the changing face of Bermondsey; St James of Bermondsey and The Gregorian. Neither are going to get the football crowd. St James tries to be traditional and hip at the same time and though it isn’t really either, it still succeeds in being a nice bar, with some decent craft bottles, a funky garden and a vibe slightly too modern for the likes of Half-life.
The Gregorian on Jamaica Road used to be a giant struggling pub that serviced the thirsts of the local estates and has since been taken over by Antic. The shabby chic decor tells you that straight away and to my eyes, it looks great. On day one, some of the regulars complained they would never return, as there was no Foster’s or Carling. Other old boys from the old days love it, as there are also no fights, the food is good and the staff are just nice.
One hiptersish barman seemed to epitomise the turning Bermondsey tide.
‘What else do you do?’ I pried.
‘I’m a student,’ came the reply. ‘Finishing my MA at King’s.’
Figured. I wondered where in the Home Counties he came from.
‘Er, Bermondsey,’ he said. ‘I grew up over the road,’ killing a narrative stone dead.
Unfortunately, The Gregorian is a tied pub, owned by Heineken, so there isn’t the choice you expect at an Antic boozer. They have a guest ale every week, which goes quickly, and then you’re back to drinking big brands, like some kind of mug.
Maltby Street and Spa Terminus
Maltby Street Market and Spa Terminus are filled with the most stupendous food and drink producers providing gastro-porn to lucky diners at the weekends, in and around the railway arches. It started out modestly with some of Borough’s food royalty and soon went mental, but these are also wholesale businesses, providing quality scoff to London’s restaurants and we’re lucky to have access to them. Half-life scoffed enough free samples to keep the prices up and insisted on wearing my jacket for his return leg, in the vain hope they wouldn’t recognise the 6 foot 4 man in last night’s eyeliner, trying to get a free lunch.
The arches also house the beer pilgrimage of the Bermondsey Beer Mile, now too popular for our consideration but still a glorious example of the best way to make water interesting.
Reluctantly – and despite orders from the missus to keep the secret – I have to admit that 40 Maltby Street is probably my favourite restaurant in London. The tables are pallets and you’re in a railway arch, which I prefer to formal dining any day. The food, in small plates of unexpected combinations, is amazing. Even with my less than adventurous palate, I’ll try anything there. The service is warm and the wine exceptional. Please don’t go, if you get the chance.
’40 Maltby Street. Isn’t this that gaff you were raving about?’ asked Half-life, hopeful of fine free food.
‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’
Bermondsey has always gone its own way. It’s unlike anywhere else in London and it usually swum against the tide. It’s been rich, it’s been poor. Currently, it’s both. Long may it continue.
Update, Feb 2017:
Bermondsey continues to change at breakneck speed. Network Rail have doubled, trebled or quadrupled rents for their arches in Druid Street – and backdated them – forcing longstanding businesses to up sticks and flee the area. The people who increased the value of this part of town have been shafted by a public body that has not lifted a finger to earn its windfall.
Opposite those arches, the Marquis of Wellington has tarted itself up to try and capitalise on the legions completing the Bermondsey Beer Mile. It’s gone from being a dour, grim old boozer to selling craft beer and building a raclette and tartiflette stall outside.