‘It says here,’ I said, perusing my primary source, Wikipedia, ‘That the name Forest Hill is derived from “Forest with a big hill”, which someone once called it, it being at one time a hill with a forest on it.’ There was a short silence as Dirty South and Half-life took this in.
‘Thanks, Professor,’ said Dirty South, ‘How the mysteries of the cosmos unravel before you.’
‘Just trying to provide a little background colour,’ I said as Half-life looked me up and down with a mixture of pity and contempt.
‘Can we have a pint now?’ he growled.
We were in quirky cafe-gallery-vintage shop, Montage, preparing for a lost day in SE23 and fine coffee and cake was clearly landing nowhere near Half-life’s booze spot, let alone hitting it.
‘Hold your horses,’ I said, ‘We’re going up to the Horniman to build an appetite for lunch, remember?’
We trooped out of Montage and down Dartmouth Road to be confronted by Forest Hill’s major drawback, the roaring river of filth that is the South Circular. But at least it reminds you that you’re in a city. In the time it took to wait for a break in the traffic, Half-life managed to put together a joint, though to be fair I’ve seen him skin up while cycling so that’s nothing special.
The Horniman Museum and Gardens, less than ten minutes hike west along the South Circular, is a large Arts and Craft building and grounds left to the public by tea magnate, Frederick Horniman. Being on a hill so close to town makes the city view from the gardens quite spectacular. It doesn’t so much hove into view as leap at you, and then chin you with a visual uppercut that you can feel for some hours after you leave.
On this grey afternoon we had it largely to ourselves and draped ourselves over a bench to enjoy it properly.
‘Good news about Roxy, isn’t it?’ said Half-life, sparking up and taking a draw.
‘What’s that?’ I said.
‘About her splitting up with Jan.’
‘I’m not sure that counts as good news, mate.’
‘Well, you’re sweet on her, aren’t you?’ he said.
‘No. And I’m married, thanks.’
‘Didn’t stop you with Donna,’ said Half-life.
‘Who the fuck’s Donna?’ I said.
‘Dreary Donna,’ said Half-life. ‘From Dulwich.’
‘That was Martin,’ said Dirty South.
‘Oh yeah,’ said Half-life.
‘Whoa. Hang on,’ I said. ‘Mong Martin? First of all, are you ever going to pass that thing over?’ Half-life took a another drag and handed me the spliff. ‘And second of all, are you actually saying that you’re muddling me up with Mong Martin?’
‘Yeah,’ he said. ‘Or Donna.’ Which he found hysterically amusing.
We didn’t venture into the museum and so missed its most famous exhibit: A giant walrus stuffed to bursting by taxidermists who had never seen one and assumed all the folds of skin needed to be filled out. We did take a pleasant stroll in the animal trail, though, where Dirty South fell for an alpaca with a quiff and Half-life got into an argument with a sheep.
We left the park from the Horniman Drive entrance, near the one of the highest points of Forest Hill and headed down Manor Mount with its eclectic array of domestic architecture. A detour down Havelock Walk reminded me that Forest Hill is an arty enclave, and Havelock Walk itself is home to a number of artists’ studios, which are occasionally open for viewing days. Here, splendidly, we found a group of men hard at work playing Ladder Golf on the cobbles, a game that involves flinging two golf balls tied together at a ladder – proof once again that leisure is the basis for all cultural development.
Back on the A205 we looked in at Canvas and Cream, a surprisingly roomy and award-winning country style cafe-restaurant (which also doubles as a gallery). But Dirty South was carrying a hangover and persuaded us to visit Forest Hill institution, BB, that he’d spotted earlier and had advertised an all-day breakfast.
As we made our way back up Dartmouth Road a sign outside The Fitting Studio advertised ‘Expert bra-fitting cup sizes G-K’.
‘There you go, Donna,’ said Half-life, ‘You could get your moobs sorted.’
‘If you tell a joke in a forest on a big hill but there’s nobody there to laugh, is it a joke?’ I said. But he was laughing. And so was Dirty South, the scab.
The BB, or Big Breakfast cafe, has been servicing hangovers in the area for 35 years and there beneath a sign that read, ‘Where there is tea, there is love’, I joined Dirty South in ordering a full English, so could eat himself human again. Half-life had a Greek salad, which I’d say was how he managed to stay slim if he hadn’t nicked most of our chips.
Montage and the BB are both great but there are plenty more cafes in Forest Hill that we didn’t get to. There’s a good round-up here.
‘Right, I’m going for a pint,’ announced Half-life, getting up. ‘I’ve put up with no pints for long enough. I’ll see you blogtards in the Spoons.’
Dirty South and I decided to bring at least a hint of rigour to the day and set off on our attempt at a sweep of as many of Forest Hill’s pubs as we could manage.
‘Where’s first?’ said Dirty South, as we headed back down towards the station.
‘We’re meeting Cyclo Dunc in the General Napier,’ I said.
‘Oh. He’s different to Pompey Dunc, right?’
‘And Photo Dunc?’
‘That’s Cyclo Dunc as well.’
‘Right. So who’s Psycho Dunc?’
‘I think you’ve made him up, mate.’
‘Thank fuck for that. He sounds terrifying.’
If Forest Hill is halved by the South Circular running east to west, then it is in turn quartered by the railway line that runs north to south. Once this line was the Croydon Canal, that ran from the Grand Surrey Canal in the north to that well-known ancient shipping town, Croydon.
Due to the elevated terrain the canal ran through it required a total of 28 locks to navigate it, which made it a slow and uneconomical route. You might suppose that someone would have spotted the clue in the name Forest Hill, but these were simpler times and hardly anyone had a dictionary, let alone Google Earth. In 1836 the canal closed and was bought by the the London & Croydon Railway Company, which drained it and used it for the route of a new railway line.
Very little of the original canal remains but on David’s Road, opposite Forest Hill station, we noticed the the site of the old canal wall and the raised pavement that was once a towpath. A bas-relief there commemorates this and other elements of Forest Hill’s past. Further south, in Dacres Wood Nature Reserve, part of the old canal itself remains. The reserve is only open on the last Saturday of the month, May to October, but the water is visible from the fence at the bottom of Catling Close.
For those interested in the route of the old canal, follow this link. For those that are interested in affectionate pen portraits of Forest Hill’s public houses, read on.
Right, now we’ve got rid of that lot, let’s get on with some boozing.
In the General Napier over towards (or even in) Honor Oak we found a forlorn-looking Cyclo Dunc, sitting pintless.
‘What’s the matter, mate?’
‘I’ve lost my wallet,’ he said. ‘Can you believe they don’t take Apple Pay?’ Looking around this was entirely believable. The Nap is a backstreet pub of the oldest school: A clutch of fellers at the bar, wonderful brown wood panelling, bespoke banquette seating and an unusual half-height wooden screen that separates the bars at seat level.
We put Cyclo out of his misery with a pint of £3 Courage Best and took a seat by the window where a small sill library included a copy of The Story of O. If it gets any better than sitting in a pub in the afternoon leafing through some erotic fiction with a couple of mates, I’d like to know how.
Nevertheless, the reverie was interrupted to allow us to drop into the Railway Telegraph on Stanstead Hill. Previously another unreconstructed boozer, it’s nice and light and still has a lovely aspect out over the South Circular but it’s now done out, for some reason, in the style of a gentlemen’s club, with lots of leather and pot plants. Not being gentlemen, and disappointed with the beer selection, we left immediately. After a pint.
Next was the moment I was waiting for – The Capitol. And there are not many Wetherspoons you can say that about. The Capitol, where the impoverished can feel like royalty, where men become giants, where you can drink a pint of fine ale and pay for it with a single coin (£2), like in the middle ages.
We’ve written about The Capitol previously when it was rumoured to be closing, a rumour which persists and which would be more than disappointing. It is in the beautiful old Art Deco cinema and while it’s always busy with a wonderfully diverse clientele its jaw-dropping interiors nevertheless provide a kind of edifying serenity.
Some don’t like it; they say it lacks atmosphere or makes them feel sad. We adore it. I cannot – I will not – visit Forest Hill without pushing open the entrance doors by the bus stop on the thundering A205, climbing the lobby stairs, feeling the lift in the heart as you pass the first tables, heading down on into the vast hall and striding across the floor to the gargantuan booze altar waving my fiver like a madman.
‘Oh, there you are,’ said Half-life, when we got to the bar. ‘Shall we go?’
‘Fuck off!’ we chorused.
We had two in the Capitol – you have to at those prices, right? – and another in the handsome Dartmouth Arms round the corner, so when we made it to The Bird in Hand I was probably a little pie-eyed and possibly lacking in spatial awareness.
It had a fine hubbub going on for 4pm, I remember that, and also that it was filled with men of a certain disposition who would be unlikely to take any nonsense. And so it was unfortunate that when ordering at the bar, I failed to notice I’d taken one of the old boys’ places while he’d gone to the lavs. When he returned, he tapped me on the shoulder.
‘Excuse me, love,’ he said, plainly.
‘Oh, don’t you start,’ I said to him as he pushed past to his stool. Half-life snorted his approval.
‘We call him Donna!’ he bawled.
The Bird in Hand is a proper pub. A sign outside states ‘Horse Racing Shown Here’, which is how you know. The Sylvan Post, across the road, on the other hand is one of those Johnny-come-lately places… and also brilliant. It’s a typically quirky Antic bar in the old post office and we sat outside with some pints of Brockley Brewery Pale Ale in what you might just be able to call the little square. Set back far enough from the road to dull the traffic noise, it’s actually a fine place to kill an hour or two and watch Forest Hillians.
The Post sits next to a busy Paddy Power and on the public benches in the square – could it even be a piazza? – two worlds collide as the yuppies of the Post rub shoulders with gnarled dipsomaniacs and local yout. Occasionally, the groups mingle, as they bum filters or lights from each other and conversation strikes up. It’s a South London microcosmic mélange.
For Half-life it was a dream location, as he combined fine continental lager with handing money to the bookies at regular intervals.
I cannot tell a lie, we didn’t get much shopping done. We did notice a proliferation of small, arty and independent shops though, which impart a unique flavour and identity to the Hill. It’s got character, that’s for sure.
Obviously Maplin is the greatest shop in Forest Hill (and possibly anywhere) but our second fave was GB Express on Perry Vale. From the outside it looks like a regular local store – indeed it still says ‘Newsagents’ on the sign – but on closer inspection the window is filled with dozens of bottles of local ales. It has become – or is becoming – a crafty bottle shop. As news increasingly goes online, maybe all newsagents should become beer shops. Just a thought.
Forest Hill once had its own brewery on Perry Vale as this post on Brixton Buzz records. It was bought by Whitbread in 1929 and unceremoniously closed down the same year, which just goes to show that corporate pillage was alive and well 100 years ago.
Having gone off subject with bottle shops and breweries – for which, apologies – it’s time to get back on to the subject of pubs.
Our night wasn’t yet done and we swagger-staggered from the Post back down to David’s Road for a gander at The Signal (formerly The Hob). It had only been open for a week or so and we were keen to check out the makeover. As we pushed open the door it was immediately apparent something was afoot – the place was rammed and the bar four deep.
‘Jesus,’ I said. ‘What’s occurring?’
‘There’s only one way a pub is this crowded at six o’clock,’ said Half-life, with the wisdom of a man for whom the pub is like a family member.
‘Free beer,’ he said and started to push his way through the crowd. ‘I’ll check.’
‘Try to use some subtlety,’ I called after him.
‘Subtlety?’ he yelled back. ‘I’ve got subtlety blowing out of my arse like a fucking roman candle!’ Which was the kind of subtlety I was worried about.
And it was free beer, too. And free food. And live music. We had chanced upon the official opening night. We had planned on heading down to The Bricklayers for the first night of the Forest Hill District Darts League Winter Season 15/16, as you do, but it’s impossible to leave a pub with free ale. It’s also quite difficult to review it properly so we’ll save that for another time, but we got talking to the friendly proprietor who was keen to make sure we enjoyed ourselves, at one point kindly bringing us over a heater in the yard. We wish him the best of luck.
Half-life also managed to get friendly with one of the locals, who came over to speak to him as we watched the band.
‘You seem familiar,’ she said. ‘Do I know you from somewhere?’
‘It’s possible,’ replied Half-life. ‘Do you watch a lot of porn?’ And a romance was born.
A little later he came over to tell us he was leaving with his new friend.
‘We’re going for a kebab, Donna!’ he said. ‘Yeah? Do you get it?’ I assured him that I did indeed get it and he seemed happy. As were we all with our day on the Hill.
If they could do something about the South Circular, Forest Hill would be perfect: An independent spirit, some cracking hostelries, great public transport and the sensational Horniman. Like neighbours Sydenham, Brockley and Norwoods Upper and West, it has traditionally been a place folk head to in order to get a bit more space for their buck than is possible in the Dulwiches and other more gentrified areas. If that’s your plan, I’d crack on before the gentry gets wind of it and heads up Lordship Lane towards this lively, arty community at the forest on a big hill.
UPDATE March 2017:
The GB Express is now called Crafty Beer and has been joined on that end of Perry Vale by a branch of Clapton Craft (another beer shop) and Waters, a fishmonger and organic veg store. This little enclave, supplemented by highly-regarded newcomers, Piazza della Cucina and, round the corner, The Perryvale, is shaping up to be the foodie heart of the Hill,
The lease of The Capitol is now, sadly, officially up for sale by Wetherspoon and it was this that prompted me to put in a full shift there, recently, before it’s turned into a Lidl or a Church of New Loonies. By the time I made it over to The Signal – 11pm – it was closed so I’m still unable to properly report on what that’s like. Still, it was a lesson learned and I returned to The Capitol, richer and wiser, and got stuck into the Rum Shack. Gotta love Tuesdays.
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