Peckham: Bar Stories
‘Alright, mate?’ I said, when Half-life finally answered one of his phones.
‘I’m filleting a halibut,’ he replied.
‘Right,’ I said, trying to think of the correct response.
‘So crack on. What do you want?’
‘Fancy some Peckham pubs with me and Dirty South this afters?’
‘Are there any left?’ he said.
The simple answer to this is yes, of course there are. But the truth is, it would probably be easier for Half-life to name those that have disappeared than the ones that remain (or have opened more recently). Changes have been afoot and not all of them good. While it’s a good deal easier to get pineapple smoothies, wifi and ‘eclectic plates’ of ‘fresh’, ‘vibrant’, ‘seasonal’, etc, food, boozers have been closing down along the once pub-rich Rye Lane and Peckham High Street.
Having said that, I didn’t visit them frequently. And that’s one of the reasons I wanted Half-life along for the afternoon. I needed him to fill in my own gaps in Peckham’s social history. And because it’s always good to have someone on the firm that can fillet a fish.
Peckham by night
Back when I’d just finished my degree and was taking a decade off to get my head together, I landed in a shared house in Camberwell and was obliged by dark municipal forces to sign on in Peckham. It was only a mile away but felt far more desperate and down at heel.
This may, I suppose, have simply been because I got to know Camberwell well, while Peckham remained a foreign land visited once a fortnight. After all, shortly after I landed in SE5 I heard someone shot dead in The Artichoke, now the Stormbird. But it was a view that I recall was widely shared. Peckham, we felt – us young dandies that had just inherited the city – was the edge of the world. Off the edge of the world. And there was no reason to visit it, particularly after dark.
In an English Heritage area assessment report, late ’80s Peckham is described as ‘abandoned at night’. That was exactly how it felt – abandoned. In common with many inner city areas at the time, the streets were empty after dark, like Half-life’s wallet.
It was a far, far cry from ‘All holiday in Peckham!’, the 18th Century catchphrase that alluded to Peckham’s reputation as Funtown: The fair on the Rye, theatre, pubs, greenery, swimming and general air of leisure. And also from the later days of the ‘monkey parades’ that saw thousands of Peckhamites take to the streets to meet, promenade, push each other into the paths of omnibuses and maybe catch an eye-glint from an Edwardian hottie.
The photograph above is taken looking south down Rye Lane, near Parkstone Road, where Morley’s Fried Chicken now trades (see Google Street View screenshot from approximately the same place, below). Look at these people. Not one amongst them ever tasted a Morley’s. Makes you think, doesn’t it? That’s history, that is, right there.
Funny thing is, if you’re in Peckham after dark now, especially on the weekend, you’d be in for a surprise – the monkey parade is back, with crowds swarming up and down Rye Lane. How did that happen?
The lazy answer is ‘hipsters’.
What is this ‘hipster’ that is so reviled? Are they really that different to any other largely white, largely middle class youth subculture, like beatniks or hippies? Beards, vintage clothing and progressive politics… Surely to God they’re preferable to the new romantics?
I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s primarily a term with which to bash the young. Take the following: Hipsters look weird; hipsters have taken over; hipsters are lefties and dreamers; hipsters want to change the world. Now read those sentences again substituting ‘young people’ for ‘hipsters’.
See? My guess is it looks like they’re having more fun than us and we’re just jealous. Tellingly, no one under 30 uses the term. Yes, that’s right, hipsters don’t even know we’re talking about them.
No, Peckham’s renaissance is not down to hipsters or any other subculture, they’re just along for the ride. It’s down to the Holly Grove conservation area, the Peckham Society, the Bellenden renewal area, EU funding, new architecture, the CLF, Peckham Vision, Southwark Council’s Area Action Plan and the arrival of the London Overground. Yeah, pretty dry stuff, right? Which is why I got it all out of the way in one paragraph, plus this sentence on the end.
But happily the story of Peckham’s rise from the ashes as a new destination can also be told through the medium of booze – or more accurately, bars. It’s a story that begins with one bar in particular: Bar, erm, Story.
Back in 2002, more than a decade before the London Overground arrived, connecting Peckham to Dalston and Shoreditch, a planning application went in to Southwark Council to change the use of a railway arch on the parched drylands of Blenheim Grove from a packing depot to a cafe. Southwark Council said yes and Bar Story was born.
A cafe by day and a bar by night, it had (and has) a pared-back, lo-fi industrial look with long shared tables, wifi, music, cocktails and – a masterstroke – a front yard you could see from the station platform. It offered an alternative to the old boy pubs and attracted homeworkers, students and the artists that had begun to move into the area, priced out of Hoxton and the new East.
Then came Frank’s and the Bussey Building. I remember first hearing about Frank’s, located on the top of Peckham’s multi-storey car park. My friend Phteven had insisted it was the best bar in Peckham – no, the best bar in London! I shook my head at the hyperbole.
‘I’ve told you a million times, Phteven,’ I said, ‘Don’t exaggerate.’
Eventually, I made it up there myself and was knocked out by the open space and the views. ‘Have found best bar in the world,’ I texted him. These days it’s too crowded late on – the queues to buy a pint are ridiculous – but it remains a tremendous early evening treat in the summer months (it’s open June to September).
The Bussey building offered another rooftop bar (and other bars) plus arts, performances and late night dancing for ravers. By the time Brick Brewery began operations and threw open its yard as a tap room at the weekends, for me at least, Peckham’s renaissance was complete. But everyone who enjoys Peckham for a night out should visit Bar Story and pay homage to where the notion of Peckham as an evening destination was re-born.
Peckham in the afternoon
But we weren’t there in the evening. We were there in the afternoon. Our aim: To discover and rediscover daytime Peckham and find some new bar stories. The night is too easy, you see, too obvious, too tiring. Plus you get all those fucking hipsters.
Dirty South had to be back by eight for babysitting (though as the child is his own it’s perhaps more accurately known as ‘parenting’), Half-life had his own people to look after – weary South Londoners looking for something to get them through the weekend – and I was to get home early so I was in a fit state to write up our findings in the morning.
With Bar Story and the Bussey opening late and off the agenda, we were starting in Canavan’s Pool Bar, which is ironic since this is where most people end up. In the ’70s private club interior of Canavan’s it always feels like 4am, which, to be fair, it occasionally is. There are plans to build apartments in the adjacent building which would be sure to put the kibosh on that, so we signed the petition to save Canavan’s as a late night music and entertainment spot before attempting to put together a plan of action for the afternoon.
It quickly became apparent that this was too onerous for Half-life, who pleaded to be let loose in a less structured manner.
‘Let’s go to The Monty, The Hope and The Bun and just fuck about in between,’ he said. I caught Dirty South’s eye. Two of those pubs had gone and I figured the third, The Monty, may have changed beyond recognition since Half-life sold glass beads there to Johnny Blisters along with a certificate that referred to them as ‘real diamunds’.
We headed out onto Rye Lane. Up Choumert Road a crop of new cafes and bistros with names like Cafe Viva and Miss Tapas now stand alongside a rag-taggle of clothing stalls, wiring services and open-fronted African grocers. There was not a hipster in sight, unless you count Half-life in a trench coat and a military beret. There weren’t many white faces at all, really, reflecting Peckham’s status as one of the most ethnically diverse areas in the UK.
I needn’t have worried about the Monty (or The Montpellier to give it its full name). Yes it does food, and yes there is a small cinema out the back, but it is still unmistakably a pub and very popular with its increasingly middle-class locals.
I forgot we’d agreed to drink halves all day and immediately ordered us three pints. Relieved, we took a booth seat in the sun and, as is usually the case with the second drink of the day, began to enjoy ourselves.
The team behind the Monty, Parched London, have taken over another Peckham old geezers’ pub – and our next stop – The White Horse on Peckham Rye, which now offers fine beers alongside the pool and darts in its dazzlingly handsome interiors. Interestingly, a smattering of oldsters remain, during the day at least, which is encouraging. Pub takeovers and refurbs that keep previous regulars are to be applauded.
Back on Rye Lane, Dirty and I kept losing sight of Half-life. First we found the big feller staring up at an old building facade.
‘There’s no Hope,’ he said, looking mournfully at where The Hope pub once welcomed its customers. ‘I saw a man shit himself in there after drinking a bottle of Hennessy.’
‘Makes you wonder why it ever closed,’ I said.
There is in fact a new Hope, an Antic pub off Peckham High Street, but now didn’t seem the time to mention this to Half-life. ‘It wasn’t you, was it?’ I asked, remembering his fondness for brandy, but he’d gone. We found him again in a fishmonger having an earnest conversation with fish men.
‘Buying more halibut, mate?’ I said when he rejoined us.
‘Selling. I’ve got 30 kilos to shift.’
‘Blimey. How many fish is that?’
‘One big one,’ he said.
We didn’t visit the new Hope, but like it, Peckham’s Wetherspoon’s – The Kentish Drovers, at the end of Rye Lane – is also named after a pub of the same name that once stood nearby. We decided against a visit to this too, partly because being mostly identikit pubs they don’t tell you much about the locale, and partly because Half-life was keen for us to get to Manze’s Eel and Pie shop for a feed. Sadly, he was to be disappointed due to Manze’s brutal opening hours – Thursday: 10:30-2:00.
‘Who wants eel at 10.30?’ grumbled Half-life.
‘Who wants eel anytime?’ said Dirty South, visibly relieved.
We dropped into The Greyhound opposite, the last remaining original pub on Peckham High Street, to get over our disappointment. It was a mixed, older crowd – some were watching the racing, some were clutching pints and staring out of windows, most were howling drunk and laughing toothless laughs at the bar. We loved it.
Along Peckham High Street towards Queen’s Road we came across The Clayton Arms, which has had an interesting recent history. Smashed up and looted in the 2011 riots, it was taken over last year by the team behind Islington’s Dead Dolls Club and briefly opened – to disastrous reviews – as the Dolls House, part cocktail bar, part gastro pub, part members club. It promptly closed and re-opened again this week as… The Clayton Arms. It was too early to sample it when we passed but we felt that it had nevertheless told its story.
‘Welcome to Peckham, motherfuckers,’ said Half-life.
Meanwhile The Red Cow, round the corner, in which Half-life once got into an armed struggle over a game of dominoes, has reinvented itself as The Copper Tap @ The Red Cow under the auspices of serial pub landlord Tom Smyth, who also runs The Joiners Arms in Camberwell, to great effect.
It was smart, friendly and cosy but at At £4.50 a pint for cask ale, I regretted not ducking into the ’Spoons for my round after all. But you can’t win them all, for some reason.
Ordinarily, we would surely have pushed on to the Beer Rebellion at Queen’s Road, one of our all time favourite bars. But today was about trying new places and we set off once again on our SE15 voyage.
A new Antic pub, the probably-drunkenly-named John the Unicorn (or as some wag graffitied, ‘Join the Yuppiecorn’), was opening on Rye Lane this very day, but as we passed it we were informed by a charming young woman that it would not be opening its doors until seven.
‘What eats like a horse and is as horny as fuck?’ asked Half-life.
‘Ha ha!’ lolled the girl. ‘A unicorn?’
‘No, me!’ said Half-life, as we ushered him away.
It was a shame about the 7pm start but we would still have time later to at least put our heads round the door and so we headed instead into Four Quarters, an arcade bar that was just unlocking its doors. A friendly barman talked us through the impressive beer offering and offered tastes of everything, the remainder of which Half-life kept in lieu of buying himself a pint.
We imagined that this sort of place, with its console room upstairs and lounge bar down, would be a hipster hotspot, but with just us and one young couple in there it was hard to tell. We enjoyed it, despite Half-life taking us to the cleaners on Streetfighter II. He doesn’t know what he did yesterday but he can remember how to make Blanka ‘go electric’ alright.
By now hunger was well and truly upon us.
‘What is there round here?’ said Dirty South.
‘Well, there’s the new places like Pedler, Artusi, the Refreshment Rooms,’ I said. Half-life looked unimpressed.
‘Isn’t that all fucking seed cake and ocelot froth?’ he said. ‘What’s wrong with a chippy?’
There is nothing wrong with a chippy, of course, especially after five pints, and so we took a table in Kapadokya on Peckham Rye and feasted on chips and fish.
‘That cod was excellent,’ said Half-life, replete.
‘I love that you’re a fish expert now you’re mongering the slimy buggers,’ said Dirty South.
‘Yeah,’ said Half-life. ‘Did you know one side of a fish has more scales than the other?’
‘No. Which side?’
‘The outside,’ said Half-life, and gurgled happily to himself. ‘Right, when’s kick off?’
You don’t expect too much in the way of innovation from the Europa League, but the scheduling of an early game is a godsend to the afternoon slacker. It not only provides focus but also the chance of a good sit down, plus when it’s over, there’s still another match to go. All we need is another game at 10pm and it’d be like the World Cup. On a Thursday.
We’d imagined the nearby Nag’s Head might be showing it but the big screen was resolutely turned off so we headed up to The Rye and were pleased to see a big screen flickering through the window as we approached. TV football often falls victim to gentrification (take Herne Hill, for example, where there is now nowhere left that shows it) so hats off to The Rye, where we joined a mixed crowd of interested casual observers which Half-life proceeded to unnerve with vociferous support for Liverpool.
Coincidentally, John The Unicorn is in the building to the far left in the Rye Lane monkey parade photo above, which feels somehow as it should be. By the time we made it back there, the downstairs bar area was already busy so we headed to the upstairs back room where there was a more intimate lounge feel, with sofas, pictures of horses and a feature window at the back that we mistook for a mirror, possibly due to a spliff outside The Rye.
‘But you can see houses through it, can’t you?’
The beer was excellent, the crowd was a good mix of age and backgrounds and everyone was extra-friendly in that opening night kinda way. My God, we liked it. We liked it a lot.
‘Mind you, it’s difficult to know what to say about a place based on first night,’ I mused aloud.
‘Just say we loved it and anyone that doesn’t can fuck off,’ said Half-life, showing once again his commendable aptitude for the pithy.
It was around this time that our carefully set plans went awry. Dirty South took a call from the girlf saying her night out had been postponed and that he might as well stay out. At which point Half-life immediately turned off his phones and announced that he was going to get us all free beer, forever.
The afternoon session was now officially into the night, reader, and it was inevitable that after one in Bar Story and two in the Bussey, by 2am I was having a smoke outside Canavan’s wondering where it had all gone right.
In its journey from village to out-of-town settlement, to suburb to outer metropolis to inner city, first Peckham was a poor area, then a well-off area, then a poor area again. Now it’s going upmarket again, at least if house prices are anything to go by. Honestly, if it didn’t happen so slowly, it’d be hard to keep up.
And yet despite the new bars and the evening visitors, large parts of Peckham remain brash, deprived and run down. You don’t even have to scratch the surface to find it – it’s there, in your face, in the afternoon, in the bargain shops and the bookies and the junk food joints.
Don’t worry about what the estate agents say, it’s not Hampstead or Chelsea and nor will it be any time soon. And unlike a Hampstead or a Chelsea, Peckham will still startle a yokel, which, let’s face it, is what it’s all about.
And yes, I know we didn’t visit every pub. We’re not fucking super-human. In fact, in the morning I barely even felt human, to be honest, which is why I’m writing this three days later on a bleedin’ Sunday night.
UPDATE JUNE 2017:
The Clayton Arms has now closed and has re-opened under new management as the Prince of Peckham.
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