Surrey Quays to your Heart

Surrey Quays isn’t a name that looms large in London’s consciousness, probably because it was dreamt up in the 1980s. Like a lot of things that seemed like a good idea in the ’80s, it causes a few raised eyebrows today.

It was Thatcher’s regeneration body, the LDDC, who changed the name from Surrey Docks as part of a rebrand that would see docks filled in, houses built and a quasi-American retail and leisure development arrive in SE16. A shopping mall plus a cinema and bowling complex were built, with restaurants planted in the car park, as if we’re all eating corn dogs before heading to the drive-in to fondle a sophomore in our Chevys.

‘Docklands symbolises with greater clarity than anywhere outside the USA the conflict in urban renewal between public good and private gain.’ Not my words, but those of someone who knows what they’re talking about. The Thatcher government was suspicious of town planners, so handed powers that would normally be exercised by local councils to its quango. And so the LDDC was given unprecedented authority to make all of Docklands an ideological experiment in market-led urban planning. Its achievements are the soul vacuum of Canary Wharf and the still-evolving Surrey Quays, a place whose parts seem strangely disconnected from each other, like a landscaped Peter Crouch.

Water, water everywhere

In the dock of the night

It’s the three expanses of water that remain in Surrey Quays (Greenland Dock, South Dock and Canada Water) that are still the jewels of the area. Even the ’80s couldn’t fuck up water.

In the 1930s, London Docklands handled 35 million tonnes of cargo per year (worth £700 million), and employed 100,000 people. 25,000 bombs fell on Docklands between 1939-45. But it wasn’t the uni-bollocked Fuhrer that finished the docks, it was the move to huge container ships. Surrey Commercial Docks closed in 1969 and remained derelict for a decade. Mmm, derelict docks. Can there be a better place to spark up a fat one and dream impossible dreams, then forget them? Sadly, this consideration was disregarded by those in power, unable to see the beauty in a vast riverside ghost town.

Albion Channel
Albion Channel

Greenland Dock (see main image) – so-called due to its use by whalers in the 18th century – is the oldest of London’s riverside wet docks. The LDDC redeveloped it with luxury ugly housing, though Baltic Quay, at the south end of Greenland Dock, did win an architectural award (from the LDDC). The dock is now used purely for recreation: windsurfing, sailing and, best of all, staring at with a nice pint.

South Dock became London’s largest marina, with a substantial houseboat community to go with the numerous moored yachts. Living on a boat is a fantastic alternative to the horrors of the London property market, especially if you’re good with boat maintenance and have plenty of thermal underwear. Houseboat communities tend to be disparate and kooky, yet they are the ones who have escaped the real estate madness, making them seem quite sensible.

At Canada Water there’s a pleasant cafe, library and ‘cultural space’ overlooking a freshwater lake and wildlife refuge and the sports retail wonderland of Decathlon. Unfortunately, there’s bugger all else.

But another transformation is on the horizon. In 2018 King’s College are to open a new campus here, with student residences, teaching and research facilities. Soon the area will be forced to embrace beards that have been grown on purpose, quinoa trousers and a melting pot of bright minds and frisky hormones.

Canada Water feature

The Pubs

It is with great sadness that I must report that the magnificent Wibbley Wobbley floating pub remains closed and under threat of being scrapped. There is a petition to save it, which I urge you to sign. It’s a South London institution and memorial to its former owner, the legendary alternative comedian, Malcolm Hardee, who drownded trying to return to his houseboat by jumping from boat to boat, in a tribute to both drunkenness and laziness, which we can only applaud.

That leaves just one pub on the docks, Fuller’s Moby Dick, named in reference to the halcyon days of blubber. It’s like a pub in a conservatory, with its glass panels and soft leather sofas. It basks in the afternoon sun that shines over the water and provides a serene hideaway pint. It also has an upstairs lounge, confirming a sense that you are visiting an elderly relative, and outside seating for when the sunshine and glass combination gets too much. On our visit, when the Dulwich Raider appeared lost while looking for the lav, a customer kindly showed him upstairs to the gents. ‘Let me know if you need a hand,’ she said, winking. ‘Or two.’

Towards Surrey Quays station there are a few of what are often termed ‘proper pubs’. Indeed, the slightly musty, but homely Farriers Arms boasts a Happy Hour from 11-5, every day, evidence of its devotion to distraction. The charming barmaid knew her customers’ names, greeted them with warmth and asked us if we fancied another pint the moment the last mouthful slipped down. We ruddy loved her.

Free to not have ale

Whelan’s is busier and livelier, with dense Irish accents and regulars on the pool table. Both the Farriers and Whelan’s are slices of social history, clinging on because people still need them. But the number of greyhairs suggests their future may not be lengthy, which would be sad, because it is in places like these that the community comes together, tells bad jokes and loses its reserve. Maybe the new students will take to them, giving them a new lease of life but hopefully not an ironic one.

The China Hall is a handsome old boozer on Lower Road that promises much but fails to deliver, like a drunk lover. For between these ‘proper pubs’ there was not one decent pint of ale. The China Hall did serve Ghost Ship, but it had turned into vinaigrette. They replaced mine (with Tetley’s ffs) without acknowledgement and without taking it off the menu, despite the alarming affect bad beer can have one’s downstairs. I can only thank Guinness for saving us from lager – a reliable friend in desperate times.

And while the boys at the Farriers complained, understandably, about Wetherspoon’s and their alleged unproperness, it took a visit to the ’Spoon’s, reassuringly named The Surrey Docks, to find a selection of eight cask ales and the best pint of the day, a Hackney Brewery APA.

I had been warned that The Yellow House wasn’t proper either, but there was only one way to be sure. It is more of a bar/restaurant, but it did serve a lovely bottle of Lagunitas IPA and excellent pizza. In addition, it had young people. Some of them with high voices and lipstick. I heard myself thinking, what’s so bad about nice beer, food and girls – as indeed I later asked my girlfriend in my sleep.

There is The Orange Bull, a South African sports bar, tucked away in the backstreets and boasting grilled meat on the braai in their beer garden in the warmer months, should they occur, which sounds aceballs.

The best pub in the area however, as reader Gary pointed out, is the Ship & Whale, a cosy 19th century locals boozer, tucked away so close to the river, you wish you could see it. While Shepherd’s Neame is not my favourite, I wouldn’t argue with its Whitstable Bay Organic Ale. It serves your trad pub fare and my only problem with it is that its five o’clock opening time makes me sad.

What else?

Absolute animals

Surrey Docks Farm sprang up in 1975 on derelict dock land, a working farm by the Thames that puts on courses about farming and food production. It’s charming, though sadly unlicensed. It does have a caff and a blacksmith’s forge however, plus goats, sheep, cattle, rabbits, ducks, turkeys and pigs, bits of which you can buy in the shop.

It achieved a degree of fame recently for taking in a piglet that had been delivered to Downing Street as a prank. Surely no man, nor beast, should be forced into the company of David Cameron.

Hollywood Bowl
Hollywood Bowl

Stave Hill Ecological Park provides a lovely green contrast to the built environment of the docks and the Lower Road. It’s a fine wilderness area supporting a variety of wildlife, like hedgehogs and volunteers.

The Hollywood Bowl gets a school holiday crowd, and the cinema next door is popular, but the diner within is a reminder of what happens when business tries to create leisure. It’s a facsimile. I love a diner in the US, despite the health implications, but the food here is terrible. Even the bowling lanes have bumpers so your ball can’t miss – it will simply bounce towards the skittles. Kids love the lights and bells and whistles of the arcade games, but like those fleeting money-sucking entertainments, the pleasures under this roof are illusory. It’s as if they’ve been designed by a quangoloid, like Michael fucking Heseltine, not someone with a passion for Americana, corned beef hash and eggs over easy.

Now linked by the Jubilee and the Ginger Line, Surrey Quays and Canada Water are as well connected as anywhere in South London. In two years’ time it will see students and academics join its longtime residents and more recent yuppie incomers to make an accidentally unique community within a patchwork of housing philosophies; the old, tough estates, the LDDC apartments and brand new student accommodation. It might just work, but there are a few games that need to be upped, notably in the all-important departments of beer and food.

UPDATE May 2017:

Sadly, as feared, the Wibbley Wobbley has been towed away and scrapped, despite a fight being put up by squatters and protesters. Deserter would like to go on record as saying: ‘This is bullshit!’

The Orange Bull has also closed and has planning permission to be demolished and flats built.


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