Roxy is the sort of personwho, when you say, ‘Oo, did you hear that? A woodpecker!’ will reply, ‘Ah, yes, but is it spotted or green?’
My response – ‘You’re not actually from London, are you?’ – may be a little mean but is at least accurate. She grew up somewhere on the Oxford/Berks borders where she had to walk a mile across a field just to buy a bottle of Liebfraumilch from the pub.
So when she texted the other Friday to see if I wanted to meet up and get smashed in the afternoon somewhere, I thought she might be disappointed when I told her I was heading to Stockwell, not renowned as one of South London’s most green and pleasant lands.
‘And willows, willow-herb, and grass. And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry.’
‘Alright, you can stop reminding me now.’
And she was right. It turns out that one of England’s foremost poets, and one with an abiding love of the English countryside, hails from SW8 (the house in which he was born – 14, Lansdowne Gardens – bears a blue plaque commemorating this).
‘OK,’ I said, without much hope. ‘Let’s go looking for the country in Stockwell!’
Like its neighbour, Kennington, Stockwell is intensively built-up with a mix of social housing – of which there is a good deal in the numerous housing estates – and fine old villas in handsome streets and squares tucked away off the well-beaten tracks. Whichever way you look at it, there is not a huge amount of wood to peck.
I met Roxy at Stockwell Cross, where two somewhat unusual sights for southern eyes greeted us: A tube station and a Santander Cycles docking station, like we were in London or something. Investigating the latter, it came as a surprise to narrowly avoid being knocked down by a car in the adjacent ‘Binfield Road pedestrian zone’, the notion of which is perhaps taking some time to catch on with local drivers.
We decided to do a big clockwise sweep of the area so as to ensure we took in Larkhall Park, the area’s most significant bit of greenery, and give ourselves the best chance of finding some wildlife. Heading south-ish on the Clapham Road the first thing we passed was a 24 hour, seven day a week Costcutter.
‘Impressive. Anything like that back in Berks?’ I asked Roxy.
‘The Wallingford Esso,’ she replied, ‘Snacks, petrol, booze. Popular with stoners, doggers and hare-coursers.’
We stopped for a coffee at Leila’s Corner, a popular and friendly cafe in a precinct set back a little from the road, at which people were gamely using the outside seating despite the chill in the air.
‘So, how come the sudden urge for a lost afternoon?’ I asked.
‘Oh, you know…’ said Roxy, making a face.
‘Not Jan again,’ I said. ‘I thought you two had…’
‘Yeah, we have,’ she said. ‘We have. But every now and again I miss him. And the good things.’
‘Like what?’ I said.
‘Well, for a start, he’s a great kisser,’ said Roxy, blowing on her cappuccino. ‘When he kisses you it’s like he’s touching you… down there. You know what I mean?’
‘Not really,’ I said, smiling weakly at a woman at the next table who had looked over. I touched Roxy’s arm, trying to give the woman the impression that I wasn’t so much Roxy’s friend, as her carer. ‘Little bit TMI, Rox.’
‘Well, you asked.’
‘Not about your vagina!’ I cried. And the woman at the next table got up and left.
Pushing on down the busy and charmless Clapham Road, we were relieved to turn off up Union Street and head towards Larkhall Lane on which, I recalled, not only was there the park, but a couple of pubs that might be open by the time we got there.
We were to be disappointed. Not only was the Duke of York now flats, so too was the infamous Larkhall Tavern, in which Half-life once won a gardener in a game of three card brag.
We walked into Larkhall Park, cursing the passage of time and the back passage of anyone who turns pubs into flats. Roxy produced a ready-rolled beast which we smoked on a small hummock by the football pitch that my old football team, Red Star ’87, once called home.
‘What’s that over there?’ I said. ‘It looks like a boules court.’
‘Forget the boules,’ said Roxy pointing beyond it to the trees, ‘What’s that?’
‘A nuthatch?’ I said, but looking through the leafless branches I could make out the unmistakable, joy-making outline of a pub sign. ‘Blimey, I’ve never seen that before.’
‘I thought you said you played football here.’
‘I never came this way. We just went to the Tavern. They gave us sausages,’ I said, and Roxy gave me a pitying look.
The pub in question was called, appropriately enough, The Surprise, a small, beautiful Young’s pub nestled between Wandsworth Road and the park. In fact the outside seating and the views out over Larkhall Park through the feature box window gave the place a distinct rural air.
‘I think we’ve found your country pub!’ I said, and we settled in for a pint of Ordinary and a game of arrers in the back snug. A light flow of regulars kept the barman busy.
‘Has my old man been in today?’ asked one, with his head round the door.
‘No,’ said the barman.
‘Alright, see you later.’
‘Well, you can’t choose your family,’ said Roxy and, sensing that the day was unlikely to throw up another such brilliant Surprise, we ordered a further pair of pints and agreed that the place should go straight into the long list for the South London World Cup of Pubs.
The much vaunted Priory Arms and well-loved Cavendish Arms (the former for beer and ‘The Cav’ for music) were both closed as we passed, being evening-only places, so we walked all the way up Hartington Road to Nolan’s, which I recalled from dropping off Mrs Raider at the clinic across the road, at which a pair of podiatrists practice.
‘Two foot doctors?’
‘No, they were about normal height.’
Nolan’s is a no-frills Irish pub, probably actually in Vauxhall if you want to be precise (which I don’t) and we ordered Guinness, as we did in the Mawbey Arms, round the corner in Mawbey Street. Two cracking locals which deign to open in the daytime, like pubs.
Next up was ‘Literary Break’ which featured two tipsy people standing outside 14, Landsdowne Gardens arguing about the necessity or otherwise of the Great War and reciting poetry at each other. I should have liked to have made a joke here about an ‘addled strop’, but I promised Roxy I would do no such thing.
A special commendation goes to The Canton Arms back on the urban corridor of the South Lambeth Road. Fine ales, a friendly barman and a pleasantly louche, luvvy-ish afternoon crowd dropping in from about 4pm. We might have stayed longer but we were getting hungry and it was time to sample some Portuguese fare, for which this part of London is rightly renowned.
The Delicatessen Serrana on Lansdowne Way sells fresh and imported Portuguese food to have in or take away. Last time I’d been there was in summer when I’d enjoyed a tipple on the pavement outside, but now the interior was transformed into a buzzing winter wonderland, the tables filled with folk stopping of for a drink and a natter instead of doing their shopping. Is it any wonder Portugal is our oldest ally?
We joined them and gorged on exquisite seafood rissoles, Madeira cake and dessert wine swigged from the bottle. I entertained Roxy with my rissoles joke:
A bloke goes into a chippy and says, ‘Two pissholes and chips please’. ‘I think you’ll find it’s an R, not a P,’ says the proprietor. ‘OK, then,’ says the man, ‘Two arseholes and chips.’
‘Is that it?’ said Roxy. ‘That’s terrible.’
‘Whatever,’ I said, knowing full well it’s tremendous.
There are not a great many buildings of note in Stockwell, certainly not from the 20th century, but there is one – Stockwell Bus Garage, also on Lansdowne Way. It may not sound much but it’s quite literally awesome. When it was built it had the largest unsupported roof span in Europe and, being made of concrete with no steel girders in sight, I’m not entirely certain how it stays up. Someone did once explain it to me, but to be honest I prefer just looking at it, with my mouth slightly open. The building is now Grade II listed.
Even better, there is a pub opposite (the Duke of Cambridge) with some benches outside so you can sit and gaze lovingly at it for as long as you want, or until your companion demands you do something more interesting than bus-spotting. Though it’s inside that you fully appreciate its majesty – most assuredly worth poking your head in, especially when slightly off your tits.
‘OK, where next?’ said Roxy.
There were two places left that I remembered from the Stockwell of old and wanted to check – two veritable institutions, two reasons to go out of your way for.
When the Queen’s Head on Stockwell Road closed its doors last year locals feared they had lost one of London’s most mixed, convivial, debauched and unpredictable venues forever. Then, rather out of the blue, it suddenly opened again last month under new ownership.
As soon as we pushed open the doors though, the changes were obvious. Gone was the little stage on which Half-life would sometimes get up and play maracas; the decor was shiny, the furniture new. The beer line-up was the best of the day – varied and local – and new manager, George, was friendly and enthusiastic.
The new Queen’s Head is on the same licence as before and so there may be some music at some point, but George was at pains to point out, ‘It’s a different sort of pub now. It’s a daytime pub not a venue pub.’
‘Does that mean I can’t come and play my trumpet any more?’ asked a woman across the bar.
‘We’d rather you didn’t,’ said George. Shame. It does no one any good to ban the playing of trumpets in pubs.
Our final destination for the night was Stockwell’s legendary nightspot, The Swan, a two-levelled Irish music pub in which, if you can get past the bouncers, ‘the craic never ends’.
‘Jesus, everyone’s 16,’ said Roxy, as we bought drinks.
While a slight exaggeration, Friday night is indeed the younger night, with Saturday apparently attracting an older crowd. Nevertheless, when I returned from the lavs Roxy was already dancing to One Direction with a group of lads.
‘Is that young man wearing Wellington boots?’ I enquired of her when she came to get her drink.
‘Yes! Isn’t he lush?’ she swooned. ‘He’s from Cork. He’s a farmer!’
‘Oh, God. Don’t tell me. Something’s stirring… down there,’ I said and Roxy laughed and twirled off into the throng, Jan’s kisses, like the Wallingford Esso, a distant memory.