Greenwich: Naval Gazing
‘Can’t we meet somewhere more central?’ moaned Half-life when summoned to Greenwich.
‘What, more central than the centre of time and space?’ I responded. I had a point, which he studiously ignored.
‘Greenwich is over though, innit?’
Now he had a point. Greenwich has been under assault for a number of years from rapacious (or misguided) landlords. While the buildings and boats continue to thrive and attract vast numbers of tourists, the things that made Greenwich fun for South Londoners – the pubs, bars, second hand clothes and junk shops – have been squeezed by the search for the biggest return on your square metre.
Who owns Greenwich?
Like Dulwich, much of Greenwich is owned by a charity that funds a fee-paying private school, among other things, though in the case of Greenwich Hospital, it’s a school that no longer resides in South London, but in 200 acres of ‘Constable Country’ in East Anglia. The Royal Hospital School (RHS) was established by Royal Charter in 1712 to assist and educate the orphans of seafarers. With a year’s boarding set at £28,000, either their mission has changed or the orphans have become minted.
RHS students wear the Royal Navy uniform and don’t even feel like berks. ‘Why should they?’ asked Half-life. ‘When I wear mine I can’t keep them off with a shitty barge pole.’
Greenwich Hospital also awards grants to a number of naval charities, like Blind Veterans and the Royal Naval Benevolent Trust and provides sheltered accommodation to elderly former Navy seafarers. You can’t argue with that. It is odd though, to think that every time you buy an empanada at Greenwich Market, you’re funding a top people’s school (though a bite of it might help sustain the bereaved of our daft wars).
Greenwich Hospital’s interest is not Greenwich, it’s in raising as much money as possible for its school, grants and investment portfolio. That’s why vintage boutiques like Emporium, who had been trading on Creek Road for 25 years, had to move out. That’s why Foxton’s moved in. While it’s true that may also have been the case with a private landlord, the use of tax-exempt status to fund private education chafes somewhat. In Dulwich and Greenwich, we are all subsidising the dullification of our environs.
Which brings us to Greenwich Inc, who weren’t tax-exempt but seemed to think they were, going into administration owing millions to HMRC. They developed a near monopoly of town centre bars, buying up the Trafalgar Tavern, Bar du Musee, The Spread Eagle, The Cricketers, The Admiral Hardy, The Clarence Music Hall, The Gloucester Arms and the Coach and Horses and ruining most of them. Luckily many have changed hands now, though some are lost forever, notably the lovely old Cricketers pub and the charming Bar de Musee.
A good many locals accuse Greenwich Inc and Greenwich Hospital of squeezing the life out of SE10, charges they would vociferously deny. We went to feel its pulse, or as Half-life would have it, ‘Look up its kilt.’
Knowing what was coming, booze-wise, it would be silly to wait for Half-life in a pub, so I took in some of Greenwich’s cafes, which are legion. Old favourite, Peter de Wit’s, had a sign simply saying ‘Shut’ and as The Orangery at The Fan Museum is so sought after you actually need to book, I was happy to land at the Red Door Cafe. Not only did it satisfy a weakness for a fine cream tea, it had Monmouth Coffee and a relaxed vibe created by people who look like they’ve lived a little – plus it had vinyl.
‘Flip ’er over’ I was asked, before realising it was the Ziggy album being referred to. I stayed longer for the sounds of Bowie and Hendrix until I received word that the eagle had landed and needed a pint.
Pubs, of course
Where better to start than a brand new pub, overlooking the river? Just past a gym called, would you believe, Beefs & Babes, is The Sail Loft. It is more bar than pub, in a glass building that could be mistaken for an office, until you see seats arranged for gazing out of the windows, not for an HR update. It’s spread over two floors so delivers fine views over the Thames and has outside tables that will come into their own for early, sunny, doors. It cannot fail to be a success, making me wonder why the entire riverside isn’t covered with bars, pubs and perhaps the odd off-licence, as I have repeatedly suggested.
I tucked into a haggis Scotch egg, which prompted Half-life to borrow a tenner to put on Scotland against Zimbabwe in the the T20 World Cup. I did tell him that haggis was not a reliable diviner of fortune but at 4/1, he wouldn’t have it. Naturally, he lost his money, or as he would have it, I lost my money.
Refreshed by a surprisingly welcome London Pride, we followed the river to find The Old Brewery (pictured), in the grounds of the Old Royal Naval College. On the site of a Victorian brewhouse, it has been described as the spiritual home of London’s craft beer revolution, as Meantime were brewing here in the olden days of 2000. Spotting our disappointed looks when we were offered a pint of Meantime or Young’s, who have taken over the bar, Laurie behind the bar suggested we try an Ola Dubh from Harviestoun, a dark ale brewed in malt whisky casks. It was lush, like drinking a beer and whisky chaser at the same time and at 8% forced a change of mindset that led to a lovely joint on the grass outside. It might be only the second brewery on a UNESCO World Heritage Site but it is surely the first to provide a riverview toke-and-recline lawn.
Much of the Old Royal Naval College has been leased to the University of Greenwich and the Trinity College of Music, leaving the grounds filled with fragrant youthlings skipping among the colonnades, hormones akimbo.
‘Wonderful,’ I mused, with the oboes and violas singing through the ancient walls. ‘Lovely being surrounded by youth, beauty and talent, isn’t it?’
‘I wouldn’t go that far,’ came the response.
Wren’s majestic architecture does take the breath away, mine anyway, and even more so as it opens up to Inigo Jones’ beautiful Queen’s House, with the Royal Observatory in the distance. Half-life felt like he’d seen the scene before somehow, possibly in one of the dozens of productions filmed here, from Four Weddings and a Funeral to Thor: The Dark World.
‘I’m a bit thor, after last night,’ he said, ‘But that’th another thtory.’
With our heightened senses the spectacular Painted Hall (see main image), where Admiral Nelson had lain in state, was almost too much, though looking straight up at the high ceiling was always going to be a challenge. The paintings are so rich in detail and allegory, you almost need to lie down in the middle of the floor to appreciate them, which is exactly what Half-life did, to the consternation of passing visitors who simply used the reflective tables provided.
The restored Cutty Sark has been described as ‘remarkable’, ‘amazing’ and ‘fucking expensive’, all of which are true. So we swerved it in favour of further refreshment.
Back to pubs
We repaired to the magnificent Trafalgar Tavern, the lovely riverside pub with its bowed bay windows over the Thames. Perhaps too big and grand to ever serve as a local, it is none the less a wonderful spot for an afternoon river pint. Appropriately, many of its ales came from the Nelson Brewery and even years of mis-management, pre-dating Greenwich Inc, couldn’t spoil its specialness.
The Trafalgar is Greenwich’s second example of a pub next door to a pub (see West Greenwich), so we popped into its neighbour, The Yacht. Despite the presence of Hop Stuff Renegade IPA, it’s a pub where you either get a waterside seat or you turn around and leave.
‘I’m not sitting at the thirteenth best table of anything,’ complained Half-life.
Markets and eats
By now, it was five o’clock, or as Half-life calls it, ‘Breakfast time’. He has grumbled before about the food at the Greenwich Market because, while delicious, it’s all served hot, so can’t easily be spirited away and bartered at a later date, or eaten at his 3am dinner hour. But with food from South America, South Asia and South London cooking away, it’s full of temptations. Unfortunately they were packing up by the time we got there.
Greenwich is well off for cheap eats, with good noodle bars, cafes, sausage shops and the market, but not very distinguished in terms of fine dining.
‘I demand fine dining,’ belched Half-life. The best Greenwich can offer is probably the Rivington Grill, which is perfectly fine, but I wasn’t forking out for two there. Buenos Aires Cafe and the National Maritime Museum Brasserie are the other contenders but Greenwich is no Camberwell when it comes to grub.
We ended up at Goddard’s (Est. 1890) for excellent pie and mash for under a fiver, on the site of the old Cricketers. They also serve bottled Pride, making it the next best thing to a pub.
We just had time before the six o’clock Europa League game for a Pint of the Day contender (Sambrook’s Session) at The Mitre, which has scrubbed up nicely since its rough house days. And we were even able to squeeze one in at the Coach & Horses in the market. While the characters that used to make it work have moved east to South East London 2016 CAMRA Pub of the Year, the Pelton Arms, the expanded outside area is still a pretty fab spot, even if you’re drinking ordinary ale at tourist prices.
The reason we were packing in the pints is that the last time I watched a game at the Admiral Hardy, the other market pub, all three hand pumps were unforgivably off. I needn’t have worried; they had beer, like a pub should, but it’s better to be safe than sober. The Admiral proved to be a brilliant football venue with three large screens in two rooms and an excitable studenty atmos.
With another game at eight, I had to move fast to fit in Up The Creek and a river smoke before the next kick-off. It’s a good job I’m in such terrific shape. Half-life refused to move, as Liverpool-Man United was coming up, so after taking on board some laughing herb, I headed to the comedy club alone.
Sadly, the Lord Hood, previously the perfect pre-show pub, has closed down and is due for demolition so there can be more new flats to match the other new flats being built next to it. Shame. It was a nice boozer run by nice people.
Up The Creek has changed a lot too. The bar is in the front now and is spare but swanky, with good cask beer. I went to The Blackout, an open mic night where 15 comedians get up to five minutes each and are voted on or off by members of the audience. I could only last the first few, who you could see were just starting their painful journey in the thankless world of stand-up, possibly in lieu of therapy. The MC, Lloyd Griffith, was excellent however, handling some dickheads very well and demonstrating that any profanity is acceptable when sung by a countertenor. He made it worth the fiver, but I still opted for the second half of the North West Clasico.
Up The Creek is a cracking venue for comedy and but isn’t the only place in Greenwich were laughing is encouraged. Sabo’s newsagent on Stockwell Street has several card advertisements along the lines of this one:
Another I liked read: ‘Romantic gentlemen wishes to meet lady. If you move in with me, you could have joint AA membership for £15’.
Opposite Sabo’s is Ye Olde Rose & Crown pub, next to Greenwich Theatre, now the town’s only gay pub. I’ve described it before as a ‘straight-friendly’ pub and that remains accurate. It’s a decent pub, but with jolly music. Half-life vowed to return to watch the rugby, thinking it would give the Six Nations a new dimension for him, but needless to say, forgot about it by the weekend.
‘You’re not gay, are you?’ enquired a lad standing at the bar, of Half-life.
‘Ask me at closing time,’ he replied, causing dirty mirth among the punters.
The traditional last port of call in Greenwich is Oliver’s, a lovely candlelit basement, with live jazz every night, and dark corners full of whispers and secrets. I always feel slightly guilty ordering beer in a wine bar, but not, strangely, saying: ‘I’ll have a bottle of your cheapest red.’
When you get to Oliver’s you know the evening is almost over, but you are being ushered into slumber or scandal in fine style, around nice tipsy folk and a history of dissolution.
Greenwich’s death has been exaggerated. Its pubs have suffered from odd management, some would say vandalism, and many locals have moved on to East Greenwich and West, while the youngers continue to play in the centre. But nothing good or bad stays the same for long in this city. While it waits for a headline pub, one landladylord, Carolyn, has chosen to help Greenwich retain some of its character with vinyl and vintage, renting her old place to Retrobates and Casbah Records rather than the highest bidder. It reflects a concern for people and places over pounds. Maybe she should be given charitable status too.
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Image credit: Main image by Depthcharge 101 under this licence