I bought Half-life a pint of Atlantic APA in the Brixton Brewery tap room and put it down in front of him, next to the remains of his first. As the ale worked its magic I set about persuading him to accompany me on my latest time-wasting assignment: A day trip to visit the top three CAMRA South West London (SWL) pubs of the year.
They had been announced earlier in the month and one of them, as I pointed out to Half-life, was less than two miles from his Brixton front door.
‘I dunno,’ he said, ‘South west London?’
‘You live in south west London,’ I reminded him. ‘We’re sitting in south west London.’
‘South London,’ he insisted. ‘We’re in South London. Postcodes are a tool of repression.’
‘We could take the tram,’ I said, trying to jazz it up a little.
‘What tram?’ said Half-life.
‘Isn’t there a tram that goes to Wimbledon?’ I said.
‘I fucking doubt it,’ he said.
It’s possible that, as for Half-life, Tramlink may not figure large in your life, perhaps due to its route being through some of the outer zones of South London. Despite this, the line has been around since the beginning of the century and denying the possibility of its existence is futile.
Some light research revealed that it runs from Beckenham and other points south east via Croydon to Wimbledon. And, hopefully, back again.
‘Why would anyone want to go from Croydon to Wimbledon?’ asked Half-life.
‘Tennis?’ said a friendly stranger who had joined our table.
‘Balls,’ said Half-life, being at once appropriate and inappropriate, one of his gifts. Finally persuaded that Tramlink really did exist, Half-life curled his lip at me.
‘So, let me get this straight,’ he said. ‘You want to go all the way over to Fuckenham so we can get a tram all the way back to Wimbledon so we can go to the pub?’
‘Correct,’ I said.
‘That is fucking senseless,’ he said, handing me his empty glass. ‘I’m in.’
In fact, we started our Tramlink tour at Birkbeck, on the Elmers End Road. Or to be more precise, Grace’s Bar & Grill next door, which we espied upon arrival and into which, with an unspoken, almost telepathic thirst, we were diverted.
Having been closed for years, The Grace’s re-opened in 2014 as a sports bar – appropriately enough, as it was originally named W.G.Grace’s after the famous cricketer (and early hipster), whose bones now lie in the outfield of the adjacent Beckenham Cemetery.
A partially-glazed roof gives the place the feel of a conservatory, like sitting in the day room of an old people’s home. An old people’s home offering cask ale, big screen sport, live music, pool and Indian food – as all old people’s homes should.
As we were on an ale trail, we tried the Spitfire Gold which, despite being lighter in colour and a touch more hoppy than regular Spitfire, still basically tastes of Spitfire, which is a taste I unacquired some years ago. It wasn’t bad, but we knew better was to come.
As we sauntered round to the tram stop I’m not ashamed to say I experienced a twinge of excitement. My first time on Tramlink!
I was put in mind of Belgium’s glorious Kusttram and San Francisco’s cable cars. I recalled the iconic trams of Lisbon, where the number 28 takes you on a jaw-dropping ride through the Alfama, past São Jorge Castle and spectacular views of the Tejo, down into the grand squares of the Baixa, up again to the buzzing, bohemian Barrio Alto and on into Estrela, with its magnificent basilica.
Today, though, we were traveling from Penge to Croydon.
Much of the 17 miles of track runs on former railway lines, but the thrill of trams, of course, is when they appear to drift into shared spaces with cars, buses and even people, who mill about like they couldn’t give a toss locomotive carriages are driving all over the roads.
When we left the old rail line after Addiscombe and joined the road I even caught Half-life looking up the track out of the window.
Our first stop – partly so we could change to Route 3 for Wimbledon and partly in order to sample the delights of the Green Dragon, a pub on Croydon’s High Street that I’d heard champions real ale – was George Street.
The presence of trams, tramlines and overhead cables gave Croydon the air of a foreign town, with the town’s older buildings looking their best in the sun and the backdrop of blue skies. It was bit like being on holiday, not least as we were on our way to the pub on a Tuesday afternoon.
With up to six hand pumped casks available and another two behind the bar dispensing via the use of Earth’s gravity, it was easy to see why Green Dragon is so fêted. Its handsome interiors were filled with a late lunchtime crowd, not shy of downing a couple before returning to work, sending inappropriate email and sleeping it all off in the lavs. We plumped for a pint of Ravening Wolf, a sweetish and powerful brew from Canterbury’s Wantsum Brewery.
As part of his terms of engagement, I’d agreed to buy Half-life lunch and we perused the menu.
‘I’ll have the beef and chorizo pie, please,’ said Half-life to the barmaid.
‘All our mains are half price today,’ she replied.
‘I’ll have two beef and chorizo pies, please,’ said Half-life, for whom value is paramount.
Back on the tram, at the next stop, Church Street, a group of older men joined our carriage, wearing anoraks and walking boots and taking notes on little pads. I nudged Half-life.
‘Tram-spotters,’ I whispered. Half-life looked over at them and then back at me, as I wrote a note on my own a little pad.
‘Circus of clowns,’ he muttered to himself.
The section of Route 3 between Croydon and Wimbledon mostly follows the route of an old British Rail route that closed in 1997 so it could be converted for Tramlink. Between Reeves Corner and Phipps Bridge it follows the Surrey Iron Railway, a 19th century horse-drawn plateway which, according to Wikipedia, gives Tramlink a claim to one of the world’s oldest railway alignments.
‘The Turkish writer Mehmet Murat ilden says the tram is the literary and magical version of the train,’ I told Half-life.
‘It’s the slow version of the train,’ said Half-life, possibly wearying of my jibber-jabber.
At Mitcham we spotted two old fellers in sunglasses sitting on the grass bank with a black plastic bag full of promise.
‘Look at those lucky sods,’ said Half-life. ‘And I’m stuck on here with Michael fucking Portillo.’
With no let up in the early spring sunshine we were faced with a dry, dusty walk up from the station to our next pub and Half-life was fearful we might not make it without taking further fluids on board.
‘Here you are, let’s try in here,’ he said, marching into the Lu-Ma Cafe on Worple Road, despite the advertising therein of holistic therapies, juices and healing.
‘Two pints of lager, please love,’ he said to the girl at the counter.
‘We’re a healthy eating cafe, I’m afraid,’ she replied. Half-life shrugged.
‘Guinness, then,’ he said.
We pushed on unquenched but it wasn’t long before a right turn up Wright’s Alley, a public right of way through the middle of King’s College School, brought us out opposite our quarry, the Hand in Hand, number three in CAMRA SWL’s pubs of the year.
A Young’s pub, it is that wonderful oddity – a country pub in the big city, featuring an open fire and a clutch of tables for regulars in the cottage-style original bar. Up to eight cask ales are available including, on our visit, an impressive Tower Special Pale Ale by Wimbledon Brewery, named as a nod to the original brewery building, a renowned five storey tower brewery which burned down in 1889.
We took the sun on the little front terrace, or at least I did as Half-life lingered to make conversation with the Aussie barmaid we’d befriended, suddenly strangely happy to hear all about the trams in Melbourne.
Afterwards we paused awhile on a bench near Rushmore Pond on the Common while Half-life fashioned a doobie from his magic tin. As we did so a group of teenage boys arrived at the pond and some of them began to undress. Down to their smalls and with the rest filming on their phones, half a dozen of them proceeded to run into the pond shouting ‘Come on, Layton!’, the name of one of the houses at King’s College.
‘If they’re our future leaders, God help us,’ I said.
‘I bet your school was like this, wasn’t it?’ said Half-life.
‘Well, we did lose Simmonds over the weir during the bumps one year,’ I replied. (In fact, I attended a comprehensive, but I think Half-life enjoys the pretence).
We made an unscheduled stop at another Young’s pub, the Dog and Fox in Wimbledon Village when Half-life complained of a full bladder. Two other Wimbledon beers were on offer here – the Common Pale Ale and the Quartermaine IPA, which at 5.8% immediately attracted Half-life’s attention. Ordinary mortals might start or finish with 5.8-er, Half-life has them as tweenies.
‘I thought you wanted the toilet?’ I said, as we waited for the beer to be poured.
‘I’ll have a pint first, like. Now I’m here,’ he said.
Opposite the pub stood the old fire station, which had been built on the site of the aforementioned original Wimbledon Brewery. We toasted it with beer from the new.
The Quartermaine was not only delicious – all musty bitterness with a hint of fruit cake, not unlike Half-life himself – but proved a game-changer. Now we were positively aglow with that special camaraderie you get from shared travel. Not to mention drinking since lunchtime.
‘If I’m not careful, I might start to enjoy myself,’ said Half-life.
Back at Wimbledon station, rush hour was whirling all around us and we got tutted at by harried workers for getting confused by pink tram validators.
‘Sorry, pal,’ said Half-life to one of them. ‘We’re from London.’
By contrast, the natives in The Trafalgar, two stops back down the line in Merton, were friendly from the off. This one-roomed beauty stands alone beside some newer housing estates and is a pub where chatting at the bar is part of the experience, unlike my local Wetherspoon’s in which it is expressly forbidden.
On the beer front, the Downton Quadhop, a pale and hoppy session bitter, was so moreish and delicious that by the second pint we were planning a trip to Wiltshire to visit the brewery and spend all day lolling in the tap room.
And when a man (Richard Barrick) came in bearing a tray of the most amazing home-cooked pork pies one began to fully understand the attention to detail required to be a winner. ‘The Traf’ was voted pub of the year by the fine men and women of CAMRA SWL.
Our final stop of the day, number two in the CAMRA SWL top three, was not on the tram route so we joined the Northern Line at nearby South Wimbledon to head for Clapham South. Actually, we meant to get off at Balham but missed the stop because, speaking frankly, we were drunk.
‘Oh, I know this one!’ said Half-life as we approached The Nightingale on Nightingale Lane, yet another Young’s pub, in the gloaming. ‘This is near where the twins live.’
‘Jane and Jane?’ I said.
‘Yeah, I’ll get them down.’
The place was impressively full for seven o’clock and once again there was a lot of bar-standing and chatting. It’s not a small pub but the different sections give it a cosy, intimate feel and with spring around the corner it was the perfect time to be reminded of a classic winter pub experience, just before we go all straw hats and T-shirt tan.
We were delighted to see that one of the guest ales was Wimbledon’s Common Pale Ale. A hat-trick up! W.G. would have been proud.
Given its proximity to Clapham, the pub’s clientele was a surprising mixture of young and old, rich and getting by, middle and working classes – a proper community pub. The only thing that possibly told a different story was a sign offering ‘Boat Race and Roast’ on Sunday, referring to the upcoming University Boat Race between Oxford and Cambridge.
‘Rowing?’ growled Half-life.
‘Toughest sport I’ve ever participated in,’ I said.
‘What, harder than naked quidditch?’ he said.
‘You know nothing of my days at Nether Wallop,’ I said.
‘We don’t want no posh boys in ’ere!’ laughed a regular.
We had another pint and a deranged game of darts while we waited for the twins during which Half-life declared The Nightingale the greatest pub in the world – though to be fair, he does say that a lot.
‘And the weird thing is, it’s only a couple of miles from my gaff,’ he said. ‘Who knew?’