Ales of the Riverbank – Part 1
The plan was to visit every riverside pub between Charlton and Wandsworth, on mobility scooters. However, once Half-life started customising his steed with an ashtray and optics, the hire shop sales guy got twitchy about the Ts&Cs. When Half-life attached some Irish whiskey and dropped his bag of weed we were asked to take our custom elsewhere.
So, a cycle crawl along the Thames, then. The 16 halves we’d planned in 16 pubs would have to be reduced to a simple pint in the eight boozers between Charlton and Bermondsey, for health reasons. A lovely riverside ride nonetheless, with no cars to worry about. Just potential drowning.
Anchor & Hope, Charlton
Who doesn’t like drinking in an industrial estate? And this, an industrial estate by the side of the river, with views of decaying jetties, cable cars and corrugated iron fencing? Surely we had found our Shangri-la. As we sat in the sunshine with our first pint, accompanied by the gentle sound of light industry and the sight of Mother Thames, tantalisingly hitching her skirts to reveal her muddy bottom, nothing could kill my vibe.
‘They all perished just round there,’ said Half-life, pointing past the Thames Barrier towards Woolwich.
‘Right,’ I sighed.
‘The Princess Alice,’ he said, answering a question that never came. ‘She sank after smashing into a big fuck-off collier ship. Six or seven hundred dead. The worst shipping disaster on the Thames ever, apart from when I lost my Telstar football.’
‘Yeah, I loved that ball,’ he said, with feeling. ‘Most of them drowned. Trapped in the fucking bars.’
‘Doing what they loved,’ I said, trying to keep spirits up.
‘The rest died swimming in their own shit from the raw sewage that had just been pumped into the river.’
‘Jeepers. How’s that pint going down?’
‘There were a few survivors. Like Long Liz.’
‘Well, I’m glad there was a happy ending.’
‘A few years later, Jack The Ripper slit her throat. Get ’em in and I’ll tell you more.’
I had a better idea. Playing ‘Silent Pint’ at the next boozer.
We pushed on by Bugsby’s Reach. No one knows for sure who Bugsby was and why his name has been retained in the area. Bugsby’s Hole was once a riverside place of execution, we know that. The main theories suggest he was either a devil, a pirate or a gardener. I imagine him as all three, looting his neighbours’ allotments to stuff his treasure chest full of marrow and cabbage, out of his mind on rum.
We rode on past Greenwich Yacht Club, The O2 and the floating art of A Slice of Reality, through the fast-changing vestiges of the river’s industrial past. It’s usually disappointing to have to come inland on the Thames Path, but I love the crazy machines, chutes, vehicles and piles of aggregates that make this section of the Thames Path the most romantic industrial wasteland in the capital.
We emerged into riverside willow trees and a wealth of fine spliff spots, one of which we took advantage of before arriving at the lovely Georgian Cutty Sark pub. Our criteria for this day was to only stop at pubs from which you can see the river. You’ve got to have rules. For double bliss, some outside space by the water is desirable. The Cutty Sark has it all. Several ales, a stone floor and a huge ancient fireplace downstairs and the Crow’s Nest room on the third floor with superb views of the river – and there are plenty of tables by the water, across the cobbled street. It used to be too far for Greenwich tourists, but the secret’s out now thanks to tossers writing about pubs on that Internet.
Our appetite had sailed upstream for the time being, which was a shame given that the next pub, The Yacht, offers Wagyu burgers. Food only returned to our agenda after a pint there and next door at the mighty Trafalgar Tavern and a ride to the last of the Greenwich riverside pubs, the Sail Loft, by which time the tide had turned.
Half-life had been partial to the Loft’s haggis Scotch eggs before but the barman told us that as half the staff were Spanish, they’d ditched the Scottish Scotch egg in favour of a chorizo version.
‘You fucking what?’ bellowed Half-life. ‘Alright, I’ll have two.’
The Thames Path then threw us rudely into the gusset of Deptford, though temptingly past the backstreet classic, the Dog and Bell. But as it is some distance from the water, we were duty-bound to press on, holding back our considerable emotions.
If you don’t have your wits about you, this stretch of the Path could see you lost in some inscrutable housing estate, which is exactly what happened to us. At this point it was worth reminding ourselves that we were on a bike ride as much as a pub crawl, principally because there was lots of riding and no pubs. Someone had forgotten to build any on the river between Deptford and Rotherhithe – an absolute catastrophuck of planning. Somehow we emerged at Greenland Dock, confused and thirsty. I’d had four barren miles of bland housing, slow pedalling and Half-life banging on about his irrational fear of eels before we reached the recently scrubbed up and very welcome Salt Quay pub. It’s got lots of outside space and a generous balcony overlooking the great river. We enjoyed a surprisingly good Molecule of Life, a sweet brown ale.
‘I’m getting notes of vanilla,’ I said.
‘You’re getting a fucking slap if you’re not careful,’ returned Half-life. Indeed, I should have recalled once having to restrain him from twatting a stranger, who had described his wheat beer as: ‘Totally marmalade.’
Next it was a short ride to the daddy of riverine watering holes – The Mayflower. Previously featured in the Leaning Tour of London, it is worth mentioning again and again. It has that special light peculiar to very old pubs; the rays sucked into the ancient dark wood, sunshine apologising into the gloom through the latticed windows. Good beer here is a given, plus its assured place in American folklore.
‘We have sailed from the pub to practice our religion in freedom,’ announced the Pilgrims on arrival in Jamestown (possibly).
‘Did you say, “pub”?’ replied their ‘hosts’. And the rest is history. Many Americans are still mesmerised by religion, but the US has become a cradle of the new brewing, proving that the trip wasn’t such a waste of time after all.
The Mayflower’s candlelit upstairs restaurant has wonderful views of the river, but it’s the covered jetty that allows you to be in a pub and on the river at the same time, like some kind of wizard. That strikes me as ironic because it’s the alignment of the earth, the moon and the sun that causes the Thames tides; an explanation that sounds too hocus pocus to possibly be true.
The Angel, Bermondsey
It was then a short hop to The Angel for our final pub of this the first leg of our riverside crawl. Despite being a Samuel Smith’s pub, The Angel is another must-visit for riparian refreshment. Here, on its gorgeous balcony over the water, the full tide would splash our feet and be told to ‘Fuck off’, by Half-life, echoing the sentiment of King Cnut, the dyslexic king. Cnut himself was once thwarted from capturing London just upriver at London Bridge when the crossing was torn down, an episode later immortalised by a tedious nursery rhyme. He and Half-life share a similar mastery of the elements.
It had been a special trip, punctuated by some fine watering holes. I love how the river meanders, forcing you to take the long, slow way round (though, did I mention there was, like, four whole miles without a sodding boozer?).
The Thames has been a place for pleasure for centuries. The law of the land, including licensing laws, used to not apply here, which is why it used to be packed with boozy boats, sailing to Gravesend and Sheerness and back for the joy of drinking on the water. The Princess Alice disaster brought an end to that and heralded new safety regulations, an upgraded Marine Police Force and a rethink about excrement in the river.
The Thames has always been a place of contrasts; of life and death; a river for poets and prison ships; a highway and a barrier; a place for celebration and suicide. Life became absent in the tidal river at one point, only to return in the latter 20th century, proving its capacity for change and renewal. Now it is home to 119 species of fish, 117 of which, according to Half-life, are eels. And at the very least, there are few better places on earth to have a pint.
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