Sentiment isn’t something that troubles Half-life overly, but when I mentioned Walworth, a wistful look fell across his face like he was remembering his all-time favourite E.
‘Où sont les neiges d’antan?’ he sighed. ‘Apart from Jimmy Sideways, I doubt there’s much left of the Walworth I knew. Most of the people I hung out with have scarpered, or are on a 10-stretch.’
Walworth was a part of town that embraced 24-hour drinking long before it became legal. Ten years ago, you could find a backroom bar on Walworth Road that kicked out around 6am. However, you’d be so wired from all the Charlie, you’d go to one of the East Street market pubs and knock on the door. If your face fitted and you were still standing, you were in. The very early doors were intended for the market traders, but they also benefitted drug dealers, 24-hour party people, ex-gangsters and alcoholics; all groups to which Half-life is a card-carrying member.
‘They banned me in the end,’ said Half-life to little surprise. ‘I was only barred from the early session mind, for singing and snoring too loud, possibly at the same time.’
There used to be nine pubs on East Street alone. Now there is one, The Good Intent, a treasure trove of South London time-warp hospitality; gloomy, yet warm. Even the air seems slightly brown.
Each pub had its own sheriff (the dealer) who kept order, but even the herberts could see the writing on the wall. Walworth is home to outstanding Georgian and Victorian housing, two miles from Westminster. It couldn’t retain its frontier feel forever. It’s astonishing it survived to the 21st century. However, evidence of gentrification seems restricted to closed pubs, rather than artisan food served on dustbin lids.
I started my Walworth exploration at the Electric Elephant cafe, where they exploited my weakness for any menu item that ends ‘with an egg on top.’ A fine start in an endearing cafe by Iliffe Yard, the creative community that shares its cobbled street. Here, I was five minutes walk from Pasley Park, which makes up what is left of the Royal Surrey Gardens that once housed a magnificent zoo (‘the most charming place of amusement in London’) and the city’s largest venue, the Surrey Music Hall. As they’re no longer there, I didn’t bother going. That’s how it works.
I then met Half-life on East Street, Walworth’s hub and the birthplace of Charlie Chaplin. There’s a market six days a week, selling Afro-Caribbean fruit and veg, fresh looks, household schizzle and Dope baseball hats. My old Dad used to take me here as a kid for the sarsaparilla, a sort of root beer still made in Walworth, as it has been since 1844. East Street still hums with that market buzz and its cheeky chappy traders. One began bending my ear with a joke about a dwarf and a stripper, while he tried to shift impossibly large ladies’ smalls. And Half-life became embroiled with a spiritual healer, Mr Radibi, who offered to solve a vast spectrum of problems.
‘Business transactions, love voodoo, exams,’ he suggested.
‘I can bind a lover to you for life.’
‘How about ten minutes?’
‘I help all problems. Disappointment in the downstairs… gambling… court cases.’
Bingo. Half-life took his card.
Inevitably we found ourselves in The Good Intent, which has changed hands since the Wild West days, but still opens early. Despite not serving lunch, it attracts a good midday crowd and has the affable feel of a market pub. Half-life didn’t see anyone he knew but was on edge and constantly checking the door.
‘Too much coffee, mate?’ I enquired.
‘Just keeping an eye out for Jimmy Sideways,’ he said. ‘Last time I saw him he bought me drinks and hugged me. Chances are the next time I see him he’ll want to slice me with his Stanley.’
Walworth Road has also had a pub cull, but the sturdy Red Lion looks like it would survive an apocalypse. Also busy at lunch time, despite the absence of food, it serves the best Guinness around. When people complain, quite rightly, about the price of beer in London, they should be directed to Walworth, where pints all seem to be around the £3 mark. Craft beer is as rare as hens’ knickers at this end of Walworth though, despite the proximity of the Old Kent Road Brewery with its Heygate Pale and Orbit Beers in a nearby railway arch. You can find Orbit’s Pale Ale, Ivo, at The Beehive, without doubt the smartest pub in an area that mostly does ‘earthy’.
Not far from the Red Lion is the site where bones of a woolly mammoth were found. Half-life wasn’t surprised by this, telling me they were prevalent in the area up to the 1960s.
Not wanting to slow ourselves down with food just yet, we discarded our appetite with a blunt, overlooking the pond in the wondrous Burgess Park. It’s huge – 140 acres – and clearly well-loved. There’s something stirring about the juxtaposition of vast, green public spaces and huge social housing estates that tranquil lakes and snow-dappled mountains cannot match. I know the Alps are lovely, but I’ve always preferred people to minerals.
With an unhelpful combination of adventurousness and poor balance, we wobbled to the nearby one-star hotel, the Hour Glass, which the Internet had told us was terrifying. It was not in the slightest, though it’s entirely possible that we just like all bars in the afternoon. We could also see the benefit of a budget hotel where you can rub shoulders with real Londoners in the bar, even if one of them is Half-life, who offered to show a beautiful visitor from Slovenia his ‘family curse’, in the privacy of her room.
After a forgettable pint in a backstreet boozer, the Queen Elizabeth, our appetite slowly returned, before blossoming into full-blown skungriness. Luckily, Walworth is well off for excellent affordable food. At the Elephant end of the Walworth Road, lies Dragon Castle, one of the best places for dim sum on the entire planet of London. At the Camberwell end (you might even call it Camberwell) is Zeret Kitchen, an awesome Ethiopian restaurant. In between you’ve got La Luna, whose old school decor belies its fantastic pizza. In true Italian style, the owners shake your hand or kiss you if you’re a regular or a baby. Then there’s CheeMc, which I’m told roughly translates to chicken and beer, providing delicious, good value, Korean comfort food. (Get the chicken in the sticky red stuff, for sure.) Not so cheap but worth a visit is Pasha Hotel with its interesting mix of Mediterranean and Central Asian food in what looks like a discarded film set. And these five outstanding establishments are on just one stretch of road.
Also recommended is the Lebanese Grill on New Kent Road – a carnivore’s pilgrimage. It might not look like much but the Lebo Grill is a worthy local institution for fans of fire and flesh. And despite the name, Kebab Hut on East Street is notable for its Asian food, particularly its dirty but delish dhal and pakoras. They’re lovely people who will also do you an omelette wrapped in Pakistani bread for two nicker – a fine low-cost start to the day, or indeed end of the day, if you’re old skool Walworth.
Later we returned to the Wally Road and stopped by The Tankard for another pint (£2.95) and some football. With three games on – and the racing – it was hard to know where to look. A strong Hispanic contingent gathered around the Barça game while the staff encouraged them to buy more to pay for their stay – not the most endearing quality but The Tankard’s devotion to sport with booze can only be admired.
Half-life insisted we return to Walworth the next night to see Liverpool in the Europa League in a railway arch. Husky Bites Cafe Bar was news to me. Since the closure of The Ruse in Borough, South London Liverpool fans had gravitated to the nearby Roxy or the Blue Eyed Maid, but neither were dedicated Liverpool bars like this. Half-life got hugs and slaps on the back from familiar faces, along with: ‘You holdin’, pal?’, ‘You keep away from my sister,’ and ‘Where’s my focking van, you cunt.’
Surrounded by Liverpool fans, I had to suffer the complaints of strangers as if I’d picked the team myself as they went 3-1 down to Borussia Dortmund. ‘I told you! I fucking told you! What did I fucking tell you?’
I didn’t get the credit though during the delirium when Lovren scored an injury time winner but it was great to share Half-life’s joy. I have to admire the determination of the Scousers to carve a little piece of South London out for themselves. And I’m more than glad they were soon to get long-denied justice.
We stopped at The Tankard for a nightcap, with its dilapidated mix of mumbling drunks, story spinners and bar stool experts on everything. Outside we saw Mr Radibi passing by, who stopped to tell Half-life that just this once he would lower his consultation fee from £285 to a pint of Guinness. It was sweet to see the recognition of fellow chancers who might in some way benefit each other one day. Just a shame Half-life’s drink buying policy left Mr Radibi empty-handed.