One thing is clear from the top of Shooters Hill and that is the pollution bearing down on our city like a giant shit. Man, it looks awful from up here, the highest land in South London. The irksome architecture of the City should be clearly visible, but is shrouded in a gloomy haze, like a Brexiter’s soul.
That’s what’s down there. What’s up here at 433 feet above sea level is a 90-acre farm, an 8000-year-old wood, a giant folly and a couple of pubs. One of those pubs, The Bull, is practically at the brow of the hill; your reward for reaching the top, even if you came by bus.
If it weren’t for some feisty local protestors, Woodlands Farm (see main image) and Oxleas Wood, on either side of the hill. would be a six-lane highway now, the ancient woodland cleared to connect the A13 with the A2. Luckily the Government withdrew the scheme after the European Court ruled that no one in their right mind wanted to go for a blunt and a spot of reverie by a motorway, as obvious as that may seem to you and me. Shooter’s Hill, the place, was saved. Because it is a place, not just a vertiginous hill. But boy, is it a hill.
‘Holy mother of shite,’ panted Half-life, about three steps after getting off the 89 bus. ‘You’re going to have to carry me.’
I did offer to carry his suspicious bag. ‘What’s in it?’ I asked.
‘Lobsters.’ Of course.
We got off Shooter’s Hill to go down Red Lion Lane, but everywhere here is on a calf-busting incline to test the unathletic, even when sober. We were going to one of London’s odder dining experiences. The food at the City View Restaurant is prepared by trainee chefs and served in the converted classroom of Shooter’s Hill Campus, a sixth-form college and former Grammar School. City View is Shooter’s Hill’s little secret and one of its few eateries, along with Piri Hill, Oxleas Wood Cafe and The Red Lion.
At the school gates, a female security guard welcomed us, delighted we were going to try the City View. She refused to frisk Half-life though, despite his pleas. Students volunteered directions, leading us into a brutalist building and up to the fifth floor, where we were met by a hostess, who enquired: ‘You’re not staff? How lovely!’
‘No, I’m not staff. I’m a very naughty boy,’ grinned Half-life.
What City View lacks in ambience and properly chilled wine, it makes up for in novelty. The food is perfectly fine and unfussy and is cheaper than a restaurant manned by grown-ups. I had the Caribbean platter, the star of which was some awesome jerk chicken and Half-life scoffed the Shepherd’s Pie.
‘So, can you lend me thirty nicker?’ said Half-life over his free lunch.
‘Do you mean, give you thirty nicker?’
‘Fuck off, you. I mean lend. You’ll get it back if I win.’
Even apart from the the terms, Half-life’s penchant for perverse gambles didn’t make it look like a much of an investment. He’d had a tip from Man Called Alice (who we first met in South London Séance) who claimed to have received word from the beyond that Iceland would definitely qualify from their group in the Euros (Greatly against the odds, they did.)
‘Alice? I thought you said he was a “hippy charlatan shit-shite”?’
‘He is. But he was right about Jamala, wasn’t he?’
We passed on the sweet trolley, but I’m always happy to see one – a calorie-laden reminder that we’re not so modern after all. Half-life then told me we were an hour late to meet Alice, with whom he was trading a holdall full of lobsters for a sugar maple pool cue.
We struggled back up to the Hill and although it was only one stop to The Bull, we took the bus. We needed a pint after the wine and, having reached the top, everything afterwards would be downhill, just like our lives.
The Bull is a local’s boozer. It would have to be, given you practically need a hang glider or hover boots to reach it. It’s comfortably tatty, knocking out rolls for a quid and serving the highest pint in South London from a decent selection. It’s got Sky Sports, a nice beer garden and gentle old boys talking each other into having just one more.
‘I can’t function in this altitude,’ moaned Half-life. ‘You’ll have to get them in.’
Alice appeared from the garden, looking very cross. Or as cross as a man in sandals can appear. He somehow managed to be bald and long-haired at the same time.
‘You said 12 o’clock,’ he spluttered.
‘Alright, love,’ said Half-life. ‘Don’t get all bent, like. It’ll put you off your game.’
They inspected cues and crustaceans over a pint of Mad Goose and the barter was made. Alice was still sulking and never had a chance, especially as Half-life refused to let him use his top-of-the-line cue. £20 up, Half-life then condescended to share his stick, if Alice put up the lobsters as a prize against, unbeknownst to me, £50 of my money. After clearing the spots, Half-life potted the black, with Alice’s balls still spread about the table like the discarded jewels of the castrati.
‘Thank fuck for that,’ Half-life confided, retrieving his holdall. ‘I’ve got to get these fuckers back to the market before Eddy The Fish notices I’ve borrowed ’em.’
As high on the hill as we were, we were about to get even higher, heading into Oxleas Wood for a doobie-doobie-do, leaving a bewildered Alice behind. It was here that a hero of Half-life’s, Steve Peregrin Took, may well have first got zubed, when he was a student at the Grammar School.
Half-life came across Took in Mick Farren’s memoir of ’60 and ’70s counterculture, Give The Anarchist A Cigarette. Took was the other half of Marc Bolan’s duo Tyrannosaurus Rex, the precursor to Bolan’s superstardom in T.Rex. He had the chance to join Bolan on his path to glam glory but was given an ultimatum – stop getting fucked up on booze and drugs, or get fired. Took decided to get more fucked up than ever and got fired, making him a legend in the eyes of Half-life.
‘Some are born great, some achieve greatness and some just have a great time,’ muttered a reverent Half-life, as he crumbled some Lebanese blonde into a large Rizla, already rich with skunk. The woods are full of lovely spots, not least at the cafe from which the view stretches for miles into, I don’t know, Shropshire? We found one though that combined a far horizon with comforting isolation and clean, soon-to-be fouled air.
Took was Syd Barrett’s mucker, largely due to their shared interest in LSD and strange noises. On Tyrannosaurus Rex’s third and final album, Took contributed backing vocals, bongos, African drums, the kazoo, pixiphone and Chinese gong. It was the ’60s.
‘That’s why this place is a Site of Special Scientific Interest,’ said Half-life, though I should point out he’s not an actual scientist.
Bolan went on to record countless hit singles, while Took formed the psychedelic rock band the Pink Fairies, promoting free music, drug taking and anarchy. Bolan was said to be close to reuniting with Took when he died in a car crash in Barnes in 1977. It would not have lasted. Took choked on a cocktail cherry whilst dozing on morphine in 1980. He was 31.
‘Do not pollute your system with cherries,’ said Half-life, dragging on a glowing wand of weed. ‘That’s what I take from his story.’
We did get a bit lost in the woods – always a pleasure. Trees do tend to look a bit the same, with apologies to our arborist readers. But after a while we came across the ‘castle in the woods’ – Severndroog. Built by Lady James of Eltham to commemorate her husband, Sir William, it is triangular with hexagonal turrets. That’s a proper folly, that is.
Half-life refused to enter the castle on the grounds that it has too many steps and his having developed an allergy to elevation. I told him that you could see seven counties from the top. Seven!
‘It’s too many, mate.’ he said.
Oh well. We were getting thirsty anyway. And The Red Lion had just been refurbed and had reopened just down the road. It used to have a pretty sketchy reputation but Bermondsey Pub Co have put a lot of money and effort into turing it into quite the swanky boozerie. With fancy new housing coming online all around, we’re glad someone has remembered that communities need pubs, almost as much as I do. While I wouldn’t travel to drink London Pride, Hop Stuff are on the way to make it tasty and local.
I thought Half-life might have been attracted here because of Shooters Hiil’s fearsome reputation for highwaymen and its gruesome past as a place of gibbets and execution. Or its place in literature, as the location where Byron’s Don Juan was accosted at knifepoint; or the hill mentioned by Dickens and Pepys, that featured in Dracula, War of the Worlds and V For Vendetta.
But no, it was the tragic Took and his devotion to the avoidance of achievement. Shine on, you crazy pixiphone legend.