Love and Death in West Dulwich
As a born again student doing a postgrad year, I spent my nights in bars and my days participating in a preposterous range of team sports, from cricket to skittles, rowing to table football. But my favourite was croquet.
Encouraged by my tutor, who’d wave me off on my bicycle, I’d regularly skip tutorials to play this delightfully bonkers game on various college lawns. So proficient did I become, that I made it to the semi-finals of the intercollegiate tournament, only to be let down by my playing partner who had taken part in an overnight University Rag dash to Paris the night before and arrived for the match still dressed as a Womble. A paralytic Womble.
We lost 26 to 10.
But with my enthusiasm for the game undimmed, despite the recurring nightmare of Wombles pissing in bushes, I was happy to discover recently that croquet is available in Dulwich and I spent a Thursday morning nosing around the grounds of the Old College Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club on Gallery Road, SE21. If there’s one thing you need in croquet, you see, it’s someone to play it with.
But sadly, at the OCLTC they only play Golf Croquet, the simple half-brother of Association Croquet, and I am very much an Association man, if not more so. Besides, summer was gone and club croquet was pretty much over for the season. There was nothing for it, I was going to have to buy my own set and lay out a court in the park.
To celebrate this conceptual breakthrough I decided to treat myself to a lovely spliff in Belair Park opposite, followed by a saunter around West Dulwich. After all, it was well past midday and I had some red Leb that had been burning a hole in my pocket – quite literally, on one occasion. I wondered if I might be the first person from the club to spark up after a round of hoops. I figured not. It’s probably like Cocaine Nights down there, bless ’em.
I’m not keen on autumn as a season but Belair was scrubbing up well in the afternoon sun. It’s a charming and underused 26 acre park featuring some water, thought to be a stretch of the River Effra, now otherwise confined underground, and a striking neoclassical villa, Belair House, of which the park was once the grounds. Once semi-derelict, I remember using the lower floor of the house as a football changing room. Now it has been completely refurbished and as I approached I was surprised to find some picnic benches on its front lawn, like you might find in a pub garden. Drawn, naturally, I explored further and was very pleased with what I found.
After it had been refurbished, 20 years ago, Belair House became an upmarket restaurant at which the food never quite matched the elevated prices. Now, after several changes of hands, it is billing itself as a ‘Bar, Dining & Social’ and is an altogether more welcoming and accessible affair, still with a grand dining room but now also with a dedicated ‘vintage chic’ bar area, a sun terrace and – come on! – cask ale.
I paid £4.95 for a pint of Truman’s Zephyr, but was happy to pay a bit over the odds for the pleasure of the surroundings, inside and out. In short, it’s a pub in a park. A pub is a welcome addition to any park and is a model that, when I am Master of the Booziverse, will be replicated throughout the land.
Once refreshed, I took a bench in the park and set about building my bifter. Almost immediately a small, lively dog approached me and jumped up at the bench to say hello.
‘No, Phil. Phil, no!’ called an old boy in red trousers, following behind. ‘Get down!’
‘He can smell something,’ I said. I knew I could. And it smelt bloody lovely.
‘She,’ he said and I must have given him a quizzical look. ‘Short for Philippa. It was my wife’s name.’
‘Oh,’ I said and that just hung in the air for a moment. ‘Hello, Phil.’
‘She’s a Spaniel. Cocker.’
‘Call me Raider,’ I said, making a lame joke at which he nevertheless chuckled.
We chatted for a while, during which time I learned that his wife had died a year ago and that, even now, he sometimes absent-mindedly makes two cups of coffee in the morning. (I now think about this every time I make a hot drink).
This confirmed my nagging feeling that autumn is all about death. Sure, the colours are cute, but they can’t disguise the overall sense of decay; that stench of mouldy fruit, a blocked macerator, an MDMA-induced evacuation. I wish I could love it the way some folk do, but it just reminds me that the fun is over for another year.
I needed a pint. Maybe two. And spring.
Bidding Phil and her master adieu, I crossed the only major road I’d see all day, the A205, and poked around West Dulwich Station – Dulwich Station until 1926, when it was renamed – looking for a path I had spotted on Google Maps but that wasn’t immediately obvious. Eventually I found it round the back. I could have walked up Alleyn Park and taken in the Italian Renaissance-style splendour of Dulwich College across the sunlit playing fields (see main pic), but what is that compared to an overgrown, graffitied path up by a housing estate with a pub at the end of it?
The pub in question is the Alleyns Head, a curiously chunky affair that was re-built post-war when the original pub that stood on (the other side of) Park Hall Road was demolished by a V1 ‘buzzbomb’ in 1944, along with several surrounding houses, killing three people.
For its size, it doesn’t feel particularly spacious, the Head, and the main part of the bar has the transient feel of a hotel lobby. But I was encouraged to see a clutch of regulars had set up camp at the side bar for the afternoon.
My Ember Pale Ale, brewed by Black Sheep, was a down-to-Earth £3.50 and I took a seat near the door and charged my phone like a twunt, listening to a couple of labourers chatting behind me.
‘How’s it going wiv fingy?’ one asked.
‘Oh, mate, like you wouldn’t believe,’ said the other. ‘It’s love. One minute, you’re thinking you’ll never meet no-one and the next it just hits you. You know what I mean?’
‘Yeah,’ said his mate, ‘Like a fucking tsunami.’
‘Exactly like a fucking tsunami, Jim.’
After my brush with death, it was nice to know love was thriving in this leafy outpost of town. I spent some time pondering whether in fact love might be the opposite of death. And thus, perhaps, hate the opposite of life… Until I realised I was just stoned.
Shopping in West Dulwich happens mainly where Park Hall Road meets Croxted Road, where, with its deli, garden centre, Italian restaurant and Tesco Express, it has the feel of a small country town centre, albeit one without fighting at weekends.
I was too late for a filled roll at the bakery and I considered steak frites at the Cafe Rouge, but in the end the steep prices and the identikit nature of the place put me off. Maybe the kitchen would still be open at the Rosendale.
The Rosendale is a large, handsome former coaching inn with wraparound outside space and interiors that manage to be both roomy and intimate at the same time, like your favourite kecks. On the pump they had one from Belleville and Beyond The Pale by the London Beer Factory, based up the road in Gypsy Hill.
‘I’d have that if I were you,’ said the barman, of the latter. ‘The Beer Factory boys were in the other day and they had six pints of it each.’
That really is top notch recommending, and it’s a lovely pint, too. The kitchen had closed so I had to make do with a bowl of peanuts for £2.50, like they were dusted with gold.
Across the bar two lovers were entwined in a post-prandial embrace at a corner table. She in her office suit and him in a sweatshirt and trainers. Perhaps he was a kept man. His only role to slip out at lunchtime and canoodle over some tiramisu. Things were looking up for autumn, I thought, as I fingered my nuts, my precious nuts.
Now she had her shoe off and was toeing his calf. He was tracing the line of her clavicle and making a cooing sound. Alright, that’s enough. I took my pint outside and rolled another little feller.
I had one more stop in mind.
The Bricklayer’s Arms on Hamilton Road, on the borders of West Norwood and Gypsy Hill, is a different sort of place altogether. It is a haven for the working man. Or, as it was only 4.30pm, the not-working man – an evolved version of the former.
I bought a Guinness and took a table. A group of men sat in silence at one end of the bar, ignoring a daytime TV quiz on the screen. At length someone mentioned the upcoming England v Scotland match.
‘Is it Wembley?’ said one.
‘No, it’s Thursday,’ replied another.
‘So am I,’ said a third, and it was all I could do to stop myself going over and hugging them all.
‘Where’s Del?’ the conversation continued, a little later. ‘He’s got my dinner. Said he’d be here at five.’
‘Nah, Del comes in at 5.30. It’s John what comes in at five. Has to, ’cos of his tag.’
‘The meat man?’
‘Yeah, I saw him Monday. “Got your watch on?” I said. What you getting off Del, anyway?’
‘You like spaghetti?’ said an older man.
‘I like all pasta.’
‘Well, I’ve got fucking tins of the stuff. You can have it. I can’t stick it.
‘Yeah, been there since the wife died. She loved it. It’s all there in the cupboard.’
‘How long’s she been gone now?’ someone asked.
‘Coming up six months,’ said the old feller and the men murmured their sorrow.
It was Death again, interfering in life, and love.
It made me think how much I missed my own wife, whom I remembered, with a start, was not only still alive, but at home in her pyjamas with a head cold. If there was anything I had learned from today, apart from that Belair Park has a pub in it, it was to make the most of one’s wife. I called her as I left.
‘I’ve decided to make the most of you,’ I announced.
‘Uh-oh,’ she said.
‘Yes,’ I said, ‘For starters, have you ever played croquet?’
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