The London Borough of Bexley might not be the most fashionable area in sexy South London, but it scores big beer points for playing host to five micropubs; plus bonus balls for providing a designated driver to four of them – the 51 bus.
Even better, thanks to the Mayor’s Hopper Fare, many of the journeys are free, making an afternoon spent micropub-hunting not only fun, but wise.
With the help of a tetchy Half-life, I visited the micro four before hopping back on the 51 to go on to Taproom SE18, Hop Stuff Brewery’s very own bar. It’s not, strictly speaking, a micropub, but nonetheless it’s a room on the route with fresh beer – surely the best kind of room there is.
Our journey began in Sidcup High Street, where Half-life arrived an hour and 45 minutes late, panting and holding his hand to his heart before plonking himself on a stool. He seemed to be channeling the Raider’s Deserting at Christmas, where exaggerated health issues ensure nothing is expected of you except intermittent grumbling.
‘I’m dying here, Dirts. It’s a miracle I even made it. Get us one in, will you?’
The perfect start to any pub crawl is a flavourful ale with a modest alcohol level – after all it’s a crawl, not a sprint. Luckily, the Hopper’s Hut had a cracker. Riding Ale, an unfined session beer from Hackney’s Howling Hops is light but so fruity and hoppy it’s hard to believe it’s only 3.0%. As an achievement I’d put it on a par with time travel. It simply should not be possible.
Half-life’s pint was gone in seconds before he reported: ‘That’s better. I’ve been getting these dizzy spells… ooh… here I go,’ as he rocked on his stool. ‘It’s quite nice, actually. Like free drugs.’
‘When did you last eat?’
‘I ate a couple of pills last night, but to be fair, they were tiny.’
The Hopper was rather convivial. The ale hadn’t come far and most of their cheese and much of their wine came from Kent, retaining the local flavour. Conversation with the locals took in the entire panoply of human experience, from other much-loved micropubs, favourite beer, the characteristics of American and Kentish hops, other planned pub crawls – everything.
Our big red steed carried us down the hill towards the next micropub, past a slice of Deserter prehistory: The Alma. Few people know that it was in The Alma that Mondays were invented.
Back in the day, a young man awoke at the beginning of the working week and thought to himself: ‘Balls to this’.
He called in sick and at opening time strolled to The Alma for a pint. There he met a mate who had done exactly the same thing. This was in the time that pubs closed after lunch, a simple fact that tells you just how shit the good old days were. Sad at having to leave a pub at 3 o’clock, they repaired to the Curry Mahal nearby for a late lunch and a few more drinks. Happily, by the time they had finished an extensive meal, The Alma had reopened.
They returned to the pub and stayed there until the second closing time of the day, doubtless tackling the big philosophical questions with an insight that a day’s work would have diminished. Then they went back to the curry house for a second Indian, plus some more Kingfishers, thus cementing a tradition of the double pub/double curry sickie that survives to this day.
As this turned out to be one of the best ideas of their lives, they repeated it many times, often with half-a-dozen pals. It became known as ‘a Monday’. Mondays became a valued institution of proto-Deserter behaviour. Religions have been founded on less.
Despite The Alma’s cosy splendour and the call of £3.40 pints of Ghost Ship, we stuck to our micro mission, as our next target was in sight.
The Hackney Carriage is in the Lamorbey district of Sidcup, a slice of pure suburbia that prior to all the housebuilding was home to fields of hops. Wild hops still grow on the allotments nearby, as if nature were winking at us; calling us to feast on her flesh.
The Carriage, like the Hopper, is a smart shop conversion (formerly selling school uniforms), the work of a tidy mind. Micropubs are bound to be quiet when empty, as there’s no music, TV or distractions. They’re perfect places to do nothing in, if only we could remember how. The Hackney Carriage has some interesting books to stave off that infuriating instinct to reach for the phone when conversation has failed. Micropubs often have mobiles nailed to the wall to warn newcomers of the ‘no mobile’ rules. Texting and surfing is tolerated, but phone calls are not. With Half-life down to grunts and groans, I found myself chuckling at The Ladybird Book of The Hangover.
‘That’s just fucking rude,’ he exclaimed at my reading in his company, when one of his phone’s blared out a cascading horn motif, followed by James Brown singing: ‘Paid the cost to be The Boss’.
Half-life not only answered it, he soon bellowed out: ‘You are pulling my cunting pisser!’
After ending the conversation with a profane, yet imaginative flourish, I mentioned that the lady behind the bar might not be too pleased with his flouting of the micropub ethos.
‘Has she just had her car nicked?’ he spat.
‘You haven’t got a car.’
‘I borrowed Jam’s Nissan. And the cunt has only found it and nicked it back.’
Despite drinking nice, well kept beer at someone else’s expense, Half-life was in one of those dark moods. I suggested we treat his dizzy spells with a marijuana cigarette in the park opposite. Often we have to find a nice quiet spot to smoke a joint, away from people. At The Glade, we had to avoid groups of kids smoking smelly skunk and playing frenetic tunes. But what else would they do in Sidcup? They’re not going to fancy the area’s silent beer temples.
We stopped at the lake, opposite the grand home of Rose Bruford College, the drama school whose alumni include Gary Oldman and Tom Baker. Sidcup seems such a strange place for this branch of the arts, though it made more sense in the gloaming after a doobie, watching intense young luvvies reading parts on the lawn, gesticulating wildly to an audience of swan.
Back on the 51 bus, we travelled down Halfway Street (halfway to where?) and on to Blackfen, an unremarkable part of South London’s borderlands mentioned on a previous crawl. Once upon a time places like Blackfen, and our next destination, Welling, were ‘somewhere’. Somewhere with a great cinema or dance hall, where people would go out, meet other people and have fun. I wonder how a community reaches a point where it no longer needs fun.
‘Just an Asda and a plumber’s merchants will do us, thanks,’ they seem to be saying. ‘We’ve got a radio.’ It’s little wonder that this crawl was accompanied by great wafts of weed stink that were not our own, as people are forced to roll their own fun.
The Broken Drum though looks lovely in that unfussy homemade pub kind of way. It served us a fine amber ale but it’s hard to judge a place’s atmosphere when you are literally the only people in there apart from the guy serving beer, who is almost too happy just to see another human being. It’s a boon to locals and a worthy crawl stop. But the quietude is a reminder that these places are only as good as the company you’re in.
‘Thank fuck it’s nearly over,’ moaned Half-life.
‘What, 2016? Tell me about it.’
‘No, this pub crawl. I haven’t seen a woman since Lewisham.’
The 51 took us up the road to Welling High Street and the much-loved Door Hinge, London’s first micropub. It feels a little more pubby, festooned with hops as it is and with a little snug at the back that looks like your nan’s living room.
As it was also empty, the wisdom of this crawl at this time of year was in doubt. I don’t need a pub to myself very often. It had started to resemble a pub crawl after the apocalypse, I thought to myself, which warmed me to it again.
However, three empty pubs in a row made me miss the sound of music and people. I began to long for a chat about the weather or the pathetic screams of partly-devoured zombie victims. Once again, the beer was splendid, but it was time for the hustle and bustle and the bright lights of the great metropolis. We were back on the 51 – to Woolwich.
Hop Stuff’s Taproom is pretty slick, in keeping with the grandeur of the Royal Arsenal, and its hubbub was welcome after the silence of the suburbs. Normally there’s a greater cask selection, I believe, but this time it was mostly their own brews, though that’s hardly a problem.
Starving by now, I found their White Pony pizza exceptional. Half-life’s appetite suddenly kicked in and he ordered to pizza and salad combo: ‘But with twice as much salad and twice as much pizza.’
‘You want two?’
‘No. I want one fucking massive one.’
Sadly, when the Greek Salad arrived it grievously offended him. ‘Olive,’ he muttered, before raising his voice to a passing waitress. ‘Olive!’
‘It’s Phoebe,’ she said, meekly.
‘Where are the fucking olives, Pheebs? What kind of Greek Salad doesn’t have olives?’
‘Of course, I’ll just…’
‘It’s an insult to Zeus, to Plato, to Aristotle and to Demis fucking Roussos, love,’ he said, as she carted the offending greenery away.
We’d been to five bars and had high quality beer in each, most of them around the £3 mark – and spent around £3 on transport. We didn’t have much to complain about until the salad incident.
‘I suppose you’re right,’ Half-life said to my surprise. ‘And to be fair, 2016 is probably my favourite year so far. Who died in 2015? Who knows? Bloody rubbish.’
‘Didn’t Demis Roussos die in 2015?’
‘Well I’m glad he wasn’t around to see this debacle,’ he said, as Phoebe returned with his salad festooned with the bitter fruit. ‘Cheers, Pheebs,’ he said, passing her his number. ‘And don’t fucking ring before midday, alright?’
As the bemused waitress left us for more personable customers, Half-life reported: ‘You know, I think I’m feeling a bit better…’
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