Croydon really wants to be a city. It’s filled the forms out six times now, only to be met with a firm: ‘Monarch Says No’.
The reason? It’s considered, ‘part of the London conurbation’ with ‘no particular identity of its own’. Ouch. Accompanied by Half-life, I went to investigate if Croydon really was just another limb on the capital’s bulging torso.
I met the big man at London Bridge for the brief ride to East Croydon. Maybe the swift transport links don’t help the cause. Surely anywhere 14 mins from London Bridge is, well, London.
I spotted Half-life on the concourse; an easy task, given that he stands six foot four, was wearing a frock coat and bowler hat and had apparently grown a beard. When he turned I saw he had only grown half a beard; one side with a full, dark growth and the other containing only stubble and the soft tan of a winter sun break. His solemn eyes were enclosed by thick theatrical black eyeliner, as he leant on the silver skull of his walking cane, looking like a steampunk gravedigger.
‘Is that what happens when you shave in the dark?’ I asked. ‘What are you dressed for?’
‘Why, Croydon,’ he smirked.
This was a return trip to the would-be city for Half-life. He spent a few weeks there in his youth when he needed to keep a low profile. A stripper he knew let him hole up at hers till the heat blew over.
‘Beautiful,’ he muttered, recalling the memory.
‘Oh yes? Pretty girl was she?’
‘Candy? I s’pose. But I was fucking gorgeous.’
A Cronx tale
The first thing you notice when you arrive at East Croydon is that you are surrounded by huge buildings, looming over you like giants around a playpen. Croydon really went for it in the ’60s, as London temporarily shied away from skyscrapers, and it became perhaps the first and only vertical suburb. I remember thinking Richard Seifert’s NLA Tower (pictured – now known as No.1 Croydon) was hideous back in the day. Now I find it quite marvellous.
Next you notice the trams, quietly reminding us that getting rid of them throughout London was one of the biggest mistakes of the capital’s urban planning.
Right next to the station is a symbol of the town’s new confidence – Boxpark. There’s one in Shoreditch, so locating the second in Croydon tells you something is going on here. Something like gentrification.
‘Don’t mention the g-word,’ moaned Half-life. ‘Cuntrification, I call it.’
Croydon’s Boxpark only sells street food and drinks, served from fitted-out ship containers with a communal dining area. It offers a bewildering array of scran from every corner of the globe – if indeed globes had corners. There are some big boys, like MEATliquor and The Breakfast Club, plus grub from Guyana, Taiwan, Brazil, Sri Lanka, the Caribbean and even Britain. Half-life found it all too much.
‘Any more than three choices and I’m paralysed,’ he said, before we found what we were looking for – The Cronx Bar.
Sitting on the outside of Boxpark, away from the diners, The Cronx Bar has the stripped back feel of a micropub; simple, austere and with a cracking line-up of six cask ales and ten kegs. We enjoyed a starter from Cronx Brewery – Kotchin, a citrusy blonde number with a flirty finish. Bloody yum, it was.
Music & poetry
‘Sutton for good mutton Cheam for juicy beef Croydon for a pretty girl And Mitcham for a thief.’
So went the 18th century rhyme that probably still resonates with Dulwich Hamlet fans today.
John Betjeman also set two poems in Croydon, with none of the vitriol he reserved for Slough. But it’s Croydon’s contribution to music that represents its greatest cultural gift, along with notable residents such as the film director, David Lean, Kate Moss and erm, Roy Hodgson.
Fairfield Halls (reopening Sept 2019) may have hosted every mainstream act from the Beatles to Coolio, but Croydon has been instrumental in the development of two major genres: Dubstep and punk – the former through Big Apple Records and the latter via The Greyhound, both legendary, but both now closed.
We diverted down Park Lane, with its wide road and modern blocks and towers creating a transatlantic illusion, to see what became of the old Greyhound, where Hendrix, Led Zep, Bowie and Queen once played, before it became a key New Wave venue. During Half-life’s brief stay in Croydon he saw Siouxsie & The Banshees supported by The Fall there. A group a skinheads took a dislike to him and, heavily outnumbered, he was forced to flee.
‘I ran onto some estate and up some stairs, but they were still chasing me. I thought, “Fuck this, I can’t run anymore, not with 8 pints of Tuborg in me.” I turned round, unzipped, and whipped out The Bald Avenger. As the first two lads came round the corner I gave them a golden shower from on high and they ran off, screaming like they’d been stabbed.’
We found The Greyhound remembered in an art display that celebrates The Damned and 40 years of Croydon punk, but not Half-life’s public micturation.
Croydon took a proper kicking in the war, so much of the architecture is mid-century or later. With the Brutalist buildings, the car parks and modern apartments dominating the skyline, it’s easy to overlook the Old Town around Surrey Street Market. But where there’s a market, there’s a pub.
The Dog & Bull (est. 1431) is a Grade II listed Young’s boozer, welcoming and traditional and Croydon’s reigning CAMRA pub of the year. We took a pint of well-kept Ordinary into the huge, smart beer garden and eased ourselves into the day with a smoke-up. It’s not so bad, you know, life.
We strolled to the nearby Matthew’s Yard, the supposed ‘hipster hangout’. Yes, the guy behind the counter had a beard, but that seemed almost old fashioned compared to Half-life’s half-beard. It does have a gallery and studio space and puts on live music. What’s wrong with that?
At night Brgr & Beer provide some of life’s essentials, but it was lunchtime so we had a fine beef and sweet potato stew for a fiver. Half-life wanted a bigger portion, of course, but that’s more of a default position than a criticism.
We soon found ourselves at the Croydon institution of The Green Dragon on the High Street. It’s a big old gaff, with a stone floor and high ceiling, but still manages to feel comfy. The Dragon has a well-earned reputation for good beer; plus it serves hearty food, has a pool table and gets lively at the weekend with DJs or live music.
We had Titanic’s amazing Plum Porter, a brewing feat that never fails to astound. ‘One of my five a day,’ said Half-life. ‘Let’s have four more of these, then I can relax.’
One aspect of urban life crept in when we were approached by a middle-aged woman asking: ‘Can you buy me a drink?’
‘You’ve got to do better than that,’ Half-life admonished. ‘Buy you a drink? Of course, I fucking won’t. Try them over there. But go in hard this time, take the piss out of the bald fucker, then laugh like it’s a big joke and offer them a drink. When they refuse, ask if they’ll get you one. Off you go, love. Honestly, I should be teaching this stuff at university.’
It was only a few short steps to The Ship. The sign outside reads: ‘The Last Real Pub in Croydon’, whatever that means.
‘It’s means whatever you would like it to mean,’ the barman said, enigmatically.
The Ship is a rock pub, with a focus on metal at the weekends and walls honouring the likes of Motörhead and Megadeth. We had a Deep 61, Marston’s decent, but not spectacular attempt at a pale ale with US and Aussie hops. Funny how the big trad brewers, with all their experience, don’t quite get there.
We wandered south down the High Street to find a quite extraordinary variety of restaurants. It has the ‘most densely populated area for restaurants in the UK’ according to the estimable South London blog, Transpontine.
‘Where are all the pubs?’ asked my associate, not unreasonably.
Most notable among the eateries is Albert’s Table, a Michelin Guide-listed restaurant with a mouth-watering menu and faultless reputation. There was no way I was going to take Half-life there. I might want to go back there with someone I like.
At the end of the High Street lies the Tree House pub, however it doesn’t open till five during the week; a poor effort that almost brought Half-life to tears. It does open until 3am at the weekend when its upstairs turns into a club with a focus on house and garage.
‘Sounds like a fucking estate agent,’ moaned Half-life.
Croydon still has a lively club culture, with Bad Apple and The Granaries joining the Tree House in providing late night shenanigans.
East is East Croydon
Seeing the former glory of the Swan & Sugar Loaf pub turned into a Tesco Express didn’t encourage us to explore South Croydon further. Admittedly, it was – how can I put it? – a shithole. Though it was notoriously full of tattooed menace and nationalist anger, it’s still sad to see such a handsome building knocking out ready meals and oven chips.
The bus stop retains the Sugarloaf name and we used it to return to East Croydon where there were still a few pubs to explore north of the station. The Glamorgan gastropub had been recommended but has sadly closed down, but we did discover The Orchard, an Irish pub which is probably the best place to watch sport in Croydon. With homemade pies and Irish Stew and a little more craft brew than most Irish pubs, it’s a pretty good place for most things.
The screen showing racing from Clonmel, in Tipperary, caught my eye as that’s where my mum was from. Then I noticed there was a horse running called For Carmel – my mum’s name. I was duty-bound to put a fiver on him at 25/1.
‘That’s a mug’s bet, that is,’ warned Half-life. ‘Bookies love fuckwits like you.’
For Carmel gave me a run, at least, tucking in behind the leaders for most of the race, while I shouted ‘Go on, Mum!’ at the screen, before he fell away into sixth place. I suppose it was a mug’s bet.
‘You almost had a story there, mate,’ said Half-life. Not to mention £125.
In the search for one backstreet pub, we discovered another, the Builder’s Arms, tucked away in a row of houses. Too pretty to walk past (isn’t it funny how flower baskets can lure a man?) we popped in for a Pride and a game of arrers, which, as usual, I lost after a good start.
We did find our final stop thereafter, the Oval Tavern – a wonderful neighbourhood oasis. Lovely craft beers, a cool, youthful vibe, good food and a nice walled garden. Reunion’s Incredible Pale Ale from the cask went down a treat. When I went to the Gents I heard a young couple arguing over dinner about Mishima. When I returned they were arguing with Half-life about Mishima.
‘You can say he’s right wing, yes, but don’t forget he was also sympathetic to Bataille and Klossowski and the French Marxist tradition in general. You finished with them chips?’ said the big feller as he thrust a paw onto the poor man’s plate.
I do understand David Bowie’s disparaging put-down: ‘God, it’s so fucking Croydon’. But it was made a long time ago about the town he knew a long time before that (he played at both The Greyhound and Fairfield Halls on his Ziggy tour). Despite being a great place for gigs, it was unloved, but I don’t think that Croydon exists any more.
One of the things I really liked about Croydon was that it didn’t seem like it was trying to be London. It looks like somewhere else and it feels like somewhere else. Maybe Boxpark drags it into the metropolis and possibly the coming Westfield (expected 2020/21) will do so even more. But international food and shopping centres were hardly unheard of in Croydon before big investors decided to get in on it. Westfield is my personal idea of hell, but if it keeps the muggles happy and nowhere near me, it will serve a purpose.
By developing in a different way to London, as Croydon has, it seems harsh and probably inaccurate to suggest it doesn’t have its own identity. But if a seventh tilt at citydom is being considered, I’d wonder why. Surely there’s nothing better than being an underrated part of the greatest city on Earth, awaiting discovery?