Classical music was playing in Tooting Broadway tube station as I made my way out onto street level, a moment of serenity before crossing the busy High Street for our first stop, the Spoons. Or, to be precise, J.J. Moon’s.
I was at the bar when Roxy arrived wearing a Strokes t-shirt, fake fur jacket and a black beret.
‘Power to the People!’ I yelled, making a fist salute in reference to Citizen Smith, a sitcom set in Tooting that even I barely remember and of which she hadn’t the foggiest.
‘What people?’ she said, looking around.
‘I thought the beret…’
‘And why are we in a Wetherspoons?’
‘Everything starts in a Spoons, Rox. Not my words, the words of insane manimal, Half-life. He said to meet here,’ I explained.
‘So where is he?’
‘He’s in St. George’s, giving blood.’
‘Oh my God.’
‘Not being funny but what are they going to use it for?’
‘Fuck knows. Rocket fuel?’
Half-life’s ‘plan’ was to take us ‘up and down the Mitcham Road’. Like almost anywhere in South London, Half-life claimed to be an expert on this stretch but of course, Half-life being Half-life, he was late and we were forced to fend for ourselves in J.J. Moon’s.
With over 40 craft beers on offer in bottle and keg, and another half a dozen from cask, this came easy, and we started the afternoon with a Kotchin by Cronx (Croydon) and a Pacific Pale Ale by Enefeld (er, Enfield).
You can say what you like about Spoons’ but on pub-based wanders they often provide the best pint of the day, and certainly the cheapest. Plus, they offer a sense of familiarity in a strange town; like eating in McDonalds when you’re abroad and can’t understand the language. In Tokyo, say, or Newcastle.
Tooting’s Spoons (or Moon’s, or whatev’s) is smaller than most, or narrower at least, being a converted shop; almost cosy. We took a seat by the entrance to catch the big man when he arrived. He didn’t arrive.
‘Come on, let’s take a look at the markets,’ said Roxy, and we headed off up the High Street.
Broadway Market is the largest covered market in South London (in yo face, Brixton) and home to more than 100 stalls, shops, cafes and bars including one that caught our eye, Craft Tooting, a micro beer bar and bottle shop. (Sadly it was shut on our arrival, but I’ve been back since and it’s wonderful)
Tooting Market next door is an equally stimulating mixture of old stalls and new food and drink places, including Graveney Gin, We Brought Beer,Unwined, Brickwood andtucked away at the back in aPortuguese enclave, The Secret Bar, where we landed for a cold Super Bock while I probed Roxy about her new gaff.
‘So what’s the new place like?’
‘Nice,’ said Roxy. ‘Near the station.’
‘Just under a grand.’ she said, with a grimace.
‘That doesn’t sound too bad. One bed?’
‘Studio,’ she said, a little sheepishly.
‘Mm. One room and a kitchen.’
‘A grand a month for one room?’
‘Nine fifty,’ she said. ‘And a kitchen.’
‘Bloody hell,’ I said and Roxy fixed me with her no-nonsense look.
‘Raider, if I don’t get out of my place… I. Will. Kill.’
I was in shock. Granted, the cost of a Snickers Peanut Butter has been known to make me cry out in newsagents, but this seemed outlandish.
‘Oh, well,’ said Roxy as we left and passed a dozen small food stalls selling the most delicious smelling food for as little as £3 a pop. ‘I won’t ever need to cook again, by the look of it. Maybe I’ll turn the kitchen into a pool room.’
‘Atta girl,’ I said.
The Tooting markets are great – a friendly, bustling testament to diversity, independent spirit and fun. A mural on the side of Tooting market entrance informed us that it was under threat from Crossrail 2. Typical. Just when you’ve found a new favourite thing, it’s threatened by gargantuan shafts required to ventilate tunnels carrying people, for some reason, from Surrey to Hertfordshire. Let’s hope Crossrail 2 goes via Balham instead, where by all accounts it will have a less deleterious effect.
With no word from Half-life we decided to start without him and headed back down to the Mitcham Road. Our first stop was the Graveney and Meadow, one of three Antic pubs on this stretch. It half-shares a name with the local secondary school which, we speculated, may lead to lots of kids getting pissed up and drunks getting educated. Talking of the latter, there at the bar stood Half-life.
‘Oh, there you are,’ he said. ‘Just in time. It’s your round.’
‘How was giving blood? Did you get your orange squash and a biscuit?’ I asked.
‘When I lived in Dublin they’d give you a pint of Guinness for a pint of blood,’ he said. ‘Now that’s a good deal. My body can make another pint of blood but it can’t make a pint of Guinness. Yet.’
‘I didn’t know you lived in Dublin. When was that?’ I asked.
‘Couple of years back,’ said Half-life. ‘In the ’90s.’
Unusually for an Antic place, the G&M opens in the morning (10am), when it offers yoga sessions and a kids club, with free meals for kids in the evenings on school nights. We were beginning to get the idea of this place. It even had jazz on Sundays.
‘Jazz? God save us,’ said Roxy.
‘Not exactly The Strokes, eh, Rox?’
‘The Strokes is three chords for a thousand people,’ she said. ‘Jazz is a thousand chords for three people.’
Half-life wanted a fag but the garden was closed and no drinks were allowed out front. I watched as he wrestled with this conundrum for a moment.
Next up was Antic pub number two, the Antelope. Once again, yoga was advertised on the A-board outside, along with Pub Quiz, Banjo Class and Half-life’s favourite, Burlesque Life Drawing.
Our spirits a little dampened, they were immediately dried out by the presence of Jaipur on cask, the kind of beer that makes everything better.
‘Three pints of wife-cuddler, please,’ said Half-life, before disappearing to the lavs, leaving us to pay.
The Antelope is gorgeous, with a large horseshoe bar, flagstones, wood panelling and other classic pub elements. It’s huge, too, with a dining room, lounge and a garden all presenting themselves on a wander round. It was apparently a flagship pub for Barclay Perkins, whose Anchor Brewery was once the largest brewery in the world, part-owned by a banking Barclay who sensibly eschewed money for beer. Talking of money…
‘So you can afford to pay a grand a month?’ I asked Roxy
‘Barely. I did get that promotion at my new place,’ she said.
‘Right,’ I said. ‘What is that again?’ Roxy fixed me with one of her quizzical stares.
‘You don’t know what I do, do you?’ she said.
‘Erm, you have told me but I always… nod off halfway through.’
‘Are you saying my job’s boring?’
‘I might be, if I could remember what it was.’
‘Right, that’s it, I’m going to the powder room,’ she said walking off with an exaggerated flounce.
‘What’s her new job?’ I asked Half-life, when she was out of earshot.
‘Burlesque Life Drawing?’ said Half-life, and I wasn’t sure if he was answering my question or daydreaming.
Further along Mitcham Road we stopped at the Ramble Inn, an Irish bar which I warmed to immediately. Firstly, Half-life was made such a fuss of that, full of himself, he accidentally bought me and Roxy a pint.
Secondly, at the urinal a bloke said: ‘That wind is bitter enough today’, and the guy on the other side of him replied, ‘It’s alright for you, you’ve been working outside all day. I had to sit in a cold bookies.’
We ordered Guinness, took a seat in the window and watched the traffic.
‘So this is still Tooting, yeah?’
‘Yep, this is Amen Corner,’ said Half-life.
‘Why is it called that?’
‘Because you say “Amen” at the end of everything and this is the end of Tooting,’ he said.
More probably, there was once a church on, or near, the site (the presence of a Rectory Lane nearby would seem to advance that theory) and anyway, it’s not the end of Tooting. A little further down Mitcham Road stands Tooting Station, one of the overground variety, and where there stands a decent Young’s pub, the Gorringe Park.
But now Half-life marched us back up the Mitcham Road to a little place he knew called, appropriately enough, the Little Bar. Here we sat up at the bar of this tiny but glamorous establishment and chatted to Madeleine, the friendly owner. By this stage I quite fancied a cocktail but it was my round, so, you know, fuck that. Ciara, the bar manager, talked us through the beer offering and I settled on a Wolfie Smith IPA from local (excellent) brewery, By The Horns.
‘Wolfie Smith was the main character in Citizen Smith,’ I explained to Roxy, who just blinked back at me, like a cute mute.
The Little Bar might have been my favourite joint of the night had it not been for our final stop. And oh, man, what a stop.
Maybe I’m just a sucker for a high roof and live music but the Tooting Tram and Social, a converted Victorian tram shed, with a 75 foot high roof and music and events six nights a week, beat all my sweet spots into glorious submission. As I supped a Dead Pony Club and watched the band I felt I was experiencing not just the best Tooting had to offer, but perhaps all of South London.
Sure, I was drunk, but Roxy concurred. And it wasn’t just because she got asked out by the barman.
‘Still single then, Rox?’ asked Half-life.
‘None of your beeswax.’
‘That means yes,’ said Half-life. ‘Well, you’ve got my number if you want hooky scran, bad coke and terrible sex.’
‘You’ll be the first one I call,’ said Roxy, and she went off for a boogie.
I suppose the joke in Citizen Smith, looking back on it, was that a revolutionary would live in such a suburban, middle class haven as Tooting. Now it feels much more edgy, diverse and urban – and all the better for it.
Update May 2019:
It is with some sadness we report The Little Bar has become The Little Taperia. We’re sure it’s very nice, but surely there is no higher calling for a building than being called a little bar.
We’re happy to pronounce Tooting ‘Fit for Purpose’.