Lost at Battersea
‘Never been to Battersea,’ confessed Half-life.
I found that hard to believe. It’s around 15 minutes from his Brixton flat. You’d think it would be part of his delivery round. Poshos love Charlie, after all, especially when it’s delivered by a working class performance idler.
‘The busiest railway station in Europe is in Battersea,’ I told him.
‘Bollocks,’ came his considered reply.
‘It’s true. By number of trains, Clapham Junction is the busiest.’
‘Doesn’t the name suggest it’s in focking Clapham, you prune?’
‘Well, that’s the interesting thing…’ I began, as Half-life swiftly put on his headphones and turned up the Afro-Grime.
When Clapham Junction station opened in 1863, Battersea was known for its heavy industry, while Clapham, nearly a mile away, was fashionable. To attract customers, the railway companies turned its new station into a perennial lie. They called their Battersea stop Clapham Junction.
The chopper station was named Battersea Heliport, at least until they realised it was the only one in town and changed it to London Heliport. Poor old Battersea, or as some call it, South Chelsea.
The irony is that now Battersea is every bit as desirable as Clapham, to the kind of people who care about that sort of thing. Its riverside, punctuated by towers of luxury ugliness, is a property developer’s hard-on. Battersea boasts a quite glorious park, a five-star hotel (that claims it’s on London’s ‘Left Bank’) and the £620m US Embassy that is about to open and regenerate Nine Elms, by one of Battersea’s two new Tube stations (opening 2020). Battersea is flying.
Clearly, it hasn’t always been so. While the Junction attracted wealthy residents to south west Battersea, the north and east of Battersea remained slums until the area was cleared and council housing arrived, after WWI. While some hefty estates remain, the South Chelsea wannabes are squeezing out the So Solid Crews.
We had to pick and choose our pubs, there are so many here. But sometimes they picked and chose us. The first pub we came to was The Falcon, a traditional, handsome, brown Nicholson’s pub with an outstanding array of ales, and a bar (the longest in the UK, according to the Guinness Book of Records) that was at least partly designed by the renowned graphic artist MC Escher.
Wonderful, I thought to myself. ‘I’ll have two pints of Jaipur, please.’
‘Not with him, you won’t. He’s still barred.’ The barman was clearly not in the mood to negotiate.
‘Never been to Battersea!’ I scoffed, as we trooped out.
‘He must have me confused with someone else.’
‘I wonder if George Clooney’s ever been to Battersea?’
Luckily, it wasn’t far to the next pub – and what an extraordinary pub it was. I almost don’t know where to start with The Four Thieves. It’s a Laine’s brewpub, so it houses its own microbrewery with fresh, delicious beer. It has its own gin distillery, yet still stocks another 70 kinds of Mother’s Ruin. It looks fab. The food’s great. The gin garden is characterful. It runs an immersive ‘Escape Room’ called Lady Chastity’s Reserve, if you like that sort of thing. There’s a small theatre in the basement for comedy and such. And upstairs is the games room.
The games room includes crazy golf, a massive remote control racing car track, vintage arcade games, virtual reality and critter racing. Unfortunately the room wasn’t open at the time of day Half-life and I were roaming, but the thoroughly affable staff let us have a rummage, regardless. Apparently it gets swamped with suits in the evenings, which almost prompts us to start a petition to open it up when those fuckers are at work.
Even Half-life would have remembered coming here and it was with great reluctance we moved on.
Half-life wanted to see the Battersea Arts Centre, the cultural hub in the magnificent old town hall that puts on an eclectic mix of shows from homegrown music to award-winning comedy to off-West End fringe productions. But he got distracted as we passed the Social Pantry Cafe (lovely caff!). He spotted a woman with luscious white wavy hair, who from behind looked exactly like Daenerys from Game of Thrones.
‘Daenerys Stormborn of House Targaryen,’ bellowed Half-life. ‘First of Her Name, the Unburnt, Queen of the Andals and the First Men, Khaleesi of the Great Grass Sea, Breaker of Chains, Mother of Dragons, Esquire’s Sexiest Woman Alive 2015.’
He paused to clear his throat. ‘Do you fancy a pint and a bit of up-the-jumper?’
At last, she turned to face him, revealing a pleasant enough face that was, however, not Emilia Clarke’s.
‘Oh, sorry, love. Thought you were that lass off the box what gets her kit off.’
We were invited to leave and headed north towards Sambrook’s Brewery, who have been brewing in Battersea since the Dark Ages (2008). There we were welcomed and poured the best Pump House Pale ever, which we drank outside on the astroturf, facing an housing estate and a derelict pub.
‘It doesn’t get much better than this,’ I said, boringly, but possibly correctly.
Battersea has plenty of soul-draining main roads that you neither want to walk or drive in, but it’s High Street is an exception. For a start, it’s pedestrianised and bears the curves of the village road it must once have been. And there’s what looks like a nice little pub, The Candlemaker. Sadly it’s not open till 5pm, so we’ll never be able to frolic with its young, happening crowd, they’ll be relieved to hear.
As we got closer to the river, it began to rain. By some miracle a pub sign appeared amid the homes. Had we found a backstreet gem, tucked away by a council estate? Not quite. On entering The Woodman we found it was very smart and full of Jeremys.
‘Not even a Jemima,’ mourned Half-life.
We were happy with the Badger beer, but £6 for a Scotch Egg was a clear warning. The manager, Jamie, was bursting with enthusiasm, showing off the wood-fired pizza oven in the courtyard garden and his two gloomy Italian chefs, who hand-make fresh dough every day, when not comparing notes on the emptiness of existence.
Past swanky Battersea Square we went, with Gordon fucking Ramsay’s London House restaurant, and onto Battersea Bridge Road and The Draft House – a chain, but a pretty damn good chain with 18 drafts and a daily £2.90 cask ale. Apart from pints, they sell beer in thirds, like some kind of Future Europe. Initially, I was very what the fuck? But then it dawned on me that I could try something new without much commitment, like the slut I am. I asked for a recommendation and got an immediate, firm response: ‘The Wild Beer.’
Wild Beer’s collaboration with Magic Rock is rather brilliantly called The Men Who Stare At Oats. One mouthful and I was in awe of nature’s miracles. It was a stunning tropical IPA leaving me in a beer reverie, dreaming of pineapple, banana, papaya, hammocks…
‘Shite and onions!’ cried Half-life. ‘I’ll have three more thirds of that fuckermother.’
Next we tried to get into Bunga Bunga, the Berlusconi-inspired pizza and karaoke bar favoured by Prince Harry and Cara Delevingne that was recently ordered to repaint by Wandsworth Council. Apparently the stripes of the Italian flag were not in keeping with the conservation area, even during Euro 2016. Unfortunately, Bunga Bunga has a dress code – and not the orange tan and budgie smugglers you might expect of Silvio-lovers: No flip flops, sports kit or fancy dress. Half-life was wearing flip flops, his Boca Juniors top and red harem pants.
To the river then, past the Royal College of Art. We were near the spots where JMW Turner, Walter Greaves and James Whistler painted scenes of Battersea Bridge, not far from St Mary’s Church, Battersea’s only Grade I listed building, where William Blake got hitched. It’s also where Half-life chose to take a leak against a tree, blissfully oblivious of the passing student body, like an infant giant.
The riverside walk is limited by real estate opportunities, so we repaired to the wonderful park, with its 200 acres of recreation, including a superb crazy golf course, a boating lake, a children’s zoo, a gallery, abundant unknowable examples of nature, a zip wire course, but also a cafe/bar and lots of places to spark up.
The Pear Tree Cafe is delightful and will do you a bottle of craft ale and a table by the lake to take your mind off Berlusconi in his smalls.
Prior to their wandering to Kennington Oval, Battersea Park was also home to Wanderers FC, winners of five of the first seven FA Cup Finals.
The Victorians landscaped Battersea Park partly to smarten up the marshy Battersea Fields and in particular its notorious riverside pub, the Red House, then London’s most famous inn for boozing, gambling, racing and all manner of debauchery. It was popular with all classes, with game bird shooting and duelling as well rucking and thieving. Man, it sounded ace.
Battersea Park Road
Walking through the park, you miss the fumes and angst of Battersea Park Road, though to be fair, there are plenty of places to stop for a freshener on this stretch. There’s the good looking but otherwise unremarkable Latchmere, the foodie and yummy mummy haunt, the Lighthouse and the cocktail bar, Lost&Co to start with.
The Grove is a pub in Tesco’s car park, with a strong burger reputation and kooky vibes, like its sister pub, The Lord Nelson in Waterloo. Just past it, the Magic Garden competes for your quirky quid with some pretty average beer but plenty of live music in an equally funky setting. The garden canopy shelters the studenty crowd lounging on old sofas under the blankets provided. There’s an intimate little outdoor snug and, for no apparent reason, a taxi.
There was a time when Battersea didn’t have to try to be radical. John Burns formed a branch of Britain’s first socialist party here in 1881. The Borough of Battersea elected John Archer, London’s first black mayor in 1913 and in 1922 elected Communist Party member and Bombay-born Shapurji Saklatvala as their MP. Battersea, however, has been Conservative since 2010.
We turned off Battersea Park Road to take in The Victoria in Queenstown Road, which, while also focussing on grub, has table tennis and pool tables. We hit the wiff-waff. I was feeling pretty good, winning 8 of our 10 warm-points. But once it got serious Half-life thrashed me 11-2.
‘Pool?’ he suggested.
‘You’re alright,’ I mumbled, disconsolately.
‘Now I remember, I have been here before,’ he said. ‘My TV comeback was supposed to be just up the road from here, live on Nuts TV.’
‘I thought you never appeared on telly again, after “the incident”?’
‘I never made it to the studio. I stopped in here for a pint with two of the models and played strip pool until all the balls were exhausted.’
Back on BP Road, we passed the Mason Arms, a solid Fuller’s pub by Battersea Park Station. We had to pass some of them. It seemed like the closer you got to the Power Station and the Dog’s Home at Nine Elms, the more earthy the pubs became, a sense confirmed by The Duchess, a jolly boozer whose USP is that its large windows have the best view of Battersea Power Station – a situation that is unlikely to last, as we’ll hear.
But our favourite Nine Elms pub was Flanagan’s, a wonderful cheap and cheerful old school Irish boozer, once favoured by many of the workers at the Power Station. It’s gloomy, friendly and dedicated to all sport from football to GAA.
We were flagging at this point but we could not miss out on visiting Mondo Brewing’s Tap House, a short walk into industrial Battersea. It was a wise decision. We had three thirds so we could try more varieties. The Dennis Hopp’r IPA was amazing and left you in no doubt why it’s award-winning. We met the owners, Todd and Tom, from Connecticut and St Louis, respectively, bringing some Transatlantic expertise to South London brewing.
Their Willowwacks was noteworthy too. It’s a New England IPA, though the brewing community is busy arguing over whether NE IPA is a thing, or not. Half-life’s contribution to the debate after polishing off a third, was to say: ‘I drink, therefore I am.’
Battersea Power Station
The story of Battersea Power Station, one of London’s most iconic buildings and most glamorous ruin, is best told in Peter Watts’ superb Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. It is a tale of wild ambition, imagination, failure of imagination and ultimately a banal submission to the power of money.
It’s been a location for many films from The Meaning of Life to The Dark Knight and a backdrop for countless music videos, as well as starring with a flying pig for Pink Floyd’s Animals album cover.
From its closure in 1983, proposals for its conversion have been legion. It was going to be a theme park; London’s Alton Towers, or Noddyland, or even a Religious Fun Land. Michael Jackson was said to be contemplating building a fantasy world there. Dreams of giant cinemas, vast conference centres, hotels, shopping centres, managed ruins and a football ground came and went. It hosted the launch party for the blockbuster Batman & Robin, attended by George Clooney, Uma Thurman and Arnold Schwarzenegger.
‘I fucking told you Clooney was here, causing me trouble. I told him once, “You’re George Clooney. You look like me.”’ exclaimed Half-life.
The repeated failures of property developers to see through their plans defeated many powerful men and swallowed millions of pounds. Meanwhile the Tate Modern, converted from another power station designed by the same architect, Giles Gilbert Scott, mocked it from Bankside.
Now Battersea Power Station is slowly being enveloped by a growing plague of flats, of which a sixth will be ‘affordable’, cutting out views of the old dame to the east, west and south. Soon, apart from its rebuilt chimneys, the Power Station will be invisible to the people of Battersea who fought so hard to save it, though not to the people of Chelsea who opposed its construction.
‘They should have turned it into the world’s biggest Wetherspoon’s,’ said Half-life. ‘It’s obvious.’
You can’t go wrong with a riverside pub, can you? They’re all special. Young’s have done a thorough job of jazzing up the glass and steel structure of the The Nine Elms Tavern with some wilful eccentricity but it’s more for the Hoorays than for us, especially in the condition we were in. So we gave it the swerve and went for one last drink on the Battersea Barge, the lovely floating boozer and sister of Tamesis at Vauxhall.
We stood at the bar, awaiting some Ghost Ship, holding on against the sway of the river as it sent us this way and that, though we showed no fear in the face of this inclement challenge to our equilibrium.
‘I know not all that may be coming,’ said Half-life, quoting Moby Dick. ‘But be it what it will, I’ll go to it laughing.’
When we turned, we saw out of the portholes that the river was perfectly tranquil. Our stability had been eroded by some other unseen force. Still it attacked us as we made our way to a table, spilling a trail of beer all the way. We raised our glasses one last time.
‘To Battershee,’ we chorused, before missing each other’s pints by some margin.
More on Battersea in this podcast:
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