‘I read your piece on Deptford the other day’, said Roxy, sweetly.
It’s so nice when you meet a reader who’s really enjoyed something you’ve written. You can’t help but feel a swell of pride when someone compliments your craft.
‘I thought it was shite,’ she said.
Roxy was about to show me the Deptford she knew. Deptford Fun City Records was named ironically in the 70s, when all the world was grim, but now the punk label seems like a prophecy. Deptford has transformed, not quite beyond recognition, but substantially, in the three years since I wrote about it. It did have a few nice pubs back then, but now it’s become something else, with cocktail bars as well as street drinkers vying for your dollar. It even has a brewery, an essential feature of any self-respecting South London neighbourhood, like running water and discarded mattresses.
Villages Brewery – founded by brothers Archie and Louie Village – sits in a railway arch by Deptford Station, on Resolution Way, and hosts a suitably lo-fi tap room, serving their amazing, fresh beer on Friday and Saturday nights. Roxy noticed they also have a tap for prosecco.
‘Can I get a pint of prosecco?’ she asked.
‘If that’s what you want…?’ said the help.
‘I actually want a pint of the Toucan but I am delighted to know I can get a pint of bubbles from a magic wall.’
We sat outside, sighing at our lovely pints. There’s something life-affirming about drinking in an alley outside an arch. I think it’s the drinking.
Just along from Villages is Buster Mantis, a bar-restaurant named after Jamaica’s first Prime Minister, Sir Alexander Bustamente. The food is terrific. It might be slightly anglicised and you can have a pint of Villages Toucan or Peckham Pale (or, of course, Red Stripe) with your pulled jerk pork and plantain, but it’s a beautiful thing when cultures come together so deliciously.
From September they we will have the Gin and Beer Bar as neighbours, serving 100 gins and Belgian beer, hopefully at the same time.
Across the High Street, Deptford Market Yard is the most visible sign of the changes to SE8. It might be mostly street food in arches, but there’s nothing scruffy about it. The award-winning Little Nan’s Bar – a Deptford institution that’s finally found a permanent home here – is the biggest draw with its kitsch charm and booze in teapots. The lethal cocktails have caused many an unexpected acquaintance with the canvas.
The Yard is mercifully free of chains, with Archie’s, Dirty Apron, Mama’s Jerk and Frankie Goes to Bollywood serving up the eats. The latter offers a pun-tastic marriage of Indian and British staples from the Bacon Naanwich to Bangras & Mash, merging spice and carbs in a way curry and chips can only dream of.
Roxy lead me to Deptford Broadway and The Full Nelson, a tiny bar, guarded by a jolly bouncer.
‘Hold on,’ I said. ‘The sign says “Veggie and Vegan Kitchen”. Are you trying to kill me?’
Apart from dishes named Pulled Dork Fries and Cheesus Christ, the Nelson offered some fine keg beer from Beavertown, Canopy and Villages. The only creatures getting any non-fake meat were two small dogs being fussed over by the punters. Roxy chatted to the bestower of meaty treats, who got straight onto his life story and his fear of nuns, who beat him at school.
‘Did they instil in you a respect for celibacy?’ Roxy asked.
‘Not really, no,’ he said in a soft Brummy accent. ‘I like big tits and big dicks and I don’t much care which.’
He then told her that women were rubbish at giving head, which she almost fell for.
The music was more my era than that of the staff (and therefore brilliant), though the young barman was sporting a pink mohican with leopard-spot sides, plus a black eye.
‘Ouch. What happened to you?’ I asked.
‘Dunno,’ he said. ‘I wasn’t there.’
I fell for the Nelson, for its vibes, beers, sounds and oddbods.
On our way to another bar, we spotted a crowd gathered outside Vinyl. Not only do they sell records (and vegan things), they sell beer too, though after having superlative pints in several bars, bottled Whitstable Bay was a bit of a comedown.
We discovered there was a free gig in their basement (capacity about 15). An avant-garde electronica gig. Visually, Raxil4 is like watching someone with OCD regulating the thermostat. It’s essentially a hairy old dude twiddling knobs in his sandals. Aurally, it presented a set of subtly changing frequencies; dark oscillating dronescapes.
‘I’ll give you dronescapes,’ said Roxy as she dragged me back upstairs, 20 minutes into the first number.
‘Not your cup of tea, Rox?’
‘Don’t get me wrong. I’d give Eno one, but I’d need abstract art and a bag of molly to appreciate that.’
Still, there’s a place for all sorts in Deptford. It got another tick.
Recently Deptford started satisfying arthouse and international movie lovers at the teeny Deptford Cinema, a not-for-profit community venture; the Lycra-clad at London Velo, with its splendid beer garden and cafe, and even fine-dining organic wine types at The Winemaker’s Club, which gets several thumbs up from Brockley Central. This wasn’t the Deptford I knew.
Just round the corner from Vinyl lies the Royal Standard, a formerly crap local, now reinvigorated with some cracking keg beer, a very happy hour and good food. I preferred it to the other back street renovation round the corner, the Brookmill, which, while handsome, with good grub and cask ale, is a little more ‘gastro’ than ‘pub’. Indeed, when we went there for early doors recently, a group were holding a meeting, laptops out, rather than discussing their sexual preferences with strangers. Nice though it is, I felt the touch of gentrification on my thigh.
‘It’s been gentrifucked,’ said Roxy, on spotting a surfeit of caramelised fennel with goat’s curd on the menu, though to be fair, it was a right ol’ rough house before, even if Roxy would have appreciated the open access drugs policy.
The Black Horse represents another pub transformation. It used to be a solid Millwall pub on Evelyn Street, with all that entails, but reopened a while ago with craft beer and sourdough pizza – with all that entails. It still has football on the big screen, so therefore represents the best of all possible worlds.
The old vanguard
Before the above newcomers, someone had to go in first, though you could say Henry VIII, Peter the Great, Christopher Marlowe and Grinling Gibbons already did that in Deptford. But it had a long way to go from its distant glory days.
Trinity Laban (see main image) arrived in 2002, the UK’s only conservatoire of music and contemporary dance, bringing with it award-winning architecture and students. Artists began occupying the studios around a regenerated Creekside. Soon there was a creative and boozy community to complement the locals. Next thing you know there’s a vegan cafe with nice coffee and booze and a network of galleries.
Naturally, the Antic Collective weren’t far behind, with the Royal Albert and Job Centre pubs, both sexy beasts in their own way. The Albert edges it for atmos, plus it has bar billiards, simply the greatest sport in the booziverse.
But Deptford already had some cracking stalwarts, most of whom were mentioned in my earlier, much-maligned, article. The Birds Nest is a treasure for music, art, cheap hearty food and solid left-leaning characters. And The Sun is not tolerated. The beer selection is good but it’s always wise to try before you buy to make sure it’s in good shape, a tip that could save your Aris considerable aggravation.
It’s also very successful. It gets a good crowd despite an unpromising location, see Deserter’s Best Pub on a Roundabout, 2014.
Roxy is used to compliments (she is quite hot) but here it was her odd socks that got her noticed by an ageing punk, to whom she responded:
‘People who pair socks have too much time on their hands.’
The legendary Dog & Bell has changed hands but is still a backstreet marvel, with a well kept cellar (and bar billiards). And it’s almost certainly the only pub in Deptford to take the Daily Telegraph.
We were supposed to meet Half-life at The Deptford Dub Club, but despite him texting: ‘At club. Where the fuck ru? It ur fukin round’ – he was nowhere to be seen.
The Dub Club is held at The Duke on Creek Road and is five-star fun. The Duke is normally a students hang out, but not at this time of year. It wasn’t promising early on. My first pint wasn’t great. There was an old West Indian dude having a snooze and another elderly patron had brought his own cushion. But the sounds from the three selectors and songjay Setondji Spirit were fabulous and by about 10, when Dubplate Pearl was on the decks, the dance floor was filled with teenagers, people in their ’70s and me and Roxy, like we’d crashed a mad, joyful, wedding.
Late on, we headed to the Bunker Club for their Northern Soul night. The bouncers seemed unnecessarily hostile for a dingy basement club but thankfully we weren’t carrying. Once we’d gone through a nondescript door and down some stairs we found a packed dance floor feverishly dancing to raw mid-’60s soul. Unlike the Duke, the tiny club was filled with only young faces, some trying the steps handed down by previous generations, or, more likely, YouTube.
Only one oldster was apparent, sucking up the attention with impeccable period dress from the days of Wigan Casino’s all-nighters. Big baggy flares, a v-necked brown t-shirt with a central beige star, big collar and waist band. He was spinning, flipping, dropping to the floor and bouncing up on his palms before karate kicking the air. He was Half-life, surrounded by acolytes, in his element.
‘Wirral’s chosen few!’ he bellowed, as he escorted two new pupils to enrolment.
And there’s Deptford and more in our podcast:
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