There’s something about Herne Hill on Lambeth Country Show weekend. Something unhinged, as if locals remove their reserve, like a fine cloak, fold it neatly and then douse it in kerosene, set it alight and snort the ashes.
I should have known something was up early doors on the Saturday when I was making my way down Milkwood Road towards Brockwell Park. A woman on the other side of the road waved and called over, ‘Can I touch your beard?’
I smiled and nodded my assent, before she added, ‘With my vagina?’
It was 11am.
I was meeting an extended crew at the Country Show but Roxy and I had thought it wise to line our stomachs first at one of Herne Hill’s cafes. There’s a fine selection now, a glut even, including Blackbird, Sesame, Mimosa, plus newishcomers, The Roome, The Parlour and the Kitchen Counter (run by food blogger and author, Deliciously Ella).
I wish them all luck, but also realise how tough it’s going to be for them to turn a buck with WiFi nomads like me ordering a pot of tea, firing up the laptop and sitting there all afternoon, staring into space.
The Kitchen Counter is notable for some esoteric offerings. ‘Granola and oat mylk’ may sound odd (particularly when you first read it as ‘cat mylk’, as I did), but when many so-called health foods are filled with sugar, salt and other pointless additives, there is a space in the market for food made with unprocessed plant-based ingredients. But egg, bacon and chips it is not, and today was not a day for mucking about.
When I arrived at the ever-dependable Steve’s on Norwood Road, Roxy and her mate, Bee, were already tucking into a fried breakfast with gusto, albeit a veggie one.
‘Where’s the bacon?’ I said.
‘Healthy, innit?’ said Roxy, waving a chip butty at me.
We watched the fair cranking into action in the park across the street and enjoyed the excited buzz of people passing by on their way to the Show or standing about necking their tinnies. No alcoholic drinks were allowed to be taken in this year, but that was OK because we were heading directly for the Chucklehead stand, at which flagons of finest Devon cider could be bought. This delicious 7% scrumpy has become synonymous with this weekend – and with getting beautifically wazzockated.
Brockwell Park is a jewel in Herne Hill’s crown, a shimmering emerald, one of the finest parks in London, with a terrific Art Deco Lido at which, not so long ago, Half-life introduced me to the concept of a spa day. But today it was transformed into a country festival, its lush green hill buried beneath stalls and marquees, people and barnyard animals.
We lurked at a table on the ‘Village Green’, eventually annexed it and spent the afternoon drinking and chatting, laughing and smoking. Ordinarily, you might see small pockets of people in the park furtively puffing on a joint, but on Country Show day the smell of marijuana pervades the air. Brockwell Park Cannabis Fair may be long gone, but its spirit smoulders on.
Once the Country Show was done we headed, in time honoured fashion, over to the Half Moon pub. When I first wrote about Herne Hill, three years ago, the Moon was closed. Freeholder, Dulwich Estate, tried and failed to get the upper floors developed into private residential accommodation, without a care for the future of the pub downstairs. Thankfully, Southwark Council put a stop to that and after further endless, piss-taking delays, Fuller’s were finally allowed to take over the lease of the pub.
As we predicted, there’s no longer any live music, nor TV sport, but they have made a decent fist of the refurbishment, to be fair. Despite the addition of a restaurant, the pub bits are still reassuringly pubby, and the gardens are a sensation.
How lovely it was to see it restored to its former glory now, filled with revellers and encircled by people still finishing their flagons of Chucklehead. I bumped into more old friends, introductions were made and conversations ebbed and flowed as new friendships were forged. And perhaps more. A striking, feline young woman with strong eyebrows and green eyes approached me.
‘Hello. I saw you before. Your beard looks like my pussy,’ she said, by way of introduction. Odd. Did she mean long-haired and flecked with grey?
‘That’s funny,’ I said, ‘You’re the second woman today who -’
‘I want to fuck your cock up,’ she interrupted.
‘I – beg pardon?’ I said. She moved in closer, cutting off Roxy and co.
‘I want you. I want to do things to you,’ she breathed.
I wondered how much Chucklehead she had consumed. Perhaps she couldn’t see straight. But her eyes held my gaze.
‘I’m perfectly serious,’ she went on, those malachite orbs reaching into my soul, not to mention my trousers. ‘You can do whatever you want to me and I will fuck your cock up.’
I wished she’d stop saying that. Where was Half-life when you needed him? He would have happily led her by the hand to the nearest skip and indulged in some proper cock fucking-up.
‘Let’s have a drink about it,’ I said, and we went inside.
At the bar I wondered momentarily if she might be employed by the Half Moon as some sort of fluffer to take your mind off the prices. 30 quid for four drinks? Christ. Back outside I handed Roxy her wine.
‘Who is that girl?’ she demanded.
‘I don’t know. A friend of Tina’s, I think,’ I said.
‘I’m all for female emancipation,’ said Roxy, ‘As a feminist, I believe we have the right to be as weird as blokes. But that’s… predatory. What if I was your girlfriend? I mean, I want to fuck your cock up?’
‘Can everybody please stop saying that,’ I said
‘What does it even mean?’ said Roxy
‘I’m not sure,’ said Bee, ‘But I imagine it would leave it awful sore.’
‘Don’t worry,’ said Roxy, putting her hand on my arm, ‘We’re not going to let her fuck your cock up.’
‘You could give her 10 minutes,’ I said, and Roxy made a face.
With that, I was whisked away from the scene of possible cock fuck-uppery, over the road to Herne Hill’s piazza, by the station. Here we joined the throng outside Milkwood and The Commercial before an extended nightcap in the excellent Off The Cuff, which has stepped admirably into the live music breach left by the closure of the Half Moon’s stage room.
Every Sunday in Station Square, as it seems to have become known, is a fine street market that has put Herne Hill on the weekend map. Indeed, I remember Mrs Raider and I sitting outside Pullens (now Llewellyn’s) some 10 years ago when a young couple arrived, interrogated a guide book and sat down at the next table. They were speaking French. I’m pretty sure that before this point the only French that had been spoken in Herne HIll was by au pairs. But these two were tourists.
‘Remember this moment, babe,’ I said, with the wisdom one attains from a half bottle of Happy Hour wine. ‘This is the moment when Herne Hill “came up”.’
These days, strolling through Herne Hill Market, you hear every language in the world, all babbling and rabbiting and hollering and standing in the way as you’re trying to get past, to the pub. Actually, that’s not true. I always stop off at the Wham Bam van to remind myself that I could, if pushed, live as a vegan.
But when I awoke on this particular Sunday, I was in no state for the pub, let alone a multi-lingual al fresco retail experience. Instead I sat on the sofa for a solid eight hours, stroking my beard and lowing softly. I had some gaps to fill if I was going to do a Herne Hill write-up justice, but they would have to wait until Monday, when my liver had earned its keep.
After a restorative curry, some Elgar and even a glass of Barolo, I awoke ready for action first thing on Monday, about noon.
First stop was the handsome Prince Regent, opposite the Lido, renowned locally for its kitchen. I sat out front in the sun and enjoyed a lovely cold pint of Liška, a cask lager from Charnwood Brewery, Loughborough. At the cavernous Florence I had a disappointing half of Canopy’s Pale Ale, which was odd because whenever I have it at the Canopy Beer Co tap room, just over the other side of Norwood Road, it’s bloody delicious.
Canopy has the edge over the other local brewery tap, Bullfinch, for me. It’s more ramshackle – like they only just thought about opening it up yesterday – and the prices are a bit easier on the wallet. But, you know, why do I have to choose, when I can go to both?
Next, I found myself taking up a familiar position outside the refurbished Commercial in Station Square, where I enjoyed a pint of St Austell’s Skipper and indulged in a favourite pastime – watching frazzled people coming home from work via Herne Hill Station.
At the table next to me someone sparked up a blunt, a woman started laughing hysterically and a man in a dress stopped by to sing Mamma Mia. Ah yes, these were my people, still enjoying the weekend.
Feeling peckish, I picked up a menu and, aware of The Commercial’s ability to somehow cock up any given order, ordered the simplest thing on offer: A bowl of nachos. Surely even they could get that right. But no, instead of the promised salsa my nachos arrived topped with a diced tomato. This country. Perhaps we don’t deserve Europe.
I was about to sample Lewellyn’s, the pared back, modernist update on former Herne Hill favourite, Pullen’s, when my friend Mel appeared and I accompanied her to the Half Moon instead, where she was meeting a chum.
‘I hear you almost had your cock fucked up on Saturday,’ she said, as we passed some schoolchildren. News moves fast in this town. Almost as fast as the women.
Eating-wise, Herne Hill has decent options, with old favourites Prince Regent, Lombok and Cafe Provencal now joined by Lewellyn’s, Saray, Milkwood and, of course, the Half Moon itself, where I elected not to eat as I thought it would only encourage them. On my first visit to the Moon when it reopened I had been accosted by an overkeen member of staff who’d taken it upon himself to fill me in on how poor the music scene had been there before it closed, and how much better the restaurant was going to be for the local community. As someone who attended the open mic nights regularly and thoroughly enjoyed them, I bit my tongue, counted slowly to ten and then told him to fuck off out of it.
When Mel left I had some time to kill before Half-life was due to arrive and decided to try the hot-sounding pizza place, 500 Degrees, at the top of Dulwich Road. Bloody good it was, too. It isn’t quite a Theo’s or a Franco Manca but, after all, where is?
‘Oh, I like that,’ said a man to his companion, pointing at my beard. ‘Like an ageing Olivier Giroud.’
‘Or, you know, when they found Saddam Hussein,’ said his friend.
‘Can I touch it?’ said the first man.
‘Go ahead,’ I said, hoping he didn’t mean with his cock.
‘Oh, yes, I could work with this,’ he said, and handed me a card to his salon. ‘Promise me you won’t shave it off before I’ve had right good go on it.’
‘I promise,’ I said.
At length, Half-life bowled up, finished off my capricciosa and launched into a long monologue about an idea he was working on for a film that would ‘take porn mainstream’.
‘Your beard’s fucking ridiculous, by the way,’ he said. ‘Doesn’t it make you hot?’
‘Oh, yes,’ I said, with a funny little smile. ‘It makes me hot, alright.’
UPDATE, JULY 2018
The Kitchen Counter is now closed, as is Milkwood. The latter has been taken over by Brixton pizza favourite, Agile Rabbit, meaning there will soon be four pizzerias within 22 seconds of each other. How much pizza can we eat, I wonder. Actually, now I think about it, fuckin’ loads, isn’t it?
The Milkwood site, formerly The Poet and before that, Jazz on the Hill, Bar 216 and Escape Bar And Art, is widely considered locally to be accursed. Let’s hope the Rabbit is lucky as well as spry.
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Image credits: Chuckles by Billie Mae Ukairo I; other photos by the author