Streetlife: Tower Bridge Road
Sometimes your body tells you it’s time to take a day off. God knows, you’ve put in the hours. You’re first in and last out, just like the Marines.
So I listened to my body and heard it say: ‘For pity’s sake, man, no pub today.’
It was unfortunate that this point coincided with my plan to spend an entire day on Tower Bridge Road (TBR), with all its interesting watering holes, but successive unscheduled booze-ups had led me to look at the bigger picture. I wanted to to be able to see my youngest grow up and, one day, buy me a pint.
I was drawn to tour the road as it’s by our famous river, headed at one end by one of the most iconic bridges in the world. And yet it has been a shabby thoroughfare for much of its life, permanently clogged with traffic and devoid of the grandeur of the bridge that lends it its name. It’s a road that doesn’t add up.
Half-life had already made it clear he would not be joining me on a teetotal tour. ‘It’s unnatural,’ he cried. ‘A rank abomination.’
So I was surprised to bump into him outside London Bridge relatively early in the morning as I made my way to Tower Bridge. His red-rimmed eyes told me he was still up, not up early. He was coming down and being visited by that fearful hunger that’s left behind once the fast drugs have worn off. At least he could join me for the most important meal of the day.
‘Got any liver?’ slurred Half-life.
‘Unless you can do me a transplant, yeah. With bacon, two eggs, mushrooms… I dunno, whatever you want.’
‘You’re right. Mushrooms are not a vegetable, are they? They’re a funghi,’ he said. ‘Like me.’
She looked at him like he’d just shat in her hand.
‘I’m a fun guy,’ he persevered.
‘Take number. Sit down.’
A breakfast fit for a pissed king ensued. Satisfied, I thought we were about to part, when Half-life said, ‘You’ll be wanting a coffee then. Let me show you round,’ and started marching towards the bridge.
Unfortunately, he marched straight into The Pommeler’s Rest, the local ’Spoon‘s.
‘Pint of Bow Bells, pal,’ he told the barman before turning to me. ‘You want a coffee, yeah?’
‘Make it two pints.’ My day of abstinence was in tatters by 10.30am.
‘£3.50 a pint! It’s £2.35 at my ’Spoons. You’ll have to get this one, Dirts.’
We settled in with the other morning imbibers, long since shorn of shame. They’re such regulars I’m surprised they’re not carpeted. Truman’s orange and lemon infused pale ale was quite delicious, even at that time of day. So delicious in fact that we had to have another to take us to opening time at The Bridge House, London’s only Adnams pub.
The Bridge is of a traditional bent and looks after its beer with love and care. At 11.30 it boomed with Half-life’s tales of a night before that had yet to end. But aside from his voice, it was too quiet for him, so it was serendipitous that a lovely pint of Ghost Ship took us right up to opening time at The Draft House.
I make no apologies for liking The Draft House chain. The beer is excellent, the staff are lovely and, as I’ve mentioned before, having thirds of beer means you can take a punt on a mad motherfucker, like Morning Star – a French Oak Vanilla Porter clocking in at 7.1%. Madness. But only a third of madness.
Now I felt immortal.
Implausibly, a Twitter poll of Deserter readers found that coffee was their second favourite drug, after booze, so I was duty-bound to find a recommendation. The main contenders were: Hej, the Scandi-inspired cafe; Sobo, an old favourite; and Machine, the bike cafe and repair shop. All are excellent in their own way.
Machine is pretty groovy. It’s cool yet welcoming, sorting out your ride for you while you wait with a fine cup of java. But I went for Hej, because, well, Sweden. Plus it was the nearest to the churchyard where we accompanied the caffeine with some herb. Half-life had a disco nap on somebody’s grave, as I dozed in the sunshine on the grass, as happy as pie.
Speaking of pie, even though it felt like we’d only just eaten, Half-life was starving again, probably as a consequence of not eating at all the day before. He was even prepared to shell out £4 of his own money for pie and mash at Manze’s. I was almost tempted, but not having a steak & kidney option still chafes with me in what claims to be London’s oldest pie and mash shop.
It does have a proper Bermondsey vibe though and also attracts visitors eager for some authenticity, and possibly eels.
Manze’s (est. 1902) is a striking example of the old rubbing shoulders with the new, being next door to Lechevalier (est. 2017), a wine bar that offers cheese and charcuterie along with exceptional wine. Manze’s looks like it will always thrive, but I hope their neighbour does too. Along with the other food options on TBR that include Indian, Lebanese, Turkish, Japanese, Argentine, Chinese and Spanish, it gives us what we love about London – the world on our doorstep. Posh options and meat in pastry options, for when you’re minted or when you just need spud with a bit of animal. Long live le London.
Beer we go again
Over the road is the The Other Room Beer Bar. A lovely little place, it is essentially a micropub, without casks. You might connect it to the new Bermondsey, but there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s got taps that represent the Bermondsey Beer Mile, which is only right and proper. And Bermondsey’s ale explosion only echoes the long history of brewing in the area.
It’s perfect in the afternoon for a quiet drink and simple grub and has deck chairs and tables outside so you can take in the sunshine and pollution. It’s owned by Joe Lowe, the son of the artist, Jeff Lowe – known to the artists of Forest Hill’s Havelock Walk as Lord Havelock – and his business partner.
Between The Other Room and The George lies a very odd collection of shops. You’ve got a beer bar, a bookies, a charity shop/food bank, a thai massage, a mountain climbing shop and a pub. Half-life had a go in all of them. He was happy in three, baffled in two and ejected from the other one.
A food bank, though? Three miles from Buckingham Palace. It’s like a lump of coal in London’s crown.
The George is a throwback boozer and although it’s a locals’ gaff, tourists and strangers are also welcomed. It’s sort of the opposite of The Other Room, but, like Manze’s and Lechevalier, we need them to co-exist. What’s wrong with liking them both? You can’t make me choose. I won’t.
Some would call it a ‘proper pub’, yet it’s odd that the modern version is the one with the great beer. The George has Courage Best, which is OK-ish, plus Sky Sports, which is welcome, as it was the only time we’d see it all day. I recall many years ago watching England v Switzerland in there with England 3-0 up and Half-life leading a chorus of, ‘You can stick your Nazi gold up your arse.’
It can get a bit raucous at the weekend, but only in a knees-up kind of way. The music gets loud, the punters get louder, but the overwhelming sound is that of laughter.
My move towards temperance was going really well. Thoroughly enjoyable. The only trouble was I was six pints down and Half-life was braying for more. The Bermondsey Arts Club was just opening so it made sense to us that a cocktail would lively us up. Housed in an old public toilet, the BAC has undergone a thorough and tasteful Art Deco makeover. A gay friend, Roberta Slack, loves the place but remains sad that you can no longer get pulled off by a passing tradesman. You can get fine aperitifs though. Half-life had one with absinthe, benedictine and lillet blanc, while I was naturally drawn to one called South of the River (sloe gin, lemon, sugar and prosecco). If my missus was the type of gal who preferred cocktails, this is one toilet I’d be taking her to.
The BAC is also owned by Joe Lowe and pal, who in addition have an interest in Peckham’s Bianca Road Brewing, recently relocated to Bermondsey.
Now we were ready to take on the world. Instead, we tried to get into another subterranean bar – Bump Caves, underneath The Draft House. Unfortunately it was closed, despite signage to the contrary. Though gutted, we were at least in The Drafty, where we consoled ourselves with a pint of Juicebox and where Half-life proposed matrimony to the barmaid.
‘So when we getting married, love?’
‘Sorry, my diary is all full up,’ she told him with a smile.
‘The end of days.’
‘Are we ever going to eat?’ moaned Half-life, who fancied tapas at Ole Navarro. The trouble was that was right down the Bricklayer’s Arms end of TBR – a good mile away – and our mode of transport could best be described as a discombobulated slalom. We made it as far as Hasan’s Steak and Kebab.
‘Look at this!’ said Half-life. ‘Steak and kebab. That’s posh, that is, clart.’
Hasan must be about 200 years old and can still be found pottering slowly around his shop, local legend that he is. He is selling up to, erm, Mr Lowe and his pal, though. They are, by all accounts, a couple of super nice guys, trying to do exciting things in SE1, but it’s hard to imagine them running a cocktail bar and a kebab shop, so I expect further changes to the character of Tower Bridge Road. There’s talk, for instance, of a US-style diner, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it is not a kebab thing. It struck me too that the liveliest places I’d been in all day were Manze’s and The George.
Anyway, it was my first kebab in years and joyous was my shish. If I’d been sober I would never have considered it, which just goes to show sometimes your body knows nothing. Though that didn’t stop it shouting its message again the very next day.
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