I met James at a greasy spoon cafe on Carshalton High Street to line our stomachs and outline the task ahead. The main justification, if ever one is needed for a pub crawl, was to explore what appears to be a leafy country village encircled by urban banality. After enough pints in enough of its locals, would we transcend the A232 between Sutton and Croydon into genuine arcadian bliss?
Oh, and the mighty Carshalton Athletic FC were at home.
One thing stood between us and the football, and that was multiple CAMRA Greater London Pub of the Year winner, the Hope. Specks of yellow met our eyes in every direction from the scarves of travelling Haringey Borough fans, refreshing themselves after the long journey to show their support for the away team. Well, they’d hopped on the Thameslink for a bit, anyway.
The Hope was an early sign of the community spirit we were seeking, awash with pre-match buzz and great beer. The Percolator, a coffee oatmeal brown from Gipsy Hill Brewery, was the perfect first pint. Talking of community, the Hope also happens to be the final pit stop in an annual local tradition called the Straw Jack, which involves a pub crawl around Carshalton, much like our one, only on this one locals follow a man dressed as a haystack before watching him ceremoniously burned. Something I hoped to avoid.
As we necked the last of our café au beer, a bearded man in a tweed three-piece walked towards the bar to refill his personal pewter tankard. As he walked back, clutching a home-made bread roll wrapped tightly in cling film, I jumped to a hasty conclusion that, unlike me, this was not the first time this man had set foot inside the Hope. Here were locals.
Without knowing what to expect, we walked into the War Memorial Sports Ground a few minutes late to immediately witness the Haringey keeper pull off a Gordon Banks-esque save, tipping a point-blank range header around the post and into the cigarette smoke of the away fans. James and I looked at each other in disbelief, then headed for the bar.
A Heineken in a plastic tumbler is a far cry from the Hope, but the novelty of drinking in the stands offset that. We were joined at this point by James’ younger brother, Joseph, and we found some good seats. We soon realised that these seats were right next to the stadium announcer, who after minimal encouragement revealed that he had been with the club since 1984. What the man didn’t know about Carshalton Athletic probably isn’t worth knowing, and as it turned out, neither was most of the stuff he did know.
Our new mate, whose main job it was to read the 4th official’s board on the opposite touchline, was short-sighted. Given his position right next to him, this now became Joseph’s job. Despite merely wanting to tag along to the game with his brother, he’d ended up as the unofficial 5th official. Joseph’s job security hung in the balance as we missed the final substitution while concentrating on an off the ball incident. Eventually, we caught sight of the shirt number. The announcer looked at his team sheet, calmly fired up the Tannoy and uttered the words: Taofiq Olomowewe. Of course it was.
Carshalton upset the odds with a 3-1 victory, putting us in perfect spirits for the next leg of our expedition. The announcer’s final action was to wish everyone a safe journey home and reveal the game’s attendance, which was 378. There were more people in the Hope.
Our provincial jaunt so far linked two cosy pubs via a non-league football match, all connected by green landscapes and narrow streets of quaint houses. The defining factor of the countryside community feel is the hollering of names across rooms at recognised faces, and bar staff that know everyone’s tipple. Not to mention the fact that every September a man walks around the village in a bale of straw getting wankered.
The Sun is where the upper echelons of the hamlet position themselves. The couple behind us watched over a pram as they ate bread and hummus with a side of ‘dukkah’, which is glorified dry-roasted peanut dust.
Over hearty American red ales, we waited for our group to expand, to include those who didn’t want to spend the afternoon identifying substitutes at an Isthmian League Premier Division game. Their loss.
With my group of Carshalton bar pilgrims now doubled in size, I felt like a tour guide. A tour guide who hadn’t done much research – aside from the fact that notable residents of Carshalton throughout the years include John Major, Cliff Richard, the band Mud, and a lady who has drunk nothing but cans of Pepsi since 1954.
It’s also worth mentioning that up the road from The Sun is Wrythe, the capital city of the Empire of Austenasia, a self-declared sovereign state and suburban terraced house, home to time-rich student Jonathan Austen (Prime Minister) and his dad Terry Austen (Emperor). Having neglected to bring passports, we pressed on to our next destination.
The stretch of road between The Sun and The Greyhound is Carshalton’s postcard shot. Our group was quite taken by the road bridge over Carshalton ponds, over which All Saints church towers, with the charming Honeywood Museum on our right. A heron watched on as we headed for the next pub.
The pond is one of the sources of the river Wandle. This positioning at the head of a Thames tributary encapsulates Carshalton’s relationship with London. It’s part of a London Borough (Sutton), yet it doesn’t have a London postcode. The water that stands at the foot of the parish church flows to the City’s carotid arteries, yet still the place contains residents who drink only Pepsi and are self-appointed Emperors of two-bedroom houses.
The Greyhound is a Young’s pub. The beer garden is fantastic in the summer if you like an idyllic view of a glistening pond between a constant stream of cars on a busy road. It’s like watching a VHS recorder flickering on pause. Which, of course, can be magical under the right circumstances.
Our group could be accommodated only by a low table with varying heights of chairs. Peter, who had joined us at the Sun sat on a tall stool, soaring above the low table, which may not have provoked quite so much attention had he not been wearing the strangest leg-wear I have seen to date. Imagine if you will, a pair of tight blue jeans, with leather knees adorned by an assortment of zips. Given the clientele I regularly see smoking outside the Coach and Horses, I became a little more apprehensive than I already was about entering that establishment, slated as our final stop.
A place billed as a wine bar evokes certain preconceptions, none of which I have witnessed as I walk past the Woodman on midweek evenings, butchered karaoke versions of ’80s hits escaping through the windows. Visually, it’s a wonky, low-ceilinged local, but at its heart it’s a Reflex club. It’s like a recently single 35-year-old woman stuck in the body of an 80-year-old war veteran. I’d never been in, and I really wanted to. Unfortunately, this was the stage in the evening when the village community was less than welcoming.
The small porch leading into the Woodman managed to house three large doormen. How and why I have no idea. We walked into what was an uncomfortably busy bar area with nowhere to turn, stand, or queue for a beer (or wine as they so advertise). However, the trio of doormen had taken a disliking to the newly appointed War Memorial Sports Ground 5th official, our young pal, Joseph, claiming he was too drunk, after four pints of beer. Really, they could just smell a non-local.
The absurdity of the situation brought out a resilience in Joseph that I had not seen before, so I grabbed his arm and led him down the alley next to the bar to decide what to do. We could hear the sound of conversation in the Woodman beer garden (wine garden?), so looking up at the ivy and trellis-topped stone wall that stood between us and full completion of the intended pub crawl, my dizzy devotion to the task saw me assume the classic schoolboy bunk-up position with my hands. Just as Joseph planted his foot in my palm, the doorman walked around the corner, his wide silhouette in the dark filling the narrow passageway.
‘What do you think is going to happen if I find you inside that bar?’ he growled.
Again, rather boldly, Joseph attempted to reason with the brute. I looked behind us at the other end of the alley. A closed gate read ‘Private’. Fuck. We had no choice but to walk back towards our new friend. But the gods of Carshalton smiled down upon us and he allowed us to make our exit unscathed.
As Joseph continued to explain why he should be let in, I made the executive decision, in the interests of completing the pub crawl alive, to move on to the last pub and wait for the rest of the group there. What was the last pub? The Coach and Horses. Fuck, fuck, fuck.
Oh well, at least Peter and his denim leather zippy jean trousers were tucked away safely inside the Woodman.
My phone rang.
Peter: ‘Where are you guys?’
Me: ‘They wouldn’t let Joseph in. We’re off to the Coach and Horses. Take your time.’
Coach and Horses
Thankfully, the Coach and Horses wasn’t the unwelcoming, heads-turning-upon-entry pub that it appeared from the outside, possibly because there was nobody in there. In fact, it was the perfect calm retreat we needed after the setback we’d just suffered.
After spilling our frustrations to the friendly barman, we reflected on previous events at a quiet table in the corner, over average beer. We sat appreciating open space to the soundtrack of The Crystals’ Then He Kissed Me on the jukebox, and all was good again.
The buzz of the local football match and the pre and post-match beers, the sun going down over the ponds witnessed through bleary eyes, and even the run-in with the bouncer and seeking refuge in an empty pub, all reminded me of early drinking experiences growing up in Devon. I had felt totally disconnected from Sutton, Croydon and London, and it was a fun diversion to dip into that world again. We’d been villagers for the day; country-dwellers in a London borough.
However, since I left Devon for South London, five years ago, I can’t help feeling a wave of anxiety whenever I realise I’m more than 30 minutes away from a craft beer shop and decent marshmallow porter. Take me home, city roads.