Roxy said she’d been cooking up a new crawl idea. But what is left for us, I pondered as her name popped up on my phone? Hadn’t we been everywhere in South London? What now? Best ten pubs in a straight line? Boozers you can only get to by turning left?
I answered my phone with, ‘Best pubs near Re-use and Recycle Centres?’
‘No thanks,’ she said. ‘Fancy going clubbing tomorrow?’
‘Clubbing? It’s the year two thousand and… something, Rox.’
‘Suit yourself. Just me and Gail, then.’
‘My mate, Gail Warning. Fancy it?’
‘Yes!’ I said. ‘No!’ I said. ‘You got any molly?’
‘I could get some.’
‘Nah, you’re alright Rox. I’m nearly 40, you know.’
‘You wish. Anyway, I don’t think they’d appreciate E-tards down the Peckham Liberal Club.’
Ah, that sort of clubbing. Day-clubbing.
Have you ever walked past those huge old buildings that have a Courage sign from another epoch, but offer no encouragement to enter? They’re members’ clubs, where the beer is as cheap as fibs and ‘refurb’ means a new snooker table. Liberal Clubs, Working Men’s Clubs, Social Clubs. A mystery to most. A sanctuary to some.
Roxy and Gail had become members of a CIU club and that entitled them to visit any of their 1800+ clubs in the UK and take in their special ’70s-ness, low-price pints, massive function rooms and strong cue-sports presence. I borrowed a card and kicked off our club tour at the Peckham Lib.
I’d been to the PLC before and was aware that the hospitality you receive depends on who is behind the bar, the serious one or the friendly one. Luckily, I spied a mate at the bar on my arrival, so the day was already off to a welcoming start.
‘What the fuck are you doing here?’ snarled Deserter’s new Head of Commercial, Pompey Dunc.
‘What? I’m doing a South London club tour with Roxy.’
‘No,’ he said firmly.
‘No? What do you mean, no?’
‘You cannot write about the PLC. You’ll encourage the tossers. The first rule of the Peckham Liberal Club is…’
‘Right. But you need to have two members to second you to join, don’t you?’
‘So, who’s going to second the tossers?’
‘Well, that’s alright then,’ he said, reluctantly. ‘I’ll have a Guinness. And come with.’
Roxy and Gail duly arrived and Maggie (the friendly one) served us a lovely Guinness breakfast. Maggie assured us that at £3.35 a pint, we were getting the cheapest pint of the black stuff in CIU South London.
I could see why Dunc wanted to keep the PLC secret. Its retro-charm has long made it a beacon for film, TV and video location shoots. We had a full tour, taking in the main hall, with its golden stage curtain and British feel-good movie vibes, the snooker room and the smoking area out back. And it’s only £20 a year to join.
‘I think you’ll find this is the finest club on the circuit,’ said Dunc, after Roxy had declared her love for it. ‘But don’t write that down.’
Below is our top ten, as compiled by myself, Dunc, Roxy and Gail, followed by some honourable mentions, distilled over two days of beer and giggles.
Brockley’s membership has been in a gradual decline for the last dozen years or so, but like Peckham, its authenticity has attracted movie location types. We met a man who could only speak through a hole in his throat and whose son is a screen actor, ‘Or at least he thinks he is.’
Throat Man reckons he’s been in more films than his boy, thanks to his constant social club background presence.
Brockley will soon close for a year while developers build flats on the site and a new smaller and less ’70s club.
‘I hope to still be alive when they reopen,’ he said, having been a member of the Surdoc (Surrey Quays, nee Docks) club for 60 years. Which just goes to show that no matter how old you are, you can still have dreams.
No one batted an eyelid that we had clearly been on it all day when we arrived here. Fair play for allowing four pissed strangers to come in and switch the TV from golf to cricket without much grumbling. Two snooker tables, televised sport, cask ale (London Pride) and putting up with us saw this club climb into the top ten ahead of other candidates.
Surdoc used to be a canteen and social club for nearby dockers. The docks have closed, which, in our view, is all the more reason for a budget bar to remain open.
Neighbours complain of regular disturbances here. A couple of years ago robbers stormed a birthday party armed with a shotgun and a machete. It was much quieter at lunchtime, when we were there. Our only ordnance was stink bombs, which Gail had recently used to clear out several Spoons’ in the West End in an anti-Brexit protest. Thankfully she held her fire on this occasion.
Extra points for the outside space with a view of the Ginger Line going into Surrey Quays, allowing us to combine a pint and a lean with trainspotting.
One of Plumstead’s three clubs, the WMC is big on bar sports. Pool in the main bar is just an appetiser, as the huge back room has eight darts boards, four snooker tables, a pool table reserved for league games only, one for amateurs and Rolling Stones pinball. A club for the serious sports personality.
We experienced reserved service, shall we say, but who are we to disturb a man reading his paper with our demands for beer, a fake Bacon Frazzles grab bag, and more beer (Bombardier)?
As the tenth bar of the day, our judgement may have been somewhat impaired by the time we arrived in Eltham, but we felt very warm towards the place. As is often the case, friendly bar staff help, and Siobhan was not only chatty, she let us help ourselves to sandwiches and millionaire’s shortbread that would otherwise have been dumped.
‘How do they get the millionaires to make this stuff?’ pondered Roxy, shoving in some intensely sweet confection.
‘They’re like bees,’ explained Gail. ‘They just can’t fucking help themselves, the sticky little wankers.’
Who wouldn’t be impressed by the gift of homemade shepherd’s pie, cooked for the pool players who were having a league game and polished off by us, after dropping broad hints and drool at the bar? Not only was it delicious, it was timely, given what we’d just smoked.
It’s a hefty £40 membership for the first year here, going down to £25 for the second, but they have a lot going on, nice staff and not such a grey-hair gang going on.
3. Peckham Liberal Club
It was a great surprise to Dunc that the PLC only came third, but there’s no shame in bronze. Peckham was the place that triggered this trip, a place where the sun hasn’t set on the ’70s yet. A great snooker room and main hall provide a fine option in a part of town that maybe lacks that signature pub. A perfect escape from the pop-up/car park/arcade/railway arch/ football bars in the area. A gem. Shhh.
This one is out of Deserter’s jurisdiction but a must-visit due to its reputation for cask ale. It had either 12 or 14 pumps. I counted them twice so couldn’t be sure. 1/3 pint tasting trays were available for the variety lover. Each amazing pint was £2.80 whether it was a 7% DIPA or a 3.8% pale. Hard to believe, hard to leave.
The Rad – an imposing but beautiful building next to Plumstead Station – is everything you want in a club. Inside, time has stood still, and not in a bad way. It has a snooker room downstairs, plus a table tennis room, so you could really get fit here if the beer wasn’t so cheap (£2.35 for decent cask on Thursdays). And who doesn’t want to be able to say they belong to Plumstead Radical Whiff-Whaff Club?
The bar staff are lovely and there are nice old boys happy to engage with you and talk about the history of the club, that includes a part in the formation of the Labour Party. It used to be a watering hole for workers at the Royal Arsenal and at its peak had 3000 members. Today it has 1000, which is still very strong and despite its size, it still gets busy before (and after, if they win) Charlton home games.
It’s even got great outside space for the good weather, but also a covered area with TVs so you can watch sport outdoors, like a lord.
Beckenham Social Club – scored low on ’70s charm but the hospitality was admirable. Maybloom Social Club (Plumstead) – a new build but a warm welcome, plus at £3.20, the cheapest Guinness of the day.
To Do List
Hither Green Railwaymen’s Club – said to have cask ale, snooker, darts and a fine grass beer garden. Blackheath Newbridge – shows ’70s promise and football on the box. Orpington Liberal Club – not a CIU club, this CAMRA award-winner has regular tap takeovers, beer festivals and live music. A serious omission from our trip.
Times are hard for the social clubs. In the last 30 years, their numbers have halved. Founded over 150 years ago, the London clubs sit heavily on valuable land. They keep prices low in heritage surroundings by virtue of their non-profit status. As old-fashioned institutions, many are not best equipped for the challenges of a competitive market. Female members, for instance, only achieved full rights in 2007, which is really taking nostalgia too far.
They are special places though. We must enjoy them before the property developers have their way with them. Memberships range from £20 to £60 a year and in order to survive, they need new blood. Your blood. Unless you’re not interested in cheap booze in a ’70s wonderland.
Main image, Belvedere image and additional material by Pompey Dunc.