Streetlife: Union Street, SE1

Like our friend Spider, Union Street is short but eventful.

Despite clocking in at less than a kilometre, Union Street offers pubs, theatres, galleries, a paupers’ graveyard, a music college, a park, a foodie hub, and a Travelodge. There are entire towns with less action, which is why we so frequently advise you to Never Leave London.

It was tough picking which end Half-life and I should start our day on Union. Kicking off at Borough meant we’d emerge at Southwark tube, by The Ring, near the Anchor & Hope, the Windmill and King’s Arms. Heaven, basically.

Coming the other way, we’d end up in the beerlands of Borough. Either way, it’s a soft landing.

I chose the former, to make our last pint(s) at the Rose & Crown and our kick-off at a juxtaposition of past, present and future. In front of Palestra, the Futurist office building that houses TfL, stands the Dog and Pot statue replicating a shop sign that Charles Dickens used to pass everyday on his way to work – when he was 12.

Dickens’ Scooby Doo

Our first pint was at the Lord Nelson, the only one of Union Street’s five pubs that we’ve covered before, when Half-life showed me his Waterloo. If anything the Nelson is even more colourful than before, while remaining a pub for locals, students, workers and, according to their warning notice, ‘shitty little bag thieves’.

Half-life took offence at this characterisation, having as he does, the greatest respect for the criminal fraternity.

‘There’s no need for that fucking language,’ he complained. ‘The rich rob from us all day long and they don’t risk getting filled in or banged up. They get a fucking knighthood.’

The not so full Nelson

It’s quite unlike Half-life to get political. He remained on edge until he ended a drug-driven famine with one of the burgers the Nelson is famous for – the Gran Bastardo; boar and pork, with chorizo, cheese, peppers and a fried egg on top, which he washed down with a decent Five Points Citrus Pale.

‘It says here your pint is made with organic Sicilian lemon and grapefruit zest,’ I told him.  

‘It’s not bad, considering it’s got all that shite in it,’ replied Half-life with a boar-tinged belch.

Over the road, next to the Travelodge – previously eulogised on these very pages by Luke Eastney – is the Union Theatre, one of two fringe theatres on this road (the other is the Cervantes, London’s only Spanish language theatre). And next to the Union Theatre is The Charlotte, a new pub to us. 

The Charlotte, sometimes

‘Very nice,’ I said, looking at the clad railway arch and gleaming bar. 

‘Poncey, but it’ll do,’ snarled Half-life, surveying the premium lager crowd. They were clearly office workers drinking at lunch time, so some credit is due. The cricket was on several screens, including one in the beer garden, but we were the only ones interested. 

‘Is Spider at the game?’ asked Half-life, on noticing it was England v Australia. 

‘No, he’s in Buenos Aires, moaning about Brexit.’

‘Who’s she?’

Sometimes it’s best not knowing.

The Charlotte knocks out burgers for £5, Monday to Thursday lunchtime, yet feels more for office than student types. They had Wimbledon Brewery ales but I fancied Neck Oil, given the heat. With no sound on the sport and Half-life shielding himself from the omnipresent CCTV, we only stopped for one.

Across the road is the Union Jack pub. Not that Union Street is named after our suddenly fragile union, but rather for the union of neighbouring parishes. The UJ does seem like a local’s pub, a rarity in Zone 1. You felt the barmaid might give a friendly wink at any moment. The volume was up and the cricket was being given its due attention, alongside a number of hand pumps. Run by the well-loved publican Nolia, the pub trades on booze, music, sport and art, or as I call it: Community.

Hang the UJ

Onward, we passed Gordon Ramsay’s Union Street Cafe, with its indoor olive grove and aperitivos. 

‘Buy one cocktail, get one free, from 4 to 7,’ noted Half-life. ‘Work the room and drink for nowt, innit. Here, you could have got me lunch in there, you cheap get,’ he moaned. ‘I’ve got some tips for him too,’

While Half-life is no slouch in the kitchen, it behoved me to mention Ramsay’s numerous Michelin stars. 

‘Not about cooking. Swearing. The cunt’s a novice,’ before suddenly exclaiming: ‘Where the cock is the Charles Dickens?’

Where the Charles Dickens pub used to be, stands a new, old, Irish boozer. Mc & Sons certainly looks the part, with wooden floorboards and a lovely little snug with its own hatch to the bar. While the first pint was off, it was replaced without hesitation and even Half-life had to admit the staff were lovely – another surprise. He even guffawed when the barmaid called him ‘Half-loaf’.

It was clear there was a bond between the bar staff and the customers at Mc & Sons – the mark of a fine boozer. 

Thai-rish bar

I was a little suspicious of its Irishness at first, but it did serve some Irish craft ale – another rarity on these shores – and has live Irish music several days a week. Serving Thai food threw me, but among the family that run it (and the King’s Arms, The Ring and Jack’s Bar), is an Irish dad and a Thai mum. And, with all due respect, the appeal of Irish cuisine is limited.

‘I dunno,’ began Half-life. ‘I thought you’d be right up for that, as a spud-lover.’

And just like that, I was lost in a potato bar fantasy. 

Across Southwark Bridge Road, the Island Cafe provides a pleasant outside space, wifi and a good value full English, making it the caff of choice for the price-conscious hangover victim. The cafe sits by the entrance to a new chapter for Union Street. Flat Iron Square is a street food market around the railway arches between Union and Southwark Streets, named after the triangular ‘square’ that sat nearby about 200 years ago. It’s supposed to be the first stop on London’s Low Line, a project to open up a walking route along the base of Bankside’s rail viaducts, from London Bridge to the Elephant. 

Square meals

Flat Iron Square has been an instant hit (which naturally Half-life loathes as he hasn’t been able to wangle any freebies yet), with street food from all over the world, plus big screen sports for Wimbledon and the Ashes. You can sit by tables on the astroturf, or take your grub to Tap and Bottle, a grade II listed building that has taps that pour wine, would you believe, though sadly not in pints.

The beer selection at Flat Iron is a disappointment however, so it’s just as well that friend of Deserter, The Mistress, has taken over the Rose & Crown, opposite. Well known in this parish as the assistant manager at The Wheatsheaf at Borough Market during its golden era, The Mistress keeps a fine cellar and radiates the vibes you want in a boozer. Half-life was delighted to see her again, kissing her on the cheek before making a vulgar ‘welcome home’ suggestion that would have unsettled lesser mistresses. 

We followed a peak Plum Porter with a fine Gipsy Hill Tolchock Kviek IPA, a beer fruit salad that took me to my happy place. The pub used to be a little rough at the edges but has been nicely done out, with a cute beer garden at the back and, though it’s only been open a few weeks, has attracted a ready crowd. Having a hostel upstairs means it’s open for breakfast at 9, leaving you perfectly placed for a hair of the dog when they start serving at 10.

The Mistress embarrassed Half-life – not easily done – by telling a story of his behaviour toward her when she was ‘not in a great place’.

‘Shurrup, will you,’ he said. ‘I’m not proud of it.’

After saving her from a date gone wrong, he took her home, prepared her an eight-course meal of small plates and somewhere for her to sleep and… didn’t do anything inappropriate.

The Mistress’ lair

‘He was the perfect gentlemen,’ said The Mistress. 

‘That’s not the man I am,’ he protested.

The Rose & Crown sits on the corner of Union and Ayres Streets. The latter is named after Alice Ayres, who died from injuries sustained in the Union Street fire of 1885, but not before she saved the lives of the three children in her care. She lived above a paint shop, where the fire began. She threw a mattress out of the window, following by her three nieces. Affected by fumes, she fell and died shortly after, at St.Thomas’. She was 25. The last of the children she rescued died shortly after her, but Alice was lauded for her bravery in returning to the fire three times to save others. In 1902 her name was added to the Memorial to Heroic Self-Sacrifice at Postman’s Park and in 1936, this street was named after her. 

‘Fuck me, I’m trying to enjoy meself here,’ said Half-life. 

At the beginning and end of the film (and play) Closer, the main character visits her memorial and adopts her name throughout. 

‘Natalie Portman as a stripper? With the pink wig? Oh yeah. That’s cheered me up a bit. I’m still going to need a pint, though, Dirts, I’m fucking traumatised.’

Alice Ayres was an unusual national hero, not just because she was a woman, but because she was a working class woman. Heroes came from the upper classes, don’t you know. And excelled in science, engineering, or the military. It was said that her memorial was ‘a tool of education of the lower classes’, to inspire them to courage and unquestioning duty. The upper classes didn’t need encouragement to be brave, fearless or put others before themselves, apparently, as demonstrated by the selfless old Etonians that run the country for our benefit.

One more drink and we vowed to make the Rose & Crown our Borough HQ from now on. It was good to see The Mistress home, a reminder that things don’t always get worse. Sometimes they get betterer. 

Rose garden

We stopped for a smoke in Marlborough Sports Garden, mesmerised by an outdoor salsa class that for a moment we thought we’d imagined. The park is named after the Duchess of Marlborough, who 100 years ago chucked in a load of her own money to provide a place of recreation for the people of The Borough.

‘Proving that not all posh people are cunts,’ said Half-life, which of course, is quite true, even if it sometimes seems that way.

I had planned to visit Cross Bones Graveyard, on the corner of Redcross Way, the outcasts’ burial ground and final resting place for thousands of medieval sex workers. But Half-life said, ‘I’d love to mate, I really would. But you know what, fuck right off. I’m going back to the Rose.’

And in the spirit of heroic self-sacrifice, I joined him.


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