A crawl around Camberwell’s pubs

The British Queen has closed. I don’t expect many readers have heard of it, fewer still will have been there; it’s a backstreet boozer of the type that people don’t much care about any more, and a reflection of the changing demographic of Camberwell, and London in general. And it’s hard to make a living in a market where even a prospering pub is worth more as flats. Like its namesake, Boadicea, The British Queen eventually became victim of a new order.

The past few years have seen a lot of Camberwell’s pubs shut down. Just in the last five years or so I can think of the The Bickleigh, The Cadeleigh Arms (my old local), The Prince of Wales, The Brewers, The Bricklayers Arms, The Flying Dutchman (no longer a pub but still active as an events space specialising in kink), The Ivanhoe, and The Corrib Bar (soon to be a legal church, rather than an illegal one?).

But recently things have stabilised, and even seem to be getting better; there might be fewer pubs, but when I first moved here 20 years ago The Grove (now Grand Union) was the only ‘nice’ option, until The Sun and Doves (now The Sun) opened.

It looked like we might lose a further two pubs, The Cambria and The Nags Head, but those fears have been alleviated by the award of Asset of Community Value status to both, making it much harder for developers to shut them down and convert them into luxury housing. I hadn’t actually heard about any threat to The Cambria, but I’m guessing they didn’t apply for the ACV for nothing. It’s one of the few back street pubs we still have left, and it’s a great place, elaborately decorated, with a nice beer garden, terrific events and good food. The Nags isn’t a place I’ve spent much time in but it’s a proper old working class pub with a loyal clientèle, and a lovely building too (it’s an elegant old Truman’s place), so I’m happy it stays.

One pub that I was worried about losing was The Bear, which had been struggling for a while since the manager became ill. But there are builders in there at the moment and it’s set to reopen in the week commencing April 11th under new management—I have heard, although it’s not confirmed, the team from The Fox in Haggerston will take over. The Bear is a great building, with a grand bar in the round, and it’s a freehouse — very important to keep those.

The Grand Union is another beautiful pub that I have fears for. I don’t think I’ve seen it more than half full, and it’s not a place I like to spend much time; the décor doesn’t really do it for me, and neither does the food. The parent chain are opening a ‘concept pub’ in Wapping soon, with an artisan coffee chain and hipster barber inside. Could we see something like that in Camberwell? Or could they perhaps sell it? I think someone with a bit more imagination could do really well in that building in that location.

We have some thriving pubs, of course. It continues to be difficult to get a table at The Crooked Well due to the quality of their food, and the owners have gone on to open up a new bistro, The Perryvale, in Forest Hill. I would say, The Crooked Well’s not much of a place for drinkers, especially when it’s too cold to sit outside. Update: they’ve since informed me that they’ve become a freehouse, and have rearranged the lounge area to better accommodate drinkers. I look forward to seeing this.

Our most recent addition, The Camberwell Arms, is rightly known for its fantastic food, even winning the Observer Food Monthly’s Best Sunday Lunch prize recently. It also has a nice little bar area, and a good wine list.

The Tiger and The Sun seem to be doing well despite their parent company, Antic, having a few struggles in the recent past (that seems to be behind them now, and they’re even opening a few new places, The Hope and John The Unicorn, in Peckham). The Sun may look a little unfinished still, and the beer garden not as pleasant as a few years ago, but their food is good (the Sunday roast especially, and they’ve recently introduced sharing roasts) and they have a decent range of ales on for the committed drinker. The Tiger have switched their menu to be more modern American than modern British, which differentiates it nicely from the others around.

I get off the train from work at Peckham Rye these days, so have less opportunity to visit The Phoenix than I used to, but it’s still a good place; nice beer selection, plenty of seats at the weekend when the commuters aren’t around. It’s unbeatable for sitting outside in summer, and making the most of the late autumn sun (update: they’re currently closed for refurbishment, reopening on 24th March). Another good suntrap is The Fox On The Hill, with its big beer garden featuring lovely views over London. But it’s a place I rarely go (Wetherspoon pubs have their fans, but I’m not one). It was threatened with closure a few years ago because of nuisance in the car park, but that seems to have all gone away. Around the corner, The George Canning has a small but dedicated group of regulars, but I stopped going years ago (it was a pretty decent bistro some… ten years ago, perhaps). Perhaps it has a prosperous future, but I have my doubts when I see it mostly empty every time I pass.

Further down Denmark Hill is The Joiners Arms, and now that I think of it I can’t remember ever having a drink in there. I’m not sure why, seems like a nice place, has lots of live music… I’ve just never been. Odd. I can tell you it has the biggest TV I’ve ever seen. The owner has recently taken over the former Red Cow on Queen’s Road, Peckham, now called The Copper Tap. Up Coldharbour Lane is The Junction, a newish place run by former musicians, with plenty of live music on offer. There’ve been many businesses in this building since The Enterprise closed in 1995, so its nice to see a pub reopen, although I’ve yet to go.

I go to The Old Dispensary quite often, as it’s the best place to watch football. They’ve got rid of a lot of the hardcore drinkers (some of whom could be quite abusive) and it’s now more popular with a younger crowd, running quite a lot of music nights.

But my favourite pub in Camberwell is still Stormbird, because of its excellent selection of beers, its informality, and that you can bring your own food in if you want. It was recently named one of South London’s best craft beer pubs, which is well-deserved. And across the road, The Hermits Cave, still the standard for what a pub should be; warm-to-fuggy, decent selection of beers (and better selection of cider),  no frills, broad clientèle, and weird selection of objects above the bar. My one complaint is that it might be pushing the shabby thing a little too far—it could certainly do with some new furniture.

I’ve excluded the Communion Bar as it doesn’t fit my arbitrary definition of a pub (they call themselves an ‘artisan cocktail bar’), and I’ve only been in there once. So with that said, I think I’ve covered all of Camberwell’s pubs, except perhaps one: The St. Georges Tavern. Like The British Queen it’s a small backstreet pub, of the type people don’t care about any more. I’ve never been, maybe never will. But I hope it carries on even as fashions change around it.

The feature image is by Ewan Munro. Mouth To South also wrote a good article, The All-day Drinker’s Guide To… Camberwell, which is worth a read.


Author: Peter

Long-time resident of Camberwell, author of this blog since July 2004.

33 thoughts on “A crawl around Camberwell’s pubs”

  1. Nice piece.
    Surely that change of use application for the Corrib Bar can’t be granted; it would hardly set a great precedent, although perhaps the precedent has already been set in that regard.
    Back in 2010 or so, one could stroll into the Tiger on a Saturday night sure of finding a table and a relaxed atmosphere; the place frequently seems to be more rammed than that now.

  2. Is the old library site being squatted? Noticed today that it has various posters etc. about gentrification plastered up on the inside of the windows.

    1. I hope not… I’ve nothing against squatting long-term disused buildings (especially in cases like Windsor Walk, where the buildings would have rotted were it not for squatters), but squatting short-term disused buildings is quite different.

  3. Why do squatters only drink tea made with teabags?

    — Because all proper tea is theft.

    Please yourselves… Thatcher, eh?

    [Boos, cheers, whoops, etc.]

    The happening at the South London Gallery today at 5pm, the last of a series to accompany the current exhibition, was a bit limp. There hasn’t been a good show there for some time now, the result of cuts, presumably. Several words came to mind about the current show and its happenings:

    critical theory
    the male gaze

    Whenever artists start mucking about with “text”, they fall flat on their faces.

    The Hermits Cave and Stormbird are both fab. I like to wander between the two, the traffic at night becoming increasingly like spiralling and fractally neon text, the artist — the Dagmarettes always say, “Yeah, we know what kind of artist you are” — increasingly insouciant.

  4. Went past the library the other day. Already the baliffs seem to have been in. There are now heavy duty doors and locks on the building. And lights are off. Guessing the squatters have gone!

    As for old Safa, Mark was right. It ain’t Oregano Leaf. So slightly confused why they had a banner up there. It looks almost identical to Safa, but with a really naff new sign badly placed over the old Safa one, which you can still see. Except this one has flashing lights.

    I can’t imagine there will be any reason why I’d want to visit it to be honest. The menu online looks pretty average and the decor and design aren’t to my taste. I’m sure it will appeal to someone though.

  5. Good round-up Peter. It’s still The Hermits for me, and then The Joiners on a good night.

    You could add the Clarendon Arms on Camberwell New Road. I’ve only been in once, but we had a great time. Not a craft beer in sight (unless Guinness?), but the lager was cold and gassy.

    Squatting the old library with activist posters seems like a good thing. Imagine if that place becomes a starbuck or tesco metros

  6. We had a hilarious Saturday night out, the Dagmarettes parked with their friends. We set off for the pizza place where the much-loved Johanssons used to be. On the way, through the windows of the Crooked Well, we could see some of the top-end couples from our cohort, dressed in elegance, laughing at each other’s repartee. Our noses pressed to the window, our rags blew in the icy east wind. We moved on.

    The pizza palace place was packed with young people, looked very steamy. There was a long queue, too. We were well past meeting each other, so moved on again.

    We went looking for what, we didn’t know, walked all the way up and down the strip, ended up at Indiaah at 59 Denmark Hill, hadn’t been there for years. The chap greeted us warmly, told us his news, asked after us all.

    The clientele were real Camberwell people — this is a proper Indian take-away — there was an NHS staff on a Saturday night out feel about the place. The food was good, the price was right, the cold was banished, replaced with the glow of calories and chilli.

    Let’s hear it for Indiaah and other places that do the job.

  7. “The top-end couples from our cohort, dressed in elegance…”

    Know your place, which in your case, Dagmar, appears to be Indiaah, 59 Denmark Hill.

  8. When we’re on a bus up the Walworth Road, Gabe, and the announcer says, “Bowyer Place… Bowyer Place”, I always say, “Know yer place”. That’s what I thought she was saying, at first. Next announcement, “A bird in the ‘and… is worth two in the bush,” and so on. “Gor blimey… Gor blimey.” “Let’s go down the Strand… ‘ave a banana.” “Come on Millwall.”

    And repeated immediately, but slightly less convincingly, “Come on Millwall.”

  9. The Camberwell Green refurb is coming along. It looks very… municipal.

    Meanwhile, I’m going to keep an ear out for funny bus stop names (beyond the obvious ones, obvs).

  10. Word is it will be a gym, so we can look and and see em pumpin’ iron, like you can look in the pizza place and see em scoffin’ grub.

    Amazing sight yesterday, the Class 37 renumbered 37057 with the original plate D6757 in an old green British Railways livery. This locomotive is FIFTY-SIX YEARS OLD and was pulling one of the mysterious yellow trains with its painted-on scenes from a Berni Inn.

    This is a diesel-electric loco — it should be remembered that the diesel engines power an onboard electricity generator. There is no mechanical connection between the diesel engine and the wheels.

    You can hear a Class 37 coming for miles — its claggy engines are the reason why railfans call them “Tractors”.

    They are something marvellous, guttural and visceral in an increasingly meaningless world.

    1. If you’d read to the end of my piece, Tom, you’d see a link to that very article. 😉
      It was published when I was halfway into mine, so I used it to pick up any pubs that I’d forgotten.

  11. No joke? They normally burn their furniture, there. I hope it’s not too tidy, the new decor. The Phoenix had a lived-in feel, like the Hermits. The Cave is the place to be tonight, for sure. Many’s the time I’ve woken on the sofa with green hair after St Patrick’s night at the Hermits.

  12. On the subject of local pubs, looking to rent a commercial kitchen for a couple of evenings a week for a non extortionate amount. The best chance would be a pub kitchen, pretty well frequented most in the area at some point and it seems a fair few of them don’t serve up grub mid week — The Joiners Arms, The old dispensary, The Hermit (I think?), am guessing in a bid to save costs? Just starting up so also looking to keep costs low, any suggestions of where best to try in the Camberwell area or maybe just outside?


    1. The Old Dip is the most obvious choice, I think; not sure about the Joiners. A bit further out, maybe the George Canning. Not sure if The Hermits has a kitchen, but if they do it hasn’t been used for a while.

    2. Hi Peter, swift response!
      Sure, The O. D, don’t suppose you know the name of the Liverpudlian landlady? Was also thinking about approaching cafes who have some down time in the evening. DHFC are interested in possibly selling some of my pies there — ‘pie & a pint’, it’s just a side line and a bit of fun. Maybe strike a deal with the pub?


    3. Will find out the landlady’s name. You could also try The Pigeon Hole, they do some evening supper club things, and maybe Brewbird Cafe — they have a kitchen, don’t know how well equipped.

  13. The Hermit’s does have a kitchen but I am not sure they are interested in having food on a regular basis. They do food on Paddys day only!

    Stormbird also has a kitchen but again, speak to Hermit’s.

    What about chatting to the new Bear owners? also Nags Head?

    1. Thanks for the tip, I’ll try Hermit’s and Stormbird as they’re nearer to home and work outwards.

    1. You bet, that was the idea. I won an award at Melton Mowbray a couple of years ago. How does this sound — pie and a pint. I took some up to DHFC a few weeks ago which went down a storm.

  14. Wouldn’t it be great if Dulwich Hamlet won best pies in British football? Tomorrow’s crunch game — they may be pigeon bones in the pies — is a must, against Tonbridge. I’m going.

    Caroline Pidgeon the Lib-Dem mayor likely has put round a buckshee newspaper that pretends to be the “Daily Planet” but is her election bumpf. Mistake.

    Excellent spring news — the cherry trees at the front of the Piano Factory on the Peckham Road have not been hammered by the storm. They’re only just forming buds — they will open next week after the storm has gone.

    Something bad hasn’t happened, but something good will happen. This doesn’t sell newspapers, but the sight of the cherry blossom in far-eastern Camberwell is as nice as pie.

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