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.


Doing Good, Getting Involved, and Getting Coffee

Two new cafés are joining the burgeoning Camberwell scene, and both offer a social benefit as well as liquid refreshment.

The first is Brewbird, in the former Sun Pizza premises on Havil St. It’s a lovely venue, bright and airy and plenty of seating. I dropped in this week, and can confirm that the coffee is good. Brewbird is the social enterprise arm of the amazing St Giles Trust, and helps ex-offenders and at-risk young people with skills and a vocation, so is worth your support even if you’re not a coffee-lover.

This Saturday (16th January) we’ll be joined by Lumberjack, opening in the former House premises (70 Church St.). Lumberjack are the trading arm of the London Reclaimed employment charity, and train young people in crafting furniture from reclaimed wood and materials. They also sell cakes, and coffee from the Old Spike roastery in Peckham—itself a social enterprise helping local homeless people.

All in all, coffee’s never done so much good for everyone. We should feel proud to have them.

Further changes coming soon: there’s some work underway in the former Safa (22 Church St.), no idea what’s going in there (update: two commenters say that Oregano Leaf pizza are moving there); across the road, the former library is now two vacant units which I’m sure will be snapped up; and The Bear (on New Road) is under new management, which if I’m not mistaken is the team from The Fox in Haggerston. Look forward to seeing that lovely freehouse back on its feet.

If you’d like to be more involved in broader changes to the area, Southwark have a page on their site dedicated to public consultations (here are the currently open consultations for SE5). One that they’re keen to get opinion on at the moment is updates to the play area in Brunswick Park. If you have children and live in the area, they’d like you and your family to fill out a very brief survey to help them plan the changes.

Theo’s Pizzeria

Theo’s Pizzeria opened just over a week ago, but I hadn’t the opportunity to visit until yesterday (Sunday) evening. I dropped in at about 6.30pm and it was pretty busy already, and got progressively busier as I was there. This is great for them, but had a few drawbacks.

The space itself is quite lovely; clean, bright, modern. The layout remains similar to the former Johansson’s, with three main spaces: a dining room, a bar/counter, and a small connecting room. The major changes are the new toilets (three very spacious unisex stalls) and the bar/counter, with the big new pizza oven and a small bar selling a couple of local craft beers. The garden has been spruced up, although it has no outside seating yet.

I had a few niggles about the service. First, we were shown to a seat and told to order at the bar, but when we went to the bar to order we were told it was table service—so we went back to the table to order. We ordered a starter of oven-cooked onion and mortadella, but were brought onion and burrata (it was replaced quickly). At the end we asked for the bill to be brought over, but had to go to the bar to pay as no-one remembered (the guy serving at the counter seemed quite overwhelmed). This is all mitigated by the awareness that the place hasn’t been open long, and they’re all things that can easily be ironed out.

The big question, of course, is: how good is the food? We ordered a Margherita with sausage, and the Camberwell Scotch Bonnet Nduja. Both were very, very good. The dough is excellent, and cooked very well, puffed up and slightly blackened by the wood-fired oven. The toppings were plentiful and tasty; lots of tomato, lots of mozzarella.

This is, without doubt, the best pizza in Camberwell—and you can extend that out to Peckham, Walworth, and the surrounding areas. It’s major competition would probably be Franco Manca in Brixton, and for me it’s not quite as good (and a little more expensive). The two are very, very close, however, and I really look forward to seeing how Theo’s improves in the future—I know from a quick chat with owner Theo Lewis that in the near future there will be a daytime menu featuring panuozzo, a type of pizza sandwich.

Theo’s is a very welcome addition to the area, and I’ll certainly return—I can already see myself buying a takeaway from there and eating it across the road in Stormbird…

Update: Went back again last night (8th November). All the service issues had been ironed out, and the food was great — roasted onion and burrata starter, anchovy pizza main.

Are you going to Camberwell Fair?

Camberwell Arts Festival is over, and jolly fun it looked too (I was only in town for two of the days it was on, unfortunately). But there’s more to look forward to as, after a 160 year absence, Camberwell Fair returns to the Green on Saturday, 25th July, between 12pm and 8pm.

Painting of the original Camberwell Fair

The fair will showcase the cultural diversity of Camberwell, with music on two stages: the Wormfood stage has established artists playing Afrobeat, Reggae (legend Dawn Penn!), near Eastern, Afro-Colombian and more, and the Community stage playing newer local artists.

There will be a market of stalls from local businesses, and food from the Camberwell Arms, the Pigeon Hole cafe, the Pished Fish, and Peckham-based Old Spike coffee roastery.

Entry will be free, but you’re encouraged to register for a ticket, as ticket holders will be given priority entry when things get busy.

You can get more information from the Facebook event, or by following @CamberwellFair on Twitter. There’s also still time to get involved — you can run a stall, act as volunteer, work on the bar, or make yourself useful in a multitude of ways.

On a related note, every Sunday until the end of September there’s a seafood pop-up at ‘a secret Mediterranean courtyard’ (behind the Sun Cafe on Havil Street). Tickets are £25 a pop, sold in minimums of four.

As always, do get in touch if you have any more news of goings-on. You can comment here, email me, or tweet.

Free Film, Cheap Comedy, Prizewinning Photography

This year’s Free Film Festival begins on Thursday, 19th March and runs for eleven days, showing 19 films at 18 venues. There are films for families (The Lego Movie, Frozen), old classics (The Night of the Hunter, Pretty in Pink), documentaries (The Punk Singer, Finding Vivian Maier)… it’s pretty unlikely there won’t be anything to your taste. My recommendation is Two Days, One Night, showing at The Crooked Well, but you can find the full schedule at the FFF website.

On the subject of events, there’s a new comedy club in town. Called Up In Arms, it takes place monthly above The Camberwell Arms (hence the name). I heard that it’s organised by the comedy editor of Time Out, so manages to get some quite well-known names on the circuit — the first one, this month, had Tim Key and Stuart Francis, and next month’s will feature Nick Helm. Tickets are pretty cheap, and available now.

The Friends of Ruskin Park have announced this year’s photography competition will take the theme ‘Park Life’ (how unexpected!). First prize winner will get a year’s membership of the Tate galleries, with cash and voucher prizes also on offer.

Update: The team at Camberwell Arts Festival say:

Plans for Camberwell Arts Festival are underway! Keep 20th-28TH JUNE 2015 free in your diaries. The 2015 Festival theme is: FEAST. We want this year’s festival to be a feast for the senses, a feast for the soul and a feast for the stomach! It’s time to celebrate not just about the diverse range of food that attracts people to Camberwell, but also the cultural feast of art and creativity.

GET INVOLVED! Whether you’re an artist with idea for a commission, you want to be part of the Open Studio weekend, you’re a fringe partner with a event that could happen during the festival and would like marketing support, a local organisation that just wants to be involved, or a local business who would like to sponsor us… get in touch with us.

In food news, The Hill Bakery has opened and is already a huge success — I tried twice on Saturday and they had sold out both times. I’m hoping for a bit of better luck this weekend. Update: I managed to buy a loaf today. It was properly tasty. But they really need to find a way to meet the weekend demand.