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.