The all-day drinker’s guide to… Camberwell
February 7, 2016
Camberwell, once a rural retreat with a spring sought out by the lame and infirm, still provides plenty of healing liquids in pubs ranging from scruffy working man’s boozers to subterranean cocktail caverns. The parish church in Camberwell is St Giles, the patron saint of cripples and mendicants, and, particularly at the crossroads at Camberwell Green, there’s still an itinerant, derelict air from which the pubs of the area provide welcome relief.
Nag’s Head|The Phoenix|The Fox on the Hill|The Cambria|The Junction|The Sun|The Joiners Arms|Communion Bar|Hermits Cave|Stormbird|The Crooked Well|The Old Dispensary|The Bear|The Camberwell Arms
There’s still a Hallowe’en Igor figure by the front door to scare off the unwary. You can’t just creep into this pub. You’ll be looked up and down, appraised and very probably thrown into the bus-choked Camberwell Road if you’re marked down as a ‘yuppie’.
It sports a beautiful tiled exterior and original Truman’s signage but, with its red drapes and frosted glass, there’s a siege mentality to this pub and no wonder – this is a tatty old school pub where the locals will tell you what’s wrong with London, particularly with the influx of money to the areas they’ve lived and drunk in for generations.
A campaign to ‘Save the Nag’s Head’ is painted across the windows. The lease is up and someone’s made a better offer (as I’m writing this, I’ve just read that the Nag’s Head has been made an asset of community value, and may yet escape the developers’ axe).
Within minutes of arriving, I had been quizzed, in a very friendly fashion, about where I was from, been challenged to a game of pool, listened to an 80-year-old Dubliner’s stories about his national service in Egypt, introduced to the pub dog Bez, which no-one knew who owned but they all took turns to take him home, bustled over to the fire and told, “No offence, but these fucking yuppies…”
So a chatty crowd, from 8-80. Everyone wore a hat or had no hair at all, and no-one sat down but clustered around the bar. The only women were behind the bar and a couple of young girls sat at the back of the pub, eating crisps with no-one paying them any attention, or they anyone else. A far cry from middle-class pubs where the kids are indulged and allowed to run riot.
This sign in the ladies gives an idea of the locals laissez-faire attitude to paying for their drinks.
There’s a pool table and a surprisingly attractive beer garden. It might look fearsome, but take courage and push through those doors – you may just have a great night.
Nag’s Head, 242 Camberwell Road, SE5 0DP
Arriving in Camberwell by train, the thirsty punter doesn’t have to go far to get his first drink, as the old ticket office of Denmark Hill rail station has been converted into The Phoenix, named because the pub on this site rose from the ashes of a devastating fire at the station in 1980.
The smug pleasure of your pint is heightened as termite-like commuters on their way to Bromley South or Clapham Junction stream past the windows behind the bar down to the platforms underneath. At the front, on an elegant Italianate smoking terrace, with views of the railway bridge and King’s College hospital and its Fetal Medicine Unit a stern caveat to lung and liver punishers.
It’s a big pub with stripped wooden floors, exposed brick and pipework and scuffed railway benching, decorated with middle aged boozers, pram-pushing families, purple orchids and gilt mirrors. There’s a mix of furniture, including salvaged big clunky tables, low slung sofas and dining tables. Arched windows let in plenty of light.
A blue plaque marks the pub’s status as Evening Standard Pub of the Year – from 1993, mind. A massive railway clock hangs from the centre of the ceiling but unlike for hapless commuters, it’s stopped at 2.20 – time for another one then. One Inch Punch from Newport brewers Tiny Rebel and the mighty Sierra Nevada goes down smoothly.
The Phoenix runs Tappy Mondays where you can presumably buy Pils, thrills and bellyaches. All draught beer and real ale has one pound knocked off apparently, and there’s a pub quiz on Wednesdays. And on Fridays you can order three small plates and a bottle of wine for twenty quid.
The Phoenix, Windsor Walk, Denmark Hill, London SE5 8BB
The Fox on the Hill
1930s pub custom-built in manor house style, low ceilinged and toasty with three log fires on the go, now owned by Wetherspoon. Snake your way round the bar of this labyrinthine pub, past snug booths and benches, stain-glassed nooks and crannies, areas where kids are barred, out to a sun-trap conservatory and a spacious playground where kids aren’t barred but should be, and back to where you started.
On the way, I bumped into a coachload of fans from Yorkshire semi-pro club Guiseley AFC who were putting them away in preparation for their second round tie (FA Carlsberg Trophy) against local bladder-kickers Dulwich Hamlet. At the bar was a man dressed as a threadbare lion, another dressed as Captain Birdseye. I was unsure which team they were supporting, or if that’s just the way Wetherspoon people dress at the weekends.
When I imagine a Wetherspoon pub, I imagine a man shovelling down a full English breakfast with a pint of beer. It should be on Tim Martin’s family crest. On your way through the pub you’ll see the photos and descriptions of people of local and historical interest – Samuel Johnson, Thomas Wyatt, Havelock Ellis, ‘the apostle of sexual revolution’, all of whom I can imagine carousing and complaining about their hash browns in a tavern on this site. I cannot imagine that the most famous of them all in these parts, Victorian art critic John Ruskin, a man supposed to have been so shocked by the sight of his wife’s pubic hair on their wedding night that he had the marriage annulled, would drink here, or indeed in any Wetherspoon pub. I mean, have you seen what goes on at kicking-out time in England?
Ruskin Park is just over the road, but you can’t order Heineken there, and you’re likely to get a helicopter transporting trauma victims to King’s hospital landing on your picnic blanket and blowing away your sausage rolls. A better option is the park-sized front garden at the Fox. It’s reputed to be a burial site for plague victims, but isn’t every bit of green space in London? A statue of a fox, sadly presented without a local child’s head between its jaws, looks shyly away from the cityscape of skyscrapers and cranes.
The Fox on the Hill, 149 Denmark Hill, SE5 8EH
Coffee-slurping mums and kids in muffs nudge up against foul mouthed workmen and hipster types and there’s plenty of room for them all at the grand, padded horseshoe-shaped bar at The Cambria.
It looks like a pub by Laura Ashley with chandeliers, plush patterned wallpaper, sprays of flowers, candlesticks and big mirrors. A tangle of fire escapes overlooks a secret beer garden with sheltered smokers’ area festooned with lanterns and leaves to the rattle of trains through nearby Loughborough Junction station.
Like the Nags Head, its polar opposite, The Cambria has also been listed as an asset of community value since November 2015, which means parched Camberwell residents won’t be trudging down to the off licence anytime soon. (Well, maybe after kicking out time.)
The Cambria, 40 Kemerton Rd, SE5 9AR
Jazz-dad-pad living room crammed with hip customers, old sixties/seventies furniture, shelves of old vinyl and framed Steven Appleby cartoons.
Copper Top beer and hot spiced apple juice with rum are taken as seriously as the coffee (from Bristol based roastery Extract) in this bar run, as they say, “by musicians for musicians”. There are jazz bands or jams on five nights a week.
An decadent, dangerous menu, handily displayed on a VDU above the bar includes truffled macaroni cheese and deep-fried Snickers bars.
The Junction, 171 Coldharbour Lane, SE5 9PA
Formerly the Sun and Doves, is run now by Antic, which takes care of the Tiger to the north end of Camberwell too. Enjoy a cosy open fire and a modern British mix of quirky surroundings to get mullered in. It’s dark when we get there, but inside it’s glimmering with a log fire and the shiny drunken eyes of its young clientele.
Reports of the staff’s infamous lackadasicalness were exaggerated on this occasion – pints of Double Dark and Winter Warmer were fetched rapidly. There’s the usual modern British mix of quirky Edwardiana (sewing machine, Bakelite radios, etc.)
A roof support acts as a kind of maypole around which frenetic drinkers whirl. The restaurant area to the right of the bar has panelled walls covered in gloomy portraits and is overhung with an impressively decaying roof.
The Sun, 61-63 Coldharbour Ln, London SE5 9NS
The Joiners Arms
Ever wondered where the hell your number 148 bus is? Wonder no longer. Its driver and maintenance crew from the nearby Camberwell bus garage are propping up the front bar of the Joiners. Here, a splendid original tiled mural implores drinkers to ‘Join Truth with Trust’ (a tall order anywhere, let alone in Camberwell) and faces off with a massive soundless TV screen.
Despite the dried flowers, candlesticks and saffron gin on display, behind the bar, this is a pub that remains solidly ungentrified. A large glass front, overlooking Denmark Hill is framed by marketer-recommended drinky quotes (eg. old classic ‘When I read drinking was bad for you, I gave up reading.’). A professional pic of the bar and its drinkers is blown up on the wall and there are boxing pictures to remind careless student drinkers not to get too out of line. It’s handily located next to Camberwell institution Pesh florists, so you can buy some apologetic flowers for your partner on the stagger home.
In the back bar, a younger crowd congregate around a pool table, piano and stage. Here, there are shelves of books and a typewriter in a half-hearted ‘Library’ section but punters seem more interested in the ‘Liquid Cocaine’ shots on offer. Behind this bar, as if in the ninth circle of hell, a gaily muralled but damp and unlit beer garden of slatted box seating forms a half-prison, half-sauna.
The Joiners Arms, 35 Denmark Hill, Camberwell, London, SE5 8RS
Dark, low ceilinged, religiously-themed cocktail bar beneath the Church Street hotel and its Angels & Gypsies restaurant. You can bring your drinks down from the restaurant, although over-eager staff may try to charge you for them again when you leave.
This the sort of sunless, secluded and hysterically idolatrous place to conduct affairs or conspire gunpowder plots. Irreverent stained glass portrays great saints such as Bowie and Jagger butted up against Christ and the apostles. In one picture, Samson, wielding the jawbone of an ass, slays a thousand Philistines. After a few cocktails here, I felt I was capable of doing likewise.
I enjoyed being slapped about the chops by the ‘Likkel Rascal’ containing Appleton Rum, Kraken, fresh Jamaican sorrel, pineapple, nutmeg syrup, orange juice and freshly cut sugar cane. The controversial ‘Grass Arena’ bev was inspired by John Healy’s tale of homeless alcoholism and chess – Carlsberg Special Brew, chilly infused Deward’s whisky with home-made cranberry syrup and Buckfast tonic wine. Maybe I would have stuck with church if they’d let me have a sip of that at communion every Sunday.
Communion Bar, 29-33 Camberwell Church Street, SE5 8TR
A Camberwell institution for serious drinkers. I drank in here for three years, in hope more than expectation of becoming a local and the bar staff cracking a smile at my entrance. Judging by some of the locals there, I would have had to do another ten years and a hundred grand in the same seat before receiving an offish raise of the eyebrows.
So why did I while away my time here so religiously? The building’s situation helps – on a corner overlooking Church Street, where you are guaranteed to be asked for change or a light if you stand outside (or sit at the tables in a miasma of exhaust fumes from the main road), but can watch planes going over the swimming baths.
When the fires are lit, it’s so hot inside you can fall asleep trying to read your book and burn your hands on the door handles as you leave for a falafel from the shop opposite. There’s a good selection of beers and ciders and of genteel alcoholics who make you feel better about drinking too many of them. There’s no intrusive music and the unfashionably tiny TV is on low. No frills, no fuss and plenty of mounted animal heads. After one too many beers here, your head will feel like it’s amongst them.
Hermits Cave, 28 Camberwell Church Street, SE5 8QU
No food here in this young buzzy pub where the emphasis is on drinking. A massive and proud rank of scores of shiny taps gives Stormbird a bierhall feel. From a dizzying array of beers we chose smoky Orbit Leaf and Red Raspberry Rye from Brixton brewery. For those who can’t make up their minds, you can order three third-pints. After that, you’ll probably make up your mind to have a few more. And fear last orders no more – you can always take away a growler (a jug to transport your beer home). Functionally kitted-out with hard floors, hard tables and hard drinkers who know their beer and know they want to drink a lot of it.
Stormbird, 25 Camberwell Church St, SE5 8PF
The Crooked Well
Camberwell supposedly means ‘crooked well’. Think of the curve or ‘camber’ in a road surface. This is a pub that takes its food seriously, but its gin even more so – a separate little shelf sits in pride of place above the bar. Do yourself a favour and experiment with some of the ones you haven’t heard of yet.
No ice and slice here – a glass of recommended Little Bird, a Peckham small-batch gin, is solemnly served with Fever Tree tonic and a segment of grapefruit. It takes my mind off the ubiquitous Camberwell gilt mirrors, tiling and candlesticks. The Crooked Well comes across more as a gastropub but there are still rich pickings for tight-fisted, crisp-eating drunks.
Upstairs are two tasteful function rooms upstairs divided by heavy curtains and with the facility to plug your own Spotify into the sound system make for a uniquely personal and very private experience.
The Crooked Well, 16 Grove Lane, SE5 8SY
The Old Dispensary
Bowel-wateringly deep bass thuds through my body on a rowdy night in this dark and cosy Irish bar. Its Irishness is by way of America, with plenty of good US craft beer, but it maintains a retro look with corrugated, frosted partitions decorated with Guinness and Jamesons lettering, a dramatic, conical skylight and Irish map wallpaper.
Sunday roasts are served with a side of jazz and gravy and Irish bands can often be heard jamming in the evenings.
The Old Dispensary, 325 Camberwell New Road, Camberwell, London, SE5 0TF
There’s been a pub on this site since 1826. One famous incarnation was the Silver Buckle – a night there was often rounded off with police cars blocking your hasty exit. Attractive emerald green-tiles were revealed underneath the blood and vomit when it was refurbished a few years ago. Now it’s a mum-friendly pub with a huge assemblage of junk and stuffed animals for that ‘authentic’ feel, and eminently stealable sausage rolls on the bar.
A tasty, street food-inspired menu for a mixed crowd is toiled over in an open kitchen and a small beer garden and fag alley runs along the side of the building.
The Tiger, 18 Camberwell Green, SE5 7AA
An honourable mention to the recently closed-down Bear. Having had my wedding reception in this pub in 2008, I was unhappy to find it empty, barren and desolate –a bit like the marriage it once celebrated.