‘The most noticeable feature in the Old Kent Road is the number of public-houses, each with its swinging sign and drinking-trough for horses.’ From The Old Kent Road chapter in Old and New London, Edward Walford, 1878.
The Old Kent Road remains one of the strangest of all London roads, as well as one of the oldest; it incorporates part of Watling Street, that Roman highway which went all the way from Dover to the wild Welsh Marches. A walk along The Old Kent Road today – a fairly short trot between New Cross and the Bricklayers’ Arms roundabout – is impressive by virtue of the vast contrasts in tone and scale. On the one hand you have the residue of the massive gasworks, the acrid colours of the retail sheds, relics of failed residential developments (especially The Aylesbury Estate, which looms like an abandoned supertanker above the artificial water meadows of Burgess Park), the yawning dual-carriageway and the endless stream of traffic thereon … yet there are occasional bright spots amidst the post-industrial wastes. Repurposed evangelical churches in former office units or light engineering premises promise to ‘set the captives free‘, whilst neighbouring buildings are home to equally anomalous nightclubs. The rare and beautiful Licensed Victuallers’ Almshouses (1827) still graces Asylum Road, even if it is now offset by a supermarket car park, and unexpected oases of genteel villas and terraces form tributaries off the churning thoroughfare. And there is real street life to be found along the OKR’s northern stretch, with busy independent shops which proliferate as you come within sight of the Bricklayers’ Arms roundabout. That end of the Old Kent Road has a strangely foreign quality; on a summer afternoon one could almost be in an unreconstructed suburb of Miami or Los Angeles, whereas on a winter afternoon one is reminded of Cleveland or Detroit. This may have something to do with its untended nature; even the Holloway Road doesn’t look this abandoned by civic authority. Perhaps any road in any city, left to its own devices, ends up looking slightly American.
Like the Strand, The Old Kent Road is a ghost of what it once was.The Bricklayers’ Arms roundabout takes its name from the railway goods depot that drove the development of local industry from the 1850s onwards, making this bit of Southwark a sort of land-locked counterpart of the great Victorian docks. Given its industrial vitality and importance as a route into town from the coast, it’s no wonder there were so many places to drink, as Walford observes in Old And New London. But you are hard pressed to find a boozer hereabouts today, although there are visible ruins of a lost drinking culture. On the western side of the crossroads of the OKR and Albany Street is an ornate Victorian building which was once one of the most iconic (there, I’ve said it) of all London pubs: The Thomas a Becket. Like The Angel in St. Giles, this was one of those pubs that preserves a link to an older London, although it’s hard to feel anything but dismay at the present condition of the locality. The Thomas a Becket premises occupies a site associated with an ancient hostelry, St. Thomas à Waterings, which catered to the needs of pilgrims setting off for Canterbury; it was the first stop on the way out of London and is referenced by Chaucer. (Given its city limits location, this crossroads was also a place of execution, especially notable for politically-motivated disembowellings under Henry VIII, killings that would have happened more-or-less where the big Tesco stands today.) The Victorian pub that bore the name of the martyr eventually morphed into a place of homage for entirely 20th century reasons. This Thomas a Becket was famous as a boxers’ pub, with a gym on the first floor: Henry Cooper patronised this gym, along with various sixties gangland soldiers (also James Fox, preparing for his role as Chas in Performance). The late Dave Prowse (aka Darth Vader) was photographed meeting Muhammed Ali here. Also, David Bowie rehearsed his ‘Spiders From Mars’ band here in the early Seventies. Since the pub closed a decade or so ago the building has been variously an estate agent’s premises, an art gallery and its current iteration is as a Vietnamese restaurant – possibly a very good Vietnamese restaurant, I cannot say, but it is a pity that this pub, of all pubs, is no more.
I recently spent a couple of freezing afternoons tramping up and down the Old Kent Road. For many years the OKR was a place I engaged with on a daily basis, as I either lived near it or utilised it as a means of driving to and from town. I am still intrigued by its blasted quality, by its epic dereliction and anomalous fragments of elegance. The image at the top of the page is a photo I took in the late eighties of the crumbling facade of a Victorian gin palace, a fragment of costermongers’ Victoriana which tottered above the traffic until it was finally swept away in the early 2000s. (That photo was taken only a few years after the goods depot finally closed in the early Eighties, contributing greatly to the decline of the area.) A walk around the locality today offers evidence of other ghost pubs; the building in the photo above is one such, now re-purposed as flats. But this can be no surprise, you don’t need me to tell you that pubs are dying all over the country as we forsake social drinking in favour of thrashing our livers in the comfort of our own homes. The least worst option for The Thomas a Becket would be to be made over as a gastro-pub, but I’m guessing that the area won’t support that socially aspirant catering model. Not yet anyway; since the last time I visited the OKR a few blocks have disappeared and hoardings promising residential opportunities have appeared in their place. Dalston-type gentrification seems unlikely, but who knows? I confess that for all my disdain of the untrammelled greed that is taking its toll of so many London neighbourhoods, one can’t avoid the feeling that something needs to happen here. Unfortunately, I suspect that the big residential development proclaimed on a hoarding by the old gasworks will be as chilly and faceless as the new blocks on the site of the old Heygate estate. We’re back to J.G. Ballard again. But amidst the tundra of the Old Kent Road there is an interesting cockney survivor, a landmark on the corner with Trafalgar Avenue, where the traffic peels off towards downtown Peckham: the Lord Nelson is a mid-Victorian pub which remains defiantly open for business, although this is not automatically apparent. On a Thursday afternoon in November the pub appeared to be shut but my colleague (CJ of Sediment notoriety) persisted in his quest for a light half and we found ourselves in a genuine, time warped London boozer. A vaulted hall of a bar, a snooker table in an bleakly-lit adjacent room, a small stage bedecked with tinsel, ready for whatever live entertainments the landlord had corralled for the evening’s punters, and a small cluster of daytime regulars. Collectively, their faces bore the traces of hundreds of years’ worth of drinking in this pub. This is as authentic as it gets. And it is probably doomed. Enjoy it while it lasts. Altogether now …