The Ballad of Peckham Rye: A Pub Walk

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Welcome to the second in an extremely sporadic series in which I make a doomed attempt at constructing a pub walk based on a book published in the 1960s.

Taking The Ballad of Peckham Rye by our Author of the Month Muriel Spark as my subject matter proved even more problematic than that of my first pub walk (Ian Nairn’s classic 1966 guide to London's architecture), due to its being a work of fiction. While many of the places mentioned in the book are real, and would have been well known to Spark, who was living just down the road in Camberwell when she wrote it, many of them, alas, are not.

Site of the Golden Lion and the Camberwell Palace

All that currently remains of Peckham Lido

The pub where the majority of the pub-based action of the novel occurs - the Harbinger - doesn’t and never has existed. Ed Glinert suggests, in his book Literary London, that it may be based on the now demolished Golden Lion of Denmark Hill, due to the reference to ‘the pub’s vintage fame in the old Camberwell Palace days.’ (Read more on the history of the Golden Lion and the Camberwell Palace here.) Although as pointed out here, a location that would allow you to stop by the door to the saloon bar ‘to look into the darkness of the Rye beyond the swimming baths’ suggests the King’s Arms - also now demolished (you may start to spot a theme here), which stood on the corner of Peckham Rye and East Dulwich Road, facing out on to the (hopefully soon-to-be resurrected) Peckham Lido. Either way, you can’t drink there anymore.

Other important locations in the book that I failed to find in reality: the Greek-owned café, Costa’s, which due to there now being a Costa Coffee in Peckham is entirely impossible to Google; and Findlater’s Ballroom. Should you wish to recreate Dougal Douglas’s dustbin lid-based dance routine for the entertainment/offence of your companions, the Rivoli Ballroom in Crofton Park is your best bet locally for doing so.

And so on to the the actual pub walk, what there is of it.

Distance: a matter of mere metres, without the foolish extra leg

Time: max. 10 minutes walking; drinking time is up to you

The Rye Hotel

The White Horse

The White Horse

We start, as the book and Humphrey Place does, at the Rye. Known then as the Rye Hotel, it can no longer boast any rooms, but on the plus side, it now has a pétanque pitch in its very nice beer garden, which probably wasn’t there in Spark’s day.

From here, cross the road at the conveniently located crossings, and you’ll find yourself almost immediately at the White Horse, where if you’re following the book closely, you should drink one bitter. I somehow imagine the White Horse would still be relatively recognisable to Humphrey: a comfortable half-timbered building, and inside a series of bars, with a pool table, darts board, open fires. (Half Price Prosecco Thursdays might be less recognisable.)

The ex-Heaton Arms

The Nag's Head/Morning Star

Turn left out of the White Horse, heading north to where Peckham Rye turns into Rye Lane. While crossing over the road, take a moment to salute the former site of the Heaton Arms, demolished a decade ago, and currently home to a branch of the Money Shop.

Continue across the road and you’ll find yourself at the final stop on the sensible leg of our tour, the Nag’s Head. Known as the Morning Star until 2000, the name change was presumably to tempt in passing Only Fools and Horses tourist trade. In temperament, probably the most 1960s of the pubs still standing: no craft beer, no food beyond crisps, sport on the telly, a fruit machine blinking away in the corner.

Optional extra leg:

Site of the Rosemary Branch

Formerly the Regal Cinema

The former Father Redcap

13 Baldwin Crescent

Dougal waits for his boss at ‘the Dragon’ in Dulwich. I can’t find any evidence of this existing, but should you wish to go for a ‘gin and peppermint’ in Dulwich, the recently reopened Crown and Greyhound boasts a (non-Ballad related and fairly tenuous) Spark connection: it served as the home of the Dulwich Poetry Group, set up by Lionel Monteith in response to Spark’s controversial leadership of the Poetry Society. (And besides this, has a long and distinguished literary reputation, which you can read about here.)

If you’re feeling energetic at this point, it’s a forty-odd minute walk to our next stop; if not, follow Dougal’s route and get the bus. Either way you’re heading for the, again, sadly demolished Rosemary Branch on Southampton Way. Of all the lost locations I’ve read about while researching this walk, the Rosemary Branch is the one I most deeply regret having been born too late to drink in. Established sometime in the eighteenth century, it boasted sporting grounds that hosted entertainments as varied as an experimental railway and a pony being ridden by a monkey jockey (more on its history here.) You can get some idea of what it (and the rest of the Borough of Camberwell) was like in Spark’s time from this marvellous film from the BFI archive, made just three years after Ballad was published. It’s now just an extremely non-descript corner, with nothing much going for it, so if you’ve followed me this far, apologies. And it’s all downhill from here, so seriously, go home.

Winding through the backstreets of Camberwell, you’ll eventually hit the Camberwell Road, where still stands what I assume to be the same Regal Cinema where Dixie works nights in the novel, although it’s gone through several reincarnations since then - as the ABC Cinema, a bingo hall, and currently home to the House of Praise Church. The most likely candidate for the unnamed pub opposite the cinema, outside which Dougal finds Nelly Mahone proclaiming, is what used to be the Father Redcap on the corner of the Green. (Yes, it’s now closed; no, you can’t have a drink.)

Since you’ve come this far, you may as well head south, down into Camberwell proper and make a pilgrimage to the place where all this started: 13 Baldwin Crescent, home to one Muriel Spark from 1955-1965, and where she wrote The Ballad of Peckham Rye.