Bar/fly: Wimbledon Common

By Daniel Scott

Daniel Scott revisits the Wimbledon Common pubs he frequented in his youth.

In the old days you were lucky to get some stomach-lining pork scratchings with your beer at Wimbledon Common pubs. Illustration / Rod Emmerson
In the old days you were lucky to get some stomach-lining pork scratchings with your beer at Wimbledon Common pubs. Illustration / Rod Emmerson

Centuries ago, when I was growing up on the leafy south-western fringes of London, I was drawn to the pubs around Wimbledon Common like a self-harming moth drawn toward a white-hot light. I don't know how my pubescent mates and I got away with it, merely discarding our jackets and ties before installing ourselves opposite the school gates outside The Crooked Billet and the Hand in Hand pubs.

Sometimes, as we lounged on the lawn with local schoolgirls, some of whom sipped Bacardi and coke in a gesture toward age-appropriate drinking, we'd even spot our teachers out for a sup.

We boys drank beer. From chunky glass pint mugs with handles. Not the warm dark brown bitter beloved of our fathers but the cold, still-fizzing comfort of lager, the latest invading force from Germany or Denmark.

In some senses, we grew up in the pubs grouped around Wimbledon Common. We began trying to establish ourselves as part of the "in" crowd, lived by as few rules as possible and fuelled by alcohol, embarked on awkward fumblings with the opposite sex.

It's an odd feeling revisiting these dens of my iniquity as a middle-aged dad with Antipodean partner and two small daughters in tow. But the first thing I notice as we install ourselves in the courtyard outside the Hand in Hand is the prevalence of other Australasian voices.

Not surprising - these days Wimbledon and nearby suburbs like Putney, Southfields and Raynes Park have been colonised by a marauding Southern Hemisphere army emanating from everywhere from Tauranga to Woy Woy to Fish Hoek.

Another difference now is that now there is food. In the old days you were lucky to get some stomach-lining pork scratchings with your beer. Now, falling into line with the UK's gastro-pub revolution, the grub in all five pubs is good.

At the Fox and Grapes, set in the middle of the 460ha swathe of woods and heathland and re-opened in 2011 by French Michelin-starred chef Claude Bosi, food has become the reason to visit.

There is no such thing as a simple pub lunch here. It's all twists on traditional British themes like beer-battered haddock with triple-cooked chips and mushy peas and ham hock and eel pie. We enjoy both with a bottle of French chablis, another quantum change in these pubs being the international wine list (including several New Zealand sauvignons) propping up the bar.

It's not just the food that's wholesome either. In the dark ages of my teenage past, these pubs were slightly seedy establishments, frequented by moneyed or intellectual drunks and the occasional circus act.

One winter night, as my mates and I huddled in the Crooked Billet, the rumbustious actor Oliver Reed arrived, accompanied by a posse of mischief makers. Almost immediately Reed began attempting gymnastics on bar stools, balancing on one hand before crashing down and downing his next pint. Then, presumably attempting a (thankfully semi-clothed) re-enactment of his famous testosterone-fuelled wrestling scene from the movie Women in Love, he manhandled anybody stupid enough to get in his way onto the pub floor.

Nowadays, though still patronised by "celebs" and, during Wimbledon fortnight in late June, tennis legends, all five pubs are salubrious enough for families to hang around - in beer gardens and courtyards - and convivial enough to convince you that you are in a country village, not at the edge of a sprawling metropolis.

These pubs have history, too; the Dog and Fox dating to the 16th century and the nearby Rose and Crown established by 1659 and later providing (liquid) inspiration to writer Algernon Swinburne (1837-1901).

Britain's oldest brewery Youngs, dating to 1581, owns four of these five pubs and cask ales like Young's Bitter (3.7 per cent) and Special (4.5 per cent) have been available since my hey-day. Now they've been joined by fruitier country bitters such as Waggledance (4 per cent) and Wells Bombardier (4.1 per cent) as well as continental lagers and interesting ciders. And in some, there's even Pimm's on tap.

Stretching out with the family on the lawns outside the Crooked Billet on a long, light summer evening I'm so enchanted that I forget the ignominy with which I last left the pub, decades ago.

That was on my 18th birthday, within hours of being legally able to drink in a pub when, after three years of doing so illegitimately, I was frogmarched out by an inexplicably incensed landlord for being underage.

Wimbledon Common pubs

All five pubs are located within stumbling distance of each other around Wimbledon Common, a half-hour tube journey from central London, followed by five-minute bus ride. They are:

The Dog and Fox: 24 High St.

The Rose and Crown: 55 High St.

The Fox and Grapes: 9 Camp Rd.

The Crooked Billet: 14 Crooked Billet.

The Hand in Hand: 6 Crooked Billet.

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