It may sound grim, but Penge is the perfect stopping point to enjoy the leafy, pub-laden neighbourhoods of South East London.
Penge. Sounds pretty grim, right? My thoughts exactly. After scouring the Tube Map to find my week three destination, I thought that Penge (West) took Gold in the crap-sounding name contest. Frognal and Kenton filled the podium.
On the way to Penge, you can’t help but notice how leafy this area of South East London is. You always hear about the leafy areas of the South West – Richmond, Twickenham and Kew to name just a few – but the South East is equally saturated with flora. If it wasn’t for the end section of the Northern Line, South London could well be known as the leafy South.
This vision of a green paradise is quickly enhanced when I get out the station and see signs for the Green Chain walk – a linked network of footpaths and open green spaces that stretches 40 miles across South East London. From Thamesmead to Nunhead Cemetery, the Chain is split into 11 sections and is a self-professed “necklace of gems – with sapphire rivers, emerald parks and fields with silver-leaved woodlands”. The description is certainly poetic, but I can’t help feel the author was maxxing-out their artistic licence: no bodies of water in London are actually blue.
Penge finds itself slap bang in the middle of Section 10 between Beckenham Palace Park and Crystal Palace Park. Given the proximity of the latter, I set off there as my first port of call.
I aimed straight for the café in the park, hoping to get some useful advice for my day, only to find it was closed. Whether because it’s a Friday or November or both, my disappointment is only temporary as I spot a pop-up coffee van in the distance with a large gaggle of patrons.
Getting closer to the van though, I begin to wonder if I’ve stumbled across the Penge Women’s Institute class of ’56 diamond anniversary. Everyone was female and looked about 90. It made me wonder if there was a collective term for grannies? A parliament of grannies? A shoal, a herd, a pod? Maybe a quilt. Anyway, this quilt of grannies seemed particularly lively, so I asked them for their top tip for the area: they universally clucked the ‘park’. Very helpful.
Forward-wind two hours and I shouldn’t have been so dismissive of the grannies’ universal statement. Crystal Palace park is exceptional. Firstly, I walked through a section of dinosaurs from the Victorian age. This colony (?) of dinosaurs was built back in the 1850s and were the first commissioned sculptures of the creatures anywhere in the world – even pre-dating Darwin’s Origin of Species. There are around 15 of them – from a menacing Megalosaurus to a couple of majestic Iguanodons – dotted around a waterway bespeckled with Monkey Puzzles. Even without their historical significance, they are full deserving of their Grade I listed status.
Then there was a farm. After encountering my first city-farm a couple of weeks ago, I was astonished to find another so soon, but this one was not much to write home about. A couple of cockerels and a few sheep doesn’t quite make a farm in my eyes; but hey, what do I know, I live in the city.
Next my friend (apparently using ‘companion’ in the last article was a bit ‘odd’) and I encountered the 15,000-seat athletics stadium, before finding ourselves walking parallel to a row of Italian Terraces: a two-tiered set of Grade II listed arches imprinted on risen sections of the park. The terraces give the impression of walking in the grounds of some stately home, only without the actual home. A stately garden of sorts.
Not troubling ourselves why this might be, we headed to one of the largest mazes in the country. With a diameter of 160 feet, the maze proudly states that it has been bewildering locals since the 1870s. Not us, we thought, especially with the six-foot high hedgerows looking considerably less dense due to the season. 20 minutes later and we started to understand why there were so many broken fences in the maze: its fiendishly tricky. Everything looks the same. I suppose that’s the point with a maze, but after a while, it just gets a tad frustrating. We decided to take the cheaters’ lead and start hopping through the broken fences, but when you don’t know where you are in the first place, it makes little difference. In the end we managed to get back to the start and then just walked up the ‘Escape route’ to the centre.
Not content with being home to just chickens, an ichthyosaurus and a labyrinth, Crystal Palace park also has an open-air theatre, a BBC radio tower and couple of Stone Sphinxes. The only thing that was missing was a Palace. It then dawned on me why the Terraces led to nothing: the Crystal Palace used to stand pride of place at their summit (then-named Penge Peak). The 1,800 feet long, 130 feet high, predominantly glass structure had burnt down in 1936.
If you didn’t know – and to be fair I didn’t – Crystal Palace sits on the top of a pretty sizeable hill. Less known than the Central London-viewing hotspots of Muswell and Primrose, you can see over the whole of Central London to the North and the endless Surrey suburbia to the South from Crystal Palace. Being an unseasonably sunny day, we tried to find a north-facing beer garden to take in the vista and continue enjoying the crisp apricity; there wasn’t one. A patron in Westow House told us that the Grape and Grain might be good, but it neither had the view nor the sun, so we decided to shun his fantastic suggestion (he also helpfully said that the best thing to do in the area was the Farmer’s Market, which is only open on Saturdays) and return to Westow House.
Westow has a cracking selection of craft beers on tap and after annoying the bar lady by asking to try almost every one of them, I ended up getting a Volden Session Ale (£3.30). This was followed by a sausage and mushroom cassoulet (£7) and a Volden Pale (£3.70). When going back to try a few more of the beers, the bar lady politely told me that the Gipsy Hill brewery was only 20 minutes away. I got her hint and we headed there.
Like last week at the Beavertown Brewery, Gipsy Hill didn’t sell beer on a Friday. Like last week, they gave us each a free one. And a free lecture on the brewing process. And a free look around. All to the sounds of some liquid DnB.
Across the courtyard in the same industrial estate, we spied the London Beer Factory – another local brewery. We decided to try our luck again, but clearly the ‘I’m a writer doing an article on the area’ line had worn thin and they told us where to go….to the Paxton pub at the bottom of Gipsy Hill. Given the name of the pub, I thought it appropriate to finish off our day with a pint of Paxton Pale Ale (£4.85).
Despite thoroughly enjoying my day out in Penge, I realised that I hadn’t actually seen anything of Penge. Penge could still be rubbish. But, as for its neighbouring communities, it’s a pretty damn good crack.
Time: 4-5 hours