“As for me, I am tormented with an everlasting itch for things remote. I love to sail forbidden seas, and land on barbarous coasts.” – Herman Melville
These lines from Moby-Dick rang saltily in my ears as I emerged on the barbarous coast of Canada Water tube station. I knew there was a pub nearby named after Melville’s demonic white whale and I was keen to visit it, being a fan of the novel after listening to a particularly well-narrated audio-book a few years ago. Andy accepted this plan and we set off, navigating not by the stars (alas, it was cloudy) but using the ancient and esoteric Maps of Google, which miraculously manifested themselves in our handheld telephones.
Regular readers of our blog will know that a tenet of ULPC is to never pass a pub or bar without entering. And so, our route first brought us to the door of The Surrey Docks, a Wetherspoon’s, which we dutifully entered. It is a truth universally acknowledged that whenever we enter a Wetherspoon’s there are no spare seats and we are forced to linger awkwardly between tables, to the constant chagrin of customers and staff alike. Tonight was no exception. Eager to track down the elusive Melvillian pub, we drank quickly and resumed our monomaniacal quest, circumnavigating Greenland Dock like madmen.
“It is not down on any map; true places never are.” This aphorism of Melville’s swam to mind, but just as I began to doubt its existence, there it was: The Moby Dick. I was Captain Ahab and here was my prize. I don’t know what I expected but what we found was a pleasant Fuller’s pub, showing precious few links to its literary namesake, except for cheery model whales impaled on wooden sticks adorning the tables of those who ordered food. But the pub was well-named, for the dock it sits upon was used throughout the 18th century by Greenland whaling ships, and blubber boiling houses previously bedecked the dock’s south side. I wonder if the residents of the luxury flats now occupying the site know of its blubbery past? We didn’t stop to ask. Instead we enjoyed a cheap but satisfactory meal and pint, wished The Moby Dick farewell and decided to head for the Thames and follow its serpentine curves west towards a lovely pub I’d visited once before – The Mayflower.
Rotherhithe, the district within which Canada Water sits, is a strange beast. Mainly residential, there were points during our wanderings when, looking south or west, we could have been in any quiet, tidy suburban corner of England, the only give-away being the occasional glimpse of the Shard, sparkling cockily between rooftops. But, turning our gaze northeast across the river, we were greeted by Canary Wharf and its glittering glass cathedrals of capitalism (where, in fact, we would be visiting next month). If there is a better vantage point to take in the night-time beauty of the financial district, I haven’t found it.
Over the next hour or two we visited The Ship and Whale (pleasant and posh), The Blacksmiths Arms (welcoming, great rock playlist put together by one of the friendly barmaids), and The Salt Quay (cavernous and impersonal). By this time we’d walked over two miles, making various failed attempted to join the Thames path – we kept being foiled by locked gates and iron fencing – and we still hadn’t found The Mayflower. But once again, perseverance prevailed, and the oldest pub on the Thames appeared from the hushed gloom of Rotherhithe Street.
I had fond memories of this place, spending a joyful evening last year catching up with an old school friend. It was just as I remembered. Characterful and jovially cramped inside, all dark wood and exposed brickwork, with a large tented area outside sitting directly over the Thames. You could see it gently lapping several meters below the floorboards. We sampled every area of the pub, falling into conversation with a cigarette-seeking woman in the tented section above the river. In our slightly drunken state we couldn’t quite remember which ship the Mayflower was. I had a vague idea it was the first vessel to take people from England to set up home in America. No, that wasn’t right, she said.
“It has something to do with the man with the big hat.”
“Napoleon?” I ventured, unhelpfully. Giving me a dark look she shook her head condescendingly. “No, Brunel of course.”
Ah yes, how silly of me. The 19th century engineer was obviously the person responsible for the 17th century Mayflower. You can’t argue with logic like that. So we didn’t. Nodding respectfully we backed away to consult the more dependable if less entertaining Google, and swiftly discovered that I was right – The Mayflower took the first English Separatists, or Pilgrims as they are now known, from Plymouth to the New World in 1620.
Basking in erudition, we continued our saunter westwards, soon stopping to wonder at the bizarre abuttal of the graveyard of St Mary’s Church and a brightly-coloured children’s play area. They were literally on top of one another; a child descending speedily down the shiny slide would be in danger of alighting on a tombstone. Of course, we had to have a go. Both Andy and I tested the slide, curiously too small for our adult frames. I have to say, it certainly made the graveyard more cheery.
Moving on, we soon entered and immediately departed The Angel – the barman announced they were closed while pouring a fresh pint with a lively crowd behind him. In a lesser area this could have caused us to sink into deep dejection, but after a few steps we came across The Winnicott, a real find. Gloriously under-lit, we peered in to discern mock tudor fittings, an open fire, and a few small gatherings of eminently stylish folk sharing witty asides over tankards of dark ale. Jazz played smoulderingly in the background. A piano nestled against a wall. I refrained, despite Andy’s pleas for a rendition of Tubular Bells. We didn’t want to leave. If you’re ever in this part of town, you would do yourself a grave disservice to miss The Winnicott.
The remaining hour of the pub crawl is, I must admit, dim in my mind. But with Andy’s help I discovered that our penultimate pub was named The Kings Arms. What I do remember, vividly, is the following:
During a casual anecdote, Andy decided to throw into the conversational arena, without further elucidation, the following phrase: “hoist by my own petard”. I believe he was slightly sore at my superior knowledge of the Mayflower and wanted to prove his own intellectual prowess. Whatever the reason, I questioned this expression – hitherto unheard by my ears – and he, shocked at my ignorance, explained its meaning (a ‘petard’ is a small bomb, and the phrase literally means “causing the bomb maker to be blown up with his own bomb”). Andy continued to be amazed at my idiocy for not knowing this apparently common utterance and I, unwilling to accept this hole in my own linguistic arsenal, bet that surely the vast majority of people have never heard of it either. I believe I originally guessed 95%, but then adjusted that to 75% taking into account the lofty intellects of Londoners. We then proceeded to ask our fellow drinkers in The Kings Arms. I was unsettled when a young lady at the first table I accosted nodded her head in complete comprehension, but after a short while the results were in: 8/11 people had no clue of its meaning – 73%. Another victory for me, if one’s own ignorance can be claimed as such.
After a hasty gin and tonic at The Pommelers Rest, we discovered that we could make it back for our last train from Waterloo on foot, rather than bothering with the tube, if we were happy to maintain a light jog for two miles. Rising to the challenge, we did indeed jog back to the station. Andy, raring like a stallion, wanted to sprint ahead but I, better versed in the art of pacing kept us at an easy trot, and we still managed to purchase a burrito before boarding our train as champions.
Next stop: CANARY WHARF