London’s not short on lovely parks or ace rooftop bars where you can have a tipple when the sun comes out, but everyone knows that the beer garden is where it’s really at. From wide open terraces to hedge-screened hideaways, there’s something special about the city’s pub gardens.
RECOMMENDED: Outdoor London
When Lovebox and Field Day were still held in Victoria Park, my friends and I would pre-drink at The People’s Park Tavern. Its beer garden is one of the best because 1) it’s huge, 2) it has loads of benches for big groups and 3) you’re almost guaranteed to spot cute dogs there. Once, we spied the sweetest whippet and tried to smuggle him into a festival. (Note: stealing other people’s dogs is not cool, folks.) I love the Tavern’s garden so much that I hired it out for a surprise thirtieth birthday party. We hid in the most stupid places – under benches and behind benches and bins… Then: the surprise. Most of us popped out to reveal ourselves, but there were so many people hiding that we forgot about some of the stragglers. Every now and then friends would pop up and scare the life out of us. It was a boozy game of hide-and-seek in the funnest pub garden in London.
Pub gardens are the kinds of places that come to life when A Big Sport Event happens. Rugby, football, cricket, it doesn’t matter what. And a good pub garden needs just the right amount of rowdiness. Right now, the ivy-clad Sun of Camberwell probably isn’t very rowdy. But add some old armchairs, point them towards a slightly too small screen, fill the place with beer and abandoned hot dogs, and punctuate the whole thing with screaming cheers… then you’d have the right amount of rowdy indeed. At least, that was the set-up on one sunny day in July last year. Specifically the day of England’s World Cup quarter-final against Sweden. I’m no football fan, but like most Londoners I was swept up in the collective excitement that it was possibly ‘coming home’. Which is how I found myself in the Sun’s garden, alongside the rest of Camberwell, Denmark Hill, Loughborough Junction, Walworth and probably Peckham too. It was packed. The barbecue was fired up. Hopeful Swedes embraced topless, sunburnt Brits. That’s the beauty of this little patch of Camberwell: behind those garden walls, the rest of the world melts away.
The thing about daytime drinking is, you get so hungry. Or at least I do. Which is why I love The Scolt Head: its crisp selection is the best in London, bar none. But even copious amounts of Walkers Squares won’t soak up the booze from an afternoon spent nailing G&Ts with the ferocity of a late-night Trump tweetstorm. I’ve spent so many hazy days of bummed cigarettes and laughter and undrunk pint glasses of water left to go warm in the sun in this serene space, tucked away in a little corner where two roads meet, and covered in crawling vines. But maybe the best was that day in 2013 when, drunk and dehydrated, we stumbled into the bar after a session in the sun and commandeered the speakers. Fleetwood Mac? Womack & Womack? Okay, I admit it. I played ‘Teardrops’ on repeat until, looking up and around me, I realised the pub was completely empty. Had we driven the other punters out? Perhaps. But it’s a banging tune.
When I was around eight or nine, I started to understand the pub at the bottom of the road as more than just an odd-looking building peopled by a revolving cast of unfamiliar and sometimes unpredictable adults. Novelty is a funny stimulant for a child: too little and the result is boredom, too much and it’s fear. But The Blythe Hill Tavern was that perfect middle ground, a place my gran would occasionally go to get away from the everyday cares of her life, popping in from her flat on nearby Faversham Road. The process seemed to mainly involve a single, sipped G&T and a barrage of laughter and gossip with the neighbours. The Blythe was my first experience of a pub garden (like a normal garden, with lager) and it remains one of my favourites. There’s something ineffably right about the Blythe: a mixture of familiarity and an effortless lack of pretension. The outside area slopes back a fair bit and it’s never so heaving that you can’t park yourself at a table. Best of all, there’s the thrill of bringing friends for their first time and idling away a summer’s evening in the same cloud of mirth and nonsense. Most importantly, there’s nothing quite like the Guinness there.