What’s it named after? The Brockley Barge remembers the Croydon Canal, which opened in 1809 to link Croydon with the former Surrey Canal at New Cross. It was a financial failure, and closed in 1836. The railway line through Brockley opened three years later, largely following the canal’s old route. The pub itself used to be called the Breakspear Arms, but was reopened by JD Wetherspoon as the Brockley Barge in October 2000.
What’s the carpet like?
Back in August 2016, we sat in The Brockley Barge and watched the characters inside. It gave us a mad idea of visiting every single JD Wetherspoon pub in south-east London and writing about each one. 23 pubs later, we’re back at the Barge – our 24th and final stop.
The idea came because we got talking about how the Barge is one of the few pubs around here to really reflect its community. Brockley has changed a fair bit in recent years, and – in its own way – so has the Barge. Some around here would rather the Barge sank – but they are wrong, so wrong.
It’s Saturday, it’s nearly 7pm, and the pub’s packed. The crowd is boosted by a few Millwall fans – a couple of miles up the road, they’ve just beaten Premier League champions Leicester City in the FA Cup fifth round. (The Surrey Docks up in Rotherhithe must be rocking.)
It’s a hugely mixed crowd; different ages, races and genders, if skewing slightly older because of the mini-Millwall influx. There are young people buying bottles of rosé and prosecco, while some older guys are in place for the Welsh Open snooker on the telly – pints lined up so they don’t miss a second of the silent action.
There are still a couple of young kids in here getting stuck into colouring books, while groups of women come in to drink and laugh. And there’s a bloke at the bar who seems to be dressed as racing pundit John McCririck.
The name’s a tribute to the old canal that briefly ran through here, and the triangular Barge feels distinctly nautical. Indeed, we suspect there may be some kind of class system going on here, with more affluent drinkers congregating at the rear of the pub, but we’re probably the only ones to notice. Or care.
It’s relaxed, it’s friendly, it’s cheap. All human life is here – it feels like a cheerier version of The Great Harry in Woolwich. And the £2.49 bottles of Blue Moon go down a treat when Antic’s Jam Circus, down the road, expects £5.20 for a pint. What’s not to love?
Well, look deep in the comments on local blog Brockley Central and you’ll see plenty of digs about this place, focusing on fights and disreputable characters. But there are none here tonight, and we’ve seen nothing here in the past. Never mind drugs, we don’t even see any smokers outside tonight, just the odd e-cig puffer.
There are occasionally bouncers on the door (not tonight), but they are normally friendly characters. And while Brockley Central is an enthusiastic chronicler of the area’s shinier, newer venues, the blog’s hymn of praise to the Barge is worth a read.
We suspect the staff could probably do with a hand, as they’re having trouble keeping up. The only table we can bag is sticky with old beer topped by abandoned bags of crisps and nuts (it gets a half-hearted clean later on), while the carpet’s looking a bit tired.
The gents’ – with some Irish guys talking about tomorrow’s hurling on TV – is in a bit of a mess, though the ladies’ features some witty graffiti (above). And the community board has an ad for what looks like a pyramid selling scheme in the corner (below).
The night goes on, the hubbub gets louder, the crowd gets a bit younger. Some pubs may throb to the sound of the Underground passing beneath – at the Barge, they spill in off the Overground and the building shakes to the sound of some idiot’s car stereo.
It’s easy to take the mickey out of Brockley’s recent transformation – you do get the feeling that the area can get a bit self-congratulatory every now and then.
But Brockley is a fine place to go drinking – would you have said that 10 or 15 years back? Indeed, with the Barge, The Orchard, The Gantry, Brickfields, Jam Circus, The London Beer Dispensary, the peerless Mr Lawrence’s Wine Bar, the Brockley Jack and the recently-revamped Chandos, you can pick a bar crawl to suit all tastes. Let’s make the Brockley Beer Mile a thing, eh?
We pop into Brickfields later, the “uncompromisingly cool” new bar just down the Brockley Road that’s probably the direct opposite of the Barge. It’s great, and well worth investigating, even if it’s the kind of place where people in The Guardian’s Blind Dates column would head to. We suspect their punters wouldn’t be seen dead in the Barge. Shame, they’re missing out.
But the Barge and Brickfields are part of the same community and co-exist happily. A bit like the many and varied customers in the Barge. In its own way, the Barge is a survivor – if JD Wetherspoon hadn’t taken on the old drug-riddled Breakspear Arms, stuck with it and nurtured the place, it’d probably be a branch of Foxtons now. Instead, it’s up for CAMRA’s South East London Pub of the Year prize.
It is full of the characters our corner of the capital has to offer. You can say the same about many of the area’s Wetherspoons – hey, we’ve visited them all now – but none are as diverse and welcoming as the Barge. You may not come from Brockley, but if south-east London is your home, you’ll feel at home here too.
Address: 184 Brockley Road SE4 2RR
Buses: 171, 172, 484.
Train: Brockley (Zone 2 – Overground, Southern)
Social media: The Brockley Barge is on Twitter.