Christopher Hirst finds a pretty-much-perfect pub in suburbia
The unspoiled pub that we search for in the country, usually in vain, may be found on your doorstep – at least if your doorstep happens to be in the depths of southeast London. According to one online appreciation, the Jolly Woodman has “the feel of a rural pub”, but it is tucked away on a narrow side street in suburban Beckenham. When it opened in 1840, the stucco-clad ale house consisting of a single L-shaped room would have been in the Kentish countryside. Now, particularly at lunchtimes and weekday evenings, it is a near-miraculous survivor, a place of quiet sipping and chat.
What makes the Woodman so special is what it lacks: no music, no TV (aside from big sporting events), no carpet, no chips and no games machines. Less is more, though, as landlord Joe Duffy assured me, making a great pub doesn’t merely mean chucking stuff out. ‘We don’t open on Mondays until 4pm so we can strip everything down and clean all the pipes.’ Timothy Taylor Landlord and Harvey’s Sussex Bitter are always on tap. Guest bitters at the time of my visit included Adnams Southwold and Kotchin from the Cronx microbrewery in Croydon. Online plaudits for the Woodman’s beer (‘Guinness is the best I’ve drunk outside of Dublin’) testify to Duffy’s skill as a cellarman. With his grown-up children Katie, Michael and Maura behind the bar, service is prompt and friendly. Substantial sandwiches, ranging from ham or cheese (£2.75) to what Duffy terms the ‘cholesterol special’ of bacon, egg and black pudding (£3.75), are served throughout the day. If you want a hot meal, head for The Chancery, the pleasingly minimalist gastropub next door that Duffy opened last year with his daughter Katie ruling the range.
On a typical afternoon in the Woodman, a roaring coal stove (‘Actually, it’s gas,’ Duffy admitted) warmed a sprinkling of customers seated on the benches and stools that surround the pub’s well-scrubbed tables. A dartboard was available for ‘arrows’ fans. Shelves of paperbacks sold in support of the local hospice St Christopher’s provided entertainment for solitary drinkers. ‘You should be able to read a book or a newspaper in a pub,’ said Duffy. ‘Elderly ladies should feel comfortable here.’ And they do It should, however, be admitted that ‘unspoiled’ does not mean ‘undiscovered’. Duffy says that the pub can seat 40 but on Friday nights ‘close to 100’ will squeeze in. During the showing of Six Nations rugby matches (Duffy is a former player), the pub virtually comes apart at the seams with vocal polyglot contingents. Choose the right time, however, and you can find a corner of alcoholic heaven on a back street in Beckenham.
The Jolly Woodman, 9 Chancery Lane, Beckenham BR3 6NR