Our pints correspondent drinks in the shadow of a giant.
I recently stumbled across a TikTok of Marcus Wareing – twinkle-eyed culinarian and straight foil to Gregg Wallace’s gurning Victorian strongman act on Masterchef: The Professionals – being asked for his favourite pub. Wareing plumped for the Rose & Crown, an old coaching inn nestled in the suburban safety of Wimbledon Village. His answer twigged a deep Proustian memory in me, of travelling up to the hills of the Village as a young rapscallion, chasing girls called Imogen or Clementine whose fathers worked in high finance, and drinking MD 20/20 on Wimbledon Common until we’d vomit.
We would invariably try and get served in the Rose & Crown at some point, and almost always got turned away. But we had heard whispers from friends’ older brothers of a legendary eight-pub crawl around the Common and we wanted to get in on the action. We didn’t know it at the time, but the crawl they were referring to was the ‘Wimbledon Eight’, a boozy odyssey around the Village devised in the early 1960s by actor, drinker and SW19 native Oliver Reed. The premise was simple and spoke to Reed’s love of an alcoholic challenge: get around the course in as quick a time as possible, drinking a pint in each boozer. The last person back to the pub you started from had to get the ninth round in.
Reed’s inebriated antics are well-documented. That he once drank 106 pints in two days (sometimes given as 24 hours) on his stag weekend. That he once climbed on to a restaurant table, dropped his trousers and paraded his tattooed member around, referring to it as his ‘mighty mallet’. That, during a break in the filming of Gladiator in Malta, he walked into an Irish pub and drank eight pints of lager, 12 shots of rum, half a bottle of whisky and several cognacs, challenged and beat five Royal Navy sailors in an arm wrestling competition, and then promptly had a heart attack and died.
But, as a lover of flâneuring three sheets to the wind, it was the legend of the Wimbledon Eight that fascinated me the most, and so when the time came for my next dispatch, I knew exactly where I had to go. Although there are only six pubs now (the Brewery Tap becamea Caffè Nero; the King of Denmark was demolished for a Co-op), I wanted to find out if it’s still possible to raise hell among the hydrangeas; to carouse in the leafy, aspirational heights of SW19. What are those dastardly drinking dens that Reed so revered like to get drunk in today? And so, as ever, I assembled a small party of pisstakers and embarked on a hazy journey to the outer limits of moderation and dignity.
the dog & fox
All across the country, from Walton-on-Thames to West Bridgford, the mid-tier middle-class pub is taking over. You know the type. Pink Beefeater gin and Fever Tree tonic in those ludicrous balloon glasses. Men drinking Peroni in paisley shirts and Quiksilver chino shorts. A beer garden referred to in serif silver font as ‘The Patio’. An interior stripped of much of its original charm and replaced with muted or pastel colour palettes punctuated occasionally by the odd bit of quirk – a golden pineapple here, a neon sign there. A passable if utterly forgettable food offering.
The Dog & Fox is one of those pubs. Unfortunately, as it’s the first pub on the crawl and everyone else was late, it’s also the pub I spent the most time in, putting away three pints of interchangeable continental lager in the space of just over an hour while my companions trickled in one by one. Would Oliver Reed have approved of the £7 beers and boxy charcoal wicker chairs that now populate the establishment where he first had a drink as a young man?
rose & crown
Next on the list was Wareing’s favourite, the same pub where I was frequently turned away as a 15-year-old. I’m now 32, and although I’m confronted daily with the grey-haired spectre of my own mortality, happily I have no problem at all getting served. You can see why the Rose & Crown might appeal to a TV chef. It’s got that kind of rustic everyman vibe that’s tapped into by so many of them – it’s a cheeky bit of slow-cooked Moroccan-spiced lamb; it’s a bottle of ice cold Heineken and a matey chat; it’s Tom Kerridge in Georgian brick form. And it was really, really busy on a Friday night, the generously sized garden packed full with a boisterous mix of sundressed Durham postgrads, freshly priced out of Clapham, and the slightly older, pudgy natives.
But do you know what? I didn’t hate it. For all the pub’s chargrilled celeriac or honeydew melon gazpacho, there was this sense that there was some Reedian depravity bubbling gently under the surface. A glass was accidentally smashed on the garden concrete, accompanied by a chorus of sarcastic hollering. A group of lads in gilets got a round of sambucas in.
fox & grapes
We traipsed directly over the Common to our next pub, past the gaggle of baggy jeaned Gen-Zers smoking chronic; past the battered tent almost hidden from view in a roadside thicket; and past the trio of riders leading their horses back to the village stables. After the lively small town ambience of the Rose & Crown, a trip across the way to the Fox & Grapes felt a bit like stepping out of suburban London and into a shire. That rus in urbe vibe continued in the pub, a dark and labyrinthine gastro with wooden beams and parquet flooring. You did get the impression you were in a restaurant more than a pub, though – like almost all of these pubs, food is very much the focus – and so once we’d paid for our drinks we headed out the front to the little al fresco smoking area.
Reed had a penchant for the countryside and lived for much of the 1970s in Broome Hall, a sprawling, 56-room country estate in Surrey. Allegedly, he got a reputation at his local pub for, each December, climbing down the chimney naked and proclaiming ‘Ho, ho, ho, I’m Santa Claus!’ So, although you could see why the Fox & Grapes could appeal to a man fond of the bucolic, I’m not sure the scores of stuffy first-date diners there would take too kindly to having his mighty mallet plonked casually in their chicken supreme.
hand in hand
We had, up until this point in the night, been ambrosially sipping our pints with the carefree insouciance of people that lived among the late-night bustle of inner London, but as we approached the Hand in Hand, located in the south-east corner of the Common and opposite the £25,980-a-year King’s College School, darkness began to fall. And when I realised that there was only an hour or so left until time at the last pub, it became clear it was imperative that we adopt the initial swiftness of our hero bon viveur and impose a strict 15-minute time limit on our drinks. As a result, my recollection of the rest of the night is somewhat patchy.
What can I say about the Hand in Hand? Well, it was reasonably vibey – there were a lot of vintage knick-knacks and photos affixed to the brick walls and there was a weird David Blaine-style glass room where a family was finishing dinner, seemingly oblivious to the eyes of the entire pub. You could just about imagine Reed throwing some poor soul through the glass after a day’s hard session. But almost as soon as I had begun to digest the interior, the iPhone alarm went off and we were on our way next door to the penultimate pub.
‘What are you boys doing all the way out here?’, the young barman asked as we slurred our way through a round order. We explained that we were doing the Oliver Reed pub crawl, and asked if he’d ever heard of it. ‘Heard of it? I’ve done it once before. It’s a lot of boozing,’ he said, before adding, ‘You should go to The Alexandra or the Prince of Wales down the bottom of the hill if you really want to tie one on – they’re much more fun.’
Handily located next door to the previous pub, the Crooked Billet was built in the 18th century and gives its name to the road – technically a hamlet – located on the edge of the Common. Once again, we set a 15-minute alarm, which is just as well as they were closing anyway, on account of it being virtually empty at 10:30pm on a Friday. Sometimes, having a pub to yourself feels thrilling and naughty, as is the case with lock-ins. This just felt a bit like being the last one in a Sainsbury’s Local at 10:59pm, with the beleaguered staff desperate to get home.
We left the hamlet and walked back towards suburbia, and the last leg of our thespian booze cruise. Built in the 1860s and originally The Swan, the pub changed its name last year, presumably in reference to the nearby Rushmere Pond. It’s a Greene King and, despite billing itself as a gastro, it really had more of the feel of a community boozer – from the table of old boys engaged in a bitching session about another, not-present local to the younger groups outside sipping rum and cokes and considering their next move.
We made it there just in time for last orders. At the bar, an older Irish guy got chatting to us. ‘I used to drink with Reed,’ he said, with a twinkle in his eye that made me think he was possibly having us on. ‘He used to come in here sometimes. But it wasn’t like you’d expect. He just sat there drinking his drink. He’d occasionally have a chat with the regulars but nothing at all like the tales you’ve heard.’ We settled down in the garden for our last pint of the crawl, as reckless brandy afterparty plans began to be formed.
When we walked back down the hill to the mainline station I got thinking about excess and legend. Were any of the tales of Oliver Reed’s boozing true? Did it even matter? He is, or perhaps was, a figure of fascination partly because people badly wanted these stories to be real, so they could live vicariously through him, or O’Toole, or Burton. We still venerate the troubled alcoholic genius figure, even if increasingly the boozers that they once frequented veer more towards civilised dining rooms than bibacious grog holes of iniquity.
We took that barman’s advice and ended up in the Prince of Wales later that night while we were waiting for our train out of suburbia. Another Greene King, it’s got a beautiful double transience that comes from being both a train station pub and a shopping centre pub. A covers band wobbled their way through Reptilia and I Predict a Riot. We ordered several brandies. One of us got thrown out by the bouncer for vomiting in the urinal trough. Oliver Reed it might not have been, but it was probably as close as you can get in 2023.