This is a bite-sized post; on a Sunday stroll with the missus, I wasn’t intending to do any Nairning but ended up seeing things and having to borrow her iPhone. Dulwich I will return to for a proper post in due course. It was Open House weekend and for blogging purposes I should have been all over it, but all the seldom-open buildings were fully booked by the time I’d applied (such as that sewage pumping station in Stratford). I’m a walker-out, not a joiner-in. I have a horror of voluntarily signing up to anything that will bring me into contact with people, and I’ve never participated in Open House. Having picked out a few interesting places, when it came to traipsing into London at the crack of dawn on Sunday morning I found that I couldn’t face standing in a queue of 500 people and decided I might fare better by trying to sneak into a place when nobody else is doing so (going to work on the Saturday, on the inevitable replacement bus, I passed the Bank of England an hour before its doors opened and the queues were already formidable).
So, after a leisurely breakfast at home, we caught a bus to Lordship Lane and walked into Dulwich Village to see how the other half lives. As an oasis of posh, it’s a bit of a SE London Hampstead/Highgate; an elderly population, beautiful big houses, faux-rural gardens, thriving bookshops with author visits, a blue plaque for Enid Blyton, Café Rouge and Pizza Express. None of your pulled pork pop-ups here. We were contemplating Dulwich Picture Gallery when we realised that the adjoining Christ’s Chapel, which serves Dulwich College and the local parish, was admitting the public as part of Open House. It seemed rude not to.
The chapel dates from 1616, although a lot of the features clearly came along much later. Although he has a thing or two to say about its near neighbours, the chapel does not appear in Nairn. It’s a small nook with the tomb of Elizabethan actor and college founder Edward Alleyn at its centre. The old lady looking after the place asked us to buy a pamphlet for £5; good luck with that. Quite inspiring, anyway, to think that you’re sitting in the very room where P.G. Wodehouse and Nigel Farage probably snored their way through school prize-giving days. There are some fine details in the chapel and my favourite components by far were the beautiful colours of the medievalist altarpiece.
Having not yet studied this section of Nairn, it was pure chance that the name of the Crown & Greyhound pub (‘The Dog’ to locals) snagged in my brain as we passed, and we quickly persuaded ourselves to stop in for a pint and some chips. It was remarkable chance still that we did so on their last day’s business, before the pub shuts up for 15 months’ refurbishment.
It’s a big Victorian pub, with beautiful features kept amiably scruffy; divided into several sections that radiate around a big round bar topped by coloured glass. The rest is filled with nooks in which you can seclude yourself to get on with the business of drinking. Admittedly it’s gastro and Aperol spritz rather than old men watching the horse racing, but it’s still the kind of place where you can relax, and entirely free from the hospice vibe of the middle-of-the-road chain restaurants elsewhere in the village. The period details are quite reminiscent of some of the best pubs in Belfast which, in the period of Catholic emancipation, gave overtime work to the Italian artisans brought over to decorate altarpieces.
Touchingly, Nairn seems more emotionally and spiritually fulfilled by the Crown & Greyhound than he is by several of the most iconic churches in London. He does not hesitate to call it “a masterpiece… it is an act of love, it bursts out all over… a wonderful place to be in, which is enough; but it is also a wonderful torch to carry through the dark alleys of self-consciousness, fashion and academicism. There is a mirror here with leaded lights on it. Olé!”
What will punters be greeted with when it reopens in 2016? God knows. The girl bringing our food stressed that most of the features are listed Grade I and that “legally, we’re not allowed to touch them”. Whatever they do, they should keep the unassuming feel that puts people at ease the moment you cross the threshold. But, as we know, it doesn’t usually work that way.