“Christopher. The other name is unsure. Marlin, Merlin, Marley, Morley. Marlowe will do”— Anthony Burgess, A Dead Man in Deptford (1993)
The playwright Christopher Marlowe, author of Doctor Faustus and contemporary of Shakespeare, was killed during a brawl in Eleanor Bull’s dining room on Deptford Strand as it was known in the 16th Century, now the northern riverside end of Deptford High Street.
The exact details and reasons are unclear, but the mystery and myths surrounding the whole episode are beguilingly explored in Anthony Burgess’s novel. The most intriguing theory suggests the episode was an elaborate hoax, allowing him to escape the country amid charges of atheism and treason (he was out on bail at the time), while he continued to write and publish under the name of a certain William Shakespeare – a delicious and tantalising theory.
Olly Marlowe, Executive Chef of Cityglen Pub Company (formerly of Chez Bruce and The Glasshouse) is the current Marlowe in town, overseeing the menu at The Brookmill pub, two minutes from St Johns station, where grittier Deptford proper becomes genteel St Johns (constructed as Deptford New Town in the late 19th Century), and where two bedroom terraced Victorian houses on Strickland Street go for £600,000. Prices have rocketed in recent years. Desirable Deptford.
Deptford (a corruption of “deep ford”, anciently written depeford) developed from a ford over the Ravensbourne river (close to where Deptford Bridge DLR now lies), growing in importance as a ship building hub in the 16th Century.
This former fishing village and base for the English Navy is dripping with more history than most London suburbs, buried over the centuries. It was mentioned in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, part of the pilgrim’s route to Canterbury; Samuel Pepys was kicking around Deptford in the 1660s while writing his diary, due to his position as Clerk of the Acts to the Navy Board, mentioning Deptford on many occasions; Pepys’ friend and fellow diarist John Evelyn developed the sprawling Sayes Court and gardens, adjacent to the first Royal Navy dockyard founded by Henry VIII in 1513; Sir Francis Drake was knighted in Deptford aboard The Golden Hind by Elizabeth I on returning from his circumnavigation of the world, the ship left on display in Deptford for over a hundred years.
The decline of ship building after 1815 and subsequent closing of the docks in the 20th Century, ushered in an era of economic decline, overcrowded housing and insufficient employment for many years. The current nascent regeneration of the area, including Deptford Market Yard in the station arches, has begun to perk up the interest of food and drink operators (Winemakers Club wine bar is next up), and there’s a feeling of momentum.
Several early visits to The Brookmill have shown it to be one of the pace setters, with some assured cooking that also manages to fulfil its function as a neighbourhood pub, without teetering into navel gazing ‘try-hard gastro’ – quietly classy, is the tune that’s being played here.
A handful of visits, alongside a growing affection for Deptford and its history. Why so? Some reasons below…
Gratin dauphinoise pie, onion purée and charred lettuce (£16) – The ‘pie’ arrives as a lovingly crafted pithivier, whorls of buttery puff pastry encasing thinly sliced, creamy dauphinoise potatoes. What a damn good idea. Top and bottomed with puff, proper pie this, oh yes. Rumours of a ham hock and Gruyère version have me on serious pithivier alert.
Confit lamb breast with salsa verde, turnips, onion rings, green beans and meat juices (£8.50) – Thinly sliced roundels of lamb, ribbons of fat adding a good honk of lamb charged depth. Drizzle of sharp and tangy salsa verde zips through the richness. Crisp thin shards of fried onion, and crunch of baby white turnips for a snap of textural contrast. Pretty on the plate, too.
Roast pork chop with burnt apple purée, creamed potato, shallots and spring greens (£16.50) – Great hunk of pork, alongside soothing, suitably buttery creamed potato. Seasoned beautifully throughout, great balance of flavours, all very well judged. Spotted a bit of marrow on the bone, the cue for picking up chop and gnawing to the finish. A sign of satisfaction.
Chicken liver parfait, white wine jelly, toasted brioche (£7.50) – Silky, silky, silky. Satin textured parfait under a white wine jelly with sharpness and zing, slicing through velvety, buttery liver. Again, well balanced. A deft touch in the kitchen.
Grilled plaice with baby artichoke barigoule, parmesan gnocchi, prosciutto (£16.50) – Parmesan gnocchi is on trend it seems, popping up all over the shop at the moment. No bad thing, when they play a fine supporting role as they do here, fluffy homemade pucks sopping up the white wine laden juices of an artichoke barigoule. Delicate tranche of plaice, off the bone, a slice of prosciutto bristles alongside. Satisfying, no faff. Balance, with no wanky pretension. I’m liking the moves in the kitchen.
Sausage rolls (£4.50) – Piled on the bar, still warm if you time it right. Ne’er a more welcome sight did hungry traveller see. I’ve taken away some on a couple of visits. Really.
Scotch eggs (£5.00) – Couple of goes on these, each time revealing a yolk of oozing yellow and unimpeachable quality of sausage meat. I took one home last time. Yes, really.
Other snacks listed included Bombay Mix (endearing move), smoked prawns and aïoli (next time), taramasalata (posh pale version), and whole globe artichoke with garlic (oh, go on then).
Each Deptford sortie has revealed another layer. Wellbeloved Butchers, in the community since 1829, now run by Bill Wellbeloved, a true gent harking back to another era of community butchers, the smell of homemade pies betraying its location; The Dog and Bell pub, a time warp local wedged between the housing estate and the barren building site of Convoys Wharf (site of the original dockyard), a distillation of a ‘hidden gem’ run by Charlie and Eileen Gallagher since 1988; St Nicolas Church, originally dating from the 14th Century, and where Marlowe is said to have been buried in an unmarked grave; the short walk from Deptford to Greenwich, then the longer jaunt up the hill to Blackheath, a real pleasure.
Beers served in dimpled ale jugs, a kitchen already dispatching some cracking dishes, and a place ticking off the ostensibly simple pub details in the best possible way – details that don’t go out of fashion.
A Deptford that seems to have never kowtowed to a particular trendy ‘scene’ (and with its rich history, why should it?), will be mightily grateful for that.
I keep going back.
“…so I back again to Deptford, and there find them just sat down. And so I down with them; and we had a good dinner of plain meat, and good company at our table: among others, my good Mr. Evelyn…” – The Diary of Samuel Pepys (Monday 3rd June, 1667)
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