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By Jason Offutt
Author’s note: In Spring 2013, I spent three and a half weeks teaching in London. This is one in an amazingly sporadic series exploring my time in that city.
The train ride was longer than I was used to. In central London, Tube cars come every few minutes. The farther out you get, the longer the wait. Sitting at Canada Water station (names for everything here are a bit odd), waiting for the London Overground train, an attractive British woman walked up to me and asked, “Where’s the platform for Crystal Palace?”
I said,” I believe it’s…”
“Oh,” she said, stopping me. “You’re American.” And she walked away. In the U.K., Americans aren’t expected to know anything.
The train eventually arrived, and I boarded it for the New Cross Gate station. I was nervous because I’d never been this far out of central London before. “Don’t worry,” a Londoner who works at my building said when I asked about safety. “There isn’t anywhere in London I wouldn’t feel safe in.” Apparently she’d never been to New Cross Gate.
Spray paint graffiti started to appear on buildings about five minutes out from the station, and trash littered the right-of-way. I hadn’t seen graffiti or litter in London up till this point. Nervousness started to crawl over me, but I shook it off. Sure, I was alone. Sure, the area looked rough. Sure, I didn’t know exactly where I was going, but I was going all the same. I was headed for the Winchester. A pub from one of my favorite movies “Shaun of the Dead.” And if a city full of zombies didn’t keep those heroes from going down to the pub, graffiti wasn’t going to stop me.
A piece of litter blew across the street and over the cracked sidewalk (pavement over here) as I searched for the Winchester’s home on Monson Road. Walking past people standing outside tattoo parlors and pubs smoking cigarettes, and mothers yelling at their children, I … Oh, dear lord, a Domino’s Pizza shop. I was in a rough neighborhood. I just crossed my fingers and started walking.
Somewhere between an Indian restaurant and a group of young men in a church garden (yard) drinking beer out of large bottles in brown bags, I found Monson Road.
The noise of traffic, laughter and anger from the main street quickly grew silent as I explored the interior of New Cross. A street past a park with shady looking teenagers in New York Yankees ball caps, I saw it. The Winchester.
If you’ve never gone to a place featured in a favorite movie, it’s embarrassingly magical. Standing in front of the Winchester, which was once an actual pub called The Duke of Albany, I felt a bit giddy. Kind of silly, yes, but I have no problem with that.
I took a selfie and walked back to the train station. Yes, I’d traveled far out of my comfort zone for only a few minutes of awe, but it was worth it.
I just wish I could have bashed some zombies and popped into the Winchester for a pint, but the building is no longer a pub. It’s a block of flats (apartment building). I guess I could have gone inside and knocked on doors until someone gave me a pint. Someone would have, too. The British have wonderful manners.
Jason Offutt’s latest book, “Across a Corn-Swept Land: An epic beer run through the Upper Midwest,” is available at amazon.com.