When I signed up to be a diarist for Londonist, I imagined long afternoons on the bar stools of Soho, Bloomsbury and Fitzrovia, rubbing shoulders with louche artists, venerable poets and bibulous actors. I didn’t expect to find myself here, just outside Orpington, lingering over the reduced aisle in Costcutter.
But I’m glad I fortified myself, because in investigating the Crays — St Mary, St Paul’s and Foots Cray — I found one of the oldest football clubs in the world, met one of the UK’s most notorious cat burglars and, thankfully, discovered one or two cracking pubs.
St Mary Cray
The only thing I could remember from childhood about the Cray Valley was the impressive nine-arch railway viaduct that spans it. Not only did it carry commuters from Kent to London and back, the workers who built it in 1860 formed London’s first football club, Cray Wanderers, believed to be the world’s second oldest. Currently playing in the Isthmian Premier Division, football’s seventh tier, The Wands are due to move to their own stadium on the nearby Sidcup bypass, after being homeless since 1973.
“Football’s coming home,” tweeted Cray chairman Gary Hillman after Sadiq Khan approved a scheme for the new ground and community facilities, expected to be ready for the start of the 2021 season.
The viaduct looms over St Mary’s Church, a 13th century charmer who lends her name to the area and sits at the north end of the High Street. It’s a high street in name only, with just a handful of shops on a street that’s mostly residential, some of it old and pretty. The retail is all off the High Street in the Nugent Shopping Park, where M&S, Waterstones and TK Maxx sit with Nando’s and Costa for all your modern shopping LOLs.
Lining the High Street are the Riverside Gardens, a pleasant strip of green where you can wander by the Cray River and wonder at a time when it was home, over many centuries, to a number of mills, especially paper mills, all now long gone.
Orpington became the key commuter town in the area, outgrowing its near neighbour, as the Crays struggled to shrug off a reputation for being a bit tasty. In the aforementioned Costcutter, the fine collection of bongs on the counter gave an indication of local recreation, though it was a surprise to see them next to the sweets.
So many pubs have closed in St Mary Cray, but two have survived. The White Swan is on a main road — Kent Road — and is a pleasant enough little local, with darts and slots and football on the telly. There are two pub dogs, one on the day shift and one for the nights. They are both keeshonds, proper fluff balls, known for their distinctive bark and for their use as comfort dogs. So if you stop by after hours, expect a bark as bad as a bite, or during opening hours, you can have a cuddle. The choice is yours.
Down a side street sits The Beech Tree. I wondered why, with so many shutting down, did this place survive? The answer was immediately obvious.
The landlady, Emma, showed me a black and white picture on the wall from back in the day. “Some of them still drink here,” she said. And sitting in the corner was a man who was in the photo, in full colour, but now with grey hair.
The barmaid, Emma’s daughter, knew the name of every customer there and you could see they were all a little bit in love with her. And she was clearly fond of them. That’s why The Beech Tree remains. The regulars and staff care about each other and are prepared to take the mick out of each other to prove it.
Between the two pubs I heard what I believe was a kerfuffle. A man was halfway up a ladder shouting to the lady inside her bedroom. “Come on, darling. Open the door!”
By the time I reached the Beech Tree, he had dropped the ‘darling’ and had added expletives. But, by the time I left, he and his ladder had gone, so a victory perhaps, for either love or the Neighbourhood Watch.
St Paul’s Cray
To the north of St Mary Cray lies St Paul’s Cray. Other than Cray Wanderers, the area is possibly best known for housing the largest settled community of Romani and Irish travellers in the UK, around Star Lane and St Paul’s Cray Country Park. Some say they rub along OK with everybody else, some say quite the opposite. But they remain a hidden minority, one that’s been a part of the country for hundreds of years, with very little understanding of their culture from outside the bubble of gypsy life. But they have been here in the Cray Valley for many generations.
Still little more than a village, St Paul’s Cray has an ancient history. Romans camped by the Cray here and they were not the even the first to party in these parts.
St Paul’s gets its name, not from St Paul the Apostle, but St Paulinus, who brought Christianity to the area in the 7th century. His church here dates back to that era but the current building is relatively spritely, having been built in the 11th century. It’s dropped Paulinus’ name but is currently pursuing righteousness under the auspices of the Redeemed Christian Church of God.
Much of St Paul’s is taken up by the Orpington Golf Centre (nee Cray Valley Golf Club), a vast complex that includes many members of the golfing family: 18-hole, 9-hole, driving ranges and footgolf. Yes, footgolf.
More traditional is the Bull Inn, the only boozer. The white weather-boarded pub has been grade II listed since 1973 and that jumps out at you like some sort of oasis, sitting as it does next to an industrial estate. The wooden beams and fading pictures of olde worlde St Paul’s give it a country feel you trust will never change.
As the Cray continues its way into the Darent, and ultimately, the Thames, it next visits Foots Cray, named after Saxon landowner and Domesday Book-botherer, Godwin Fot.
Footscray was listed 13th in Time Out’s 50 Coolest Neighbourhoods in the World, last year. That was of course, Footscray in Melbourne, Australia, but imagine how cool the place it was named after must be.
Our Foots Cray did achieve a measure of fame in 2004 when Coca-Cola, a major employer locally, launched its bottled water, Dasani, only for it be revealed that the product was essentially Foots Cray tap water, with additional carcinogens.
The real jewel in the area’s crown though is Foots Cray Meadows, 240 acres of sprawling parkland on the London Loop. With gardens designed by Capability Brown and the Cray rushing through its Five Arch Bridge, it’s a largely-overlooked beauty spot on the edge of London.
Despite the obvious charms of Lidl, the Seven Stars pub is the main attraction on Foots Cray High Street. With a nice riverside beer garden and extensive menu, it’s a popular local eatery in a pub that goes back 600 years or so. There I met one or two local characters, including the career criminal-turned-children’s author Sidney James Carter. Dapper gent, “Siddy” regaled me with notorious tales of his cat burglary, many of which are captured in his book, The Life and Times of a Scallywag.
He had lived most of his life in “the Crays”, though Her Majesty often kept him away, at her Pleasure. He sounded like a bit of a Robin Hood, stealing from the rich and dispersing what turned out to be considerable wealth wherever he fancied.
He boasted of robbing from the moneyed, before adding he would often give money away, buying pensioners’ shopping for them on a whim.
“A woman come up to me in The Bull and said, ‘You paid for my pram.’ Apparently I saw her mum was pregnant and just gave her hundred nicker.”
Carter turned to writing while inside, which given his extraordinary tales and contacts, makes a lot of sense now he’s gone straight. But his criminal enterprises don’t reflect the area, or even his family. All his nine siblings stayed on the right side of the law. But “Champagne Sid” is the one with the stories.