#019: Coffee and London's trams, for the fun of it
A day off via Beckenham, Croydon and Morden
I’m the kind of guy that doesn’t take enough annual leave from work during the year and so has to carry it over to the following year. I’m also the kind of guy that books his carried over annual leave haphazardly, without any plan or strategy for how I’ll spend that day. I recently had the first of these days in 2022. So I was left with no choice but to travel to south London and ride on the trams. And drink some coffee.
So that’s what this week’s newsletter is about: trams and coffee.
First, some background:
London used to have a lot of trams.
They went all over London, running to each of the major population centres, except for the rich parts. Predictably, the people of boroughs like Kensington and Chelsea didn’t want the ruffians of the trams running through their neighbourhoods. As you can see in the map above, the trams were stopped quite literally in their tracks in the areas surrounding Hyde Park.
By 1952, they had stopped running everywhere when they were scrapped by the London County Council and replaced by ‘trolley buses’ and then later, the actual buses we know today. This mildly amusing video by Jay Foreman will tell you all you need to know about London’s old trams and why they were removed, but in short, they became uneconomical when diesel buses could do a similar job for less money. This was all well and good until population growth started to challenge capacity and traffic congestion became an issue. That brings us to 2000 when a new network of trams in London opened along a 28km stretch of south London. This was a test case for the potential return of trams across the capital, but to this day, they remain the only tram system in operation.
This brings me nicely back to my day of annual leave.
I had been meaning to try out Shotsmiths Coffee in Beckenham for ages, but it’s so far away from East London. Whenever the time came to visit, I would have to make a day of it. So that’s what I did, via the magic of the trams. I decided to find several coffee spots to try throughout the day, with the only criteria being good coffee and the shop being situated vaguely near to a tram stop.
Once I’d caught an actual, full-on National Rail train from London Bridge down to Beckenham and before I’d even set foot on a tram, I dropped into my first stop at Shotsmiths.
Shotsmiths Coffee, Beckenham
It was a sunny day and Shotsmiths is a place that feels good on a sunny day. The light was streaming in and reflecting off of surrounding buildings and as you can see below, was creating some lovely reflections around the place. The shop is on a corner and so benefits from large windows right around the front.
Shotsmiths opened just before the second pandemic lockdown hit the UK in November 2020 and I seem to remember stumbling across their Instagram account and seeing a photo of people queuing around the block. In my brief search for other coffee spots along the tram line, I noticed that Beckenham is generally short on them which may explain the excitement of locals when this opened up. It was quiet when I dropped in at around 11:30 am, but the queue sign outside on the pavement suggests the morning rush is still a regular occurrence.
Shotsmiths serve Allpress Espresso in all of the usual ways, alongside a very good spread of cakes, pastries and brownies. I stuck with an oat flat white, which hit the spot as the first of several coffees of the day.
Another bonus point is awarded to Shotsmiths for their coffee cups - not only are they colourful and nice to look at but they are made by the growing packaging brand, Decent Packaging. I’m going to talk more about good coffee packaging in the newsletter in the future, but Decent makes products that they ensure can be ‘unmade’. They use plant-based materials meaning the coffee cups can be fully broken down and recycled. So seeing a bin full of single-use cups isn’t such a harrowing sight.
I couldn’t spend too long enjoying the surroundings at Shotsmiths though, I had a tram to catch!
Beckenham Road tram stop is a 5-minute stroll from Shotsmiths. From there, I was headed to Croydon, which is basically the tram capital of London. They do a big loop around the town centre, which I’m sure is an absolute whirlwind to ride around, alas, I was stepping off at George Street in pursuit of more coffee.
The London trams, like most trams, are odd in that they tend to use a mixture of dedicated track and rails built into normal roads to make their way around. I know this is very normal, but it was an odd experience in London because it felt like a train on board and I’m so used to the very-much-not-on-roads Underground and Overground experiences. It was a novelty for me, but the people who sat around me as we passed through a tram stop curiously known only as ‘Arena’ looked very unimpressed by the whole thing. I was just a tourist having fun on the trams somewhere between Beckenham and Croydon.
Crushed Bean, Croydon
George Street tram stop was the nearest to Crushed Bean, which came highly recommended. It gave me the chance to stroll through the town centre, which is mainly brutalist like most places that were gutted by German rockets during the Second World War. The town is growing quickly though and developments are rising everywhere. Any newcomers to Croydon would be well advised to make Crushed Bean their local coffee spot. The first attraction is that they serve Bristol’s finest, Clifton Coffee, which is also available to buy by the bag. But if you come for the coffee, you’ll likely end up staying for the lovely, warm service…
…And I’m not just saying that because they gave me free Leek and Potato Soup. Not in return for me saying nice things about them here, but just because they hadn’t sold it all and were about to throw it out. Lunch was sorted. I lapped it up, finished another oat flat white and was on my way again, to Church Street tram stop to catch a final tram to Morden Road.
Metronome Coffee, Morden
Morden Road tram stop is not particularly close to Morden centre, where my final coffee would be bought. My walk from the tram to Metronome Coffee took me in the wrong direction through an industrial estate at first, but I eventually found my way to the front of the shop, clad with some pretty glorious green tiles. The sun was starting to go down and it had got cold quickly. As a result, Metronome was packed and so were made better by a nice cortado, chosen because frankly, I wasn’t certain how much more liquid I could take on board in my post-soup state.
My favourite thing about Metronome was the look and feel of the place. It wasn’t just the green tiles or the ‘Time for Coffee’ sign on the window in the shape of an actual musical metronome. It was also the greyscale minimalist look and their use of the TfL font around the place, which plays in nicely with my tram theme. It was only after reading about Metronome afterwards that I found out that they were, like Shotsmiths, a pandemic creation. My full respect goes to the people who managed to start these businesses and sustain them during this time. The team there also curate art exhibitions and film screenings in the space and host a full recording studio at the back of the cafe. So come for the coffee…stay to drop an LP?
Metronome was where my day would end and from there, I returned to the boring, conventional mode of the Northern line at Morden station. The trams are FAR from where I live in East London, so I won’t be rushing back to use them. But next time I find myself in Beckenham, Croydon or Morden, I know where to drop in for coffee.