To The Lighthouse: A Day at Trinity Buoy Wharf

As I’m sure you already know, (what with all the pictures of kids dressed up at their favourite fictional characters being posted all around the world) yesterday was National Book Day and, in honour of one of my best-loved books, Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, I decided to go to London’s only lighthouse at Trinity Buoy Wharf.

“She felt… how life, from being made up of little separate incidents which one lived one by one, became curled and whole like a wave which bore one up with it and threw one down with it, there, with a dash on the beach.”

So I ventured far out east, through the scrabbling phalanx of suited office workers scuttling like ants around Bank station and out on the DLR to East India Docks.

Walking past the mud-churned waters of The Thames, along the edge where tiny moorhens and hulking seagulls were nosing through the debris that surfaced as the water peeled away from the mud at low tide, I discovered that it’s actually quite hard to miss Trinity Buoy Wharf.

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Even more so now considering that the whole area here near London City Island is undergoing a major facelift and the under contraction areas are currently fenced off with iron gates and patrolled by high-vis wearing sentries.

The site has been a workshop for crafting beacons, marks and signs for the sea since Trinity House’s corporation of mariners and shipmen moved in in Tudor times. TBW was closed more than 450 years later in  1988 when it was purchased by the London Docklands Development Corporation.

In 1996, Urban Space Management took the site on a long lease and today, this industrial enclave has taken on a decidedly cultural edge with everyone from design students at the University of East London to opera companies making their home in the cavernous warehouse studios, old stone houses and Crate City – lego stacked and primary colour painted metal crates. It’s even home to the London Parcour Academy.

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As I wandered around, the brackish breeze with its edge of burning rubbish rising up from the water and swirling around me, I realised that TBW has managed to achieve something rare in London.

They’ve made a place that’s interesting without being heaving with tourists; historic without being pretentious; gentrified without feeling privileged and cool without feeling remotely hipster.

I could have spent all day here, but only had a morning, which was just enough time to squeeze in the following.

10 things to do at Trinity Buoy Wharf

1. See London’s last remaining lighthouse

Designed and built by James Douglass in 1864, this elegantly-wrought lighthouse is the last one standing in modern day London.  The caramel-coloured stone edifice with its honeycomb hat of metal and glass was dubbed the Experimental Light house after the work done in its eaves by the scientist Michael Faraday.

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2. Experience The Faraday Effect

Designed by Fourth Wall Creations, The Faraday Effect is a tiny, multi-sensory and interactive museum and one of the smallest collections of curiosities in London. Despite its diminutive size, you’ll be surprised at how long you can spend in this tardis of a museum learning about the life and work of Michael Faraday, the famous Scientific Advisor to Trinity House.

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3. Seek out the sculptures

Alongside the wood that’s been painted cobalt and burgundy and around the scarlet and banana yellow metal crates, there are softly rusted and worn metal sculptures to be found.

Many of these are moving machines made by Andrew Baldwin and are scattered around the wharf, but below piece was created by Yoshie Jujioka using items found lying around LBW and now sits on the side of the Boiler House.

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4. Check out the big red boat

This colossal crimson ship moored behind the Big Boys Diner isn’t quite what it seems. It’s owned by Ben Phillips, an engineer who bought the 500 tonne lightship at an auction and converted it into an audio recording studio, renaming it Lightship95 along the way.

You can’t exactly just hop aboard if you feel like it, but you can book a recording session on the boat by emailing ben@lightship95.com.

Besides, even if you aren’t a budding musician, this brute of a boat makes for spectacular viewing from the safety of the dock.

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5. Liston to tides of The Thames with the Floodtide Listening Post

As I was standing and admiring the view in front of the Aluna clock, I was jolted out of my reverie by the metallic whispering that grew in volume until it sounded like the chirping of a steam engine. Turning around I realised that the noise was coming from a rust-covered post that dripped gleaming steal pipes like a trident.

The ingenious Floodtide Listening Post is a mechanical music machine that plays notes determined by the rise and fall and the sweep and wash of the river Thames’ tides.

The sweet, reedy lament of the pipes wasn’t exactly how I imagined the oily, clouded depths of The Thames would sound if it spoke, but this siren song shouldn’t be missed.

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6. Take in the view

From the docks, across the chocolate-coloured water, the sky opens up and you can see the spindly, latticed bridges stretching out and clutching on to cobalt blue cargo boats; the hive of activity smashing around the adjacent industrial sites and the spikes of the O2 building stretching upwards, where the cable cars of the Emirates Air Line dip and sway between fat, fluffy shreds of cloud.

It may not be the prettiest view of London, but it’s definitely one of the most interesting.

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7. Spot the details

My favourite thing about TBW was its smattering of curious objects and adornments, from the abandoned carcasses of super-sized letters and sumo wrestlers locked in battle on barrel lids to easy-to-miss carvings and decorations.

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8. Go on a graffiti hunt

As well as Electric Soup – the zany under the sea mural painted by New Zealand Artist Bruce Mahalski over a former shop front on Orchard Place – there are lots of ever changing and vividly-coloured tags and paintings all along the walkway from East India Docks DLR station to the water’s edge at TBW, just keep your eyes peeled to spot them.

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9. Learn to tell Alunatime

Sticking up from its stone foundation like a rusty lollipop, the Alunatime is the city’s first (and probably only) moon and tide clock.

Powered by the tides, the intricacies of the lunar phases and tide cycles are etched into its circular base and chart the natural rhythms of the Earth. It’s rumoured that this Alunatime is acting as an early version of the huge one that’s planned for Greenwich Peninsula, so you’d better get to grips with your lunar cycles now.

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10. Satisfy your hunger pangs at Fat Boys Diner

Nestled amid the box crates and beached boats is Fat Boys Diner, an American incongruity that seems curiously at home at TBW.

Designed and decked out like a real diner with cream and maroon leather booths, table-sized jukeboxes and a long stretch of formica bar, this natty little place serves up Americana classics like cheeseburgers, malted milkshakes, grilled cheese sandwiches and, of course, gigantic slabs of apple pie.

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Fatboy Diner

As the weather was so gloriously lovely, I couldn’t resist filling my camera’s memory card with a whole reel of colourful images from the docks.

Here are just a few more of my favourites.

 

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In Pictures: Word on the Water

I’ve just opened a book that I levered off the heaving shelf in the next room, unconsciously perching on the threadbare pew that’s nudging the backs of my knees as I turn the bruised and pleasingly used pages.

“The first light of morning barely illuminated the sky as Gustad Noble faced eastward to offer his orisons to Ahura Mazda. The hour was approaching six, and up in the compound’s solitary tree the sparrows began to call. Gustad listened to their chirping every morning while reciting his kusti prayers. There was something reassuring about it. Always, the sparrows were first; the cawing of crows came later.

From a few flats away, the metallic clatter of pots and pans began nibbling at the edges of stillness…”

Certain pages are bent and folded; stained where fingers have traced over the ink of complicated passages or favourite phrases that have been memorised and pocketed away for later. Music from Porgy and Bess is spilling around, warming the whisps of the dank, winter’s day that are seeping in through the open door, dragging themselves along the dark floorboards to sit grey and heavy on my chest.

When the wind changes the air is flooded with an acrid tang of burning fuel that briefly masks the comforting smell of old dust and second-hand paper. Someone’s feet startle me out of the corner of my eye, stamping through the passage I was reading as they pause, somewhere between my head and the low ceiling.

As they continue past, I realise that the floor underneath me is moving. It lurches gently as the books on the shelf that were once perfectly level are suddenly and disconcertingly skewed and my stomach takes a slow tumble. Although I should have anticipated that really, because I’m on a Dutch book barge, where words float on water.

Keats’ chosen epitaph was “here lies one whose name was writ in water”, but luckily this watery writing hub has a little  more permanence. Founded by affable owner Paddy Screech as a solution to the threat of rising overheads involved in owning an independent shop in the capital,  this 100-year-old barge has been converted into a book-lovers’ paradise with shelves groaning under the weight of reasonably-priced (two paperbacks for £5, if you were wondering) books penned by everyone from philosophers and criminologists to Booker Prize winners.

Word on the Water changes location every so often, but for the time being it can be found moored on the murky canal just below Granary Square in King’s Cross. Marooned on the greyish waters, this is a little shop quite unlike any other and is full of little eccentricities that make it disarmingly charming – like the resident little buddha with its tattered prayer flags or the forlorn Noah’s Ark bookends propped against the encyclopaedias above the old, coal-blackened stove.

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Word on the Water might not have such a happy ending, however. The Canal & River Trust, which awards permanent moorings to worthy applicants, has just decided to give preciously rare trade moorings in Paddington away to a multi-billion pound property company British Land instead of this floating world of literature.

There’s a petition on Change.org you can sign if you think the council should reverse its decision. I’ve already signed it and urge others to do so – they only need 313 more signatures and it would be a real shame if this unique shop had to close.

Last Words…

The book barge is cash only – I stupidly forgot to bring any so couldn’t leave with the book I started.

If you get peckish, there are lots of brilliant places to eat a stone’s throw from Word on the Water. Try Caravan for exceptional coffee and brunch grub; The Grain Store for interesting all-day nibbles like spiced lentil cake with cucumber salad and banana ketchup or my favourite, Dishoom.

Sitting in one of their summer house cane and leather chairs sipping chai and smelling incense feels like visiting the days of the Old Raj. Don’t leave without trying one of their impossibly creamy mango and fennel lassis or their chargrilled paneer and green chilli Roomali roti rolls.

Life lessons and writing wishes: Looking back at 2014 and forward to 2015

As a wise man (or character if you want to be pedantic) once said: “Get busy living, or get busy dying”, so here are my five life lessons learned from 2014 and five writing and personal goals for 2015.

This morning, when it was still dark enough to hide my shambling form from the new year resolution joggers on Clapham Common,  I dug around under my bed and pulled out my old trainers – and believe me they were rammed back there so far it involved a lot of digging and crawling.

And so I went for a run, something I never do but have decided to do more of in 2015 as I feel one’s exercise shouldn’t just consist of opening biscuit tins or tottering in high heels as you approach your thirtieth year.

As I rambled along, breath white against the murky black of a London morning and ripped from my unsuspecting lungs by a bitter January breeze, I decided it was about time I addressed one of those dreaded yearly round up posts – very slow off the mark I know, but then I’ve always been a late bloomer.

There was also a lingering fear of actually writing one and officially letting go of 2014. I’m silly like that. You see, 2014 was a very good year. A year of travelling and food and friends and consistent work and new houses after a disastrous 2013; and I can’t shake the feeling that a bad year MUST follow a good one.

But then my vaguely more sensible side kicked in and I remember that there’s no point in moping around at my kitchen table sipping endless cups of tea and waiting for good and/or bad things to sweep into my life this year. As a wise man (or character if you want to be pedantic) once said: “Get busy living, or get busy dying”, so here are a few life lessons learned from 2014 and some writing and personal goals for 2015.

Lessons learned in 2014

Early on in 2014 I travelled to Dubai, somewhere I have never wanted to go and thought I would hate with a passion, but, after a little digging through the brash and the bombast, I discovered that Dubai can be a beautiful place if you look hard enough.

….and it’s also home to massages that can transport you to nirvana, the height of decadent eating and one of the strangest sports I have ever been given the chance to try.

That some of the most challenging projects can be the most rewardingeven the ones that feel like they might kill you in the process.

That Malaga is more than just a gateway to the horrors of the Costa del Sol 

That it is possible to see too many musicals, plays and operas. I took on a role late in 2014 as the interim editor of the Ticketmaster UK blog, which meant that I spent my days doing fun things like chatting to Lulu and going backstage at Urinetown and my nights watching back to back shows, from Wicked and Cats to The Marriage of Figaro and La Boheme. After a while, all this lovely theatrical stuff gets under your skin and you start to wonder why no one is singing on the tube or why you haven’t fallen in love by 10am and been torn apart from your new beau an hour later in dramatic circumstances.

By the end of it all not only was I exhausted, but every morning was starting to feel as though it should begin like this:

That cooking keeps me sane and I love writing original recipes for tasty treats like pain perdu, lemon polenta cake and ice cream sandwiches and that Rachel Khoo is one of the most fun people to cook with.

That London can still surprise me with secret jazz salons and hidden, half-forgotten graveyards.

That there is such a thing as the perfect girly weekend destination…and it’s Cologne…more on that in 2015, but for now, here’re some pictures of that fabulous city.

Wants and wishes for 2015

To run more, which is, as goals go, the one I’m looking forward to least as I am miles away from breaking through that barrier and starting to enjoy it.  On the other hand, I still have the ‘run a marathon’ goal on my ancient 30 before 30 list hanging over my head…let’s see how close to this I get by the end of the year…

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To cook more, and I’ve got two new projects about food in the mental pipeline that I’d like to tackle…more on that soon.

To read more. I lost my ability to devour books in a single session somewhere midway through last year. Instead of automatically reaching for a book, I’d find myself ploughing through box sets on Netflix or Amazon Prime or playing Candy Crush on the tube instead of leafing through newspapers and scribbling in journals.

This year I’d like to try getting through a minimum of four books per month, and here are the chosen ones for January:

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I’ve decided that 2015 will be the year I try my luck at living in another city, perhaps just for a few months to start with. High on my wish list is Paris, so I can finally improve my French and simply because writing about it for Flight Centre made me realise just how much I love it.

And it’s being in that foreign city for a few months that will, hopefully, help transform my ideas for a book into an actual book. Which brings me round to another goal: to finally write up all the snatches of short stories I’ve collected from all my travels, starting with a series scribbled in a succession of Viennese coffee houses.

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Finally, my only other personal goal is to stop letting London life get to me. London is a strange place. It’s beautiful in parts, heartbreakingly ugly in others. It’s a place of random kindness, but also of horrible brutality. It’s a place that simultaneously throws you into contact with an international crowd yet holds you apart and often alone from making any real connections.

I often find myself teetering on the edge of agony and ecstasy, one brilliant exhibition or one mind numbing commuter crush away from happiness or depression. It’s the sort of city that offers you everything on a platter then holds it just out of reach unless you’re that magical combination of cash and time rich. It makes you feel bad for spending evenings and weekends indoors and berates you for missed opportunities. Well…it does me anyway, so this year I’ve decided I need to give London a break.

– I will be patient and understanding when tourists block any and every road/station/escalator in the capital

– I will smile when shop assistants/cashiers/waiters are surly to the point of rude and act as though helping you is a massive favour, not their actual mode of employment

– I will stop rushing. I will stop running for tubes/dates/dinners and leave earlier and start walking more instead of grabbing that lazy bus or train

– I will stop beating myself up if I miss exhibitions or if it takes me a little longer to see the latest films or if I can’t always afford to eat at that ‘must try’ restaurant. These things are not a necessity but a treat.

– I will visit different boroughs outside of my comfort zone

And finally, I think I will definitely make a ‘Good Things 2015 Jar’ – an idea that I stole from Frankie (As the Bird Flies):

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Image: As the Bird Flies

In the spirit of my new, slightly more magnanimous and London-loving self, a happy new year to you all. Bring on 2015.

A Song for the Day and a Short Story Extract: The Electric Chair

I was recently in Vienna on a strange, pre-birthday solo trip; pushing the boundaries of how comfortable I felt being in a foreign country on my own in different circumstances. Seeking out a dimly-lit jazz club is something I try to do in every country I visit and, luckily for me, Vienna has Porgy & Bess, one of the best venues I’ve ever sloped into after dark. This red-lit pit of a place is lined by plush, velvet stuffed chairs and benches that are filled, nearly every night, with dedicated locals and a smattering of curious tourists.

What I loved most about this place was the sheer diversity of the acts on show. You’ll find more on stage there than just crowd pleasing swing jazz and cuban beat classics, because this Vienna haunt supports a slew of local and lesser known international artists of the more avant grade variety. The Vienna Roomservice session I dropped into had three acts, the frighteningly hypnotic Manon-Lui Winter, who doesn’t exactly play a piano…she strums it, the heart stopping funk of No Home For Johnny and a solo guitarist called Julien Desprez.

Desprez’s performance wasn’t exactly comfortable for me. From his first clashing roar of sound I was taking sneaky peeks around the room to see if anyone else was a little nonplussed by this violent synth mash up. But soon I was overpowered and pinned to my chair, transfixed by the force of his playing. Mainstream it wasn’t and still, even after the room burst into expected, rapturous applause, I was left shaken and vaguely disturbed by his music; by this electric man and his strangled guitar. So I did the only thing that I knew would make me feel normal again, I grabbed a pen and scribbled this little chunk of rambling prose into my Vienna guidebook.

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The Man in the Electric Chair

His arms contort, thrust themselves forward to tear at the empty air as his body is taken up by the infernal machine. The rhythm he writhes to is a twist and a shake, a scatter gun of shudder and stutter like a broken toy soldier. Every twitch is agony, but that sound, that sound must be fed. Deep and raw and brutal it gushes from his quivering limbs, moving and clenching as it creeps its way upwards, up from his locked knees, his rigid stomach, the sinews in his throat taunt as a bow’s string with the tension of it, with the musical rigor mortis.

His eyes are shut against his corporal horror, his mouth stitched closed by the sound. The sound that hits him, beats the hands that are throttling the neck of the guitar. It’s a violent sound, a red sound. A wall of vibration from the guitar he clutches, the guitar he is lashed to by wires the colour of old veins.

He stabs at it, a glancing blow to the sound, but he comes back again and again. Slicing until the next convulsion of that sodden sound ripples over him again. And then he’s still, heaving into the absence as the sound stretches out and away into the darkened room beyond.

If you’re heading to Vienna anytime soon I urge you to check out Porgy & Bess. You can book tickets, in English on their website: www.porgy.at

And here is the man in action on youtube:

A behind the scenes song for the day with a digital difference: The Kronos Quartet

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“Virtually any composer that we’ve encountered has said that the string quartet is the most personal and expressive medium that they know of.” – David Harrington, Artistic Director and Founder of Kronos.
Listen, delve into and experience the physicality of a the brilliant Kronos string quartet from the outside in with this beautiful virtual rendering of the communication between symbiotic performers, which reveals a visual representation of how the individual players connect as one.

“When four people are doing very complex rhythms, we talk about a heartbeat right in the center of the group, and I do think of that image, too.” – John Sherba, Violinis

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Full and original article on the Arts section of the NY Times, found here.

All Aboard the Afternoon Tea Bus

Forget a ride on the magic school bus (for those who feel a bit generationally challenged, have a look here), the only bus to catch this August is the one featuring the glorious combination of tea connoisseurs from Afternoontea.co.uk and the pastry masters from BB Bakery.

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Because, for one week only during Afternoon Tea Week (11-17th August), this red bus will carry you around the prettiest parts of London and serve you a full high tea while its doing it, including as many glasses of Laurent Perrier that your travel tummy can stomach.

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I hopped aboard last week with a fleet of fellow food writers and bloggers to test our mettle on a portable afternoon tea with a difference. There’s something quite special about this tour, and it isn’t just the array of slightly warm (it was one of the hottest days of the year so far) tea treats that was spread out on tables between the vintage leather seats. It was this very odd sense of delightful privilege you get when ensconced high above the bustling streets, watching London’s seething crowds and phalanx of traffic snake past from the lofty viewpoint of the top deck of a London bus, chilled champagne in hand.

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In fact, it was all I could do not to start waving like a regal berk at the minions below – a sensation that lasted about as long as it took me drop some exquisitely-made coco-rich, black truffle chocolate tart down my skirt. Anyone worrying, as we all were, about the saftey and practicality of trying to pour hot tea on a moving bus will be pleased to know that the teas are all served in sealable china mugs and the waiters seem to have been hired for their ability to say perfectly upright in jolting traffic while expertly pouring champagne – I’d like to know what the interview process involved for that job!

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The route weaves itself around some of London’s best-loved landmarks and iconic sights, from Westminster’s Big Ben to The Royal Albert Hall and Marble Arch – places that are infinitely easier to take in when you’re looking through a bus window than trying to navigate the tourist tornado.

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There’s plenty of time in the one-and-a-half-hour slots to scoff your way through the full range of sweet and savory treats on offer, from cream cheese sandwiches, salmon blinis and light as a feather quiches to cupcakes, macaroons, burnished scones with strawberry jam and Roddas clotted cream and some of the best little lemon meringue pie-lets I have ever eaten. What’s more, you can even hire the whole bus for parties or hen dos, and specify if you need a gluten free or vegetarian tea.

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At £45 per person it falls into the middle ground of high-end afternoon tea prices in London, but what other place can offer you quite the same experience? Exactly! For more information and to book, see the Afternoon.co.ukwebsite.

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As well as the Afternoon Tea Bus, Afternoon Tea Week will be featuring a vast array of traditional and unusual teas. See my pick of the best below.

  • Celebrate the Great British Summer with the Intercontinental London Westminster’s Summer Holiday Afternoon Tea, which features The Beach – a true work of art by their talented pastry team – Chocolate Fudge Beach Huts, Cherry Cheesecake Bucket and Spades, Peach Mousse Sandcastles, Toffee and Chocolate Wheels and Jivara Chocolate Cones all of which sit on an almond sand.

  • Afternoon tea gets the rockstar treatment at Sanctum with the Gentleman’s Afternoon Tea. Forget dainty china and pretty pastries – this is all about attitude and big flavours with Poached Oyster, Lamb Hotpot, Seared Steak, Smoked Salmon served up alongside Jack Daniels ice cream and a cigar.

  • The Mad Hatters Afternoon Tea at The Sanderson includes British food, English ceramics and a large dash of our renowned eccentricity including a tick tock Victoria sponge clock and strawberry and cream homemade marshmallow mushrooms.

  • Park Tower Knightsbridge has put together a special Take Away Strawberry Afternoon Tea for you to pick up and enjoy al fresco in one of London’s parks or back in the comfort of your own home.

  • Top London chocolatier paul.a.young is launching his Cream Tea at his Heal’s store during the week. Pop in for scones topped with clotted cream and his famous Sea salted caramel sauce served with tea by the Rare Tea Lady and an award-winning truffle of your choice.

Song for the Day: Musical Mondays and New Rooms

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I just moved house. My house has that new house smell. Actually, it doesn’t if I’m honest, because this house is beautifully old and wonderfully dilapidated. It’s a victorian terrace with all the quirks, nooks and crannies that I have ever hoped for in a home.

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I don’t like new houses. They’re too…square. I love places like this, where the floors are stained honey brown and worn from decades of  footsteps; where the walls blister and bubble in odd curves and strange shapes; where the cracks make the house feel like a defiant old women. The Dowager Countess of Grantham who is stuck in her ways and her own style who isn’t the least but interested in your new fangled modern nonsense, thank you very much!

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There’s also a cupboard dedicated to baking and booze, which has become my shrine to gin and sugar.

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It’s safe to say I’ve fallen for this house. I’m sitting serenely at my scrubbed oak table under the unashamedly girly bunting on a white-painted chair and thinking that I can, almost, very nearly ignore my neighbours….just about. Ok, so all is not quite dreamy, but more of those ogres at the end as I’d like to post beautiful pictures of my favourite corners of my new hideaway first, along with the songs that remind me of moving house and finding that little space that’s all your own…well, mine and the two-ton-tessa who lives above me.

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Ah the neighbours. Why is it a prerequisite in London to hate your neighbours? My first night they welcomed me with an all night sprint competition up and down the hard wood floors followed by a sport of olympic-worthy trampolining on the ceiling above my head. 

I have put them into three sections. There’s Mr Stampy, or Mr Tosser, depending on my mood. Now, he’s a tiny Brazilian with a Napoleon complex and a nose like a dorito who enjoys wearing hard-soled shoes and stamping around his domain, long walks down the hall and has a great sense of humour, if your idea of a jolly good laugh is to burp really loudly and with surprising frequency. 

There’s mumbles, who seems to follow Stampy around apologetically and who tries to be quiet but ends up making more noise by dropping things and/or joining in with Stampers Magee.

The third is a new addition. I call her Madame le Squeal. I can never exactly make out what she is saying but the way she drawls and camps it up it sounds like every sentence she utters is a double entendre (in your entendre). She is fond of loud exhalations of high-pitched excitement and is just THRILLED to be living with her new besties. 

They all seem to work varying hours that span 11am to 6am and have set up a pretty effective watch sentry-style schedule, taking it in turns to alternate sleep with stamping. 

If anyone has any decent suggestions for asking someone to modify their walk without sounding like a) a bitch or b) a bitch who cares what other people think it would be most appreciated!

in Pictures: Open Garden Squares Weekend

Every year, for two days, the inner sanctums of some of London’s most prestigious organisations and poncey padlocked squares are open to the average joe public.

Gardening Leave

There are over 200 squares, gardens, allotments and private grounds open for nosing about this weekend and most of them are absolute gems, from the floating garden barges near Tower Bridge to the too-posh-to-be-true rose-covered Cadogan Square Gardens and the walled peace of Royal Hospital’s therapeutic veg patches, where veterans and Chelsea Pensioners sow runner beans and sweet williams.

Gardening Leave

Yesterday the mother and I pottered all over London oo-ing and ah-ing at the bijoux, blue-painted courtyard outside Rococo Chocolates on Motcomb Street (yes, of course we ate a fair few of the freshly-made, award-winning truffles on offer before we left), we learned about the deadly poisons posing behind the luscious blooms and delicate fronds at the Royal College of Physicians and wandered around the labyrinthine Academy Hotel, stumbling across courtyard gardens that were once the haunt of the Pre-Raphelite Brotherhood and the literary Bloomsbury Set.

There are still tons of gardens open today, including the Royal Hospital’s Gardening Leave, Rococo Chocolates MaRoCoCo Garden, The Academy Gardens and Cadogan’s Square and Place Gardens and a host of other places open all over London in 25 boroughs. Check the website for a garden near you and grab your opportunity to see these leafy little slices of hidden London that are normally kept under wraps and away from prying eyes.

Cooking with Khoo: A kitchen workshop with Rachel Khoo

Last week I was lucky enough to be one of the food writers asked to cook with TV superchef and author, Rachel Khoo at Clapham’s Cactus Kitchens (where they film Saturday Morning Kitchen and yes, I did get the obligatory fangirl photo behind the Saturday Kitchen counter…and opening the oven…and at the guest table, but who’s counting?) to test out some of the recipes that’ll be featured in her two, brand spanking new cookery shows, which start this evening on the Good Food channel.

I’ve always admired Rachel Khoo and have secretly lusted after that little Paris studio apartment and her vie en France for years. I’m delighted to report that she is just as lovely in person as she comes across in the world of TV and, instead of being intimidatingly ‘cheffy’, is reassuringly down to earth, even to the point of occasionally forgetting her ingredients and letting a few expletives slip out.

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And she has a deep-seated love of my favourite food: cheese. So much so that when we (some of the most exciting food bloggers in London apparently – god knows what I was doing there but shhhh in case someone points me out as the impostor in what was an impressive line up that included The Food Urchin, Food for Think,  and Crump Eats and The Cutlery Chronicles) were bombarding her with questions about favourite foods and final meals before a trip to le guillotine the answers generally involved cheese, which makes her alright in my book.

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In her latest series, Rachel Khoo’s Kitchen Notebook: London, the diminutive Cordon Bleu trained chef has left her little Paris kitchen and been transported to a London venue, before leaving it again to eat and cook her way around some of the best foodie destinations in Europe from Istanbul to Stockholm in Rachel Khoo’s Kitchen Notebook: Cosmopolitan Cook. Her recipes are packed with simple flavours, tinged with food memories and touches of culinary nostalgia and often based on ingredients that have been gleaned and gathered from her trips around the world and her heritage.

We tried our hands at Spaeztle, light as air dumpling pearls that Khoo grew up on courtesy of her Austrian mother. Khoo’s Spaeztle were stained green with garlic and parsley, tossed in bucket loads of butter, Parmesan and roasted onion petals and served strewn with butter-fried sage and thyme and where, in short, heavenly.

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Next we were tasked with creating a layered savoury Scandinavian cake called Smörgåstårta, which is almost as fiddly to decorate as it is to pronounce, especially when the loaded word ‘competition’ was dropped into the mix by Khoo. The kitchen was notably more quiet as suddenly each blogger started concentrating on making roses out of cured salmon and cucumber balls using that most 80s of kitchen utensils: the melon baller. All I remember at the five minute warning point was sticking parsley leaves and cucumber grapes onto the side of my Smörgåstårta and trying to force a beetroot to look like a flower while almost succumbing to a full Bake-off technical bake style panic.

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As soon as Rachel started taking about making petals with slivers of beetroot, in my head I saw a garden made with shards of dill sculpted along a cucumber base , growing into parsley stalk vines that would twist upwards, topped by whole leaves, delicate seeds of cucumber grapes and ribbons before swirling into purple beetroot flowers and fat salmon roses. What I ended up with was a bit less Secret Garden and more science project, but I was stupidly pleased with it in the end.

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At the moment, Khoo is hanging out in Hackney and getting to grips with the ever changing London food scene, which, as she admits in the video edit below, is a very different kettle of fish to Paris’. You can see the full edit of our inside workshop plus hear Rachel’s take on the London’s love of pop up fast food and find out who took home the Smörgåstårta crown (if you hadn’t manage to guess yet based on my fetching gurn in the below picture with Khoo) in the specially tailored video that the team at Cactus was lovely enough to cut for me.

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Rachel Khoo’s Kitchen Notebook:London kicks off tonight at 9pm on Good Food channel, followed by Rachel Khoo’s Kitchen Notebook: Cosmopolitan Cook at 9.30pm.

I attended Rachel Khoo’s kitchen workshop for Foodepedia, which you can read about here.

In Pictures: Cross Bones Graveyard

We knew we’d found it when I saw the gleaming sign, a washed, weather-wracked white against the blood and sand red of the brick behind it. We’d been shuffling around the back of the station for a while, trying to wind our way around the alleyways, flanked by high, grey stone walls as the trains thundered ahead, wheels shrieking against the sides of the tracks and buffeting our ears with their metallic, greasy roar. But there way no mistaking it when I saw it: Redcross Way. This was the place.

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From the corner of the road it looked perfectly ordinary. There was a pub at the end – the building almost sagging with age and use – and, directly opposite, we could just make out a flash of green and pink against the grey of the steel gates. The faded chalk confirmed it, we were standing in front of Cross Bones Graveyard.

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There’s nothing like discovering a piece of London that you never even knew existed and this graveyard was definitely a first for both me and my flatmate Carine. We’d gone on the recommendation of London blogger Fiona Maclean and, to be honest, weren’t expecting much. There’s also nothing quite like being proved wrong.

On the rusty iron gates of Cross Bones, half-hidden in the twisted bits of ribbon, broken dolls and faded flowers, is a plaque that reads ‘R.I.P The Outcast Dead.’ Here lies the Winchester Geese, the ladies of the night, the women of ill repute…in short, the prostitutes that worked in the Liberty of he Clink – or Southwark as it was technically known.

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From the 12th to the 17th century, The Bishops of Winchester were effectively ruling this patch of seedy London and what was forbidden within the confines the city walls, be it gambling, drinking or whoring, was all go in this quarter. During Shakespeare’s times it was reputedly a seething hotbed of brothels, bear pits, taverns and, most sinfully of all THEATRES. Gasp.

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But there was a problem. The gentle folk of the city couldn’t be expected to share grave space with the unclean Southwark dwellers, so Cross Bones – a ‘single women’ graveyard – was born

‘I have heard of ancient men, of good credit, report that these single women were forbidden the rites of the church, so long as they continued that sinful life, and were excluded from Christian burial, if they were not reconciled before their death. And therefore there was a plot of ground called the Single Woman’s churchyard, appointed for them far from the parish church.’ John Stow, Historian, 1598

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Cross Bones stayed a graveyard until concerns were raised over it becoming overcrowded and dangerous to public health. The land was briefly turned into a fair ground before being taken over by London Underground in the 1990s and used as an electricity sub-station for the Jubilee Line extension. Archaeologists removed some of the skeletons, but an estimated 99% are still buried at the site and in the last decade the gates and graveyard have become a shrine for anyone of any faith to leave mementoes, messages and gifts remembering those loved and lost. There are monthly vigils and events organised by the Friends of Crossbones, which you can find out more about here.

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Whether you’d like to see a seedier side to London; a portion of it’s shadowy past that’s never been forgotten, or just to stumble across something so colourful and macabre it will make you re-evaluate quite why you love this city, then a weekend wander here is a must.

Happy Syttende Mai: 99p Fish & Chips, The Ritz and Mr Mitch Tonks

£1 fish, £1 fish. Nope, you’re not on a fish stall in east London’s Queen’s market…although let’s remind ourselves of that glorious song once more:

…in fact, quite the opposite. Today is the 200th anniversary of the Norwegian Constitution and, to celebrate Norway day, Britain’s biggest seafood trading partner celebrated with a seafood feast in the candy-pink, high-ceilinged salons of The Ritz Hotel and shipped over 16 tonnes of cod so that 99 fryers across the UK can serve 99p fish and chips.

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The great and good from The Norwegian Seafood Council, trade and industry ministries, Innovation Norway and even celebrated British seafood chef, Mitch Tonks, turned up in the pristine, heritage surrounds of the Ritz’s inner sanctum to talk about, promote and gorge on the frozen-at-sea fresh produce that Norway specialises in. All of this is unsurprising really when you consider that 270 million plates of fish and chips are sold in the UK and 7350 tonnes of cod are shipped from Norway’s icy fjords and coastline into UK shops, restaurants and takeaways every year.

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Fish is big business in both the UK and Norway and, as fish-lovers are consistently battered with information on sustainability and exactly what they should and shouldn’t be eating, the question of food provenance and accountability has become a hot button issue.

Even travel companies and tourism boards are getting involved as we were told by Danny Giles from Hurtigruten, who run a surprisingly food conscious cruise called Norway’s coastal kitchen – where 85% of the food served on board is produced locally and is picked up daily as they wind their way through the fjords, meaning that the Arctic Char that’s been caught at 4am will appear on dinner plates at 5pm that evening.

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One chef who needs no convincing of Norway’s fresh fish credentials is Mitch Tonks, who has a couple of celebrated seafood restaurants and fish and chip eateries down in Dartmouth, one of which is taking part in today’s 99p fish meal offer. He celebrated syttende mai (that’s Norway day to you and me) last year with Foodepedia by offering up his very own norwegian fish recipes which you can still whip up here, if you fancy joining the party today.

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Tonks fell in love with Norway’s fishing and production techniques years ago saying that he always nods to the Scandinavian way of life for fish dishes, particularly when it comes to their penchant for pickles: “Pickled fennel or pickled red onions really lift a dish,” he explained. “Norway has integrity when it comes to sustainable fish. In Norway, sustainability wasn’t just a buzz word, it was a way of life.”

photo 2 (16)And if we needed any more convincing of the quality and ‘Arctic freshness’ of Norwegian produce, all we had to do was look at the spread that The Ritz’s executive chef, John Williams, had laid out below decks. In a tiny side room Scandinavian food had collided head on with British heritage and the result was a selection of hot and cold seafood delights that gave me a severe case of buffet blindness as I wandered around levering slivers of hand carved smoked salmon and wedges of crumbling Norwegian cured fjord trout onto my rapidly overloaded plate.

IMG_2579[1]I felt a bit like The Little Mermaid, reeling off a roll call of fishy whosits and whatsits galore: there were bowls overflowing with ruby-red prawns, lumps of king crab leg dressed with dots of wasabi and edible flowers, cushions of scallop tartare and silver cloche-covered dishes of Atlantic halibut drenched in a cream sauce and spiked with asparagus morels. And that was before the livery-clad waiters started ferrying out cones containing golden pillows of battered cod and chips.

 

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There’s only one real way of determining how good and how fresh Norway’s fish really is and that’s heading to one of the fish and chip shops near you to try some for today’s temporary price of 99p. Find out which restaurants are running the deal on the Norwegian Seafood Councils website, here, and get tasting, buying, cooking and eating this guilt-free, sustainable produce now.

Article originally written for Foodepedia.co.uk and can be found here.