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Spurstowe Arms Makes The Best Bloody Mary You’ll Ever Have

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SPURSTOWE ARMS MAKES THE BEST BLOODY MARY YOU’LL EVER HAVE

If you find yourself in the east End of London on a weekend with some time to kill and a thirst to quench, we’d recommend making your way to Spurstowe Arms. Close to London Fields this is a mature gastropub with a laid back vibe and does a mean Bloody Mary, unlike any we’ve tried before. They have ales on tap and succulent burgers through the week, though we’re recommending the Bloody Mary over everything else because it takes real skill to make one that a wide spectrum of people love.

The Spurstowe Arms, 68 Greenwood Road, London E8 1AB. Phone: 020 7923 3115

READ JUHI PANDE’S STORY

I found myself at a birthday party with a plastic sword and that warm, tingly, unnatural feeling you get just before falling ill. The plastic sword was my idea because we (my husband Michael, who was then a boyfriend, and I) didn’t have a birthday gift, and I had spotted a children’s fair en route to the birthday pub The Spurstowe Arms. Upon closer inspection (read: desperation for a gift) we found that the fair had, aside from violently loud music, a stall with many wondrous toys that you could win if you managed to ensnare them using a noose at the end of a long stick. We had to pay a fiver for three tries – which in itself was a scam – and if we noosed a yellow ducky or a cocaine-eyed plastic dolphin we’d get to keep it.

The first try failed. The second try failed. On the third try, with my heart pounding and my mind kissing an imaginary lucky locket, Michael got the noose around the neck of a stuffed, fluffy duck! We high-fived and I patted him on his back as if we were being filmed by hidden TV crews. We chose to swap the duck for a plastic sword because it was our friends 35th, and nothing says “Happy birthday, buddy” than a sword with stickers on it.

Still feeling fluey in the pub, I decided to have tea and whine. Mike’s suggestion was a Bloody Mary. There were about five other people around, and the bar staff looked straight out of a Dazed & Confused anniversary issue. I can’t remember one thing about the interiors that made the place any different from the hundreds of pubs around a 5-kilometre radius. I got a text from said birthday boy that he was running a bit late and figured if I was going to be sick, I might as well have one last drink before the flu used its chokehold on me. The bartender, who I’m certain moonlighted as a supermodel, poured some vodka into a glass half full of ice, and then picked up a massive jug of pre-made Bloody Mary mix and filled my glass.

We had to pay a fiver for three tries – which in itself was a scam – and if we noosed a yellow ducky or a cocaine-eyed plastic dolphin we’d get to keep it.

I was already disappointed. I’ve had way too many bad Bloody Marys to ever trust a pre-made mix. Unless I can hawk-eye the bar staff while they’re throwing in the Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco, salt, pepper, lemon juice (consommé, green chillies, wasabi, Piri Piri sauce…I could go on) I don’t trust what they hand me and have to assume the worst.

There is no way of actually describing a great Bloody Mary. It’s a personal thing. My taste differs from your taste and we’re all slaves to our quirks and kinks. My extra Tabasco sauce might be too little for you and so on, but what I had that day, by God, that was a mean Bloody Mary – possibly the best I’ve ever had in my life. And as the evening progressed I transmogrified into a Bloody Mary pimp, and others around me seemed to agree. Everyone loved the pre-mixed, tomato juice delight and ran back for seconds/thirds/fourths.

The birthday itself was magnificent. Ply people with enough versions of vodka based drinks and everything turns into Christmas. Birthday boy arrived safe and sound, we met new people in the back garden of the pub (which, unlike its generic interiors, had high walls with ivy growing everywhere, beautiful wrought iron chairs and big tables) and in two hours we were trading our not so great table for a better one with the sword that had been bought because of my blood, sweat and tears. The evening ended with several people singing You’ve Got The Love by Florence and The Machine under a slight drizzle while unlocking their bicycles and heading home. In conclusion, all I can say is:
Spurstowe Arms Bloody Mary – 1
Influenza – 0

 

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Hoxton Monster Supplies Adds Whimsy To Your Life

SPACE EXPERIENCE PEOPLE FOOD + DRINK VIDEO

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HOXTON MONSTER SUPPLIES ADDS WHIMSY TO YOUR LIFE

If you’re ever in need of a gift or in need of a little whimsy in your life, then Hoxton Street Monster Supplies is the place for you. The store is a part of Ministry of Stories, a local writing and mentoring initiative for children between the ages of eight and 18. The creative writing centre is right behind the Monster Supplies store, which houses everything from slime lollypops to an invisible cat. Monster Supplies helps generate revenue for the writing center.

Hoxton Street Monster Supplies and Ministry of Stories, 159 Hoxton St, London N1 6PJ. Phone: 020 7729 4159

READ SHU SHOME’S STORY

On the outside it looks like an old-world London shop soldiering bravely on: all cheerful polished wood and glass. There’s something antique about it, like L. Cornelissen & Son (the hundreds of years-old fine art supply store near the British Museum where American tourists can be overheard, gazing at the paintbrushes displayed their ancient wooden glass cases, cooing, “Awww, it’s like Ha’-ry Pawter-rr!”), or Fortnum and Mason’s, where the Queen is reputed to procure jams, crumpets and tea for personal consumption.

There is jam for sale at Hoxton Monster Supplies: it’s made from human brains. Other products for creatures partial to snacking on people include cubed earwax, chocolate made from teeth and, yes, pots of distinctly lemon-curdy snot. There’s a jar of fresh farts (but it’s only opened by prior appointment as the area needs to be cleared). Creatures who feed on essences need not despair. Tins of “The Collywobbles”, “Escalating Panic”, “Heebie-Jeebies”, “Mortal Terror” and “A Vague Sense of  Unease” are available at modest prices. For the fans of the brand, there’s the merch:  t-shirts, bags, pens and notebooks.

A shadowy organisation is headquartered here, its offices accessible via a secret door in the shop.

This enterprise, however, is only a front. A shadowy organisation is headquartered here, its offices accessible via a secret door in the shop. Opposite the invisible cat’s basket (it was run over by a motorist who didn’t see it and is a bit ill-tempered) is a department that asking about in a freedom of information inquiry will illicit no concrete answers and only harrumphs of denial: the Ministry of Stories.

The secret door is activated by password. Screaming it loudly, at the top of one’s lungs, reveals the offices of the Honourable Minister of Stories (reported in some flattering accounts to be very hairy and stinky). Troops of schoolchildren are marched through this door several times a week, their bags and coats taken, seated on cheerful red chairs and, then – when they least suspect it – their stories brutally extracted from them with pencils and paper by people “volunteering to mentor creative writing”. The children come up with stuff that would make J.K. Rowling feel untalented: pirate-ninjas, villainous pigs, worlds of cheese…over a hundred stories are written and printed any given week at the Ministry. There are plans afoot to make the process digital, and soon the United Kingdom will be harvesting the stories and minds of its children at a scale hitherto unimaginable. Readers of George Orwell and Alan Moore will appreciate, without much explanation, why a shadowy government department would engage simultaneously in profiting from trade with mythical beings with cannibalistic impulses and, at the same time, use primary school children to generate fantastic and awesome stories. The fearsome talents and energy that are being unleashed and harnessed would give the enemies of England “Night Sweats”. Or, they could visit the shop and purchase a tin of the stuff for themselves (price £8).

If you’re a zombie lucky enough to have a date, look no further for breath mints.

Photographs by Juhi Pande

 

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Un Morceau De Paris

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UN MORCEAU DE PARIS

WORDS AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY DIVYA SEHGAL

I have a Parisian friend who’s been on a quest to find the best French restaurant in London. It’s been an on-going mission for the last 10 years. So when a new brasserie opened its doors in Wanstead in 2012, he decided we must try it. So what if it isn’t in central London? Some of the best restaurants have been found outside Zone 2.

Three years and several trips later, I finally got to meet the head chef and founder of Provender, a charming neighbourhood bistro that attracts both locals and outsiders. Like most restaurateurs who’ve been in the business for the majority of their life, Max Renzland’s love of food extends to more than just eating and cooking it. In a monologue that lasts for more than an hour, I discover more about him than I would have with the questions I had planned.

Half way through the conversation I realise that Max is actually not of French descent but is half English and half German. Not a likely assumption, given the fact that he’s been the owner of at least four French restaurants (one of which was awarded a Michelin star in the ’90s).

I intend to ask him where his love for food emerged but, before I can, the conversation drifts to another time. A time when mothers spent hours in the kitchen, labouring over the perfect stew, when children helped their grandmothers make delectable pies and when spending hours in food markets instead of a hurried trip to the supermarket was the norm. And as Max talks about a forgotten era, I understand that the best chefs are made at home.

All Max wants to do is serve good, fresh food. Food that he’ll be happy to eat himself and serve with integrity.

He continues to recount tales from his childhood and youth: when his parents took him and his twin brother (now deceased) to Michelin starred restaurants, the time when the brothers set up their first restaurant at the age of 21, how his food journey hasn’t stopped despite various setbacks and hopefully that it never will. As he discusses the places from where he sources his meat (Scotland) and fish (Poole), and that he tastes 200 different wines to add just five to the restaurant’s wine list, I ask him if he’s a food snob. Like every self-respecting restaurateur he denies it and says that if he’s in Germany, he’ll be happy to have a bratwurst from a stall – provided it’s good.

And in that moment I realise that, after having owned numerous restaurants – one of which was with the esteemed Marco Pierre White – all Max wants to do is serve good, fresh food. Food that he’ll be happy to eat himself and serve with integrity. A restaurant that’s an extension of himself and his home. A place where he’s happy to spend hours and hours obsessing over the menu or slightly altering a dish if fresh produce isn’t available.

We go back and forth about the food he serves and the way he serves it (fresh snails, cooked and recooked in emulsified butter, served just as he did at Monsieur Max in the early 2000s). On behalf of my friend, I ask him why he doesn’t have the cassoulet, a stew of meat and beans, on the menu, and he surprises me by saying they do, but only in the Winter. He tells me it takes three days to make it (like your mother would, he adds) to ensure full depth of flavour, not unlike the Indian dal makhani and lamb biryani.

Max Renzland has always had a simple wish: to produce the best possible food and make customers happy. Amid talks of sourdough bread, Toulouse sausages and French sauces, it’s evident that, even at the age of 60, Max’s love affair with food is just as intense as it was at 21.

As for my friend, he swears Provender is one of the best places where he’s eaten a good French meal. He’s still waiting to taste the cassoulet before he hails it the best.

Provender serves classic French cuisine and has been awarded the Michelin Bib Gourmand.

Provender Café & Brasserie, 17 High Street Wanstead, London E11 2AA. Phone: 020 8530 3050

 

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Bouldering At The Arch Climbing Wall

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BOULDERING AT THE ARCH CLIMBING WALL

The Arch Climbing wall has three centres all over London – the one in Bermondsey has twenty-five circuits to each level, two areas to relax, moderately good coffee, and staff that double up as trainers make it a favourite amongst many climbers. You can sign up for group lessons or one-to-one lessons, or you can just choose to observe and tackle the easier routes.

The Arch Climbing Wall, The Biscuit Factory, 100 Clement’s Rd, London SE16 4DG. Phone: 020 7252 1033

WORDS AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY JUHI PANDE

Hot water. That’s what you need to avoid after your first day of bouldering. It was day one and I had just finished my first climb after having taken a month to get convinced. I was 34 and hadn’t tried a new sport in about a decade and a half, so I had good reason to be apprehensive. But there I was, in the girls’ changing room, sweaty and exhilarated with hands covered in chalk. I turned on the hot water tap and let out a howl. My hands were chaffed and the adrenaline wasn’t letting me feel their soreness. The hot water did a fairly decent job in reminding me. I had come in with soft, manicured hands that hadn’t clung on to rock/boulder surfaces, holding up my body weight ever since… well, ever since I had been born.

“Hang, don’t cling.
“Gentle footwork. Don’t make a racket.”
“Angle your body with each hold.”
“Watch some of the better climbers. You’ll learn a lot.”
“Get it! You can get it.”
“What do you mean you can’t do that circuit? Of course you can.”
“Get it! Get it!”
“Don’t cling. Hang. Hang!”

This is what I heard over the next few weeks at The Arch, a bouldering gym in Bermondsey. I was married to the man who was serving as my instructor and also happened to be a formidable climber. I’d watch him climb and would get so conflicted between jaw-dropping awe and insane jealousy as my emotion of choice. He glided vertically, holding on to the wall with his fingertips, his face expressionless and monk-like, his movements silent and graceful like a cat. I, on the other hand, would spend my time contorting my face, grunting, cursing and channeling my inner sailor. I whined about the ache in my arms and back. I talked about my newly calloused hands with sly, underlying pride to everyone I met. It was all very fascinating and fresh.

In the summers, the doors of the factory would remain open and the sweet smell of Marie and Bourbon biscuits would waft out.

I started to go The Arch three, sometimes four times a week. The pain in my arms ebbed. I didn’t necessarily need an ibuprofen smoothie the morning after a climb, and in a month I moved up a level. That week I walked around with head-exploding pride. Having sucked at every sport my entire life, this was extraordinary for my ego. I wanted to go back to 1997, walk into my school and say “HA!” at the morning assembly. It was just one level up, one above the lowly, rackety, awkward beginners, and yet I felt like The Hulk who was also a lizard.

The Arch proved to be very welcoming. The afternoons were practically empty, so all my self-consciousness kicked back and relaxed. I climbed to learn, to get strong and just for myself. The gym is also referred to as The Biscuit Factory on account of being situated in the ground floor unit of the old Peek Frean biscuit factory of Bermondsey. Peak Frean set up shop in this part of London in 1857 all the way up until 1989. In the summers, the doors of the factory would remain open and the sweet smell of Marie and Bourbon biscuits would waft out, earning Bermondsey the nickname Biscuit Town. This touch of history makes it a tad more precious to me than it already is.

Twenty-five circuits to each level, two areas to relax, moderately good coffee, brilliant beef biltong and staff that double up as trainers. The Biscuit has eaten into my weekends and a big slice of my weekdays. It’s been a year since my first day on a wall and I am now three levels above the lowly, rackety, awkward beginners. I walk around with so much hubris that if I met me in an alley I’d punch me.

 

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No Rest For The Wicket

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NO REST FOR THE WICKET

WORDS BY KIT CALESS AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY ANDREW MILLER

Most Saturdays in the summer you’ll find me standing on a patch of mown grass at one of four locations in Hackney. If it’s around 1 p.m. I’ll be about to run towards a 22-yard strip of earth that has hardly any grass on it. I’ll run and I’ll contort my body in an unnatural but suitably elegant way, releasing a spherical red leather object from my hand, aimed towards three rods of wood at the other end of this aforementioned strip. I’ll do this six times, with oohs and aahs coming out the mouths of my fellow men standing on patches of mown grass. Men with pads on will try to hit the ball with a wider wooden rod. Two other men called “umps” will count my six deliveries and make semaphore style signals to a man sitting on a chair on the other side of a white line: a picayune boundary that separates our patch of mown grass with his. Later I will be drinking a can of Kronenburg where this man was sitting, waiting to put my own pads on and hit someone else’s ball.

Cricket: The finest game the world has ever seen. Apart from Scrabble, maybe.

The North East London Cricket League is 40 overs a side. This means a game takes six to seven hours to play. If I’m not bowling I can stand in the sun for a long time, doing nothing. Moments of fleeting action may come my way at point, or extra cover, rarely at fine leg. As an opening bowler, all your action is in the first hour or so of the game. Then you’ve got plenty of time to stand around in your whites admiring the scenery.

The North East London Cricket League is 40 overs a side. This means a game takes six to seven hours to play.

I play for a team called The Camel. We are all regulars at a pub in Bethnal Green called, you guessed it, The Camel. Half of our team are self-employed types: vagabond writers, gigging musicians, or “out of work” actors. The other half have real jobs. The captain, Guy, is a trade unionist and a social worker. We’re a rag tag bunch, cobbled together through a mutual love of booze, cricket and east London. Other teams in the North East London League are The Royal Sovereign, a team of West Indian players who drink in an eponymous pub in Upper Clapton, and the Coach And Horses, another pub team in Stoke Newington. Pubs and cricket go hand in hand in this part of London. In fact, the North East London League official website even states, “The standard is reasonable but this is not club cricket – it is more pub than club standard. In accordance with this, the games are played in a friendly spirit. Teams want to win, but not at the cost of cheating.”

Aside from the pubs we are associated with – which everyone should visit – the four grounds we play at are situated in the four great parks of Hackney.

London Fields is currently synonymous with the word “hipster”. However, it still has some decent things to offer the common man or woman. There’s an outdoor swimming pool, The Lido, situated at deep midwicket. One day someone will hoik a long hop into the pool, but don’t let that put you off a quick dip. Past the cover point boundary is a lovely children’s play area and then the very popular Pub in the Park, which will show test matches and football on television. Over the bowler’s arm is the rest of the park, which has a basketball court, a barbecue area and beyond that the hyped up, bourgeois fantasy-land of Broadway Market. Whenever we play in London Fields there is always a good-sized crowd of the bold and the beautiful watching the game. Short boundaries and a fast outfield guarantee a good match.

London Fields West Side, Hackney, London E8 3EU

Millfields Park is my favourite ground to bowl on. The pitch is always immaculate, because absolutely no one plays in this park. Stuck between the roaring traffic of Lea Bridge Road and the part of Chatsworth Road no one likes, Millfields is a non-interfered with masterpiece of a public cricket pitch.

The beauty of Millfields is that you can really feel like you’re playing in a metropolis. The sneeze of lorry breaks punctuate yelps of “howzat?” The buses belch and rumble as leather hits willow. Police sirens drown out that gentle call from the scorer of “Bowler’s name, please?” There is very little around the Millfields ground to protect it from the noise of the city. At the other parks there are trees and space between the cricket pitch and the roads, but Millfields is in the thick of it. It’s not a pretty place, but if you want to watch cricket unhampered by moustaches, ice cream vendors, ’50s throw backs or lads getting on the piss, this is the place to come to.

Whenever we play in London Fields there is always a good-sized crowd of the bold and the beautiful watching the game.

Millfields Park, Lea Bridge Road, London E5 0AR

The Hackney Marshes was once a proper marsh. It has been substantially drained since medieval times, but after the Second World War, rubble from the bombed out houses of the east end was dumped there, leading to the creation of a huge area of land for recreation. It is one of the largest common lands in Greater London. For that, we cherish it. It is here that over 100 matches of Sunday League football are played. It is here that Jay-Z headlined a massive concert in 2013. It is here that dog walkers, ravers, campers, doggers, couples and families all come to spend their weekends, getting away from the pressures of concrete and glass. It is here that we play on the two worst cricket pitches London has to offer.

After that Jay-Z concert, the marshes were subject to some serious abuse, and the cricket pitches haven’t quite recovered yet. Uneven bounce, scuffed outfields and no pub within a short walk make the marshes The Camel Cricket Club’s least favourite ground. Perhaps it is the sheer size of space around us that overwhelms. Perhaps it is the Olympic stadium in the background or Anish Kapoor’s red helter skelter looming over us that inspires our traditional middle order collapse. Who knows, all I know is that a visit to the marshes is quite easily one of the best things you can do in Hackney – but when you see the ground on your fixture list, you got 99 problems and the pitch is one.

Hackney Marshes, Homerton Road, London E9 5PF

Springfield Park is the great Hackney secret, a marvelous, beautiful park set on the rolling Spring Hill that takes you from Upper Clapton Road to the banks of the Lea Navigation. Somehow, only those of us that live in the borough seem to know it exists. It is part recreation (tennis courts, outdoor fitness area, rugby club), part sculptured garden, part child friendly. Most importantly, though, it is part cricket ground. The pitch is often excellent, and with a slight slope offering the same sort of conditions as Lord’s (albeit with cheaper attendance tickets and no old white men in stupid coloured ties snoring into the Daily Telegraph). Playing at Springfield is always a joy.

It’s a very family oriented park, so you can walk past many parties and barbecues adding a carnival atmosphere to the green grass. Tall plane trees dominate the skyline, there’s a small community orchard, allotments, many narrow boats on the river and more characters here than Dickens could have written in 10 lifetimes. Springfield Park is also home to the best, and smallest, pub in all of Hackney – The Anchor & Hope. A visit to The Anchor & Hope is necessary after every match. You’ll find cheap booze, brilliant regulars such as John the Poacher to tell you stories you’ll never believe and a good spot to watch the sun set over the east London marshes.

Springfield Park, Springfield Mansion, London E5 9EF

 

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Yardbirds In The Big Smoke

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YARDBIRDS IN THE BIG SMOKE

WORDS BY FERNANDO SDRIGOTTI AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY JUHI PANDE

Back in 2002, after struggling for several months trying to make a living in London, I did what anyone in my place wouldn’t have done and went and bought a used tenor saxophone. This was after failing as a rickshaw rider due to my lack of knowledge of London’s A to Z, almost being mugged while flyering outside a rave in Brixton, and getting fired from a pub in Shoreditch for serving a triple absinthe shot to a guy who ended up leaving a colourful Pollock-looking decoration on the pub’s floor. I was — and still am — pretty useless at any pecuniary endeavour, but at least I could play the sax well enough to grab a couple of pounds an hour blowing jazzy muzak for the tourists. Maybe six years of music conservatory would come to my aid, I thought, proving to the world, and therefore my family and myself, the true value of a music degree.

Of course I didn’t make any money busking. And not simply because music degrees are rather useless. The truth is I was too scared to open my case in order to invite coins — I was afraid of being deported or of breaking some arcane law that might have seen me thrown into a dark dungeon in the Tower of London. I would just find an isolated spot and play for a couple of hours, generally by the river or in a park, practising scales, arpeggios, a couple of solos, and whatever I could remember by heart. The hours would fly, weather allowing. And maybe here lies the true value of music in its capacity to create intensive experiences that transcend any form of logic or common sense beyond any degree. This job-search avoidance scheme, however naive, became a way of gauging my surroundings and of finally landing in London — of biding the time I needed for my mind and soul to fully arrive in this city after my body.

Of course I didn’t make any money busking. And not simply because music degrees are rather useless.

I would spend these early days carrying my case all over the place, playing here and there for a while, talking to the musicians. All over London everyone was playing more or less the same tunes: Autumn Leaves, As Time Goes By, a couple of bossa nova numbers, regrettably some Kenny G too. Many of the buskers showed the same traces of frustration at being a form of publicly available light entertainment and weren’t precisely welcoming. Others were outright mad. Some of them were charming and memorable, like Charlie.

Charlie used to play tenor outside Camden Town station. He was a gifted musician who could take on all the big names without a sweat: Coltrane, Gordon, Rollings, Parker. My English college at the time — the place that granted me the right to be in the UK as a student — was literally across the road from his spot. Out of the frequency of my stalkings Charlie and I ended up having a pint at The World’s End. Just one, for he needed to “see a man about a dog,” an expression I would come to understand years later. Charlie insisted on paying for our drinks — it had been a great day, he said. I accepted on the premise of returning the favour in the future. That was the last time I ever saw him. Some weeks later I heard from one of the other local buskers that Charlie had died of an overdose. I frequently wonder what happened to his sax, if he sold it at a pound shop to pay for the fix that finally got him, or if it was binned with the rest of his belongings after they found him dead under a bridge near Camden Lock.

When my situation in London became somewhat stable, I gave up this musical dialogue with the city. As life sucked me into middle-age “normality” I even stopped playing the sax. I could say I lack the time, but it’s actually the desire that’s no longer there, for whatever the reason. But the tenor is still here at home, resting in its case, untouched since who knows when. I’ve threatened to sell it several times but I’ve never summoned the courage to do it. I guess what stops me isn’t the hope that I’ll start playing again but the feeling that when the sax finally goes, a big slice of my history in this city (and some of the people I met) will vanish forever.

Camden Town Station, London NW1 8QL

 

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Enjoy A Coffee By The Canal At Towpath Café

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ENJOY A COFFEE BY THE CANAL AT TOWPATH CAFÉ

WORDS AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY MICHAEL DELFS

Towpath Café is a beautiful little café sitting on the edge of the water along the Regent’s Canal in East London. It has no indoor seating; just a small alcove where diners can find a bit of protection from the wind, with broad, burgundy awnings that fold out over metal tables to offer shelter from the rain or shade on a sunny Saturday afternoon. You can order Italian coffee, homemade lemon polenta cake or a cold glass of Pinot Gris from the small bar in the middle alcove. If you want hot food you carry your ticket to the kitchen next door. The line to order can easily run 10 minutes long, causing congestion and the occasional collision with passing bicyclists. But it’s a cheerful crowd out enjoying a beautiful spot along the canal.

When Towpath first opened its shutters in February 2010 you’d be hard-pressed to find a less likely spot for a café to be successful. Despite the rising tide of gentrification in East London, the surrounding neighbourhood was still mostly council estates and derelict warehouses. Graffiti covered the bare brick walls along the canal path, and the long, elegant houseboats that lined the canal near more affluent areas to the west and east were noticeably absent. Even the space the café occupied seemed unlikely: two shallow, cement storage alcoves with roll up metal shutters and barely enough space for a wooden bar and someone to stand behind it.

When Towpath first opened its shutters in February 2010 you’d be hard-pressed to find a less likely spot for a café to be successful.

The beautiful coincidence is that Lori de Mori happened to live in a house on the other side of the canal. An American food writer between projects, Lori had recently moved to East London from Tuscany, and she was looking for a way to put down some roots in the area. Before the café had a kitchen she would bake cakes and sweets and carry them on covered plates over the bridge and down along the path to be placed on the bar. To the Spanish developers who owned the warehouse above, the alcoves were most likely an afterthought – too small and out of the way to be commercially viable. But Lori, who walked past them every day, saw an opportunity, instinctively sensing that the people she saw walking, jogging and bicycling along the canal in increasing numbers would like a place to sit by the water and have a cup of coffee or glass of wine.

Success begets imitation. When Towpath Café opened in 2010 there wasn’t a single other business trading along the canal for five kilometres in either direction. Today, half a dozen more restaurants have cropped up along the 300-metre stretch between Kingsland Road and the Whitmore Bridge. On a sunny summer afternoon, there are so many people along that stretch of canal path that movement slows to lazy stroll. Bicyclists meander at the same speed as baby carriages.

In hindsight, perhaps this transformation was inevitable: as people and money and development poured into East London, opening restaurants along the canal was an obvious next step. But perhaps it wasn’t. Somebody had to take that first, risky leap, putting themselves on the line with an idea that seemed far from likely at the time. Without Lori looking across the canal at those empty storage alcoves and seeing an opportunity, perhaps that stretch of canal would have tumbled down another path of destiny. It’s an interesting thought to ponder while you’re sitting in the sun by the water drinking a cool glass of wine on a Sunday afternoon.

Towpath Café, 36 De Beauvoir Crescent, Hackney, London. Phone: 020 7254 7606

 

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The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Cemetery

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THE HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE CEMETERY

WORDS AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY DIVYA SEHGAL

Three years ago when I visited Paris for the first time, my boyfriend was adamant that we visit the iconic graves of Oscar Wilde and Jim Morrison at Père Lachaise. I, for one, couldn’t for the life of me understand why he wanted us to visit an (almost) empty churchyard with only graves to greet.

Needless to say, it was an experience that I now cherish. Oscar Wilde’s tomb, covered in red lipstick kisses, is now protected with glass to avoid further deterioration.

With Père Lachaise on my mind, I decided to travel to Highgate in North London. “Home” to Karl Marx, George Eliot and Douglas Adams, among many other notable names of years past, Highgate Cemetery proved to be a lovely little haven with glorious history and architecture attached to it.

There are many spots in London that you can make your own. Find your own corner where you set your mind free and let your spirit roam. Your own happy place. For me, up until now, it was the Southbank. But who says you can’t have two?

Like with Père Lachaise, I wasn’t sure what to expect from Highgate Cemetery. I’d read up on it, heard about it from others, but I never imagined that I’d feel the peace and tranquillity at a cemetery as I did there. Not a sound except for a few groups of tourists shuffling their feet, also making their way through the route on the map, probably looking for Karl Marx and George Eliot (who, according to the attendant there, is a “he” to Americans and Canadians). Not a peep except the occasional chirp of birds and the alien sound of aeroplanes that crowd the London skies.

Thousands and thousands of stories make up this cemetery – an asylum seeker, a boxer, a famous chef, writers, philosophers, politicians. Lives once lived, now preserved.

Even as I walked along the old headstones and marked and unmarked graves, I imagined myself going there each morning to clear my head. A brisk walk, a jog, even, with no one around. Or a summer afternoon with clear skies, only just shielded by a canopy of trees. Maybe take a book along with me, to read or to write in, sit next to Douglas Adams’s headstone and borrow a pen from his makeshift pen stand where visitors often leave a pen or a pencil as a token of their appreciation for his writing.

I thought of a quote I had once read as I walked behind the tour guide who pattered on about the Victorian Age and Gothic Revival architecture in the West Cemetery: “The universe is made up of stories, not atoms”. How apt was this quote in this place. Thousands and thousands of stories make up this cemetery – an asylum seeker, a boxer, a famous chef, writers, philosophers, politicians. Lives once lived, now preserved.

My tour guide spoke about a famous Victorian doctor whose grave now lives in the catacombs “specially preserved because he was a very important man”. I couldn’t help but laugh at that statement, at the absurdity of “importance” even in death when the body has turned to dust.

Karl Marx’s original grave, which was among “ordinary” people, is a contrast to the grand headstone he has been given now. Did these people care about being assigned special status in their afterlife? Even in death, we are divided into “rich” and “poor” just by the design of our graves. Whatever happened to “from ashes to ashes, from dust to dust”?

It was with these thoughts and questions buzzing in my mind that I left the cemetery, feeling a strange sense of peace and calm. Strange because it was a morbid place to be in. Calm because I was around so many stories lived and since untold.

The Highgate Cemetery is divided into East and West. Entry to the West Cemetery is allowed only through a guided tour for health and safety reasons.

Highgate Cemetery, Highgate Cemetery, Swain’s Lane, London N6 6PJ. Phone: 020 8340 1834

 

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Kenwood Ladies’ Pond Is A Place Of Solidarity

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KENWOOD LADIES’ POND IS A PLACE OF SOLIDARITY

Kenwood Ladies’ Pond is a pond in Hampstead Heath, just off Millfield Lane. As the name suggests, only women are allowed to swim here. Membership is available for £5 a year. Non-members can also swim by paying a fee. It is marked as Highgate Ponds on most maps.

Kenwood Ladies’ Pond, Highgate Road, London NW5 1QR.

READ RUBY STOCKHAM’S STORY

The ladies who swim in the reedy waters of the Kenwood Pond are a fearless lot. By tradition, each 1st January a group of devoted members greets the new year with a freezing plunge into the old clay pits. They share the water with ducks and the bed of tangling things underfoot.

Located on the east side of Hampstead Heath, the pond is concealed from the male gaze by a froth of trees. I find it to be a place of great solidarity. If you forget your costume, you will be offered one of the soggy spares on the changing room peg. It’s a place where women celebrate the strength and resilience of their bodies, without concern for how they look.

In the communal changing hut you will mingle with large Jewish grandmothers, naked from the waist down, and lithe, intimidating 50-year-olds. You will swim with best friends whose weekly catch-ups take place surrounded by ducks. Little rubber-capped heads become tiny as they swim out into the pond that seems bigger than it is, almost edgeless. You wonder if they’ll come back but they always do, steady and careful with their energy.

Here bodies that bear the marks of age, motherhood and inertia take new pride in being useful. Nobody cares, nobody looks. We are all just arms and legs to cut through the water, lungs to power back from the slippery banks. There are no ropes or lanes, so no competition or comparison; it is a place to forget the rules of the century.

Here bodies that bear the marks of age, motherhood and inertia take new pride in being useful.

The fact that the pond is just for “ladies” is both prim and liberating. Old black and white pictures show women with cropped curls and shingle cuts laughing at the water’s edge. This was a space just for them, and it was much more than just “not the men’s bit”. I love the camaraderie of places made just for women – beauty salons, hamams – where you feel softness and quiet power, and know that these places are no longer second best.

You have to be strong to swim in the Ladies’ Pond – children must take a swimming test first and the silty weight of the water is surprisingly difficult to move in. You also have to be patient, willing to trust your blood to warm up and able to suppress your first instinct to jump straight out screaming. On cloudy days it can look hostile, menacingly still and deep. In the summer it is paradise, with swimmers baking dry among the daisies.

A pond is perhaps the least glamorous of all swimming destinations, redolent of toads and sinking stones. It is an especially English kind of water, guarded in back gardens, a space for rain to fall in. It does not have the beauty of lakes or the fun of the sea; the pond is a stoic kind of thing. And when you exit the water at Hampstead you will have a ring of mud around your neck and a sandy darkness between your toes.

But somehow a dip in the pond is all the more cleansing for not being that clean. It gives you a small sense of achievement, reminding you that, undressed, unnamed and unobserved, you can still win private battles.

Photographs by Juhi Pande

 

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