Wednesday, 16 November 2016

When country met city

I’m a fan of music. Not in the ‘put on your oversized headphones and listen to that rare Pink Floyd vinyl’ sort of way, more like ‘I listen to Spotify a lot and go to a gig now and again’. A duo I’m a fan of, The Shires, were having an album launch at HMV Oxford Street and tickets were limited and free. I’d been wanting to see them live for a while, after hearing them on Radio 2, so I quickly booked my ticket. They're English but play American country music. However, they're not your average yee-haw, I've got my truck, my gun and my ol' blue jeans country; they sing in beautiful harmonies, more similar to The Civil Wars than the Florida Georgia Line.

The doors didn't open until six and I got there an hour early as it was so near work. A few people were milling by the door, but I figured there wouldn't be that many people coming to see them, so I spent some time browsing Oxford Street instead of standing around for an hour. By the time I decided to queue up, around half an hour to forty-five minutes later, the line snaked around the building! I've learned that there's nothing more fascinating to people than a long queue. Those of us waiting were gawked at and a number of people even came up to ask us what we were queuing for. When we replied 'The Shires' a look of confusion crossed their faces and they shrugged, no doubt disappointed that it wasn't someone they'd heard of, like Justin Bieber.

Apparently the Shires rolled up in a massive truck but because I was around the corner I unfortunately did not get to see the spectacle. The doors didn't open until at least quarter past and we all dutifully shuffled in and up to the top floor of HMV where there is an intimate venue space. We again waited (there was a lot of waiting during the evening but I didn't mind - it was free!) until at last the Shires came onstage. The Shires consist of Chrissy Rhodes (singer) and Ben Earle (singer, guitar and piano), both attractive, hugely talented and very down-to-earth. Their set was acoustic, playing around six songs, four from their new album, one from their last album and a lovely cover of Robbie Williams' Angels. Their voices were amazing, blending together in stunning, effortless harmonies and with very few vocal cracks or off notes.  The crowd swayed toward the older demographic but the participation was lacking. Most of them just stood and stared, even when the Shires desperately tried to get them to clap and shout out the words.  I, for one, shrugged off my inhibitions and got into it, bobbing to the music with uncool jerky movements, clapping my hands above my head when they called for it, singing along and having a grand old time.

After the set we all got in line for the signing. I somehow ended up at the back of the queue - again - so it took me nearly another hour to get to them. The security guard fancied himself a comedian and would go up and down the line chatting and regaling us with his 'jokes'. By the time I neared them, we were told that we'd only have time for a quick photo and hi and bye. We were all a little disgruntled by this news, as we hadn't waited so long for a 30 second impersonal meet and greet. Chrissy and Ben, bless them, did not adhere to this at all even though they must have been exhausted. They spent time with every single person, chatting with them, signing their cds (someone even brought a guitar to sign) and posing for multiple photos.

I wasn't at all nervous while waiting in line. I like their music but I'm not a super fan girl and they are not mega famous, so I was rather laid back about the whole thing. I even rehearsed a few droll lines that would make them think I was witty and cool. And then it was my turn.

Reader, I babbled.

I went in for the hug rather than the handshake - because why not - and then my mouth ran away with me. I went on and on and on about how similar they were to the Civil Wars, and did they like the Civil Wars and wasn't it a shame they split up? Etc etc etc. It makes me cringe just thinking about it. To their credit they took it in their stride, probably used to crazy people, and engaged me in conversation and obligingly posed for the photo with the 'arms around me' shot. I mean, who wants the awkward lean shot?

I think I'm now even more of a fan of them than I was before. Their albums don't do them justice - they are a band that shine when they play live. It's sad in this day and age that it's novel to see a band that sound exactly like they do on their cd (rather than the standard weak voice being drowned out by an overpowering backing track) and The Shires are undeniably talented. While country is not everyone's cup of tea I think the Shires are a good gateway band, definitely more folky than twangy country and chilled out enough to be a soundtrack for a dinner party. Although my evening consisted of A LOT of waiting, it was all worth it to see such a great band in an audience of only 250. Having recently been signed by the same record label as Taylor Swift in the USA, who knows if I'll ever get such a chance again? 

Tuesday, 11 October 2016

Stepping into a story book

I went home, once again, this past weekend to attend a hen party. Luckily, I managed to get a couple of days off work so I got a chance to see some friends and have some time to actually go out for a day in my fine home county. After the intensity of the city, I needed some country prettiness so on Friday morning my Mum and I headed for the Cotswolds.

The Cotswolds is full of precious little towns and villages, most consisting of light stone houses and tiny, overpriced fudge shops. The biggest and most popular are probably Bourton-on-the-Water, Stow-on-the-Wold (they like hyphens in the Cotswolds) and Chipping Campden. Much like London they are, however, overflowing with tourists. I wanted somewhere a little more low-key that still kept that Cotswold charm. Mum had heard that Lower Slaughter (yes, that is its name, there is also an Upper Slaughter) was home to a good tearoom so off we drove, merrily singing along to James Taylor.

Lower Slaughter is as darling as expected – more, perhaps. It is a chocolate box village to be sure, but not so sickeningly quaint that I felt the need to scrub the twee off myself. A stream runs through the heart of the village and is crossed by a couple of stone bridges. I half expected some extremely small trolls to be waiting under them. The cottages alongside the stream are perfect. I mean it, log piles neatly stacked, windows and doors all painted the same uniform shade of blue or green, gates without a scrap of rust on them. Mum and I agreed that there must be a rigorous neighbourhood upkeep programme to keep it looking so picturesque, so while living there looks like it might be wonderful, it would be more hassle than it’s worth.

There’s not much in the village, just a church, a town hall and an old mill which houses a tiny museum, a leather shop and the tearoom. The mill reminded me of the one from Beauty and the beast – from any fairy tale, really, where the plucky miller’s daughter goes on an adventure and ends up marrying the prince. There is a craft shop in an outbuilding which sells all sorts of vintage and old-world odds and ends. You have to go through the narrow shop to get to the tearoom, which is in a small converted barn. It has been decorated nicely and appropriately for the space – spotted plates and cups in the same sable green as the tables and even as the houses outside. The cafĂ© does the usual fair, sandwiches, soup, cakes, coffee etc. I had a jacket potato with beans and cheese, an underrated yet entirely delicious autumnal lunch, especially as it was quite cold outside. 

We sat upstairs at a narrow table which was a little cramped with all our plates and cutlery. It got even more cramped when more and more people started to arrive and decided that sitting upstairs was also a good thing to do. Fortunately, we were finished by that point so we wrapped up, dodged the child waiters (ok, maybe not but there were very young!) and went outside. Some crazy people were eating outside and while it was a beautiful setting, I’m not willing to sacrifice my extremities to gaze at a river while I eat.

Lower Slaughter is a bit like a film set. The only people around the streets seemed to be people like us who were visiting. Perhaps it was just the time of day but it seemed to me that there was no sort of village life. No dog walkers, no old men sitting on a bench and taking in the world, no screaming kids. It seemed to me a beautiful, empty village, one that you visit but no one actually lives in. I mean, people must live there but there was no evidence. It was, in some ways, a stepford village. That isn’t a criticism. It is adorable, it is brimming with cuteness and charm. I want to go there at Christmas and sip mulled wine as snowflakes flutter against my cheeks. I want to sit by the river in the summer and read Brideshead Revisited. I want to make apple crumble in my cosy cottage kitchen as I watch children play outside in the fallen autumn leaves. It makes me want an idyllic life, goshdarnit.

I’m just not sure the life the village promises actually exists.

Friday, 30 September 2016

Spotlight on: Fortnum & Mason

When I'm not cautiously deciding whether or not I'm too broke to afford a Pret wrap, I like to pretend I'm a fabulously wealthy socialite who lives in Mayfair and has a butler named Whatley. As in, "Get the car, Whatley, we're going to Harrods. I'm in desperate need of a new Birkin bag." Anyway, one of the places where I like to live in my imagination is the upscale department store of Fortnum and Mason. Generally known for its food halls, it is a grand shop with some of the most beautiful displays I've ever seen.

It was still summer when I went and the sweeping staircase in the middle of the ground floor was decorated like something out of a fairy tale. I wanted to descend those stairs in a giant princess ballgown and waltz with Prince Charming.

Founded in 1707 as a grocery store and situated along Piccadilly, Fortnum & Mason certainly have cornered the market for fancy and overpriced food but somehow, even though you laugh at the prices, you somehow still want it all. Or at least I do. I wanted the delicate chocolates and the little pots of honey in their honey mansion. I wanted the splendidly English hampers and especially the tea, for which the shop is famous. I wanted to laden Whatley's arms with shopping bags and have him drive home and unpack while I take afternoon tea with Lady Pendlington-Smyth.

I felt a little like an impostor while I perused, like the shop assistants just knew I wasn't going to buy anything. Not everything was terrifically expensive, I must admit, but enough was specialist and artisanal to make it obvious I was just there for a nosy. I noticed there was a sign for the crypt downstairs and, my interest piqued, I wandered around the wine section in the basement like a lost sheep until I found it.

Situated in what is probably one of the oldest sections of the store, it has been arranged to look like a Vampire Count's dining room. You can almost see Dracula swishing his goblet of wine and saying, "I vant to suck your blooood." Of course there are ghost tales about the crypt to add to the store's mythology. You can actually hire it out for private functions, which is pretty cool. I bet it would make a terrific party location. In fact, I think fancy socialite me may hire it out for Halloween. I'll get Whatley to pick up the decorations at once.

Friday, 23 September 2016

Taste the rainbow

I have always wanted to make a grand cake, in the show stopping Great British Bake Off style. And my Dad’s 70th birthday last weekend seemed like the perfect occasion to give it a go. The thing is, while I’m a tolerable baker I’m not particularly artsy (toddler drawing stick men comes to mind) and therefore not very good at decorating. I’ve tried before, oh, how I have tried. Every time I try I think – this is it, this is the cake where I suddenly ‘get it’. It’s never the cake. I once saw a teapot cake online and thought ‘I could make that’. Easy, right? Big mistake. Not only did I have none of the correct tins, I also had very little experience in making a cake in any shape other that the pre-designed round ones. It ended up a normal round shape with extra pieces of cake sticking out at all angles and held on with cocktail sticks. Oh yes, and with bright blue icing with crumbs sticking on it to add to your mental picture. Luckily, the one photo taken with my grainy phone camera (this was pre-iphone) has been lost to the history books. It tasted good, though.

So when I saw pictures of rainbow cakes on Pinterest, I had to reign myself in. Hold up Becky, I told myself sternly, you know how this usually ends. But the idea persisted and I found a recipe online that looked manageable and was step-by-step (this one here). Instead of making do with what I had, I very carefully read which tools I needed and specially ordered them in. I got a Sugarflair rainbow icing kit, which are highly concentrated gel pastes, from Ebay for about £12. Pricey, but a little goes a long way and I’ll definitely get price per use out of them. I also bought a cake leveller from Dunelm and an offset spatula for the icing.

I got to Mum and Dad’s on Thursday and set about to making the sponge that evening. The sponge was relatively simple to make and I had use of my Mum’s ancient but still amazing Kenwood mixer. I blasted Taylor Swift (Taylor Swift is the ultimate baking music. Don’t believe me? Try it yourself and then you’ll see!) and danced and sang about as I cracked eggs and mixed sugar. I divided the mixture as evenly as possibly into six bowls and used about 1/6-of a teaspoon - or the very end of the handle – to add my colouring gel. The gel needs quite a bit of vigorous stirring to fully integrate the colour but once it’s done it looks very effective. The gel also goes everywhere, all over my hands and the spoon, so I had to wash my hands and the spoon after each go to make sure it didn’t stain or cross-contaminate the colours.  

I originally was going to bake in a bigger tin so the cake was wider rather than taller but there wasn’t enough of each mixture for that. In fact, there was barely enough mixture for my very smallest tin. It only covered just covered the tin and was no more a centimetre high. I baked them two at a time, for around 12 minutes each. Because the mixture was so thin, it didn’t need much longer or it would have burned. I only had two tins to I had to turn them out quickly, fan them to cool and then line the tins again before adding the next colours. It was a bit of a hassle, but who has six tins the same?

The cakes turned out just a little uneven though generally not too bad, but looked rather flat. This was a good thing, I realised, because if they had risen like a normal sponge the cake would be far too high and topple over! The recipe deliberately made the sponges dense so they would layer more easily. Once they were cool, I wrapped them in cling film and popped them in the freezer. There they lay in their frosty prison until Friday evening when I transferred them to the fridge to thaw.

On Saturday, the real work began.

I was a bit afraid that if I used the cake leveller that I’d break the sponge so I got my more experienced older sister to do it instead. I made a simple buttercream icing and layered the first three levels (purple, blue and green). I then put that bit in the fridge to chill and harden for around 30 minutes. I then did the same for the next three layers and the top. I also did a crumb coat, which is a thin base layer on all sides of the cake that is meant to sweep up all the crumbs and make the cake smooth for the real icing. Like a base coat for a wall or your nails.

The now rather high cake went into the fridge for an hour. Before you think how simple and lovely this all sounds, let me stop you right there. There was yelling. There was sniping. There was accidentally putting the layers on in the wrong order and then having to peel, re-ice and try again. All the while a million other things going on in the kitchen in preparation for that evening’s barbecue. It was not a relaxing process.

Because I can’t seem to ever make life simple for myself I decided not to cover the cake in buttercream but instead with Swiss meringue icing. Had I ever made it before? No. Did I decide this very stressful day was the perfect time to try it out? Yes, because I’m an idiot.  

One baking blog calls the Swiss meringue the fool proof meringue. Lies! If it’s not fool proof it’s definitely Becky proof. The process involves whisking egg whites and granulated sugar over simmering water (making sure the bowl is metal not glass and that it doesn’t touch the water) until it reaches around 60 degrees Celsius. I didn’t have a food thermometer so I had to use the method where you rub your fingers together in the mixture and if you don’t feel grain, then take it off the heat. By my account it should have been done so I took it off the heat and kept whisking until it formed peaks. Easy peasy, right? Or so I thought. As soon as I put the meringue on the cake it began running down the sides, not keeping the nice stiff texture like the recipe assure me it would. I whisked some more but the same happened. I started to freak out – it looked terrible. My sister told me to add some icing sugar which I did but it made the icing sweeter than intended! I mean, it tasted very good but what good is taste when it’s not staying on the cake? I kept adding more sugar until the icing vaguely held its shape and then I shoved it into the fridge, hoping desperately it would not run.

It did set, luckily, but the icing wasn’t smooth and beautiful like I’d hoped. In vain, I used some jagged edged smoothers to give it a bit more oomph but it didn’t work. Defeated, I threw on some confetti sprinkles and hoped that at least it would taste ok. When it was time to put out the desserts at the barbecue I was a little nervous but also quite proud of my tower cake. I cut a slice out of it to show the colours and – woomph. There it was, not quite a show stopper but fairly impressive. The inside, while it wasn’t perfect, did look rather striking. I nudged it to the front so everyone would get the full effect.

People told me it tasted good. I don’t know if they were just being nice, though. I think it tasted quite nice but because of the buttercream and outer icing, and because one slice was so big it was so very sweet. Like, I can't eat any more or I might be sick sweet. Next time I'll make a less sweet icing, I think. Or maybe just a smaller cake! 

Monday, 12 September 2016

They call it Stokey

I'm still on the hunt for neighbourhoods in London where I might eventually settle. I'd heard good things about Stoke Newington, so I decided to check it out after church. It's known as a place for young, cool parents which worried me a bit as I am neither a) cool or b) a parent. I am young(ish), however, so one out of three isn't bad I suppose. Stoke Newington - or Stokey as the locals call it - is in the borough of Hackney on the overground and is definitely cool.

The first thing that struck me about it was the variety of places to eat. From independent coffee shops to brunch spots to rustic pizza joints, it was a foodie's dream. It was a hot day and the majority of the cafes and restaurants had overspill seating on the street, so the whole area had a vibrant atmosphere. Church Street is the main hub of Stoke Newington and has a bit of Bohemian feel, full of little shops and markets. It was definitely a bit hipster - I saw many a hat and many a vintage bike - but not in an obnoxious, penny-farthing-riding kind of way.

One of the other main attractions is Clissold Park. It is big and beautiful and is especially great for kids, although I thoroughly enjoyed it too. It was originally a Georgian estate belonging to an abolitionist and the manor house is still standing, now housing a cafe. Just some of the amenities of the park are a paddling pool, skate park, animal enclosure (there are goats! One is called Dylan!), tennis courts and well-equipped play park. The New River runs through the park, which stank a bit but looks very pretty, as well as the Capital Ring walking path. 

The only thing that stopped Stoke Newington from being my absolute perfect place to live is the transport options. The overground around the entire area wasn't working which meant either getting the bus or walking half an hour down to Dalston Junction. I suppose the lack of tube means that it can stay relatively unspoiled and un-touristy. There are a lot of buses, so it not completely cut off.

Pretty, hipster and interesting? Stoke Newington, I've got my eye on you.

Saturday, 10 September 2016

I'll live in Hampstead if you let me

Hampstead is an area I've heard about time and time again for being one of the loveliest neighbourhoods in London. Those people are not wrong. It has a village feel and would be simply wonderful to live in. It's full of  little shops, markets, cute side streets and is located right next to the Heath. There's only one catch: you pretty much have to be a millionaire to afford it.

I walked from Finchley Road station, which is only about fifteen minutes away from me on the tube, so I got to see quite a lot of the area. I also stumbled into a charity shop which had a load of cool, vintage dresses that would be great for fancy dress! It took about twenty minutes to walk, uphill mostly, and went from huge redbrick Victorian houses to chocolate box Georgian places once I got to the village. I've heard Hampstead is a bit 'yummy mummy' and I did indeed see a lot of prams and leaflets for children's activities. There were very few of the usual high street shops to be found, instead there were artisan bakeries and expensive designer boutiques.

 Once I wandered off the beaten track, I found more pretty houses and even a tiny little village green Ok, it was a patch of grass forming a triangle between two streets with two benches, some trees and a red phone box, but it felt a bit like a green! The further I walked away from the village and toward the Heath, the bigger the houses got. I found some that were set back from the street with gates and driveways. I even found the Grand Budapest Hotel!

The only downside to Hampstead (apart from the price) is that it didn't feel very 'happening'. I couldn't see many bars or arty type venues. I can imagine it would be the perfect place to raise kids, or if you want to get away from it all but still stay close to the action. With three train stations (two tube and one overground) in close proximity to each other, it's a really, really fantastic area of London. Unfortunately, I'm never going to live there. 

Wednesday, 7 September 2016

The British Museum never loses its charm

A foggy day, in London town,
Had me low, had me down,
I viewed the morning, with much alarm,
The British Museum, had lost its charm

It was a grey, muggy day in London town but fortunately, for me, The British Museum never loses its charm. I followed the masses through the bag check area, up the steps where people were studiously ignoring the 'don't sit on the steps' sign and into the huge atrium. The British Museum is so big that you could spend a whole day and not experience it fully. If you don't know where you want to go, you could be aimlessly roaming the museum for hours. I knew where I was heading first: the Kings Library. 

The Kings Library room is pretty much my perfect library, with wood paneling, balconies and books stacked high as the ceiling. It used to house the books from the British Library, which has since moved to Kings Cross, so it isn't actually a library anymore. The books are all on loan and behind glass so you can't look at them and the main purpose of the room is an exhibition on the Enlightenment. 

After I'd exhausted that room, I made my way up the stairs to the Ancient Egypt area. It was boiling hot inside the museum, although luckily not as crowded as it usually is. I spent a bit of time looking at all the artifacts - really fascinating - and then went down to the section which houses the Rosetta Stone. Now, I know what a hugely significant object it is but I found it a little...underwhelming. It's always so crowded that it's difficult to get a good look at it and it's hidden behind a thick pane of glass. There are many other objects, such as the huge statue of Rameses II that I found much more impressive.

By this time I was getting thirsty and hot, so I decided to leave the rest of the museum for another day. I've been to the museum quite a number of times and still feel like I've barely scratched the surface. 

Sunday, 4 September 2016

Tea, cake and my new favourite place

In true English fashion I am a tea enthusiast. I mostly drink a variety of black teas but I'm rather partial to herbal and fruit ones these days too (but not green, I don't think anyone truly loves green tea). And what goes perfectly with tea? Why cake, of course!

I started my tea and cake journey accidentally, when my friend Anna (who had dragged me shopping on Oxford Street) announced that there was a bakery nearby that did a great chocolate cake. Eager to escape the shops - shopping is torturous when you have no money - and never one to turn down tea or cake, I dutifully followed Anna down to the Soho branch of Gail's Artisan Bakery.  It was a small bakery with minimalist decor - all exposed white brick walls, wooden tables and blue cups. I had recently eaten so instead of the heavier chocolate cake I opted for a sour cherry and dark chocolate scone with a pot of tea. The bigger cakes were quite pricey to eat in and while the scone was good, it wasn't amazing. Next time I go I think I'll try the chocolate cake.

Yesterday I was having a picnic in Green Park with a friend when it started to rain. Wondering where we could go that wasn't too far or too crowded, the thought of a tea room I'd seen years ago popped into my head. It was the Tea House Theatre in Vauxhall, a place I'd walked past every day for two weeks when I was doing my Walker Books internship but had never gone in. It was only three stops away on the Victoria line and my memory from 2012 somehow led me to the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens and the darling tea room.

As soon as I stepped through the threshold I knew I'd found 'my' place. The interior was part old-fashioned study, part bric a brac store and totally me. A variety of board games were available to play, there was a stack of newspapers for reading and even a toy chest for the kids. It felt cluttered but in a deliberate way, as if this was part of the aesthetic rather than because they didn't know how to clean.

There was more food than just tea and cake on the menu, but those were the main attractions, with a huge list of different types of tea. The cakes were dotted around the cafe under glass domes and I spotted a delectable red velvet cake immediately. The specialty teas were also a bit on the steep side, with £6 for a personal pot or £9 to share. There was a good deal on the house tea, though - £8 for a pot for two plus a slice of cake (so the other person would only need to buy another slice of cake in theory) which we went for. I had the red velvet cake which was very sweet and very tasty. The pot was loose leaf and came with a knitted tea cosy. We spent a good few hours sipping tea and playing scrabble.

If the relaxed vibe and cute interior wasn't enough, they also have a cat! A shy little black and white thing, who twisted its way around the tables, ignoring the outstretched hand of every patron who tried to pet it. I'm not one to see a cat without stroking it, so I sort of lured it out and then forced my affection on it. It liked - well, tolerated - me in the end.

The Tea House Theatre also doubles for a performance venue, hence the 'theatre' in the name, with poetry readings, plays, dances and all sorts going on in the evenings. I'm definitely going to try to go to one of those events someday. It is one of those places I can see myself going back to again and again, each time bringing someone new to discover its quirky charm.

Tuesday, 30 August 2016

The green, green grass of home

A week ago I made the impulsive decision to go back home for a few days. I had originally planned on going home mid-September, for my Dad's birthday, and I was a little apprehensive about going back so soon. It had, after all, only been a little over two weeks and it felt like I hadn't given myself enough time to settle in. But with my housemates all gone, the prospect of being alone in the flat for two whole weeks seeming rather daunting and no interviews lined up for that week, I impetuously bought a bus ticket and by late Tuesday morning I was back in Gloucestershire.

I felt like I'd been in London a lot longer that two weeks - more like two months - but when the bus pulled into Gloucester station, a rush of nostalgia and familiarity washed over me and it just felt - right. It felt like I'd never been away. It felt like home.

I was lucky enough to come back on a day that Mum babysits my niece Indie, so I spent a good chunk of the day playing with her. I love being an auntie! It was a little strange to be home at first. My bedroom had been redecorated, re-arranged and christened the 'spare room' - that was a wake up call that I no longer lived there! It was a beautiful sunny day so I kicked off my shoes and headed out to the garden which was bursting with colour and foliage. Living in a flat means lack of a garden and while there are parks, there's nothing quite like eating lunch outside in your own space. My eldest brother Pete and his girlfriend were around too so we all had an impromptu barbecue the first night.

Our apple tree was laden and the bushes were starting to produce blackberries and even though it is still summer all I could think about was baking, country walks and cosy autumn evenings. The Great British Bake Off started on Wednesday too, which fueled my desire to make cakes and all sorts of seasonal goodies.

The best thing about being at home is the little luxuries you don't get when you're a broke twenty-something living as frugally as possible. A well stocked fridge. A hot bath. Sky tv. Sofas that are somehow that little bit more comfortable. I haven't been sleeping too well in my new bed so I slept like a baby back in my old one, single bed though it was.

I spent the next day hanging out with my friend Michelle which was a complete joy. I'd started feeling a little bit doubtful and apprehensive about my move to London and Michelle gave me some wise, much-needed perspective on the matter. I unfortunately didn't get to hang out with too many other friends because it was such a last-minute and quick visit but I did get to see my friend Beth on the last evening. Much of my time was just spent hanging out with family (and my cat).

It's funny how your hometown goes from dull to interesting when you miss it. Something in me just needed to go and take a picture of the beautiful cathedral and have tea and cake in the adorable Comfy Pew tearoom.

Going home felt so safe, so comfortable but it also made me realise that I came out to London for a reason. It would have been easy to continue my life back in Gloucester which was, admittedly, pretty good. But I needed a change of scenery, I needed to experience the big city for a while. Things generally don't happen in life unless you want them to. Whether that means physically moving away or just being ready for different opportunities that come your way, you have to be open to change or you'll stay stuck where you are.

So while job hunting is tough and constant rejection is even tougher, I came back to London with a fresh perspective. This is right, this is good and I will make it.

Sunday, 28 August 2016

Wandering London

Yesterday I had the pleasure of having my sister come up for the day, but we were faced with a problem. Neither of us are tourists so didn't particularly care about seeing the sites, but it was such a lovely day that we didn't really want to be inside either. So what did we do? Why, we wandered!

We met at Leicester Square to see if we could get any cheap matinee tickets. That proved unsuccessful so we caffeinated up at Starbucks for a while, just chatting and catching up on life. We were near Covent Garden so we headed up there, stopping into Foyles on the way, and into the beautiful Neal's Yard. Neal's Yard is a quirky, colourful little street - well, a yard really! - just off Seven Dials. It's exactly the kind of place I'd like to hang out or live in, if there was such an area in London.

We wandered around Covent Garden a bit more, listening to a very casual (hands in pockets casual) opera singer busking and then realised we were getting a bit peckish. We stumbled upon a burger joint called MEATmarket which was going for the distressed, grungy vibe. My burger was called the 'Dead Hippie' which I ordered mostly for the name, I'll be honest, and came laden with jalepenos. No, I do mean laden. So loaded I had to scrape some of them off lest steam came out of my mouth.

Full up, we took to walking again and headed over the Thames toward Southbank. You get a pretty darn good view of London on the bridge, the city with the Gherkin, St Paul's etc to the left and Westminster to the right. Southbank was heaving and the Southbank Festival Hall centre was having a 'Big Wedding Weekend'. People were actually having their wedding receptions inside! Outside was a wedding themed disco/dance open to the general public. People were getting the Cha-Cha Slide terribly wrong but they all seemed to know the YMCA. It was getting warm by then so we walked along to Festival Gardens and stretched out in the sun for a bit.

We ended up near Trafalgar Square, after stopping in Waterstones, and we debated what to do for a while. Since we couldn't make up our minds we walked down the Mall and into St James' Park. The ducks and geese were out in full force, enjoying the last of the summer weather and the view you get of Whitehall Court and Horse Guards Parade with the lake in the foreground was stunning. We kept on walking, past Buckingham Palace and into Green Park where we sat and talked until it was time for Laura to get her train at Victoria.  

If you have been to London countless times, or if you live there, it's often easy to dismiss the tourist places. They are crowded and there are surely only so many times that the views can be exciting. But as I wandered around this great city, I realised how truly beautiful it is. It is so historically varied, with medieval buildings next to skyscrapers and classical-style architecture adjacent to warehouses, It is an urban jungle with green, pleasant gardens; a meandering maze of a city with gems tucked down alleyways. It is a city made for exploring, for putting on comfortable shoes, closing the guidebook and just going - with eyes open and expectations high.

Saturday, 20 August 2016

The unexpected lure of Zone 9

I have now called London home for a grand total of two weeks, which is basically just a holiday to most people. However, it somehow feels like I've been living here far, far longer than that. It's amazing how things like the tube and walking everywhere quickly become routine.

Since the weather has been so nice recently, my housemate Becca and I declared that we were going to take advantage of this by going to a lido. London has a good number of them dotted all over the place but we calculated that the quickest one to get to wasn't in London at all, but out in the far reaches of Zone 9. I didn't even know there was a Zone 9! Harrow is in Zone 5 on the Metropolitan line so instead of taking the usual tube east into the city, we ventured the other way - all the way out of London. The urban sprawl soon thinned out and within fifteen minutes we had views of beautiful countryside. Trees! Fields! Rolling hills! Seeing these on a tube train of all places! My little country girl soul breathed a huge sigh of relief of seeing all the green and open space.

It took about half an hour to get out to Chesham, which is a small market town in Buckinghamshire, near High Wycombe and only cost £1.80. And though it may be on a tube line, Toto, we were not in Kansas anymore. Being a Thursday afternoon, it was quiet and peaceful and hardly anyone was around. It was a pleasant fifteen minute walk from the tube station to the outdoor pool and the sun had started to shine. The lido was just a small outdoor pool, a gym full of guys lifting weights and a changing room. I managed to sneakily get a student price ticket (£2.80) because Becca had her student card. There were a number of families with kids at the pool but it wasn't crowded by any means. The pool was heated - not bath warm but nice enough on the vaguely-warm-but-not-actually-that-warm day (I should be a weather lady). It was so lovely and relaxing to be in an outdoor pool on in the late afternoon while it's still summer. We ate our late lunch by the side of the pool and swam a little more but second time round the pool felt quite a bit colder, so we decided to head home.

The tube weaved through woodland and past winding country lanes. The fields that stretched as far as the eye could see became buildings and the hush of the town became the buzz of the city once again. Even though I haven't been in the city very long, part of me still craves the open space and I feel refreshed when I'm out there. The other part, however, is glad to have shops and amenities within a 5 minute radius. Country girl, city girl indeed. 

Monday, 15 August 2016

A Greenwich love affair

Sunday took me all the way to south-east London, to the beautiful area of Greenwich. Although famed for inventing time (well, kind of!), I discovered there's a lot more to Greenwich than just the Royal Observatory.

The town itself is quirky and quaint, with a number of pubs, restauraunts (both chain and individual) and boutiques. I had fun perusing the small vintage market selling bric-a-brac and then the larger Greenwich market which has stalls ranging from jewellery to pictures to world food.

It's pretty difficult not to find the main attractions in Greenwich, that is to say the Cutty Sark, the Royal Naval College and the Observatory, as everything in the town leads to them. The enormous Cutty Sark is centred in a large square, the bottom of the boat encased in glass and the top a paid excursion. Adjacent to it is the stunning Old Royal Naval College, now part museum and part University of Greenwich.

Since it was a sunny day I mostly wandered around outside the college, taking in the Georgian architecture. I had a peek inside the chapel which had painted ceiling and a large fresco. Everything about this place felt very cultured.

If there is one word for Greenwich (at least, the Greenwich I saw) it is beautiful. Everything was beautiful, from the park leading up the observatory to the classical-style buildings (now various museums and art galleries) littered around the place. 

Because the Observatory costs, but mostly because it was a long walk up a steep hill, I didn't actually make it up there -  just another thing to add to my bucket list. The park below it has a wild, untamed feel even though it is fairly open and manicured.

Greenwich has the peculiar luxury of feeling like its own little town but also very much part of London. If you face north to the Thames, you get a spectacular view of the Canary Warf area, reminding you that you are in the city. If you look down the river to your left (west) you can glimpse the London Eye and to the right (north east), the O2 arena, only ten minutes away.

Because it was a warm and sunny day - and because I could - I decided not to take the DLR (space train!) or the overground back to central, but to treat myself to a riverbus. You can pay by Oyster card for this and the one I chose took me all the way to embankment. While it did cost me £6.50, I do not regret spending the money at all. I sat in the back of the boat and got the most wonderful views of London and we sailed down the river. You pass almost all of historic London - all the cool warehouses of the old wharves, the Tate Modern, the Tower of London, you go UNDER Tower Bridge...I felt like a delighted tourist seeing it all for the first time.

While I know I only saw 'tourist' Greenwich, I fell a little bit in love with it. I like anything pretty and anything quirky, so the combination of both PLUS the green spaces and the river made it a neighbourhood match made in heaven for me.

Wednesday, 10 August 2016

The two Harrows

I have lived in Harrow for not quite a week and until yesterday had only seen the town centre and tube station - only five minutes from my house. I thought it was high time that I explored the area a bit further so I decided to venture outside my five minute radius.

Harrow town centre is very busy and multicultural, teeming with people from all walks of life. It's a standard suburban town centre, filled with all the high street shops you need but is not that pretty, interesting or unique. If you didn't know any better, you would think that this was all Harrow has to offer.

But there is another Harrow, a 'hidden' Harrow if you will. About twenty minutes walk away from town up a steep hill is Harrow School, the fancy public school for fancy boys. And just past that is Harrow on the Hill, the old village. As I puffed my way up the hill, I suddenly stepped into another world.Gone were the 60s buildings, the bustling roads and constant traffic and there was...quiet.

There was something about it that felt so familiar to me. It was like so many pretty villages that I grew up around. I could have been in Gloucestershire, or Kent or Yorkshire. All I knew is that I definitely did not feel like I was in London anymore. And it calmed me, I must admit. The country girl is still strong in me! The village is only really one main street, with beautiful Georgian (and possibly earlier) architecture. There is an adorable tea room and various other types of shops, including an 'outfitters' for the school which sold what I hope were ironic boater hats (but I fear that Harrow does not do irony). What struck me was the quietness of the whole place. I didn't have to dodge people on the pavement and I could just stroll and take it all in, rather than rush, rush, rush.It was hard to believe that this was technically the same town as the one just down the hill.

The disparity of wealth in the two Harrows did make me feel somewhat uncomfortable, though. It's easy to see how the boys who go to the school would never even see the working class/middle class people of the town below and believe that this pretty, English village is all there is to Harrow. The top Harrow is quaint tea shops and the Harrow below is chain coffee shops (and suspicious-looking pound shops) and never the twain shall meet. One A road and a small hill separates these worlds and it is so strange to me just how different they are.

I do know that if I ever get tired of the hustle and bustle of London, I'll escape up to Harrow on the Hill for an afternoon of peace and quiet.

Sunday, 7 August 2016

Weekend wanderings

Samuel Johnson famously once said that 'when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.' While I don't entirely agree with this quote, the sentiment that there are so many things to entertain in London rings true. Too many, if that is possible. There is so much choice I don't know where to begin! 

Somehow all my friends that live in London seem to all be away a the same time, so any plans to hang out with familiar faces this weekend were scuppered. This was probably a blessing in disguise as it forced me to step out on my own. I don't have any fear or anxiety about going places alone, I mean, I travelled across America on my own at 20 so I can be pretty independent when I want to be, but I prefer having company. Life is just more enjoyable with friends. Doing things alone can teach you valuable things about yourself and even if this weekend wasn't a journey of self discovery, I got to see some new places I might not have seen for a while if I'd been too afraid to go alone. 

When I woke up on Saturday I must admit that I almost put my head back under the duvet to watch Netflix all day. But - no. There was a whole city to explore and I was determined to make the most of it. Like a nerd, I love art galleries and museums and in London most of the best ones are free. I'd never been to the Science Museum so I braved Central London on a Saturday in the summer holidays. That was a bit of a mistake, let me tell you. The tube was boiling and crammed full of tourists but it was all worth it when I stepped into the airy atrium of scientific wonder. Part of the museum was closed for refurbishment but I had a good look around the space section, the clocks, the aviation bit and the transport 'modern world' area. I really enjoyed it, but it was a bit of information overload. 

I tried a small church in Notting Hill on Sunday morning. They were very friendly and had a coffee bar (score!) but it did make me miss my home church quite a lot. I was going to peruse Portobello market but it doesn't open on a Sunday so I decided to go to Westfield shopping mall instead. It's very shiny and has a ton of great shops and food places. I'm not allowing myself to spend unnecessary money so OF COURSE I found loads of clothes I wanted. The sparkly skirts in Zara, the cool tops in Pull & Bear, basically everything in was tough walking away.  

Now, before you think that I'm living the life of Riley and having the best life, it hasn't been the easiest transition (is moving ever easy?). I don't feel settled yet but I keep telling myself that it's only the first weekend and that I can't expect to feel at home straight away. I'll need to remind myself of this - probably daily - over the next few weeks. 

Friday, 5 August 2016

The first day

Life in London has officially started and I still can't quite believe it. I had a lovely 'moving day' evening with my two new housemates who cooked me a delicious dinner but it still felt like I was a visitor to London and that I'd be going home tomorrow. When my body woke me up at 7 am this morning (thanks body) it hit me - this is no holiday. This is real life. And it's time for some action.

Of course, my next action was going back to sleep until 9. Well, it IS the first day! I spent the morning looking and applying for jobs, updating my cv and generally browsing the internet for things to do in London. 
I had a meeting with a job agency scheduled at 3pm, so I pootled off the tube about an hour before, getting some time in to look around Harrow. My flat is about 2 minutes from a Tesco and 5 minutes from the Tube stop and town. Town has everything you need, from the standard high street shops (Primark, H&M, Nandos) to the little more exciting (Tiger! A juice bar!). Even though Harrow is zone 5, the Metropolitan line is so quick it only takes 15 minutes to get to Baker Street. It skips a whole zone (who needs zone 3 anyway?). 

Before my meeting, I wandered the streets around Baker Street, taking a left or right turn whenever I felt like it and seeing what I came across. Mostly fancy restaurants, fancier boutiques and multi-million pound town houses. There were also plentiful affordable food places - Chipotle, sushi, Dunkin' Donuts - which I sadly did not eat at. I stopped in for a few minutes at the Koppel Project art gallery which seemed very cool, but I unfortunately didn't have time to browse. That's a place on my list to go back to. 

Since I was around Baker Street, I decided I couldn't go home without at least going to see where Sherlock Holmes was based. The crowd outside the museum was crazy, so I harrumphed to myself about tourists, crossed the road and took a sneaky picture. 

Deciding to continue the exploration, I crossed the road into Regent's Park. Because it was so sunny, people were out in full force. I walked by the lake, admiring the geese and ducks and the general buzz of the park. As a country girl, being back in nature (as far as central London can do nature) feels homely. As I sat on a bench and took it all in, I felt so much more comfortable with my decision to move. I know London isn't all sitting in pretty parks on a sunny day, or walking around beautiful historic streets but just being able to cross the street and experience all that whenever you feel like it...well, it's exactly what I want from life right now.