Sundays in Shoreditch

 

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Thanks to having friends in East London who are always very generous with offering me a bed at the weekend, I have been spending a lot of time in the East End over the past year or so. I love this area of London; it’s so vibrant and interesting, and there is always something new to see and do every time I visit. I really appreciate the fact that it is a real cultural melting pot, and always has been. Despite its traditional working class roots, the East End has attracted immigrants throughout London’s history, and though it is now mostly known for its Asian influences, predominantly due to the fantastic array of curry houses on Brick Lane, it also has a rich Jewish heritage that can still be found if you know where to look. These days it is rapidly gentrifying and is a mecca for young urban professionals, who love the wide array of independent shops, cafes, markets, clubs and bars available on its streets, as well as its lively art scene.

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Thankfully, the gentrification hasn’t scrubbed away all of its character, and I love the constant juxtaposition of graffiti and crumbling old shop fronts sitting side by side with new glass office buildings, restored Victorian pubs and bustling streets of market stalls. What is most magical, however, is the incredible array of beautiful Georgian architecture that has somehow managed to remain intact. Around Spitalfields Market, there are streets of stunning terraces that would almost convince you that the clocks had turned back three hundred years, if you couldn’t see cranes and high-rise towers in the distance. Nearby St Leonard’s Church, which had a starring role in the hilarious BBC series Rev and is one of the most beautifully decrepit churches I have ever seen, is a fantastic example of Wren-inspired architecture and provides some fascinating evidence of Shoreditch’s artistic heritage. It seems that creative types have long been attracted to this area, with Shakespeare starting his career in the theatres that were once located on its streets, and the church contains the remains of a host of Shakespearian actors who were buried there before it was rebuilt.

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The best part about Shoreditch is how fantastic it is to visit on a Sunday. You can go and shop for flowers on Columbia Road, and peruse the independent shops that are filled with an array of interesting finds, before wandering down to the UpMarket on Brick Lane, where there are stalls selling everything you can imagine alongside a wonderfully eclectic selection of freshly cooked food from all over the world. You can then finish up at the beautifully restored Spitalfields Market, where there are upmarket shops and restaurants alongside stalls run by independent traders. While walking between these spots, you will pass a huge range of architecture, both ancient and modern, and see the blend of tradition and innovation that London is so renowned for. I can’t think of a better way to spend a weekend, and a better way to see the real heart of the city. If you want to find out more, head over to the wonderful Jane Brocket’s blog, where her Pocket Brocket guide to Shoreditch is free to download, and offers a brilliant array of hints and tips for exploring this glorious patch of the capital.

Christmas at Osterley Park

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OSTERLEYSIDEOn Saturday, I finally got around to visiting a place I’ve been meaning to get to for years; Osterley Park, the only stately home owned by the National Trust within the M25. It was given to the nation in the 1940s by its owner the Earl of Jersey, and is a beautiful example of Robert Adam architecture. I’m sure when it was first built, it would have been surrounded by open countryside and a pleasant retreat from the hustle and bustle of the city. Unfortunately, it is now very much part of the West London suburbs; the motorway cuts right through the park, it’s directly beneath the flightpath of Heathrow Airport, and it is ringed by streets of identikit semi detached 1930s houses. This does detract somewhat from the impression of grandeur the house creates, but nevertheless, it is still a breathtakingly lovely spot, and a wonderful surprise considering that it is accessed via a perfectly ordinary suburban street.

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DECORATIONS

The house is currently decorated for Christmas, and the curators have done a marvellous job of making the most of the house’s history to show the various ways in which Christmas has been celebrated over time. The tour starts in the Georgian period, with largely natural decorations of laurel, fir and dried fruits decorating the walls, and a lavish feast of pies and meat covers the huge dining table. The rooms then become more like the Christmas we recognise, with beautifully decorated Christmas trees and Christmas carols playing softly to demonstrate a Victorian Christmas. Finally, the tour moves down into the basement, where visitors are transported to the Second World War, and can see how Christmas was affected by rationing. At this time of year, much of the house is closed to the public, but even so, there was plenty to see and we were enchanted with the classical proportions of the house, its tasteful and unpretentious decor, and the inventiveness of the displays on offer.

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After our tour, we had a lovely lunch in the restaurant, which has been created within the old Jacobean stables, and then popped into both the secondhand book shop, where I picked up a couple of bargains, and into the regular gift shop, which was heaving with Christmas goodies. Despite the freezing weather, we then went for a stroll around the prettily autumnal grounds, stopping to look at a huge flock of geese and the cows that live on the Park’s farmland, before heading back to the magnificently art deco tube station (via the eccentric Osterley Bookshop). It felt rather strange hopping on a tube just minutes after walking around a stately home; Osterley is quite magical in that respect. It’s a real slice of country life within the city; definitely a place to visit if you’re ever in the neighbourhood.

Soundbites

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1. I’ve fallen back in love with London. Miranda introduced me to the lovely Quo Vadis in Soho, which showed me that sophisticated restaurants are within my price range. My friend Emma took me to Somerset House to see this lovely photography exhibition. This showed me that I forget how many brilliant galleries there are to visit, and need to stop going to the same ones all the time (though I’ll be going back to Somerset House to see this in November). I finally made it to Sir John Soane’s Museum, which was magnificent and a real hidden gem. Miranda reminded me that Lamb’s Conduit Street is more than just Persephone Books by showing me Ben Pentreath and The French House, two gorgeous shops that sell beautiful and affordable home goods. I walked along the river in the Autumnal twilight after a lovely meal at Wahaca and a browse at the Southbank Book Market and felt all weak at the knees at the twinkling of the lamps along the Embankment and the shadowy silhouette of the Houses of Parliament. Why did I ever want to move? I am a silly girl.

2. I am really looking forward to Persephone’s new releases for the Autumn. I read Enid Bagnold’s The Squire many years ago before I started blogging, and thought it was an absolutely beautiful book, with such luscious prose. I can’t wait to read it again. Incidentally, I do think Enid Bagnold is rather an underrated novelist. Aside from National Velvet, she wrote some wonderful books. The best I have read is Diary without Dates; a truly eye opening account of her time as a VAD nurse during WWI – and it’s free on Project Gutenberg!

3. I saw the trailer for the new series of Downton Abbey this weekend. Obviously it won’t be the same without Cousin Matthew and his gorgeous eyes, but I feel this is the series for Lady Edith to SHINE. I have my fingers crossed for some spinster shenanigans and some amazing flapper dresses. Let’s hope that Julian Fellowes really has upped his game this time!

4. I want to go and see this fascinating sounding photography exhibition, showing pictures taken by civilians during the 30s for the Mass Observation project. It’s reminded me that I really need to read Vere Hodgson’s Few Eggs and No Oranges, which has been sitting on my shelf for far too long.

5. I am getting into The Great British Bake Off spirit by flexing my baking muscles. I have been the toast of the staffroom with this delicious cake – super easy and very delicious!

London vs New York

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I have been feeling incredibly homesick for New York lately. I ache for its streets. I want to sit out on a terrace and eat dinner in the balmy warmth of a May evening. I want to walk along the river and watch the lights of the Queensboro bridge twinkling in the distance. I want to listen to free music in Bryant Park while eating a picnic from Whole Foods. I want to wait in the line for Shakeshack while staring up at the beauty that is the Flatiron Building. I want to sit on a skyscraper rooftop, watching New York throb with life beneath me. I want to get lost in the streets of the Lower East Side, I want to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge, I want to hop on the ferry to Staten Island just for the fun of the ride, and I want to spend an afternoon wandering through Central Park watching the world go by. When I lived there, I never wanted to be anywhere else. It was always a relief, after going away for the weekend on a Greyhound bus, to reenter the city through the Holland Tunnel and see those skyscrapers looming above me; it was a comfort, a joy, to know I was back home again.

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It’s hard for me to believe that it’s been almost two years since I returned, and I haven’t been back since. Part of me doesn’t want to; returning to a city you love passionately and never actually wanted to leave can’t help being painful. There are memories everywhere; memories of a delirious happiness I had never felt before. Living in New York was euphoric; every day was an opportunity for adventure. In moving there, I had proved to myself that I had a courage I never knew I possessed; a courage that could conquer any fear if I allowed it to. That whole year, I felt brave, adventurous and confident in a way I never had before. It was the best experience of my life.

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Last weekend, feeling morose, I met up with my intrepid university friend Emma, who has coincidentally also lived in America. We went to the V&A and the King’s Road and I talked about how I’m bored of London again and it’s all just so dull compared to New York. She nodded sympathetically as we drank wine and ate pizza, and then went for a wander. We looked in Anthropologie, which sent me into even more reveries as I thought of the beautiful Anthropologie on Fifth Avenue, and then decided to walk up to Hyde Park, which prompted another moan about how our parks are so dull compared to the varied delights of the lovely Central Park. We popped into the pretty gardens of St Luke’s Chelsea (where Dickens got married) on our way, and I compared them with Riverside Park in New York (with a sigh, of course) before continuing on to Cromwell Road. It was here I had to stop making comparisons, because nothing in New York really does compare to the red brick gorgeousness of the upper end of Albertopolis, with the magnificence of the Royal Albert Hall flanked by the wonderfully curved mansion blocks, though I couldn’t help but comment that the big Federal style 1930s mansion block next to the Royal Geographical Society does bear more than a passing resemblance to the Museum of the City of New York in Harlem.

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As we passed the Royal Geographical Society, we noticed that they were having a photography exhibition related to the first successful Everest ascent, so we popped in to have a look. It is a small but perfectly formed display, and made me realise that actually, if I bother looking, London does have just as many quirky and interesting places to visit as New York. With hand metaphorically slapped, we headed into Kensington Gardens, which I have never properly explored. When I worked at the V&A, I only ever had time to walk up to the Albert Memorial and back, so there was never an opportunity to go off and find the Peter Pan statue, which I have been meaning to do for years. Emma and I decided that today was the day, and so off we went. As we walked, I found myself amazed by the beauty of Hyde Park. We passed a temple, and then a beautiful lake filled with swans, and then we found the Peter Pan statue (which isn’t as good as Alice in Wonderland, but you know) and then we came across the Italian Gardens, laid out to look like a terrace of a stately home. There are fountains and flowers and stone balustrades and urns, and it’s absolutely delightful. I had no idea it even existed. Sitting on a bench and surveying the scene, I thought that perhaps I might have been doing dear old London a disservice.

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After basking in the sun a while, we caught the tube and parted ways at Tottenham Court Road. I wandered down Charing Cross Road, popped into the bookshops, smiled affectionately at the tourists clambering over the lions in Trafalgar Square, dodged a red bus as I crossed the street in front of St Martin in the Fields and caught a glimpse of the Houses of Parliament as I rounded the corner to go over to the station and catch my train. No, it’s not New York, but London has its own special charm. I do love it really, and my weekend jaunt taught me that there is still much for me to discover in this city that I have always called home.

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But even so, I booked a flight to New York that evening.

East of the River

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I love it when friends move flats. It means I get to explore new areas of London that I’d probably never visit otherwise. My intrepid university friend Emma has done a lot of moving since we left our student digs in the summer of 2007 (it seems so long ago!) and now she’s settled in Bow, East London. It’s not my favourite part of town, I must admit, but I was keen to go exploring when I visited last weekend. When I got off at the station, I was initially underwhelmed; the main road was grubby, run down and generally very unappealing. I thought it was certainly not somewhere I should like to live. However, as I turned into Emma’s road, everything changed. Instead of dilapidation and dirt was a row of pale yellow brick Georgian terraces with beautiful wrought iron railings smartly separating their courtyard gardens from the pavement. It couldn’t have been a more incongruous sight if it tried. Inside Emma’s lovely house, it was an oasis of calm, and I was shocked to find a very peaceful back garden with barely any noise to be heard apart from the chimes from nearby Bow Church. Little did I know that this was going to be just the beginning of a day full of surprises!

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After lunch and chatting, Emma decided she needed to go to the garden centre to get a bird feeder (she grew up on a farm). I laughed. A garden centre? In Bow? Surely not! I cried. Just you wait and see! replied Emma, and off we went. We walked down her street, past the Regency terraces towards a lovely Victorian railway arch. Behind the arch was a huge Victorian bus garage with some brilliant art deco signage – another pleasant architectural surprise. Then we walked past a cluster of Victorian buildings that looked vaguely industrial. We pressed our noses up against the wrought iron gates and craned our necks to look inside. It reminded me of a seminary I had found while wandering in downtown Manhattan one day. What had been its original purpose, I wondered? Later research revealed that it was originally the Bryant and May match factory, once London’s largest and scene of the famous Match Girls strike. I’d love to be able to go inside and explore! As we wandered further on towards Roman Road market, I suddenly stopped and gasped. At the end of a side street, I had a clear view of the Olympic stadium and the hideous Anish Kapoor sculpture. I couldn’t believe it! We were within spitting distance of the Olympic Park! What more was East London going to offer me?!

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So much more, as I was about to find out. Victorian East London began to make way for the large council estates of the 1960s, and while a lot of these buildings are incredibly ugly, there was something quite striking about the stark modernism of these high rise flats. Many of the residents now have a view of the Olympic Park, as well as the massive expanse of beautiful Victoria Park, which we soon found ourselves wandering into. At the edge, on a former patch of wasteland, was the garden centre. Called Growing Concerns, it was built and is staffed by local residents, and includes a lovely coffee stand with an honesty box. It is a gorgeous little oasis, filled with colour even in the depths of winter, and a fantastic example of what local communities can achieve when they work together. I am no gardener, but even I felt inspired! Even better was realising, when I wandered down some steps and through an arch, that I was on the bank of a canal complete with narrowboats. I was beginning to feel like I didn’t know my home city at all!

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After Emma had bought her bird feeder, we went into the park for a walk. I loved the fact that on one side of the park was a council estate, and on the other was a crescent of large Victorian townhouses that wouldn’t have looked out of place in a smart street in Chelsea. We were also walking alongside a canal that was bordered by old warehouse buildings, now smart new flats, with the struts of the Olympic stadium’s roof jutting above the horizon in the distance. What could be more representative of London’s diversity, history and ever regenerating landscape? I was entranced. I’m so used to dismissing East London as either a bit of a dump or a hive of hipsters that I’ve never really given it a chance. I feel like the scales have fallen from my eyes, and I can’t wait to do some more exploring in future!

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