Monday, 15 December 2014

Accidental Reads: Drink London - 100 best bars and pubs

Without wishing to sound like a raging alcoholic, I have been for a lot of drinks since I've lived in London. The city is stuffed with watering holes; from the hip, hidden speakeasy, staffed by chaps in bowlers and braces, to the quintessentially English pub, full of half-drunk pints and old baize pool tables. Some are short-lived pop-ups, some ever-full hotspots. Plenty have been around for hundreds of years. (I visited several of the city's most ancient hostelries with Charlotte of Best LDN Walks over the summer on her excellent Secrets of London pub tour.)

Of course, everyone has their personal views on drinking spots. Some people like them buzzy and busy, others like a peaceful pint. A familiar favourite can be just what one needs for a cosy weekend drink, but sometimes you fancy somewhere different; a place you can scour an imaginative drinks list for a tasty new tipple. And if you're in need of some alchoholic inspiration, you could do worse than get yourself a copy of Drink London by Euan Ferguson. Published by Frances Lincoln Limited, Ferguson brings the reader 100 handpicked places to drink all over the city.
Drink London even helpfully arranges the city's best drinking for you, categorising bars and pubs into several different chapters; offering something for wine fans, pub lovers, cocktail drinkers, and craft beer aficionados. The intriguingly named 'With A Twist' chapter gathers together the entries for places that aren't your average British pub or bar. Often when you hear about the latest hot bar, or quirky drinking experience in London your next question is 'But what's their gimick? Do I have to sip my pint out of an old tin can or drink in the dark or only drink Malibu-based beverages?'. Fortunately however Ferguson's 'With A Twist' bars are not gimicky. They are just places the author would love other people to appreciate for their unique character. They are eccentrically decorated, hidden away so you might never discover them on your own, or well and truly stuck in a time and culture warp.

There's no hard sell on any of the venues in the book, just a few lovely photos, handy address and contact details (including notes on the nearest tube), and some facts about each place; about the building, the owners, the atmosphere, and of course, the drinks. As a well-seasoned London drinker I spotted plenty of my own favourite spots in the book. (Mostly in the 'Cocktails' chapter...!) Colebroke Row was where the Accidental Boyfriend and I went for our first date, for cocktails in one of the city's first prohibition-era-style bars. Post-work drinks have been drunk in Nightjar, which has a similar vibe to Colebroke Row, but is larger, and situated under ground, alarmingly close to the Old Street roundabout. Callooh Callay in Shoreditch reminds me of Narnia. Inside it looks much like a standard East London bar (although their negroni is definitely above average). But step through the wardrobe against the back wall and you find yourself in a secret bar within a bar. There is even a secret staircase in this second bar, leading up to yet another space. Maybe Narnia isn't quite the right comparison...the place is more like a set of Russian nesting dolls. I mean, nesting bars.

Whilst local boozers are less my preferred drinking style, I was pleased to see one pub near me, the Pineapple in Kentish Town, had made the Drink London cut in the 'Legendary Locals' chapter. It's a sweet little place, with decent beer, always a busy crowd of locals, and a somewhat surprising Thai food menu. Of the 'Craft Beer and Ale' suggestions, I'd visited a couple, although I'd been somewhat underwhelmed by the ambiance within them. Cask in Pimlico, for example, is a great spot for beer fans but don't go taking anyone down there for a romantic evening beneath the walls covered in old beer mats and atop the world's stickiest floor.

The book gave me plenty of inspiration for future celebrations and quiet catch-ups too. I'm rather keen to check out the Clapton Hart, located in a haunted joke shop in Hackney. And I have still yet to sample a cocktail or two at the American Bar at the Savoy. Ooh and Soho's Portobello Star, the only gin museum in London...I've got to give that place a try. Fortunately Drink London also comes with a handy checklist to record one's progress through its pages. I reckon you'll need it after a drink or two...

The perfect Christmas present for the boozy Londoner in your life, Accidental Londoner readers can order Drink London at a discounted price of £7.99 including p&p* (RRP: £9.99).  Call 01903 828503 or email mailorders@lbsltd.co.uk and quote the offer code APG219.

*UK ONLY - Please add £2.50 if ordering from overseas 

Monday, 8 December 2014

A festive repost: 'Christmas formal' with the girls

*** This weekend, we bid farewell to some much loved friends, who are leaving cold, grey London for the sunshine of Sydney. It was emotional to say the least. There were tears, silly Christmas jumpers, turkey (obvs), mulled cider, and a round of the After Eight game that the Grafton in Kentish Town probably won't forget in a hurry.

And so, if you'll permit me, here is a little festive repost. This is how my pals and I do our London-y, pretending-we're-all-still-at-university Christmas. Next year, there will be a conspicuously empty seat round our noisy table...

"To paint a picture, once upon a time, in a land far away in the North East, 8 girls lived in a large former B&B/hotel together. They had many friends who would visit for tea, vodka and chocolate biscuits, some of whom spent so much time in their house everyone forgot they didn't actually live there. When these girlies were done being students they packed up their house and headed off to different places all over the country to start being proper working folk. But missing each other they met up frequently and, in manner of a dysfunctional, sort of non-related family, decided they would have their own Christmas each year; given that most of these girls lived in London by the time the festive season rolled round the first time, the great British capital would be the annual venue.

Arriving by train, or car, or bus or on stout-booted foot, us girlies from all over the country rendezvous on an always soggy December Saturday at Hyde Park, at the gluhwein bar nearest the tube station. After much hugging and shrieking, and catching up, our merry band of chums wanders about the muddy spectacle of Hyde Park's "Winter Wonderland". And this year [originally posted in 2009] it's bigger than ever before. My, but it was busy. I stood, attempting to locate the other girls, in a sea of people in coloured anoraks, all hurtling over my feet, feeling much as Moses might have done if the whole sea-parting thing had come unstuck; it was biblically panic-inducing. After my first styrofoam mug of hot vino however I was more charitably disposed towards my fellow Wonderland wanderers. (Not towards the ones with the buggies, with children flailing welly-booted feet at ankle-level though. They should be banned - the buggies and the children.)

We strolled (moving any faster would've been a challenge through the sea of bobble-hats, woollen scarves, and faces pink from cold and over-excitement), we drank more gluhwein, we munched the odd bratwurst. We marvelled (well, laughed in a superior we've-been-here-before-and-know-you're-being-ripped-off manner) at those stupid enough to pay a small fortune to ride on tilting, twirling rides, waving huge metal, flashing legs in the air, like giant tarantulas who'd got tangled in fairy lights. After a merry but chilly few hours, with all out-of-town girls arrived, we headed off to West Hampstead for a full turkey dinner, awful, yet unfortunately mandatory, Christmas music, and presents. Seven off us negotiated the Jubilee line without serious problems, collected two who'd got stuck in traffic then gone to the pub to get stuck into the gin, and a final tenth arrived in time to chop parsnips.

Armed with more wine, we chopped and peeled like Santa's elves on secondment to Delia Smith's kitchen. Finally, dressed for the occasion, we were all sat round a groaning table, on an interesting assembly of chairs, stools and stacked furniture. A toast was raised to Christmas and friends, the crackers snapped apart, the dreadful jokes shared and we all tucked in. Our head-chef did us proud - it was a fine feast! Two courses down, plus Christmas cake and mince pies, and the table was strewn with empty plates, torn wrapping paper, and, somewhat unwisely, winking tea-lights. (Only two blazing napkins were rushed to be extinguished in the sink however, so no serious calamities.) Silly games were played to the accompaniment of the kind of banter of people who know far too much about each other, and are rather well alcoholically lubricated. Just like a traditional family Christmas, except no enforced time with people you would otherwise never choose to see. In an age where one's familial nearest may not necessarily be one's dearest, the friend-family may well be the way forward!

Mariah Carey might only want you for Christmas, but we want our families AND our friends (and brandy butter and roast turkey and little sausages wrapped in bacon), and as long as one of our number has a house to comandeer in London, Christmas will likely continue to come twice a year for us lucky girls!

(P.S. - a disclaimer to all Accidental Family - no disparaging remarks about familial nearest apply to you. Obviously you're all fabulous - ignore the poetic licence and the overdose of gluhwein!)"

*** For Sarah 'always Jones to us', who we are already missing like crazy.

Thursday, 30 October 2014

Ch-ch-ch-changes

This little corner of the Internet has been woefully silent recently. Sorry about that. See, changes have been afoot.

It's become autumn. Which has led to a rediscovery of scarves and thick black tights (and then their discarding as the British weather plays tricks and suddenly becomes unseasonably warm on a whim.)

I've turned thirty. Which has called for cocktails and catch ups with wonderful friends and many slices of the most obscenely enormous and delicious cake.
I've started a new job. Which has required a lot of focussed energy and early mornings, and bidding farewell to my lazy summer spent writing in cafes and generally exploiting the freedom that comes from not spending all day in an office.

And in starting my new job, I've gained a new area of the city to explore. Which has required flat shoes, fresh notebooks and these little beauties.

In a stroke of madness I've also signed up for NaNoWriMo, and accepted the challenge of writing a novel in a month. So there goes November.

Things may continue to be quieter over here for a little bit. But you're staying in and being cosy, and thinking about Halloween and Bonfire Night, and watching The Apprentice, right? You'll barely notice I'm gone...

Back soon. 

Monday, 13 October 2014

September in pictures


1. This is another belated monthly wrap up, as I spent the end of September just outside Stirling in Scotland, with family and friends celebrating the Accidental Mother's birthday. We rented a rambling house, with beautiful surrounding gardens and woods. It was the kind of place where you opened a door without being entirely sure what you might find on the other side - it was huge and confusing, but a great place for a party.

2. Another month, another cat in the office at Cats Protection's North London Adoption Centre. 'Augusto' was very friendly, although not conducive to getting much work done. We've been hard at work creating a campaign to recruit new volunteers to help support our South London Adoption Centre which will be opening in early 2015. The shiny new centre will rely on the hard work of an army of volunteers who will help to clean out and socialise the furry residents, offer them foster homes, take them to the vet and help them find new families. If you live in or near South London and are interested in finding out more about volunteering with Cats Protection, have a look for more details here and do drop us a line. The kitties need you!

3. Shakespeare's Globe is an extraordinary theatre, the home of Shakespeare in London. Recreated in the image of the original Globe Theatre - which stood on Maiden Lane, burnt down, was rebuilt, and finally closed in 1642 - the current Globe opened in 1997. But not many people know that within the grounds of this theatre is a whole other performance space - a theatre within a theatre. After getting the main space ready for the opening in 1997, everyone rather ran out of steam (and money!) to work on this second, smaller theatre. But with the Globe going from strength to strength, the creative team channelled their energies back towards this incomplete space, and with a little inspiration from various original Jacobean playhouse designs, the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse opened last year. I went along to visit the space with its star-covered timber roof, and hear some fabulous music performed by candlelight. (A little surreal for a Monday morning but undeniably magical.) It is an enchanting space, at once small and intimate and limitless in potential: The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse is a TARDIS of a theatre.

4. Brixton Market is a funny place - a bastion of gentrification in the heart of a surrounding area which resolutely refuses to give up all of its glorious imperfections and submit fully to the hipsters and yummy mummies. Early last month, a friend introduced me to a great Japanese cafe, Okan, tucked in the heart of this market. It is a no-nonsense kind of place; no reservations, cash-only, and one star attraction on the menu. 'Okonomiyaki' is apparently Osaka's favourite streetfood - a kind of thick pancake stuffed with cabbage and all kinds of other goodies. Even noodles if that takes your fancy. After our tasty pancakes we needed a little caffeine so headed through the market to Federation Coffee for a couple of flat whites and a little cooing over a visiting puppy. My coffee came disguised as a swan.

5. From pancakes to popstars, across town a new statue was unveiled in another market. Commemorating the late, local singer and pub frequenter, Amy Winehouse, the statue that now stands in Camden Market courted its fair share of controversy even before its completion. But as soon as it was unveiled, the general response was 'huh?'. It's not the most convincing likeness...

6. I caught up with Charlotte of Best LDN Walks last month, to join a great new walking tour that she's just launched. The Hidden Secrets of London pub tour is an educational - and potentially boozy - walk around many of the city's oldest drinking establishments; including Charles Dickens' watering hole, Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese. Armed with her amusing anecdotes and fascinating facts, Charlotte whisked us around Blackfriars, along Fleet Street, through tiny alleyways to meet green parrots and talking cat statues, and down into a dungeon beneath a pub. Oh, and also through a couple of very lengthy gin lists (Sorry about the headache the next morning, Muriel...!). 

7. A day before the exhibition closed, I finally dragged myself across town to see 'Sensational Butterflies' at the Natural History Museum. In a former life I collected butterflies for a zoological survey in an African forest, and have harboured a fascination with these little fairies every since. After several months in a purpose-built exhibition tent a few of the specimens at the NHM were looking a bit ragged and tired, but their brighter fellows fluttered from tree trunk to flower, occasionally pausing to rest awhile on one of the visitors who wandered beneath them. The steamy, lively exhibition took me right back to that forest.

8. I love a good crowd-funding success story. And I love a project that showcases this weird and wonderful city of mine. Earlier this month a new Kickstarter campaign was launched to produce 'London Symphony', a filmic journey through the city, its landmarks and its communities. The finished film will be a striking masterpiece of architectural and cultural record. But the campaign still needs help to get the film off the ground. If you'd like to learn more, or to get involved with helping make this dream come true for the film's creator, Alex Barrett, check out London Symphony's page on Kickstarter. Alex would love you forever.

9. With the end of the summer came the end of London's finest evenings. The kind of evenings you spend sitting out on pavements after work with an endless supply of cold, cold drinks. The kind of evenings that make you never want to go home. The kind of evenings you spend eating and chatting at Street Feast in Dalston. For the summer, Dalston Yard was coopted by lots of different street food outfits - from Pizza Pilgrims to Rainbo, and Yum Bun to the outstanding Bleecker Street Burgers. Every Friday and Saturday evening, the yard would fill up with hungry Londoners, catching up over cocktails and Czech beer, and eating way too much food. There was often an occasional dog, and there were a hell of a lot of hats (see: Dalston). As the autumn approached, there were braziers to huddle around, but there was no fighting the end of summer. The darker, colder evenings came on faster, and Street Feast finished up for the year. Sad times... 

Farewell summer, and farewell September!

Monday, 6 October 2014

The phantom railings

I usually walk around the city with a large pair of headphones clamped over my ears. Sometimes what plays within my little audiological cocoon is music, other times it is voices from a podcast or a radio programme. I like the sound of company on my solitary expeditions. But the other week I and my headphones were walking along near the British Museum, when I came across something that made me reach up and pull them down around my neck. There was something else I needed to hear.

There is a pretty walled garden behind Gower Street. It's one of those private gardens reserved solely for the enjoyment of the residents of a row of expensive terraced houses. The wall around the garden once had heavy iron railings around it, but these railings are long gone. During the war in Britain, such railings were often ripped out of their walls, and melted down to make arms and armour; reinvented as different tools for keeping people at a distance. Yet without the railings in place passersby can now peek over the wall, into the green garden within. 

The garden's entrance is guarded by a large metal gate, padlocked shut. This gate now also bore a sign that made me stop. "Phantom Railings" the sign proclaimed. Phantom what? I read on. A soundscape had been installed in place of the old metal railings, the sign continued; an invisible set of railings, that would appear audibly as someone walked along the pavement next to the wall. In place of a set of physical railings that one could trail a hand along, were a series of sensors and speakers. And as I began to walk beside them I heard a ghostly person appear next to me. The apparition held a stick, and with every step we took together I heard a hollow clang, as the stick met each invisible railing.

Ahead of me the small group of tourists that I'd followed from the museum looked around, turning to see where the noise they could suddenly hear was coming from. One broke his step, jogging backwards and forwards, playing with the ghost and the sounds it was creating. His laughter wove in and out of the clangs and clunks of the phantom railings. 

As I turned the corner and headed back onto Gower Street the sound of the invisible railings died. But looking back I saw the ghostly player of the railings had made some new friends, and was busily engaging and entertaining new pedestrians. From my silent spot, the phantom presence became entirely visible to me, in the smiles and puzzled looks on their faces as they stood before the railings that weren't there.

Friday, 26 September 2014

What's in my blogger's bag?

A while ago I came across the pretty illustrations of Kristina Hultkrantz, who designs under the brand Emma Kisstina. This self-confessed girly-girl covers posters, scarves, and make-up bags with her bold yet delicate designs, and despite not being the girliest of girls myself, the strong, solid colours of her designs hugely appealed to me. In checking out her blog I also discovered a fascinating series of illustrations, showing off the things that bloggers kept in their bags. And then I was hooked. 

I know what it takes to keep my own blogging show on the road - a lot of coffee, wine and chats with blogging pals mostly, but I don't keep those in my bag! - but what about other bloggers? Can you tell what kind of blogger someone is from the contents of their bag? Turns out, you can...The majority of the bloggers Kristina features in her series are glamorous fashion and lifestyle bloggers; their designer handbags groaning with beauty products and glittering jewellery. But I thought I'd drop Kristina a line and see if she was up for the challenge of featuring the bag of a rambling city blogger - with, as Kristina noted herself, not even so much as a lip balm in sight.

And the game Kristina rose to the challenge and tackled my well-travelled Manhattan Portage bag and its random contents. And I love the result...
Whilst my bag may not be as stylish as the bags Kristina normally draws, it might be the only one that's been to five continents! (Thanks to its outstanding quality however, you probably couldn't tell that by looking at it. That thing is worth every dollar I paid for it.) And as for the contents I like to think Kristina has captured my bare essentials, both for blogging and city living: 
  • my Oystercard for getting around London
  • my wallet and keys (because obviously!)
  • a little something to read on the Tube (from my collection of old Penguin paperbacks)
  • my camera and my iPhone for snapping photos of cool things I see
  • Field Notes notebooks and cheap Bic biros (for copious writing)
  • and coffee shop loyalty cards (I have a LOT of those about my person usually!)

Thank you, Kristina, for taking on a bag that's a little different from your usual inspiration and for creating something so pretty from my bag's inner recesses!

You can check out the rest of Kristina's series on bloggers bags here on Pinterest.
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