Saturday, 28 January 2012

Have you got The Knowledge?

'Where's that, love?  Sorry, my Knowledge is a bit rusty.'  The cab driver I hailed in Chelsea wasn't entirely sure where my home road in North London was.  I rattled off a list of nearby places and the name of the main road that runs towards it.  'Alright, hop in!' he said, and off we went.  At Hyde Park Corner he apologised for disturbing me in the back and asked if I had a preferred route.  We traded streets and road names for a while and he formulated the quickest way in his head; a human GPS re-plotting a route in real-time.  'I probably ran this route when I did The Knowledge' he explained, 'but I've not been there in years.'  
(Photo credit: TfL)

'The Knowledge' is the education that all London cab drivers must undertake and complete in order to be allowed to drive a black cab.  Learning The Knowledge probably gives someone the best understanding it is possible to have of how this vast city fits together.  In London if you need to know where something is, and often what is currently going on there, the best person to ask is a cabbie.  But the process of gaining The Knowledge is extremely tough, as I learnt when I got chatting to my cab driver on this trip home.

The average time taken to complete the full Knowledge training is four and a half years; my driver tells me he took five years as he was working whilst he learnt (as a postman, which he says was so awful it kicked him to finish his training!).  Although he does admit that he only began his lengthy scholarship as a £1,000 bet, laid down by a cab-driving friend.  A friend of his completed The Knowledge in only two years, but he did little else with his life during those two years, and had no other job.  The first step in gaining The Knowledge is the Blue Book.  (I love the mystery of all these innocuously simple words used to describe a city's most detailed, intimate secrets!)  The Blue Book - when my driver began his training - contained 480 'runs', or routes through the city from one place to another, passing through 100,000 streets; despite the fact that my cabbie admits his usual bread and butter routes are frequent trips running the short distance between the West End and the City.  

Runs are worked or learned on two wheels rather than four.  You can spot learner cabbies on small scooters (complete with L plates) with photocopied routes taped to their windshields in streets all over London.  On wintery, rainy days however my driver states, unsurprisingly, that this training becomes rather grim.  But the tough road to one's own four wheels and cab licence does not end there.  New cabbies must also go through 'appearances', extremely formal tests in which examiners, addressed by examinees as 'Sir' or 'Ma'am', will demand precise descriptions of routes chosen completely at random.  These routes have to be provided from memory, without even a map to illustrate the driver's chosen roads.  Examiners are notoriously provocative and will attempt to wind up new cabbies to prove they are not yet ready to face the British public.  Those that finally pass are clearly not only very knowledgeable but have the patience of saints; which is no surprise when you think of some of the drunker customers they get driving evening shifts.

My driver tells me of a study conducted back in the 2000s which examined the progress of wannabe cab drivers, following 100 new drivers as the learnt The Knowledge.  Five years later only three of the original 100 learners had become cabbies.  The remaining 97 had not yet finished learning The Knowledge or had given up on the task ahead of them.  So next time you get in a London taxi and become frustrated with the route your driver is taking, don't start telling them they're going the wrong way or rant and rave about their chosen way.  These people have proven themselves more than capable of manoeuvring their cabs through this complex city.  Think before you pipe you have The Knowledge?

Sunday, 22 January 2012

Boxpark, Shoreditch

The 'pop-up' is everywhere in London these days.  In response to these tough economic times, empty shops, restaurants and gallery spaces are hosting temporary businesses or exhibitions for just a few months or weeks, even one night only.  The emphasis is on the transient nature of these businesses, reflected by the materials with which they are created - there is typically a lot of unfinished wood, plastic serveware and a host of new staff who are not entirely sure how the till works.  Often pop-ups appear in empty units next to fully-functioning stores or food outlets, but in Shoreditch (where else?) someone has taken the concept to a whole new level and established Boxpark - the world's first pop-up shopping mall.
Set against the stark concrete of Shoreditch overground station, Boxpark comprises two levels of black metal shipping containers, with bare board walkways running between them.  At the top of metal fire escape-esque stairs, tiny cafes and restaurants occupy single or double containers on the upper level, selling everything from Mexican cuisine to macchiatos.  A personal favourite coffee haunt of mine, Foxcroft & Ginger, who base their permanent bean-grinding establishment in Soho, have a couple of containers up here, with a full kitchen squeezed into one corner and stripey banquettes full of coffee-drinkers running the length of one wall.  Long wooden picnic benches wait for customers brave enough to eat their tasty pies and salads outside, several storeys above road level, looking out across the roofs of East London.
Down below are clothes shops (Calvin Klein, Evisu, Levi's, Original Penguin, Vans and plenty more), a book shop, and purveyors of homewares and sunglasses.  Each shop entices in shoppers with bright lights and imaginative store-dressing. Wood is a common theme, a simple and adaptable material echoing the temporary nature of the shopping mall.  When a shop moves on all of its displays and storage can be ripped out and recycled, even turned into a shop somewhere else.  Some units stand dark and empty, still waiting for a store or cafe to rent them, move in and make them beautiful for a short while.
As the Accidental friend with whom I'd mooched around Boxpark shrewdly, and with his tongue slightly in his cheek, observed "it's as if the identical shipping containers are making a point about the high streets all looking the same these days, with the same brands in every place."  No one could accuse Boxpark of being quite like anywhere else however.  So go and visit while you can, and do some shopping in a shipping crate.  But go quick, before, like a fairy-ring, it's gone.

Saturday, 14 January 2012

London's flying rats - how pigeons rule the roost

The last straw was the cyclamen plant.  When I drew up my blinds the other morning and looked out over my tiny window-sill garden there was a conspicuous gap where a pretty pink cyclamen in a terracotta pot had stood.  There were large shards of said terracotta pot on the terrace of my downstairs neighbours.  A tragic cyclamen stalk was tossed to one side.  And what was to blame?  Not a frantic gust of wind or a wobbly sill.  A bloody pigeon.  I have watched a couple of them huddle on my window-box and plant pots in the past, craning their horrid little heads up to the bird-feeder attached to my window which is intended to feed pretty little blue tits and the like; their dim brains wondering if they could somehow get themselves up onto it to feed their fat little bodies.  They really can't - the feeder is designed for birds a fifth of their size.  But they are dim and greedy and so they try.  And now they have lost me a pot-ful of cyclamen and I am annoyed.  (And I owe the downstairs neighbours a grovelly apology for the mess it's made of their terrace!)
Pigeons are everywhere in London, an urban life form which is ubiquitous yet undesirable.  They are to London's rooftops and skies what rats and mice are to the sewers and Underground system.  Their greyness blends in with much of the concrete and slate of the city, camouflaging them within their urban habitat.  Pigeons conquer the highest points of the city, up to which human inhabitants can merely gaze. They deface statues and great architecture with their grey, sticky guano.  They paddle in fountains and lakes, even in the oily water that fills the larger potholes in London's roads.  They stalk the streets and window-ledges on scaly, spiky feet, or stumps; pigeons seem to have a rather unsavoury habit of losing their feet or just a random toe, yet hobbling on without appearing to be too inconvenienced by it.  Shudder.

Most Londoners feel nothing but distaste towards this winged germ-disseminator.  There are of course the odd few who feel a fondness for pigeons.  One can often spot them in a park or square, plastic supermarket carrier-bag tucked over the crook of their elbow, distributing the best part of a loaf of bread in shredded pieces on the floor before them; that floor a carpet of grey feathers and scaly beaks.  I have an Accidental friend (now a Londoner herself) for whom pigeons are like kryptonite.  She flinches and heaves at the very sight of one.  One in flight nearby will provoke the sort of response I imagine one might see if a bomb siren went off or one was told to adopt the brace position on an airplane in free-fall.  She once went to Florence and reported the trip was, if not ruined, overshadowed by the presence of a multitude of pigeons.  (I should add that she comes from a remarkable family of ornithophobics - she has a sister who claims to feel physically sick at the sight of emus!)

To keep the numbers of these birds down several pigeon hotspots in the city are now patrolled by hawks; a natural form of vermin control.  Yet a loyal band of pigeon-fanciers still petitions to preserve this feathery fiend, even arranging feeding sessions so pigeons are not starved out of the city.  It has also been claimed that the myth of pigeons spreading disease is over-hyped, and that pigeons are delightfully resourceful creatures and are able to navigate their way around the city by recognising landmarks.  They must be pretty clever, as one of London's pigeons even blogs! Alas, the ones sitting (and crapping) on my window-sill are doing nothing to endear themselves to me. Destructive, greedy, clumsy...I'm off to get myself a hawk!  

Thursday, 12 January 2012

Heavenly homewares at Heal's

There are some defining moments in life when the crashing realisation that you are growing up finally strikes.  One such moment struck me on New Year's Day, as I stood in front of a large grey sofa in a furniture shop and watched as the Accidental Ex-Boyfriend calculated sale discounts. Every other New Year's Day before 2012 I have typically spent in a hungover haze, prostrate on a sofa, eating crisps and watching trashy films.  And now here I was, upright, relatively hangover-free and shopping for sofas in the post-Christmas sale. Whatsmore I was shopping in Heal's. Yup, I was a grown up.

The flagship Heal's store stands on Tottenham Court Road, a street best known for shops selling every sort of electronic good from sound systems to PCs. Yet at the opposite end of the road to all these purveyors of technology stands a majestic early twentieth century edifice, proudly bearing the name of Heal & Son Ltd.
Established back in 1810 by John Harris Heal, this fine department store contains all you would ever need for furnishing a home, providing that you've got plenty of cash with which to do it.  Heal's is synonymous with well-designed, and correspondingly expensive, homewares.  It is the civilised furniture-shopping antithesis of Ikea.  Shopping in Heal's is a very calm, peaceful affair; although the Tottenham Court Road store does have a peculiar fondness for piping Take That's Greatest Hits through its audio system, which jars oddly with finely designed Scandinavian dining tables.  The store is sensibly designed so that it never descends into the maelstrom-like scrums of many similar shops.  There are wide aisles throughout, and plenty of comfy sofas at handy intervals in case it all becomes too much and you need a sit down.
Heals stretches across three wide floors filled with expensive and covetable gifts, lampshades, linens, kitchenwares, armchairs and dining tables, bed linen, even four-poster beds.  Impeccably designed yet classically simple furniture invites you to take it home, where it promises to transform your own scruffy living room into a chic yet inviting haven.  Couples mull over new kitchen surfaces while their children flop over a nearby sample sofa, poking at their bleeping, hand-held computer games; totally relaxed and entirely oblivious to the bank-breaking commerce happening all around them.

On a sweeping spiral staircase at the back of the shop, all activities are watched by the Heal's Cat. Bought in 1925 by Sir Ambrose Heal, the bronze head of this fine feline has been rubbed smooth by generations of shoppers unable to resist a quick stroke on their way past this beautiful creature.
Tucked away on the first floor is even a cafe run by Peyton & Byrne, the high-end bakery chain, supplying much-needed sugar and caffeine to weary (and broke!) customers.  Safely ensconced within you could easily forget that you were inside a large department store, full of other people; you would certainly never guess that you were mere feet from the noisy, rushing Tottenham Court Road.  I still mourn the short-lived proper restaurant, of which I was very fond, that the current cafe, full of cup-cakes and pastries replaced.  It served excellent food albeit woefully slowly.     

Alas slow service is something of a theme at Heal's.  Harking back to its ancient roots today's company seems to prefer slightly more, er, traditional methods of retailing.  Enquire about purchasing anything much larger than a bowl or a candle and there is an extensive interview process which begins.  You answer a series of questions and sign and read rather a lot of forms.  Actual forms.  Paper forms.  Which then are whisked away from you - after you have kept a triplicate carbon copy (oh, it's so delightfully retro!) - and placed in large lever-arch files behind the sales desks.  Paper in a shop?! It's practically unheard of in these days where the chip-and-pin is king.

And God forbid you ever try and return anything to Heal's.  I mean, why would you when everything is so divine and perfect? But supposing you do you should allow a good half an hour to effect the transaction.  And I am not even exaggerating, but speaking from painful, scarring experience.  In retrospect I should have just kept the surprisingly ugly bowl I attempted to return to the kitchen department; for the sake of five pounds, the thirty minutes of agony and address-writing, and searching for the only person in the shop 'who knew how the till worked to do a refund' were not worth it.  But a wander round Heal's feels somehow good for the soul.  There are so many lovely things to see in such a glorious space.  Maybe it's more pleasing as a sort of gallery of delights rather than a shop; look, touch if you must, but don't buy...unless you have plenty of patience.

Sunday, 8 January 2012

London on foot

A new year in London brings with it many predictable things.  A month or two of boredom as everyone vows to be good and forsake booze and spending money in favour of staying in on the sofa.  The delayed cold snap that we get instead of the 'white christmas' we were promised by the weather forecasters.  A depressing sense of just how long it is until we see sunshine again.  And the annual rise in public transport prices and the corresponding London-wide whinge about how much it now costs each of us to get to work each day.

UK commuters now pay ten times more for public transport than any other nationals in Europe, and amidst the general financial misery swirling through the continent this is not something of which to be proud; particularly as the functioning of our transport system itself is not exactly a shining beacon of achievement either.  But rather than continue to pay the extortionate fees for half an hour of misery, crammed unpleasantly close to our fellow citizens, we do have another choice.  We can forsake the bus, the tube and the overground train and...walk! 

If one believes Transport for London any journey across town requires one of their vehicles - rarely will you ever find them encouraging people to walk anywhere.  And why would they? Walking won't make TfL any money, but thus it can save the average Londoner a fortune.  In theory (if I could be bothered to rise a little earlier than I would prefer) I could walk to work from home in the mornings; in fact, I have a much more dedicated colleague who tramps a far greater distance on foot each day to the office.  Some summery evenings I do walk home again.  But obviously travelling on foot usually calls for more time than one would allow for a bus ride or tube journey.  Usually, but not always.  Many journeys in central London can be quicker on foot than by road or rail.  There are many transport stops in the city which are so close to one another that, with the effect of heavy traffic and a bus or train's obligations to stop and start at the whim of its passengers, it will often take less time to move between them on foot.  A pedestrian can take shortcuts that a motorised form of transport may not even be able to fit down, and London is fully of such snickets; winding cobbled streets, hidden passageways, cheeky cut-throughs via shopping centres or office forecourts.  And who knows what you might discover when you venture slightly off the beaten track.

When I first came down to work in London as a recent graduate I walked a lot.  Partly this was due to the fact I had no salary and transport costs were expensive, but also it was a useful way to explore the city.  Rather than sit glumly at my desk over lunchtimes I would head out for a stroll, pottering around nearby streets to orientate myself (by which I mean knowing not only which way is North or South, but also where is the nearest cafe/bookshop/gin palace etc!).  Even now if I'm having a busy day I try and escape the office for a quick leg-stretch, and more often than not I discover something new.  You see nothing of a city from deep beneath it in a tube train; you could be in any city, anywhere in the world, from all you can see outside the dark windows.  Even on a bus, steamed up windows or an overwhelming stink from the tramp asleep on the backseat can distract one from the world whipping (congestion-permitting obviously) past the windows.  If you travel London solely by its Underground system, that iconic map - a spaghetti of multi-coloured lines - is fooling you about what the city really looks like, and where places actually are.  Not only can you learn a more accurate lie of the land from walking through the city, but you can also uncover hidden secrets or even encounter things that make you change a perception you might have about a particular area or the city as a whole.

On foot one discovers independent shops or businesses and quiet cafes tucked away off the main street of standard stores.  One stumbles across tiny concealed gardens, bright spots of vegetation shrouded in multi-storey secrecy.  One finds marks of the city's history in ancient signs or architectural features which most visitors to the city may never know about.  One sees iconic landmarks or familiar views from unexpected angles - catching a glimpse of a section of the skyline through a  gap in office buildings or across a park gives me a nudge, reminding me where it is I live.   
From the pavement, one can even catch a glimpse inside the city's top visitor attractions.  I strolled back home through Regents Park today and, skirting London Zoo's boundaries, I caught sight of a large group of penguins going about their Sunday afternoon chores by their pool.  Their funny little waddles made me smile, and also made me very glad I decided not to get the tube home.  And if a gaggle of penguins in the middle of the city isn't enough of an incentive to ditch motorised transport I don't know what is.  

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Oh, I do like to be beside the seaside!

Surrounded by sky-scrapers and grey lanes of whirling traffic it's easy to forget that London is not that far from the sea.  Brighton is the home location of choice for many celebrities or those who have to do business in London but do not care much for city-life.  A mere hour's train-ride away from central London is a pebbly beach and a pier-ful of arcade games and fairground rides.  Fish and chips are plentiful and you can shop along picturesque cobbly lanes, or spend a night boogie-ing to 90s dance tunes in one of the town's many gay bars.  Whilst the sea may remain grey and freezing for a large portion of the year just its existence is enough to make a visitor giddy with excitement of being at the seaside, almost as if one is on holiday, even for an afternoon.  Hop on a train from Victoria (only make sure it's a quick one or you'll be treated to a not-so whistlestop tour of every small town in Sussex) and you can be there in less time than it takes many Londoners to commute home.
Before Christmas I ventured further out of London and visited two different seaside locations - one rather rural and tasteful and the other, erm, less so.  Yet interestingly both had their own charms.  My first seaside jaunt was with the Accidental Cousin, to her family's house in Dorset.  We wandered along a National Trust beach and watched plovers being bowled over by the low waves.  The sun shone down on us and a legion of dog-walkers and strollers, one even brave enough to paddle in his bare feet as he chattered on his mobile phone, ankle-deep in salty foam.
We spent our weekend in Dorset drinking coffee in little delis, and tramping in wellies across soggy sand and muddy fields.  We rode across a bay on a blowy ferry with keen cross-country cyclists, a small rural bus and a distressed labrador with a phobia of boats.  Of an afternoon, one of us wrote whilst the other studied, and we collapsed early into bed, our city bodies and brains exhausted by all the fresh air.  The small towns we visited were full of cosy cafes and gastro-pubs and neat semi-timbered cottages.  It was the seaside at its most postcard-perfect.

My second visit, at the beginning of December, was to the town of Hastings, a much more urban spot by the sea.  Hastings is actually a very ancient settlement, and has a slightly tired atmosphere about it, as if it wishes it could give up being a seaside resort and quietly retire to be a small crofting village in North Wales.  The train we took from Charing Cross arrived into an exotic sounding station called 'St Leonard's Warrior Square'.  Warrior Square actually looks considerably less exotic than it sounds...
(Although a most obliging seagull did pose in the top corner to prove this place is on the coast.)  If Hastings was a human it would have multiple-personality disorder.  Much of the town has a rather run-down resort feel, filled as it is with grotty chip shops, tiresome blinking arcades, and an empty and drippy promenade.  Large film-crew pantechnicons were clustered in a wind-swept carpark, and a local taxi-driver informed us they were there to shoot a 'low-budget zombie-vampire thing'.  Looking around at the depressing concrete street furniture and half-illuminated flashing signs this sounded like a perfectly plausible set choice.

However hidden within the oldest part of this town lies a tangle of streets which would be more suitable for filming period dramas.  Charming, winding lanes are lined with restaurants and boutiques, peddling everything from antique metal signs and vintage furs to ludicrously expensive hand-made soaps.  Regency-style houses, not entirely dissimilar to Bath's curving architecture, are carved into a cliff beneath an ancient ruin.
We ate chips with balsa-wood forks, were blown off the beach by a fierce gale, visited the city's surprisingly entertaining museum (much of which was dedicated to a great taxidermy scam which appeared to have scandalised Hastings several years ago), and frequented what I suspect may be the only Tintin-themed bar outside of Belgium.  Everywhere we went locals were cheerfully friendly, which made the seedier areas of Hastings seem infinitely more charming.  Less than two hours on a return train from Warrior Square and we were back in London, surrounded by the heaving tourist masses in Trafalgar Square.  The coast suddenly seemed far away once more.  But should I ever feel the need to run away to the seaside I now know it's only a train-ride away.
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