Saturday, 26 January 2013

19, Princelet Street: The secret museum of Spitalfields

From the outside 19, Princelet Street looks nothing like a museum.  The building's ground-level windows are hidden behind wooden shutters.  Upper panes looking down blackly on the Spitalfields street below.  A fine carved double wooden door - kept firmly shut - could do with a lick of paint.  In a favourable light the building looks like a slightly tired, battered 18th century townhouse.  If one were feeling less charitable, one might assume the facade concealled a squalid doss-house or just rooms and rooms of damp emptyness.  But 19, Princelet Street is home to London's Museum of Immigration; small, chilly, free to enter, and entirely amazing.

Spitalfields transformed in the 17th century, as its market gardens and fields were replaced by streets and houses with the arrival of families of French silk weavers.  The French protestant Huguenots fled persecution back home in France and, like many different nationalities to follow them, settled as immigrants in Spitalfields.  One such Huguenot family, the Ogiers, built their home and business at 19, Princelet Street.  Over the years as the ethnic make-up of the area evolved the inhabitants of the house changed too, and each new nationality left its own mark on the building, marks clear to see as you make your way around the museum which now occupies this building.

Due to the current condition of 19, Princelet Street, the Museum of Immigration cannot open for regular days or hours like many of the city's other museums.  The poor structural integrity of the old building means that the Museum of Immigration only opens a handful of times each year, and visitor numbers are carefully controlled to prevent wearing out the rickety stairs and stressing the old sloping floors.  At the start of 2013 however, the museum opened its doors twice within a fortnight, and one cold January afternoon, accompanied by eternal good sport, the Accidental Ally, I joined a queue of expectant visitors patiently waiting for a glimpse inside this most secretive of museums.  Sadly, due to an unsavoury encounter with a tabloid photo-journalist full of unscrupulous tales of woe about a dying grandmother (yes, really), no photographs are allowed to be taken inside.  So I'll just have to describe the extraordinary interior of this place you might so easily wander past without giving it a second look.   

Over the worn stone threshold and into the narrow hallway, the state of the building instantly explains why visitors cannot tramp freely around the building on a regular basis.  Large scaffolding poles prop up the ceiling, and old floorboards creak underfoot.  Visitors hunch into their coats, as the prevailing internal climate can only be described as frosty.  Moving through into what you assume is the main room on the ground floor you are greeted with a somewhat surprising sight.  Where a backyard might have been you have...a synagogue!  An entire, perfect synagogue, the contribution of the Jewish immigrants to whom 19, Princelet Street became home back in the mid 19th century.  Piles of ripped out pews are stacked at the back of the large open hall, topped by a colourful but cracked and patched glass roof.  The names of the congregation members who donated funds to the upkeep of the synagogue are painted on the balcony which circles the space, and provided somewhere for women to sit during services.  Up on this second floor it appears that bits of this balcony are crumbling away, and visitors are requested not to lean on the balustrade in case they send any woodwork falling down on anyone below.

The museum currently hosts two exhibitions; 'Suitcases and Sanctuary' and 'Leave to Remain', which explore themes of migration, home and displacement.  Spread over three floors of the building, 'Suitcases and Sanctuary' takes the form of multiple piles of luggage, cases filled with pictures, diary extracts and audio material.  Each suitcase, created by local schools, imagines how different nationals that wound up in Spitalfields might have felt about their new neighbourhood and their new country, and all that they left behind.  Tucked into a large alcove on the first floor, 'Leave to Remain' explores the flip-side of immigration, asking how a host country perceives those who seek a new life within the UK.  A series of vox pop interviews - which appear to have been conducted on a train, given the matching seats all the interviewees are sat on in their polaroid shots - asks Brits what they think about immigration in the UK.  Some of the responses are non-committal, uninformed, unconcerned.  Others border on xenophobic.  On the opposite wall is arranged a miserable bed-sit, with further derogatory comments made by an immigrant him or herself pinned to the mirror, the narrow bed, and a hooded sweatshirt.  It makes me feel horribly sad, and incredibly lucky to be so sure that I belong here as much as the next person.          

By the time the Ally and I headed back out into the street, the queue for the museum stretched to the end of the street, and right round the corner.  Passers-by scanned the assembled visitors, looking from the keen faces to the unassuming building and back again, wondering what was so worth the wintery cold wait.  But those of us who'd already sneaked a peak inside knew exactly what it was.  

The Museum of Immigration is opening its doors again in March 2013.  Details of visiting times can be found on the museum's website here.  I don't work for 19, Princelet Street, nor do I have any particular agenda in encouraging anyone else to support the museum, but this place is not only a museum; it's a piece of architectural heritage in its own right.  I would be very sad to see this place be lost forever.  But this will happen if funds aren't raised to keep the building safe and sound.  You can donate to the Spitalfields Centre charity online, to help the organisation reach their (to my mind!) thoroughly reasonable £3 million target to save 19, Princelet Street.

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Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Accidental Eats: Chicken Shop, Kentish Town

I had an encounter with an A-lister the other week. Well, a frontman from an internationally famous rock band elbowed me in the head as he and his equally A-list actress wife squeezed past me while I was finishing dinner. That counts, right?  I must have been ever so slightly star-struck (or maybe just very British) as I actually apologised to Chris Martin when he clonked me in the back of the head. But he was too busy zooming after Gwyneth Paltrow so I don't think he heard. Sigh. For the record, even on a dressed-down Friday night dinner in Kentish Town this pair was looking pretty stellar. In fact I'd only been alerted to the presence of these famous diners when I noted that my own dinner companion was distracted from our fascinating conversation by something over my right shoulder. 'Sorry,' she said when I asked what could be more appealing a sight than my own charming visage, 'but there's this really hot couple behind you. I mean, they're just both ridiculously beautiful and blonde. They're like poster-children for Hitler's perfect Aryan race.  Look!' And there they were.

We were in Chicken Shop, my new favourite eatery in the city; a place which has fast become the favourite eatery of many other Londoners since it opened in the Soho House Group's new Highgate Road development above Kentish Town last autumn.  Restaurant critic Giles Coren, former Blue Peter chap Richard Bacon, and obviously Chris and Gwyneth, are among this place's celebrity fans.  But given the queues awaiting tables on each of my recent visits to this new restaurant plenty of us normal people are rather loving Chicken Shop too.  
Yes, this is another of those 'too cool for reservations' places.  You enter through an unmarked door, wondering vaguely whether you're about to walk into someone's living room, and head down to a basement filled with the thump of classic 60s rock and roll tracks.  There is a slight element of the shed about Chicken Shop - lots of wooden panels and the odd pile of potato sacks.  But the place is far cleaner than your average shed, and with the rotisseries spinning merrily just the other side of a wide metal-topped bar, the restaurant certainly smells better too.  Once you've been greeted by the cheery serving staff you will be shown to a table - if you're lucky and the place is rarely quiet - or you will be told how long your wait for a table will be.  But even if you have a wait ahead of you it's rarely more than about 30 minutes, and the staff are happy to keep the drinks flowing so you don't get too bored.  Although after watching everyone else tucking in to their delicious-looking dinner you may be messily salivating by the time they finally seat you.

And then you're seated, and you order.  Which is a beautifully easy affair.  No messing about with menus here - simply request however much of a chicken you reckon you can eat without bursting, add a couple of sides, and you're all set.  Deciding which sides can present you with possibly your only dilemma of the evening.  Should you have the perfectly salty crinkly fries or the corn-on-the-cob?  Would a buttered lettuce and avocado salad accompany your tender chicken wing better than the fresh coleslaw.  Guys, I'll save you the agony of choice - order them all and thank me later.  Oh, and you can have another drink too obviously.  And if you're really still hungry after the tastiest chicken in town, you can always chase it with a slice of apple pie or a slab of chocolate brownie.  Don't feel bad about it.  Gwyneth had pudding too.

Chicken Shop is at 79 Highgate Road, London, NW5 1TL

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Tuesday, 8 January 2013

TownFish: A new site for Londoners in search of the coolest things to do in the capital

A new year brings new things for everyone.  For many it can mean new jobs or new homes...perhaps a new city.  But even if you're staying firmly put in 2013 you may have made resolutions to explore your own backyard a bit more or to take up underwater zumba or something equally nuts that you will almost certainly have abandonned by mid-February.

But should you need just a wee bit of inspiration for the year ahead - particularly if you live in and around London - there's shiny new site just waiting for you.  TownFish - which calls itself a 'social discovery network' (we're talking more than just your average website here, people) - launched just before Christmas last year, and is dedicated to providing you with new ideas, new entertainment and even new people to hang out with.  The site also boasts an excellent blog, featuring the writing of some of the very finest London bloggers (*ahem*).  Yes, I'm delighted to have been asked to contribute to this blog, and to be part of this cool new site.
My first article up on the site is for those brave people who are seeking a new home in London in the coming months; the distillation of my own painful experience of the London rental market.  Read it here and learn from my mistakes!  Or don't come crying to me when that 'split-level mezzanine bedroom' you read about in the particulars of your potential dream home turns out to be a cupboard with a built-in bunk bed.  You have been warned...

So Londoners, go TownFish-ing and catch yourselves some ideas for a thoroughly new and exciting 2013!

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