A Purrfect Experience – Enjoying the Cat Cafe Lifestyle

Cat Cafe Lifestyle

‘How could you do this to me?’

The look from Chairman Meow as I walked in the door said it all: Hurt, anger and betrayal all wrapped up in a slightly tubby tabby. Here I was, not only coming home late but stinking of other cats.

‘Wait! I can explain . . .!”

Too late. With an extravagant swish of the tail, the Chairman turned and stomped upstairs in disgust. If hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, it’s not a patch on a pissed off puss.

In fact, there was good reason for my feline infidelity. With all the excitement surrounding the planned opening in Shoreditch of London’s first Cat Café, I was curious – What might the capital expect? I’d travelled down to Totnes in Devon to meet the team behind the UK’s only current Cat Café and see what might be in store.

The Totnes Cat Café is the brainchild of Liz Dyas. She heard about Japanese cat cafés and realised many cat-lovers here also longed for one as a pet but found it impossible – landlord’s restrictions maybe, family circumstances or finances – so she used her savings to bring the concept to the UK. Not that this was the first time Totnes had struck a blow for alternative café culture – Last year, the town made headlines for successfully preventing Costa from opening on its High Street.

Cat Cafe (5 of 5)

Totnes advertises itself not just as a café but a “Feline Therapy Lounge”. The therapeutic properties of pet ownership are well documented in medical journals, human and veterinary, and the café now has connections with organisations such as The Stroke Association. When you step inside, there is a sense of leaving the world and its troubles far behind – once of course you’ve cracked the complex system of doors designed to keep the cats safely within (far easier said than done!). For a start, it feels more your living room than a café – All big comfy sofas, low tables and scatterings of magazines. It’s peaceful too, certainly by London standards, thanks to an unintended ‘no children’ policy. Cats, it seems, are Certificate 18 at least where insurance companies are concerned.

So what of the Café’s cats? There are 6 members of the Totnes team – Jet, Rolo, Lilac, Felix, Mango and Glee – all rescue cats and all specially chosen for their friendly, sociable nature. Unlike the plans for London, none are moggies-in-residence, rather they live at home with Liz and commute in daily with her to the Café. Jet is the baby of the family – not that you’d believe it from the size of him. Walk like a Panther? This pure black, gentle giant could easily teach Tony Christie a thing or two. Mango is the looker – Long haired, ginger and white, he’s every bit the show-off supermodel – whilst Lilac and Glee are the troublemakers, Lilac especially. She’s even been known to steal purses out of customers’ handbags. As Liz jokes, “if the café didn’t work out, at least we knew we’d still make a living as cat burglars!”

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Judging by the number of visitors, the people of Totnes have definitely taken the Cat Cafe to heart. Many are regulars, popping in daily to enjoy a cat and a cuppa and soak up the (c)atmosphere. Not everyone however has been so enthusiastic. The leading cat’s charity, Cats Protection, have been openly critical of the cafe claiming it’s not a suitable environment for cats and likely to cause them stress. It’s something which clearly frustrates Liz: ‘they didn’t even realise I was already running one of their shelters’ she says, referring to her Cool for Cats cattery and rehoming centre. ‘No one from Cats Protection head office has ever even been to the cafe. Their people on the ground here are nothing but supportive’.

Academic literature on the subject is certainly divided but at the time of visiting at least, all the cats seemed very relaxed in each other’s company and enjoying the attention. There are clearly sign-posted human ‘no-go zones’ (ie top shelves & cubby holes) designed to offer the cats a retreat. Liz herself is adamant their welfare will always come first but as she says ‘cat people come here. I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of people who’ve tried to pick a cat up or do anything silly’. It’s particularly disappointing for her since the Cafe, a not-for-profit organisation, had planned to raise money for the Charity : ‘they sent a letter from a solicitor saying they wouldn’t accept a penny. We used to have it pinned up on the door’. Proceeds from the cafe now go to other animal charities instead.

So does Liz have any words of advice for Lady Dinah’s Cat Emporium? ‘We were pioneers you see. It’s always hard when you’re first’ she says, sympathising with the battle the London team are currently having with red tape. Interestingly, the one big change Liz has made is around entrance fees. She used to charge £2 for 30mins but found customers disliked the entry charge, preferring instead to pay a little more for their drinks. Given the demand already for bookings at Lady Dinah’s, it doesn’t sound like us Londoners will have any such qualms.

For all the focus on her cats, in many ways the real star of the show is Liz herself. With a passion for life that would shame most half her age, she’s a remarkable woman: Having trained as a nurse, she opened one of the country’s first ever children’s nurseries before focussing on animal welfare. In 1990, she set up Prickly Ball Farm and Hedgehog Rescue Centre which went on to become one of Devon’s most popular attractions and even led to her making an appearance on The Ali G Show : ‘I found the whole thing very strange and kept thinking ‘are they really going to show this on the telly?’!”

So after TV celebrity and cat cafes, what’s next? : ‘Oh, a book! I think I shall write a book about it all’

It’s going to be quite a tale…

… Or should that be tail?!

With sincere thanks to Liz, Bill & Melanie at the Totnes Cat Cafe – And not forgetting of course Jet, Rolo, Mango, Felix, Lilac and Glee

Going Out In Style: The Eerie World of London’s Victorian Cemeteries

I have a lot of time for the Victorians. They never did anything by halves. No matter how functional or utilitarian a building, they built it big and bold and beautiful. Today, we’re lucky if even the most essential of services are fit for purpose. What modern sewage works could be described as “elegant”, “ornamental” and “sumptuous”? Yet, the Abbey Mills Pumping Station from 1868 is all this and more. You may not be able to polish the proverbial, but Charles Driver’s Byzantine masterpiece comes pretty close.

If the Victorians treated sewage in style, they dealt with that other unpleasant side effect of life – death – with no less grandeur. The Nineteenth Century saw a marked shift away from simple burial in a parish churchyard to lavish, European style public cemeteries, beautifully landscaped with tomb-lined avenues and shady cypress trees.  Vast amounts of money were spent on grandiose memorials and prestigious plots. At a time when the average factory worker earned just 35p / week, prime cemetery places cost anything up to 10 guineas, the same as a house in wealthy Holland Park.

So what changed? Even though every parishioner had the right to be buried in their parish churchyard, massive increases in population plus a series of cholera epidemics meant the churchyards were running out of space. London was hardest hit : In the 50 years between 1800 and 1850, the city’s population more than doubled.  The writings of London doctor and social reformer, George Walker, are full of horrific descriptions of stinking shallow graves and overflowing decay. Eventually, Parliament bowed to public pressure : Between 1832 – 1841, they authorised the establishment of a seven commercial cemeteries in suburban districts around London. A decade later, the city’s churchyards were closed to further burials.

In all, the Victorian period saw over 100 cemeteries established around the city but these first few remain the most important. In 1981, the historian Hugh Meller christened them “The Magnificent Seven” and the nickname’s stuck ever since.  At the heart of their magnificence lies a complex Victorian relationship with death – The fact that death was all around and average life expectancy only 44, even for the wealthiest; the influence of Ancient Rome and the need for your name to live on after death; the far greater part played in everyday life by Christianity, the belief in the eternal soul and resurrection of the body. Queen Victoria herself set the social standard for the day, building memorial after memorial and staying in mourning for Prince Albert for over 40 years.

Each of the Magnificent Seven has its own distinct characteristic from the relative simplicity of Tower Hamlets to the splendour of West Norwood. By far the most famous is Highgate, something often ascribed to the fact Karl Marx is buried there although all the cemeteries have their fair share of celebrities. Its popularity in literature and film must also have helped. Either way, it’s undeniably magnificent and would certainly have figured in my list of favourites had it been possible to wander round freely – As it is, you can meet Mr. Marx and enjoy the East Cemetery at leisure, but visits to the older (and arguably more impressive) West Cemetery are as part of a guided tour only (For more information see www.highgatecemetery.org)

So which then are amongst my pick of London’s Magnificent Seven?

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Abney Park

Abney Park is everything you’d imagine an old cemetery to be. Although it was once the most impressively landscaped cemetery of the period, years of neglect left the 31 acre site wild and overgrown. Now a local nature reserve, gravestones and monuments peep through untamed woodland and ivy ensnares even the tallest statues. The effect is at once both magical and eerie – part fairy grotto, part Hammer House of Horror set. There’s even an old, ruined chapel at its heart just to complete the effect. In reality, however, the most famous thing ever filmed here is far less sinister – The video for Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black.

Look out for – William and Catherine Booth, founders of the Salvation Army.

Brompton Cemetery

For a complete contrast, head west to Earls Court and Brompton Cemetery. Light, open and impeccably maintained, a grand carriage-way runs through the centre to a beautiful Italian-style chapel: It could be the grounds of lavish stately home. Created by architect Benjamin Baud, key to the design also was John Loudon, the Scottish botantist who would go on to write the single most important book of the period on cemetery design. He believed all townsfolk should have access to green ‘breathing spaces’ and saw cemeteries as the public gardens of the future.

Look out for – Peter Rabbett, Jeremiah Fisher & Mr.McGregor. Beatrix Potter apparently took inspiration for the names of her characters from tombstones in Brompton Cemetery.

Kensal Green

Last but by no means least is the grand old dame of London cemeteries, the 72 acre Kensal Green Cemetery. Although the oldest of the seven (it celebrates its 180th Birthday this year), for me it’s also the most vibrant, no doubt in part because it’s still a working cemetery. Old and new sit side by side, a poignant reminder that death comes to us all but also a celebration of the ever-continuing cycle of life. Not that the old is eclipsed by the new. In spite of the odd example of vandalism, Kensal Green is art gallery meets history lesson: No less than 140 monuments and buildings are listed, including a stunning Grade I Anglican chapel based on the temples of Ancient Greece (For the truly macabre, there’s an extensive network of coffin-lined catacombs to be found under the chapel; They’re currently closed but normally, you can take a tour on the first and third Sunday of the month).

Look out for – Isambard Kingdom Brunel, civil engineer and one of the greatest Britons of all time.

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The word ‘cemetery’ come from the Greek ‘koimeterion’ or ‘a place of sleep’. London’s Victorian cemeteries are as much a respite for the living from city life as a resting place for the dead. Morbid, eerie, peaceful, sublime, they are a fascinating taste of times gone by, a gateway to another world; and you never know, you might even meet a few famous faces whilst you’re there.