A tourist in my own town

“Italy has great food, Barcelona has great energy” (Stefon Harris)

Actually, it turns out Barcelona has great food too, but I do feel re-energised after my weekend away: My heart may belong to London, but there’s always room for an occasional holiday romance. It was such a pleasure to feel the sun on my face (yep, it’s still raining in England), stroll along La Rambla and gaze wide-eyed at La Sagrada Familia. I was unashamedly a tourist doing all the things I couldn’t and wouldn’t do back home.

I came across a list of London’s top visitor attractions the other day. The London Eye – nope, not done that. St. Paul’s – no, that neither. Buckingham Palace – errm…. You get the general idea. Even those I had been to, I’d only visited for some specific exhibition or event, never just to enjoy them for themselves. Paris and the Eiffel Tower? Essential viewing. London and Tower Bridge? Not a chance.

tourismBut why not? London’s landmarks, the museums and galleries are amongst the finest in the world. I’d served time beyond the M25. I’d learnt not to take such luxuries for granted. Even so, there’s definitely an element of complacency. The trouble with landmarks is they don’t have a deadline, no tightening noose, no pressure of a closing date. The Tower of London has been around for a very long time and let’s face it, will probably still be around for a very long time: There’s always tomorrow.

I do wonder, though, whether part of me isn’t just dismissing it on principle – All those attractions? Stuff for the tourists! You’ve as much chance of discovering London there as me having tea with the Queen. Hidden gardens, obscure museums, little known restaurants – that’s the real London. So in other words, it’s all about visiting places without visitors? Riiight. . .! Nice logic there Lindz. Some secret London which most Londoners haven’t even heard of it isn’t a more ‘real’ London than the famous bits, it’s just less crowded. Admittedly, it’s hard to feel a sense of adventure when you’re on a time-share with the world and his wife, but maybe the reason they’re so popular is that they’re actually worth seeing. Maybe the tourists had it right all along.

Which raises the question – can you can really be a tourist in your own city? Tourists are often criticised for judging by their own standards, for importing their own ideas; and to be fair, it can sometimes lead to gross cultural insensitivities: standing on the wrong side of the escalator, say, or (god forbid) talking on the tube. But it’s precisely this alternative frame of reference which allows visitors to see with a fresh pair of eyes. As a local, the hardest part is recapturing the shock of the new. Your senses are dulled by constant exposure. Just staying focussed can be a challenge – On holiday, you’re removed from all the distractions of daily life but at home, there’s no escaping the mountain of work commitments and messy house: Even palaces don’t look that great when mentally covered in dirty laundry.

The flip side, of course, is that experience offers its own rewards. The London Eye can’t show me the city skyline for the first time, but there’s still a thrill in recognising familiar landmarks or seeing how the landscape has changed. Where ever you go in London, you’re surrounded by world famous attractions. By assuming I couldn’t and shouldn’t play the tourist, ironically I’ve become the worst kind of tourist of all: I’ve seen only what I want, not what’s all around me.

I saved that list of London visitor attractions. What better place to start tapping into my inner tourist? That said, I’m still not sure I’m quite ready to start talking to strangers on the tube!

Water Water Everywhere : The Crazy Appeal of Riverside Living

Nordic Dock

It feels a little like sitting beside a sleeping lion: Wonderful to be so close but when will he start to stir? First the horrific floods in Somerset, now the Thames is at its highest for over 60 years. To the west and south, vast swathes of countryside are already under water. The Thames, a constant companion in this part of London, no longer seems a gentle friend. Its black waters are filled with the menace of drowned homes and sodden dreams. I can’t begin to imagine what those poor people in Somerset, Surrey & Berks are going through. I look at the river, the channels and docks surrounding us and wonder : When will the lion roar?

The powers-that-be are making lots of soothing noises : Andy Batchelor, operations manager at the Thames Barrier, has stated categorically “there’s no risk to the centre of London”. I’m sure that’s what Datchet thought too, but at least if we were hit, we’d have the satisfaction of knowing the politicians also had wet feet (Westminster and the Houses of Parliament are themselves in the Thames flood zone). Nonetheless, I do feel lots of love and affection toward the Thames Barrier right now. In the past three months, it’s closed a staggering 28 times – that’s a fifth of all closures in its entire 30 year history (For the full story of the Thames Barrier and to see it in action, have a look at one of my earlier posts here). With the river already so full, there’s a risk high tide could push the extra water back upstream and flood the capital. The barrier keeps the sea safely at bay until the tide has turned.

“If you don’t want to get flooded, don’t live next to a river”. For all the nation’s sympathy and support, go on-line or read the letters pages in the press and you’ll see plenty of comments just like this. Harsh certainly, but fair? Yes, there have been some ill-advised developments in recent years, obviously encroaching on known flood plains and yes, you might be foolish to buy there, but equally there are houses now affected which have never before flooded in their history. Can you really tell these homeowners ‘it’s all your own fault’? Riverside living has been a mainstay of civilisation for thousands of years. If the risks now are potentially greater because of human intervention and global warming, simply walking away from the problem is hardly a solution. Quite apart from anything, where do they expect everyone to go? There are 1.6m people alone living on the Thames floodplain, never mind the rest of the country!

Thames Flood Zone

When we moved back to London, we ended up by the river more by accident than by design. Most, however, actively choose it inspite of all the risks: According to Savills estate agents, riverside property in London commands at least a 20-30% premium over equivalent accommodation inland. Unexpected indoor swimming pools aside, life by the water does offer some significant practical advantages. In this congested little island, have a room with a view and someone’s bound to build a bloomin’ great tower block right in front of it. The river is a natural buffer – blue belt vs green belt. Likewise, commuting by river is a million miles away from the sardine crush of the tube – a guaranteed seat, scenery to die for, even a cafe and bar on board. Absolutely fabulous, provided you find your sea legs (it can get a little bumpy en route): Mine, sadly, are still lost at sea.

A year on, however, I’ve realised the appeal of the water is so much more than mere practicalities. Like the best arranged marriage, what starts as a matter of convenience becomes a real affair of the heart. The bustle of river taxis, the comedy of water birds, the lapping of water against the shore – the sound of the river breathing whilst she sleeps. I could never tire of watching the river, her ever-changing moods. Even on the darkest days when all seems hopeless, her constant ebb and flow is a comforting reminder : Life goes on.

It’s estimated around 6000 homes in the UK are currently flooded. In the absence of significant shifts in global environmental policy, living by the river probably is daft but for all its stupidity, I now couldn’t imagine living anywhere else: I love it too much.

As they say, love is foolish.

Have a break, have a lunch hour

I’ve become a lady who lunches. After years of dining al desko, I’ve finally discovered the pleasures of a lunch break. Not that I can take any credit for this new-found wisdom. Lack of an office canteen and a strict ‘no-eating-at-desk’ policy had far more to do with it: No break, no food. Necessity may be a good teacher, but hunger is even better.


In 1930, John Maynard Keynes confidently predicted his grandchildren’s generation would work no more than three hours a day. How wrong can you be? Not only does the UK have some of the longest working hours in Europe but 60% of us don’t even take a lunch break. It’s all a far cry from the Hong Kong stock-exchange where traders, hardly a profession known for shirking on the job, were up-in-arms at their lunch break being cut to just one hour! It’s not even necessarily any good for UK business – Yes, companies may be getting anything up to 16 extra days a year out of us, but they reckon it costs them around £50m a day in lost productivity. All this sandwiching-at-desk, SAD living does little except reduce concentration and increase stress, both mental and physical.

I don’t know whether taking a lunch break has increased my productivity, but it’s certainly made me happier. Sometimes, it’s the casual conversations in the kitchen: Getting to know colleagues in something other than a work context has given a much greater sense of belonging, of being part of the team. I’ve even discovered the most difficult managers can be human after all. Occasionally, it’s the luxury of running errands (no more weekends spent chained to domestic chores). Mostly, it’s the quiet time. As often as not, I’ll grab a few moments of private escape – walk round the block, soak up the sun in the park, read a book in a local cafe. On those Herculean days when tasks slither and multiply all around you, doubling and tripling with every attack on the to-do list, getting out of the office has become a survival strategy, a tactical retreat, a chance to regroup and rethink; Even when everything is going according to plan, the change of perspective is still so valuable. Why forever run uphill and never once stop to admire the view?

lunch 2

So what’s taken so long? Why have I only just figured out a lunch break is actually a Good ThingTM ? Doctors, psychologists, magazines have been singing its praises for decades. By comparison with drinking less or exercising more, their usual nags, stopping work and taking a break ought to be a doddle. At its most extreme, the pressure of work and cultural expectations can make even the idea of a lunch break impossible, let alone the reality. I’ve worked in such an office and will never forget the fallout when a colleague disappeared briefly one lunch-hour and wasn’t immediately on hand for the boss. In fact, one in seven of us deliberately work through lunch in order to impress the management. As Ron Sims, VP at Right Management says, in these difficult economic times, you “don’t want to be seen as somebody who is not fully contributing.”

But even when I wasn’t working for some wannabe Gordon Gekko, I’d still usually eat at my desk – there simply wasn’t anywhere else to go. With UK businesses increasingly relocating from city centres to out-of-town industrial estates, choices are often limited to either a concrete carpark or a noisy, crowded canteen – hardly places to relax and unwind. So many horror stories are told about the challenges of working in London – the nightmare commute (definitely), the brutal working culture (maybe) – it’s easy to forget what a privilege it is to be right in the heart of one of the world’s greatest cities. I now have at least 8 delis, 6 pubs, 3 restaurants and a greasy spoon all within 5 minutes walk of the office – and that’s just the food options, never mind the parks, museums and shops. There’s even a scuba diving club: Clearly I’m a lunchtime underachiever just settling for a sandwich.

Not that London lunch-hours themselves are perfect. Far from it. The UK climate is too unforgiving for a start. It’s amazing how much more appealing staying at your desk can seem when it’s pissing it down outside. Drowning in work is one thing, looking like a drowned rat after your lunch hour is quite another. There’s a time and a place for a wet T-Shirt and a meeting with the boss just ain’t one of them. Nor is this the only price to pay for taking a break. London’s reputation as a cripplingly expensive city is well deserved – £4 for a sandwich here, £6 for a salad there, it all soon mounts up.

Taking a break may be priceless but sadly there’s still no such thing as a free lunch.

The Big Chill – Ice Bars, Ice Hotels and the London Ice Sculpting Festival

There is a place in Southern Iceland where the Breiðamerkurjökull Glacier meets the Atlantic Ocean. Under the inscrutable gaze of the surrounding mountains, this vast river of ice finally yields to warmer maritime air, a mighty warrior kneeling before the conqueror, the endless expanse of Jökulsárlón, the melt-water lake, a monument to the struggle. All across the lagoon icebergs, scattered and lost, drift towards the seaward channel. They are the survivors, crawling on the battlefield, jagged and broken but still hoping for escape, their frozen armour glinting proudly in the sunshine. It is one of the most hauntingly beautiful places on earth, enough to melt even the coldest of hearts.

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I first visited Jökulsárlón five years ago. It was the beginning of a love affair with ice, no less passionate today than it was back then, standing on a rocky Icelandic shore (Apparently I’m a ‘pagophile’ – a lover of ice – but it didn’t sound the sort of thing to be shouting about too loudly on the internet!). Killer, healer, homeland, wilderness, sculptor, sculpted: ice is an extraordinary substance. Thanks to its peculiar chemistry, its temperate freezing point and lightness of form, it covers nearly 10% of the earth’s surface. It touches our lives in so many everyday ways, from the simple pleasure of an iced drink to the adrenalin rush of the skating rink, yet remains mysterious, contradictory: More fragile than glass, yet capable of sinking ships. Freezing to the touch, yet will burn the skin blacker than the hottest flame. Definitions here are elusive, slipping through the fingers like ice itself.

In spite of the name, the real place of pilgrimage for ice worshippers isn’t Iceland, but Jukkasjärvi in northern Sweden. We’re deep into polar territory here, the Arctic Circle a distant memory some 145km to the south, the average winter temperature 18 degrees below – a perfect home for the world’s first Icehotel (nowadays, there are at least 7 others). Opening from December to April, the entire hotel is sculpted out of snow and ice harvested from the nearby Torne River. No two years are ever the same – It’s created from scratch each winter and only the magnificent ice chandelier is ever saved from the summer sun. Competition for places on the artistic team is fierce, especially the right to create one of the hotel’s fifteen ‘art suites’ : This year, you could sleep in anything from a tube train to Frankenstein’s laboratory. A constant five degrees below, stay in this frozen fantasy palace and for once, claiming your holiday was “really cool” wouldn’t be an exaggeration.

But what about something closer to home? How does a London ice lover get their fix? In spite of the fact the UK usually goes into meltdown at just a mention of snow, London is one of the few cities in the world with an Icebar – Below Zero. You can take your chances on the door, but it’s definitely better to book. The cold area is small and numbers are strictly limited, a maximum of 60 for no more than 40 minutes at a time – not that the adjacent warm bar is a bad place to linger, it’s just whether you’d settle for urban cool if you came for ice.

Ice Bar (1 of 1)

On arrival, you’re kitted out in what’s officially described as a “designer thermal cape”: In reality, it’s more of a hooded blue poncho. It’s intended not just to protect you from the ice, but also the ice from you – Given the amount of heat the average human being generates, put 60 people in a room and it’s the equivalent of switching on a 5 bar heater. The extra layers are obviously necessary, but the effect is still vaguely ridiculous. As I step into the cold, the neon glow and hooded crowds suddenly make me feel I’m in some pantomime version of Star Wars. I resist the urge to tell the doorman, ‘these are not the droids you’re looking for’ and head instead for the bar. The price of entry here includes a complimentary cocktail served (naturally) in a glass made of ice. Thereafter drinks are £6.50 a shot, £10.50 if you’ve accidentally lost your original glass. Read the reviews online and these prices receive (not unreasonably) a decidedly frosty reception. Then again, go to the Ice Hotel and you’ll be charged an equally staggering amount : You can’t claim the Ice Bar doesn’t give you an authentic experience.

If I had one real criticism of the London Ice Bar, it would be the current design. Yes, the bar is made of ice. Yes, there are ice murals on the walls, but there are none of the intricate sculptures for which the Ice Hotel is famous. Fortunately, January also sees the capital play host in Canary Wharf to the London Ice Sculpting Festival. Now in its fourth year, this free celebration of frozen art has put London firmly on the international ice sculpting stage. 20 artists from 10 different countries battle it out across 3 days of competition. For sheer intensity and excitement, the first Friday is hard to beat (Being a working day, it’s also the least crowded – Over 50,000 people are thought to have attended this year!). Here are the single block events – the set theme competition, this year ‘River Life’, and the individual freestyle. Working at this scale, the intricacy of the designs is breathtaking, especially on an unseasonably mild January day when it’s a race against time to beat the heat: Sculptures die with every moment they live.

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If I was ever in any doubt as to the extraordinary skill of these artists, having a go myself in one of the ice sculpting workshops really hammered the point home. This isn’t just artistically challenging but intellectually demanding – understanding the conditions and the response of the ice – and physically tough to boot. The longer I worked, the more my frozen fingers complained. Looking round at our efforts, I saw a few goods, plenty of bads and at least one downright ugly (mine!).

Come the weekend and there’s a complete change of pace with the start of the two-day big-block pairs competition. Vast 2m tall, 2 tonne blocks of ice are specially shipped in for the country teams to craft, this year on the theme of ‘Fabulous Fashion’. When so much of the ice we get in this country is milky, ‘white’ ice – a form of frozen slush – just to see ice of this diamond purity is in itself a revelation : suddenly, I understand how the word ‘crystal’ could have come from krystallos, the ancient greek for ice.

Saturday sees much of the preparation work take place : what you lose in the lack of detail is more than compensated for by the drama of chainsaws and fountains of flying ice, especially later in the day when the blocks are dramatically underlit. With the immediate pressure of competition lifted, the artists also seem more relaxed – Reverend Butter from Team USA (otherwise known as Rolando De La Garza) hams it up Texas Chainsaw Massacre style; The UK’s Mike Kerslake begs for ‘crowd-funding’ when he needs a lighter for his blowtorch. By Sunday afternoon, however, the serious mood returns as everyone races towards 5pm and the competition deadline. This year’s winner was Africa, a stunning result in its own right, but even more so when you consider this was the first year they’ve ever participated. Then again, as Mario Amegee from the African team says : “When you have art, it’s ok. You can do everything, you know”.

Ice: Extraordinary substance. Extraordinary people.

Ice Detail-1

It’s Good to Talk: The London Lecture Scene

I’ve become a Skeptic. I don’t meant that healthy dose of cynicism most Londoners need to survive the finer points of life in the capital – £5 a pint, rush hour congestion, the latest over-hyped restaurant opening – but London Skeptics In The Pub, the award winning lecture group.

Once a month, a load of enthusiasts get together in The Monarch, Camden, to discuss everything from politics to philosophy, history to science. An expert speaker presents on a chosen topic and then it’s opened up to the floor for discussion. Right from the first, I was hooked: it’s thought provoking, good-natured and charmingly chaotic, especially towards the end when everyone’s had a few / few too many. No surprises then that it’s also almost always packed (if you go along, make sure to get there early – it’s first come, first serve). Given your average undergraduate’s attendance record at lectures, Universities across the country could learn a thing or two from these guys.

Guest presenter Richard Firth-Godbehere takes a break from discussions during an interval at London Skeptics In The Pub

Talks and lectures are fast becoming one of my favourite forms of entertainment. Living and working back in London has brought with it a rediscovered pleasure in midweek nights out: None of the military precision planning that coloured life in the country (the joys of rural public transport and no connections between home and work), just walk straight out into a world of social possibilities.

Of course, being a school night, it’s not exactly carte blanche. Anything too late or too boozy – well, it’s doable, but it definitely makes for a difficult next day in the office; and there’s no point in blowing the entire budget before you’ve even got to the weekend. Talks are perfect not least because they’re so inexpensive: London Skeptics is a mere £5 a pop and even tickets to the Southbank rarely cost more than a tenner in spite of the higher-profile line up. Often, however, there’s no charge at all: Gresham College in Holborn, for example, provides hundreds of free public lectures a year on everything from ‘Hawaiian Religion & Dance’ to ‘Criminal Minds’.

In other words, there’s plenty of spare change to round off the evening with a drink or a meal – Both of which are perfectly possible given most talks are done and dusted by 9pm at the latest. No need for world speed eating records inhaling packets of crisps during the interval nor risk of death by dodgy kebab after the show’s finished.

Naturally, it helps if the lecture itself is worth listening to. Inevitably, some are better than others but on the whole, I’ve rarely been disappointed. Most speakers aren’t there out of obligation but for sheer love of their subject and that enthusiasm is infectious, no matter what. So often the talks I’ve enjoyed the most are on the subjects about which I’ve known the least – David Eagleman on the science of the subconscious brain or Pete Goss on sailing solo around the world (and for someone who doesn’t do boats and gets seasick on the Thames, that’s saying something!)

Miss the point of a movie and the director’s hardly going to be on hand to explain himself. Still think that modern art masterpiece is just a stuffed sheep: How can you argue the toss with the gallery (unless of course you go along to one of their free lectures! Try the National Gallery’s lunchtime series)? A talk, however, is an interactive experience. You can question or clarify or get to see something in a completely different light thanks to comments from the audience. It’s the ultimate in user-generated content, a reminder of a time when it was all about conversation not elements in a conversational media strategy.

no wifi

But let’s suppose you do get stuck in a less than stimulating session: What then? I’d be lying if I said it never happens (you’d be surprised at how dull some celebrities can be – so much so I now actively avoid “Evenings With” on principle). Fortunately, talks quite often have unusual or “off-limits” homes. The whole premise of The Lost Lectures is to be as much about the location as the lecture : They’ve hosted events at secret locations all over the capital including a lighthouse and an East London Boxing Hall. Equally, Barts Pathology Museum has an intermittent programme of seminars which includes a rare opportunity to see this Grade II listed site and its 5000 specimens.

The growing ranks of the London lecture scene prove what everyone in business has long since known : The best discussions don’t happen in the boardroom, but the bar.

Or should that be the museum and the boxing ring?

For a comprehensive list of talks and lectures in London, see www.talksandlectures.com

No Place Like Home

Travel supposedly broadens the mind. Well, I learnt three important things this holiday. First, be careful what you wish for: We were off to Death Valley and I’d joked about how cool it would be if it rained. Second: the novelty of rain in the hottest, driest place on earth wears off remarkably quickly. And third, no one can really do solid rain quite like us Brits. I actually found myself missing a good old English downpour.

Strange thing homesickness. Every trip abroad brings with it a familiar ache of longing – for friends, for loved ones, for decent cups of tea (what is it with the whole teabag-on-the-side overseas thing??) – but it’s always the unexpected items which trigger the sharpest pangs. I’ve dreamt of polo mints in Egypt and Marmite in Hawaii; and cried when no-one sang Auld Lang Syne for New Year’s Eve in Oz.

They say home is where the heart is. I met a Kiwi guy once in downtown Reykjavik. He’d fallen in love with an Icelandic woman back in New Zealand and crossed the globe to be with her. Love, it seems, really does conquer all – even Iceland’s impenetrable grammar.

But as anyone who’s ever been to Glastonbury knows, it’s not quite that simple. Festival accommodation is many things but homely isn’t one of them, no matter who you’re with. One in three British expats pack up and head home even when they’re surrounded by loved ones. Around half cited ‘cultural differences’ and/or ‘social isolation’ as key factors – they simply couldn’t relate to their new place of residence. To become a home, there needs to be a bond, a connection. As one friend joked, he knew he really was settled in Australia when he stopped supporting England in the cricket!

Safe as houses, home comforts. If a house offers physical security, a home is an emotional haven, a place where you belong and all that matters belongs in its place. Maybe it’s a landscape, a lifestyle or a state of mind – Our knowledge and beliefs, wants and needs are all individually clothed in layers of personal experience. Not feeling at home is every bit as uncomfortable as squeezing into that cocktail dress you last wore when you were 21. Yes, you can manage for a bit but sooner or later, it’s bound to end in tears.

But maybe there’s still more to it. Thinking in this way focuses on present company and past experience, all fine for living happily but what about the “ever after” bit? For me, a real home has to have a sense of future. Once I’d met my husband, my own home of more than a decade was never the same, even when he was there. It was my bachelorette pad, a place of pyjamas, pickled onions and other secret single behaviour: It wasn’t part of “us”. I’d loved it for years, but now it was just another place to live. A real home is the residential equivalent of Mr. Right vs Mr. Right Now. It’s the confidence this one will be worth sticking with no matter what life throws at you.

London isn’t always a great place to live (definitely not, given some of the places we’ve been over the years) but as I’ve written about before, it’s full of endless possibilities. The comfort of history, including my own, sits alongside the excitement of an ever-changing, multicultural future. Some people are lucky enough to know for sure what they want from life, but if you’re like me and still haven’t a clue, there’s nowhere else to be.

I’m sitting on the train back from the airport. After two weeks away, it’s a relief finally to have a decent cup of tea. It’s raining of course but the London skyline’s just come into view: There’s St. Paul’s, there’s The Shard and look! the Gherkin too.

It’s good to be home.

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