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

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.

Shooting Ghosts : Fear and Understanding in the Greenwich Foot Tunnel

Chairman Meow has started playing trick or treat. When it’s time for dinner, he’s all affection, treating us to loads of cuddles and purrs but if food then isn’t forthcoming, he gets up to all sorts of tricks – Tapping the side of your face with a paw, pushing papers off the desk, running dementedly round the house only to freeze suddenly as if he’s seen a ghost.

The Chairman isn’t the only one getting into the Halloween spirit. Halloween is big business now in the UK : It’s estimated we spend a terrifying £300m on the festival. As a Brit, it’s hard not to feel a little sadness at the eclipse of our native Guy Fawkes, but it’s perhaps unsurprising. Let’s face it, this damp little island really doesn’t have the climate for any kind of outdoor activity in October, let alone something involving significant amounts of combustion: Bonfires and fireworks just don’t cut it in the rain. Halloween has no weather worries, no burnt children, no religious sensitivities, just fancy dress fun for all ages. In fact, it’s fast closing in on Christmas and Easter for popularity; And like Christmas, the festivities are starting earlier and earlier every year. With a fortnight still to go, I saw three zombies cycling past – it seems even the Walking Dead nowadays prefer Boris bikes.

Check any list of London’s scariest spots and you’ll almost always find a mention of the Greenwich Foot Tunnel, a 370m pedestrian subway under the Thames between Cutty Sark and Island Gardens. Opened in 1902, it transformed the lives of shipworkers south of the river who’d previously been dependent on the overcrowded and often unreliable ‘horse ferry’ to get to work in the docks on the Isle of Dogs. It was a magnificent piece of Victorian engineering but more recently, it’s fallen on hard times. Although there’s ongoing work to give the tunnel a much needed facelift, it remains dirty, seedy and crumbling. As the excellent Secret London Guide puts it “At times of low traffic, it feels like the loneliest, most desolate place in London.”

Greenwich Tunnel Ghosts

With Halloween just round the corner, it seemed like the perfect excuse for a visit but as I descended the staircase and stepped into the tunnel, my first feelings weren’t of fear but bitter disappointment. Shabby and decaying yes, but frightening? Hardly. For a start, it was just so busy. It never occurred to me it could be this crowded (clearly naivety on my part: I’ve since found out more than 1.5m Londoners use the tunnel every year and it’s almost at capacity!). Far from being a sinister highway, this was more like the fast lane on the M25. As wave after wave of people dashed past, there were certainly some scary sights, but none of them remotely supernatural.

Still, I was here now. No point in rushing off. I might as well make the most of it and take time to explore. It’s funny how the human brain works but the longer I spent in the tunnel, the more uncomfortable I started to feel. Maybe it was the humidity, the stale, slightly foetid air; Or perhaps the echoes, which danced all around and disorientated the senses on a rollercoaster of sound. When a group of lads came through on skateboards I genuinely (ie embarrassingly) panicked, imagining it was the roar of 50ft of river-water suddenly bursting through into the tunnel. The Greenwich Tunnel isn’t a frightening place, it’s a place where you bring your own fears and watch them fester and multiply in the dark corners of your mind.

Halloween is full of ghost stories to inspire fear, but maybe the real ghost is fear itself, that lingering memory of negative experience which haunts us throughout our lives. Even faced with our obvious unhappiness in the country, for months we couldn’t make the decision to return to London for fear of the past – fear of our former shoe-box lifestyle, fear of the cost of living, fear for the Chairman. In the end, it was only the realization that our marriage was more important that put those fears into perspective and gave us the courage to act.

So why did I finally flee the foot tunnel and scuttle back to the surface? They say the only thing you have to fear is fear itself but when an enormous spider suddenly starts crawling towards your leg, I’m happy to make an exception.

Getting Your Goat – A Visit to Mudchute City Farm

October is Stoptober here in the UK – Give up smoking and drinking for one whole month and raise a little money for charity at the same time. I have nothing but respect for those taking part – not just because it’s all in a good cause but knowing me, I’d probably end up a chain-smoking alcoholic if I ever tried. The moment I’m told I can’t have something, it suddenly becomes my object of ultimate desire : During my one and only (disastrous) attempt at a diet, I actually started dreaming of Mars bars. I don’t even like chocolate for heaven’s sake!

True to form, we’re back in the city and it’s only now I’ve started taking an interest in farming.  Despite having lived for the past year surrounded by farmland, the extent of my agricultural experience consisted only of fleeing fields of over-friendly sheep. It never occurred to me to visit a real-life working farm but here in London, I can’t get enough of the various city farms to be found all over the capital.

Mudchute City Farm

The first London city farm opened in 1972 in Kentish Town, the brainchild of a local community arts group, the Inter-Action Trust, when they rented a disused timber yard and found the remnants of the old Victorian railway stables. Nowadays, the capital boasts 12 city farms, the most recent of which – Belmont Children’s Farm – opened just last year (The exact number of city farms in London is a moot point depending on your definition. I’ve been strict in my calculations, only including those that have both animals and a London postcode – No offence to Surrey or Middlesex intended!) Most have stayed true to the spirit of Kentish Town and are also run as volunteer community projects. Not only do they help preserve the local environment, but they offer an awareness of agriculture to those in inner city areas, some of whom might never otherwise experience country life.

Of all the city farms I’ve visited, my favourite by far is Mudchute Park and Farm on the Isle of Dogs. Whereas some were just a little too compact and concrete for comfort, Mudchute is set in 32 acres of beautiful, green parkland – In fact, it’s one of the largest city farms in Europe. Back in the 70s, the park was originally destined for high-rise development, but the community fought to save it and created instead the farm you see today. Whatever your thoughts on animals, it’s undoubtedly a magical spot.  Absolutely peaceful except for the occasional ‘baaaa’, you can sit in the shadow of Canary Wharf and while away the hours watching the sheep graze.

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That’s not to say it’s all about the setting: The animals can more than hold their own. There are over 30 different breeds across 20 different species at Mudchute, everything from cute’n’fluffy rabbits to Saddleback pigs and other rare natives and even a few foreign guests such as Llamas and Alpacas: The balance between petting zoo and working farm is carefully struck. All the animals have their own appeal, but for sheer personality, the pygmy goats are hard to beat. I still haven’t figured out whether they think I’m Mum or a Michelin starred meal – sometimes it’s all affectionate cuddles, at others they’re far more interested in eating my camera bag (For something far more appetising, check out the Mudchute Kitchen:  It’s one of London’s best kept secrets for weekend brunch, partly I suspect because the TimeOut website claims it’s closed. Not true, but it is only open Friday, Saturday and Sunday 9.30am to 4pm).

It’s estimated around 3m people a year now visit the UK’s city farms. Whilst some are more obviously aimed at children, Mudchute seems to attract a far wider range of visitors than many – Maybe it’s the location or the fact there’s a busy equestrian centre on site.  I’ve seen everyone from school kids to OAPs, local families to Japanese tourists.  I’ve even watched a woman, still in her city suit, contentedly feeding the sheep, totally oblivious to her stilettos sinking into the mud. It was a crazy, comic moment and one which sums up perfectly why I love this little bit of countryside in the city.

It costs nothing to visit the Mudchute.  Like most Londoners, I’m pretty cynical when told ‘the best things in life are free’ but in the case of Mudchute Farm, it might just be true.

Practicalities

Mudchute Park and Farm is open everyday from 9am – 5pm. However, do go early if you can as many of the animals are in bed by 4pm. The nearest station is Crossharbour DLR. There is no parking on site.  For more information, see the Mudchute Park and Farm website


Infinite Possibilities : The Reasons for Returning to London

If you’re tired of London, are you really tired of life? To be fair, if you’re tired of anything, it’s probably that quote but leaving that aside, I’m still not convinced. Our life out of London wasn’t a half life – on the contrary, it had many magical moments – but it was a more defined life. There were things we could do and things we couldn’t.

I used to think our decision to return to London just boiled down to basic maths : What we’d gained didn’t add up to what we’d lost.  Yes, we had a beautiful house and garden and a view to die for – everything in fact we’d longed for from the confines of our one-bed flat – but I missed London’s restaurants, the museums and galleries more than I could have imagined. A more reliable rail link into London might have helped: If I can offer one piece of advice to anyone thinking of moving out and commuting, it’s to check, check and check again the statistics for your line. It’s no exaggeration to say I could count on the fingers of one hand the number of non-disrupted journeys I had during our time in the Village. Whenever we tried to go out, the worry of whether we’d ever make it back was always there. In the end, we stopped trying. Space, it seems, doesn’t buy you happiness, it just gives you more bedrooms in which to mope about the house.

Looking back, I realise now it was never that simple. For all the times I was confronted by a wall of ‘delayed’ messages at Euston, there were glorious autumn days, woodland walks and slap up pub lunches for less than the cost of a pint in London. It wasn’t a question of having made the wrong or the right choice, what I missed was the luxury of not having to choose at all.

More than anywhere I’ve ever lived, London lets you be all the people you are – career woman, homemaker, socialite, recluse, happy, sad. Life in the Village was perfect as a hot date – superficially attractive and great for a good time just not up to handling my moods. London is a real soulmate – still capable of pissing me off but always there as a support, no matter what.

Inifite Possibilities

London is a place of infinite possibilities. You can turn left or you can turn right, but you can equally meander though life, twisting and turning in every direction just like the Thames flowing through the city. Coming back, what I’ve enjoyed the most aren’t the restaurants, the museums, the galleries – all the things I thought I’d missed – but the unexpected gems, the things I’ve stumbled on and which I never imagined myself doing in million years: listening on the edge of my seat to a story of sailing solo round the world, even though I don’t do boats and get seasick on a river taxi; Meeting Dave who went blind aged 18 and discovering what it’s like finding your way around London without sight; learning about parkour from kids half my age practicing at the end of the street. Arguably I could also have done any of these in the Village if I wanted but then, that’s exactly the point – I’d have to have gone looking for them. In London, they just happen.

London isn’t a fairy tale nor are its streets paved with gold, but life here is richer and more colourful than anything we had before; And even if I haven’t yet made my fortune Dick Whittington style, at least I’ve got the cat!