Sunday 21 April 2013

A Northerner in London Town - Soho and Covent Garden

Whenever we are in London we always pay a visit to Soho.  After battering through the hateful shopping hell that is Oxford Street we take a left down Berwick Street, our favourite street in Soho.  It’s really an unassuming street, but it has a few record shops for Neil and arts and craft shops for me.

I absolutely love Soho.  I could spend hours round Soho people watching as I find it endlessly fascinating.  Most people think of Soho in seedy terms, but over the years it has scrubbed up well.  I no longer feel terrified wandering round Soho as I did in the 90s, although remain cautious about venturing into the local pubs. 
Old Compton Street is the main focus for the gay community and pubs can be  very male and unwelcoming to women.  However with the advent of smartphones I managed to Google a recommended pub with a vinyl jukebox.  We found Bradley’s Spanish Bar on the edge of Soho.  It’s a dinky little place with the vinyl jukebox in the upstairs bar and downstairs a cramped bar with tiny toilets, which I don’t recommend unless you are truly desperate.  Apart from the toilets I really liked the place.  It seemed to be popular with people in their twenties, although there was an irritating bunch of twentysomethings holding court in the corner of the bar reminiscing about student days.  Neil managed to subvert the 3 songs for a pound on the vinyl jukebox by putting on b-sides that had two song on.

Back to Berwick Street – the main attraction for Neil is the record shops and there are plenty with Sister Ray, Reckless Records, Sounds ofthe Universe, Phonica and Music & Video Exchange.  Normally I become a record shop widow for an hour or so as Neil takes residence in Sister Ray and the Music & Video Exchange.  This is a great opportunity to check out all the fabric and art shops along this street and beyond. 
Whilst I was waiting for Neil I caught a conversation between one of the members of staff from Sister Ray taking a fag break and the local trampy bloke.  The trampy bloke was giving the Sister Ray shop assistant a full critique of the state of the music industry.  I could easily spend hours on this street just earwigging on conversations and watching the world go by.  The one thing I noticed was that women my age and older were invisible in this neck of the woods – it’s a very male area and women here need a level of confidence to feel comfortable here like the jolly hockey sticks lady who strode down the street with purpose.  Thankfully I do tend to operate in my own little bubble, which has often kept me out of harm’s way - it does help that I’m tall and broad-shouldered with a determined look in my eye.

The Covent Garden area is just across Charing Cross Road from Soho, whilst only a few metres away is a world away from Soho.  Covent Garden is the heart of the theatre district and is a very sanitised tourist friendly place.  I made Neil go to see Matilda at the Cambridge Theatre – he still hasn’t forgiven me for it.  I understand why he wasn’t keen as it was a little too screechy and jazz hands for my liking.  It’s had great reviews and stuff, but I should remember my favourite musical ever is Blood Brothers which is grittier than the average musical.  I have seen more than my fair share of musicals in my life after spending four years working in the theatres in Manchester so I’m quite discerning when it comes to musical theatre.  Phantom of the Opera is my idea of hell (I did see parts of it over 200 times), although I found Les Miserables to be ace.  However at the Cambridge Theatre I had to double take at the cost of two glasses of wine which came in at an eye watering total of £19.  Next time I’m bringing in my own wine.
Before the show we ate at Browns restaurant and the food was nice.   Typically I had a burger which was perfectly fine and Neil had the Duck Cassoulet. I found this restaurant was popular with the theatre crowd having their pre-theatre meals like us.  They seemed either well-to-do middle aged people or families having an annual treat.  I noticed a lady in her 60’s having a meal with her daughters.  You could tell she took great care in how she presented herself to the world with her very good blond highlights, her immaculate and simple outfit with outsized gold jewellery.  Her daughters seemed like a slightly updated version of her.  I’m sure they were going to take in a show – probably an opera or a play.

Covent Garden itself is a family friendly version of London.  Oxford Street is pretty manic at the best of times as it’s populated with fashion frenzied teenagers and Japanese tourists, whilst Covent Garden caters for the well-heeled European tourists.  Sadly we missed James and Bob the Cat who busk here from time to time and we could only find the human statues and street theatre artists.
Tourist information alert – the signs for the toilets in Covent Garden do not lead to the toilets.  We did ask someone for directions, but still got completely lost.  We finally found them on the edge of Covent Gardens and had to pay 50p for the privilege.  They were still a bit smelly even though they were manned.

Given a choice between Covent Garden and Soho, I would choose Soho every time even though on one occasion we saw a trampy bloke passed out outside Starbucks with his pants half-mast – not a good look, if not illegal.  Soho is life in the raw, unsanitised and honest.  It’s a place for the brave especially after dark.  You may think from this blog I like pretty and lovely places, and in truth I do.  But I also love places that are off-kilter too and Soho is off its rocker.  So I’m glad to spend a few hours every couple of years soaking in its eccentricities.



Sunday 14 April 2013

A Northerner in London Town – Chalk Farm & Camden Town

Neil had a particular reason for visiting Chalk FarmMadness.  You do find there are men aged in their late 30s and 40s who were mad for the band Madness when they were kids.  Neil and my brother Pete were both devotees of the Nutty Boys.  So a photo had to be taken outside Chalk Farm Tube station as that had been the location for the ‘Absolutely’ album cover – obviously that went straight onto Facebook.

Across the road from the station was the music venue TheRoundhouse.  I had checked what was on at The Roundhouse but unfortunately there was nothing of interest to see.  It’s a shame as I would love to watch bands at this venue.
We walked along Chalk Farm Road towards Camden Town.  After visiting Hampstead and Belsize Park, Chalk Farm was definitely a more working class and culturally diverse area.  There were plenty of pubs, bars and cafes dotted along the street, so I can imagine this place has a lively nightlife on the weekends.  Surprisingly there were a few of cycling shops along here too.

We stumbled upon the The Stables Market entrance, so we decided to have a wander through it.  I have a love / hate relationship with markets and this market unfortunately falls into the hate category.  Where do I start?  It sells  cheap trash – food, t-shirts and general tat…  It’s just here to fleece tourists.  To me this place is the worst kind of trading off the back of Camden’s market history with no merit or creativity.  Even if you were to find the proper Camden markets you won’t find the markets that were made famous in the 80s and 90s for their style.
After we escaped The Stables and walked past Camden Lock we headed down Camden High Street.  The High street is hideous – to me it’s like a Blackpool version of people’s perception of modern culture.  I’ve never been a fan of Camden, it seems to me a really youth orientated place.  In the 90s when I first visited here I just wondered where the old people were.  There were all these hipster types wandering round thinking the world revolved round them.  Some things don’t change. 

Neil decided he wanted to find Arlington House – Madness song lyric.  So after getting lost and googling on our smart phones we found this former homeless centre.  It has now been transformed into swish looking offices.   Surprisingly we found The Good Mixer on the corner, which was famed from the Brit pop days as the hangout for musicians.  I reckon before it became hip, the Good Mixer must have been an extremely lively place with its homeless neighbours.
We were on a roll with our Madness connections and visited The Dublin Castle.  We decided to pop in for a half.  The pub was deserted and had a strong smell of disinfectant, although Neil doesn’t recommend the toilets.  You couldn’t miss the fact this pub celebrated its Madness connection as it had signed posters above the bar.  Whilst we were in there another Madness fan popped in and was quizzing the barman about Madness and whether they still visited the place.  Apparently Suggs and Lee still pop in from time to time.

Once you get off the main high street Camden is a bit more tolerable.  We found some charity shops and Neil did find some random folk music to purchase.  I even found the Whole Foods Market, which I thought was just an American shopping chain.  I did like the old sign for Palmer Pet Store that advertised talking parrots.

I’m not fond of Camden and since my first visit nearly 20 years ago my view hasn’t changed.  I like diverse neighbourhoods with the whole spectrum of life, however Camden is very one dimensional to me with its focus on young people and has turned into a caricature of itself.  If you have limited time in London and have lots of places to visit, unless you are doing a Brit Pop or Madness tour, you can confidently drop this place off the itinerary as you’re not missing much.


Friday 12 April 2013

A Northerner in London Town – Hampstead & Belsize Park

After a fractious night at Ibis, I can never sleep well in hotels, we headed out on the Northern line to Hampstead.

There is something rather beastly about the Tube.  You have to keep your wits about you; otherwise you get pushed out of the way or end up on the wrong train.  At least it wasn’t rush hour so we managed to get a seat.
Hampstead is a rather well-healed neighbourhood.  It’s the sort of neighbourhood where you need to have serious money in the bank to live here.   As a result there are some rather posh shops in this neck of the woods.  However, sod that, we came here to browse the charity shops. 

There was a nice Oxfam bookshop with friendly staff.  There were some records for Neil to browse, however nothing caught his eye.  On the other hand I found a book.  This Oxfam was definitely cheaper than the Oxfam on Gower Street, which was extortionate.
Hampstead is built on a hill and whilst most of the shops are on the main road, the more interesting shops were on the side streets.  There was an indoor antiques market, which reminded me of some of the antique shops you could find in Chelsea in New York City.  I loved the antique quilt stall, which was stacked high with beautiful handmade quilts.  Outside the antique market we found a gorgeous, furry, tortoise shell cat who didn’t mind us stroking her.  However she did object to the young child trying to stroke her and scooted off – what a sensible cat!

There were some high street shops in Hampstead and I ended up buying a navy cat shirt from Gap.  Neil informed me that the branch of Snappy Snaps was indeed the ‘Wham!’ branch which George Michael drove in to.  Obviously he had to take a picture and post it on Facebook.
We found another antiques shop that looked like it should be on one of those obsessive compulsive hoarders  shows.  You really could not imagine how you could get into the shop, let alone browse round it.

Hampstead is a really genteel neighbourhood, with a well-polished veneer of middle class niceness.  It doesn’t quite have the same bling-tastic feel of Kensington.  We didn’t manage to find Hampstead Heath as we had lost our bearings.
We ended up going down Rosslyn Hill and headed towards Belsize Park.  It was a nice walk and the houses along the road were well manicured.  You can’t imagine the house prices here being affected by the recession as it’s such a desirable neighbourhood - it even has its own professional theatre here.

The shopping area around Belsize Park is centred around  the Tube Station.  You could easily eat out here most nights in the local restaurants.  There was a nice looking artisan bakery where you could pick up brunch.
There was a charity shop which we popped into and we found some old people.  Old people in London are almost invisible, especially in central London, but you can find them here in Hampstead and Belsize Park.  There was one gentleman whose face was so sad and out of place in this modern world.  I wished I could have seen him in his prime with hope in his eyes.  However that was now a distant memory and all I could see was loss in his eyes.

Surprisingly we bumped into the local alcoholic who asked us to go into the local off-licence to buy him some booze.  It takes some doing to get barred from your local offy.  We declined his request and he got quite vocal with us.

After that incident we decided to move on, but not before Neil took a picture of Belsize Park Tube station.  He was running a music quiz on Facebook whilst we were exploring London – you got to admire his multi-tasking and dedication to music.

So off we popped back on the Tube – our next stop… Chalk Farm.