Pitfalls of apartment life

There are people who have lived in London for twenty years and never become a local.  They don’t know their neighbours, except by the noise they make.  But of course you can learn a lot just from that.

We used to have a couple of neighbours, long since departed, (not departed this life, you understand, just departed further up the property ladder) who started arguing every evening at 8.30pm.  They reached a crescendo around 9.30pm, just as I was lying in bed wondering when my husband would get back from work and how many times our baby would wake up in the night.  I found myself listening to them in the manner of a radio play.  I couldn’t help myself; it was as loud as if they were standing right next to my bed.  They argued about some shoes she bought, and about his endless DIY, and about whether she listened to him properly, and whether she didn’t listen because he wasn’t very interesting (she had a point there, I felt).  It was a bit like ‘The Archers’ if ‘The Archers’ featured young urban professionals with too many power tools.  I got hooked, and when my husband came in from work he’d ask ‘So, what’s the latest?  Is she going to let him put those shelves up or what?’.  We didn’t get out much at the time – couldn’t afford the babysitter.

They complained once about the noise of our baby crying.  I was tempted to point out that surely if they could hear the baby, then did they realize that I could also hear them?  But like a toddler ‘hiding’ by putting their hands over their eyes, they hadn’t grasped the concept of object permanence as it pertained to their downstairs neighbours.

We never really got to know those neighbours.  It was awkward, because we knew too much already without asking them over for coffee and banana cake.   And we weren’t impartial.  We were both definitely on ‘her’ side.  My husband held a grudge over a DIY-related mishap that caused our baby’s nursery to flood at 2am, and said only: ‘I’m glad she gives him earache, the drill-happy fool’.  For my part, I couldn’t be doing with a husband who was forever faffing about with the decor – it was a small flat, just how many shelves could they need?  And he shouldn’t have started on her shoes.  We’ve all bought ill-advised footwear on credit, and a gentleman wouldn’t have mentioned it.

I like all of our neighbours now.  Even if the young man upstairs has just started… to learn the trumpet.  Ah, well.

Picnics in London

Food tastes better outside.  Sausages sizzling over a campfire, fish and chips on the beach, a Flake 99 ice-cream at the park after school, steaks on the barbecue… Hungry already?

This delicious alchemy even works on frankly substandard food – those campfire sausages tend to be a little burnt on the outside, don’t they?  And yet the memory of their taste is more vivid than any of the Michelin-starred meals I’ve enjoyed.

In the summer we often take our tea to the local park and eat there.  An average family meal turns into a celebratory event just by adding a few picnic blankets and the promise of an ice-cream from the van for dessert.  Restaurants in London do tend to be expensive, but you can ‘eat out’ very cheaply in this city.  My favourite venues are:-

  • Golders Hill Park which is beautifully landscaped, with lots of open spaces.  It’s particularly good for small children thanks to the free zoo, sand-filled toddlers playground, and adventure climbing frame. In summer there is often a free butterfly house too.
  • The area of Hampstead Heath just above the Vale of Health is great for picnics – head up the slope to be wowed by a view of London which stretches out past Canary Wharf and the Gherkin to the rolling hills beyond.  There is a wide open field sheltered by trees.
My son playing frisbee
Don't try this in a restaurant
  • Regents Park is a regular venue for us.  In another life, I remember lying on a blanket reading all day in Regents Park while my husband sketched the other picnickers.  Now that I’m a mother those ‘lying down reading’ days are over, but Regents Park is still a great place to be.  Each area of the park has its own attractions – if you’re on the edge that runs along London Zoo you can see the giraffes and the zebras through the hedge.  Whereas down by the ponds my son loves feeding his crusts to the rare breed ducks and herons and watching the rowing boats.
  • Hyde Park is convenient if you are sightseeing or running errands in town, and it’s extensive enough to find your own private patch of grass even on the busiest day.  My son and I watched some breakdancers practising there while we were eating our sandwiches last week.

Later this week I’ll be packing a picnic and joining my son and his primary school class on Hampstead Heath for a day out.  I’ll be responsible for four or five of his classmates so I doubt if I’ll finish my sandwiches!   But they will taste amazing.

An afternoon at the Imperial War Museum

It is, astonishingly, free to visit the IWM but donations are appreciated.  As we walked around the corner from North Lambeth tube my five year old son started jumping up and down with excitement – ‘Mummy, those are the biggest guns I have EVER seen in my whole life!’.  He was over-awed by the submarines, Spitfire, Sherman Tank, and Polaris missile on display, but gradually his questions became more philosophical, leading up to the real stumper “Why do we have war, Mum?”

IWM scrapbook
My son (and his talented father) made a scrapbook

The museum is certainly more thought-provoking than I expected.  I noticed a group of people collected around a small black object,  shaking their heads with bewilderment as they read the information next to it, and hesitating to move on.  It was the “Little Boy” bomb, the same model as was detonated over Hiroshima.  There is a Holocaust Exhibition at the top of the museum but it is not suitable for children.

A Tibetan Peace Garden, originally opened by the Dalai Lama,  forms part of the beautifully kept gardens around this museum, and there is a park off to the side where you could take a picnic.

After visiting the museum we walked to the river and crossed at Westminster Bridge – my favourite view of London.

Property ladder?

We rent our flat, and it’s tiny.  We’re saving up for a deposit on a place of our own, but that will be tiny too.  That’s central London for you.  Everyone else wants to live here too, and the laws of supply and demand are unforgiving.

Property is an obsession in London, and even those lucky few who own a decent-sized family home worry about keeping up with the giant mortgage.  Or they hanker for that extra step up the ladder which climbs inexorably towards Hampstead Village.  I’m as captivated by the “property porn” online as the next feeble human, but envy is not a good look.  Never mind the property snakes and ladders, I can live like a property millionaire wherever I am, with my three step system for happy small space living:-

1. Have your dreams anyway

I kept daydreaming about a garden, wishing that I could plant herbs and vegetables, imagining myself relaxing outside on a sunny day.  We have a balcony which is half the size of the average kitchen table.  But I thought, why not do it anyway?  So I asked for this book for my birthday, and planted the balcony with herbs, tomatoes, peppers and strawberries, all of which are well-suited to growing in containers.  I killed about half of them, but the half that survived tasted great.

2. Get into minimalism

Not the design trend, the philosophy. I started out by reading Zen Habits then Becoming Minimalist then The Minimalists and now I check about a dozen minimalist blogs for inspiration every week.  Inspired by Dave Bruno’s brilliant 100 thing challenge and  this blog on 28th December 2010 I resolved to have 365 less possessions in one year’s time – by Christmas 2011.   Every Saturday I check around the flat and find seven items that we can either sell, donate or throw out.  Today we’re donating a black bag of kids clothes to charity, giving another bag of kids clothes to friends, and I’ve set aside some plates and cups and a pair of i-pod speakers to put in the next car boot sale we do.  Our flat looks so much better.  Having less stuff means that however small your space is, you can still experience the luxury of space.  Funny how the less you own, the more luxury you enjoy…

3. Go out

There are so many things to do in London, why would you want to stay home anyway?  I love to get out onto the Heath, go to a free talk, or a gallery, or take my son to the park.  And when he’s playing at the park (instead of in that dream garden that lives in my head), he makes friends, or bumps into friends he knows already.  And I see my neighbours walking their dogs or watching their kids play and we have a chat.  Maybe if we lived in that palace in Hampstead I wouldn’t have the same quality of life I do now.

 

Something for the rugrats

Where did all the Aussie families go?  I’ve noticed an Antipodean exodus from London over the past couple of years.  Guess the weather finally got to them…

The British Museum has been filling the cultural deficit with Australian Season which runs until October 2011.  Over half term they’re even keeping the nippers happy with Australian Adventure activities in the Great Court, from 11am to 4pm.  It’s free, just drop in.

The museum runs a mind-boggling mixture of free and paid events and will get its own blog post one of these days.  Or perhaps 67 posts – one for each of the rooms open free to the public stuffed full of unique antiquities and wonders.

After the museum the kids will probably need a good run about outside.  And you might need a break from saying ‘don’t touch that darling you’ll set off the alarms’.  Fear not, Corams Fields is just a short walk away.

 

Free Unlimited Gym Membership!

No catch.

This centrally located gym has a running track, weight training equipment, cross trainers, balance bars, and much more.   You can also hire a tennis court or multisport pitch for an hourly fee.  There is no subscription due, you don’t have any paperwork to fill in, and you needn’t feel guilty if you haven’t used your membership for a week or so.  It has the added benefit of fresh air.

Because it’s more than a gym, it’s a park.

Kilburn Grange Park, just off the Kilburn High Road is my favourite park for getting fit.  It also has two well-equipped children’s playgrounds.

After your workout, sit quietly in the rose garden.  If you stay perfectly still, a fieldmouse will climb up one of the lavender stalks to say hello – there are lots of them in amongst the herbs and flowers.

Camden Arts Centre

http://www.camdenartscentre.org/home/

A beautiful building, handsomely restored – one of the most delightful spaces in London.

If you’re there on a weekday you can often see the art all alone, just like a millionaire with their own private art collection.  But free.

At the time of writing you can see Kerry Tribe’s ‘Dead Star Light’ – eerie installations exploring memory and doubt.  I was also very taken by Christine Borland’s ‘Cast from Nature’ – I felt a deep compassion for humanity in her work.  The space is just perfect – lots of light from those elegant windows, the blonde wooden floor, and the silence in the room with just the faint sound of the traffic outside.  If you paid a fortune to see “Bodies – The Exhibition” and were left feeling empty and unsure about the indignity of it, Christine Borland seems to be asking the very same questions.  Both exhibitions are free.

Camden Arts also has a very intelligently edited bookshop – one of my favourite places in London to buy gifts.  Their cafe boasts the sign “the best coffee in London”.  I would agree.  They also serve gluten free cakes and biscuits, which is a particular selling point for me.  The lovely staff create a friendly but peaceful atmosphere.  There’s a little bookshelf in the cafe with children’s story books, recent copies of magazines and newspapers, high chairs, and a really helpfully designed baby changing room with space to put the buggy.  The disabled access is impressive too – a separate dedicated entrance with automatic door, and a proper sized disabled toilet with adult changing table.

The garden outside the cafe is the jewel in the crown – on a sunny weekday I love to take my laptop and work outside, drinking too much tea and enjoying the buzz from the chocolate covered coffee beans.

No, really they are

London is apparently one of the most expensive cities in the world.  I hear that it’s a place where City boys shout into their upgraded phones while running up five figure wine bills.   A merciless place where the hardest hearts prosper, ambition is all, and people are obsessed with the superficial.

That’s not my London.

My London is free.  My London is in the parks, the museums, the community centres, the galleries, the libraries.  Long walks through tree-lined streets.  The river.  Taking my son to a city farm.  Volunteering.  Selling clutter at a local car boot fair – you can even make a profit with that one.  Although I have to admit that we squandered all of our profits on sausage sandwiches last time…

In my London we eat a packed lunch, know all our neighbours, walk everywhere, and shop local.  In fact, my London isn’t so different to the small Derbyshire village that I grew up in.

I’ve lived in North West London for ten years, and I’ve fallen in love with this city.  In this blog I’d like to introduce you to my London – all the best things that I’ve found here.  And they’re all free.