Monday, 15 December 2014

There's a fire on Christmas Eve! Evacuate. Memories of a Childhood Christmas.


Although I grew up in London, my childhood Christmases were usually spent at our house in Berkshire. The house was on a farm, which we rented from a local landowner and in the winter there were cows mooching around in shit in a depressing pen. In the summer, we would play under the weeping willow tree in the garden and always, without fail, whatever the season, we would act out Cinderella and make the adults watch it over and over again. My friend Pandora would be Cinderella and I would be the handsome Prince. I didn't mind the role, in fact I was a tomboy and enjoyed it. My only downfall was once being asked to be the 'stick' in a dramatisation of Pooh-sticks.

My grandmother (who usually joined us at Christmas) was like a fairy godmother from a children’s story; we all loved her because she was able to do magic. We would choose somewhere to find a little trinket, then she would shut her eyes and say some weird and wonderful words and miraculously we would run off to our chosen site and the prize would be there  (I still don’t know how she did it)

On Christmas Eve, we would leave milk for the reindeers and a glass of whisky and some biscuits for Father Christmas in front of the fire. The next day we woke extremely early of course, to delve into our stockings. There are lots of Christmas Day photographs of me looking shattered, with huge grey bags under my eyes.  In one set of photos, aged about seven, I look particularly haggard, like a tiny junkie. That year, the  grownups had forgotten to put the fireguard in front of the fire as they staggered to bed on Christmas Eve, and the embers must gone awry, because in the middle of the night, my slightly ditzy aunt woke up my grandmother and said she smelt smoke. 

We were woken up by the adults and evacuated outside and told to look up to the sky to see if we could see Father Christmas arriving. It was thrilling and exciting to be outside in the middle of the night on Christmas Eve. The fire turned out to be manageable, no fire engines arrived and we all went back to bed.

The next day, Christmas carried on as usual, the only reminder of what had happened the night before was the singed fire surround. We pulled crackers, opened presents,  told terrible jokes, dug out silver trinkets from the Christmas pudding, put on silly hats, watched television, played with our new presents and then felt depressed when it all came to an end.

When I think about Christmas,  I still think about escaping somehow, getting out of the city, and away from real life. Certainly in London, there is far too much traffic over the festive period. London feels blocked and overwhelmed, exactly like I feel. Thank God for online shopping. Christmas is like a fiction anyway, an overblown day of abundance: too much food, too many presents, too many good choices on TV, too many hours being in the company of certain members of our families  whom we never see the rest of the year, There is a sudden visit to Church, a flurry of carols and hopefully some reflection. I'd like to think Christmas was about giving, sharing, forgiving, reflecting and reunions as well as presents, parties and champagne.

I like the idea of being away in a cottage with a roaring fire and a windswept beach.  There would be endless games of scrabble, a few good carols, a short walk into the garden to collect some logs, a long walk along a beach to good pub. Yes bring me a country Christmas every time or failing that a Caribbean or a mountain Christmas will do.

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

My Guide to West London


I was recently asked to give some recommendations for where to eat and be merry in West London for an American Website. Below is my very personal and slightly abridged guide, maybe a bit biased to the area around where I live in Sheperds Bush, but not completely so. There are links added, but not to absolutely everything, as my arm got tired. Hope it inspires those of you coming to London for some Christmas Cheer! 





Where is  West London?

West London loosely stretches from Kensington to Ealing; its vibrant mix of inhabitants includes the very rich and the disadvantaged poor. It boasts green conservation areas juxtaposed with urban spaces; boutique shopping and Westfield, the largest Mall in Europe. European bankers and Russians set up home in Holland Park and Notting Hill alongside Jamaicans and Afro Caribbean’s  - long-term residents, who orchestrate the annual Notting Hill Carnival in August. 

What would you do in West London if you wanted to be elegant and have fun?

I would have lunch at the River Café, the elegant Italian restaurant on the River Thames. I would then go shopping at the independent clothes shops, The Cross near Holland Park and The Jacksons in Notting Hill, followed by a massage and a facial at The Park Club in Acton. I would relax afterwards in their 27 acres of grounds with a cup of tea. In the evening I would book a sofa at the Electric Cinema  and snuggle with my husband and get food delivered to me from the Electric Diner next door.



Five Places to Visit in West London

1. Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew also known as Kew Gardens is one of the most famous gardens in the world, with a vast range of rare and beautiful plants, a bamboo garden, Victorian glass houses, 14,000 trees and much more. I love to walk there and just take it all in.


2.Portobello Market in Notting hill  The big antique day is Saturday but Friday is also good if you want to avoid the crowds. Don’t forget to include the Golborne Road too, which also boasts food stalls, junk and antiques for sale, as well as Portuguese cafes selling custard cakes and coffee.

3. A Walk in Kensington Gardens, visiting the Serpentine Art Gallery (free entry) and then The Orangery for tea. The Serpentine always has interesting modern art exhibitions and the Orangery is just a beautiful place to sit.

4. Leighton House Museum is the former home of the Victorian artist Frederic, Lord Leighton, and it contains a collection of paintings and sculpture by Leighton and his contemporaries. One of the best rooms in the house is the amazing Arab Hall with its golden dome, interesting mosaics and walls lined with Islamic tiles. It would be worth visiting  Holland Park afterwards.

5. A jaunt down the river from Hammersmith Bridge to Chiswick House is one of my favourite walks in London. It’s easy to imagine what the city must have been like 200 years ago and the route passes beautiful houses, a few pubs and St Nicholas Church where the artist, Hogarth was buried. While looking at the river landscape, it’s easy to forget that you are minutes away from a huge loud metropolis. 



Best new Restaurant in West London

Bush Hall Dining Room voted favourite restaurant in Sheperds Bush by Time Out readers. The cocktails are great here.


Favourite Restaurants in West London

¬Persian food at Sufi in Shepherds Bush. This is a  unpretentious and cheap, local restaurant. The grilled chicken or lamb and rice are delicious. Also the home-made flat bread.

English Tapas at The Shed in Kensington – little plates of dishes like pork scratchings with apple jam and hake rillettes with dill and marmalade. Although it’s not the most comfortable seating, it’s a really interesting and delicious dining experience.

The Anglesea Arms near Hammersmith is a cosy local pub with a roaring fire. Order a pint of prawns at the bar  or sit down in the restaurant to order seasonal food. 


Good Shopping?


Turnham Green High Street and Chiswick High Street, where there is a good mix of good quality independent food shops, health stores, furniture shops and cafes, including The Old Cinema, a treasure trove of furniture and interesting antiques.

Askew Road, in Shepherds Bush is great for inexpensive local shopping. There is a wonderful butcher, The Ginger Pig that sells Deli goods, organic vegetables, homemade jams and chutneys and extremely good quality meat and Max Inc. an interesting mid-century furniture shop with fair prices.  

Westfield, near the Shepherds Bush roundabout is the largest shopping mall in Europe, and it’s worth a visit, just to experience the sheer size and variety of shops.  There is a pop-up skating ring here in the winter and lots of free and fun happenings. There are also a huge variety of restaurants and cafes.

The clothes, jewellery, furniture, flower stall and shoe shops around Ledbury Road in Notting hill are worth visiting. I Love Gorgeous is an independent children’s shop for girls, selling beautiful dresses with an edge – a perfect gift for a godchild, a niece or a daughter. Anya Hindmarch for bags and Ottolenghi the deli are amongst the array of other independent shops.

What to do in the Evening?

The Bush Theatre  showcases new writers and it’s a small intimate theatre which make this an exciting and affordable evening.
The Bush Hall for original live indie music in a Victorian, music hall setting. 
The Riverside Studios for movies, theatre, eating and drinking
Chiswick House Gardens and Café