Taking my cousin for a ride: cycling adventures on Regents Canal

Every other year my cousin Sheryl – a full-on born and raised American – comes to the UK to enjoy the delights of London’s Open House week.  Contrary to its name, the week is not limited to houses. In fact, Sheryl (who is an architect) hasn’t come for the houses anyway.  What she’s really into is infrastructure – train stations, aqueducts, and underground rivers are her favourites.  Sheryl so loves everything to do with water that she even persuaded my elderly mother to go on a tour of some sewage works with her.

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Victorian Gothic fabulousness

I lucked out by missing the sewage extravaganza, and instead we visited the architecturally fabulous St Pancras Renaissance Hotel, which is everything you want a Victorian Gothic building to be, and more.  Unfortunately, the hotel hadn’t got into the spirit of Open House week at all, so there were no legitimate ways to tour around it.  Instead, Sheryl and I had to masquerade as guests, sauntering casually through the lobby before sneaking up the stairs.  Imagine two 40-something women running up and down corridors, taking snaps of doorways and arches whilst giggling like naughty school girls hiding from the teacher.  We even managed to crash a corporate reception, not so we could gorge on the wine and canapés (both of which I love) but to admire the architecture of the room it was being held in.

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Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich, from the north bank of the Thames

Given our track record, I was confident Sheryl would jump at the chance to cycle along Regent’s Canal from Greenwich to Islington with me, looking at all the shiny new buildings and the regenerated old ones. Knowing that I would most likely spend a lot of the journey enthusing about my passion for cemeteries, would surely only add to the charm.

 

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I’m keen, but clueless

This is not an activity for the feint-hearted – not only because it’s a 20-mile round trip, but also because you are only feet, and at some points inches, away from the canal, and an ill-judged turn of the handle-bars could easily pitch you into the water.  And bicycles don’t float.  It’s not the full-on Bradley Wiggins experience, but it’s as close as I’m ever likely to get.

Unlike my husband, who likes to cycle so fast that generally all I see of him is a Lycra-clad bottom in the middle-distance, Sheryl was happy to take her time admiring the view.

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Mind the gap! Bridge over Regent’s Canal

We stopped to ogle Victorian brick chimneys, take arty snaps of gas holders, and question the wisdom of building a school where part of the roof seemed to be wrapped in cling film.  We passed people running, walking and even two committed citizens collecting litter.

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Who doesn’t love gas holders in the sunshine?

Closer to Islington, we toyed with stopping at one of the trendy bars or cafes that front onto the canal, but decided to push on to the end of the tow path.

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Modern steel and glass next to Victorian brick – feel my joy!

Our dedication was rewarded with a light lunch sitting outside in the sunshine at trendy eatery Elk in the Woods, where the menu was both poncy and delicious in equal measure (hot smoked elk sausage with fig and rosemary cream, anyone?)  The staff were also lovely, and politely didn’t mention how sweaty we were, or that our bikes were causing a major hazard.  So after a bit of self-indulgence and a pleasant chat about waterways we were on our way home again.

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Sweaty but smiling

Back at Boudicca HQ, we had a quick cup of tea before I waved Sheryl off to see more cousins, who no doubt have their own special interests.  I’ve now got two years before her next visit, in which I need to plan an outing that tops sewage, Victorian Gothic and white-knuckle cycling.  Suggestions on a postcard please!

Victorian cemeteries rock: you read it here first

I love graveyards.  I probably wouldn’t mention it on a first date, but I definitely love them.  I find their combination of popular culture, social history and raw emotion utterly compelling.  They’re like a social commentary echoing down the centuries: rich people have big headstones and live long lives, poor people have humble headstones and die young – often in their 20s and 30s.  The contrast between rich and poor is shockingly stark.

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Highgate Cemetery

Then there’s the way people’s deepest emotions are written in stone for any passing stranger to see.  My heart always aches for anguished parents who have lost an infant child, their grief and pain forever etched in granite.

And finally pop culture.  I love the way graves reflect the popular culture of their day, such as tombs in the shape of obelisks reflecting a time when everyone was fascinated by ancient Egypt.  I know exactly how they felt – I actually got distracted by a website on Egyptian columns before writing this blog, and nearly didn’t get around to writing it at all…

cemetery13So imagine my joy when I discovered that my dear friend Devon shares my slightly strange passion. We started with a trip to Nunhead Cemetery in south east London, which is described by Wikipedia as one of the Magnificent Seven (a brilliant name for the ring of Victorian cemeteries built around what were then the outskirts of London).  Dev added spice to our adventure by printing out details of some of the fancier graves and we competed for who could find them first.  It became a bit of an undignified cemetery-dash towards the end as we were running out of time, but kudos to Dev for coming up with such a great idea.

And that’s not the only fun we had.  It turns out the rich of the 19th century were not at all worried about privacy and anonymity, and loved nothing better than to inscribe their address on their tomb.  So the next time we had a free afternoon, Dev and I planned a tour driving past their houses.  Looking for the streets dead people used to live on is literally the most fun you can have with a map of south east London and a spare two hours.

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Entrance to the Egyptian Avenue, Highgate Cemetery

Exhilarated by our Nunhead excursions, we arranged a visit to the jewel in the crown of London cemeteries: Highgate Cemetery in north London.  It’s actually divided into two, and super-organised Dev booked us on a tour of the West Cemetery.  Not only is this the half with the most impressive architectural features, from the Egyptian Avenue to the Circle of Lebanon, but – cemetery geeks rejoice – the tour takes you all the most interesting places and tells you loads of London graveyard facts.  Unfortunately, in all the excitement we forgot to leave time to visit the East Cemetery – the half that contains all the famous people.  Is there anything more disappointing than schlepping all the way to north London only to run out of time and miss the tomb of Karl Marx?

If I’m honest, touring cemeteries is probably not an opportunity my children would leap at, and Mr B isn’t keen either.  But ask around, I’m sure you must have a Dev amongst your friends.  Alternatively, I’ve recently heard that Brompton Cemetery in south west London is jam packed with interesting stuff – anyone fancy a trip?

Tours around the West Cemetery at Highgate cost £12 and must be booked in advance if you go on a weekday.  For up-to-date prices, times and tour schedules for the East and West Cemeteries please see the Highgate Cemetery website.

Nunhead Cemetery is free to visit – check Southwark Council website for opening times – and there is also a free tour once a month – details are on the Friends of Nunhead Cemetery website.

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I love this simple monument to Thomas Wing in Nunhead Cemetery.  It reads: Beloved and regretted by the friends of his youth and old age.  He left a name to blessed by generations of poor blind persons for whose benefit he bequeathed in trust to the Clothworkers Company of London the sum of £70,000, government, 2 1/2% annuities for annual pensions of £20 each, without conditions as to sex, age or place of birth.

 

It’s all about community and opportunity

Everyone of a certain age recognises the name Stephen Lawrence.  He was the black teenager killed in a racist attack in south east London in 1993.  His death was followed by a botched police investigation and years of campaigning by his family and in particular his mother, Doreen Lawrence, to find his killers and to make policing fairer to all.

But out of this terrible tragedy something amazing was born: The Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust.  The Trust works with disadvantaged young people from all backgrounds to inspire and enable them to enter professions that might otherwise seem beyond their reach.  So it felt like a tremendous privilege to be invited to the Stephen Lawrence Memorial Lecture held by the Trust last Tuesday.

Because Stephen wanted to be an architect, this annual event features respected architects talking about different aspects of architecture.  This year the focus was on the relationship between architecture and the community, and the lecture hall at the Royal Institute of British Architecture was packed with architects – from those leading well-known successful practices right down to those still in training.  It was basically an architects’ geek-fest.

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L-R: Sonia Watson, CE, Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust; Elsie Owusu OBE, leading architect; Asher Bourne, beneficiary of the trust; Stuart Lawrence, trustee; Bob Shiel, Prof in Architecture & Design, UCL; Kibwe Tavares, filmmaker

There were some big names on the platform (the Chief Executive of Scott Brownrigg, one of the UK’s largest architecture practices, chaired it and award-winning architects Sheila O’Donnell and John Thomey were amongst the speakers).  But the stand-out star of the show was Stuart Lawrence, Stephen’s brother.  He took the theme of architecture and community by the scruff of the neck and gave a talk that made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.

He talked about a happy childhood growing up with Stephen and their younger sister Georgina, bombing around Woolwich Common on their bikes during the day and opening their bedroom window in the evening to hear the rumble of music and laughter when the funfair came to town.  But most of all he talked about community, how mixed and diverse it was, how everyone knew everyone, and the friendships between them.  In fact, until Stephen was killed, Stuart had no notion or awareness of racism.

Although our sense of community is often lost, Stuart spoke about his firm belief in the old saying ‘it takes a village to raise a child’, and that we need to design our environment to foster communities.  He recalled the days when, like so many of us, he would leave his house in the morning and be out on an adventure with his friends till tea time.  And he expressed the hope that we can get back some of the things that we all had growing up but which seem to be lost to our children.

Stuart’s final words were to tell the audience that community spirit is not dead, it is in each and every one of us, and just to prove it he brought tomatoes from his garden to share with everyone.  You didn’t need to be an architect to know he absolutely nailed it.  Thank you, Stuart Lawrence.

 

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Chelsea from the Trust –  call her!

I actually really care about what the Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust does.  I know lots of people reading this will be in different jobs in different industries, and I firmly believe that young people shouldn’t be excluded from those jobs because they come from a disadvantaged background.  If you agree with me, you can help.  Maybe you could be a mentor, or your organisation could offer workshadowing.  Why not have a look at their website?  If you think you could get involved, or you want to find out a bit more, you can have an informal chat with the Programmes Manager, Chelsea Way, call her on 020 8100 2800 or email her at chelsea@stephenlawrence.org.uk.  Tell her I sent you (I know her – she’s lovely).   Maybe it will lead to nothing, but maybe, just maybe, it will lead to something amazing.

 

 

Review: Peckham Festival is diverse, vibrant and makes me feel cool again

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My fabulous friend Sarah is actually sitting on a bicycle seat to enjoy her beaker of wine

Because some of my friends are much cooler than me, I managed to garner an invite to the launch of the first ever Peckham Festival.  Initiated by local family the Wilsons, and made possible through the support of Southwark Council and The Acorn Group, the festival celebrates the vibrant culture, arts and food scene in Peckham.

In case you’ve taken your eye off the Peckham ball, it has become very hip since you last looked.  There are roof top bars, revitalised and re-purposed historic buildings, an artistic quarter, and a cultural mix that makes the foodie scene diverse and exciting.  I felt I’d become a little bit cooler just by being there.

So the newly inaugurated Festival is a brilliant way to celebrate Peckham and advertise it to a wider audience.  From 8th to 11th September, there are over 150 events and activities, from performances, workshops, walks and talks, to open studios and an exhibition of art work specially commissioned for the Festival.  The smartly designed and informative Festival guide is the perfect companion to help you navigate your way around, although it will be a full time job to do it all.

The Director of this artistic extravaganza is Sydney Thornbury, who previously revitalised The Conservatoire in Blackheath from a moribund organisation to a dynamic arts centre at the heart of the community.  Despite her American accent, Sydney describes herself as ‘a Brockley girl through and through’, and is clearly passionate about both the arts and south east London. I’d give her an 11 out of 10 for the Peckham Festival.

bussey-rooftop-bar-1After the launch we headed to the top of the iconic Bussey Building which is now home to a rooftop cafe and bar.  We were a bit surprised to have our bags searched before we went in, but it was more than worth it when we emerged from the building into the warm night air. There is a fabulous view across south east London, and looking north you can pick out key landmarks like the Shard.  The cocktails are pretty cool too – I had something with a chilli in, and believe me when I tell you my mouth was on fire by the time I got to the bottom of the glass.  We ate chargrilled zucchini on big hunks of delicious bread, and we shared a table with a Mary Beard look-alike (presenter of popular TV shows about ancient Rome), who regaled us with stories about getting stopped by tourists in the British Museum.

A couple of cocktails later, we took a wrong turn on our way out and found we had accidentally crashed a flamenco evening on another floor.  Unfortunately I’d already promised the babysitter what time I’d be home, but I’m already planning a return trip to Peckham…

Getting there:  There are buses a-go-go, you can take the P12, P13, 12, 36, 37, 63, 78, 136, 171, 172, 177, 197, 343, 345, 363, 381, 436.  Peckham Rye is nearest overground rail station.

Find out more about what’s on and plan your visit on the Peckham Festival website

3 ways to tell you’re getting old

getting-old2Before we get started, let me just clarify a couple of things.  Firstly, getting old does not mean wearing comfortable shoes.  My passion for sky high-heels in vibrant colours rages on unabated.  Nor does it mean abandoning dancing for more sedate activities.  I may look naff and be completely out of time, but I dance with commitment.  And lastly it doesn’t mean you’re useless with technology.  Mr B is an avid consumer of all things tech, with the result that I haven’t been able to work anything remotely technology-based in our house since my twenties.  It’s really not an age thing, it’s a husband thing.

So putting the myths aside, here are three ways to tell you are getting old:

  • You love the news
    When I was growing up, my father thought that television had been invented for the sole purpose of watching the news. In those days there were only three channels and no internet, so options were limited, but he would frantically toggle between them trying to catch as much news as he could.  It seemed like a pointless and boring thing to do.  I mean, the news is the news, right?  Wrong!  Now, I am older, I am obsessed with it.  What’s more, I love documentaries too.  I watch them late at night and in secret when Mr B is out.  I particularly love anything that features Lucy Worsley (a historian with attitude – seriously, follow her on Twitter) or Mary Beard, the Cambridge Professor who writes for The Times and makes Roman history rock.  If you’ve taken to watching the news on a reasonably regular basis or started enjoying documentaries, I’m sorry to tell you, but you’re definitely getting old.
  • You think Mary Whitehouse was right
    Younger readers may not remember Mary Whitehouse, but for years she campaigned for taste and decency in the media.  She saw anything that was remotely popular, interesting or targeted at a teenage audience as a dangerous risk to the moral fibre of our society. I always imagined she was some joyless old harridan in thick stockings and comfortable shoes.  But now I have two daughters, I see her entirely differently.  I don’t want my children to grow up thinking they need to dress or gyrate like the women they see in pop videos.  And I don’t want their boyfriends to think they should either.  I don’t want them posting nude selfies on Twitter and I worry about the imagery and expectations that young people are exposed to.  Suddenly, and unexpectedly, I find I’m with Mary, are you?
  • You’re shameless

There are a number of things I’ve started doing that would have seemed appalling and inappropriate five years ago.  For starters, I dress to please myself, not to blend in.  And what pleases me is loud colours.  Recently I’ve started talking to strangers.  I was always mortified when my mother used to do it, but now I find myself happily chatting away to random people in the checkout queue at the shops.   And I already mentioned my penchant for dancing.  It doesn’t bother me in the least that I look ridiculous or that my dancing is 80s-style.  I was wondering whether to highlight dressing, chatting or dancing as a sign I’m getting old, but then I realised that they all signify the same thing: basically, I’m shameless.  If you’ve done even one of these things recently, you’re on the slippery slope to shamelessness with me.

If you have read all this, and think that these are not the signs of getting old, there is a very simple explanation: you don’t recognise them because you are not old yet.  Come back in five years’ time and we can have a cup of tea and reminisce about how naïve you used to be!