Maltby Street Market

Last weekend a bad thing happened: I went to Borough Market on a Saturday morning. I haven’t attempted this for upwards of eight years and, whilst it wasn’t exactly a well-kept secret back then, now it is something akin to the London Eye in terms of the hoardes it attracts and the experience it offers which is, I imagine, how cows feel when they are being herded into a large barn for their morning feed.

There are still wonderful suppliers, and wonderful food at Borough, but they are lost amidst the crowds. The most delicious of meals is no fun when eaten standing up in the midst of a group of shouty German adolescents who are spraying their pheromones all over your pulled pork.

So this weekend I ventured half an hour away to Maltby Street, which is Borough-lite, a modest street market with a growing reputation in Bermondsey.

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Firstly, I have to say that Bermondsey was a bit of a revelation: I don’t know the area well and always think of it as the armpit of the South Bank, but it’s all grown up now: clean, gentrified and with a mouthwatering array of cafes and restaurants and those little charming little gift shops which make you actively want to part company with £50 for an old milk crate. So, well done Bermondsey on your coming-of-age.

Maltby Street is just off a residential street from which you can, satisyingly and smugly, see the Shard in all its disappointing un-pointy glory. Cafes and restaurants are housed in a series of railway arches, including a St John bakery, which points to the fact that I have missed the boat in my discovery of Maltby Street and that its already transitioned from underground to being circled by LEON executives who are eyeing up it’s hip young customers and scheming to set up a branch.

There are probably six cafes and fifteen-or-so stalls. You can whizz around in twenty minutes, or linger for hours drinking cocktails. There’s a lovely buzz about the place: a mix of hipsters and ordinary folk without feature beards.

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I was alone, and en route to elsewhere, so I just inhaled some treats and skedaddled – looking back, I probably wasn’t as adventurous as I should have been. I bought three treats, and all of them are things which are, always, whether they’re from Costcutter or Harrods Food Halls, delicious: smoked salmon from Hansen & Lydersen, a ‘breakfast’ scotch egg with a perfectly runny yolk from Finest Fayre and a couple of brownies to go: salted caramel and peanut butter from Bad Brownie. The former is sprinkled in golden powder and did, it has to be said, taste other-worldly when I bolted it down mid-afternoon half-cut and hungry.

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Maltby Street is one of those lovely London experiences where you don’t mind paying £3 for a piece of sourdough with three modest slices of smoked salmon on it, because you’re not just buying the food, you’re buying the excitement about the food, the smugness of finding this little gem,and the feeling that you’re on the set of some kind of hipster reality tv programme which is yet to be made (and voiced over with an irony which she doesn’t quite understand herself by Miquita Oliver).

So make sure that on the next sunny weekend morning that you’re searching the Time Out website and feeling overhwlmed by options, yet strangely uninspired, head over the Maltby Street – eat breakfast waffles and drink cocktails from strange screwtop Steins whilst musing that you should really get, like, a proper ‘look’ and start wearing more red lipstick and create some kind of signature dish which you can sell here and which everyone will love and you’ll become quietly famous for.

Go to Maltby Street, because Maltby Street is the anti-Angus Steak House, and for all its pretensions, you should shake it by it’s  hand and hang out there as soon as you can.

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Escape to the country

Sometimes you just need to spend some time away from those you’re closest to. It gives you breathing space, time to reflect and, generally, helps you remember why you got close to them in the first place.

This is exactly how I felt about London this weekend. London: I love you, but I need to be away from you, dirty old friend …

And so we set off in the new member of the family: Bluebell the 2CV – a pretty, if temperamental French lady who is perfect for day trips. Not only can you pull back the roof and feel the sun on your face, but she’s also convertible in more ways than one: her seats can be taken out and used as the most comfortable picnic seats you will ever have the pleasure to lower your backside onto.

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Sadly, we didn’t have a picnic to partake of, just a thermos of tea, and so we packed up and set off for our final destination: Mrs Mollett’s High Class Tea Shop in Appledore, Kent. Every day trip needs to have a purpose, and what higher purpose than tea and cake?

Bluebelle enjoys the sunshine outside Mrs Mollett's

Bluebelle enjoys the sunshine outside Mrs Mollett’s

Mrs Mollett's house brew

Mrs Mollett’s house brew

Mrs Mollett’s comes highly recommended: it does what a good tea shop should do – nothing fussy or fancy, just excellent sandwiches, scones, cake and tea in a twee but utterly charming setting.

Cornish or Devon? I went 'Devon' (cream first)

Cornish or Devon? I went ‘Devon’ (cream first)

We arrived home this evening a few pounds heavier, having blown away the cobwebs, and all revved up for some new London adventures.

Because you can never have too many carbs with your tea ...

Because you can never have too many carbs with your tea …

 

A Londoner’s top ten tips for tourists

 

Traditional fish and chips at the Golden Hinde

Traditional fish and chips at the Golden Hinde

1. If you can, visit in the spring: The weather is mild, cherry blossom is out (April/May), the parks look beautiful and Londoners are starting to come out of hibernation to drink on the streets, picnic in the parks and enjoy the longer, lighter days.

2. Get the tourist trail over and done with in a day: it’s all very well saying ‘Don’t bother with Leicester Square, it’s full of tourists’ but, just as if I go to New York I want to go up the Empire State Building, so London tourists want to see Big Ben and the London Eye. London bus tours will whip you around the main sites in a few hours, leaving you free to explore the more interesting bits over the remaining days.

3. Walk through the parks of central London: St James’s Park, Green Park, Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens. These beautifully kept parks are managed by Royal Parks and are a lovely mix of formal gardens and grassy lawns which are perfect for picnics. Start at Horseguard’s Parade (this is where big military ceremonial events like Trooping the Colour, the Queen’s annual birthday parade take place). First, walk through St James’s Park, the smallest but possibly most impressive of the parks – stand on the bridge in the middle of the lake to see one of the loveliest views in the city: in one direction, the weeping willows and other-worldly-looking domes of the government buildings on Whitehall; in the other Buckingham Palace. Then, walk along Constitution Hill on the edge of Green Park to Hyde Park Corner. Take the underpass, then cross the road to Hyde Park itself and head for the Serpentine Pond. Walk along the perminetre of the pond and, once you reach the bridge, you’re in Kensington Gardens, with Kensington Palace, home to Wills, Kate and Harry (and open to the public throughout the year) standing at its westernmost end. 

4. Spend an evening in Soho: various areas of London will fall in and out of fashion, but Soho remains the city’s beating heart. Known for its 60s sex shops, gay scene and multicultural community of immigrants, artists and misfits, it’s a lively place to spend any evening, but really comes into its own in the spring and summer when people spill onto its streets. A lot of out-of-towners descend on Soho on Saturday nights, which are probably best avoided, but most other nights you’re guaranteed a good buzz. Start on Old Compton Street and just follow your nose.

5. Go on a London Walk: London is a city full of history. Throw a stick and it will probably land on the spot of a grisly beheading, a famous romantic triste or a shop where John Lennon once bought some chewing gum. But it’s easy to miss these little gems. And that’s where London Walks come in. Their knowledgeable and charismatic guides will take you on mini-tours of London based on area or theme. Their most popular is the gruesome Jack the Ripper Walk in east London. Whichever walk you chose, it’ll help you explore the city in a little more detail and feel like you’re getting to know it more intimately: www.walks.com

6. Have fish and chips at the Golden Hinde: my heart sinks every time I see a sign bearing the legend ‘Traditional fish and chips served here’ parked outside a grotty pub in London. Really traditional fish and chips are served in paper from a counter in a local ‘chippie’ and then consumed at home or on one’s lap on a beach. Sit-in chippies are rare, but this one, based in Marylebone, a wealthy ‘village’ area of London (more of villages anon) is a real gem. It’s popular, so prepare to queue, but once you’re in you’ll be rewarded by hearty and inexpensive fish and chips. 73 Marylebone Lane, London, W1U 2PN, 020 7486 3644.

7. Go to Shakespeare’s Globe: London is renowned for it’s theatre, and there’s no theatre with more history and tradition attached to it than the Globe. This is where Shakespeare’s plays were first performed to packed houses before the original building burnt down in 1613 during a performance of Henry V. Its faithful modern counterpart was was opened in 1997 just over 200 metres from the site of the original, and today it stages a mix of traditionally, but creatively performed Shakespeare plays (mainly Shakespeare, but some modern plays too). Tickets are incredibly affordable for central London: from £5 to £25. The £5 tickets will buy you standing room which might get you close enough to the stage to find yourself splattered with fake blood or over-effusive actors’ spittle just as Elizabethan audiences were over 400 years ago. www.shakespearesglobe.com

8. Take tea in a London hotel: high tea is the most indulgent, and English of meals. Traditionally, this is a mix of finger sandwiches, scones and cakes, all served in opulent surroundings on the best china alongside elegant steaming silver pots of tea. Claridges and The Ritz are the most famous hotels for their tea. They’re not cheap: it will cost you £50 a head, but you will get a truly unique experience for your money, in the atmosphere of an opulent, bygone London. If you’ve left things too late, The Goring is a lovely and less well-known alternative. It has as rich a history as any hotel in London, though: the Allied War Effort was run from here during the First World War and, more recently, this is where Kate Middleton and her family stayed on the eve of the Royal wedding in 2011. It has the dark and cosy feel of a gentlemans’ club, with roaring fires in the winter and a terrace leading on to a pretty walled garden with London rooftops beyond perfect for the summer months.

9. Spend a Sunday on Colombia Road and Brick Lane: to me, this is the perfect way to experience East London, an area which has been hugely regenerated over the past ten years and now has a reputation for housing London’s ‘hipsters’ and generally being a hub for creative types. Start with a morning at Colombia Road Flower Market (try to get there before 10am) where cockney traders will amuse you with their cheeky trademens’ banter. The road is lined with antique and arty shops, and cafes and stalls selling delicious coffee and snacks. Then make the short walk to Brick Lane where you’ll find the Brick Lane Bagel Bakery, a 24-7 East End Institution selling delicious, cheap bagels pulled from the oven and stuffed with salt beef, smoked salmon, or whatever takes your fancy. Then stroll down Brick Lane and people watch before you hit the Sunday Up-Market, a lively market packed full of delicious food stalls, and independently produced clothes and crafts. The remainder of Brick Lane beyond the market is known as ‘The curry Mile’ and renowned for its huge variety of curry houses, but the reality is that you’ll probably have been too tempted by the food you’ve seen en route to have any room left.

10. Visit a London ‘village’: you will probably hear people talk about ‘Village London’. This is just as it sounds – former villages which have retained their character in spite of the urban sprawl. These are generally wealthy areas with a lot of green space, so they could be a good bet if you’re feeling a bit citied-out. Hampstead is my favourite: visit the Holly Bush for a pint (Jamie Oliver’s local), stroll down the High Street, turn left onto Downshire Hill at the end of which you’ll see Hampstead Heath. Walk across the heath to Parliament Hill and stunning views of London. You might also want to consider Dulwich Village, Blackheath or Highgate (which has a fantastic cemetery).

Livin’ the Sylvan dream

Who says we can’t have it all? Stop watching ‘Escape to the Country’ and move to Sydenham Hill instead, where there are ancient woodlands, parks galore and all the cafés, restaurants, art galleries and eccentrics that a devoted urbanite could need.

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The Dulwich Woods, part of my delightful daily commute

I came here 18 months ago after a long, frustrating and occasionally tearful house-hunt had led us to a dead end in South West London, where my husband originally wanted to live because he thought that the rest of London was populated by goblins and crack whores.

We viewed a succession of properties which I desperately tried to find something to love in: tiny Barratts homes on soulless middle-class estates on the outskirts of Kingston; big, light, airy houses in the shadow of tower blocks; derelict houses which represented not just a ‘project’ but a new way of life with no weekends, ever. This is what makes out-of-towners snigger smugly, nod their heads sagely and say, ‘I couldn’t never live in London. It’s sooo expensive!’.

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More Dulwich Woods: the city’s lungs

Our search became ever wider, until one day, I went to a place where my Oyster card wasn’t accepted and I thought, ‘enough is enough’. I cannot, will not, live out-of-zone and ergo out-of-London.

I hadn’t realised until that point how much I define myself as a Londoner, and how important it is to me. I need to feel committed to the whole messy, exhilarating experience of daily life in London town. And so I started to employ underhand tactics: my husband was training at Herne Hill Velodrome one Saturday morning and, whilst discussing weekend plans, I casually mentioned that there was a house less than a mile away which might be worth a look, but would probably, you know, be crap. He resisted for a moment and mumbled something about the crime statistics, then I sulked and he caved.

I didn’t have to do anything underhand after that because the house we looked at, which we now live in, did all the work for me. Nestled on a quiet estate which overlooks the Dulwich Woods, it’s a 1960s house beautifully decked out in mid-century furniture: light, airy, spacious, chic and, critically, about 10% less expensive than anything we’d seen in the South West. We put in an offer that day and have been happily living the Sylvan Dream in the South East ever since.

My husband, previously so anti, is now the South East’s biggest fan. We have the chocolate box Dulwich Village on our doorstep; Crystal Palace with its independent shops and Victorian dinosaurs and, increasingly, Forest Hill where a new, arty little pub or cafe seems to open up every couple of months.

There are lots of parks and woodlands, and excellent transport links: Sydenham Hill station will get you into central London in 13 minutes and both Forest Hill and Crystal Palace are on the East London line, offering easy access to town’s trendiest areas.

I genuinely don’t understand why South West London is so popular, when there is this kind of competition. Everything seems to ripple out from Richmond: from the house prices to the bland, homogenous high streets. And the transport is dreadful. A rammed train will take you 20-30 minutes from Richmond, and the excruciating district line will take you up to 40. Other commuter-y outposts like Hampton, where I lived, will take 45 minutes into town at rush hour.

It’s like a great conspiracy: so many people have invested in the South West that they don’t want to admit that, whisper it, the South East is superior. Plus, the South East feels like London. Yes, in a tramp-y, crime-y way, but also in a multicultural, vibrant, exciting way. If you want to feel like you live in the home counties, live in the home counties and be done with it. Personally I want to live in London, so I’m staying put.

Probably the best bookshop in the world

I have a complex relationship with reading: I would love to be one of those types who whips through a couple of novels a week, snatching spare moments on trains, in lunch hours and at bedtime to immerse myself in my latest literary adventure. There is nothing better than really enjoying a good book.It feels special and satisfying in a way that watching a film or a TV programme just doesn’t.

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But it’s been a long time since I was really sucked into a good book, and I’ve been distracted by that nemesis of a good read: telly. For every episode of Breaking Bad, I’ve watched two of Keeping Up With The Kardashians. That’s hundreds of hours of potential novel-reading time down the pan. I need to kick my habit.

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Salvation came today with an hour to kill in Hay-on-Wye. I mooched in to Richard Booth’s Bookshop with no expectations whatsover. The shop is, I found out subsequently, a legend in the book town of Hay: an ’emporium’ really, as ‘bookshop’ seems far too work-a-day a term to describe the magic of the place.

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It is a handsome building, with high-beamed ceilings and three floors of every kind of book you could imagine. Their wares are displayed beautifully: an Easter display of papier mache birds welcomes customers in, and new Folio and Penguin editions of classics are piled elegantly around the place, making the invention of the Kindle seem like heresy. Indeed, the idea that it is just the words of books which are important, not the sensual experience of spotting a beautiful book or a intriguing title, picking it up, turning it over, flicking to the opening line, imagining it in your home, seems ludicrous here.

Richard Booth’s stocks second-hand books as well as new publications and that wonderful smell of musty paper is all part of the experience here. Pick up a second-hand book and it tells a story: ‘First prize, Withenshaw Prep, 1926-7’ ‘Happy Birthday Monkey! 1976’. Weird and wonderful out-of-print tomes tell us of the pre-occupations and mores of past generations who held these books in their hands, and propped them by their bedsides.

Reader: I bought a book. A childhood favourite called ‘Rosettes for Jill’ about a bossy posh girl called Jill who enters gymkhanas and eats a lot of buttered eggs. One look at the cover art and I was transported back to my bedroom on 1984 when books were a way of building your own little world whilst simultaneously diving into other people’s.

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As if all this wasn’t enough, there’s also a stonking great cafe and a cinema attached. I haven’t turned on the telly today, and I don’t intend to, thanks to Mr Booth’s.