After moving house, I felt some pressure to pick a ‘favourite local pub’ despite lockdown making it difficult to compare them in the traditional way. I ended up nominating The Honor Oak based mostly on the nice wall of plants which Randi and I saw through the window when walking past. But now, with everything open again and a brief spate of sunny late-summer evenings to enjoy, I can confirm that I do really like this pub. It’s even introduced Randi to the delights of mango-flavoured beer, which really takes me back. But, to share the pub-love around, we’ve also enjoyed after-work drinks on the terrace of The Chandos too. Come visit us – we have real favourites now!
Actually, we have been relatively successful at luring people to come see us recently. Two weekends ago we spent a wonderful afternoon with Laura, Matt and Cré at ours during which we got to witness Cré’s first successful crawl up some stairs in the middle of our hallway. Apologies if this unlocks a terrifying new vertical world for all concerned. That evening we hot-footed it over to my mum’s for dinner with Tash and Cormac, but didn’t drink so much wine to deter us from walking Capital Ring section 5 the next morning from Streatham Common to Wimbledon Park. It’s been a little while since we last walked the Capital Ring and I think we’ve both concluded that it lacks some of the far-flung adventurism of the London Loop. But it’s still very cool to see how different parts of the capital fit together as we slowly make our way around the rough border of Inner Loncon.
On the way home, we took advantage of 2021’s Open House Festival to drop in on two houses on nearby Walter’s Way. The street is named after the the architect Walter Segal, who in the late 1970s persuaded Lewisham council to run an experiment in self-built, timber-framed houses which were constructed entirely by the residents themselves. This was only possible because the council had slightly run away with itself in its enthusiasm to buy up land for housing, and ended up with a few parcels of very hilly land which weren’t suitable for traditional council flats. The result is a charming, self-contained rural village of a street with wooden houses jutting out at peculiar angles. Is this ‘anarchist architecture’ the solution to a housing crisis? No. Is it annoying when journalists headline their stories with the line “this isn’t at all like London” as a badge of pride? Yes. But the street is beautiful and it’s a cool experiment to have on our doorstep.
Another twentieth century housing experiment – Thamesmead – has a more chequered reputation and was famously used as the filming location for A Clockwork Orange, but it makes a much more loving backdrop in the 1996 film Beautiful Thing which Randi and I saw as part of an outdoor film festival in Beckenham Place Park. It’s a coming-of-age love story between two gay teenagers with an outrageously good soundtrack of Cass Elliot songs, and I really loved watching a film on a big screen again!
In the past few weeks we’ve also brunched with Erin, got angry at the Bush administration all over again after watching a 9/11 anniversary documentary, done some proper adulting by inviting our wonderful downstairs neighbour Angela over for dinner and celebrated after watching Emma Raducanu’s sensational victory in the US Open. (I was also impressed at myself for remembering how tennis scoring worked!) We also had a fancy dinner with Oliver and Abi at Mildred’s in Camden – a different vibe to the mango beer days, but still a weird thrill to walk around Camden on a Saturday night. And – as you might have guessed from the photo – we also redeemed my mum’s birthday present and visited the Olympic Park to ride the slide down the Orbit.
I have a sense that the Orbit has never been particularly successful as a tourist attraction, and I had completely forgotten that the slide was only added in 2016 in an attempt to boost visitor numbers. The original architect was not pleased, wanting to be “more highbrow” than “a fairground ride”. (Turns out there’s a lot of architecture in this post, which wasn’t intentional.) He is, obviously, quite wrong. Very few buildings in the world would not be improved by the addition of a giant curvy slide and the Orbit is no exception. Plus the views from the top while you wait are excellent. I would recommend it, if you’re not offended by slides, and while the lack of giant crowds might be bad news for the owners it also makes the queuing experience at the top much more relaxed than most London tourist attractions.
Finally – and I promise I didn’t plan this – I already had a random day scheduled off-work when I learned that today was also the first day of the new Northern line extension to Battersea. So it would have been rude not to go and see it, right? I wasn’t one of the cool kids on the inaugural 5.30am train, and I did contrive to have lunch with Leonard while I was in the area, but I can’t hide the fact that I was one of the 99% of people visiting in the morning as enthusiasts and/or TfL employees.
There was no 2020 office Christmas party, for obvious reasons, so instead my company generously paid for all of its employees to enjoy a night away at any of our customers’ hotels or B&Bs. Randi and I decided to use this opportunity to pick something a little different to where we might normally choose and enjoyed a weekend at Denbies Vineyard Hotel – a boutique hotel on the grounds of Denbies Wine Estate right next to Box Hill in Surrey.
There’s something charmingly British about Denbies. It might be the largest vineyard in the country but it’s still not that big, and is criss-crossed with public footpaths for local residents wanting to walk their dogs, run a ParkRun or simply get from Dorking to Westhumble. We opted for the ‘Secret Vineyard Trail’ walking tour to learn more and then had a brief moment of panic when we re-read the online description and realised it never actually mentioned any wine tasting.
Thankfully, our fears were quickly eased and plenty of wine of all varieties were provided by our friendly and super-knowledgeable tour guide, who (very 2021) recommended one bottle as the perfect pick-me-up to “a hard Zoom meeting at work”. The weather has made this a miserable year for wine production, apparently, although in the long run French winemakers continue to buy up land in England as climate change pushes optimum temperatures further north.
Away from all the wine, we did (of course!) also find time to walk up Box Hill, admire the views over the countryside and cross back over the River Mole via the well-advertised stepping stone crossing. (Weirdly, I don’t remember these at all from our many childhood trips to Box Hill… but perhaps we never came this way.) We also explored Dorking and its amusing over-provision of railway stations, plus potentially went accidentally trespassing through the secluded grounds of insurance company Unum and/or Hank Scorpio’s global HQ.
Back in London, we’ve also had the pleasure of hosting Sophie and Naomi for a Friday night dinner of Randi’s famous enchiladas, as well as virtual catch-ups with both Toggolyn and Catherine and AJ in the latter’s very shiny new apartment. We’ve now tried to plan a return trip to Chicago so many times that “not jinxing it” feels completely redundant, but nonetheless we are – in principle – very very excited about finally making it back there in November. Fingers crossed…!
Hello, blog! It’s been almost a month since my last post, but I have a decent excuse as for most of that time – and after a really lovely evening at the pub with Clark in Leytonstone which just missed the last blogging window but deserves a mention – Randi’s parents have been visiting us from California.
For obvious reasons it’s been over a year and a half since we were all together in person, so Randi and I organised a trio of small trips around the UK to catch them up with our exciting plans for 2022. More on that shortly! First, though, when they arrived they had to consent to six days of quarantining in our flat – punctuated only by persistent calls from Test & Trace and bittersweet glimpses of freedom whilst shuttling to and from the PCR testing centre in glamorous West Croydon. (To be honest, I think we’re all quite fond of West Croydon now. It treated us well.)
Fortunately, some of this period coincided with the Tokyo Olympics, and despite the awkward scheduling and lack of spectators we still really enjoyed watching the huge variety of sport on show. Special shout-outs for Stu’s newfound love of Rugby Sevens and the usual awesomeness of the canoe/kayak slaloms, but I think my favourite thing to watch was the new rock climbing format with its crazy, escape-room-esque bouldering puzzles and slightly wacky scoring system. Looking forward to seeing more in 2024!
Not wanting to let a good quarantine go to waste, we also put Randi’s parents to work on our long list of house and garden tasks which we had neglected since moving in. So now, a drill has been purchased! A mirror has been hung! We have a coat rack! And, after an awful lot of parental hard labour in the garden, the lawn has now been reclaimed from weeds in preparation for grass yet-to-come, we’ve planted our first flowers and even managed to excavate a number of giant concrete slabs lying under the surface. (As we levered up the first one with a garden fork, it looking and sounding remarkably like the lid of a coffin, I think we had all prepared ourselves for pet graves… or worse.)
Once Beth and Stu had cleared their ‘Test to Release’ Covid test we were free to venture a little more widely, and in addition to our out-of-London trips we packed in a lot of capital adventures too. As you’d expect we took Randi’s parents to all of our favourite parks, cafés, restaurants and Waterlink Ways – other highlights included Pimms and delicious Indian food with Josh, Anna and Cora in their always-beautiful garden, a long-awaited dinner with my mum at Sanzio in Willesden Green, another trip up the Shard and an incredible meal at The Mayflower with Tash and Cormac (who I now feel empowered to start calling Tarmac).
Katie has also been visiting from Glasgow at the same time, and although sometimes it started to feel like every plan we made was doomed to be scuppered by a combination of flash flooding, Covid isolations and non-Covid medical emergencies (don’t worry, everyone’s fine) we did finally manage to all have dinner together at Cubana near Waterloo. Katie and I also managed to sneak in another Doctor Who night last night with 1971’s The Dæmons.
Trip #1: Brighton
Our first trip was a day trip to the seaside, principally to pick up Randi’s ring which we ordered after a whimsical adventure deep in The Lanes back in June.
A ring? OK, let’s back up. In 2017, wearing matching Settlers of Catan t-shirts, Randi and I got married in a Chicago courtroom and celebrated with Catherine and AJ over a lovely brunch and gorgeous gifts of giant meeple which now adorn our living room. But neither of us wanted to try and stage a wedding yet – not until we had the time, space and money for a wedding we’d both be really excited to have. Fast-forward to now, and it’s finally on the cards for (fingers crossed) September 2022 in Hereford. Many more details to come, obviously, although we’ve already started posting out some very attractive Save The Date fridge magnets emblazoned with our faces – you lucky things – to select countries.
Anyway – back to Brighton – where we collected Randi’s ring (which, very fittingly, includes all the colours of the sea) and then hung out in Brighton’s Pavilion Gardens, the beach and the pier.
The pier, incidentally, was the scene of the crime wherein a mercenary seagull swooped down behind me and stole a full two scoops of ice cream directly from the cone in its claws. Never trust a seagull.
Trip #2: Hereford & Church Stretton
Trip two, as should now make sense, was to Hereford to give Randi’s parents a peek at the wedding venue itself. Also notable on this trip was Beth’s enthusiastic, whole-hearted embrace of rhubarb and apple flavoured gin at an excellent tapas restaurant – I think we’re now on first-name terms with the owners – plus a day trip-within-a-trip down the Welsh Marches line to Church Stretton.
If that name sounds familiar, it’s because Church Stretton was the location of our first escape from London after Covid back in August 2020, and for that I think it will always have a special place in our hearts. It also helps that The King’s Arms has an amazing beer garden and pots of irresistible blue cheese sauce.
Trip #3: Cambridge
Last but definitely not least, this summer was a golden opportunity for me to correct the poor impression of Cambridge which Randi was left with back in 2015 when we shuffled about in the rain with ponchos and heavy backpacks. This time the sun shone, our backpacks were safely stowed away in a fancy hotel overlooking Parker’s Piece (very weird) and we could properly enjoy this indisputably lovely city. (I knew my work was done when Randi suggested it was prettier than Oxford.)
The highlight, of course, was hiring a punt and heading out towards Grantchester Meadows (which we very nearly made it to). As a group, I would say we had the perfect blend of hilarious ineptitude with enough determination and fast learning to actually make it somewhere.
I was also very happy, despite my last-minute organisation, to be able to grab a coffee with Peter Mandler the next morning before we headed home. As always, I learnt a lot, especially about some of the positive and long-overdue updates to the Cambridge experience which are coming out of the pandemic.
Let’s start with the thing I have a lot of photos for: on Friday night, we excitedly joined Tash and Cormac for an evening kayak down the Thames! Technically this was a joint birthday gift to the two of them, but it was also the type of gift where you can’t resist inviting yourself along too. So, all together on the ‘Night Bus’ we paddled our way along as the sun went down, starting at Battersea – then past Westminster, the City of London and Canary Wharf – before rocking up at a Greenwich beach by the Cutty Sark.
We loved it, although the experience felt strikingly different to our kayaking adventures in Chicago. Over there, being on the river really feels like being in the very heart of the city, and you’re often surrounded by people and skyscrapers on either side. In London, the Thames may be the spiritual heart of the city but the city does not really ‘live on’ the river in the same way (to steal my mum’s language). The river is wider, the banks are higher and for most of the time the journey felt surprisingly quiet and peaceful. Highly recommended, unless you’re not happy with the sight of the odd dead rat, washed in by flooding and now bobbing along with impressive buoyancy. (No pictures of the rats follow.)
The Euros now feel like an age ago, but two weeks ago England were only at the quarter final stage when Randi and I travelled up to my mum’s to watch the team’s triumph over Ukraine. (It is always lovely when my mum cooks dinner for us, but sitting outside in the garden with smoked haddock crepes was especially lovely, and this is before she had a chance to demonstrate the full force of technological achievement which fancy ice cream scoops have now achieved.) The next morning, suitably refreshed, we walked over to Alix and Adam’s ‘new’ house – not really new, but this was our first chance to admire it! – and spend more time with my smiley baby cousin Austin.
Then, after I managed to fall out of a bathroom with the slapstick setting turned on, we moved on to Bob’s Cafe in Queen’s Park for a long-overdue catch-up / setting-the-world-to-rights lunch with Promise. Despite going to both QPCS and Cambridge together, I had no idea – until now – that Promise is a seasoned regular of the Minnesota State Fair, and shares exactly the same overseas longing for Sweet Martha’s cookies which assails Randi. It’s a small world, and to be honest a lot of it seems to converge on that fair.
In the last few weeks we’ve also been out drinking in Streatham with Reema and John, taken Carolyn and Maria on a dinosaur-packed tour of Crystal Palace Park and taken part in the innovative online Jury Duty game which was my birthday present from Katie (thank you!). Obviously I don’t want to give away any of the plot, but the format is that a group of strangers form a jury over Zoom to investigate a case and decide a verdict. This was a lot of fun, and we felt very lucky to find ourselves in a group which gelled together, collaborated and seemed to do pretty well at the game!
Also, whether for the benefit of the actors or participants, they very sweetly contacted everyone beforehand to reschedule to a time which wouldn’t clash with England’s semi-final kickoff. And – speaking of the Euros again – while the final on Sunday may not have ended happily for England fans, I did enjoy the ups and downs of having another temporary, big-tournament-induced interest in football. (Obviously I apologise to Josh for texting him questions throughout the matches like “what prevents a goalkeeper from just holding the ball and walking down to the other goal to score?”)
This weekend, as the sun finally started to provide some real summer weather again, Randi and I joined Catherine and Hitesh at the aching cool Limin’ Beach Club on the south bank. It genuinely felt like being on holiday. This Catherine, incidentally, is someone I haven’t seen in a decade but the bonds of the 2005 Brent-Eton summer school go deep (along with the kayaking training, come to think of it) and we had a great time together. Afterwards, I made an emergency parasol purchase, accidentally took a train to Croydon and back after becoming too engrossed in emergency parasol research to get off at the right stop, and finally had everything assembled in time for us to host Caroline and Josh in our garden the next day with some much-needed shade along with a ridiculously good Randi brunch special and plenty of Pimm’s.
Finally, and apropos nothing at all, I’ve had “Put Pret Orders on a Graph” on my to-do list for so long that I’ve lost all context for how/why I ever thought this might be a necessary thing to do. But I was having a productive weekend, so I trusted my past self and did it, and having done so it would be a shame not to share…
Confession: my least favourite part of blogging is writing these introductions.
Writing an introduction is easy if you’re writing about one event (New post: My trip to the moon) or multiple events with one running thread (New post: My top five podcasts to listen on the way to the moon) but sometimes there’s just no way to fake any narrative coherence. And that’s OK. Sometimes, you just have to learn to give up and lean into subheadings.
Celebrating 32 Years on Earth
It was my birthday last weekend! To celebrate, Randi added a slightly menacing block into my calendar (“This day is not in your control”) and then squirreled us away to Seaford on Friday night so that we could have dinner at The Grumpy Chef. We love The Grumpy Chef, last seen in November during our US election day/pre-lockdown dash to the coast, and it seems to be doing well enough to have expanded into The Grumpy Fish over the road.
The next morning we had a choice between repeating our Seven Sisters walk to Eastbourne or trying something new in the other direction. Happily we picked the second option, because even though we didn’t make it all the way to Brighton on foot (cutting it short after about three hours with the help of the impressive frequent coastal bus) it led us to make a serendipitous discovery buried deep in The Lanes which I will keep secret until later in the summer.
I also can’t leave Seaford without mentioning that also managed to have breakfast in 1945. “We’ve just won the war!” enthused the proprietor – who seemed genuinely pleased – as Randi and I tucked into our food and enjoyed the background hum of all your favourite wartime melodies. My favourite moment was when the guy at the counter ignored the anachronistic “NO CARDS, CASH ONLY” sign and pulled out a hidden contactless machine from under the till for us to pay. “Don’t worry, I’m happy to take cards. The owner’s just a bit stuck in the twentieth century” he said, before looking around and laughing as he realised this explanation was probably unnecessary.
The next day we travelled up the country in the other direction to Hereford to do some scouting. More on this later, too!
Global Britain, 1966
Katie and I enjoyed another Doctor Who night last week, going all the way back to 1966 for the highly enjoyable and gleefully ridiculous The War Machines.
The premise: all of the world’s countries (including both the USA and the USSR) have agreed to place their entire computer networks under the central control of a single new super-powerful computer, WOTAN, built – for some reason – on the top floor of London’s shiny new
BT Post Office tower. You know WOTAN’s really, really amazing because it’s able to provide the square root of 17422 (to three decimal places) within seconds.
Anyway, my favourite scene is when Sir Charles Summer, head of the ‘Royal Scientific Club’, elegantly bats away the sole American reporter who voices any concern about this foolproof plan:
SUMMER: Gentleman, ladies, may I have your attention please? Well, you're heard the backroom boys, now it's about time you my turn. C Day, that is Computer Day, will be next Monday, July the 16th, that is in four days time. Now on that date all the computer systems in this country, and subsequently in the whole world will come under the control of this central computer which we call WOTAN. Now, as you've heard, that will have both peaceful and military implications. I need hardly tell you that this is a great step forward for Britain, and indeed I may say, for the whole world. Now, have you got any questions?
STONE: Roy Stone, New York Sketch.
SUMMER: Fire away.
STONE: Sir, doesn't this put a great deal of power into the hands of whoever operates WOTAN?
SUMMER: No one operates WOTAN. WOTAN operates itself. The computer is merely a brain which thinks logically without any political or private ends. It is pure thought. It makes calculations, it supplies only the truth. It has no imaginative powers.
STONE: Is there no way of fixing it so it can give the wrong answers?
SUMMER: There would be no point. Now don't forget that a computer like WOTAN is not a human being.
STONE: Oh, but surely, sir
SUMMER: It has no reason to suppress the truth, it has no emotions. It is our soul.
STONE: It seems to me by the way you're talking, sir, that this machine can think for itself like a human being.
SUMMER: It can. Only much more accurately.
STONE: But sir, I mean, isn't this kinda risky? I mean, suppose it decides it can do without people, what then?
SUMMER: I hardly think it'll come to that. I'm sure that Professor Brett and his team will have the machine well under control.
I have absolutely no doubt that Sir Charles Summer would be doing very well for himself today.
Football Football Football
Excluding the matches which I ‘played’ in during PE – and by ‘played’ I mean ‘observed from as far away from the ball as possible’ – I’ve never actually seen a whole football match in person. Until Tuesday, that is, when I benefited from some generous Booking.com corporate hospitality and saw England vs. Czech Republic at Wembley. Thankfully, I was accompanied by my colleague Lee who could explain what was going on, and despite being assured afterwards that it was a pretty boring game I’m going to play my “I’ve got nothing to compare it to” card and say that it was a lot of fun. Especially as (a) England did score the only goal of the game, and (b) they kindly did so during the half when we were sitting behind the goal in question.
Finally Double Vaccinated (But Not The One You Think)
On 10th July 1990 I got my first dose of the MMR vaccine as part of a global conspiracy to stop children dying of measles, mumps and/or rubella. You’re supposed to get the second dose at age 3, but for some reason I didn’t. This definitely wasn’t my parents’ conscious decision, so let’s just put it down to uncharacteristically bad record keeping. Hey, it was the 90s – there was no NHS app yet.
Then a few weeks ago I happened to flick past Channel 4’s documentary on the latest generation of anti-vaccination con artists, which inspired me to check my own medical records later and realise that I was 28 years overdue for my jab. I made a quick phone call to my bemused local surgery and was vaccinated the same day. 💉💉💉
Dinner on the Tube
My birthday gift from Tash and Cormac was being treated to a delicious six-course Latin American-inspired tasting menu… on an old 1967 Victoria Line tube carriage in Walthamstow! This was every bit as amazing as you would think, so thank you guys!
So, I’ve even run out of subheadings, but let’s keep going! After 5 years I finally invited myself over to Oliver and Abi’s ‘new house’, and enjoyed a very long lunch in their incredible garden. Randi and I went out for drinks with my colleagues Eric and Tomas, being led around Eric’s home turf on a mini-tour of local pubs. This morning we went back to parlez in Brockley for a final celebratory birthday brunch, before introducing my mum to One Tree Hill and Horniman Gardens and trying to persuade her to imagine the amazing views which she would be able to see on a clearer day.
And, last but extremely not least… last night Randi and I livestreamed Catherine and AJ’s wedding from the-tornado-warning-has-now-been-lifted Chicago.
We’re extremely fortunate that during the pandemic we’ve never had to experience getting sick, or losing someone close to Covid, or losing our jobs, or working on a hospital ward, or being forced to suddenly be responsible for homeschooling, or any of the other staggeringly difficult things which other people have faced. So in that context, there’s no doubt that the saddest impact for us has been not getting to celebrate this wedding in person. Nevertheless, it made me really happy to be there virtually (top-notch microphones, by the way) and I am reassured that we will make up for it in the future 🙂