How not to go househunting in London: 2011 redux

August 29th, 2011 by Matt

If the blog’s been quiet the past few months, it’s been because of the pain of househunting. Again. Wasn’t it only a year ago we did this last?

I thought this time would be simple. We’d had the experience of coming to London like green little northern monkeys, couldn’t tell our Hackney from our Hampstead. By this point we’d been in the city for almost a year and were virtually Londoners ourselves now: breaking our fast with a refreshing pie ‘n’ mash each morning and cleaning chimneys all day long (this is what Londoners do, right?).

Of course, it was not quite to be.

The first shock of the process was the abrupt notice we had that our landlord was increasing our rent by £20 per week. We already felt it was too expensive, but this tipped the balance for us. As soon as we indicated this to the estate agent, Atkinson McLeod, they were quick to write to us telling us we needed to pay them to have the flat professionally cleaned once we left. Their letter indicated they’d arranged a “discounted rate” for this, at only £160. “One-sixty my arse”, I said. “We can do this ourselves for a tenner’s worth of cleaning products”. I turned out to be mostly right, but it also took two full days’ worth of work and more time scrubbing the inside of an oven than any human being should have to do.

But I digress. Before the joys of moving out came the joys of finding somewhere new to live.

We decided on Clapham as our next destination, something of an upgrade from Elephant & Castle. Also in the running were Highgate (ultimately ruled out as too expensive and tricky to find non-”apartment building” locations as opposed to good old fashioned “houses”), Bethnal Green (Maddy loves it but my heart wasn’t in it) and Kennington (hard to find places fitting our requirements). We booked some appointments, and the wild rumpus began.

The very first place we saw in Clapham was a weird mixture between perfection and hideousness. We stepped out of the estate agent’s car on a pretty little street near Clapham North tube. A decent-looking pub was across the road, and as we walked down the street we passed a bakery, a deli, and then a fabric/knitting shop. When Maddy saw these things she turned to face me with open-mouthed excitement. I smiled but tried to keep things low-key: let’s not get our hopes up too much I mentally cautioned, er, myself. Based on the street, it was, well, right up our street.

The estate agent carried on walking past the friendly shops until we passed a boarded-up bookmakers. Next to it was a dodgy-looking wooden fire door. Please don’t be this one, please don’t be this one we both thought, until she pulled the keys out of her pocket and began unlocking said door. We trooped in. The flat was ugly, totally not in keeping with the street outside, and was one of the most expensive ones we ended up viewing too. Great start.

A few more failed viewings later and we saw one we liked. Online it looked great – similar in size to our current flat, nice garden, lots of storage space. A little Google Maps work revealed that it was directly opposite an enormous tower block. Snobbery aside, it also looked pretty unaesthetically pleasing. Still, I was prepared to give it a look.

When we arrived for the viewing, another couple were there waiting outside. It seemed we were both being shown around. This must be ideal for the estate agent – they know they don’t even have to play the “I’ve shown four other people around this afternoon” card, as you’re acutely aware of the competition even as you’re sizing up the sash windows or whatever.

We walked out of the viewing and Maddy wanted us to sign up there and then. I urged caution and suggested we go home and do a bit of research. The area was a bit far out of Clapham North (more like Stockwell if you ask me) and the estate agents gave me bad vibes somehow. Over the course of the evening though Maddy wore me down and in the morning I phoned up to make an offer.

That was short-lived, though. They called back and said the other couple had made a counter-offer. Would we be able to go higher than 18 months? We didn’t want to go for more than a year, just in case. We said no and that was that.

There was one place we saw in Balham that looked really nice – lots of space and well decorated. We put an offer in. The estate agent was the aforementioned Atkinson McLeod, our current estate agent. Better the devil you know, I guess? How wrong I was.

Atkinson McLeod charge a £400 fee simply to “take the property off the market”. This is deducted from your deposit when you pay it, but you still need to pay it upfront to make a formal offer on a flat. Some of my work colleagues were astounded that you now have to make offers on places purely for rental, so for those not in the know: you’re expected to state your rental offer (eg do you attempt to haggle on the rent, or go with the landlord’s asking price?) and the time period of the rental, and see if the landlord accepts.

This £400 fee doesn’t guarantee you anything: the landlord can still say no, and if so, you get it back. You can’t back out without losing it, though. We were shown around the flat in question with another couple, and were very conscious of being beaten to the punch again.

The sales rep showing us around was a young guy in his early 20s who looked like he was quite new to the job. He showed us round well enough, but when we got back to the office to do the paperwork, he messed things up a few times. On the first document he asked me to sign he listed the rent at £200 more than it was supposed to be. I pointed this out and he corrected it, then on the second attempt I noticed the deposit cost was wrong too. Third time around, the total (deposit + rent) was added up wrong. By this point he’d called me over to his computer to verify the amounts before he printed it, and I half felt like saying “£100 a month rent, that sounds about right, doesn’t it?” and seeing if he went with it.

By this point his angry boss had showed up in the office and angrily bossed him around, shouting at him in front of us for getting it wrong. A bit embarrassed, we signed the papers and got out of there.

Two days later we get a phone call. The landlord wants an 18 month rental and more rent than we’d offered. We said no, then had to wait a week for the £400 to be back in my account. Always fun. Another “plus” of the Atkinson McLeod contracts is what I like to call their “arbitrary fee”. This is the “administrative costs” or similar that these companies append to your contract costs. Atkinson McLeod were the only company we saw where this fee was a variable: one week’s rent. Everywhere else it was a flat fee. I wanted to ask our young sales rep about this: if we managed to negotiate £50 off the week’s rent, how come the admin fee magically becomes smaller? Does that £50 require just an extra bit more work to process? I had a feeling this would mangle his brain, so didn’t bring it up.

To top this story off, when we phoned back a few days later to check the status of the offer, we asked for our sales rep. “Alex doesn’t work here any more”, we were bluntly told. It’s a harsh world.

This story does have a happy ending, though. Eventually we saw a flat just off Clapham Common. It was smaller than our current place, but characterful and nicely finished, and in a great location. The estate agents, Hamptons, didn’t set off any warning bells, and all their dealings with us before and after were great (no “arbitrary fee” rate, no paying for anything just to make an offer). We’re all moved in thanks to some help from some fantastic friends (Dave, Sean, Moritz and Camilla, to name but four) and we’re loving it.

But what’s this year’s lesson? Well, estate agents are basically scum, or at least, liars, cheats and thieves. Don’t let them mess you around even when you think you know what you’re doing, and if something smells dodgy, it probably is.


Lesson 12: The ever-changing city

May 17th, 2011 by Matt

It’s been, as ever, a busy few months in London. Royal weddings, massive protest marches, bomb scares and more. My blogging’s been inversely frequent, too – one thing I’ve found since moving to the capital is that free time is a hugely important premium. The fact that there are so many exciting and interesting things going on means it’s often daunting to work out how to spend your spare moments.

One familiar fallback for such difficult decisions is the good old pub. Alone for the weekend after the lady was out of town, I decided to pay my first visit to the CAMRA real ale pub of the year 2011 – a little unassuming-looking place in Covent Garden called The Harp.

Famous for its array of ales and sausages, it’s a small but perfectly-formed boozer. Prices were reasonable and the beer selection was impressive. But I digress – I’m not Time Out. I spent a pleasant few hours reading my book (more on this later) and being recommended drinks by the helpful bar staff.

I walked home just before midnight, thinking that a trip alongside London’s most famous landmarks would be an inspiring end to the evening. I passed Leicester Square, Trafalgar Square, the Strand, the Mall, Downing Street, Westminster Abbey, Parliament and finally Big Ben himself. Crossing the river I heard the clock chime midnight and paused for a moment to just enjoy the moment. Thinking cheerfully to myself “I love living in London”, I proceeded across the bridge.

Upon reaching the other side I came upon a large group of what I took to be tourists, speaking with American accents. I got to the very end of the bridge and saw a bobbing row of heads, all in a line, at about the height of my hip. Looking at this strange arrangement as I walked past, I realised it was five or six of the American tourists – all girls wearing fancy-looking dresses. Before I had time to wonder what they were doing I noticed the dark, fast-moving streams of liquid rushing down the hill from where they squatted to where I was walking. As the nearest one to me crowed “I’M WINNING!” I realised they were all hitching their dresses up and pissing in a kind of drunken (I hope) race. Dodging the streams and unable to contain a “oh fuck, no”, I carried on walking home, shaking my head.

London’s never what it seems. You can spend hours wandering the streets in the City or the West End admiring its architecture, history and sense of authority. Step round one more corner, though, and you’ll find its beating heart, exposed in all its brutality, humanity, raucousness and, well, piss. I love it.

Lessons Learned in the USA

April 1st, 2011 by Matt

Note: This is a kind of ‘guest post’ where I compare my recent (first-time!) visit to the USA to London. Enjoy!

It was with no small feeling of excitement that I boarded the plane for my first long-haul flight one morning at Heathrow. Despite being subjected to such a barrage of security questions before boarding that I couldn’t keep a straight face and wanted to shout “PASS!”, Mastermind-style, I had got through security and was somehow being escorted onto a plane to America. How did this happen?

The flight would take ten hours and would speed me to Austin, Texas – home to the 25 year old South By South West (SXSW) festival, covering music, film and “interactive”, which I was going there for as part of my job as a web developer at

I snagged a window seat and spent most of the flight craning my neck to see the world unfold below me. The route went north from London all the way up to Iceland, then unbelievably (for me, anyway) passed the tip of Greenland and flew over Canada all the way down to Texas.

When I noticed the onscreen display indicating the plane was about to reach Greenland I was basically glued to the window, gasping like a little kid at the absolute majesty of the mountain ranges of ice below us as the sea turned into glaciers and echoing valleys. It was fascinating to see a place I’ll almost certainly never get to visit in the flesh, and I was almost ready to go home contented just after that.

Upon arriving in Dallas for my connection to Austin I had to make a speedy run through the airport, marvelling as I did about that fact that I was in America. The first thing to greet me were escalators everywhere, for even the shortest distance. I got through security with minimal fuss and was soon on the 30 minute flight to Austin, which barely registered after the 10 hour marathon of earlier.

I arrived in Austin a little exhausted – local time was 6 hours behind so it was 8pm, but for me more like 2am. I reached the hotel and, inevitably, my credit card was declined. Worse, my two work colleagues, whose flights were a few hours earlier than mine, hadn’t arrived. Sleep deprived and exhausted, I asked to pay for the first night on my debit card (which, thankfully, worked) and hit the sheets. In the morning I called HSBC USA and eventually made it through to a Scottish man whose voice I was unimaginably excited to hear after half an hour to American machines. He fixed the security errors and I was financially solvent once more.

By this point it was off to the conference itself to register and figure out the location. I’ll spare you the nitty gritty detail of the talks and meetups I went to as they’re already well-documented on the blog I kept for work, but you can read those here. What follows now are some more general thoughts on the experience that is the USA, in handy list form.

America is big.
This one sounds obvious and seems like a no-brainer, but seeing it from the air helps to cement it: enormous expanses of wide open spaces, the odd farm or ranch breaking up the fields and lakes. After 8 months in London it was refreshing not see people filling up every conceivable space with housing.

And planned.
Well, perhaps not the scattered towns and shacks, but the cities are grids, perfect grids. Seen from above it’s almost like looking at a circuit board or something with perpendicular rows and columns of streets and houses. Compared to the gloriously anarchic structure of London’s streets, it was positively straightforward.

And it’s bigger.
Cars. They’re enormous. I saw so many pickup trucks and jeeps looking powerful enough to drive up a vertical wall that it became second nature. Roads were vast and enormous, with barely any pedestrians walking in favour of driving. Food was another increase in size: every portion of everything was enormous. Even bottled Pepsi is another 50% bigger than at home. It was usually cheaper too.

Food (this gets its own point too) is gloriously decadent.
On my final night in Austin we visited a hotdog bar and were given a basket of chocolate-coated bacon and cookies. Earlier in the week I’d eaten a pulled pork sandwich with fries that fed a whole group of us. BBQ was the order of the day and there were entire chains of restaurants dedicated to single desserts (pancakes, waffles, crepes). Street food was huge too, with vans operating out of car parks selling amazing and far-flung produce.

It’s friendly.
People occasionally seemed curious of us and our British ways, but they were always happy to please. That cliched image of the American service industry - with its “have a nice day sir!” and service with a smile – isn’t fictional and exists in apparently irony-free form. I can’t begin to imagine sandwich sellers or baristas greeting me with the level of fresh-faced enthusiasm and welcoming that I saw here. Secondly, we hired a pedicab ride to visit friends and found the driver, a long-haired anarchist squatter, hailing local families as he passed with a “how y’all doing?” which they warmly returned. Imagine that on the streets of Soho.

Television is insane.
TV news has ad breaks seemingly every few minutes, and those adverts are exercises in the unreal. They’re exactly the kind of thing you think they are – sugary, stock photo-esque imagery, with pretty smiling nurses telling you about “Expensicon, the brand new wonder drug that helps people like you. For just three easy payments of $33.95 you’ll see improvements in your skin, your libido and your dog.
Expensicon may result in unwanted growth of limbs and should not be used by pregnant women, children under 12 or people called Gary.” TV news is similarly bizarre, with a Fox News anchor repeatedly (and apparently seriously) referring to mysterious “loony left-wing liberals” claiming Obama’s health reforms were a work of good. Every news event was reported in terms of its impact on America – the Japanese earthquake was flagged as having potential risk for some American warships at sea nearby. Perhaps this happens equally frequently at home and I just don’t notice, but it seemed unnecessary. One news reporter had to physically demonstrate how long 8 feet was by running and gesturing across the studio, which seemed oddly patronising.

Public transport seems to be fairly underused.
The Amtrak train station I boarded from in Austin was on the outskirts of the city and was basically a single waiting room. Obviously New York has its famous Grand Central, but perhaps in some places, the train is just seen as the reserve of the poor and infirm. A voice on the intercom earlier apologised for the ‘crowded’ train – I wanted to show them a commuter train in London. There were seats spare and everything on this monster two-story beast. The train tracks by the station, incidentally, were at street level with no fence or barrier preventing people from getting close to the enormous freight train laden with steel containers which passed through before my train arrived. That said, the CTA (Chicago’s equivalent of the tube) runs 24 hours and is one price ($2.20, I believe), one ride – wish it was the same back home.

There are vast acres of absolutely nothing.
On our (1000 mile) drive from Dallas, Texas to Chicago, Illinois, we passed pretty much nothing of interest, besides a few towns, the city of St Louis and the Mississippi river. Just miles and miles of highways (which, interestingly, were mostly unlit, relying solely on car headlamps to illuminate the road at night) and fields. Tiny towns flashed by as we drove, and fairly frequent sightings of American flags and “GOD BLESS AMERICA” on random billboards were sighted. Roadside attractions abound; we stopped off at ‘The Candy Factory’ and ‘The World’s Biggest Gift Store’ for petrol and passed ‘The World’s Biggest Rocking Chair’ en route to Chicago.

Convenience is king.
Austin had drive-through banks, and apparently in Las Vegas there were drive-through alcohol shops. Booze was also sold in petrol stations (fairly sure we don’t do that here) and there were off licenses on the highways themselves, which seemed to me like asking for trouble.

Even the exotic stuff is Americanised.
We ate at a place called the Flat Top Grill in Chicago where you fill bowls with predominantly Chinese/Thai raw ingredients (veg, meat, sauces, etc) and take them to a chef who stir fries them on the spot for you. Mixed in amid the beansprouts and teriyaki sauce were things like grated cheese and mayo – those famous south Asian condiments. Obviously you have to give the people what they want, but I found this bizarre even in a fusion food context.

Roads are occasionally unfathomable.
Drivers edge menacingly toward you as you cross on a green light (which is white, not green, for pedestrians) and they’re legally allowed to turn right on red lights while stopped, which can be confusing. My London instincts were telling me to ‘jaywalk’ frequently but I had to learn to stop doing this after annoying one too many drivers.

While I’m busy pointing out the differences, and trying not to be a poncy European mocking our American cousins, I actually had a fantastic time. The USA is an amazing country, if not only for its scale, and I met some incredible people, ate some jaw-achingly-good food, drank some surprisingly decent beers and saw some all-round cool shit. I’m not quite sure I’d swap it for London – I got a little nostalgic for old buildings and rubbish weather – but it’s certainly a sight to see.

My overall conclusion was that the USA is most definitely the ‘land of opportunity’ – it’s just that not every opportunity should be taken. Like eating a basket full of chocolate-coated bacon, for example.

Lesson 11: London’s not just a city

January 23rd, 2011 by Matt

Just before the end of last year I got myself a shiny new bike: the Trek 1.1 C 2011.

I’d been hankering after a proper road bike for a while now and with the winter snow all gone, it was time to put it (and me) through its paces properly. I commute to work on it, but my journey is only three miles each way and takes 15 minutes – it’s not quite the workout I need with my extra Christmas weight. Something more challenging was needed.

Enter Highgate Hill. I’d heard it mentioned before with some trepidation by walkers and cyclists alike. This Guardian article highlighted it for me, and I reckoned it was just the test for my new bike.

I set off this morning into a fairly muggy London to see what I could do. London traffic is always quieter on Sundays, to the point where cycling on the roads isn’t quite as painful as it can be normally (in terms of crowdedness). I made my way up to Kentish Town tube station where the road to the hill begins.

The Guardian article had primed me for the experience with the sentence “after the gentle leg-stretcher of a ride up Highgate Road from Kentish Town station, you are suddenly on a hill you won’t forget in a hurry”. These words quickly rang true as I started my first “hard” ride since moving away from Yorkshire. Grunting and grimacing I tried to avoid standing on the pedals as much as I could, heaving my way upwards. London’s not really known for its hills so this is why Highgate is famous. On the way up I passed a few other cyclists whizzing past down the hill, but none going up it. A few joggers were half walking, half jogging along the final stretch, where it steepens to an even higher grade than the previous part.

Long story short, in about ten minutes I climbed it and reached the top, slightly confused because I misremembered a work colleague telling me the pub “The Flask” was halfway up (it’s actually at the top). I rode around for a few more minutes trying to find the rest of the hill, then realised I’d done it and turned, euphoric, to zoom back down. Before I departed I noted the weird but beautiful petrol station at the top:

It was ornately decorated and didn’t look like a petrol station, more like a boutique shop or someone’s house. Very cool. Highgate itself was nice too, almost felt like a Yorkshire spa town in parts. Another reason I love London – the sheer mixture of locations, all in one city.

Anyway – soon it was time to zoom (carefully) back down the hill. I had my hands on the brake levers all the way down – the hill has speed bumps which aren’t much fun at speed, and a couple of corners that might be risky to attempt to negotiate at 30mph+. The graph below shows my elevation (green) and speed (blue), with the elevation peaking (no pun intended) at 430 feet  and speed at 33mph. I’ll be up to do it again sometime very soon, perhaps approaching from a different side.

Today’s lesson? Love London for its variety. Even if you get bored of the white knuckle adrenaline rush of cycling through the centre of the city, you’ve still got green, gorgeous streets and hills to challenge your legs with, if you’re brave/foolish enough.

Lesson 10: New Year in London

January 18th, 2011 by Matt

It was with some trepidation, but mainly excitement, that I approached New Years’ Eve in London.

We’d decided quite a while back that we’d like to stay in London for NYE 2010, passing over our other options of Merseyside, Nottingham and Brighton. For years I’d seen the epic Thames fireworks on TV and thought that given how close we are to the river, it would be a crying shame not to give it a look at least once.

The informed opinion amongst ever-cyncical Londoners seemed to be to avoid the river and the fireworks like the plague. Tales abounded of unlucky punters stuck in alleyways between streets, unable to move for the crowds and spending their NYE alongside industrial wastebins and grimy warehouse walls. Other people talked about the ridiculous queues, inability to see anything, and badly-behaved crowds. With this in mind I was starting to regret inviting four of my friends to come down and spend the weekend with us.

As it turned out, we needn’t have worried. We made plans to eat after work and head up to the river after a few drinks at the flat. This almost proved tricky in itself: my friends were driving down from Nottingham and it took them an hour just to travel the few miles from Hyde Park to Kennington, so busy was the traffic into London on NYE.

Once we were ready to go, we headed out for the river sometime between 8:30 and 9:00 pm. The streets were busy but not crazy and we comfortably made our way to Westminster Bridge, finding a neat spot alongside the London Eye and in view of Big Ben himself.

Admittedly, this meant we were three hours early for the big event, but we’d sneakily brought some DIY drinks (no glass was allowed, so we poured a bottle of whiskey into a 2 litre bottle of coke, and passed it around subversively). McDonalds was inexplicably open so some of us sloped off for some dirty chicken nuggets. This took less time than the queue for the toilets, which was about 45 mins by our estimates.

The atmosphere was quite exciting – the crowd was buzzing and TV helicopters were passing by frequently. There was music playing somewhere on the northern side of the river and some inane DJ banter, but we couldn’t really hear it  (and didn’t care).

Soon it was approaching midnight – the crowd began to get worked up into a frenzy. Apparently the bridge was closed off at both ends, so perhaps if we’d been foolish enough to try to get there after 11, we might have experienced the frustrations other people had warned us of.

Finally the countdown came and although, disappointingly, we couldn’t hear Big Ben over the roar of the crowd, the wonder of the fireworks made up for everything. I don’t normally care for fireworks – seen one, seen them all. In this case I was proven wrong as the show was incredible – the end was so seriously over the top I half expected the Eye to explode. This BBC video puts it better than I can, although bear in mind it was filmed from directly opposite the Eye, whereas we were stood directly to the right of it (from the angle of the video). Still, we were about as close as we could get to the fireworks themselves, which was awesome.

So what’s the lesson here? Well, the same as everything else I’ve learned about London so far: figure it out for yourself and don’t just believe what you’re told. Don’t leave it too late, but don’t stress too much about it. As long as you’re with friends and having fun, the location’s not that important anyway. Although those fireworks were pretty damned cool…

Lesson 9: Ignore the signs

November 4th, 2010 by Matt

The last few weeks have taught me one crucial lesson in settling into London: don’t follow the rules.

I’m not condoning a dramatic live-outside-the-law lifestyle here, but rather a slightly more pragmatic approach to signs, reminders and customs. In no specific order, here are the rules you can break.

The tube is a major case of questionable ‘rules’. Too often it’s crammed with visitors and newbies trying to navigate it and it’s usually a challenge to read a map or sign while six hundred impatient travellers are pushing you along. With that in mind, Transport for London (TfL) put signage up around the stations aiming to herd you, cattle-like, in less-than-efficient directions. Case in point: when I enter Kings Cross underground station from the mainline entrance, a large sign points to the right, telling me the Northern Line is that way. For a month I blindly followed this sign, angry at the length of time it took to reach the platform when compared to how quickly I could get from the platform back up to ground level.

It was then that I realised I could simply walk against the crowd and reach the other entrance to the Northern Line from the main station area. Sure, TfL don’t want you to go this way in peak time. But it’s open and available and gets you to the train several minutes quicker. This is common to any of the larger stations and every time you unquestioningly follow a sign, you’re being fed into the tourist trap, while all the locals walk past you like salmon swimming upstream, heading for the (hopefully grizzly bear free) stations ahead.

Still on the tube, some of the stations can only be reached by lifts (including my nearest station, Elephant & Castle). Once again, you’re herded into a large elevator like cattle (a pattern emerges) – you enter from one side and exit from the other, even though the platform is in the opposite direction. It was only when I noticed one cheeky punter turn and exit the lift from the ‘wrong’ direction that I realised the fallacy in walking all the way back around. Obviously there’s the risk of irritating the people about to enter the lift by leaving from their entrance and not your exit, but hey – you’ll get to the platform first. Commuting on the tube is an every-man-for-himself process – a thirty second headstart can make all the difference.

Lastly, a lesson learned the hard way. Maddy and I were waiting for a bus down the Old Kent Road to do our weekly food shop. The bus turned up, we got on, and were abruptly told to exit two stops later when a voiceover said “This bus’s destination has changed. It will now terminate here”. No warning, no refund, and we had to wait for another one (and pay again). Not much you can do to avoid this one, but at least knowing it’s a possibility in advance will mean you won’t look as confused as we did when it happens.

On the subject – when a London bus pulls up, if it’s a “bendy bus” with two entrances, both doors open. In some of the ones I’ve seen, the second set of doors (away from the driver) sometimes don’t have a scanner for your Oyster card like the main door does. I’m baffled about how this works and have a feeling that unscrupulous travellers simply board the bus at this entrance and get off again without paying. We were on a bus this weekend where an inspector came around scanning people’s cards, but this was on a quiet Sunday morning bus. Anything in the rush hour after work has barely any space for passengers, let alone inspectors, so you’re probably fine to risk riding for free.

So, keep an eye on how you’re being controlled, and don’t forget that not every sign or timetable is as accurate as you think it is, either. If they can lie to you, you’re allowed to bend the rules. Within reason.

Some lessons in brief and a run in with a mouse

October 5th, 2010 by Matt

After a slight hiatus, it’s time to resume blogging – apologies! Today’s entry is a mixed bag, a bit like London itself, really. Without further ado, let’s begin.

Three Mini Lessons

London has been an interesting place over the past month. We’ve had the Sky Ride, a city-wide cycling fest with over 80,000 riders enjoying the capital’s most famous sights and streets, all with the comfort of knowing road traffic was banned for the duration. I headed down with Maddy and although we didn’t catch sight of Boris Johnson or Kelly Brook (who were leading the event), it was pretty awesome being part of London’s cycling community (a community bigger than the population of other cities). In this mini-lesson, I can only implore you to literally get on yer bike. Being part of stuff like this is great fun and experiencing the city above ground, in the open air, is the only way to really see it. Cramming yourself into sweaty tube carriages and crowded buses is an ugly alternative – get cycling.

We also had the Thames Festival a week later. This was a weekend-long party lining the banks of the river, with hundreds of world food stalls, little craft shops, performers, dancers, etc. The highlight for us was the closed-off Southwark Bridge with a ‘feast’ laid out – tables lined the entire bridge and people were wandering around offering packets of seeds for your garden, free fruit originally destined for landfill sites, and bales of hay scattered around. The atmosphere was amazing and it was thrilling to feel the sense of culture and creativity going on. Mini-lesson here: ignore the haters who tell you London is full of grumpy people and mean, nasty locals.

One thing that did bring out the grumps was the recent tube strikes, though. These are a fairly irregular occurrence but are enough to prompt crisis-laden headlines in the press suggesting the capital will “grind to a halt” without the public transport. The first one a few weeks back was worse than the more recent one just yesterday, which only managed to shut down around 60% of the lines. The previous one forced many Londoners to work out new routes to work, so pavements were packed with reluctant walkers and bike lanes with nervous new cyclists. Traffic was gridlocked which made weaving in and out of cars on my bike a little more challenging, but overall it simply served to reiterate my first lesson once more: get on yer bike.

Lessons with Rodents

It was with mild horror a week ago that I heard the sound of Maddy, my girlfriend, screaming “ohmygod ohmygod OHMYGOD” from the kitchen. I ran inside, half expecting to find her with my surprisingly-sharp cleaver knife wedged into her wrist. “I JUST SAW A MOUSE!” she shrieked, pointing towards the microwave in the corner of the kitchen. I immediately closed the kitchen door and approached the corner gingerly, arming myself with a plastic container to trap the unwanted rodent in.

After poking around in the corner it became apparent the mouse wasn’t there. “Are you sure you saw a mouse?” I asked Maddy for the fifth time, pacing the room. I ended up on my hands and knees, exploring a gap in the boards under the kitchen cupboards with my bike light for illumination. None the wiser, I decided to construct a humane trap for our unwanted visitor.

The trap I came up with, dubbed “The Greasy Bowl”, was a thing of genius. Grab a large glass kitchen bowl. Grease the sides with butter, oil, or anything suitably slippery. Place a tasty morsel of food inside the bowl (we went with ham). Place the bowl somewhere easily-accessible (kitchen floor for us) and place a strategically-positioned cardboard ramp on the floor leading up the bowl. The result? Mouse walks up the ramp to eat the tasty meat; falls inside the bowl; eats the meat; belatedly discovers it is unable to climb out of the concave, slippery bowl. Problem solved!

I went to bed giddy like a child, straining my ears for the inevitable greasy squeak I soon expected from the kitchen. I woke up like a kid at Christmas, running into the kitchen to unwrap my present: a mouse in a greased bowl. Sadly, the little creature had outwitted me: the bowl was rodentless. I took some consolation from the fact that the ham was still there – either the trap was too insultingly simple for even a mouse and he chose not to risk it, or the mouse was scared away by Maddy’s screams (her theory), never to return.

Either way, the lesson here is obvious: keep an eye on bits of food that didn’t quite make it into the bin (we’ve all thought “screw it, I’ll pick it up later”) or crumbs and packaging left lying around. These things add up and soon you can end up with a serious vermin problem. Luckily for us, we’ve seen no more signs of our whiskered nemesis, but it may only be a matter of time before he and I are forced to battle intellectually once more in a very literal game of cat and mouse. You have been warned.

Lesson 8: Don’t believe the hype

September 5th, 2010 by Matt

While reading my favourite British liberal newspaper (no plug intended) this Saturday, I was struck by a feature entitled “Let’s Not Move To…”, rounding up the UK’s worst places to live, as defined by their movie depictions. For example, the town of Thamesmead was listed for its inclusion in A Clockwork Orange.

It was with some sadness that I turned the page to discover this:

Elephant & Castle

You’re kidding.

Where to start? This is the place where Britain got broken: see Harry Brown, The Disappeared, Children Of Men etc. It makes Escape From New York look like In The Night Garden.

“On the Northern and Bakerloo underground lines, and within easy reach of both the City and the West End, it is shaking off its former seedy image.” (

The entire area is one gigantic, labyrinthine housing estate – all graffiti-covered walls, underlit walkways and boarded-up windows. Oh, and it’s patrolled by gangs of vicious hoodie monsters. Don’t even think about hugging them!

The Heygate Estate is about to be demolished, but you can get a two-bedroom ex-local authority flat nearby for £170,000.

Um, there’s the underpasses. Did we tell you about the graffiti?

Tomorrow’s dystopia today!

Full article

Just to clarify, Elephant & Castle is the district of London I call home.

Now, let’s be clear here: I’m not looking at E&C with rose-tinted glasses. It’s not upmarket, particularly beautiful, or overly friendly. I know this. On the other hand, it’s not the hideous hell-hole that Guardian journalists are suggesting, either.

It seems this is a theme. Restaurant critic Jay Rayner criticises Elephant in his review of a local restaurant:

“There are many things I would not be surprised to get in the Elephant and Castle: run over, say, or a nasty, suppurating skin condition. The Elephant and Castle is somewhere you go en route to somewhere else, unless you live there, in which case you are also trying to get to somewhere else.”

- Jay Rayner (full article)

Once again, London snobbery comes into play. Anywhere ‘south of the river’ is instantly deemed to be under gang control, riddled with drive-by shootings, drug dealers, prostitution and those ghastly foreigners. Now, all of those things exist here. They also exist in North London. And West London. And East London. And pretty much everywhere else that isn’t, say, Shropshire.

So why the snobbery? I think it’s because it’s trendy for self-satisfied smug Londoners to look down on places like Elephant. Its fall from grace (Wikipedia suggests it was once a central London hub) makes it an easy target for mockery. Its enormous roundabouts and eyesore housing estates have made it the butt of jokes. The fact that Southwark Council are removing the roundabouts (and the subways the Guardian mentions), and have almost completely rehoused the tenants of the Heygate estate is left forgotten in this criticism.

So what if I was to have read this article before moving here? Would it have changed my mind about the place? Probably not, but I might have been more concerned. I’d be lying if I said the area was 100% safe and filled me with joy every time I looked at it, but it also has its perks:

  • Great transport links to the rest of London – you’re in Zone 1 and it’s cheap to get anywhere else.
  • Major landmarks (London Eye, Westminster, Tower Bridge, Borough Market) are all within a 15-20 minute walk away.
  • Local markets offer a real chance to try out world foods and cultures without the glossy sheen of the safe, gentrified versions more common in upmarket areas
  • Outside of the roundabouts and shopping centre, the rest of the area has some pretty streets of Victorian houses and some gorgeous buildings (the Tabernacle, the Imperial War Museum, St Mary-at-Lambeth Church).

Today’s lesson is as follows: don’t believe the hype. See a place for yourself. Get a feel for it and decide if you could call it home. Londoners are a proud bunch and want to convince everyone that their particular area is close to the tube without heavy traffic, vibrant and cultural without gangs and drugs, and small and friendly without being dead and boring. News flash: these places don’t exist. Everywhere has its flaws, just like journalists wanting to single out places for the sake of comedy.

Lesson 7: Late-night London

August 28th, 2010 by Matt

After a busy couple of weeks I was due to chill out on this long bank holiday weekend and relax. An impromptu meetup with some more of the aforementioned nerds came up on Friday, so after work I headed down to Barrio in Soho, just off Oxford Street.

I hadn’t been into this part of London yet and found myself physically expressing my frustration at some of the people wandering down the street that evening. As Europe’s busiest shopping street it’s certainly got a reputation for being busy, but that didn’t excuse random groups of people seemingly attempting to block as many people as possible from walking past by standing stock-still in the middle of the pavement.

But I digress (as usual). Once at the bar things were slightly less busy and I was able to grab a drink and meet people.

After we’d all had a beer or two, several things happened:

  • A woman wearing a Vedett (fancy Belgian beer) tshirt came over with a camera and took photos of each of us individually
  • The same woman returned minutes later with Vedett keyrings with our faces printed on them
  • One of the guys bought a tray of shots for everyone

In the confusion I ended up being given one of the two leftover shots. A few more beers later and the Vedett woman was back. This time she took the photos, and literally 10 seconds after leaving the table, a guy came over clutching half a dozen bottles of Vedett, also with our faces printed on them. Free! That’s good (and logistically impressive) marketing.

Another tray of shots followed. You can see where this is going. Again, some were leftover, and we drew keyrings to see who would have them. I won (lost?), bringing my total to 4 shots, 1 free Vedett (almost 6% ABV) and several bottles of beer.

I’m hardly a heavyweight drinker and this was more than enough for me. On an empty stomach I began to feel that dreaded sensation where you pass from heady drunkenness and into the clouding nausea of being, well, battered.

Needless to say I was soon getting acquainted with the toilets of the bar. After performing a technicolour yawn or two I managed to stumble out, instruct my just-arrived girlfriend to grab my stuff for me, and staggered my way up the stairs and back onto the street.

I felt so rough that I just wanted to sit and sober up, but Maddy (the long-suffering girlfriend) wanted us to get home. I was in no state for the tube and instead she suggested a taxi. Barely aware of my surroundings I managed to wobble my way into a taxi and hang out of the window trying to avoid soiling the cab. I know, I know, I’m the classiest guy alive.

I have no further recollections about the night but can only assume we got home okay. I woke up this morning feeling horrific, but before I get to that, let’s talk about travelling late at night in the capital.

Back in Leeds I was able to walk pretty much everywhere. The city is compact enough that most places are near to each other, and even a late night missed-the-last-bus encounter could be solved if you didn’t mind a mile or two on foot. London’s not quite the same. It’s one thing wandering it by day and discovering hidden corners of interest, but quite another walking its underlit streets at nighttime when its citizens descend upon it in droves. People litter the streets everywhere and there’s music and traffic and, well, everything, going on all around you. Not to mention that any city gets scarier after dark, especially one you’re still getting used to.

The tube, of course, makes this easier, but most lines tend to end around midnight or just after, so I’m told. If you want to stay out on a late night bender (I didn’t), the night buses are your friends. Keeping conscious is the trick though – an unfortunate friend of mine nodded off on one recently and was pulled half-awake off the bus as some guys stole his phone.

And so we come back to the taxi. We’d made the controversial decision to try to get a taxi “south of the river” – the fabled land of crime and gangs that taxi drivers are famed for avoiding. Ours seemed happy enough to drive us there (about 3 miles), but charged us a kingly £30 for the privilege. Yes, that’s £30, three-zero. One benefit to my being absolutely out of it: Maddy paid.

Now obviously some of that was the driver’s salesman instincts: he could clearly see that I was going nowhere otherwise and that I needed to get home – we would have paid anything really. It was probably also apparent that we’re still new to London, so perhaps a more seasoned local could have got a much fairer price on the trip. Still, that’s what this blog is all about… I’ve learned my lesson.

After staggering out of bed this morning, still uncertain on my feet, I realised we had to head down to the nearest Post Office depot to collect a package. Cue Maddy and I attempting to grab a bus down there. “This one goes down the Old Kent Road, but the map doesn’t say where it goes after that”, Maddy told me as a bus approached. We got on, paid £2 each for some reason, then three stops later were unceremoniously ejected. It turned out that the map didn’t say where it went next because it terminated there. Oops.

As we walked into the industrial park where the depot was, both grey-faced and still nauseous from hangovers, we caught the unmistakable whiff of fish. Rounding the corner we passed some sort of fish storage depot, with vans pulling up to unload the day’s catch.

As we fought to keep our breakfasts down and tried to forget about the £30 hole in our wallets, one thought kept me positive: At least I’d have a new lesson learned in London to blog about.

Lesson 6: Getting out of London

August 23rd, 2010 by Matt

The philosopher Janet Jackson taught the world many things, but foremost amongst her lessons was this gem:

Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got ’till it’s gone

With that in mind, we arrive at our sixth lesson: getting out of London for a bit.

It’s been hard for me to stand back and admire London, a bit like a new portrait on your living room wall. This is partly due to being ‘in’ London constantly – imagine standing directly in front of your new Van Gogh and staring at the paintwork. Sometimes you have to step back a bit and look at, well, the bigger picture.

Colossus supercomputer at Bletchley ParkSlightly forced analogies aside, what I’m getting at is that it’s good to get away for a while to contextualise everything. I was invited to a wedding back in Leeds over the weekend, although before that, I was busy attending Bletchley Park – the site of the World War 2 Enigma machine codebreakers – on a work day out. This involved boarding a northbound train and passing through the exotically-named environs of Hemel Hempstead and Leighton Buzzard. It was almost disconcerting seeing London’s tower blocks and stonework replace itself with fields and grassy plains, barely twenty minutes out of the centre.

The park/museum itself was fantastic for computer nerds, but I digress. The rest of the weekend was spent back in Leeds. It felt a little odd disembarking from the coach into the city I’d moved out of less than a month before, but it hadn’t changed much and it felt quite ‘safe’ to be back. We knew everywhere and getting around was faster and simpler. That said, it also felt a bit ‘junior’ – like a kind of “my first city” children’s toy. While it was quite a breath of fresh air to walk down streets that weren’t teeming with people (particularly the slow-walking variety), it also felt frustratingly quiet and inactive by comparison.

Still, all this brings me back to my earlier point: arriving back in London at the end of the weekend felt completely right. Crawling alongside Hyde Park and Marble Arch in a National Express coach saw me pressing my nose to the window with the kind of eagerness that London filled me with upon visiting it before moving there. A few days away was all it took for it to fill me with curiosity and excitement all over again.

Today’s lesson? Get away from it all for a bit; get a feel for the world outside of the 24 hour city again. But then come back to London and be thankful that all the shops here don’t close at 4pm on a Sunday.