A man, a bicycle, and a flippin’ massive vase: why Londoners should look more

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This morning I saw a middle-aged man speeding on a Boris bike through Covent Garden, one hand on the handlebars, the other clutching a giant ceramic vase.

I was quite impressed that a) he could physically hold the gargantuan urn with one hand, b) that despite being weighed down on one side, he maintained an upright posture and rapid, straight-line cycling, and c) that no one seemed to bat an eyelid, or register that this was quite an unusual thing to see on a Monday morning.

London is so full of bizarre and downright insane sights, people, events and instances that perhaps we are all somewhat immune to the oddities that confront us in our day to day city lives. Were this man to be cycling through, say, the cobbled streets of Cambridge, I expect he would have got a number of odd looks, a couple of comments on the cyclist’s strength and expertise, or an out-loud questioning at what exactly he is doing.

Of course, if we Londoners were to look up and wonder aloud at every out-of -the ordinary sight, we wouldn’t get anything done. Maybe, then, just expecting to see slightly odd things, and learning to ignore them, is the way forward.

But then we do miss an awful lot. Stuck in our city bubbles, head in phone, eyes down, headphones in, so many of the quirky parts of London pass us by. I didn’t see one pedestrian turn to look at Vase Man (as he will be know from now on). Perhaps a cycling coach could have noticed his prowess, and signed him up to the GB team, or maybe an antiques expert would have recognsied the million pound urn in his hand.

Ok – so Vase Man is just one example, but I think it’s about time we all started looking around and absorbing the quirks and features of our incredible capital.

We walk by people and places every day without even noticing them. On Oxford Street, there is a particular Big Issue seller who, in between shouting the name of the paper in attempt to sell a few copies, asks ‘will anyone acknowledge me?’

In my experience, anyone rarely does. They walk by, stuck in their city bubbles, heads in phones, eyes down, headphones in, so that when we could actually make a difference, it passes us by.

Freelancing? Studying? These London cafes have fab coffee and super wifi

If you’re on the lookout for somewhere to caffeinate and get productive, check out these wifi offering, coffee brewing locations in central London.

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Ah, the freelancer lifestyle. The freedom to work from the comfort of your bed, donning last night’s PJs with a cuppa in hand. Sometimes, though, that just isn’t productive. As a student and writer, I can work pretty much anywhere (except when ancient tomes and obscure books mean the library is my only choice).

The question that has been dumbfounding London millienials since, well, ever, is where exactly to set up shop and get a few hours decent work done. Wifi is obviously a major factor, as is the quality of the coffee – caffeine is, after all, the fuel to all productivity – and a plug, chilled atmosphere and comfy chairs are all things to consider.

If you’re mooching around central on the lookout for an oasis to open up your laptop in, be it for uni, freelancing, or just inevitable life admin, check out my list of where to get into work mode.

  1. Timberyard

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These guys are the kings when it comes to remote working, even offering up meeting rooms to rent out. Head to their Seven Dials or Soho branches for super-fast wifi, a relaxed environment, and a plethora of other people around you tapping away on their Macs. They also have an impressive selection of teas, as well as a tempting selection of homemade bakes. The Covent Garden café can get pretty busy, but the comfy armchairs downstairs are worth a bit of a wait

2. Covent Garden Grind

Grind have expanded over the last couple of years, recently opening outposts of their much-loved coffee spots in Exmouth Market and Covent Garden. The latter is quite tucked away, behind the Piazza, and pretty much next door to the old-school Rules (you may or may not find yourself having a coffee with the doorman). There’s cracking coffee, service with a smile and not to mention some delicious snacks (think seeded energy balls) and the ultimate avo-toast. The thing which gives Covent Garden Grind the edge has to be the Bowie quote on the wall: I reckon with the inspiration and wifi here, we could all (think we could) be heroes (if just for one day).

3. Hubbard and Bell at The Hoxton Holborn

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An all day café, restaurant, bar and freelancer office, The Hoxton on High Holborn can be anything and everything you want it to be. Stay through from morning coffee to a lunchtime bite, rewarding yourself for the day’s productivity with a sophisticated cocktail come early evening. For the hungover, there are fresh juices and smoothies; for the super hungry there are pancake stacks drenched in maple syrup. Pretty much everyone here in the daytime is working away, which can be a useful source of motivation. Plenty of plugs around, chilled background music and some snazzy toilets with that posh hand stuff mean this place is a winner.

4. Tinderbox

For any fellow stationary geeks and organisation freaks, Paperchase’s flagship store on Tottenham Court Road is heaven. Head upstairs to their Tinderbox café, which as well as being full of light thanks to the huge windows, offers wifi, coffee and is usually relatively quiet. Feeling broke? Get yourself a Paperchase Treat card and you can get a free filter coffee every week (or upgrade to another drink by paying the difference). You can then feel totally justified about forking out a tenner for some uber-cool gel pens and notepads.

5. Planet Organic, Tottenham Court Road

Vegans, veggies, omnivores and carnivores will (I’m fairly sure) be satisfied with the range of yummy options at Planet Organic’s café on Tottenham Court Road. This is the one just by the station, as opposed to the other branch down the road on Torrington Place. Grab a coffee, bar, smoothie or lunch and get to work upstairs in their light and airy seating area. The wifi is good – phone signal a bit iffy. Plugs a plenty, nourishing grub and the opportunity to get a bit crazy with your coffee (coconut oil coffee and superfood coffee – with mushrooms – are on the menu). They also offer student discount with a valid card, which can only ever be a good thing.

6. Waterstones Tottenham Court Road

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This is one for those who like a bit of silence to work in – the basement of this new-ish Waterstones is an oasis of calm and a good place to knuckle down and get stuck in. There’s wifi too, as well as a coffee bar, but unlike other dedicated cafes, you don’t feel any obligation to make a purchase at the shop or café to work there. Obviously the book selection is a massive bonus.

7. Foyles, Charing Cross Road

Another bookish site, but this one, instead of being tucked away underground like the Waterstones option, is high up on the 5th floor of this flagship store. The shop itself is open until 9pm, and the café shuts 45 minutes beforehand, which makes it a great place if you need to crack something out when other places have shut their doors. There are regular events on in the shop too — why not combine a few hours work with an author’s reading, a panel discussion or a music concert?

8. Leon, Brunswick Centre

If you’re a regular at the nearby Senate House Library, or a student at UCL, Russell Square will be your stomping ground. Leon, the chain which prides itself on its healthy fast food, has a pretty big branch in the Brunswick. Their wifi is bang on, food reasonably priced, and they do 15% student discount – if you’re feeling particularly skint, get their filter coffee, which works out at 85p with a student card.

London Start-Ups Making Use of the City’s Food Waste

There’s an awful lot of food that goes to waste in a non-stop capital like London. Some people, however, are making use of the bits that no one wants: meet the sustainable eating initiatives that are being creative with the ‘rubbish’.

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As with any city, London produces a shedload of waste – think of the amount of coffee cups, sandwich wrappers, newspapers or beer cans in a pavement bin and multiply by hundreds of thousands.

As well as this recyclable and non-recyclable rubbish that is constantly piling up, much of what gets thrown away is food waste. Most of the time, what restaurants, supermarkets and suppliers class as ‘waste’ is entirely edible, yet for one reason or another, it gets put in a bin and sent off to landfill.

The Evening Standard recently launched a campaign in order to tackle London’s growing waste problem, highlighting the fabulous Felix Project. This is an initiative using up surplus and waste food to transform into meals for the homeless. Others are also catching on to the fact that there is huge potential for culinary creation with the food that is getting thrown away.

Meet five geniuses making delicious things out of rubbish:

  1. Snact

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Set up in 2013, Snact are the people making ‘jerky’ out of waste and surplus fruit. Blending up knobbly, discarded produce from London markets to create chewy dried fruit snacks in all kinds of flavours, Snact even uses compostable packaging, making it a wholly sustainable snack. The Apple and Mango flavour is a tropically taste-bomb that counts towards your five a day.

 2. ChicP

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Houmous, once a dip reserved for the middle classes, is now a supermarket staple and as standard in the fridge as milk and butter. ChicP’s versions of the tasty chickpea mush are not only more colourful and adventurous than your usual pot, but have the added bonus of tackling food waste. Hannah McCollum is the brains behind ChicP, creating raw houmous with surplus and wonky vegetables from supermarkets – think a vibrant beetroot, horseradish and sage, or a sunny looking carrot, ginger and turmeric. There are even sweet options for the truly adventurous – the banana, avocado and cacoa would be the perfect toast topper.

3. Rubies in the Rubble

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If you’re more of a cheese-and-chutney-rather-than-houmous sort of person, you’ll be pleased to know that you can now satisfy your cravings whilst championing sustainability. Rubies in the Rubble makes delicious ketchups and relishes from London’s discarded market produce, which would be wasted because of looks, or due to insufficient storage. After collecting bin-destined fruit and vegetables from wholesalers such as New Covent Garden Market, Rubies in the Rubble transforms them into creative condiments – a fig, pear and port relish would be a perfect partner to a block of cheddar, and the ‘Top Banana’ ketchup could really jazz up you bacon sarnie.

4. Toast Ale

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If the lack of alcohol in this article has been worrying you, keep calm. BAsed in Hackney, Toast Ale brews beer from surplus bread (aha, you say, the name makes sense now) in Yorkshire. From unsold artisan loaves from bakeries to crusts from supermarket sandwiches, the bread is combined with malted barley, hops and yeast to create something quite different. Not only are you reducing waste by drinking this beer, you are also championing sustainability –  all profits go to the charity Feedback, a charity fighting food waste. This is ale with a conscience – try their pale ale, craft lager or session IPA.

5. Urban Orchard

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Although we live in a big big city, there is a surprising amount of green space. In this space, as well as back gardens, allotments and community gardens, there are fair few fruit trees – many of which are not used. This is where Urban Orchard come in. These guys make cider from your donated apples – simply exchange a minimum of 5kg of your produce for some of their fruity cider, at donor stations all over the city. The best thing? Someone in London is probably drinking your apples.

Post-Christmas Calculations: Very Accurate Statistics I’ve Deduced This Year

DISCLAIMER: Hari will not be liable for any inaccuracies in the below calculations.

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  1. Love Actually must be shown at least 6 times over the festive period across various channels, otherwise the law states that it is not officially Christmas. I probably watch, on average, 2.5x Love Actually each year.
  2. Despite most things being the same every year, we still manage to mess up quantities: our 2016 festive stash saw 4 Christmas puddings, 9 bottles of mulled wine, 3 jars of cranberry sauce, but just one lonely bottle of prosecco. It had to fizz alone.
  3. I still highlight 80% of the Radio Times, only to watch about two things I’d wanted to. In fact, the highlighting probably takes up more time than the programmes I watch.
  4. Time moves faster over Christmas – it’s a blur of days where you wake up at 10 and before you know it, it’s time to get into pyjamas again.  Then suddenly BAM! January comes along and we are forced to return to normality, despite it only being Christmas Eve yesterday.
  5. There will always be a debate about just how long the turkey should be in the oven for. I think next year, I may roll a dice to come up with a cooking time.
  6. BRAINTEASER: If the average ratio of wrapping time to opening time is about 10:1 – 5 minutes spent wrapping (aka locating sellotape, choosing ribbons, writing gift tag), to 30 seconds of ‘opening’, (aka tearing, ripping and then binning aforementioned laboriously embellished gift-wrap), decide whether it is all a total waste of time and effort. (Please show your workings)
  7. There must only be 8 cracker jokes in circulation, as we get the same ones each year, and even the same ones across the same table. (Cracker people, please get some more inventive staff writers)
  8. Each year, without fail, we will all have a spectacular time, despite variables including arguments, illness, dry turkey, TV debate. The equation usually sorts itself out, and by January 3rd, we shall all be mourning the lack of infinite turkey sandwiches, alcohol with units that didn’t count, and hours of TV it is acceptable to watch. Go figure.

 

London’s Woodland-Themed Christmas Lights: Fab or Fail?

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Hands up if anyone has ever seen a rabbit hopping about in Covent Garden. Or how about a fox making its way from Trafalgar Square? Perhaps you may have come across a squirrel in Seven Dials? No I have not gone completely mad – but Covent Garden may have. This year, Seven Dials have gone with a woodland theme for their festive displays. Original, yes. But does it work?

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Last night signalled a step nearer to the big day, as the Christmas lights in Seven Dials were officially switched on. It was a whole evening of festivities, with mulled wine and Christmas cocktails, money off and music – myself, along with a fair few other savvy Londoners, took this opportunity to get 20% off most shops and collect our complimentary drinks: we have to make the most of these things after all.

With free grilled cheese, more mince pies than is possible to eat, and the chance to toast your own marshmallows at the fire-pit S’more station, this was more than just shopping. Wreath-making workshops were even on the agenda, for the people that were feeling particularly productive on a Thursday night.

At 6pm was the big switch on. Crowds gathered around the centre of Seven Dials, where all seven streets converge to a central point, where what looks like the Monument’s rather puny cousin, stands proudly. This was not just a case of pressing a button – there was a build-up to a) get people very excited and b) to try and explain the reason why Seven Dials was full of cardboard cut-outs of various woodland animals.

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This build-up consisted of a Lumiere-like light projection on the surrounding buildings, while a voice read out a rhyming story to narrate the projections. I listened avidly, but still didn’t manage to make head nor tail of why the woodland creatures ended up in the middle of London. Admittedly, the light display of foxes and rabbits on Covent Garden’s buildings were pretty cute, but when the poem tried to find multiple rhymes for ‘Seven Dials’, you just knew it wasn’t going to end well.

Finally, a countdown ensued, and on 1, the streets of Seven Dials suddenly lit up. It cannot be denied that this was a thoroughly festive affair, especially when acclaimed band Dirty Old Brasstards began to play ‘So here it is, Merry Christmas’.

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Looking around I did indeed feel very Christmassy. The lights, even if they are in the shape of a badger, or surrounding a bemused bunny, may be slightly odd, but they are fairly cute, and very twinkly.

I may not be following in Seven Dials’ footsteps, and decorating my tree with deer decorations and bunny baubles: but the Covent Garden area is definitely branching out with their forest theme, daring to be different, and making London even more full of lights, which, let’s face it, can’t be a bad thing.

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Breakfast in a Bag: The Initiative Providing Breakfasts for London’s Homeless

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It is impossible to walk down any street in London without coming across a homeless person. You may notice their curled up figure, hidden in a sleeping bag, or glimpse them sitting on a salvaged piece of cardboard, trying to keep their dog fed and watered. But precisely because homelessness is so commonplace nowadays in the city, perhaps it has lost its ability to shock. The sheer volume of people living on the streets has almost become part of the scenery, making it easier for the masses to walk by and ignore the issue.

There is no shortage of charities and organisations attempting to address the problem. Soup kitchens and food banks are popping up left right and centre, offering a place to sit and refuel with some nutritious food – a brief moment of solace and comfort before those with nowhere to go spend yet another night on a pavement.

These food banks and soup kitchens, however, often only serve up food in the evenings. We are constantly told that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, so why is there such a lack of attention paid to the morning meal when it comes to the homeless? After a whole night in the cold, breakfast is very much needed by the hundreds of individuals living on London’s streets.

Introducing ‘Breakfast in a Bag’ (BIAB), the brainchild of Michelle Clark, who has been working with the homeless since starting her Off the Streets London outreach project. BIAB is pretty much what it says on the tin – breakfast in a bag – yet so much more.  These bags, often containing juices, breakfast bars and fruit,  are delivered to the city’s homeless to provide them with a healthy start to yet another day without a place to call home.

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Michelle explains that while she was aware of the many resources available for homeless people, she realised that no-one was giving any attention to breakfast. ‘I gave it some thought and realised that a healthy breakfast would really kick start their day.  Illnesses such as diabetes are quite common among the homeless, maybe due to a bad diet. It can be quite dangerous for diabetics not to eat in the mornings so the breakfast bags are very important for them.’

Initially, the contents of the bags were completely self-funded, but now Michelle has been lucky enough to receive donations from brands such as Weetabix and eateries including Pret, who want to help the campaigner on her breakfast mission. ‘To start with, I was buying pretty much everything locally, I’m sure my local supermarket thought I had some sort of cereal addiction!  Since then I’ve been lucky to have had support from the likes of Greggs, Pret, Morrisons and Weetabix with donations of food.  Only yesterday we received 3 boxes of Energy Bars from HIGH5 Sports Nutrition who supply them to world class athletes.  These will have huge benefits for our homeless friends as many of the carbohydrates that benefit a world class runner will be just as welcomed by a homeless person.  I think it’s unrealistic to ever expect to be fully funded by food manufacturers and supermarkets but we are hoping to partner with as many as we can as we move forward. Every time we get a bulk donation through from a food supplier it means our donations from the public go a lot further so we can make and deliver more bags.’

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BIAB is gaining in popularity on Twitter

Currently, Michelle does ‘bag-drops’ three times a week, and has recently opened a static Brekkie Station at Victoria on a Friday night, where people can come and collect a breakfast bag for the next day. ‘The numbers for this are increasing each week as word spreads among the homeless community’, explains Michelle. ‘It’s quickly become a safe place where the homeless gather to socialise over some hot food and a cuppa and is already about so much more than just providing them with a meal and a breakfast bag for when they wake up on Saturday mornings.’

As BIAB becomes bigger, more and more people are donating to the cause. Just £3 can fill a bag, and it is amazing just how many are prepared to part with that bit of change to fund a breakfast. Michelle is clearly overwhelmed with the reception her concept has received. ‘I’ve learnt that plenty of people are prepared to hand over the price of a decent cup of coffee to buy a breakfast for someone less fortunate than themselves through the response to our “Sponsor A Bag For £3” campaign.  Some people have said they’ll be making a regular donation each week or month which is fantastic.  I’ve learnt that there are many angels out there who have stepped in to help me – one example is the lady that’s just taken time out from her paying clients to design and build us a new website (breakfastinabag.co.uk) for free.’ And what else has BIAB taught her? ‘One of the more interesting things I’ve learnt is from when I went to collect a donation that came in via one of our Twitter followers:  you can fit 192 boxes of Kelloggs cornflakes into a standard sized car.  But only just!’homeless-pic

We may not give a second thought to our breakfast in the morning. We may grab a piece of toast or bowl of cereal before heading out the door, or pick up a coffee and croissant en route to the office. But for London’s many homeless, who don’t know where their next meal may be coming from, the promise of a healthy and substantial breakfast after a whole night exposed on the streets is invaluable. Instead of a pastry and coffee on your usual morning café run, if just one day you gave that £3 to BIAB, think of the difference it could make. If everyone in your office did that too, imagine the bags BIAB could provide.

Michelle is doing a fantastic job, but times are hard. ‘The number of rough sleepers in London has doubled in the last five years to an incredible 7.500 last year so it’s not surprising that all of the resources for the homeless are stretched.  I think we’re all just doing what we can to help some of the most vulnerable people in the community and to try and show them that they haven’t been completely abandoned by society.’

Come on London, let’s all chip in.

With thanks to BIAB and Michelle for the opportunity to talk with them about this amazing project.

Isn’t it Ironic? Chuggers, Health Food Shops and Homelessness

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There are many ironies in our big bad city. The Evening Standard, for example, have just run a huge campaign on tackling food waste, in a newspaper that must rack up mountains of rubbish as people flick through the news and discard of it. Or the fact that many of the adverts within the paper are promoting the organisations which the Standard are criticising, a simultaneous condemning and supporting of the offender. Of course, I am completely behind what the Evening Standard are trying to do – a thoroughly worthy cause and a no-brainer in terms of using waste products to the benefit or hundreds of people.

Recently, a number of other ironies have caught my eye whilst walking the streets of London. An employee, for instance, of a well-known and pretty pricey health food shop was at the store’s side door, obviously on a lunch break, chain smoking and drinking Red Bull. Naturally, I am not expecting everyone who works at this place to be nibbling on quinoa and sipping on a green juice before whizzing off to their lunch-time yoga session, but I did chuckle to myself at the juxtaposition of the wording on the uniform and the contents of the employee’s hands.

Perhaps, though, the most startling and disturbing ironies I witnessed last week was involving an individual known commonly, I believe, as a ‘Chugger’ – a charity mugger. These are the sort of people who hang around in the middle of the pavement with bibs blazing charities’ names, trying to get the public to sign up to regular donations to THE MOST worthy cause (much more than the guy’s on the other side of the road, they assure you). For starters, if I am going to support a charity, I am going to do it off my own back, not because some chirpy twenty-something in a sandwich board has grabbed me en route to the tube station, and won’t let me hop on the Central Line until I promise to direct debit £2 a month to change lives. Anyway, this is not a rant about the various methods that charities go to in order to obtain more donators.

This Chugger on this particular occasion was from a homeless charity, as his primary coloured bib, thrown on over the top of an expensive looking coat, informed me. ‘Can I ask you a quick question?’ he would ask passers-by. ‘Just a few pounds a month can give a homeless person a bed for the night’, he informs the incoming people. The irony here, though, was in the fact that this Chugger was completely oblivious to the homeless man sitting next to him at the side of the pavement, sleeping bag, sleeping dog, and a cardboard box to sit on.

I looked at the man, and looked at the Chugger, who was trying to get people to donate to a cause that aims to help those in need SUCH AS THIS HOMELESS MAN RIGHT BESIDE YOU. This was outside a Sainsbury’s, for goodness sake – a better way to help this cold, hungry and homeless man would be to grab him a sandwich, talk to him for a bit, and perhaps alert one of the various organisations within London, such as Street Link run by St. Mungos, who will send out someone as soon as they can to help. Rather than signing up to a charity that spends massive amounts on adverts and campaigns, the public, and the Chugger, should have opened their eyes to the problem right in front of them, which was being completely ignored.

But it was getting late – the Chugger was probably more interested in when he could go home, probably via the over-priced health food shop.