Scales and Feathers at Tring Museum

Every summer holiday during junior school, my family would take me and my cousins to Tring to visit the Natural History Museum.  I remember gripping on to my dad’s hand as he guided me up and down the aisles of taxidermy specimen display cabinets, teaching me the names of the animals, where they lived, what they ate and how precarious some of the species were.  He encouraged  me to question the animals’ anatomy and wonder why ducks have webbed feet and tigers have sharp teeth and peacocks have fancy feathers.  Those early lessons in adaptation and evolution, survival of the fittest and predator-prey relationships made a tremendous impact on my view of the world and inspired a fascination with nature and conservation (I later went on to study genetics and evolution at university).  And after all the lessons, there were the tiny, dressed fleas to stare at!

The museum was founded in the 1880s by Lord Walter Rothschild.  The Rothschilds are a famous, aristocratic family who made their great fortune from finance and banking.  Walter was disinterested in banking, preferring to learn about nature.  He collected insect specimens from a very young age which he displayed in his first museum at age 10 in a shed at the bottom of the garden.   As he got older, he sent collectors far and wide to secure rare and unusual animals.  He worked closely with the Natural History Museum in South Kensington to further their research in taxonomy.  And he expanded his museum into a purpose built house, presenting the animals in the cabinets with fastidious perfection.  In his time, Walter had a reputation for being a little eccentric, a reputation that wasn’t helped by his zebra-drawn carriage!

Ok, so strictly speaking Tring Museum shouldn’t feature in a blog about London.  I love rules, so I feel a bit naughty for breaking one.  But it doesn’t take long to get to Tring; I took a train from Euston and then walked along country lanes to the museum.  I arrived within an hour and a half of leaving my front door (which is, out of interest, the same as my daily commute to work).  And really, 90 minutes isn’t that long for a trip down memory lane.

Posted in Culture, London | 6 Comments

Peaceful Contemplation in Highgate

I really love cemeteries.  I realise that after that confession you are probably picturing me with a studded dog collar, black nail varnish and a crucifix tattoo.  I can assure you that my only gothic phase was a brief attachment to a Morticia Adams Halloween costume when I was 20. 

I’ve visited some beautiful cemeteries in my travels including Green Wood Cemetery in New York and La Recoleta in Buenos Aires.  And now I can add Highgate East Cemetery to the list (I’m saving the West Cemetery for another day – it’s always good to delay a little gratification).  The history of Highgate Cemetery is interesting so forgive me for pinching a bit of material from Wikipedia.  Traditionally, parish churchyards have been used to bury the dead but, in the early decades of the 1800s, the churchyards in London had become full and were a dangerous health hazard.  Families had taken to throwing the deceased straight into the sewage system to avoid re-using old graves. As a result, Parliament passed an act to make it legal for profit-making cemeteries and encouraged the opening of seven new cemeteries in the outskirts of London, known as the Magnificent Seven, including Highgate. 

There are 170,000 people buried in 53,000 graves over 37 acres of land at Highgate.  Hidden sporadically around the cemetery are a few names that you might recognise (look out for Karl Marx, Douglas Adams, Malcolm McLaren and Jeremy Beadle).

I’m always told that cemeteries are full of death but I think that they are full of love.  Every winding path is lined with messages of adoration and heartfelt farewells.  Nobody ever writes anything mean on a tombstone.  I love to walk up and down the rows of graves, reading the inscriptions.  It makes me think of my own family and friends and how lucky I am to have them.  I feel humbled at the thought of how fragile and transient life is.  And I can consider all of this in perfect peace and quiet, because it’s bad etiquette to be noisy in cemeteries, and people always respect the dead.

Posted in London, Outdoors | 3 Comments

Momo: Moroccan Design in Piccadilly

Ever since I learnt about the Aesthetic Movement whilst visiting Leighton House, I’ve been more aware of my love of traditional Middle Eastern design.  I keep meaning to pop into the Islamic Architecture room at the V&A but Kensington and Camden are not all too conveniently linked.  In the meantime, I booked in for a Moroccan meal at Momo on Heddon Street (opposite the vegetarian buffet resturant, Tibits).  Really, the meal was a means to an end because getting a gander at the restaurants styling was my priority.  So, I was super pleased when the food turned out to be tasty and nourishing without being overly complicated or rich.  Plus it was well presented in terracotta tagine dishes and served by particularly attentive waiters.

In terms of the decoration, I couldn’t take enough photographs of the coloured glass storm lanterns, the copper plates topping the tea tables, the cut-out wooden candle holders and the way the light flooded through the internal arched windows.  I loved the woven wicker tray that my tagine was served on and the sumptuous crimson and gold velvet cushions that I sunk into at the end of the meal with a belly full of couscous and chickpeas.  I dreamt of flying to Marrakech until the teapot was drained of mint tea.

Momo
25 Heddon Street, W1B 4BH
020 7434 4040

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The Geffrye: A Museum of Typical Rather Than Exceptional Objects

During the Christmas break I visited the Geffrye Museum in Shoreditch for the first time.  I noticed on the Time Out website that the museum was hosting a temporary, Christmas-themed exhibition so hoped it could provide a festive fix – I really went Christmas crazy in 2010 (you may have noticed!)  The temporary exhibition, Christmas Past and Christmas Present, will end on Thursday 6th January with the traditional burning of the holly and the ivy and a final slurp of mulled wine.  Still, that shouldn’t stop you from visiting after the twelfth day.  I’ll be going back in the summer to see the landscaped gardens and smell the fragrant herbs.

The museum is housed in a row of 18th century almshouses, the facades of which are beautiful enough to justify the trip.  Inside, the houses are connected by a single, stretching walkway so that you can mosey from one end of the row all the way to the other through a series of rooms.  The rooms themselves are the attraction; each is styled as an English, middle-class living room from a specific era.  A walk through the museum will take you through time from a 1630s hall all the way to a present day loft in a converted warehouse.  The museum has decorated the rooms with a combination of genuine and replica items using period paintings and novels, and notes from housekeeping diaries as inspiration to ensure that the style is authentic.  I noticed an interesting ponder on the museum’s website: “The Geffrye is a museum of typical rather than exceptional objects. People tend to throw away the ordinary things of life when they have finished with them, but keep the best or most valuable, which then often find their way into museums. Our special challenge at the Geffyre is to find the relatively ordinary things of the past, owned and used by ordinary people, and to show these in their appropriate domestic context.” 

I left with a heap of interior design inspiration.  I love the Chinese Lanterns hanging from the willow twigs in the 1890 Drawing Room and the deep claret damask armchair in the 1870 Drawing Room.  The dome shape in the golden fire surround in the 1910 Drawing Room reminds me of shapes I saw in Leighton House in Holland Park.  And the spiral staircase in the 1965 Living Room is just like the one I used to race up and down at my Auntie Sue’s house!  If I hadn’t been saving for Christmas then I think I would have also left with a fair few books from the gift shop!

The museum is just up the road from The Bridge coffee shop, with all its fancy curios and delicious baklava, so if you decide to go to one then you should really go to both!

The Geffrye Museum
136 Kingsland Road, Shoreditch, E2 8EA
020 7739 9893

Posted in Culture, London | 2 Comments

Hunting for Pine Cones in Hampstead Heath

I am trying to recreate a golden woodland in my living room in the name of Christmas decorating.  Top of my wish list were gilded pine cones but I can’t bring myself to part with money for something that really grows on trees.  I spent a couple of hours on the internet hunting down pine trees in a London public space but was thwarted by the Royal Park policies which forbid the removal of flora.  I eventually gave up on technology and decided to take a Saturday afternoon stroll around Hampstead Heath and try my luck. 

I walked for 30 minutes weaving in an out of the undergrowth and scanning the floor with eager eyes before I found a single pine tree surrounded by a few partially rotten cones.  I brushed the decay and insects off and bagged them in case I couldn’t find any more.  I considered clambering up the tree to shake the branches but thought better of it when I noticed the nettles and thorns that would have broken my landing should I have fallen.  Another 30 minutes passed and the sun started to set.  I started to worry that I would get locked in as I had no idea where the nearest exit was.  Feeling defeated, I stropped towards the sound of traffic past a clearing known as the Vale of Health which happens to be the home of a glorious procession of pines and a sea of pine cones!  I hurriedly bagged as many as I could before the sunset (which probably isn’t very fair – I imagined that the following day a Sound of Music-style family with wicker baskets would spend Sunday morning digging about in the mud for my rejects).

When I got the cones home I washed them all in warm soapy water and then left them to dry in the kitchen for a week.  The cones open up when they’re dry and look more like the traditional cones that you would see in the shops.  Once they were completely open, I sprayed them with rose gold metallic paint, attached a length of ribbon and hung them in the tree – beautiful!

 

 

 

 

Posted in London, Outdoors | 3 Comments

Orange and Cardamom Teacup Candles

My recent love of quaint ceramic has been indulged this week as I made orange and cardamom scented teacup candles for my friends’ Christmas presents.  It couldn’t have been easier or more fun. 

The trickiest part for me was finding a shop that sold the wax and wicks; I’m adverse to internet shopping because I like to touch, even if it is just packets of wax shavings and lengths of strings.  There’s a very specialist shop off the beaten track in Shepherd’s Bush, just a 10 minute walk from the entrance to Westfield.  Candle Makers Supplies sell everything you could ever need to make any kind of candle you have ever imagined: wax, wicks, dyes, perfumes, double boilers and dipping cans, moulds, transfers (including advent themes) and holders.  They also sell ready made candles in a rainbow of colours.  When I arrived, the back of the shop had made way for a candle making class; 4 eager-looking women sat at a wax-covered wooden table each fingering a mould of wax and listening intently to the instructor.  At the front of the shop, a woman sitting behind a counter greeted me and asked what I needed.   I told her that I had no idea but I knew that I intended to make scented soya wax candles in teacups.  She left me smelling the perfumes while she collected everything I would need in a basket, including a print-out of the shop’s own instructions.  What service!  The whole kit, enough to make about 6 candles, excluding perfume (because I wasn’t keen on any of the smells) cost just over £10 – so far, so thrifty.

Candle Makers Supplies
Behind 102 – 104 Shepherds Bush Rd, W6 7PD

Finding the teacups was much easier.  In a previous post I wrote of my intention to go back to Caroline Carrier in Camden Passage but I spotted some beauties at Jackie’s Flea Market in Hampstead for just £2.50 each.  Yes, they were covered in mud, but mud washes out.  The thriftiness continues.

All I needed now was the scent.  When I was on my way home from Kensington Roof Gardens a few weeks ago, I popped into Whole Foods and found candle maker extraordinaire, Jonathan Ward, introducing his latest collection of scented candles.  The smell drew me in and Jonathan’s friendly conversation kept me there for over half an hour.  He talked me through all of his scents, where he had gotten the ideas and what they reminded him of.  I was so in awe of his passion for the candles that I ended up buying three!  While I was talking to him I took the opportunity to ask him how he would scent the teacup candles.  He told me that essential oils are best and should be mixed with the molten wax to make up approximately 8% of the candle.  He also advised that not all oils burn equally and that I should definitely do a trial candle to make sure that it burns and that the smell diffuses well.  Perfect! 

I gave myself a headache in Neal’s Yard smelling all of the oils.  The cardamom oil reminded me of an Indian sweet rice which I love and the orange oil provided the festivity.  So long to the thrift!  The orange oil was a bargain at just £6 but the cardamom was… a little more.    

So now I had everything I needed: wax, wick, wick weights, teacups and essential oils.  I laid out all of the “ingredients” on the kitchen side, took a deep breath, and set up a make-shift double burner (a milk pan inside a saucepan).  I figured out from the trial candle that I could measure the right amount of wax by using two teacups of wax shavings per candle.  While it was melting I prepared my wick by threading it through a weight, pinching the end with pliars to hold it in place and dipping the ensemble in wax.  I laid them out along the side to dry.  When the wax had melted I added the oil (which filled my flat with a beautiful smell) and poured it into the teacups a little at a time to make sure they were all even.  Once a thin film had formed on the top, I pushed the wicks to the bottom and then left to dry.  The instructions that Candle Makers Supplies gave me warned that a small well was likely to form around the wick as the wax cooled and that I would need to break the film and then refill.  I must have been lucky because the surface of my candles stayed smooth and even.  When they were absolutely set and in a moment of creativity, I topped each one with a dried orange slice! 

And now all that remains is to wrap them up and give them away.  That might prove to be the hardest part of all!

Posted in Crafts, Home | 5 Comments

Vegan Suet-Free Mincemeat

My recent weekend was wonderful and full of Christmas.  I finally made the teacup candles for my friends’ Christmas presents, I baked a gingerbread nativity scene (I was going to stop at gingerbread men but was inspired by the variety of cookie cutters at the Reject Pot Shop) I dried orange slices to hang on my wreath and cooked suet-free vegan mincemeat, all the while sipping mulled wine!   As you can imagine, my kitchen smelled incredibly festive and was warm and homely.

I wanted to share the photos of my mincemeat in case they inspire anyone else to cook their own.  In my humblest opinion, it’s so much better than buying a jar in the shop.  I’m happy that I know exactly what is in my batch and it’s super delicious.  And I’d finished everything, including washing up, in just 45 minutes!

I found a recipe at A Spoonful of Sugar which was originally published in Nigella Lawson’s How to be a Domestic Goddess cookbook.  It’s based on cider and apples and laced with cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, ginger and brandy.  I made a full batch (2kg) which is easily enough for about 60 mince pies – it should certainly keep me going for the month!

Look – I nearly managed to peel a whole apple in one go!

1. Peel and chop 4 large cooking apples (about 1kg):

2. Dissolve 250g of brown sugar in 250ml of medium dry cider in a very large saucepan:

3. Add the apple slices and simmer:

4. Add 500g of dried mixed fruit:

5. Add 1 teaspoon of festive spices:

6. Add 75g of glace cherries and 75g of almonds:

7. Add the zest of a whole lemon and the juice of half a lemon:

8. Give it all a good mix (easier said than done unless you have a bigger saucepan than me) and then simmer for 30 minutes:

9. Take off the heat and allow to cool slightly.  Add 6 tablespoons of brandy!

And voila!  What a beautiful colour!

Posted in Cooking, Home | 3 Comments

Curiosity: Life Stories in Camden

A few Fridays ago, I set off on a walk to The British Museum for some late night culture, via the mulled wine stall in Camden market, of course.  At just before 7pm, I didn’t expect many of the shops to still be open but the warm light from Curiosity invited me in.  I have been to Curiosity a few times to look at the eccentric nick-nacks.  I’m a sucker for old photographs with writing on the back, colourful tins with old fashioned branding, enamelware for the kitchen and teapots in the shape of anything that isn’t tea related (like cottages and pigs).  But this time was special because I got talking to Florence, who works there part time between studies and who told me about some of her favourite things that had passed through the shop.   According to her, her flat is crammed with all of the things that she can’t see go; for a time she insisted on being paid in old radios.  She told me about a collection of drinks miniatures, all unopened, that came in a box with old photographs of the bottles.  Obviously the person who collected them was very proud and that thought makes it all too beautiful to sell; the bottles are on display, with the photograph, but not for sale.  She also told me about a box of items that they picked up at an auction that had, perhaps accidentally, got a pair of old spectacles inside.  Florence took out the lenses and gave them as a gift to her significant other. 

Hearing these stories about the items made me very conscious that everything in the shop, and everything that I’ve been buying from flea markets and carboot sales and antique markets recently, has been a part of someone else’s life.  That vanity tray that I picked up from Bermondsey meant something to another woman.  She was used to seeing it on her dressing table.  And now it means something to me and I’m used to seeing it on my dressing table.  It’s obvious when you dissect it like that but often I don’t think about it.  Now I’m staring at the vanity tray and imagining all the items that the woman stacked on it and I love it even more.

So Curiosity isn’t just a second hand shop, it’s a collection of other people’s lives and stories.  Now I’ll not be able to pass without popping in and imagining where everything has come from and where it’s all going.  And I’m sure that in time my flat, like Florence’s, is quickly going to fill with jumbled items and the stories I dream up to accompany them!

Posted in London, Shopping | 1 Comment

Drink Shop Do: A crafty café at Kings Cross

I know that every London blogger and their cat has posted about the wonderful Drink Shop Do craft café in Kings Cross so I’m a little behind the pack.  As such, I’m sure you already know that it’s housed in a converted Victorian bath house with high domed ceilings and that all of the 1950s furniture and accessories you can see are for sale and that the owners host poem readings and knit nights and that they sell craft supplies and old fashioned boiled sweets and serve tea and sandwiches and cake.  I’m sure you know all of that so I won’t tell you again!

What I will tell you is that I had a really great time when I visited last Sunday.  Charlotte and I shared an afternoon tea of crustless sandwiches and carrot cake and clinked glasses of mulled wine and raspberry sherbet cocktails whilst hatching plans to escape the world of work.  Around us, couples and friends played scrabble and laughed and bopped their heads to the retro rock.  Having such innocent fun lounging in the warm squashy sofas is a perfect way to escape the frosty nights that we’re having at the moment. 

And if you need another reason to go, for the month of December Drink Shop Do has gone all festive with their craft nights: crochet stars, paint baubles, make greeting cards, decorate gingerbread trees, build paper chains, roll truffles in toppings (yum!)  And the team will also wrap your Christmas presents for free!  Did you know that bit already?

Drink Shop Do
No. 9, Caledonian Road, N1 9DX
Nearest tube: Kings Cross

Posted in Eats, London, Shopping, Skinny Latte, Workshop | 8 Comments

Craftacular!

On Sunday my friend, Samantha, and I trekked out to Bethnal Green for Bust magazine’s Craftacular.  We had read on their promotional material that the first 100 people would receive a goodie bag of homemade treats so we arrived 15 minutes before the start… to find a queue of well over 250 people!  Humph!  So we didn’t get a goodie bag but we did have an awesome 4 hours parading around York Hall looking at all the pretty things and talking to the crafts people.  There was a real buzz in the chatter the kind of which I guess you’ll only experience when you get hundreds of people with similar interests in one place and add cupcakes and good music.  It was fab!  Most of the stall holders also sell on Etsy or their own online stores so you don’t need to go back in time to the East End to pick yourself up a treat.  Here are my favourites:

Vic Lee – Astonishingly detailed screen prints of East End street facades.  Each print is limited edition, numbered and signed and a bargain at just £35! I cooed over the details in Columbia Road for ages.  The work has inspired Sam to draw Highgate highstreet onto a row of tiles in her craft room (yes – she has a craft room – lucky madam).

Glazed and Confused – There was a lot of pigeon paraphernalia at Craftacular which I was very happy about – I think the creatures get a bad rap! The best advocate of pigeons was Tana West from Glazed and Confused who had a beautifully made and nicely sized mug printed with a pigeon appreciation society pamphlet!  I loved it but, never buying anything on the first lap, lost it to someone more impulsive.  I’ll dream about that mug for weeks!

Bobbin & Bow – I did manage to find enough spontaneity to buy a ladylike lace necklace from Bobbin & Bow.  I wore it to work today with a plain charcoal tee as a twist on the trendy Peter Pan Collar.  Bobbin & Bow also win my award for cutest business cards; they have little black and white photographs of the owner’s grandparents on the back.

House of Ismay – Sam bought her beloved some cufflinks made from reclaimed envelopes with old, green French stamps to go with his favourite jumper.  House of Ismay also sold lots of little notebooks which would be perfect for scribbling the starts of blog posts.

Niko B Organic Chocolates – I was jealous of all the non-vegan cupcake nibbling going on until I found Niko B where dark chocolate with nuts and black pepper were clearly marked as vegan.  The pepper was a joyful surprise once the sweetness subsided.  I didn’t buy any because I knew I would eat it all in one sitting but I’ve since found out that they’ll be popping along to The Chocolate Festival at Southbank in a couple of weeks and I’m planning a visit!

The Make Lounge – I spent a relaxing half hour decorating a glass bauble with glass pens and chatting to fellow crafters.  This one is going to take pride of place on my tree next weekend!

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