Friday, 28 July 2017

What's it like inside The Ned?

When it was first announced, The Ned was expected to be 2017's answer to Chiltern Firehouse - London's new hangout for the rich and famous, while the rest of us pushed our noses up to the windows with no hope of ever actually getting inside.

It's a members' club and hotel by the people behind Soho House, and yet it seems to have entered the London scene with more of a whimper than a bang, slipping surprisingly under the radar - or perhaps its EC postcode is just too many stops on the Central line for the paparazzi fodder of west London.

"Like Harrods food court without the tourist crowds" was our initial impression on our first visit, and we weren't alone. The recurring Harrods comparisons might have something to do with the particular shade of green used on the ceiling height marble pillars.

Inside, it's surprisingly open plan, as far as the triangle shaped building will allow. In fact, it's not unlike the Westfield food court, albeit with an atmosphere that's more City boy din than McNuggets and fries. The space had been derelict for eight years before The Soho House team took it on, and its vastness only amplifies the raucous atmosphere.

For a members's club, they're surprisingly unscrupulous about who they let in - I've been in twice now without any drinks or dinner reservations. Presumably the members' area is squirrelled away on another floor, away from the commoners. 

Next time you're in the Bank area, take a couple of minutes to have a peek inside. The main entrance is on Poultry but I've managed to get in via the side entrance on Princes Street. I've even made it up to the sixth floor terrace. I'm certainly not encouraging you to do so, but if you were so inclined, the lifts from the ground floor are opposite the main reception desk in the centre. Out of the lifts, you want to do a right and follow the corridor all the way to the end, and there's a cracking view over Poultry and the Bank junction.

If you don't make it that far, the ground floor is worth a gawp. If you're lucky enough to catch a jazz band playing live on the elevated stage in the centre, I challenge you not to feel like you're at one of Jay Gatsby's legendary parties. The place drips opulence, from the chequerboard floors to those sleek marble pillars, airy double height ceilings and elegant, dark wood trimmings.

As for the food and drink from the six restaurants and bars, I haven't actually indulged in that one yet, but if the ever-reliable Marina O'Loughlin is anything to go by, this may be a case of look, don't touch - although I'd be delighted to have that one proved wrong.

The name, by the way, comes from architect Sit Edwin 'Ned' Lutyen, who was responsible for the original design of the building. But if all you can think about it a certain Mr Flanders, that's OK too.

 The Ned, 27 Poultry, EC2R 8AJ

Thursday, 27 July 2017

Zoorassic Park opens at London Zoo

I'm always dubious when zoos announce that their latest exhibit will focus on dinosaurs. There's nothing wrong with dinosaurs, but couldn't that side of things be left to museums while zoos focus on living species and spreading the conservation message?

So despite my enduring love for ZSL and all things they do, I was surprised to learn that their summer special this year would involve dinosaurs - an event going by the name Zoorassic Park. Yet a quick wander through Zoorassic Park at the media launch changed my mind completely.

I went in expecting a few model dinosaurs dotted about the place. Being located in Regent's Park, London Zoo struggles for space at the best of times, so I expected to see the dinos spread throughout the zoo, making the most of the odd patches of space.

However, as with all things ZSL, Zoorasssic Park is carried off very well. Designed as an immersive exhibit, visitors pick up their Time Travel Passport before entering the Time Tunnel and emerging face to face with animatronic dinosaurs.

Each of the eight species represented are animated - albeit in a very '90s way - bringing them to life for kids (and big kids). Most of them make noises, and one even spits water (look out for the puddle in the sand, and don't stand in that spot).

An information plaque next to each of the dinosaurs tells you all about them - when and where they lived, what they ate - exactly as with the zoo's living species.

Once you've seen all the dinosaurs, a further Time Tunnel transports visitors forward to the year 2050, a time when plenty of species we're familiar with today - giant pandas and Sumatran tigers, for example - have become extinct, in the same way that the dinosaurs did. For me, this is the highlight of Zoorassic Park, because it cleverly ties in ZSL's omnipresent conservation message with a real, tangible example that people can get their heads round. It's an excellent example of when using dinosaurs among living animals works brilliantly.

 Here's a video I made about Zoorassic Park for Londonist:

Zoorassic Park is at ZSL London Zoo until 3 September 2017. Entry is included in regular zoo admission. It's worth booking zoo entry in advance during the school holidays as queues can get quite long.

Scribbling Lau is now on Facebook. You can also find me on Twitter and Instagram.

Wednesday, 26 July 2017

My pick of the Oasis x ZSL collection

7.30am Tuesday: I heard the news that ZSL (the charity behind London Zoo) had teamed up with high street fashion store Oasis to launch a new clothing line. Two hours later, I was in the changing rooms trying it all on.

Dresses, skirts, t-shirts, shorts, tote bags and more all feature in the range, with tigers, zebras, giraffes, monkeys, butterflies, lemurs and more all making an appearance. It's a difficult decision to make, but I managed to whittle it down to a few favourites.

The Indiana Scarf (£16) is a beaut - one of those scarves that's light enough for summer, but warm enough for winter. Birds, butterflies and tigers are all involved - and snakes, which I'm far less keen on. Cute, though.
Image: Oasis
The Kissing Zebra Tee (£30). The same design is available in a tote bag (£20) which is disappointingly small in real life, and a clutch bag (£25) which wasn't available in the shop I visited. Alas, I don't need to add any more t-shirts to my already-oversized wardrobe.

Image: Oasis
Tiger Trainers (£26). These seem to be an online exclusive as they're not available in any store. BUT, I'm pleased to announce that a pair should be winging their way to me in the post as we speak, because really, who doesn't want trainers with tigers on? #Pleasebeasprettyasyoulookinthephotos

Image: Oasis
And finally, my pick of the lot; the ZSL Indiana Skater dress (£45). The same print is available in high-waisted shorts (which I also tried - very masculine) and a jumpsuit (are you kidding me? I barely reach 5ft). The dress was lovely, but it's definitely a sans-bra situation, which is not something I want to be part of, not even for monkeys and parrots and butterflies.
Image: Oasis

Disappointingly, I can't find mention anywhere of money raised from sales of the collection going to ZSL - it seems to be solely about raising awareness. I have tweeted ZSL to ask for clarification but haven't had a response.

ZSL: The Wildest Dream is in Oasis stores and online now.

Scribbling Lau is now on Facebook. You can also find me on Twitter and Instagram

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

I don't care about my Instagram grid. Here's why

My 'grid' - July 2017
I was a relative latecomer to the phenomenon that is Instagram. I've been on there since August 2014, but my posting was sporadic before I really got into my stride - or really got the point of Instagram at all - a couple of years later. Fast forward to 2017 and it's my favourite social networking site (Twitter; you're a close second. Facebook; get to the back of the queue).

Recently I've been dipping my foot deeper into the world of blogging, following other bloggers and blogging groups on Twitter, and I learnt a thing or two. Most notably, I learnt that people take this Instagramming thing seriously. Like, really seriously. We're not just talking professional photographers and designers, or celebs who make a fair whack for a single branded post. I'm talking average bloggers with not that many followers. A phrase that comes up over and over again is 'Instagram grid'.

At first, I assumed the 'grid' referred to the clever way in which many companies and Instagrammers build a complete picture out of the smaller images, as in the spammy example below. I've seen it used by much more legit brands too, and think it's a great idea if you're that way inclined.

But no, 'the grid' is something more sinister than that.

Just a quick Twitter search for the phrase 'my Instagram grid' shows the lengths that people go to to get that perfectly curated Instagram page, be it through only using certain filters or sticking to one colour scheme. You'll find people humble-bragging their 'anxiety' that their grid will never look this good again, lamenting that posting a birthday message to a friend has messed with their 'aesthetic', and, worst of all (in my opinion anyway), admitting to deleting pictures from days, weeks, and even months ago to make their grid look better. It's just another way that we're using the internet to curate our lives - because if it isn't on Insta, it didn't happen, right?

Sometimes exciting photos happen purely through being in the right place at the right time. Imagine getting a really unique shot, and then realising you can't share that on your Instagram page because it doesn't fit with your colour scheme, or your aesthetic.

If you're following me on Instagram, you'll have realised by now that I don't have a 'grid plan'. I don't have any plan at all. I post photos when I think of it, because I fancy sharing them. There are certain things that appear more than others (flowers, cakes, sunsets, big cats, cocktails, coffees...), but that's because these are my interests and hobbies. Yes, cake is a hobby of mine. What of it?

For me Instagram is a fun thing - why make it into a chore with schedules to stick to, colour schemes to be obeyed and themes to follow?

Life's too short for such nonsense. I'd rather be out there making the memories and taking photos than sitting at home drawing up a schedule for when my next post should go out, and which filter I should use. Perhaps some of my photos are a bit blurry around the edges, and perhaps I have fewer followers because of it, but it's because I had drunk too many cocktails was having too much fun to be thinking about my 'grid'. I may not have as many followers as a carefully curated page, but the people who are following me are more my type of people because what they're seeing is pretty much the real me - not the Ludwig-tinted version.

If you fancy following my disorganised, uncurated chaos of an Instagram page, you'll find it here. I'm also on Facebook, Twitter and Bloglovin'.

Sunday, 16 July 2017

Laura the Explorer: Castle Farm Lavender, Kent

For a few weeks each year, passengers on South Eastern trains between London and Sevenoaks are treated to a cacophony of purple as the track-side lavender fields bloom. Cast your eyes left as you emerge from the tunnel, and various shades of mauve whoosh past almost too fast to take in.

The fields are part of Castle Farm Lavender - hard to believe, given that the farm itself is situated about 4km away in Shoreham, but it claims to be the UK's largest lavender farm, covering 110 (non-sequential) acres.

The farm shop is open all year round, but for a few special weeks in the summer, visitors can take tours of the lavender fields while they're in bloom. When these tours take place varies depending on the weather, as the harvest time varies from year to year.

You'll know when you're getting near to the farm - the posh houses of Otford and the Kentish green fields give way to blankets of colour on the hillside opposite, row upon purple row swooping down into the valley. From up here, the extent of the lavender farm is impressive - and it's only a small fraction of its actual coverage.

Take the narrow farm track down the hill and you'll end up at The Hop Shop, the farm shop at the epicentre of the violet. Wood-clad on the outside, the interior of the shop is done up like a barn, all wooden beams and the like. It's part farm-shop, part upmarket gift emporium -- you can get your teeth into anything from lavender ice cream to various chutneys, jams and cakes, as well as buying jewellery, scarves and ornaments. The farm's main draw may be the lavender, but it's home to beef cattle too, so get yourself a fresh meat joint for your Sunday roast.

On the tour days, the barn is open as an extension of the shop, selling even more lavender products - honeys, cheeses, shortbread, oils and body creams. It's also where you can get yourself a ticket for the tour. You can't book in advance so it's well worth turning up way ahead of your planned tour, as they do sell out quickly. Once you've got your ticket, grab yourself a drink from the coffee cart while you wait for the tour to begin.

The tours head out of the farm, over a rather quaint stone bridge, and into two adjoining fields, which you'll visit one at a time, hearing about the crops in each, how they're harvested, and how they vary from each other. Many of the fields are actually lavandin - lavender's antithesis if you will, despite the fact that they look identical to the untrained eye. Rather than sending you to sleep, it's a stimulant. It's lighter in colour, and produces larger quantities of essential oils.

There's plenty of time for photos too, if you're only here for that all-important lavender selfie, or feel the urge to run up and down the rows like Theresa May's more colourful cousin.

The tour also gives you a chance to see the distillery process in action. In a farmyard that looks like any other - tractors, uneven ground, bales of hay - a rather special barn sits in one corner. Outside the barn, a high-sided trailer is parked, a lid place over its entirety. Attached to that lid is an oversized straw, coming out of the top of the trailer and disappearing through the wall into the barn.

The lavender is effectively steamed until it sweats out all its little juicy bits, which then rise to the ceiling of the trailer like little ethereal lavender ghosts and get sucked along the giant straw like choc chips in a milkshake, before landing in a giant vat where further science-y things happen, and BAM, you've got yourself some lavender oil. (Disclaimer: this may not have been the exact words our lovely tour guide Sandy used to explain the process, but the essence is the same).

This board in the distillery barn keeps track of the annual yield by litres of essential oil produced.
And there you have it - lavender being grown and harvested on a mass scale right here in Kent. Who needs Provence, eh?

FYI:The Castle that Castle Farm refers to is Lullingstone Castle, now a separate entity, but placed firmly on my must-visit list now that I'm back around these parts for good.

The Hop Shop at Castle Farm, Redmans Lane, Shoreham, Kent, TN14 7UB. Tours are £5-£6 per adult, check times on website.

Scribbling Lau is now on Facebook. You can also find me on Twitter and Instagram (where I'll be posting lavender photos for a long while yet.

Thursday, 13 July 2017

My school really was a Prisoner of War camp

While researching this article about Peckham's Prisoner of War camp recently, something stirred in my memory; a rumour that went round my secondary school that it too used to be a Prisoner of War camp.

We wouldn't be the first teenagers to jokingly compare our seemingly-tough schooldays to the punishing regime of a Prisoner of War camp, but in the case of Weald of Kent Grammar School*, it's true.

Unlike in Peckham, I've been unable to find any remaining physical evidence of the Tonbridge camp; no relic tin huts, no information board to tell 21st century Tonbridgians of the past, nothing to show that it ever existed at all.

Today, the ever-growing cluster of school buildings sits on what can be described as a top terrace. The school field is on a lower terrace, down a steep, grassy bank. A further field sits down another slope, largely out of sight of the school buildings. In my day (said the haggard old woman in the corner...) we were only allowed onto this lower field when a certain PE teacher decreed that we were due a particularly gruelling cross-country session. I've since heard a rumour that it's been sold off for housing... watch this space.

It's a rather beautiful setting for such a history. The modern Weald site is encompassed by three fairly busy roads, but the situation of the buildings and the perimeter hedging meant that we rarely knew of their existence as we went about our lessons. Looking south-east from the school offers a view of the beautiful Schools at Somerhill building on the peak opposite, a Jacobean manor immortalised by JMW Turner himself. It's safe to say that we didn't appreciate our surroundings in our school days.

The school buildings and the slope down to the top field
I've always imagined the Prisoner of War camp would have been situated on the lower field, away from the school buildings - a flawed logic, I know, given that the school wasn't built until the 1960s. But I was surprised to find, in this map from the Tonbridge Historical Society, that the wooden huts of the camp were situated on the top field. The blue shapes show the location of the school buildings as they were in around 2003 - several more have since been built.

The camp was known as Somerhill Camp (or Camp 40), as the land it was on was part of the Somerhill Estate at the time. German and Italian soldiers were kept at the camp, and sent out to work on local farms -- including Churchill's country gaffe, Chartwell. There's little information available about what happened to these specific captives after the war, but repatriation programmes nationwide weren't complete until 1948. A rummage around the newspaper archive produced this little gem from the Kent & Sussex Courier, 8 August 1947:

Image created courtesy of THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD.
In the case of the Peckham camp, many of the soldiers stayed on in the local area after the war, setting down roots and opening businesses. The above concert was advertised in 1947, so some of the Tonbridge prisoners were still in the area two years after the war ended. Were any businesses that still exist in Tonbridge today founded by former PoWs? If you know anything, I'd love to hear about it in the comments below. Twitter user @dizzernp has pointed out that Tonbridge Cemetery has graves of Germans and Italians dating from as late as 1947s, thought to be PoWs who died of illness or accidents after the war ended.

For more on the Somerhill Camp, the excellent Tonbridge Historical Society has a wealth of information.

A car park and sports centre has been built where the PoW camp was
EDIT: I've just been back to the school on a quiet weekend to try to take a couple of photos of the field for this post, and it's changed a lot since I last went past. The rudimentary hedges that separated our school days from the outside world have been reinforced with a metal fence, and the new sports centre has been built on our beautiful school field - right about where the PoW camp wooden huts are on the map above.

* If this school name sounds familiar, it's been in the news recently as it's the school behind the grammar school brouhaha. It's opening the first new grammar school in the country for several years. For the record, as a past student of Weald, I do firmly support grammar schools, but that's another blog post for another day.

Scribbling Lau is now on Facebook. You can also find me on Twitter and Instagram.

Thursday, 29 June 2017

On making a big life decision

As the green trees and endless fields gave way to housing estates and electricity substations, an unshakeable feeling of intense panic gripped me. More than anything, I wanted the train to stop, to reverse back up the track the 80 odd miles I'd just covered and take me back to where I'd started an hour ago. That was when I knew I'd made the right decision.

Crossing the M25 back into London, the six lanes of roaring traffic below a mere blur out of the train window, I realised that I wouldn't be leaving the confines of the M25 again for at least a fortnight. London's orbital motorway was suddenly my cage, keeping me trapped within. After a nourishing weekend in Clacton-on-Sea, filled with family, sunshine and laughter, returning back to my flat in London felt like a punishment to be endured rather than something to enjoy.

I recently made the decision to move back to Kent after nearly a year and a half of living in London. Several things, which I won't go into detail of, contributed to this decision. Had any of these factors alone reared their head, my decision may have been different. Their combined force, though, was pushing me in a south-easterly direction.

I still love London, and not because my job all but contractually obliges me to do so. I love the fact that there's always something new to discover, or see, or eat, or explore. I love living so close to world-famous landmarks (and in the case of my last flat, being able to see them out of my kitchen window). But I don't love London in the right way to live in London.

I am aware that it's partly a case of the grass being (literally) greener outside the M25. There were things I didn't like when I lived in Kent before: the long commute to work, the difficulties getting home late at night, the fact that the nearest Mexican restaurant is goodness know how many miles away. I know that none of this will have changed when I move back. I'm looking at Kent with those cliched rose-tinted glasses, and yet I know as soon as I leave, my rear view mirror looking back at London life will be rose-tinted too.

At first, my decision to leave London felt like a failure. Plenty of my friends have settled into London and made it work, and here's me, slinking back to where I started, unable to cope with the capital. I felt weak, silly and embarrassed - nervous to tell people about my plans in case they laughed in my face.

But then I realised - this is the right decision for me. It's not failure to do what's right for you, to follow what makes you happy, to go against the crowd. What would be failure is sticking with a life that wasn't right for me out of the fear of what other people would think, or because it's what I thought I should be doing. Some people are London people, and some people are not. I am the latter - but I don't in any way regret this year that I've spent giving it a go.

At the moment, I feel sick when I see The Shard piercing the distant landscape, or the cluster of City skyscrapers huddling together. One of my earliest memories of coming to London as a child is of reaching London Bridge station, and the last few minutes of the train journey between there and Charing Cross, the excitement of heading into the big city reaching a crescendo. It's a journey that Deserter has covered in some detail here - albeit in slightly different words than I would have chosen - and, all joking aside, for years afterwards, I'd get that same feeling of excitement as I approached London. I was no longer a ten year old, bouncing up and down on the train seat - I was a twentysomething, making her daily commute into work. But inside me, that 10 year old was still bouncing up and down with the thrall of being in London.

I don't get that feeling anymore. The fun and excitement and thrill has been sucked out of London for me.  I want to fall in love with London all over again, and I can't do that if I live here.

I'll still be working in a London five days a week, in a job that requires knowing the ins and out of the capital, so you'll still be seeing plenty of London-centric blog posts on here, and photos on Instagram. Just expect to see a few more castles and lakes and flowerbeds in there too.

Thursday, 15 June 2017

The lowdown on Emerald Street Literary Festival 2017

I wasn't going to blog about Emerald Street Literary Festival. After all, it's just a lit fest - there were books, there were talks - what more is there to say? But I had such a fantastic time that I thought it worth a share (and, to be honest, I wanted a chance to use some of the photos I took of the day).

I was fortunate in that I'd managed to book onto one of the earlier sessions. It gave me a chance to explore the festival set up, and the gorgeous venue of the Royal Geographical Society, before it got busy.

As soon as I entered the courytard, right opposite Kensington Gardens, I knew it was going to be something special. Welcomed by a vintage bike, decked in wildflowers I stepped inside to be greeted by even more welcoming staff.

The building itself is beautiful, dripping in history and pomp, and really fired up my inner London geek. The wooden floorboards and sweeping staircase of the entrance hall gave way to the tea room, a gorgeous, cosy space with floor to ceiling windows and stylish chandeliers. Through another set of doors was the garden, and down a set of worn stone stairs, the highlight of the festival; the marquee.

From the outside it was like any other marquee, but inside was something really special. The decor was a classy mishmash of vintage chic furniture; gorgeous armchairs, oversized lampshades, stacks of board games, and more of those gorgeous flower arrangements.

Confession time: This was my first lit fest. I love books, adore reading, am rarely found without my snout in any tome I can get my hands on. But I'd rather just enjoy a novel than analyse it to death. Read it, enjoy it, move on. For this reason, I avoided book related talks, and booked on to the writing centric events instead - one about longform journalism, and one about travel writing.

Following my first event, and being there on my own, I had planned to pop over to Hyde Park and bask in the sun for a couple of hours before my later session, but the free Aperol Spritz included in the ticket persuaded me to stay for a little while. Drink successfully acquired (in the delightful map room nonetheless) I headed back outside to the marquee to enjoy the sunshine and find somewhere to drink it. All the seats in the marquee were now taken, by people sitting in two or threes, laughing and chatting. Some sat on their own, their noses stuck in books. 

Either way, the atmosphere was a congenial one, and as the afternoon wore on, people began chatting to strangers - lubricated, no doubt, by the Aperol Spritz. Strangers were approached and conversations struck up by the books that people had in their hands, the events they'd attended, or the need for a Scrabble partner.

That set the tone for the rest of the day. For my first lit festival experience, it wasn't at all what I anticipated - a friendly, welcoming atmosphere, rather than the stuffy, impenetrable affair I had expected. Hats off to the guys at Emerald Street for pulling off such an inspiring, fantastic and Instagrammable event.

Emerald Street Lit Fest 2017 took place on 10 June. Hopefully there'll be another one next year - give them a follow on Twitter and subscribe to their excellent newsletter to find out.