A decade in the ‘Stow

walthanstow stadiumI’m a bit late with this post, as we actually moved to Walthamstow in December 2007, but never mind. I still feel in the mood for a bit of reflection on my life over the last ten years in this amazing corner of North-East London.

This is by far the longest I’ve lived anywhere in my adult life, and the changes which have taken place, in my own life and the place I’m living it, are absolutely staggering. When my boyfriend (now husband) and I moved to Walthamstow we were classic DINKYs (double-income, no kids yet), and although we were very proud of owning our first home, a little two-up, two-down Victorian terrace, our professional and social lives were very much centred around central London. I left Walthamstow at 7.30am every week day to go for a swim at my Fitzrovia gym before work. I ate breakfast and lunch at my desk. After work, more often than not, I’d meet friends and/or boyfriend for a drink or meal in town, and get home in time to go to bed and repeat the whole cycle again. Evenings I did come home earlier were usually because I was tired, and didn’t want to go out, and so were spent slumped on the sofa with an M&S ready meal rather than out and about in my neighbourhood.

The last ten years have seen me have two babies, quit my job in town in favour of life as a stay-at-home-mum and writer, start a blog, publish two novels and a novella, get married, buy a slightly bigger terraced house in the adjacent street to our first, make some brilliant local friends, and then most recently my husband has quit his job in town to found a start-up business based in, of course, Walthamstow. Our lives are now inextricably entwined with this community. It used to be the place we returned to from our lives elsewhere to lay our heads, now, to a large extent, Walthamstow is our lives.

Walthamstow has changed along with us. We live in the area known as the village. Unlike many so-called urban villages, this is rooted in more than estate-agent speak. The parish church of St Mary’s was listed in the Doomsday Book, and it is surrounded by a collection of old almshouses. If you squint and ignore the traffic, you can imagine a little rural community here in the middle ages. Grand houses, like the Morris family home (now the William Morris gallery) were built around Walthamstow and Leytonstone by upper-class families as rural retreats, still within easy travelling distance of London. Then came the railway, and the streets upon streets of Victorian terraces with the pubs and shops to serve the rapidly expanding community of City workers, attracted by the relative affordability of the area and the easy commute. La plus ça change…

We moved here ten years ago because it was the nicest place, with good transport links, that we could afford to buy a whole, albeit small, house to ourselves. We paid £300,000 for our little house. Extortionate, really, even then, for what was essentially built as a worker’s cottage. But we were lucky, we had good salaries, we had saved hard, and we had a legacy which went towards our deposit. Looking at Rightmove today, a two-bedroomed house on the same street or a neighbouring one seems to sell for around £625,000-650,000. An unbelievable increase, and this is after the political and economic uncertainty around Brexit has reversed house-price growth in London. The three-bedroomed house we upgraded too, after much soul-searching and back-of-envelope budgeting as to its affordability, cost £420,000. A three-bedroomed house on our road is for sale today for £900,000. There is absolutely no way we could now afford to buy our own house, or even the house we moved out of five years ago to acquire more space for our growing family.

This has a massive impact on the character of the area. Perhaps nothing illustrates it better than the picture at the top of this blog – Walthamstow Stadium has been converted from being that bastion of traditional working class culture, a dog racing stadium, to a block of stylish modern, rather expensive,  apartments. Some of it, from my point of view at least, is a very positive impact. I am writing this blog post sat in the cafe of our local organic sourdough bakery, Today Bread. I know, could I be more of an East London cliche? The bread is delicious, healthy and ethical, but at £4 a loaf (and selling out like hot cakes every day) it certainly reflects a more affluent neighbourhood.

There are several different layers now, in Walthamstow society. The authentic East-End community of people born and bred here and first-generation immigrant communities from Asia or the Caribbean who I can only imagine must view the influx of hipsters with MacBooks and interesting facial hair, and young mums dashing off to baby yoga with a significant degree of resentment that their children and grandchildren have been totally priced out of their own community. My husband and I are part of the first wave of that influx – public sector workers, people in the arts – who moved to Walthamstow a decade or so ago because we liked the pretty streets, diverse community and amazing transport links. Are we a problem, creating spiralling house prices, or a positive force for economic regeneration? Probably both. Now in our thirties and forties, we know we could no longer afford to buy here ourselves, but we benefit from the fabulous array of new cafes, restaurants, bars, gastro pubs, arts venues and pop-up shops enabled by the new wave of incomers – people priced out of ultra-trendy Hackney and Shoreditch and creating a demand for organic juices and almond-milk flat whites here in Walthamstow.

I adore where I live. The combination of old and new, the melding and merging of immigrant communities from around the world, a modern foodie culture but great sense of history in fantastic local museums William Morris Gallery and Vestry House, and the sense of belonging I get from living, shopping, educating my children, working and socialising in one fantastically warm and supportive community. As a Scouser by birth and upbringing, when I first moved to London I really didn’t get the almost tribal passion with which Londoners identified with ‘their’ area. The horror of a North Londoner being expected to go South of the river, or a West-End girl accepting a party invite East of Aldwych seemed deeply puzzling. Now I get it. I have given birth to two East Londoners (one born in Leytonstone, one in Hackney), and my life, community and roots now run very deep here. A decade in Walthamstow has made me an East Londoner through and through.

 

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Advent Weekend

After a moaning blog about hideous November, this is a much more cheerful post about our lovely weekend when, even though it’s only just December, we really got our Christmas on!

On Friday afternoon my husband finished work early, and we collected Anna from school and headed straight into Central London. We went  firstly to the Liberty Christmas shop to choose a couple of new Christmas tree decorations. LibertyMany of our tree decorations are now 15 years old, bought by husband and myself in a pound shop in the West Midlands our first Christmas as independent householders. The ‘house’ was a scruffy little rented flat in Birmingham, but we were so excited to have our own place that we went all out with a real Christmas tree, lugged back on the bus from our local Homebase. Cash was tight on our graduate scheme salaries, and all those pesky electric bills and Council Tax demands which were suddenly our responsibility, hence the decorations all coming from Poundland! They’ve done pretty well, and we have added to them over the years, but this year I was inspired by my lovely blogger pal Chiswick Mum’s family tradition of each choosing a new tree decoration each year. And where better to do that than one of the most beautiful and Christmassy shops in London?

We chose a new star for the top of the tree, and two beautiful baubles. Then we went and wondered around and admired the beautiful Christmas lights around Carnaby Street and Regent Street, and the incredible window displays in Hamleys. hamleysWe then refuelled with some delicious pizza, and bought cookies to eat on the tube home. It was the perfect way to start the weekend, and a much needed reminder for me that going into town is enormous fun and totally do-able, despite what time constraints and anxiety sometimes have me believe.

Saturday was Decoration Day. First of all though we had gingerbread muffins for breakfast. These are a Nigella recipe, and a fairly recent Christmas tradition we instigated a couple of years ago, which are now a must for festive breakfasts.

gingerbread muffins

We were very proud of keeping last year’s Christmas tree alive in a pot in our garden all year long. In fact that was part of our justification for splashing out a little on some new decorations – after all, we wouldn’t need a new tree! However, pride always comes before a fall, and it turns out that we hadn’t been nearly as rigorous as we should have been at turning our little Christmas tree regularly, and whereas the side facing out onto the patio was beautifully green and bushy, the other side was brown and rather denuded. So husband set off with Anna to purchase a new Christmas tree after all. I felt rather sorry for last year’s loyal little tree, so that is going to be our outdoor Christmas tree with its own set of lights. Our new tree takes up around 50% of our living room space, but it is truly beautiful, and is the most delicious smelling tree I’ve ever encountered. It is also adorned with a gorgeous Liberty star, and the homemade vanilla and clementine biscuits which Anna and I always make together.

our tree

It all looks beautiful, and on Saturday night we put the children to bed and then snuggled on the sofa, fire on,  eating a takeaway, and admiring the twinkling lights. Perfect hygge.

Yesterday we went off to our local National Trust property, Sutton House, in Hackney so that the children could meet Father Christmas. It was beautifully done, with an incredibly authentic Santa in a really magical setting. Both children were utterly enchanted. This is a particularly special year as, at nearly 3, Sophia has really developed an understanding of what Christmas is all about (trying to explain the Christmas story did, however, lead to me grappling with the weighty theological issue of ‘but who is God, Mummy?” at 6.45am today), but at 8 Anna is still young enough to really believe in all the magic. Watching their little faces as they listened to Father Christmas’ story of his and Rudolph’s adventures one foggy Christmas Eve was so magical for us too.

Santa

All in all a really fabulous weekend to kick off the Christmas celebrations!

#In Real Life

cocktails

Yesterday was a bit of a landmark for me as I met a woman I have been friends with for nearly five years for the very first time. Chiswick Mum blogs about her family life in leafy West London. Other than our East/West divide, we have loads in common – both born and raised Oop North, proud of those roots, but in love with our London lives, both Oxford English graduates, both passionate about reading and writing and books and making the most of the little moments of everyday life by blogging about them. Her son is only a little older than Anna, and so we are often at the same lifestyle stage with children as well. She also writes beautifully, and is one of a very few bloggers guaranteed to give me a little lift when a link to a new post appears in my emails.

Our friendship grew organically, if ‘organically’ is the right word for something which is purely a product of the digital age. Firstly commenting on each other’s posts, then following each other on Twitter and Instagram, and then eventually sharing email addresses. The honesty of her writing meant that I felt I knew Chiswick Mum better than many of the mums I see at the school gates every day, but with whom conversation doesn’t really progress beyond the weather or this week’s spelling list.

A New Year’s Resolution we both felt we could get behind was to meet up IRL (In Real Life).  Not easy when you’re juggling between you three children, a full-time job, two blogs and live on opposite sides of London, but last night we managed it, meeting for cocktails in a bar in Central London. It was bizarrely like a blind date. Or how I imagine a blind date must be; husband and I have been together since we were eighteen, so the dating world is a bit of a closed book to me.

I felt incredibly nervous. Would she actually recognise me from my profile picture? After all, that was taken about four years, 1.5 stone, 1 baby and a whole pile of stress ago, and real life sadly lacks soft focus filters.Would we really have anything in common? Would it be horrendously awkward? Would she actually like me?

I’m so glad we were both brave enough to take the plunge, because we had a brilliant evening, and she was every bit the warm, funny, interesting and engaging woman her blog led me to believe she would be. We got through three drinks each and a platter of bar snacks (got to love a girl who loves pork crackling) with no awkward silences, and the only reason we quit at three drinks was because we both had to be up at about 6am, her for work, me for Mummy Duties.We have, however, planned to meet up with children and partners for a picnic this summer, and another round of drinks whenever our respective commitments allow. Amongst other things she even helped me come up with a plot and title for my fourth novel!

Blogging and social media gets a lot of bad press at the moment. I read many articles implying that if you love Instagram/blogging/Twitter/Facebook then you must be disengaged from ‘real life’. Like many things, I’m sure you need to be careful to maintain a balance. A virtual hug will never replace a real one, and I know that I can be guilty at times of posting about how adorable/annoying my children are rather than actually playing with them! However, I do think that the wonderful world of blogging and social media enhances my life, and yesterday I made a brand new real life friend I would almost certainly never have met any other way. ‘Only connect’ said E.M. Forster, and so many more connections are made possible for me by my life online, and my real life is the richer for it.

Staycation

We didn’t plan a ‘proper’ family holiday this year for lots of reasons, but we did decide to have a staycation. My mother-in-law very kindly lent us her flat while she was on holiday herself, so that we had the chance to have a change of scene and to escape from all those niggling little domestic tasks which can oppress you at home. She only lives on the other side of London, and we’re all obviously very familiar with her flat, but nonetheless we were amazed at just how much of a holiday it felt.

For a start, London is a big old place, so when you’re starting from North West rather than North East there are all sorts of places which suddenly seem like a viable day-trip which we wouldn’t normally tackle (especially with a super-active toddler who is allergic to sitting still!). We also decided that there would be No Cooking. That meant the children probably didn’t eat quite as healthily as usual – for breakfast for instance, instead of porridge with fresh berries we bought one of those Kellogg’s variety packs and let them choose one each day. Blissfully, we were a short walk away from a huge Waitrose, and so picnic lunches were sorted by stocking up on dips, falafel, baguettes, cherry tomatoes and so on, and dinners were things like filled pasta parcels with a handful of frozen veg  thrown in and some grated cheese over the top for the children, and delicious ready meals for us. And, of course, there was the obligatory daily ice-cream which seemed to happen whatever we were doing. But it was only for five days, so hopefully won’t do too much harm in the long-term, and I have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed a proper break from the seemingly endless rounds of food preparation which constitute my normal days at home. And actually, I do really love cooking, so after a bit of a rest I’m now full of renewed enthusiasm for getting back into the kitchen and trying some new recipes as well as some old favourites.

London never ceases to surprise me, and it did so again on the first day of our staycation when we headed to Ruislip Lido. Just a short journey up the Metropolitan Line, but this artificial lake, beach, children’s splash park, playground, woodlands and miniature railway felt like another world. It was created by the local council in the 1940s as a sort of post-war  public morale boost. Hard to imagine public funds being spent on anything so frivolous today, and yet, actually, creating opportunities for families to have fun together and get active in the fresh air without having to spend any money is every bit as important today as it was then. Needless to say, our children absolutely adored it, and we had huge fun too. Just one of those relaxed, carefree days when everyone is in a good mood and everything goes right.

ruislip.

The next day we headed off to Kew Gardens. I’ve been before, but the last time was when Anna was a baby. It’s wonderful, but it takes nearly two hours from our house, and isn’t the cheapest day out in the world (although it is incredibly good value), so it isn’t a natural choice for an ordinary weekend day trip. We did the treetop walk first as that was what we’d all been looking forward to the most, but I didn’t actually love it as much as I thought I would. It was impressive, but I didn’t quite get the Enid Blyton Magic Faraway Tree sense I had been hoping for. What do you mean, I’m too idealistic? It wasn’t helped by Sophia’s grumpy and clingy mood, which just seemed to get worse, until we realised that she was in some sort of pain, clutching at the side of her face and head, and refusing her food. We couldn’t decide if it was teething or an ear infection, but administered good old Calpol anyway. It was like a miracle. Twenty minutes later she was transformed into the happiest little baby you could hope for, playing and running around with her sister. And that was actually the best bit about Kew for me. The wonderful sense of space and peace. Even on a sunny day in the school holidays it didn’t feel remotely over-crowded, and sitting on a tree-shaded bench watching the children play, and breathing the scent of sun-warmed roses as Sophia toddled up and down a tiny slope ‘whee-ing’ each time was wonderful.

girls in Kew

The next day it was another National Trust day as we headed to Fenton House in Hampstead, another favourite place of ours. We only ventured into the house to use the toilets (ahem) but spent hours in the glorious gardens and orchards.

anna apple

Sophia was entranced by the discovery that apples grow on trees, and spent ages painstakingly collecting windfalls and moving them from one part of the orchard to another.

apples 1

We followed it with a walk on Hampstead Heath and another playground trip, before having ‘grown-up’ afternoon tea in Burgh House, another Hampstead gem. We have often had tea and cake in the cafe there, and last time we were in, Anna’s imagination was caught by the lovely cake-stands on the tables of people having afternoon tea. It’s only available if you book in advance, and we hadn’t that day, but we promised her that at some point we would have afternoon tea there, and last Saturday was that day. It really didn’t disappoint. The staff were wonderfully friendly and helpful, and our tea of cheese scones, fruit scones with jam and clotted cream, chocolate cake, lemon and blueberry polenta cake, macaroons and home-made pink lemonade was spectacularly delicious. Even though Sophia, appetite fully restored after feeling poorly the day before, kept snaffling half the food off my plate, much to Anna’s amusement.

We finished off  our staycation with a day walking along the river from Twickenham to Richmond, via Eel Pie Island, a gorgeous riverside pub for lunch, a rowing boat ferry, Ham House (yep, National Trust again!) and Petersham Nurseries. I can never believe that this area is in the middle of London. It feels so incredibly tranquil and rural, and the Thames has far more in common with its Oxford self than its Westminster or Docklands incarnations.

twickenham

Lots of quality time with my lovely little family, lots of ice-cream, lots of peace and quiet and greenery all felt like just what I needed. Husband is back at work today, and Anna is playing at a friend’s house, and Sophia is having a long nap in her cot. It’s been nice to have a bit of time to myself, and a chance to blog, but I’m starting to miss them all now!

Eighteen Months

Sophia was eighteen months old last week. To celebrate, we went for a blood test. However, once that was out of the way, I decided we should make the most of being out and about in London on a sunny day.

We popped into M&S to buy a picnic lunch, and then hopped on the tube to Green Park. Sophia was thrilled to have the chance to run free and chase pigeons, unrestrained by pesky hand-holding or reins. That’s pretty much all she ever wants to do.Green Park

Then I heard music coming from Buckingham Palace, and headed over to investigate. I’m not sure, but I think we caught the end of the changing of the guard. It was certainly something very ceremonial with a brass band and lots of soldiers in dress uniforms and bearskins. I pointed all this out to Sophia, but she was too transfixed by the bin lorry she’d spotted to take much notice. the guards

We fought our way through the crowds of tourists on the Mall to St James’ Park, and had our lunch on a bench over-looking the lake. This was a huge success because two of Sophia’s favourite things are ducks and dogs, and there were plenty of both to spot. Okay, so sometimes the ducks were actually swans, but there’s a whole fairy story about how that’s an easy mistake to make.cygnets

After lunch we went round to the playground. It’s a really great playground in St James’ Park, and I used to take Anna a lot before she started school, but it does get very busy at the weekend, which is a shame. Last time we were there I was about three months pregnant and feeling very sick and tired, so sat pallidly on a bench whilst husband ran round with Anna. Two years later and I was running round myself with the result of the pregnancy. I can’t quite believe how the time has flown.playground

My littlest girl is so determined and so fearless and so resolutely independent. Qualities which I hope will stand her in very good stead in later life, but make keeping her safe as a toddler (and I imagine, heaven help us when the time comes, as a teenager) quite a challenge. There was a big slide, far too steep for me to let her go down by herself, especially as it was just the two of us so there would be no-one to catch her at the bottom. So I took her down on my knee. She absolutely loved it, laughing and squealing with sheer delighted excitement. Then she saw a little girl of about four going down with her mum, side by side, holding hands. That was it, nothing else would do for Sophia, and for the next approximately forty-two times we went down the slide side-by-side.

By this time she was shattered, so I popped her back in her buggy for a nap, and walked through the park, up the Mall, through Trafalgar Square, up Pall Mall East, and through Piccadilly Circus. I love seeing London through tourist eyes and feeling proud because this is my city. I had a lovely browse in Waterstone’s, and then checked out the Cath Kidston sale in their flagship store on Piccadilly but resisted buying anything. I feel I need some credit for this as both a little red leather handbag and a gorgeous flowery dress, which I spotted back in the new Spring catalogue and have been lusting over ever since, were reduced. Not by enough for my budget though. I’m going to have to play Sale Roulette and see if they come down any further or sell out first.

By a miracle Sophia was still asleep when we got back to Walthamstow, so I bought a drink and a chocolate brownie in a little local cafe which has outdoor tables, and had a peaceful fifteen minutes reading my book in the sunshine before she woke up.

brownie

An absolutely perfect day with my lovely girl. Sophia at eighteen months is feisty, determined, active, adventurous, independent, strong-willed, mischievous, joyful, enthusiastic, loving and absolutely gorgeous. Can’t wait to see how many of these personality traits continue as she grows up.