It’s been a tough few weeks powering through illness but finally, dear God finally, I can see light at the end of the tunnel. My body is finally kicking out the nasty virus that’s had me confined to my bed for so long.
As I reenter the real world and crack on with life, it seems apt to now find myself reaching the conclusion of this tiny fragment of a life well-lived. Time to reflect and move on.
This post follows Part 3, Solo Sell-Outs
Part 4, Wapping Old Stairs
I awoke on the Tuesday wanting to get on and make the most of the day, but painfully aware of the hot breath of fleeting time breathing down my neck. The final day; when the clock becomes so familiar a sight that it could be better described as an uneasy relationship, a bitter partner always demanding attention.
Before considering anything else there was a more pressing need to address. With my four blueberry muffins now little more than a sprinkling of crumbs in a plastic packet, I needed to get myself a solid breakfast to set me right. From previous visits when my parents had travelled to see me, I knew that Café Rouge did a morning offering (and the one at St. Katharine Docks had a considerably better view, tempting as the Wetherspoons on the main road opposite the hotel was).
I packed the non-essentials in my bag, ready for a speedy get away when I returned and headed out into the bright Winter sun to that familiar place once more.
At Café Rouge I placed my order and happily sunk myself into a History magazine and people watching. I tried to guess where the passers by were heading, what type of jobs they had based on their attire. An easy and difficult game to play; those wearing long black coats, accompanied with pressed black trousers and leather shoes jutting out beneath, well, they were clearly heading off to jobs in The City. To meet clients or handle their valuable assets. Everyone else though, they were harder to work out; their determination and singleness would strongly imply they were going to work, but the clothes varied to such a degree it was possible they could have sat at the bottom or the very top of their respected payrolls.
I flicked through the magazine whilst picking at my fruit-topped pancakes, enjoying the contrast of life in the near empty restaurant and the pedestrian rat-race outside. How enjoyable it was to reconnect with History as a leisurely activity as opposed to spending hours locked in a library.
While I was sat there the odd person came in and out, spending the whole experience glued to their phones. Seldom did they even look up to take in the view. It didn’t surprise me, it certainly wasn’t the first time I’d felt strangely old and antiquated in my solo habits, but I almost felt sorry for them. They’d clearly come by themselves to this establishment for some reason, yet it was hard to see how staring at a mobile for half an hour could constitute as a particularly enjoyable, or memorable, an experience. It’s central London; you couldn’t walk fifty yards without hitting a coffee shop or take out, yet these people wanted to dine in.
Did they want to say they’d been there? Did they want to clear their heads? Or did they simply just want someone to cook for them? Unanswered questions; they departed before I could ever vocalise them.
The day was shaping up to be a beautiful one. The sun was bright, the sky a cool, clear blue and the weather unseasonably mild. Taking a stroll around some of the newest recruits to the yachting ranks, I undid a button on my red coat. It almost felt impossible to even consider this morning to fall under the gloomy banner of ‘British Winter’.
By the time I returned to the hotel and swept up the last of my belongings there was only five hours separating me and my inward journey back to Wiltshire. The hotel’s policy on baggage being a friendly one, I left my weighty case at reception and hacked off on foot in an Easterly direction with large handbag bulging with my fully charged laptop.
Time may have been limited, but for where I was headed it was plenty sufficient. I was returning to the zone two suburb that for over a year had been my home; I was returning to Wapping. Wandering around those old streets with its rich history and Overground line. You could almost say I was Wapping free…
A tenuous link, granted, but certainly catchier than…
…At any rate.
Wapping is, in my opinion, one of central London’s best kept secrets. As any map will clearly demonstrate, the little nub of a suburb is located only a stone’s throw from Tower Bridge to the West, and cradled below the trendy Shoreditch to the north. Via the Overground line you need only devote half an hour of your time and find yourself in any number of well-known spots around the capital.
To paraphrase a well known cinematic quote…
…Everything below the A1203 is Wapping. And that shadowy place? That’s Shadwell and I learnt very quickly that I must never go there…especially in Summer clothing on a hot day.
And yet, despite this, throughout my time during and after living in London, no one ever seemed to know the area. At a push telling people it sat below Shoreditch or Whitechapel, sometimes that jogged the die-hards, but otherwise it just became easier to tell people I lived in East London or by Tower Bridge.
Maybe because it lacks the buzzing night-life, maybe because it’s pumped full of millionaire residential flats and well-to-do families with privately educated children, but Wapping never drew the young professionals or the reputation other, similar, areas had gleamed. Whatever the reason for it’s amolimity, I was fine to accept my lowly status of ‘single professional’ in amongst the converted warehouse buildings.
The community watch reports were always printed on the highest quality paper with the most colourful of photographs. You’d find them stuck harshly next to the old lifts by some local who had access to the lockable noticeboard with brass-coloured pins that were starting to rust. Still, these seasonal reports were reassuring and amusing documents.
“No anti-social behaviour spotted on recent night walk with local police, other than a worrying rise in the number of discarded laughing gas canisters littered in alleyways. Will continue to monitor.”
I many regards it often felt like I was back living in the Cotswolds once more.
Due to youth and circumstance I could only afford accommodation on a single, long street of ugly council and ex-council tower blocks, a street that ran through the heart of Wapping like an artery vein and what I’m sure the wealth of the area would probably rename ‘the embarrassment of Wapping’ if they could. But, if it meant I could both walk to Threadneedle street for work and feel safe and removed from the reputation of other districts then that was fine with me. I’d take the shady looks as I crossed down between the overflowing rubbish dumpsters; we all had the same postcode, I just had it for a fraction of the price.
Below is a great mini-documentary of Wapping that’s nicely pitched somewhere between slow TV and attention-demanding:
After roaming these streets freely in the present climate, the daylight and general lack of other people making the experience all the more satisfying, both feet and shoulder were ready for a break from carrying their heavy loads.
I briefly popped by a place I used to work from a lot as a change of scene, a cafe/eatery that was owned by the local community but rented out to private enterprises, the Turk’s Head. As I stepped inside I was taken with how drastically the interior had changed, I could only assume it was due to a refresh or change of ownership. Gone were the plain white walls, the barrel-top tables, the scratchy chalkboards; now there were normal tables, and stylish green colour pallette. It was busier than I remembered it to be.
I decided quite quickly that this wasn’t the place to stop, but not before I tacked up a business card on the community noticeboard by the door, just as it had always been. I ducked out onto the street just as a member of staff caught my eye and started heading towards me.
Cinnamon Coffee Shop, named after the street it corners, it was the one place that I had been determined to visit on my trip above all else, even before I’d set foot on London soil. Even if I’d put my head through the door and been unable to find a seat, I still wouldn’t have forgiven myself if I hadn’t at least tried.
When I lived in Wapping, Cinnamon was local to the very letter. I could leave my flat on the fourth floor and less than five minutes later be sat on one of the curbside seats watching dog-walkers stroll by as I sipped a hot Americano. If I could compile everything I loved about Wapping (and most of London for that matter) it would be the phrase, “my local is an independent coffee shop”.
In my more navie days of London living I’d fantasized about visiting the joint early one Sunday morning with some imagninery guy I’d have been seeing, taking the bold step of introducing him to a closely guarded secret; the place that serves the best coffee.
Sadly or unsadly (the jury is still out on this one), this fictitious scenario never played out and, in the end, it would only ever be my younger sister that got taken on a ‘date’ to see Cinnamon. Entering the shop around eighteen months after the ever first visit, the feeling now was just the same as it had been then. Nothing had changed and neither had my feelings. I’d finally returned.
I handed my loyalty card to the barista; the little piece of card bent around the edges from having spent the best part of a year waiting to be redeemed. Once produced, I lifted the latte (cinnamon, of course) to my window seat where it joined my laptop and book.
Like any great and all-consuming love, I spent over two hours in the same spot, escaping my bubble only briefly on two occasions; one to ‘freshen up’, the other to order a panini at the counter that was less than a meter away.
Even thinking now to this part of my London trip, it seems strange to picture myself planning a day around a coffee shop, only for the time there to be spent mostly staring at a laptop screen. But I suppose in a sense that’s the very definition of happiness or an appreciation of something, when you take it completely for granted. And in my mind it still seems daft that I love this one little coffee shop so much, in the same way that I got a bit emotional when I went to attach my business card to the bottom of the noticeboard, only to find they still had the old one there.
The original had been placed there little over a week before I moved out of London. A different time, a different frame of mind. I once visited a different coffee shop in Wiltshire only to find a week later the owner had striped away everyone’s adverts, so the unusualness of my card’s presence in Cinnamon after all this time, well, it only reaffirmed my respect.
Cinnamon had seen me through the good and bad times of London living, my unchanging urban rock.
I glanced at my watch and realised that time was nipping at my ankles. I tidied up my belongings and found myself, somewhat painfully, having to walk double-time to make my way through Wapping and back to the hotel where my suitcase was being stored.
From the hotel I made my way to Tower Hill underground to catch a Circle Line train back to Paddington train station. To get cheaper tickets I had booked a very specific train, the 16:04. God help me if I missed that and had to face up coughing up for a same day, weekday rush hour train!
(Oh, and I am very much aware of the parody by Amateur Transplants – but let’s not. This a family show after all. I’ll stick with a song about nuclear Armageddon, thanks.)
No trip to London would be complete without a bit of drama, even if it shouldn’t have surprised me. Major delays. Major delays across the entire Circle Line. If that wasn’t enough, it seemed my usually reliable mobile application Mapper was bailing on me too. On one platform it clearly stated trains from that side were going Westward to Paddington, yet Mapper was adamant that I should board trains on the opposite side of the station. Cue the most manic fifteen minutes of my life as, with suitcase and heavy bag of cactus plants in tow, I went back and forth multiple times while I tried to work out which platform to board from. Because of the delays I only missed one train in that time, although I later questioned if I’d followed my gut and the large signs, I’d have got to my destination a lot quicker and less flustered.
Little time to take in the sights of my old friend, no sooner had I arrived at Paddington than I found myself jumping straight into the open arms of the Great Western train that would shortly carry me home.
My ticket specified a particular seat I was assigned to, yet given the length of the train the logistics of even getting to the coach with my luggage would prove a challenge. Let alone potentially dealing with the awkward conversation if I found someone sat in it already.
Instead I played the risky game I was all too familiar with; sitting in another person’s reserved seat in the hope they didn’t show up. I’d like to say I spent my last ten minutes in London musing on my time spent and idly watching life go by in the busy station, however it became a strangely nerve-racking experience. My phone’s battery power must have taken a hit from the constant time, nay second, checking. Each shuffling person in the gangway a reason to tense up and avert my gaze. Thankfully the seat was never reclaimed; I felt my body relax as the tubular bulk of machinery started to pull away.
The last time I’d left London on a similar train I’d been crying, which seems completely daft given London is only an hour away, but completely sensical given (up until the age of 14) I used to religiously cry at the end of every holiday. At the risk of sounding very middle class, I often wonder if my parents bought the holiday cottage in Devon just to shut me up.
13 months in London was always going to compare differently to a week holiday in Norfolk or a two week vacation to Florida. It had started off as a tick box exercise, a short fling to make my CV look better, but it had turned into something so much more substantial than that. Lustful, if not a bit abusive, at times, but an all-consuming affair nonetheless. A chapter was closing, the future was blurry and the things I loved most (the museums, the experiences, the local coffee shop), their accessibility was slipping through my fingers before my very eyes. Can anyone blame a girl for getting emotional?
Looking back on it now, I can fully understand why I’d been so caught in culture shock on moving back to Swindon the year before. All the young professionals, the culture, the high-flying men tripping over themselves to get to know me. And Swindon…just Swindon. That feeling of deep loneliness.
Over time I got over this. Writing was my saviour (as always). The time I used to spend visiting art galleries or on dates or lying in bed sick with frequent migraines, I started to invest that time into doing what I loved most. I told myself that it was okay to not be constantly booked up, that sometimes I needed to offer myself the luxury of a night off.
‘As long as I remember,’ I thought, glancing down at the cactus in my bag as the train gently hummed.
Our speed was increasing rapidly; another sign that we were escaping the clutches of the capital. It was around the time we hit Slough that I thought about a clip from the hit British TV show The Office…
And reading my humble book I smiled to myself, the idea that London could be a bit of a David Brent character when it wanted to be; full of itself and now irritated. Despite four days of passion I was still going scurry back to that poxy little town in the middle of nowhere, back to Swindon.
I looked up from my book and out across the green hills that distinguished the world outside the M25 motorway, musing on many different things. The sun was shining, its setting rays feeling warm against my skin. I closed my eyes and thought deeply of all the things I’m lucky to have in my life. Health, family, a home, a job. And in there somewhere, deep within the list, the ability to visit London whenever I wished. That I’d had the chance to live it fully and now had the luxury of keeping the city on a tight leash. London could have me, but going forward it would be on my terms and my terms alone.
A song sprung to mind and then, as if from nowhere, I heard myself aloud as I started whispering the lyrics against the cold, cold glass.
‘So-called Mr. rock and roll, is dancing on his own again.
Talking on his phone again, to someone who tells him that his balance is low.
He’s got nowhere to go, he’s on his own again…’
Places visited (in order):
- Café Rouge, St Katherine Docks
- The Turk’s Head, Wapping
- Cinnamon Coffee Shop, Wapping
- London Underground
- Paddington Station
Nb – I was not paid to visit any of the above, adding links for reference
London Recalling Series: