Hotbox & Columbia Road

I apologise for the amount of ‘lifestyle blog’ cliches about to be unleashed on you, but I’m afraid I’m going to do it anyway.

Last Sunday we headed out to Shoreditch for brunch at Hotbox on Commercial Street. Renowned for top notch barbecue food, the venue opened in late 2014, and has just expanded the menu to include an absolutely stonking brunch. This also involves a bottomless option: all the Bloody Marys, Prosecco and Mimosas you can hack for 25 quid.

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We got there on time to avoid longer queues – I even missed The Archers to haul myself out East, but I regret nothing. From the second we arrived, the staff were a delight, calmly and politely handling the jostling queues. The waiter we had was an absolute peach; chatty and attentive without being disruptive. The venue itself is dark and cosy, with long tables and benches, high stools and ledges. Everything has been designed with precision: tiny glasses are topped up from an industrial steel jug, lightbulbs are bare, black frames abound. The music is excellent: from Sly & the Family Stone to Roxy Music within a track, ideal for a Sunday.

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The brunch menu is instantly appealing – we opted for Huevos Rancheros, avocado and roasted corn on sourdough, and smoked mac & cheese. To turn down the opportunity for macaroni cheese at what is ultimately a breakfast hour is criminal, and I question anyone’s motives for doing so. We shared all our dishes (particularly difficult on said mac & cheese…there was nearly a fight) which was a strategic move designed to give us as much of the menu to try as possible.

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Dipping a spoon into the Huevos Rancheros was a glorious experience thanks to eggs with exactly the right amount of runniness, a green coriander sauce, and a reassuring dollop of chunky guacamole. The sourdough dish was an excellent balance of sweetness from the roast corn, spice from paprika, and the creaminess of the avocado. I’ve been let down by so many macaroni cheeses in my life, and joyfully this was not so at Hotbox. Oozy and smoky with a crispy topping, I could happily have eaten a whole panful. The Bloody Marys were pleasing but perhaps a little watery, although the spicing, celery AND lemon wedge were spot on. I cannot recommend Hotbox enough – just make sure you get there as close to 11.30 as possible. After all, you can listen to The Archers on iPlayer.

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Barely able to move, we somehow manouevred ourselves down Brick Lane and through the market, on a floral mission. I used to keep flowers in my room as a matter of course, but when I started trying to cut down my expenditure, they were the first to go. I forgot how cheering heading home with armfuls of fresh flowers was, and meandering down the market was a joy. We took our time (we didn’t have much choice, given how stacked the place was), and enjoyed the sunshine and a coffee from one of the little wall cafes that appear all over the area.

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By the time I headed home, I felt like I’d been on holiday. I’m often staunchly anti-East, just because I’m a big fan of South West. But on a Sunday, there was a special atmosphere. There’s not really anything like it on my side of London – the energy, the people, the architecture of the place. I’m determined to explore more of this city, instead of just sticking to my little corner, so stay posted!

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Secret Mondays

Firstly, apologies for this very long post! I wrote it straight after the session and was quite inspired…

I’ve become aware recently that I need to take a bit of time to address the way I think, the way I work, and even just the way I spend my time away from the office. Working long hours in social media has fried my brain. The constant switching from task to task has shortened my attention span, broken up my thought patterns, and left me with this insistent tugging feeling at the corners of my brain, like there’s always something I’ve just forgotten to do. I have a screen in front of my face for most of the day, I’ll sit in front of the TV with my laptop out, balancing a phone in my hand and skipping from app to window to remote. I’m in so many different places at once, and yet not really in any of them. My thoughts are half-formed, always about to turn to the next thing to deal with.2015-02-09 09.26.26 1

I read a while ago that while you think you may be multi-tasking by constantly switching between what you’re working on, your brain actually stops and has to restart again to address the next thing. It’s harder to get anything finished, you’re overloading your brain with too much information, and you end up feeling overwhelmed. Growing up, I spent a lot of time outside or reading books. I could retreat into my own head for hours. These days, I watch as notifications pile up on my phone, emails flood into my inboxes, and I am further trapped behind screens. I’ve been trying to implement two hours without any screens every weekend, and the first time I tried it, it felt like days. Then it suddenly started feeling lovely, and I was conscious of everything I was doing, not numbing myself with a phone.

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I’ve been questioning the way I do things for a while, and looking for a better path, but it was by pure coincidence that I stumbled across Calmworks. Last week, I’d just tried a Vivid Matcha drink, and was dancing around with giddy joy at how delicious the Pear & Rhubarb juice was, and how I couldn’t taste the unbearably grassy classic matcha taste. I took to Twitter to share my delight, and on the Vivid page I spotted something about mindfulness. I’d heard about it, vaguely, and admired the principles of slowing down and being in the moment. A few clicks later and I’d signed up for a very mysterious #SecretMonday event with Calmworks. This is due to be a monthly event at secret locations across London, features a talk and various exercises, plus a perfect opportunity for networking. Tonight we were at the House of St Barnabas, and the crowd included journos, techies, PR types, captains of industry etc.

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Despite a childhood spent barefoot wandering around fields, reading poetry and whatnot, I’ve traditionally been very dubious about things like meditation and yoga. I’ll be the first person to yell BORING, running off to my fast paced cardio or my loud music. I’ve never had any inclination to look introspectively, and if anyone has forced me to meditate, I’ve spent the entire time thinking about what to have for dinner. Lifestyle improvement programmes, self-help and general surrounding jargon freak me out. The tiniest hint of patchouli oil and you won’t see me for dust. So let me be clear – mindfulness is not the same traditional meditation, and encourages you to pay close attention to what’s happening in the present moment. It’s more like an exercise for your mind, training yourself to think in a certain way, and taking a step back to reflect. The Calmworks website reassured my hardened, cynical heart, looking as it does like the beautifully designed homepage of some tech startup.

Even so, I was worried we’d be greeted by some tie-dyed, brain-fried old dude, telling us to imagine invisible threads and clear our minds. Thankfully not – there was wine on arrival, and two excellent chaps (Malcolm Scovil and Alexis John Bicat) to welcome us in. No one had the sheeny light of the born again in their eyes, no one was talking about chakras, and there was absolutely no incense. Instead, we were told to choose a coloured envelope, which contained a handwritten, uplifting quote, and a question to ask at least three people by the end of the evening. In case you were wondering, my question was ‘Growing up, what was your favourite toy?’

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The atmosphere was inviting, friendly, and accessible, and Malcolm was a wonderful and entertaining host. I cringed at precisely zero moments. We had a talk from neuroscientist Dr. Tamara Russell, which was absolutely excellent, and dispelled any remaining fears I might have had about the hippieishness of the night. In short, she talked a LOT of sense, both in scientific and emotional terms. Alexis then took us through some mindfulness exercises, which were a million times better than normal meditation. For one thing, he explained that getting distracted was perfectly normal, and that the aim was just to try and slow your thoughts down. This got easier with each exercise, and I found myself getting surprisingly emotional at one point as I filtered through thoughts. It’s alarming how rarely most of us pause. Alexis was a brilliant teacher, not least because his final exercise involved eating chocolate. I can see why he’d be the ideal person to lead mindfulness sessions at various high profile companies.

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I don’t want to reveal too much about the night, as I think it’s something everyone should experience for themselves – and after all, it is called *Secret* Mondays. But it’s so important to develop techniques like this to become stronger, happier and more capable in life, and to understand how to live in the moment.

A huge thank you to Calmworks, to Malcolm, Tamara and Alexis for a truly incredible experience. I feel very lucky to have been a part of it. IMG_20150209_214008

Last Days: Camden Beach

A couple of weeks ago, I was at a loss for what to do, and fancied a bit of beach action. Home home is 20 minutes from Brighton, but as anyone who’s faced that pebbly megahulk before knows, it’s not the place to get sand between your toes and lie back contemplating the marvels of existence on a sunny day. In fact, you’re more likely to stumble across some druggy teen and sit there getting sad about the burnt down pier and the increasing shabbiness of the place as much as anything. Oh, and have you tried going through East Croydon on a sunny day? Forget it.

Instead, I opted for Time Out’s number one attraction of the week, Camden Beach. My friend later told me he was extreeeemely sceptical about going to the most popular place in T.O. on a sunny Sunday, but we trekked out to Chalk Farm tube and joined the queue. As my friends/colleagues (frolleagues) will tell you, I *hate* queuing. I turn into my dad, loudly tutting and getting increasingly irate, swaggering around declaiming ‘I just DON’T queue, I don’t do it. I refuse’. Well, on this day, I dealt with it and we only waited about 15-20 minutes to get in. You’ll actually be grateful for the queuing system once you’re in, because it ensures the place doesn’t get overcrowded.

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We found a spot, grabbed some drinks from the Tiki bar, and settled down for a couple of hours in the sunshine. They’ve got music playing, deckchairs, little beach huts, a volleyball net, a champagne & hot dog stand, and all sorts of other delights for city-dwelling beach lovers. I had a ridiculously good time – while it’s never quite going to match up to a glorious Cornish beach, there’s something pleasing on a deep level about getting covered in sand and lolling about with a cider. We even made sandcastles! It took a while to work out the optimum sand:water ratio, but once we had it, there was no turning back. We spotted a nearby girl getting jealous and attempting to emulate us with little success…she was a bottle of Prosecco worse for wear though, so I should be more generous.

I can strongly recommend it as a day out. It’s free to get in, and I made a pint of cider last a very long time, so you can do the whole thing on a minimal budget if you so choose. Bear in mind you can’t take any bottles in yourself though, so if you were considering beating the system, you should think again, sunshine. Take a few friends, take a bucket and spade, and enjoy the slightly disconcerting experience of seeing the Camden skyline while surrounded by sand and beach huts. To quote their tagline: you’ve got 99 problems, but a beach ain’t one.

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St Ives Day Seven

The final days whizzed by in a flurry of confusing weather and…well, more food. The town started to hum and buzz with talk of the oncoming storm. Hatches were beginning to be battened down, town-dwellers told us how lucky we were to be heading home before it hit.

That said, Friday was one of the most glorious days of the week, and I set out to make the most of it with a walk around the headland, where I always like to pretend I’m a tragic Thomas Hardy heroine roaming the rugged countryside. A Thomas Hardy heroine with a DSLR and sunglasses, that is.

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Not far into my walk, however, I spotted one of the most terrifying scarecrows I’ve ever seen. I thought they were just supposed to scare birds, not people?

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By a stroke of luck, some of my lovely family were also down in the Wall of Corn for the week, and we all united for lunch at Porthminster.

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I wore a dress for the first time this week. It felt really weird.

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I started lunch with a cocktail and found myself dizzying somewhat after a single sip: whisky, cider with ginger, tonka bean and chilli syrup…

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I had the most incredible vegetable curry – savoury but aromatic, full of fresh veg and coconut milk.

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If you go for one thing at Porthminster, make it a dessert. While the language of the menu may put you off (all ‘deconstructions’, ‘foam’ and ‘naked brulee’), the puds are where the chefs display phenomenal skill. I had the aforementioned “naked brulee”, essentially a square of chocolate crème with the finest crispy brulee layer, plus peppermint honeycomb, vanilla milk sorbet and brownie dust.

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My uncle had caramelised bananas with a pistachio aero mousse, whisky cream and salted caramel, and Mummy Simmons had petit fours, displayed a la rock.

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Followed by a short stroll along the beach.

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And finally, I visited the Tate, who do free entry on Friday evenings. I’ve never had much success with the place as I’m not a huge modern art appreciator. The only exhibition I’ve enjoyed in the past was one by Simon Fujiwara. This time, however, the exhibition Aquatopia combines modern pieces with paintings by J.M.W Turner and Stanhope Forbes. It was immersive, atmospheric, and only made me roll my eyes once or twice – quite an achievement for the Tate.

Bye bye St Ives!

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St Ives Days Five and Six

One of the mainstays of any week in St Ives is a huge breakfast at Porthmeor cafe. Breakfast is probably my favourite meal of the day, and the bigger the better as far as I’m concerned.  Porthmeor offer a pick-and-mix fry up, where you can opt to keep it healthy with poached eggs, butternut squash and cherry tomatoes, or go to the dark side with hash browns and bacon.

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I can also heartily recommend the buttermilk pancakes with bananas, raspberries, whipped pecan butter and maple syrup…

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Fuelled for the day by extravagant brekkers, we strolled across town to take the train. Now, spending hours on a train forms a large part of my week, so you’d think I’d run screaming, right? This isn’t your average commute, though. This is one of the most beautiful  train journeys in the country (and I’m pretty sure that’s been verified by…someone, somewhere). Words don’t do it justice, so here are some photos instead.

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The weather was spectacular, turning everything around Porthminster into a potential Metronomy album cover.

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Taking a stroll through the town, I spotted some lovely chaps outside the Allotment Deli, and a rather unusual selling point for an umbrella.

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In the evening, we headed to The Loft to watch the town get dark over cocktails: an absolutely smashing espresso martini and a refreshing mimosa.

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St Ives Day Four

This post is devoted to one of my favourite places it St Ives.

Is it the Tate, packed to the rafters with beautiful art? No.

Is it Porthminster beach, a wonder of golden sand and proud palm trees? No.

It’s the Hub, a restaurant and bar in the harbour.

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I’ve been coming to St Ives for quite a long time, and I’ve seen the Hub transform from a bar which did a bit of food to a proper, family restaurant. The menu is a burgerfest (hot dogs if you’re feeling adventurous), bolstered by hale and hearty sides and a decent selection of craft beers.

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I’ve raged on here about a lack of decent veggie burgers before – a mushroom is not, and never will be, a burger! So I was delighted to see the Hub offering proper, well-conceived veggie burgers. I had a falafel burger, piled high with chilli jam, charred corn and guacamole, stacked in a plump brioche bun. Proper consideration has gone into making the vegetarian options as exciting and delicious as the rest of the menu.

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Because I’m greedy, a burger just didn’t seem enough. I ordered apple slaw and macaroni cheese, topped off with a gloriously zesty iced tea. I was soon backtracking on my decision, as I left the restaurant barely able to walk and couldn’t eat for the of the day. Well, not MUCH.

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The staff are great, the atmosphere is laidback, and the food beats any of the veggie burgers I’ve had in London so far. And it’s great value! Strongly recommend it if you’re down this way.

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Once I’d regained the use of my legs, I headed home, spotting some amazing graffiti on the way:

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And finally home to fire up the woodburner, and settled down with Douglas Coupland’s ‘Girlfriend in a Coma’. It started out nice and normal(ish) and ended up as a nighmarish post-apocalyptic vision of the future. So, um, that was a nice relaxing holiday read!

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St Ives Days Two and Three

Days are very fluid in Cornwall. Time becomes elastic, with some days seeming to whiz by, and others going on forever. My second and third days here already seem ages ago already. I’ve stopped wearing a watch and am finally stating to loosen my grip on my phone, meaning I tend to go hours without any idea of what time it is. I can highly recommend that!

More beach time and more wandering – you can’t get round the town without spotting at least one Hepworth sculpture!

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Less common, though is the sight of a fox in a tiara…

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Yo homes, to Bellair (Terrace)

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Making use of the fantastic kitchen in the property, I made some extremely lazy comfort food – pasta in red wine and tomato sauce, with Portobello mushrooms pan-fried with rosemary and garlic, and a super simple panzanella. Not worth recipising (that’s a word!) on here as it was very basic.

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I also made the cheesiest toasty known to man. The Bruce Forsyth of toasties.

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Porthmeor Cafe Despite the proliferation of grilled cheese at home, we did manage to eat out at an old favourite. The Porthmeor cafe is perched centrally on the beach, complete with a glass roof and little cubby holes outside. Great value for money, boasting some of the nicest staff in St Ives, and full of imaginative culinary creations, it’s somewhere I keep coming back to.

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Only open at lunchtimes during the Winter, lunch takes the form of a variety of tapas-style dishes. It’s a dream for vegetarians – veg dishes are seamlessly integrated into the menu without feeling a) tacked on, or b) like you’re missing out on all the decent stuff.

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It’s worth saving space for pudding though, which is consistently delicious. I opted for treacle tart with blood oranges and marmalade syrup…

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The dress code? More stripes, of course.

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