The lido

Finally recovered from the trauma of last year’s visit to Brockwell Lido, I took myself off there again this weekend. It is a stunningly beautiful place – more attractive in every way than the Endell Street baths, where you’ll more commonly find me – and early on Easter Sunday morning, it was blessedly empty.

The last time I was there, the combined shock of the cold water and the length and depth of the pool meant that I struggled to swim at all, panic overcoming physical strength almost immediately. This time around the water was no warmer, but I’m so much better at swimming than I was a year ago that I managed to fight through the cold and the panic, and about a length and a half in I started to enjoy myself.

In the end I swam ten lengths, which since the pool is 50 metres long means half a kilometre, which doesn’t sound far but is the first time in my life I’ve ever been able to measure a swim in kilometres rather than metres, even if it only was half a one. And it was blissful and gorgeous and I couldn’t believe I was less than five minutes’ walk from home, because it felt exactly like being on holiday, possibly somewhere angular and Scandinavian.

So I went back again yesterday, and it was swarming with children, apart from in the lanes which had been designated for Serious Swimmers (I could tell they were serious, because they all wore wetsuits and goggles and went at speeds more appropriate to motorised vehicles), of which I am not one. I managed two lengths of getting kicked and jostled and splashed on before I gave up and went and sat poolside with a book. And that was just as much fun as the swimming.

So now I have to decide whether I am going to become someone who swims at the lido, where it is bracing and elegant and I feel faintly heroic having swum there, or someone who swims at Endell Street, which is craven and heated and more like having a bath than a swim. I suppose I could alternate, but annoyingly the lido isn’t one of the pools included in my Swim London membership, so it’s a fiver each time I want to go. Am I a woman of action, or a woman of leisure? This summer, I’ll find out.

Talking of things you can do in Brockwell Park, I played bowls yesterday. Or boules, or petanque, I’m not sure, and in any case we played a bastardised version of it because we didn’t know the rules. But it was nearly as much fun as swimming, and a lot more sociable. I foresee more sunny afternoons spent on the bowling green.

Number 22

(In the light of my sniffy comments about The Rosendale and Pizza Express, it seems only polite to record a happy dining incident in Herne Hill.)

I’m not big on seafood or red meat, so my relationship with tapas has been a tentative one over the years. I like manchego, and boquerones, and patatas bravas and tortilla, but show me an octopus or a pork cheek (what?) and I’ll likely run and hide. However, since the Great Cooking Revolution of 2009 I’ve gradually become more adventurous, so I’m a better prospect for a tapas date now than I’ve ever been. And I’d heard good things about Number 22 on Half Moon Lane, even if it does pretend it’s in Dulwich (it is a two-minute walk from Herne Hill station. It is as much in Herne Hill as a thing can be).

Anyway, it was better than I was expecting, and I would be giving it a round five stars (out of five) if I hadn’t been cold all the way through the meal. I am a naturally cold person, which is why one day I am going to go and live somewhere tropical, but I was wearing a wool dress and tights and furry boots and a scarf and I was still too cold; a problem I exacerbated when I ordered the saffron and passion fruit panna cotta for pudding, having gotten my Italian deserts mixed up (I was expecting a pannetone, and by the way, wouldn’t a saffron and passion fruit pannetone be AMAZING?). A chilled pudding is not what you want when you’re too cold.

But rewind, rewind, because I’ve left out all the good stuff. And there was lots of good stuff. The interior is halfway between a wine bar and someone’s living room, with the obligatory bad art for sale on the walls (this is such a feature of Herne Hill eateries that I would feel bereft if it weren’t there). The tables are well-spaced for such a small place, and we had a nook of our own whose only disadvantage was that we had to stand up and wave to get a waiter’s attention, so tucked-away were we. But rather that than one of my pet restaurant hates: the waiter who comes by and interrupts the conversation every few minutes to ask whether everything’s OK, as though you might not have the wit to let them know otherwise. They always seem to arrive just as I’m at the punchline of a joke. I can’t help suspecting they do it deliberately. I’d always rather too little attention from waiters than too much.

But mainly I want to talk about the food, because the food was terrific. We ordered padron peppers and chorizo and potato skewers with bread and oil to start, and then rabbit, clams, seared tuna with fennel and orange, tortilla and deep-fried goat’s cheese for the main course (unlike in traditional tapas bars, Number 22 times everything to arrive together, so they have the dishes divided into appetisers, tapas and extras), but the waitress told us the goat’s cheese was best with the bread and oil and suggested we have it alongside the appetisers rather than with the main course, which we did. I like it when the staff know better than you and politely tell you so.

All the appetisers were good, although if I had to nitpick I’d say that the bread was a bit dull (but then, is Spanish bread a thing? I don’t think it is, really), but the mains were really spectacular. The tuna was cooked in that way that proper cooks cook it, where you just wave it over the heat for a split-second, and I was nervous about eating it because I thought it would be chewy and jellific, but in fact it melted in the mouth like a pâté de foie gras, only more ethical (just). The rabbit was moist and delicious, the tortilla had exactly the right consistency, and the clams, which I only tried out of curiosity, expecting to hate them (I traditionally gag on shellfish), were completely delicious and the surprise star of the night.

It’s not cheap – our bill came to just over £80 with service, and that was without wine, although it did include a bottle of beer and a brandy, and a ginger beer, which I would heartily recommend as a non-alcoholic alternative to dessert wine – but for a special occasion it’s as good a suburban restaurant as I’ve eaten at. Just maybe go in the summer, or pack a spare jumper.

WC2, commuting, and small flats

This winter, I changed jobs. Everything about the new job is an improvement on the old one, but one thing that’s so palpably better that it makes me want to weep with the relief is the location. Until late last year, I was commuting from glorious Herne Hill to the wilderness of White City, a journey of roughly ten miles, all of them unwelcoming and frenetic. In comparison, my 45-minute hop up to the West End on the reliably speedy number 3 bus seems like unimaginable luxury, although I suppose I might tire of it eventually, and since my destination is now only 4.5 miles away my average speed of 6mph could probably be improved upon, unless I’ve got the maths wrong, which no doubt I have.

Whatever, the point is that once I get to WC2 I am in WC2, which is a place of surprise and adventure. It’s an area of London I’ve known for as long as I can remember – what Londoner hasn’t? – but being there daily, and relying on it for my everyday chores and routines and treats, is something else entirely. I have learned which sandwich shops always use fresh bread and don’t charge obscene tourist prices (naturally, I’m not telling you which they are), and I’ve found a friendly and charming woman called Rita who will do my eyebrows, which are terrifying to behold in their natural state and need a firm hand, and I am on nodding terms with an elderly man who lives in the flats that overlook the open-air pool on Endell Street and spends his days in the café where I go for lunch after I’ve been swimming. Suddenly, in myriad small but miraculous ways, this corner of the city belongs to me.

And I love it. Tucked away between Leicester Square and Covent Garden are more shops, galleries and restaurants than I ever expect to have time to investigate. I could eat somewhere different every day. I have read the spines of a tiny percentage of the books for sale in the secondhand shops along Charing Cross Road and already found fifty books I want to buy, although so far I have limited myself to an Agatha Christie and the Observer’s Book Of Weather. I have discovered a gothic church I’d never seen before, two proper sweet shops, the Equity headquarters and a part of Neal’s Yard I never knew was there. And I haven’t even started yet.

But back to that commute. As I mentioned, 45 minutes for a journey of four and a half miles is not, in the scheme of things, an impressive rate of motion. But I’m coming from a commute that lasted 75 minutes and involved a walk, a tube, a change, another tube and a walk, or, if I wasn’t in a hurry, a shorter walk, a train, a change, a tube and a longer walk. Either way, the journey was crowded and unpleasant. So relatively speaking, my new journey is a breeze.

I think it’s impossible to overestimate the importance of relativity when it comes to health, wealth and happiness. I had a horrible commute for eighteen months, so this one makes me happy. If you’re ill, getting better makes you happy. If you’d given me £50 when I was a student you’d have made me happy. Now I’d just think “fine, that’ll go towards this month’s service charge”.

All of which gives me great hopes for the future, because the longer the beloved and I share a flat that’s barely big enough for one, and a bed that was never designed for two, the happier we’ll be when we get to live somewhere that’s properly big enough for a couple and has a BATH. I hope I never get everything I’ve always dreamed of, so I can always gleefully anticipate the day when I do.

Eating out in Herne Hill: another lesson from history

That last post about swimming was Glad all over’s four hundredth. If I’d known, I would have written something more momentous. This blog’s about to be three years old, which means it gets an average of 2.5 posts a week, except that that’s misleading because there’s always at least one post a day during December, which means there are fewer the rest of the time. But there you go – three years and it’s still alive, and thoughtful and attractive people like you are still looking at it, which is the main thing. I always thought blogs should ideally be about something – should have some kind of focus or area of interest around which posts are written. Actually I still think that about every other blog. But Glad all over isn’t about anything. Sorry.

Anyway, that gives me the freedom to write about whatever I like, so today I’m going to write about eating places in Herne Hill. There is a Spanish restaurant and a Thai place and I haven’t tried either of those and I should and will, but at midday on a Saturday there is a paucity of places to eat in SE24, especially when you are a party of six of whom one is eleven years old. The pubs aren’t particularly child-friendly, except for The Florence, but there they have a rule that insists parties with children, even a single sober and very grown-up eleven-year-old, have to sit out back in the slightly scummy conservatory area, rather than in the nice warm bit where the bar is. Anyway I don’t like The Florence. It’s home to a rugby-shirted Clapham-ish crowd that I’m happier avoiding, and the music is too loud.

There’s Pullens, which is lovely but never not full at the weekend. There’s Café Provençal which has a charming East-Dulwichy sort of atmosphere but not particularly good food. And there’s Pizza Express, which I’m afraid is where we ended up, having ruled out all the other options. The Pizza Express in Herne Hill is new, having taken over the empty space previously occupied by Three Monkeys, the much-missed Indian restaurant which closed down within weeks of being taken over by Mela. I don’t need to describe it to you: it’s exactly like every other Pizza Express. They’ve even managed to rip out the feature staircase and gallery that was a highlight of Three Monkeys, to make it even more blandly unsurprising.

What did surprise me today, though, was that when I asked for a mozzarella and tomato salad, the waiter told me they’d “run out”. Now.  Am I mad, or is it entirely inconceivable that a pizza restaurant would, shortly after midday on a Saturday, have “run out” of the constituent parts of mozzarella and tomato salad? This is not a swanky salad with special and hard-to-find ingredients: it’s made with mozzarella, tomatoes and basil – three things that form the basis of pretty much every single dish on the Pizza Express menu. Had I been feeling livelier I would have questioned the waiter’s confident assertion, but I wasn’t, so I didn’t. But still. Pizza Express, eh? Next time, remind me to disguise the eleven-year-old as an OAP and go straight to the Half Moon, where the pizzas are cheaper and nicer and you can watch the football.

The park again

I took this picture in the south-west corner of Brockwell Park yesterday. I love the city views, but I really like this one too, because you can pretend you’re in the countryside:

Talking of nature, we spent a couple of hours last Sunday afternoon in the back garden of the Crown and Greyhound in Dulwich Village, where we were protected from a brief bout of rain by this monster, whose branches extend so far across the garden that nobody got wet at all:

I think it’s a horse chestnut, but I would be happy to be corrected.

Lambeth Country Show 2010

I usually wring every last available drop of fun out of the Country Show, but this year, for a variety of reasons, I only spent a couple of hours there each day and as a result I felt I missed quite a lot of it. I went to bed last night feeling faintly sad and anxious at not having spent more time there, like a child who suddenly realises that when she wakes up it won’t be Christmas any more.

But when I awoke this morning I remembered that it’s quality, not quantity, that counts; and this year’s show was one of the best I can remember. The weather was perfect – sunny and warm but not hot – and the music was super (Alabama 3 in particular were brilliant, as they always are); the atmosphere was better than ever and despite record attendance it felt completely relaxed and friendly everywhere I went. It was nothing at all like that year that we had to dive out of the way of a bunch of teenagers trying to stab another bunch of teenagers. (But then, I was child-free this year, so I didn’t have to go to the funfair.)

Here’s a girl dancing in front of a parade that popped up out of nowhere while we were buying books for 20p each from the library van:

And here’s another shot of the same parade:

According to the South London Press, 180,000 people attended the show over the two days. So it was doubly odd to find myself back there this morning, one of perhaps half a dozen people whose daily business takes them into Brockwell Park at 7am. It looked empty and silent, but also kind of beautiful:

Forget Cyprus, I never want to live away from here.

(The full sets of photos are here and here.)

Onward and upward

Dang. I was so close to being right about Holland winning the World Cup! But I’m glad Spain won it, because they deserved to, and because I have more Spanish than Dutch friends. Although I have just inspected my bank balance and it turns out the cash I would have won had Holland beaten Spain would have been very useful (payday is Thursday). Oh well.

Anyway, I’m going to move on and pretend none of it ever happened, and I’m going to start looking forward to the event of the year, the Lambeth Country Show at Brockwell Park this weekend. The Lambeth Country Show is worth our council tax on its own. There’s live music, actual animals, jousting, fruit and vegetable shows, craft stalls, cake, cider, a funfair and sheep-shearing demonstrations. It is the most fun in the world, and it’s all free and on my doorstep. Who needs holidays?

Bookshop dilemma

A new bookshop has recently opened in Herne Hill, which has for the first time caused me to question my highly successful “no new books” policy. We already have an Oxfam shop with a good selection of books, and I am a library member and anyway have a pile of about thirty unread books sitting in the flat, all of which are good reasons for not buying any new books at all, let alone new books at full price, which in Herne Hill Books they mostly are.

And yet. I’d like them to do well, and not have to close down in six months’ time because everybody thinks the same way as me. Apart from anything else, you can’t give library books or Oxfam books as presents, so it’s useful to have somewhere nearby available for emergency birthday purchases when I’ve left it too late to go anywhere else.

I solved this dilemma temporarily today by buying a copy of East of Acre Lane, which since it’s set locally seemed an appropriate purchase, even though it broke the rule. And I think I have a good ongoing solution too, which is to order my book club books from there, since they are exempt from the rule, being too hard to find by other means. I just have to remember not to accidentally buy a pile of four extra books each time I go in to place an order. I will let you know how I get along.

But right now, I have to go: it’s Ronnie O’Sullivan v Mark Williams in the snooker semi-final. Shh.