Sunday, 13 November 2011

Cycle killers, qu'est-ce que c'est?

I couldn't make yesterday's Tour du Danger, the mass bike ride that took in London's most perilous junctions. It was, by all accounts, a chance for two-wheelers to stick up two spokes to those authorities making the city's streets less – rather than more – safe for cycling.

Several hundred cyclists rode through the capital to call on Transport for London to redesign the most dangerous roads, and to do so quickly to prevent any more deaths. Cycling fatalities this year already stand at 15 - and the latest TfL figures show an eight per cent rise in cycling casualties, despite a decline among other road users.

In the past three weeks alone, two cyclists have been killed while riding on roads that will form part of the London 2012 Olympic cycle route.

Last month, Brian Dorling, a 58-year-old cyclist, became the first to be killed on one of Boris Johnson's flagship cycle superhighways when he was involved in a collision with a tipper truck at the Bow Flyover roundabout.

On Friday, a 34-year-old woman became the capital's 15th casualty this year when was crushed by a lorry on the same superhighway, the CS2, on the westbound carriageway at the Bow Road roundabout. The mayor had been asked to do something about safety at this now notorious blackspot at a London Assembly meeting just days earlier.





I for one hate riding on the blue superhighways: the painted lane always *looks* dangerously slippery even before a rush-hour downpour - I thought I'd offer a few ideas for the mayor and TfL to do to help prevent cyclist deaths.


1. Redesign bad junctions. It's particularly poor that the citywide street "improvement" programme that's carving up roads to make them ready for the "greenest Olympics ever" seems to be putting motorists' needs ahead of cyclists. Why else increase the speed limit over Blackfriars Bridge from 20mph to 30mph if not to give somewhere in town for drivers to put their foot down?

2. Remind cyclists is okay to ride like a motorist. Don't cycle in the gutters, or in those cycle lanes that stop suddenly or make you weave into the path of traffic put you in danger. Move away from the kerb. Hog the road if you have to. The lane is as much yours as it is the angry driver trying to overtake you.

3. Re-educate (educate?) drivers and motorcyclists that they should keep out of the Advanced Stop zones at the front of traffic at lights. Such provisions are there to give cyclists a sporting a chance of pedalling off without being crushed; they're a traffic-calmer, too. Cyclists can stick together by aligning themselves in such a way as to keep motorised vehicles out, and take snaps of offenders' number plates and post them online at My Bike Lane - it's a brilliant site, and also good for naming and shaming those who park in cycle lanes.

(What have I missed?)

And if they don't listen, let's protest again (as Chubby Checker almost sang). Or get people in higher places to. With the Barclays-sponsored cycle superhighways now being talked about as deathtraps, it might be ready to flex its muscle at the LGA before its name is linked with any more fatalities. Anyone got an email for the chairman?


UPDATE: there's a handy, at-a-glance graph that shows how London roads are becoming more dangerous for cyclists, here.



Monday, 7 November 2011

Are you man enough for yoga?

Here's something I wrote about losing my yoga virginity, for The Sunday Telegraph. Bring on the sarky comments...


How hard can it be to join generation flex?
Matt Julian (right), of The Third Space fitness club in Soho shows me how


Are you one of the estimated tens of thousands of men in the UK who have discovered the wonders of yoga? No, me neither. I don’t know my asana from my elbow – but lately it seems as though everybody else does.

Even footballers; Ryan Giggs was so pleased that downward dogging helped him become one of the oldest players in the Premiership, he released a “yoga for men” DVD. Leading sportsmen, from Andy Murray and Evander Holyfield to the entire New Zealand All Blacks, rave about how yoga tones muscle, improves flexibility and increases endurance.


According to the current issue of Men’s Health, one pose in particular – vipareeta karani, or the legs-up-a-wall shoulder stand to those who don’t speak Sanskrit – can even halt hair loss.

And yet despite all the chatter, it still seems irredeemably… girly.

Not any more. James Muthana, founder of YogaAt.com, which offers tailored sessions in the workplace, says that the gender balance of his classes has recently reversed. Men now regularly outnumber the women.

“Yoga is no longer the preserve of the hippy-dippy stereotype. The men we teach fit a common profile: they’re between 30 and 40, work in the City, and do two or three sessions a week to maintain peak condition for their main sport, be it rugby, football, running or triathlons. They’ve realised that yoga is great for keeping trim, sculpting the abs, as well as providing that calm but focussed mental attitude that’s useful at work and play. They’re not looking to find themselves. They see yoga as part of their general conditioning.”

But the hardest part, says James, is getting blokes into the class. “I just remind them they’re going into a relaxed environment with a large number of 20- to 40-year-old women who look after themselves. It’s quite an attractive proposition.”

As a yoga virgin, I head to The Third Space fitness club in central London for a taster session. Matt Julian, general manager and its yoga and pilates instructor, agrees that yoga is no longer the preserve of the fairer sex – if it ever was.

“Originally, women weren’t allowed to do yoga,” he says. “For blokes, it’s more a case of asking yourself: are you man enough? There are plenty of moves that men are better at than women – such as this.” He drops to the floor, into a squat, and performs a mini handstand – the Crow. It looks like he could be armwrestling himself. Can yoga get much more manly than that?

Matt, who did his first sun saluation four years ago – “when I could barely touch my toes” – now has the zeal of a convert. He finds at least ten minutes a day to practice his asanas, the various positions that go together to make up a routine. Given there are dozens, if not hundreds, of variants, recommends a beginner like me might benefit from vinyasa flow, a dynamic power yoga based on a series of key poses that you combine into circuits. Repeat until exhausted.

How hard can it be to join generation flex? It’s tougher on the ego than the muscles, says Matt. “Guys don’t like feeling like the worst in the class. Yoga’s not conventionally competitive, but you are competing with yourself to maintain your breathing and your pose.”

Matt shows me a few key moves – the ‘Sun Salutation’, ‘Downward Dog’ and ‘Warrior’ – all of which have Sanskrit names that I promptly forget, and require strength and that you breathe in and out through the nose, “like Darth Vader”. I can do that.

To my surprise, I can also do some of the stretches and hold some of the trickier poses (ta-dah, bending-over-backwards ‘Bridge’!). I can almost keep up with Matt’s everchanging flow of contortions, too. It’s aerobics meets Twister.

“Can you feel the heat building up and a sweat coming on?” he asks. We’re only a minute in, and I am already dripping wet. For such a gentle and deceptively simple circuit workout, I feel a furnace-like glow at the end. But it’s the following day that I really feel the benefit – or, rather, a dull ache all over, and stiffness in muscles that haven’t been used for ages.

If I could just get the hang of a few poses – and the correct places to breathe – I can see myself doing a ten-minute session on the yoga mat every so often, before work or after a gym workout. I feel myself going native.

“Good,” says Matt. “The world would be a better place if more men did yoga.”


* The Third Space (13 Sherwood Street, W1F, 020 7439 6333, www.thethirdspace.com); www.Yoga.At.com

* The photographs were taken by the remarkable Clapton-based photographer, Rii Schroer. Cheers, mate. Check out her amazing portfolio here.

Friday, 30 September 2011

It's snowing in Clapton...

September 30, 2011 - that's today... - could go down as the hottest September day since the 1800s. It's nudging at 30 degrees "out there"...

So here's something to cool you down.


Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Taste the wild on Walthamstow Marshes


Here's a piece of mine about foraging for food in Hackney, which appeared last weekend in The Sunday Telegraph.


Where I live in London’s east end, it’s a rare urban idyll. A minute from my door, there’s a convenience store; a minute in the opposite direction and you’re on one of the last remaining wetlands in the capital.

The view from my kitchen is truly bucolic, overlooking the 90-acre nature reserve. With the window ajar, I can just make out the distant rattle of overland trains and, this being Hackney, the squeal of police car sirens.

Chris Bax, Countryfile’s intrepid forager who teaches at Taste The Wild, the woodland skills school in North Yorkshire, thinks I can find fresher and certainly more interesting produce on Walthamstow Marshes than in my local shop. So I’ve invited him to show me how to find it.

Chris, who’s quietly passionate about all things picked and plucked, stops in his tracks and emits a satisfied squeal as he examines a patch of weeds growing my the marshes entrance. “You’ve got an entire wild herb garden on your doorstep,” he enthuses, getting breathless with excitement. “I thought we might find a few things, but the range of stuff growing here is just… bonkers!”

We could do with a supermarket basket for all the goodies he’s about to find on the verges, in the hedgerows, hanging from trees. By the marshland footpath, he spots a tall, silvery plant. He rips off a flowerhead, scrunches it up in his fist, and takes a deep sniff. “Mugwort,” he says, aaah-ing as he exhales. “Crush it and you’ll get citrus first.” The lemony aroma is heady and, to me, not unlike Fairy liquid.

“But it’s also full of umami,” he says – the hallowed “fifth taste” (after salty, sour, sweet and bitter) that is often translated from the Japanase as ‘savouriness’.

As mugwort sounds like something out of Harry Potter, I want to be sure it’s safe to eat – and what to do with it. “It’s an aromatic perrenial herb, and mostly overlooked in the kitchen,” he says. “You can use the flowerhead and leaves to enrich stocks and chutneys. It’ll adds meatiness to gravy and Sunday roasts.”

Some of the country’s more adventurous Michelin-starred restaurants, such as L’Enclume, on the edge of the Lake District, are doing their bit to bring it back into culinary circulation; chef and patron Simon Rogan has used mugwort to prepare duck and suckling pig. You can’t buy it in fresh in supermarkets – but it’s happily growing for free and mostly unnoticed by the River Lea.

Moving on, Chris finds a patch of yarrow, a “bitter but pretty” culinary herb with fronds shaped like a feather. “It’s amazing just how many urban weeds are edible,” he says. “This, you can just chuck into salads.”

Next, he spots a spear thistle, with its purple plume and spiny stem. But peel that away, and inside there’s a succulent green thread that’s mild and crunchy – “just like celery,” marvels Chris, nibbling away. “You can toss this like noodles into stir-fries.”

As we walk on, we alight upon a batch of comfrey, a pretty, purple flowering plant with furry, cucumber-scented leaves – but with potentially carbolic properties if digested in great quantity. Chris decides it’s a suitable point for a few do’s and don’ts when picking and preparing wild food.

“Take what you’ve foraged in moderation to begin with,” he advises. “Don’t, for instance, make a whole stew from mugwort alone. Try adding a little bit to dishes. Take it slowly. And if in any doubt, don’t eat it.”

[subs, don’t delete this par] Fittingly for this urban area of London popular with media trendies, he pulls out his iPhone and shows me a free downloadable app that has descriptinos and full-screen pictures to help autumn foragers identify plants. The Wild Jam Maker app by Stoves lists edible fruits and berries that can be found in the wild – making plants such as rowan, medlar and blackthorn easily recognisable at a glace. “It’s the ideal reference tool for amateur foragers,” says Chris.

Having scouted the marshland verges, it’s time for a few trees and shrubs to give up their goodies. Though most of the blackberries have already been scrumped, there’s still a bounty of elderberries. “There a bit boring on their own,” Chris admits, “but they’re a versatile berry, full of vitamin C, and will bulk up a hedge jelly, or make a Pontac sauce”, a traditional English spicy ketchup with the consistency of Worcestershire sauce.

As I collect bunches of luscious elderberries, Chris is more taken with his latest discovery: a cobnut tree. “Eat them green, before they’re hard and need cracking” he says, gnawing at a freshly plucked specimen. “When they’re sweet and young, scrape out the flesh and make it into a pesto with some Wensleydale, wild garlic, nettle, hazelnuts and rapeseed oil.” He makes it sound so easy - and delicious.

There’s another muffled squeal when he spots an oak heavy with acorns. “A classic nut,” he says, with the passion of a man reminiscing about a favourite prog rock band. “They’re too good to just feed to pigs. You can make into a flour, if you bleach out the tannins first by boiling them in two changes of water, then bake them before grinding…” As if someone like me, who buys chick peas in tins because life’s too short to even soak things overnight, is going ever going to do that. But he keeps trying to convince.

“They’re great!” he says, like the Frosties tiger. “You can bake them like chestnuts and put in stews and stuffing, or make them into patties. They make great biscuits... and ice-cream! Not whole acorns, obviously – you leave them to infuse in the milk. They give off a caramelly warmth. In the Second World War, they even made them into an ersatz coffee…”

During our hour of intense foraging yards from my door, Chris singles out almost two dozen different herbs, fruits and nuts that I’d never noticed before. I now have cobnuts drying in bowls on windowsills, grated horseradish root infusing in oil (“it’s knockout on Asian dishes, and you’ll only need a few drops to get that wasabi kick”), and bottles of elderberry cordial in the fridge for winter. I’ve added wild pea shoots to salads, brewed minty flavoured tea from white dead nettle, and cooked up vatfuls of hedge jelly from all those seemingly wasted rosehips, sloes and hawthorn haws, made to Chris’s recipe (see below).

At this rate, I’m just a global wheat shortage away from milling my own acorns into flour. Bring. It. On.

* The Wild Jam Maker app by Stoves is available to download free at bit.ly/wildjammaker



Chris Bax's Hedge Jelly


The beauty of this recipe is that you can use whichever edible hedgerow fruit you can find. Just throw in some crab apples (halved) to add pectin to the mix and help it set.

1 x basket of mixed berries e.g. elderberries, blackberries, rosehips, hawthorn haws, sloes
Crab apples
Water
Lemons
Sugar

The exact amounts depends on how much fruit you have gathered. I recommend about half a basket of hawthorn haws and then a mixture of the other fruits, but the beauty is that the jelly is slightly different every time.

Clean the fruit of any large stalks and leaves, put them into a large pan, cover with water and simmer for an hour until the fruit loses its colour and is very soft. (You might need to top up the water.) Strain through muslin and save the liquid.

Measure your liquid: for every pint, add one pound of sugar and the strained juice of a lemon. Boil fast until the jelly reaches the setting point, skimming the scum off regularly. Pour into sterile jars and cover when cool enough.

* For more Chris Bax recipes, visit www.tastethewild.co.uk


The edited version appears on the Telegraph website

Saturday, 3 September 2011

Lea Bridge Road station gets the red light



There had been a suggestion - more of a distant hope, really - that the disused train station on Lea Bridge Road might one day be rebuilt.

It used to be a stop on the line between Stratford and Tottenham Hale, before it was closed down in 1985. You can still see the remains of the station near Argall Way. Passengers on the Stansted Express from Stratford whizz through it. In theory, all that's needed is a new station to be built on what remains a derelict site.

But after much consultation, and despite a growing population along the Lea Bridge Road (Essex Wharf, coming soon...), it looks like it won't be put back into service after all. Click here.

A shame.


Saturday, 27 August 2011

Thursday, 25 August 2011

A touch of Fifties class


A little something I wrote for the Sunday Telegraph, about the joy of Fifties furniture. Leave caustic comments here, or on the original...


It was billed as a “tonic to the nation”, something to get a war-weary population looking forward again rather than back. For six months in 1951, the Festival of Britain offered a glimpse of how the country might shape up once it had emerged from austerity. Blueprints for post-war living were set out at the “national village fete”, on a bombed-out spot by the Thames, in futuristic pavilions dedicated to the arts, the home, science and industry. Sixty years on, we’re still referring back to that future-facing show to shape the way we live today.

A cursory flick through this month’s home deco magazines suggests we still crave a flavour of the Fifties. Rooms painted in mustard, olive, penguin orange – pure (but not primary) colours that pop against the surroundings; textiles with wildly abstract geometric patterns, such as Lucienne Day’s pioneering Calyx print, inspired by the random geometry of nature; blond wood furniture that’s hand-crafted, rather than machine-manufactured. Habitat and Heal’s have ceramics, cutlery and lampshades with more than a nod to the midcentury movement.

BBC drama The Hour, set in a Fifties television studio, has shone a light on mid-century styling – and one light in particular. British company Original BTC’s canary yellow ‘London’ desk lamp, with its period-perfect cotton braided flex that is artfully woven through the curved chrome arm, features in shot so often it deserves to appear in the credits.

Fifties aficionado Wayne Hemingway, who last month hosted a weekend-long vintage event at the Royal Festival Hall, former centrepiece of the Festival of Britain, has created a range of 50s-inspired paints for Crown. Not to be outdone, Fired Earth has signed up Kevin McCloud to curate their Mid-Century Colours collection, the bold and optimistic palette including hues such as Garden City green, Skylon grey and Flamingo pink.

Using abstract colour bursts, wonky geometrics and molecular patterns for their designs, British textile and wallpaper manufacturers St Jude’s (www.stjudesfabrics.co.uk), Graham and Brown (www.grahambrown.com) and Mini Moderns (minimoderns.com) have each devised Fifties-flavoured offerings that channel the spirit of the age, with its anything-but-drab aesthetic. Textile company Sanderson (www.sanderson-uk.com), which last year celebrated its 150th anniversary, has invited contemporary artists to update its key post-war designs, notably the iconic Dandelion Clocks and Mobile patterns, for their Sanderson 50s collection.

But it’s in furniture that the midcentury revival is most keenly felt. Ercol, the British furniture manufacturer whose post-war signature piece, the Windsor Chair – with its elegant spokes that give a gentle geometric curve to the bentwood frame back – finds itself in demand on the high street again. Dave Brittain, head of furniture buying at John Lewis, says it’s more than pure nostalgia. “These pieces look as good today as they did years ago. Ercol’s curved and elegant shape looks fresh because we’re so used to the cabinet furniture being white-gloss and square.

“There’s a sense of craftsmanship that you don’t get from flatpack furniture. There’s a very obvious sense of construction – you can see all the joints, a subtle indication that this has been made rather than moulded. Something that has to be bent or curved or shapes – as was the Fifties fashion – cannot have been pulled off a production line.”

Nor have Ercol’s limited-edition collaborations with contemporary designers. Fashion duo Clements Ribeiro have added floral-patterned graphics to a one-off range of Ercol cabinets for John Lewis, while its Love Seat has been given a blue-dip paint job at Selfridges. The Conran Shop has its own Barton room set – from armoires to extending dining tables – designed by Sir Terence Conran and manufactured by Ercol. “When Ercol update their designs, there’s an appreciation of their heritage,” says Brittain. “They give their classics a twist and, in that respect, they’re the Paul Smith of British furniture.”

Keith Stephenson, co-creative director at Mini Moderns, says it’s no surprise that there’s room in the home of 2011 for a touch of Fifties. “It has long been a design influence,” says Stephenson, “but, thanks to the austerity of our times, the parallel between then and now has never been greater. The vibrant, forward-thinking Fifties aesthetic chimes so well with tough economic times. It’s a visual shot in the arm.”

* The Southbank Centre’s 60th anniversary celebration of the 1951 Festival of Britain continue until 4 September. southbankcentre.co.uk








Saturday, 9 July 2011

Bikelash

Sometimes I'm glad I don't live in south London, where parts of my family are from. This incident happened last month in Bexley Village. If you know the driver of this silver Peugeot, registration KJ56 HGF, could you give the Met a ring? According to reports, they're having trouble doing much to track down the perpetrator of this bikelashing.

Monday, 4 July 2011

Clapton People: Kat Vipers

For the first in what might become a series (cut out and keep!), I want to highlight a few of Clapton's good eggs.

The idea came to me when my iPod shuffled itself onto a song by a Clapton resident and performer, Kat Vipers.

I got to know Kat a couple of years ago when she gave me piano lessons. I was rubbish, never putting in the hours. But I loved our time together, with me stuttering my way through pieces by Kabalevsky and John Cale, and she doing her best to encourage someone who clearly hadn't done their Hanon exercises.

But teaching piano to the undisciplined is only a part of what Kat does.

It goes without saying that she's an accomplished pianist - click here to watch her play some spectacular Chopin (four minutes in). But she twists that classical training into a contemporary act that folds in aspects of funk, punk, jazz and - latterly, on her newest EP, A New Career In A New Town (nice David Bowie reference!) - stripped-down 80s electronica.

And then she starts to sing. Her voice is something else, her lyrics unique. I know how performers hate being compared to others - yes, yes, you're an individual... - but Kat reminds me, by turns, of PJ Harvey, Bjork and Bat For Lashes.



Kat can do hymnal, but she can also go batshit like Kate Bush, yipping and erupting into screeches, always with poise and precision. Brimming with musical ideas, she's edgy, experiment, possesses a titanic noise, and is always an engaging listen. And she does regular gigs. Here's a clip of her at last month's Big Mix festival at Rich Mix in Bethnal Green.



Tune in on her website, on Soundcloud, or just go crazy with the credit card on iTunes.

UPDATE: Kat just posted this on Twitter...
"I have a classical concert this coming Saturday 9th of July - free entry at St John Hackney, playing solo Mozart and Montague. 3pm start"

Monday, 20 June 2011

Wild about wildflowers (less so about leaf miners)



Thanks to the wettest drought on record, I've come home after a week on holiday to find my trough of wildflowers in bloom. The first of the blue cornflowers - my favourite - is out. Just lovely.

The loganberries, which I never thought would grow on my shady balcony, are reddening up nicely, too.



Not that everything in the balcony garden is rosy. In the space of a week, the chard's been decimated by leaf miners. Anyone got any quicky tips on how to deal with the little buggers?



Monday, 6 June 2011

How does your balcony garden grow?




It’s a wonder anything grows on my balcony. On the fourth floor of a new-build by the river Lea, it is at the mercy of the wind that whips off the marshlands opposite. It also faces north-east, meaning that what little direct sunlight it gets – the cold, early morning variety that causes mist to rise magically at dawn, but which is anathema to a growbag tomato – is quickly cast into shade by a nearby apartment block.

But according to Alex Mitchell, author and urban-gardening devotee, even the most inhospitable space can be turned into a food-growing oasis. And, judging her latest book by its cover, she should know. The Edible Balcony is adorned with lush salad sprouting from wall-mounted plastic guttering.

Mitchell, a regular on the gardening pages of The Sunday Telegraph, says balcony gardening is all about being realistic about what you can achieve – but then pushing the seed envelope.

To maximise growing space, I’ve suspended window boxes along the balcony edges, placed soil-warming terracotta planters in the sunniest patches, and put lean-to shelves against the wall to accommodate extra pots. But it could be all for naught if I choose the wrong varieties to plant.

“A north-east facing balcony is not amazing, but not awful,” Mitchell says kindly, before launching into a lengthy list of produce that I’m best off not even attempting. “Anything you associate with hot countries – peaches, apricots, figs… – and aromatic herbs that thrive on dusty Greek hillsides, such as thyme, rosemary and oregano. They need that sun to bring out the oils in their leaves.”

Even harvest-festival staples that, as a vegetarian, I fill up on every day might not take kindly to my balcony. “Peppers, chillies, even tomatoes – chances are they won’t thrive,” she says. “And aubergines would be the most heartbreaking crop of all.” The home-grown ratatouille’s off, then.

She’s right, though. I once tried growing an aubergine from seed. Germinated indoors, I moved the fragile plantling outside during a hot spell – and it rotted at the first hint of rain. However, Mitchell insists there are plenty of crops that *will* take to the less-than-Mediterranean conditions my pad offers.

I had a surprisingly bounteous crop of Gardener’s Delight last year, with enough ripe tomatoes for a fortnight of garden salads. But most never reached, well, fruition. I’m still working through the green chutney I had to boil up with the surplus. “If they don’t have enough sun, they don’t ripen,” says Mitchell. “You’d be better off with cherry tomatoes. Try Sungold, an orange cherry that’s naturally sweet enough to counteract the lack of sun. Even if it doesn’t ripen fully, it will still be sweet enough to eat.”

My local nursery was out of Sungold, so after much reading of labels, I plumped for Supersweet 100, a high-yielding plant producing small and sweet tomatoes; Totem, a dwarf that is “idea for patio containers and produces medium sized tomatoes”; and – out of curiosity – a Moneymaker, the full-size variety which, after repotting, had an immediate growth spurt and became the first of the three to flower. I’m banking on a hot summer to avoid another green-chutney winter.

What about balcony failsafes that won’t let me down, come rain or sporadic shine? “I hope you like salad,” she says. “Anything with an edible leaf is pretty much good for shade. Lettuce, rocket, spinach… Then over the winter, you can grow Oriental varieties such as mizuna, mibuna and mustards.”

“A north-east facing balcony is not amazing, but not awful,” Mitchell says kindly


While that will spare me from buying supermarket salad bags, I had hoped for something a bit less ordinary – at which point Mitchell goes into raptures about leafy greens, the kind I’ve only ever read about on gastropub menus. “You could probably get away with pak choi and chard,” she says, “and kale is another cracking crop: cavolo nero is my favourite variety. I had one plant last year and it fed us a dozen meals. If they’re in the ground well before the last of the summer sun, they’ll grow happily throughout the winter and feed you well into the new year.”

If snipping off salad leaves doesn’t feel like proper gardening, Mitchell says there are plenty of root vegetables that will thrive on a balcony. “You should try beetroot which, as well as the beet, you can grow for the leaves, which are good in salads or steamed like spinach. You could do carrots in pots, the deeper the better – just nothing less than 30cm. And see how you get on with radishes.”

Even in a breezy shade, she says, beans will be a reliable cropper. “Just go for a dwarf runner called Hestia, which grows only a few feet, will twine up balcony railings by itself and won’t mind the wind. I also rate sugar snap peas, which are a bit of a climber. I’ve been growing a variety called Sugar Bon which are so sweet, you can eat them raw.”

But it’s when the conversation turns to growing berries, soft cane fruit and – heavens! – a Victoria plum that the sap really starts to rise. With the right rootstock, Mitchell says I could certainly host gooseberries, Morello cherries (“which you can’t eat raw but you can make jam from”) and tayberries, the raspberry and blackberry hybrid named after the Scotch river. And if they can grow north of the border…

“You could also do raspberries, which like a roomy pot, or a blackberry that doesn’t mind north-facing shade, such as Oregon Thornless. I’ve got one growing that never gets any sun, but which gives a huge amount of berries.”

I could soon have my own season of mellow fruitfulness. My thornless loganberry is producing hairy green fruit, the Autumn King 2 carrots, a long, tapering variety, have taken their terracotta pot, and I’ve got so much rocket, cornsalad and mizuma that it’s starting to bolt. A chilli has even sprouted on a yellowing plant I’d left for dead. And to think Mitchell suggested such exotica would never survive on a balcony.

She is happy to be proven wrong: “It’s like cooking. When you read a recipe and it says do exactly this, and you panic because you haven’t got the right type of chorizo, and end up making it your way. It’s usually fine.

“Seed packet instructions and those in gardening encylopaedias are just best case scenarios,” she says. “I didn’t realise that for years. I kept thinking I couldn’t grow something if I didn’t have a pot that was exactly 28cm. But the rules are just there to be fiddled with. Just plant it, see what happens.”

I’ll let you know how I get on. Now where did I put those aubergine seeds?

* This is a longer version of a feature that first appeared in The Sunday Telegraph. The Edible Balcony by Alex Mitchell is published by Kyle Cathie, price £16.99

Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Industrial chic comes to Clapton



The new pedestrian footbridge by the river Lea is officially... open! And a thing of beauty it is, too - and wider, more accommodating than the last one. No more forcing pedestrians to the wall as you cycle past. No more dicing with lorries as you dash across the Lea Bridge Road. Smart.

Monday, 30 May 2011

Clapton to Dalston is go!


This, two days after my recent post, from the Transport for London website:

"From Saturday 4 June bus route 488 will be extended from Clapton to Dalston." Read more here.

For a map of the new route, click here.

Salad days in Clapton








Thanks to the unseasonaly warm spring, my edible balcony's coming along nicely. Bit too nicely, perhaps.

It's not even June yet and I'm already overrun with salad - trays of rocket, spinach, mizuma and cornsalad. It's all going woody and about to bolt.

Which is something of a revelation, given it's still May (just...), and my northeast-facing balcony gets limited sun (from dawn till about 10am), and it can get gusty up there.

On the recommendation balcony gardener extraordinaire Alex Mitchell, author of a terrrific book The Edible Balcony, I've been more thoughtful about the varieties I've planted this year.

I've got miniature carrots on the go in terracotta pots, and various hardy types of chard. The beetroot didn't amount to much - I ate the leaves before they could develop, and the kale shows signs of cropping nicely in its pots, despite the shade.

To attract bees, I've grown wildflowers from mixed seed (packets picked up from the wonderful Garden Museum in Lambeth), and bought copious alliums and silver lavender from nurseries and plant fairs. Even if the bees don't drop by, the display looks great from the kitchen sink.

At Alex's suggestion, I've gone for smaller varieties of tomatoes. We don't want a repeat of last year's bounteous but unriped crop; there's only so much green chutney you can give away as gifts. So Big Boy and Gardener's Delight make way for Supersweet 100s and Totem, bought from the Sunday farmer's market on Chapel Market, Islington.

Despite the limited sun, I've also gone in for strawberries - the two Cambridge Favourites already have a handful of fruit on each. At Alex's suggestion, I've also invested in a couple of fruit trees. The Victoria plum has so far failed to flower, but seems happy enough in its pot. The thornless loganberry is faring far better, with its great hairy fruits plumping up nicely.

Just wait till I get the wormery up and running - the vermiculture will give everything a turbo-boost. Bring on a summer of mellow fruitfulness!

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Now arriving in Clapton: the 488 bus to Dalston

It's been on the cards for years - Transport for London held a consultation back in 2009 - but all the signs suggest that the 488 bus will finally be arriving soon in Clapton, destination Dalston.

Look, the bus stops have finally been installed. I took this picture of a new bus stop on Rendelsham Road this morning. Yes, I felt a twit doing it.




Of course, the 488 bus has been a Hackney fixture for years, starting and terminating around Clapton Pond. But from there it only used to head in one direction, through the badlands and backstreets of Homerton and Hackney Wick on its inexorarable (read: 29-minute) journey to Bromley-by-Bow.

But from next Saturday, June 4 - if the whispers are to be believed - the route will be extended the other way, all the way to Dalston Junction station. I'm giddy at the prospect. You can't beat a new bus route.

Or can you? I'm not interested in the rights or wrongs of the new multi-million-pound bus terminus at Dalston Junction that, according to reports at the time, will only cater for passengers on the 488. (It's done, it's built - time to use it or lose it).

I'm more interested in whether the new bus will be more frequent and quicker in getting to Dalston Junction station than the 56, which goes via the Pond, down Cricketfield/Pembury Roads and past Hackney Downs station. Along busy, fast-moving main roads.

My big bugbear is that 488 is a good idea in principle, but the chosen route - along Kenninghall Road, Rendlesham Road, Downs Road and Shacklewell Lane to Dalston Junction - will mean it meanders through backstreets, and create problems.

As someone who cycles along the Rendlesham Road rat-run every day - around the time that school-run mums drop off their kids at the various schools along it - I know how tight it can get, with room for little more than traffic in one direction.

Getting past the parked cars at the best of times is a challenge when there's oncoming vehicles. The variegated speed bumps lining the road only seem to encourage white van drivers to hit their accelerators, in an attempt to beat you to the humps and make you swerve out of their way.

Traffic also gets stuck behind the lorries and diggers building the new flats in the area. Stick a few buses-an-hour onto the route, and I wonder how far the tailbacks will be - and how long before a child goes over the bonnet of an angrily-driven van.

I wonder if the lollipop guy by Hackney Downs minds the sound of beeping car horns, and is any good at mouth-to-mouth?

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Blood on the tracks

You think getting to work on National Express's joke of a railway is murder? Hackney was - somewhat inevitably - the location for Britain's first train killing, in 1864, the gory details of which are detailed in a fascinating new book.

Historian Kate Colquhoun has picked through archives recently released after 100 years spent gathering dust in the Kew archives to write 'Mr Briggs' Hat'. It unpicks how the murder of Thomas Briggs, late of 5 Clapton Square, came to scandalise the whole of Victorian society.

It's a rollicking story, involving his body being thrown from a first-class compartment of a North London Railway train onto the tracks somewhere between Bow and Hackney Wick; a societal fear of foreigners (the suspect, later convicted and sentenced to death, was German); and class war. In those days, carriages were not adjoining, so the first class compartment was a sanctuary inaccessible to the hoi polloi.


So affronted by the murder and its implications, the Daily Telegraph asked: "If we can be murdered thus, we may be slain in our pew at church or assassinated at our dinner table." Or, today's equivalent, shot randomly outside a Turkish social and sports club.

A coda. If you're wondering about where the railway in question ran before it was decommissioned in 1922, click here for more - much, much more.

Thursday, 19 May 2011

Makes me sick



File this under "Well, duh..." if you like, but, boy, there are some fucktards out there.

This homemade sign appeared recently on the Lea Navigation towpath – by the bridge between the Princess of Wales pub and the footpath onto South Millfields – and reading it turned my stomach. Who, in the name of fun, would pelt to death a nest of just-hatched chicks and its mother? A few telltale stones were found next to their broken bodies.

Sickened as I was, I was also cheered - that somebody cared enough to put up the sign in the first place. Without it, the birds' murder would have passed me by. Without the intervention of a concerned Claptonista, I doubt our local paper, the 'Hackney Gazette' - ensconced in its offices in not-very-local Ilford - would have spotted it either. For what it's worth, you can read its report here.

But that notice is a testament to Clapton, a reminder that, for all the scumbags in the area, there's an active right-minded majority.

It might just be worth troubling to 'Gazette' with a letter, to remind the police that the thug/s who did this need to be caught.

UPDATE: there's a more detailed news report by Hackney Citizen here.