Category Archives: London life

How to find adventures in the city

Age is no barrier

A man in his mid-seventies dressed in an immaculate pair of cream suit trousers and black loafers walks up to me with a concentrated look on his face. I’d just been speaking to his daughter, so I smile and introduce myself. He tells me his name is Chris, and we shake hands.

Then I notice he has the same pair of climbing shoes as I own, a Spanish brand called Tenaya, so I comment on that and we talk about how difficult that particular type of shoe is to break in.

We are out in the sunshine, at the Harrison’s Rock climbing crag near Eridge, in Kent. It turns out Chris has been climbing on this Southern sandstone for over 50 years, and drags his daughter Rosie along with him on sunny weekends.

Chilling out at Harrison's

Rosie is not quite as in love with the rocks as her old man. She doesn’t really have a head for heights, she tells me, but her father wants to go, so they go. They drive up from Brighton, a mere 40 minute journey, and climb until the afternoon, followed by afternoon tea or lunch in the sunshine at the car park.

Chris has been a regular at this sandstone crag since before harnesses were invented, he tells me. He and his friends had used the old-school belaying technique – one end of rope tied around the climber’s waist, the other bent around the waist of the belayer and held with both hands. In those days, there were no top rope bolts here. These pioneers had to solo the routes or use trees for anchors.

But Chris feels he has reached a peak of fitness in recent years. He says: “In the past five years, I’ve climbed some harder routes here than ever before.” That’s at the age of 75. What a man!

My friends and I were all a little gobsmacked to meet this man at the crag, dressed in his suit as he was showing us the moves of a particularly tricky start to a 5a route (British grade). A route I couldn’t complete, after trying a few times.

“Oh, I couldn’t do it myself for a while,” Chris told me nonchalantly.

Meeting Chris and his daughter Rosie gave me renewed hope that life doesn’t stop as we age, and as long as I remain young at heart, why can’t I climb harder than ever at 75?! That’s what I want to be like at his age. Dragging my daughter to the crag on a Saturday morning to lose some finger skin and sprinkle some chalk around. The afternoon tea can wait until the afternoons.

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‘Because it’s there’: Everest review

In 1923, renowned British mountaineer George Leigh Mallory was asked “Why did you want to climb Mount Everest?” His reply was: “Because it’s there.”

Stories of Everest climbs are no longer as scarce as they were in Mallory’s days, but few are as heartwrenching as the account written by Jon Krakauer after the expedition in 1996, which turned out to be one of the most memorable disasters in the mountain’s recent history.

Not that there have been few of those: the mountain has claimed over 250 lives since people began trying to scale its peak. But I guess the story told by the film, based on Krakauer’s famous book Into Thin Air, is the best known from that era (that’s what happens when you take a journalist on an expedition with you!).

It’s not an easy subject to translate into a film, so I really wasn’t sure what I would feel about this adaptation. I have a tendency to get very irritated with film adaptations that don’t reflect the book the way I think it needs to be represented, and that was definitely a possibility with this one. Then of course there’s the fear that the director, Baltasar Kormákur, won’t have the faintest idea about the compulsion to climb and conquer mountains, and will therefore miss the whole point of the story.

I have to say, I wasn’t disappointed the way I thought I would be, and I walked away from the cinema with a renewed yearning for high altitude – a dubious response to such a tragic story, I agree, but I’m a climber, so I knew that would happen.

Of course, I have issues with some elements of the film, that’s not to be avoided. I wasn’t convinced by the character of Scott Fischer, for example – the lack of exposure he got on screen, the way his character wasn’t allowed to develop and flourish, and even, frankly, the choice of actor. I also felt some other parts of the story were dropped after an initial mention, making them a bit redundant (the sub-story with the South African team, for example) – either commit to it, or leave it, I would say.

But that’s by the by, because despite its commercialisation and the typical Hollywood over-sentimentalising, the film nearly made me cry by the end, and that’s despite me knowing the story. I think the tragedy of the 1996 climb is so powerful, and the mistakes we see in hindsight so painful to watch, that it almost doesn’t matter how well the film is made.

That sounds like I’m belittling the efforts of the director though, but that is not at all my intention. He did a lot of things right. He stuck to Krakauer’s account of the story, which in my opinion is the key. He succeeded in creating a spectacle out of the words on the page that almost makes the viewer feel the crippling cold, headaches and lack of oxygen up above 27,000 feet, and he managed to create at least some likable characters.

The over-sentimental tone of the film, though perhaps not quite in the spirit of mountaineering, is necessary to translate the story into something accessible to the masses, and not just the relative minority of mountaineers sitting in the cinema and feeling chilled to the bone by the mere images of the cold, unwelcoming mountain terrain. The over-reliance on family stories sort of fits in. And anyway, that family connection and the painful connection to ‘real life’ was a key and memorable part of the book for me, it may just have been exaggerated somewhat in the screen adaptation.

I loved the humanity of the film, the personal heartbreak it lays bare, the sacrifices made to the mountain and the difficulty of managing inter-human relations on an expedition like this. The human error that always becomes our undoing.

When I criticise, I do so because it is in my nature to be over-critical, and because I see it from the point of the view of a climber that has often contemplated what it would be like to “do” Everest.

And I doubt I’ll ever stop wondering, but I also doubt I’ll ever let the compulsion drive me to the top of an 8,000m peak.

Everest is too expensive and commercialised anyway, but that’s not it. There are plenty of other 8,000-ers I could work towards. But the stakes are just too high.

For me, I think that’s what this story is ultimately about.

Time to think of Christmas

It’s September and I can really feel the turn in the season. There is a chill in the air and people around me are dropping like flies with stinking colds.

Yet for some reason every time I go outdoors into the crisp air I feel an overwhelming sense of excitement wash over me, mixed with a kind of wistful, aching undertone I can’t quite explain.

I’ve never been this excited about the onslaught of autumn, and it’s slightly confusing that I feel this way now, in a year when I finally discovered my favourite way to enjoy the outdoors, and have spent the entire summer doing so. I should be sad the season for frolicking around in the sunshine is over, shouldn’t I?

Perhaps it is all the climbing trips that I have been on this summer, spending virtually no time at home in London, which have made me crave a break from all that excitement and activity. Or perhaps something in me is fundamentally changing.

Read about my trip to the Wye Valley where I did my first ever trad climb here.

It is the anticipation of the festive season that is making me so excited, like a small child waiting for Christmas. Instead of mourning the dying summer, I can’t wait to wrap up in warm clothes and a hat and sit there having endless cups of tea. I can’t wait to smell the spices in the air and have my first mug of fiery mulled wine. I can’t wait to hear fireworks shaking up the quiet nights and watch them exploding on London’s skyline.

And for the first time, I don’t mind that it’s getting cold. I’m even looking forward to crisp winter mornings, and bouldering trips with thermos flasks to get us through the frosty days. I’m excited about coming home to a massive warm meal after spending hours out in the cold, or huddling up around a roaring fire in a country pub.

But how do I make sure I avoid disappointment this year? How do I make sure the season lives up to my expectations? Or will it always be a bit of an anticlimax, with the mulled wine tasting that little bit too weak, and the mince pies far too sugary?

The steady Morse code of raindrops on my window snaps me out of my fairy tale dreams.

Every year, I forget how much rain can ruin any weekend plan in England. We had enough trouble trying to book climbing weekends in the summer! The perpetual weather forecast checking, the indecision, the last minute changes of plan…

I know it’s too much to ask for, but can we please have a crisp, cold autumn and winter, like it’s supposed to be, not a wet and murky one?!

I’m going back to my fairy tale dreaming…

Slackline: The art of balanced meditation

For someone as impatient as me, learning to stand (and eventually walk) on a slackline is a pretty frustrating experience, but it is an invaluable lesson in patience, which I so badly lack.

Read my latest post: Lessons in being patient

I’ve always wanted to try out slacklining, but between climbing, work events, and attempting to still see my non-climbing friends, I’ve found it hard to find the time for it. Now that I’m injured seemed like the perfect time to give it a shot.

So on a Sunday my friends and I took advantage of the nice weather and took the slackline out for a day in East London’s Victoria park (along with a hula hoop for good measure).

My aerial circus instructor always talks about the importance of lines in aerial dance, and watching your form to create a beautiful shape on the equipment of your choice. I’m bad at that, so she would constantly shout at me to “point the toes!!” (love you for that, Astra!).

Slacklining requires a similar kind of elegance, where the body traces a line between the crown of your head and the foot that is holding your weight to make it easier to balance.

My friend Tamsin showing off her skills

To be honest, I thought I would just be able to stand on it on my first attempt, no problems. I was quickly proven wrong. Maintaining balance on a slackline is surprisingly hard! I suppose I should have known, considering my wobbly attempts to do one-legged balances in yoga.

If you’re good at balance in yoga, you will pick it up really quickly.  Apparently two hours is all you need to learn to stand on your own. Then it’s practice, practice, practice.

And guess what that means? Patience.

I’m learning patience, and I reckon I’ve been quite a good student so far.

When I look at the slackline, everything inside me is screaming: “I want to walk on this damn thing already!!” But when I push my body upwards with my foot, the concentration and focus needed to stay on the line overshadow all my frustrations and impatience.

It’s like meditation. The surrounding actions and noises just sort of disappear as I focus my eyes on tree branches in my line of vision and try to relax into the balance. The moment the slackline stops fluttering wildly under my foot and stays still is when I know I’m finally in control.

But the moment never last long enough. A millimetre shift in either direction, and I’m back to flailing my arms around wildly just to stay on the line.

Prolonging those moments of inner and outer calm is worth learning to be patient for, though.

If you’re interested in giving this a try, you can get your own slackline for just over £40 and it is pretty user-friendly. The only caveat is that it is prohibited in any Royal parks in London, so that rules out anywhere central.

NOTE: My friend Tamsin (whose picture I have shamelessly stolen for this blog post) is looking into giving lessons for a small fee, so this would be a good place to start.

Details to follow. Comment on this post to register your interest.

Seven ways to have cheaper fun in London

The summer in approaching and us city dwellers are beginning to crawl out of our layers, where we have been hiding all winter, and look for entertaining ways to spend the longer evenings. But sadly, London salaries often do not match the price tags on trendy entertainment venues.

But there is no need to despair and stay at home! London has much more cheap, or even free entertainment to offer than you might suspect. So invite some friends, or that special someone, and head out to enjoy the summer without worrying about your wallet.

Here are just a few options I out together to help out with some ideas. Please share your ideas with me by commenting on this article, I’d love to know what else is going on in this city!

Free comedy

The Camden Head pub in Angel runs free improvised comedy nights, and it just happens to have a Festival of Improv running from 11th-17th May, with free comedy every single night! Really worth checking out, as it will be hosting some critically acclaimed shows.

Usually it runs a range of comedy shows, ranging from free improvised shows to those for which you have to buy tickets, but they are usually pretty affordable, around the £10 mark.

Avoid paying for a view from the Shard

An adult ticket to the View from the Shard is £24.95, or £32.95 if you would like a glass of champagne while you enjoy the lights and dazzle of London. Frankly, I think this is a little ridiculous.

Luckily, you can get pretty much exactly the same view by going to one of the bars (albeit on a slightly lower floor) and sharing a bottle of wine, or indulging in a decadent cocktail. The cocktails are actually really nice, with prices ranging from £14.50 to £16. The price of a bottle of wine starts at £30, but the cheapest glass of wine is £7.50/£8. Here is the full menu.

Still pricey, but considering you get the view for free and can sit in the bar as long as you like with your drink, in my opinion it is much better value. The only thing you must consider is that often there is quite a long wait to get into the bar on busy nights, so be prepared!

Free TV audience tickets

If you enjoy TV shows, why not actually participate in one as an audience member? It is absolutely free and tickets can be acquired from this website.You have to be a little flexible with your availability as tickets often pop up last minute, but it is a great way to do something different one evening.

There is a huge range of different shows for which tickets become available, but you need to keep an eye out for them and act fast. Also, be aware that some of them are hosted out of London, so worth looking at the location before applying.

Museum lates

Many of us don’t get much chance to go to museums and exhibitions because the opening hours don’t suit the working lifestyle. But museums have twigged this and there are now an extensive range of late night openings, which are free to enter and usually only open to adults, so also offer alcoholic beverages while you explore.

A list of museum lates can be found here, courtesy of Timeout. I’ve tried the Science Museum and the Natural History Museum, and they’re both really fun, but do expect it to be busy. You can make an evening out of it by going to one of the many restaurants in South Kensignton, but make sure you book in advance, as they are particularly busy on those nights.

One restaurant I discovered, and won’t shut up about, is an Italian steak place called Macellaio. It’s a little pricey, but for the quality of steak you get it is absolutely worth it! This a place for meat lovers, but there are plenty of other options nearby for different budgets.

Free festivals and concerts in Trafalgar Square

Trafalgar Square hosts some of the biggest celebrations in the city, from Russian New Year in January to Diwali in October/November, and everything in between. Check out a list of festivals here. They are often national celebrations and offer great insight into different cultures and traditions.

The Royal Opera House also transmits three live opera performances from the famous Covent Garden theatre onto a screen in Trafalgar Square, also for free! This year you will get a chance to see two operas – La bohème on 10 June and Don Giovanni on 3 July – and on ballet, Romeo and Juliet, on 22 September.

Free outdoor cinema…

Outdoor cinema screenings are a great way to spend an evening during the summer months and have become really popular in London, but the more hip (or the hipper?) the location, the more expensive the tickets.

But watch out for some free outdoor screenings in London’s parks as the summer months approach. Last year there were free screenings in the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, free outdoor cinema in Brockwell Park in South East London and Floating Cinema in East London, and this year is bound to have a great selection too, so keep an eye out!

…and cheap cinema when it’s raining

I’ve always slightly resented paying £15 to go and watch a film at the cinema, but if you look beyond the mainstream venues there are lots of cheaper options around London.

For example, the newly refurbishes independent Genesis cinema near Stepney Green station (District line, East London) does £4 showing every Monday and Wednesday, but even the busiest days (Friday & Saturday) are just £8.50. It has a really nice feel and is far more relaxed than some of the mainstream venues.

The Rich Mix in trendy Shoreditch has a Film for a Fiver offer on Mondays and Tuesdays for residents of Tower Hamlets who have an Idea Store card (which can be obtained for free), and £6 tickets all day Monday.

For those of you from other parts of London, here are some other suggestions: The Barbican cinema is showing films for only £6 on Mondays, if you book online in advance, and the Coronet Cinema in Notting Hill Gate does showings for £3.50 every Tuesday. The PekhamPlex cinema also does £4.99 tickets during the week, another bargain!

Five ways to find adventures in London

Adventure is not always hiding somewhere in the middle of a desert or floating out in the deep salty waters of the Atlantic, it can just as easily be found in an loft conversion in Chalk Farm or in a forest in the middle of zone 6.

That is why I decided this blog does not need to be just about the far away travels, which, let’s face it, I can only afford once in a while, and don’t have enough time off work for anyway! But that does not mean I don’t look for small adventures to tide me over, and I find them nearly every day, sometimes in rather unexpected places.

This week alone I went to a secret gig, visited the Alexander McQueen exhibition (for the second time, as I was lucky enough to see it once in New York, but it was just as spectacular!), went to an aerial circus class and saw the most spectacular circus show, Circolombia. And this is a week when I’m battling a cold!

Many people think being stuck in the city means being a world away from adventures and constantly yearning for an escape. They are so wrong! London is an endless playground for those who don’t like to sit still and are always looking for new experiences, you just need to know how and where to look.

There are a million and one ways to find something new and exciting in this city, and I would never pretend to know even a small proportion of them. My humble contribution is just five things worth considering which may not be obvious to some city dwellers.

1) Join Sofar Sounds and discover a secret world of music

This week, I went to my first Sofar Sounds gig. In the space of two hours I heard a band that describes itself as “dream pop”, a drum & bass duo and a singer/songwriter of an indescribable genre with distinct Middle Eastern notes.

The concept of Sofar Sounds is truly unique and is catching on across the globe. It involves going to secret gigs in a location that is revealed the night before (although usually the closest tube station is known from the start), with the lineup unveiled…as the gig happens. Usually, these gigs happen in someone’s living room, creating an intense, intimate atmosphere. It really is an adventurous way to discover new music (even if you end up hating it)!

Here is the link to the website, where you can sign up to the mailing list and beginning applying for spots at the secret gigs.

2) Join a meetup group…or several!

Meetup is another great online resource that allows you to join interest groups and attend events with like-minded people – the laziest way of finding adventure, because someone basically finds it for you!

There are thousands upon thousands of meetups happening every week, but the groups can also help you get in touch with people who share the same interests. A few days after joining a climbing meetup group, I got a message from a mountaineer who needed to practice teaching mountaineering skills for an assessment. My climbing buddy and I ended up going to Wales with him over Easter and getting a free mountaineering lesson on the rocks of Snowdonia!

Join meetup here.

3) Try out an alternative form of exercise

So you’ve been going to the gym, but you’re bored out of your brain and you feel like a hamster running in a wheel every time you go. A sweaty, smelly wheel.

Well, why not try out something different? London may not quite be Chamonix, but it has a lot to offer and there are lots of places where you can do a taster for free, so it doesn’t even have to be a big monetary commitment.

For example, you could try rock climbing or bouldering (here is a list of centres to try in London), circus skills (this is the aerial school I go to, but there are lots of them in different areas in London), or outdoor flying trapeze in London’s parks. At worst, it’s an exciting new experience, at best, you will discover an extremely cool new hobby.

4) Check out popups for foodie adventures

It will not come as a surprise that some of the best foodie experiences are to be found here in the capital, but often the best of them are only around for a short period of time in the form of a popup restaurant, bar or food market. Luckily, it’s very easy to find them: just sign up for a newsletter here.

One of my favourites last year was A Grape Night In. It was a wine popup which paired wines with tapas-style snacks, all planned around a different theme each week. The only problem was stopping before getting hopelessly drunk: the wines, the food and the atmosphere were so nice, it was easy to stay all night!

5) The outdoors is closer than you think!

And finally, when you’ve had enough of London and the sun is shining, don’t feel like you’re stuck in the confines of the city, surrounded by skyscrapers. The outdoors is really not as far as you think!

Check out Fairlop Waters Country Park, where you can do a spot of outdoor bouldering if you’re so inclined, go for a day out in Richmond and sun yourself on the banks of the river (it’s zone 4, after all!), spend a night camping in Epping Forest with a fire-cooked barbecue, or visit Danson House in Bexleyheath. It’s surrounded by a gorgeous little park and the house currently has a Vivienne Westwood exhibition, though it is, confusingly, closed on Saturdays.

Hopefully this was an interesting read. Please comment or get in touch if you have other exciting ideas, or if you need any further information on anything I’ve mentioned. Have fun adventuring!