Author: Jim Preen

Vauxhall Park Lavender Harvest

Vauxhall Park Lavender Harvest

Walking down Fentiman Road SW8 and the smell hits you. Suddenly you’re not in Lambeth you’re in Provence; the smell of lavender is everywhere. Turning into Vauxhall Park there’s a hive of activity with locals harvesting great rows of lavender plants.  Almost twenty years ago an unused bowling green that sat on the west side of this much-loved local park, was turned into a lavender field.

One of the hottest London summers on record means this year there’s a bumper crop and this weekend the locals are bringing it in under the watchful eye of Ruth and Polly from Friends of Vauxhall Park. Usually you are encouraged not to pick the flowers; this is the exception.

Volunteers are cutting down the plants and then snipping the flowerheads into baskets. These will be taken to the distillery tomorrow and turned into lavender oil and ironing spray, which will be on sale at Italo on Bonnington Square. A 10 millilitre bottle costs £8 and all proceeds are ploughed back into the upkeep of the park.

Distillery owner, Laurie from Carshalton, who’s in charge of the distilling process takes out his magnifying glass and shows me where the oil is contained in the flower buds. Last year the crop produced 5 litres of lavender oil, but he tells me excitedly that this year could see almost double that amount.

Ruth explains the old lavender plants must be replaced. So, pop into Italo and buy a pot, you’ll be part of making sure that we all enjoy the lavender harvest next year.

Denmark Street Blues

Denmark Street Blues

I signed one of those on-line petitions the other day to ‘save’ Denmark Street. For those who don’t know, Denmark Street was once the Rock & Roll capital of London. I’m not entirely sure why I thought it was a place worth preserving. In my almost 40 years of visiting ‘Tin Pan Alley’ as it used to be called, I’ve received, almost nothing but snotty nosed, boot-faced condescension from the so-called sales people that frequent the music shops. Most of them look like roadies who may be wonderful at coiling cables but would struggle to sell water in a desert.

The patronising attitude must have seeped into the brickwork, because while the hair styles from 1970 to the present day may have changed their withering looks haven’t. But we’ll come to all that in a moment.

Denmark Street is located just east of Soho and branches off Charing Cross Road just south of Tottenham Court Road. It runs for only 300 metres or so but in its hey-day it was what Harley Street is to medics and what Fleet Street used to be to newspapers. It was the beating heart of London Rock & Roll.

In the 50s and 60s it was home to music publishers, but times changed, and it gave way to recording studios, music clubs and musical instrument shops.

In the 60s the Rolling Stones recorded their first album at Regent Sound located at 4 Denmark Street and Elton John and Bernie Taupin wrote ‘Your song’ at offices belonging to music publisher Dick James. The 70s saw the Sex Pistols living and recording there. From 1994 until last year the 12 Bar Club played host to the likes of Jeff Buckley, Bert Jansch and KT Tunstall. It has quite a musical history.

Today, Denmark Street is the victim of a triple whammy: (can you have a triple whammy?) Creeping gentrification, the Crossrail development at Tottenham Court Road and I’m guessing the cold hand of Amazon.

Tin Pan Ally and I go way back, and over the years I’ve been there to buy all matter of guitar playing stuff, but I want to tell you about my first and last visits.

In 1970, I was a budding guitar player which made me virtually identical to just about every other 16-year-old in the western world. But where I differed from all the other players was not in talent, but rather that I had £15 in my pocket. Fifteen quid that was to be spent on my first proper amplifier and there was only one place to go to get it.

I was living with my parents in a village just outside Northampton and I bought an amplifier in a local junk shop that had come out of the Savoy cinema. It was massively heavy, produced almost no volume and was utterly useless.

It was decided, I was to go to London by train, buy an amplifier and return all in one day, ALL BY MYSELF. That rather dull, repetitive sentence does scant justice to the head-spinning, cart-wheeling excitement, that a day in London at the Rock & Roll centre of the universe conjured up. I could barely sleep, and what’s more, I had a new pair of jeans.

To my parents, a trip to London was a special occasion, dressing up was obligatory and I totally bought into that concept. Let me tell you about the new jeans. They were skin tight, and I’d taken my mother’s pinking shears to the generously endowed flairs that spread like spinnakers from my ankles. I looked like I’d been attacked by wolves. Topping them off was a psychedelic tie-dyed T-shirt and a World War 2 military great coat, the latter bought at an army surplus store. It had a small hole in it and I was always slightly bothered that it’s previous owner might have met his end while wearing it.

Top look I’m sure you’ll agree, except my mother didn’t. What DO you think you look like? You can’t go to London looking like that, was the general tenor of her remarks. If I was to retain that all important £15 a compromise had to be reached. And then I had a brain-wave.

Yes of course Mum, I’ll change my trousers and turn down the volume on my shirt. Rather a quick back down in the face of authority you might be thinking. To which I reply HA! You are underestimating the ingenuity of a 16-year-old. I had a largish shoulder bag that I used for carrying albums into which I shoved the ripped jeans and eye-melting T-shirt. Once aboard the train I changed outfits and, I like to think, looked magnificent. Surely, I’d meet rock stars in Denmark Street and we could exchange cool, sardonic nods of recognition. I might also meet girls, a commodity that seemed non-existent in Northampton.

Sadly, the rock stars must have been getting their heads together in the country that day and as for girls, well my extravagant look didn’t have the desired effect.

Because Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton cranked their axes through Marshall amps, I had to have one, but fifteen notes didn’t cut it, so I settled for a Park amplifier instead. This was grudgingly sold to me by a long-haired lout who could barely get out of his chair such was the industrial level of contempt he felt for the whey-faced plank-spanker standing in front of him. Walking out with my prized possession I was philosophical. Sod him for a game of soldiers, I thought, I now own a black, fifty-watt amplifier. Heaven on earth.

A week later I took it to school and someone nicked it. Rock & Roll dreams snuffed out.

Last month I visited Denmark Street in search of mid-priced acoustic guitar to take travelling. I was after an instrument that could get thrown around without too much concern if it got the odd dink or scratch. One massive improvement on being 16 now rather than in 1970 is that for £300 you can score yourself a highly playable, decent sounding guitar. The guitars I was brought up on were untunable and almost unplayable. Or was that my lack of talent?

So, I’m upstairs at Hank’s and the guitar jockey is handing out various specimens for me to try. Just prior to this visit I’d figured out quite a nifty version of the Gershwin classic ‘Summertime.’ It’s not exactly hard to play but involves a descending bass line and some rather groovy chord changes. Next thing I know the guitar sales person looks round and says, ‘Wow, that’s great, how do you do that, could you show me what you’re playing there?’

Young people today, they don’t have a clue how to behave.

In case you’re wondering about the guitar in the picture, it’s a Mexican made Fender Stratocaster that was produced in conjunction with Transport For London.

Shucking oysters in Arcachon

Shucking oysters in Arcachon

A bivalve pilgrimage

Regular readers will know this blog recently decamped to France for a short break. Kicking the regal Biarritz dust from our heels the Preen family are on the road north to Arcachon.

Like Biarritz, Arcachon Bay is on the Atlantic coast and is known to the locals as Le Bassin or The Basin. The beaches are spectacularly beautiful, some of which can be viewed from a massive sand dune called the Dune of Pilat. It’s more like a mountain than a dune and something you’d expect to see in the Sahara rather than at a French tourist resort. Camels should have featured somewhere. From its summit you can gaze in wonder at the beaches and hang glide down to them if you’re brave enough.

But this isn’t a tourist blog, so get Googling if you want to know more. What we’re here for are the oysters as Arcachon is the oyster capital of France. We are on a bivalve pilgrimage.

Most French towns of any size have a covered market often called Les Halles where all kinds of fresh, French yumminess can be found from cheeses to hams to sausages, breads, fruit and vegetables. The French just take food more seriously than we do. Think of the words the English use to describe food, ‘grub’ ‘nosh’ and ‘chow’ spring to mind. We don’t like food getting above itself, so we put it in its place. Depending on your point of view, the French either exalt and treasure food or have a slightly bonkers obsession with it.

France’s local oyster, the European oyster, is now farmed and no longer harvested in the wild. After reaching two or three years of age, oysters are taken to so-called fattening grounds, typically in river estuaries and marshes. There they become plump and juicy and ready for the table by gorging on algae and other nutrients that are very appealing to the hungry bivalve. Thereafter they are graded for taste and texture. Little do they know what’s coming next.

At the back of the market in Arcachon we found the Bar à Huîtres where we ordered twelve of their best. While waiting for our order to appear and to the annoyance of the daughter I read aloud the Lewis Carroll poem the Walrus and the Carpenter. Spoiler Alert: Look away now if you don’t want to know what happens to the oysters at the end of the poem. Here’s an edited version, just an hors d’oeuvre, click here for the Full English.

O Oysters, come and walk with us!’

The Walrus did beseech.

A pleasant walk, a pleasant talk,

Along the briny beach:

We cannot do with more than four,

To give a hand to each.’

 

But four young Oysters hurried up,

All eager for the treat:

Their coats were brushed, their faces washed,

Their shoes were clean and neat —

And this was odd, because, you know,

They hadn’t any feet.

Four other Oysters followed them,

And yet another four;

And thick and fast they came at last,

And more, and more, and more —

All hopping through the frothy waves,

And scrambling to the shore.

 

The Walrus and the Carpenter

Walked on a mile or so,

And then they rested on a rock

Conveniently low:

And all the little Oysters stood

And waited in a row.

O Oysters,’ said the Carpenter,

You’ve had a pleasant run!

Shall we be trotting home again?’

But answer came there none —

And this was scarcely odd, because

They’d eaten every one.”

All around us men where shucking oysters, splitting the shells with a twist of the wrist in one deft move. Very quickly our plate arrived with the oysters set on ice and draped in seaweed fronds. They may have spent months being fattened in river reedbeds but at La Table de Preen they were gone in 60 seconds, well perhaps a little longer. I’m hopeless at describing food, I’m English for goodness sake, but they were plump and salty and slithered down with great ease. I could have ordered another dozen.

The next day part of the family spent the day at Aqualand , but not being the world’s best swimmer, I was given the morning off to mooch. Staying just outside Arcachon in a village called Le Teich, I wandered into the centre to get some lunch. There in front of the local bar I found Hercule selling oysters from a cart.

‘Douze huîtres s’il vous plait’ I said in my best ‘O’ level French and twelve were duly slung into a plastic bag in exchange for a few Euros. I headed back to the apartment, put the bag in the fridge and waited for the family to arrive.

How hard could it be to shuck a few oysters? Well let’s just say, I recommend gardening gloves and a police issue stab vest if you want to keep safe.

As you can see from the picture, the knife looks like something which would be of interest to the police if you were caught with it in one of the seedier parts of London.

The BBC’s Good Food describes the shucking process like this:

  • Wrap a tea towel over one hand and use it to hold the oyster firmly.
  • Using an oyster shucking knife in the other hand, place the tip of the shucking knife at the base of the hinge, twist the knife using pressure, then without the pressure, lever the knife upwards, or twist it to prise the hinge open.
  • Slide the knife under the top shell to release the oyster and remove the shell.

Sound so easy doesn’t it? Well, let me tell you, my oysters were no pushover. All that gorging on algae had made them tough little buggers who weren’t going to give up without a struggle.

What the BBC fails to mention is the bit where you inadvertently stab yourself in the hand because it’s so damn difficult to get the knife into the hinge. Or when you twist the knife and a bit of oyster shell flies off and hits you in the eye, the shell remaining tightly shut.

It’s a tricky business but eventually all twelve were opened, eaten and pronounced delicious. I guess all good things come after a bit of a struggle and oysters are no exception. Thanks Hercule, we’ll see you tomorrow.

Basqueing in the late summer sun

Basqueing in the late summer sun

This blog has decamped to France, so you are now reading Une Petite Vie Francaise or something like that. No doubt I’ve got the gender wrong and I’m certainly lacking a cedilla because I can’t find it on this computer keyboard. Sticklers among you will now be saying well that’s very nice for some, but what has this got to do with London which is supposed to be the blog’s USP. The answer to that perfectly reasonable question is not much, barely anything, but not absolutely nothing if I’m allowed to veer off into the double negative.

We are staying in Biarritz which is set deep in the heart of Basque Country. I know it’s Basque Country because I’ve discovered a desert called Gateau Basque. This is a pleasant cake-like thing made from ground almonds (probably) and in the case of the one I’m wading through right now, is stuffed with cherry jam. It may not be up there with the great French dishes such as Bouillabaisse or coq au vin but I seem to be able to eat it quite happily for breakfast, then as a desert for lunch and supper. Say what you like about Gateau Basque, it’s versatile.

Biarritz was once popular with the Beau Monde who came here to gamble and party, particularly in the early part of the last century. There is still a grand casino, large Art Deco hotels and wide sandy beaches which are now sought after by surfers rather than the crowned heads of Europe.

Come the sixties the better weather in Nice and the attraction of Brigitte Bardot and her ilk meant the money moved a little further South East to the Mediterranean and away from the more stormy pleasures of the Atlantic seaboard.

Miremont Biarritz
Miremont Café Biarritz

For breakfast we ventured, en famille, to a rather grand cafe called the Miremont. On the outside window there is a photograph of King Alfonso XIII visiting the Miremont with his ‘young’ wife. I’m not fully boned up on Alfonso V13, nor entirely sure which country benefited from his beneficent rule, but it looks to me like this might be Mrs King II, or the younger trophy wife.

The maitre d’, told us proudly that Biarritz was once the ‘Queen of resorts and the resort of Kings’ and that it was once said that at teatime there were ‘fewer pastries than Queens and fewer rum babas that Grand Dukes’.

Well the Preens are not easily intimidated, so barging a few Barons out of the way and treading a couple of Earls underfoot, we made our way to our table. The thing about mixing with The Quality is that it doesn’t come cheap. The creamy rich cafe au lait came in at €5.90 a pop while the croissants were a bank busting €2.20 and the daughter’s orange juice or fruit presse was €6.60. But Grand Dukes don’t complain about l’addition and neither do the Preens when the food is this yummy.

The Miremont prides itself on its ‘cosy charm and grand style’ which is a tricky combination to pull off. As we are leaving the maitre d’, who the daughter described rather unfairly as an old goat (vielle chevre), told us that King Edward VII, used to stay every year at the Hotel De Palais, while ‘remaining faithful to the Miremont’s confections’ and of course remained faithful to the wife who cost him the throne. We were also shown the Royal Coat of Arms that was bestowed on the Miremont by Queen Victoria who apparently used to send Albert down to pick up the buns.

Plogg Blog

Plogg Blog

I’ve started plogging. Actually, I’ve been at it for a while. I guess like any addiction, at first you think you’re in control and you can take it or leave it. Initially I’d go for a while without plogging then suddenly I’d be back at it again until I realised I was doing it every day. My name is Jim and I’m a plogger.

Plogging came from Sweden and is a conflation of the Swedish words ‘plocka uppa’ which means pick up and our word jogging. What you’re picking up is garbage and you’re doing it while exercising.

Environmentalist Erik Ahlström started the craze in Stockholm when he noticed that even in squeaky clean Stockholm, garbage was lining his jogging route. As night follows day a Facebook page appeared and a hashtag (#plogga) was born. Plogging now has a world-wide presence in countries as far-flung as the US, Thailand, Ecuador, and Canada.

As exercise trends go it’s a bit odd as inevitably there’s lots of stopping and starting involved, not to mention a fair bit of bending. Think of it as environmental interval training. I often plogg when I walk the dog which you might call dogging, until you remember that’s a very different kind of outdoor activity.

Research carried out earlier this year by Keep Britain Tidy revealed that one in five visitors to London’s Royal Parks leave litter on the ground contributing to more than 3,000 tonnes of waste collected by park teams every year at a cost of more than £1.7m. So, if you fancy a go, don’t worry there’s plenty of junk to plocka uppa.

So far, my plogging has been rather solitary with just Bucket (the dog) for company, but that’s all set to change. Plogging is coming to our neck of the woods in South London. On Sunday 16th September a ploggathon is happening at Battersea Park. You can walk or run for between one and four miles picking up the trash as you go. Bring a bag, some gloves and enjoy a picnic afterwards, just don’t bring any single use plastic. Sign up here and I’ll see you on the day.

10 Tips for tourists in London

10 Tips for tourists in London

  1. Buy an Oyster card for each person in your group. An Oyster card gets you on the underground and busses. It’s a plastic card that can be topped up at any underground station and most news agents. Beware, the tube is quite expensive, but thanks to the tube map very easy to navigate. Buses can be a bit more of a challenge but are far cheaper. To figure out bus rides click here for the very handy Transport for London route planner. You may have already done this but download the City Mapper app on your phone, it’ll drain the battery but will help get you around. Tube etiquette: stand on the right when riding the escalators and let people out of the carriages first. If you don’t you will be subjected to a drive-by of tutting.  London is a great walking city, but it is very spread out and there are places you will likely want to visit that are not in the centre.

  2. The City of London is not the city of London. The City of London or Square Mile as it’s sometime known is home to the financial sector and not the city centre. The tourist centre of London radiates out from Piccadilly Circus.

  3. Ask a Londoner. If you know someone who lives in London, ask them where they would take someone on their first visit and be clear you don’t mean Madame Tussauds or Buckingham Palace. Now you may want to go to those two places but there are a lot of hidden gems out there that are not always in the tourist guides. My suggestions? The Courtauld Gallery and the Brick Lane Bagel Bake.

  4. London can seem very expensive, but there’s lots of free stuff. Most of the major museums and art galleries are free and just ask for donations, which if you are poverty struck backpacker you may eschew. But of course, you’ll make up for that in later life when you have a job, right? Tate Galleries, Natural History Museum, Science Museum, V&A, National Gallery and many more – all free.

  5. West End theatres are very expensive so check out local theatres such as The Park Theatre in Finsbury Park. If you want to see a West End show, then try the Tix app where with persistence you can see shows for a little as £15. Top tip: At the Old Vic you can often get standing tickets for less than £10. An usher will usually allow you to take a seat as inevitably someone won’t show up or the place is not sold out.

  6. Despite what some people think, Londoners are friendly. Ask for directions and advice and you’ll be surprised how forthcoming people are. Just check to see whether they’re wearing earphones. Having said that don’t be dumb as pickpocketing and other scams do exist and there’s been an epidemic of kids riding mopeds, snatching phones from people’s hands. Use your common sense, watch your valuables and you should be fine.

  7. Go to the parks, they are free, provide us with air we breathe and are beautiful. My particular favourite, which most tourists don’t visit is Battersea Park, but right in the centre you have Hyde Park, Regent’s Park, Green Park and St James’s, plus a host of smaller green spaces. As much as I love the place this is where we beat New York hands down as they only have Central Park.

  8. Time Out, once the great listings magazine, is a shadow of its former self but still a handy resource. It’s now a free publication (available in print on a Tuesday) go here for the online version.

  9. Don’t eat at chain restaurants, though I have to admit I’m quite often found inside Pret a Manger at lunchtime. There are thousands of small eateries waiting for your custom. Seek them out in the neighbourhood you are staying in. And at least once, eat a Full English Breakfast.

10. Speak English! Here’s a quick guide.


  1. Loo means toilet or bathroom/washroom
  2. Ta means thank you as does cheers
  3. Chips are french fries and crisps are potato chips
  4. Petrol is gas
  5. The Boot of a car is the trunk
  6. Fag is a cigarette
  7. A biscuit is a cookie
  8. A hole in the wall is a cash machine or ATM
  9. The underground or tube is the subway or metro
  10. Queuing up means standing in line

    Readers very kindly sent in some of their own tourist suggestions

    Dawn: I would check the walking distance in between tube stops as sometimes it is far quicker to walk between stops than catch a busy tube! Here’s a handy map.

    Jester: Visit some of the smaller art galleries and museums such as the Dulwich Picture Gallery or the Geffrye Museum in Hackney. For something different there is Hackney city farm about two streets from that museum. Another good city farm is at Mudchute on the DLR. If all else fails, go to Manze’s Pie ‘n’ Mash on Tower Bridge Road.

    Dawn:  Visit Box Park in Shoreditch and have a drink upstairs in the fresh air! It’s a shopping arcade built out of shipping containers with an open top bar that sells lovely Caribbean food.

    Margaret: Whilst visiting the George pub at London Bridge see also Borough Market , Southwark Cathedral and walk alongside the Thames up to Tate Modern.

    Barbara: The Coram Foundling Museum is fascinating.  As is the William Morris Museum in Walthamstow.

    Tony: I’d suggest St Paul’s Cathedral – the inside is incredible and you can climb up to a small platform at the top of the dome with fantastic views over London. It’s just over 500 steps up so it’s a tough climb. They do guided tours which are well worth going on. You get to see places like the stairs used in the Harry Potter films and hear lots of stories about the history of the cathedral. If you keep your ticket you can go back for free up to a year later.

The Unwelcome Guest: Get outa here

Those of you who read this blog regularly will know that on occasion I talk about my prostate cancer treatment under the title The Unwelcome Guest. It’s been pointed out that this more serious stuff sits uncomfortably with the flippant flim-flam and fol-de-rol that I usually turn out here.

That being the case, The Unwelcome Guest has been packed into a removal van and dragged kicking and screaming to its own blog. If you want to keep up with the little bastard this is where you need to be as The Unwelcome Guest won’t be appearing on A Little London Life in the future.