Category: Secret London

Blasting guns from a Thames barge

Blasting guns from a Thames barge

It was the kind of email I would have deleted in a microsecond in normal times. A scrappy piece of marketing bollox that found its way to my already crammed email in-box suggesting I shoot guns from a boat on the Thames.

Whoever sent me the ‘Clay pigeon shooting fun day on the Thames’ which promises guns, instructors, clays and beer probably broke GDPR restrictions. Not really the thing I could imagine myself signing up to given I have a deep loathing of guns of any kind. If this was meant to be targeted marketing, it missed the bullseye by a mile.

But wait a minute, (brain becomes feverish due to lack of activity) they’re offering bacon rolls on arrival and hold on, we’re in complete lockdown. Have these charlatans found a way that I can legally take a trip on a Thames sailing barge, blast a 12 bore over the side and drink beer for three hours? Well, of course the answer to those questions is no, no and no.

Close scrutiny reveals that the fun day is planned for May of this year and the beer and guns are not a cocktail that’s allowed to mix. Damn spoilsports they’re also depriving me of a ‘hot fork buffet lunch’ (not entirely sure what that is) while taking a breather from terrorising other boats  and wildlife just beyond the Thames Barrier and all for just £299 plus VAT. Now what am I doing in May? Looks at blank diary. Where’s the sign-up sheet?

Suiting The Beatles

Suiting The Beatles

Dougie Millings made suits for the Beatles, in fact he made every suit featured in the Fab Four’s films: ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ and ‘Help!’  Last night I met Gordon Millings, Dougie’s son, who gave a talk about those fab days and showed us the original patterns created for the Beatles’ outfits.

Gordon Millings, Guy Hills of Dashing Tweeds and bespoke cutter Dan MacAngus

Gordon, born in 1945, was three years younger that Paul and almost the same age as George. His Dad’s shop was on Old Compton Street in Soho, two doors down from the 2i’s Coffee Bar. The 2i’s was a famous music venue in its day and can claim to be the birthplace of British rock & roll. A young Cliff Richard got his start there as did the Shadows, Adam Faith, Joe Brown and Johnny Kidd.

When these singers started to rake in some teen-generated cash they wandered over to Dougie’s to get suited and booted. Cliff was the first to do this and started sporting Millings’ clobber on the box.

Word made its way to Liverpool and Brian Epstein brought Gerry and The Pacemakers down for a fitting. Brian told Dougie the next time he was in town, he was bringing a new band. The Beatles showed up with quiffs and leathers but left with a set of collarless Nehru-style jackets.

At the time Gordon was training as a cutter at Huntsman on Saville Row. He used to pop back to his Dad’s shop at lunchtime to help him out. Once the Beatles became famous, Millings had to move to bigger premises and employed around eight tailors to meet demand. Back then a bespoke Saville Row suit cost £35, today you’re looking at £5,000 or more.

Last night’s talk took place at Dashing Tweeds who have taken the original designs and created new suits according the Beatles’ patterns. There’s a cape jacket which can be seen on the Help! album cover, a collarless jacket and a Teddy Boy style jacket which was worn by Lennon at the London Palladium.

On a final note, Keith Moon was also a customer and was buried in one of Dougie’s dark blue suits. Trouble was, as Gordon told me last night, he had forgotten to pay.

Oslo Court Restaurant

Oslo Court Restaurant

I love the crazy places of London. The places that seem improbable but exist anyway. How come a flying saucer with mushrooms in the ceiling landed in Knightsbridge was named Albert Hall and became one of our favourite concert venues?

Why are men currently throwing themselves into the icy grip of Hampstead Men’s Pond when they could be tucked up at home with a hot drink and a good book? Who knows but I’m glad they do even though I’m going nowhere near the place until the Spring.

I want to introduce you to another crazy place that I’d never heard of until friends took me there last Friday. It’s the Oslo Court Restaurant in St John’ Wood.

Its location is, to say the least, unusual. Walk down Prince Albert Road and turn into Charlbert Street and you’re met with a handsome art deco apartment block. Built in 1937 it boasts 125 one-bedroom flats many with balconies on to the park. Out front there’s a small sign that gives a clue that it also boasts a restaurant. Apparently in days gone by posh blocks often had restaurants but that fashion has disappeared.

Walking into reception a smartly dressed attendant directs you through a small unmarked door and suddenly you are in the pinkest restaurant in the world. It’s like falling into flock of flamingos and is something of a psychedelic shock as you reel towards your table. You are at a pink festival on Pink Day in Pinkland.

The owner, Tony Sanchez, has been running the joint for more than 35 years. The place definitely has a period feel. The single rose in the silver vases, the rich fabrics, the melba toast with vegetable croutons creates a time-machine that catapults you back to the 70s. There is nothing minimalist about Oslo Court. There’s no steel and glass here; it’s sumptuous.

Now describing a restaurant as having a 70s vibe will be about as welcome to the management as an outbreak of norovirus. Food in 70’s London was terrible, I know I lived through it, but I was poor at the time and I guess places like this must have existed for those with money.

Let’s get to the food. I started looking at the menu which as you’ll see has Dover Sole, Crab and Prawn Salad, Duck and Chicken Liver Pate, Salmon with Hollandaise sauce and sundry other 70’s delights though not (Tut Tut) Black Forest Gateaux or Prawn Cocktails. Suddenly a waiter arrived bearing news of at least twenty specials. I love a special.

Oslo Court RestaurantI opted for six oysters to start, served with an excellent sauce of Balsamic vinegar and garlic, then Beef Wellington (perfectly cooked and this is not an easy dish to get right) and for afters Lemon Meringue Pie with a side order of raspberries and vanilla ice cream. To finish up we had Petits Fours and coffee. A moment ago I described the atmosphere as sumptuous; the same goes for the portions. I then ordered a wheelbarrow to get me out of the place.

In the seventies, in between leaving school and going to University, I worked in a restaurant that boasted silver service. This is when the waiter serves your vegetables from a silver salver grasping the spuds and cauli between a spoon and fork and placing it effortlessly on your plate. Frankly I found it tricky and carrots typically ended up in the lap of some unsuspecting patron.

Silver service is now about as rare as a dodo, but not at Oslo Court where the waiters are dishing out the veg left and right while dressed in natty bow ties and dinner jackets.

This is a destination restaurant and if your destination factors in power cuts, a 3-day week, Ted Heath as PM it’s the place for you. The food is generally excellent but it’s not cheap; lunch comes in at £36 and Dinner £47. My only quibble was the vegetables were overcooked, but hey that’s the way we liked them 40 years ago.


Reservations: 020 7722 8795

Chalbert Street, NW8 7EN


 

Hampstead Pond: Taking the plunge

Hampstead Pond: Taking the plunge

It’s one of those places you have a vague idea exists, might be fun to visit, but can safely be put off until some unspecified time in the future. In reality it’s stuffed in that bulging file at the back of your mental filing cabinet marked ‘never’. Could be a laugh, but never going to happen, not in this life.

And then it does. Last Saturday I went for an invigorating dip at Hampstead Pond.

When I moved to London some time during the late 70s, I lived in Camden Town and with Hampstead Heath up the road, rumours of pond based aquatic activity came our way, but somehow when you’re in your twenties swimming isn’t right up there on that pressing list of ‘things to do’. In those days, verbs ending with -ing were usually prefaced by the words pub and club.

A close neighbour, he lives two doors down, waxed lyrical about Hampstead Pond life at a drinks party last Christmas, but with snow on the ground and ice on the water I said thanks, but no thanks. Ice has its place, in a gin & tonic, I don’t want to be encased in the stuff. Then came this long hot summer and with the mercury locked on 30c, I finally decided to take the plunge.

The four swimmable ponds at Hampstead Heath, which were originally reservoirs, are set aside for: Mixed bathing, Women, Men and Dogs. Yup that’s right, if your pet pooch fancies a doggie paddle walk this way. It’s mixed bathing for dogs, but the place I came to visit was the Men’s Pond, which officially opened for business 125 years ago this year.

Right from the outset it was very popular and started to attract hardy year-round swimmers. The Times, at the time, called the pond ‘A heroic form of the Englishman’s morning tub’ and said winter bathers were ‘an inoffensive kind of lunatic, who harm nobody but themselves.’ They were known as ‘The Barmy Club’.

Eccentricity still prevails with one set of regular visitors, mostly comprising American bankers, calling themselves ‘The East German Ladies’ Swimming Team’. They meet at 9am every Saturday and Sunday, take a brisk trot round the Heath and then descend on the Men’s Pond for a swim. They are easily spotted on account of their natty, branded togs and their boisterous behaviour.

The neighbour and I pitched up at 8.30am on a warm, bright, blustery day when there were perhaps fifteen people present. Apparently, during this tropical summer, the afternoons get mobbed which is why the old-timers I met, turn up early.

The Pond is looked after by the Corporation of London and they don’t exactly splash the cash on the facilities, which are basic in the extreme. The showers are cold and there are no lockers to secure your valuables. But such was the amiable bonhomie of the place, I find it hard to believe that pilfering takes place at that hour of the morning.

There’s a jetty and diving board that juts out into the pond from where I took the plunge. The water was a balmy 25 degrees and felt more like a warm bath as I bobbed and swam around the pond. To enjoy the place, you need to be a reasonable swimmer. The pond is deep, there’s nowhere to stand and there’s no pontoon on which to lounge, but not exactly being Mark Spitz myself I occasionally hung on to some strategically placed life savers that mark out the swimming area.

We swam for around twenty minutes in idyllic surroundings, changed and showered (brr!) and then a bunch of us, the neighbour knows everyone, repaired to Bistro Laz on Highgate Hill West where the coffee is excellent and the wild swimmers a kindly bunch to engage in conversation for the first time.

It looks like the bug has bit. I’m going back tomorrow.

Pond update 4.8.18

Diana sent me this great little Pathe News film from the 30s of the Women’s  Pond. Click here to watch.