Category: Shopping

Perfect London Sunday

Perfect London Sunday

Not sure what to do on a Sunday in London? Don’t want to splash the cash on a Sunday roast? Here’s what you do; you go to the Beigel Bake on Brick Lane and Columbia Road Flower Market. If you really want to keep it cheap you can get away with spending no more than a fiver, though that’s not including travel costs.

Get yourself to either Aldgate East or Old Street tube station and walk to Brick Lane.

There in all its glory, at the cross of Bethnal Green Road is the Beigel Bake. Not tried a beigel (pronounced bagel) before? They are a delicious Jewish delicacy that comes stuffed with either Smoked Salmon and Cream Cheese or Salt Beef. The beigel itself has a wonderful chewy quality that is slightly sweet. It’s very important that you also buy a cup of tea that comes right out of the urn –  so thick you could trot a mouse on it. The combination of beigel and tea is sublime; the equivalent of mozzarella and basil or figs and Palma ham, though appreciably cheaper. The tea is 60 pence a plastic cup and a salmon and cheese bagel is £1.90. Don’t forget to order a dozen plain to take away, they freeze perfectly.

The Beigel Bake was established in 1974, runs a 24-hour operation (it’s very popular with clubbers in the early hours) and is said to produce 5,000 bagels a day.

While you’re on Brick Lane there’s lots to see and do from vintage clothes shops to art galleries or you could sit on a bench, eat your beigel and do some people watching.

Detour: At this point if you have a whole day you might want to go to Spitalfields Market which is close to hand, but I’ll leave that destination for another day.

Now full of beigel and tea, you need to take stroll to Columbia Road. If you want plants, flowers, shrubs and a fair bit of banter from the stall holders this is the place. The flower market is crammed into an impossibly narrow street and on a sunny day the crowds will be pressing but somehow it doesn’t feel claustrophobic. The market is open from 8am to 2pm and if you go late you might pick up some bargains as the traders try to get rid of unsold stock.

There’s also some great buskers and places in the central courtyard where you can grab a coffee; sometimes there’s an oyster stall. Plenty of tourists come, but so do Londoners in their droves. So, if you’re looking to plant petunias in your window box, buy some cut flowers or just want to be part of a London experience that dates back to the 19th Century then come to Columbia Road Flower Market.

Make the trip before winter has London in its icy grip or save the idea until the Spring. I know it’s a good day out, because I did it today.

Retail is hanging by a coattail

Retail is hanging by a coattail

But it’s not game over for the high street

Rows of boarded up shops make our high street look ugly; blackened teeth in what should be a shining retail opportunity. Many of the independent restaurants, delis and coffee shops have been trodden under foot by the merciless march of Pret A Manger, Caffè Nero and Starbucks. Shops have found competition with the cyber-retailers a fight they can’t win. Amazon brought a gun to a fist fight.

In the more run down areas it’s fried chicken, betting shops, mini cab offices, and not much else. Perhaps because it’s London – an estate agent.

Like, I suspect, many people, I feel deeply ambivalent about this as I use Amazon which typically provides a great service. I also use Pret A Manger and Caffè Nero both of which are pricey but offer excellent F&B. This of course has effects; we used to have an independent bookshop at the end of our street – gone. We just lost two much loved independent restaurants ‘Counter’ at Vauxhall Cross and ‘Oval Lounge’ on Clapham Road. Fortunately, we still have an independent coffee shop – The Sugar Pot.

The daughter and I were in New York a couple of weeks ago and it was interesting to note that many Mom and Pop delis and restaurants still survive there unlike in this town.

Interlude: I was in Croydon yesterday for work and was a little early for a meeting so stopped by the Smoothbean! café close to the station. Excellent friendly service and good coffee and croissants. Use it or lose it. 

Urban axe throwing

Retail is changing fast and it’s not all bad. We now seem to be in an interim period as shops swap from selling goods to providing experiences. My firm recently went on a works outing to an escape room experience. They provide themed games where you and your colleagues are locked in a room and must discover clues to affect your release. It’s all a bit Sherlockian and often combines a murder mystery. There are many all over London, mostly occupying what used to be retail spaces.

A five-minute stroll from Vauxhall Station takes you to the Vauxhall Climbing Centre. Here you can to prepare for popping up Mont Blanc or perhaps the Matterhorn. And a little further away you can join the Whistle Punks and engage in Urban Axe Throwing. Top outing for hens and stags but you’d be advised not to turn up drunk. It’s kind of like darts only with vicious light weight axes. You never knew you wanted to do this, did you?  No, I’m not making it up – take a look.

Andy the fishman

Andy the fishman is part of the new mobile high street. He doesn’t have a shop, he runs a van and he’s not from London. Every Tuesday he packs his waggon with fresh fish bought from the market in his native Grimsby, and hits the dark and dusty to bring salmon, tuna, fishcakes, seabass, swordfish and cod right to my door. He’ll be glad to come to your door too. He ranges over London on Wednesday and is in our neighbourhood on Thursday. Our cat Ziggy is particularly fond of his prawns. A charming self-effacing man who is always ready for a chat. He faces competition from other freewheeling fish vendors, many from slightly further up the East Coast, who sell boxes of frozen fish. Stick with Andy and get the fresh stuff.

Wholesale retail

Finally, I want to introduce you to Alf, not a retailer but a wholesaler who does a little retail on the side. You’ll be glad he does.

Alf and his brother own Lays of Chelsea, which operates out of New Covent Garden Market, right by the new American Embassy and the sprawling mass of development that stretches from Vauxhall to Battersea Power Station. Alf used to run a fruit and veg shop in Chelsea, hence the name, but upped sticks in the 80s, went wholesale and now supplies the posh restaurants of London.

If you get up early enough, not later than 7.30, you can swing by his premises on a Saturday morning and buy the freshest, sweetest tasting produce imaginable for an incredibly reasonable price. I recently bought some of the best asparagus I’ve ever eaten.

They are all incredibly helpful and will point you in the direction of the best produce available. Not too easy to get there by car so bikes and back-packs are recommended. I bought a small amount of fruit today which you can see here. It cost a fiver and I’m eating as I’m writing.

Fantastic quality, fantastic prices and a friendly service. It’s what retail is all about, but supplied by a wholesaler.

A quick word about Alf; his grandad was called Alf, his dad was called Alf, Alf is called Alf and his son is called Dave. Only kidding, of course he’s called Alf. Pay Alf a call, you won’t regret it.

High streets everywhere are undergoing massive change, retail shops may be dying but other businesses are taking their place. The future will be about experience at the expense of retail. You’ll go there to eat a meal, drink a coffee and perhaps throw an axe.