A Cup of Coffee in Muswell Hill

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Muswell Hill is beautiful little community in North London that boasts Victorian homes, a small town feel, and a Starbucks.  Being a hardcore addict of hot Café Mochas, I naturally gravitated towards the iconic green mermaid sign on a daily basis during my three week stay.  Not only is Starbucks one of the few locations in the neighborhood that has free Wi-fi, but I was also assured of a good cup of coffee.  Now, I love the Brits, but coffee is not their forte.  I’ve learned my lesson many times over that if you want a good cup of coffee in London you have to go with a brand name.

Within just a few days I found my groove in the one Starbucks that occupies Muswell Hill Broadway, (the main street of the neighborhood).  Isn’t it cute?

Click image for a full-size view

What I noticed immediately was how easily I was accepted into the ranks as a regular.  Not only am I foreigner treading in a non-tourist area, but I am a stranger within a very tight knit community. Instead of becoming an outcast, I was extended a warm invitation to sit down and relax.  The people that live here did not give me  the “Oh my God, another tourist” leer that is common in the city center.

The cafe occupies a building that outdates Starbucks by quite a few decades, which gives the place a lot of charm.  There are two levels of inside seating (upstairs and downstairs) and two outside seating areas.  The upper level is divided into two sections, with the coffee service station in the middle.  The front “lobby” has a window bar and two tables jammed in along the walls.

While the back room is a little more open, the floor slopes towards the middle and causes every table  to tilt at an angle.  It drove me nuts at first, but then I realized most floors in London buildings slope in one direction or the other – older buildings don’t like to follow the rules! Nine tables are crammed into a space that would better accommodate five,  so personal space is nonexistent.  I could literally read the computer screen of the person sitting next to me.  While a tad unnerving, the close quarters actually creates a sort of kinship among strangers. Everyone gathers in this place for the same things – a cup of coffee and a place to sit.

The space downstairs is a little larger, but it feels like a cave because of the low ceiling.  Several tables have soft chairs and the lighting is more subdued, which makes the room feel warm and cozy.  It’s quiet during the day, but by early afternoon it becomes the hangout for teenagers who just got out of school.  Teenagers and caffeine always make for an obnoxious combination!  Some things never change, no matter where you are in the world.

There are two tables on the sidewalk out front.  If its not raining, they are always occupied by moms with strollers or smokers with a cigarette in one hand and a book in the other.  Out back is a patio with tables covered by a large umbrella.  This is where the larger groups congregate, even if its pouring rain.  The patio also plays host to the smokers who want to sit inside, but still need a cigarette break.  The door leading outside is constantly in motion and very often left open by those with no etiquette.

As in the rest of Europe, prices vary depending whether you choose “to stay” or “take away.” Staying in costs a bit more (usually around 10p) than take away, which creates a much slower pace within the cafe.  Those who pay to stay, take full advantage of that extra pence they’ve spent and settle in for a long stay.  Those with laptops are plugged in, others sit with newspapers stacked high, and writers toil away in their journals.

Now that I am home and sitting in my usual coffee cafe, I can’t help but think of my “spot” in Muswell Hill.  I miss how the musty smell of rain fuses with the earthy aroma of coffee, how the air conditioning kicks on even when it’s cold, and the sound of quiet conversations in more languages than I can understand.  Most of all I miss the people – the regulars – who showed up every day at the same time.  There’s the older couple who share sections of two different newspapers, a pair a teenage girls who stop by each day to spill the latest gossip, and a young man who spends hours taking notes from a propped up book.  And I’ll never forget the employees who made my coffee each day.  The most memorable is a girl who has the longest dreads I’ve ever seen. She is one tough cookie that refuses to be pushed around by rude customers.  Then there’s a cute curly haired man who never stops smiling, a shy black haired Czech (I think) boy who barely says a word, and a tiny Asian girl who is still learning the ropes.  Though we barely spoke, I miss them and remain thankful for how quickly they learned I’m the one who always orders a Tall Cafe Mocha, (with cream).

c.b. 2011

20 thoughts on “A Cup of Coffee in Muswell Hill

  1. Wonderful memories to bring back home with you. It all sounds quite delightful. I don’t expect to ever see London in person but it is nice to read about the adventures of other travellers.

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  2. Cafes are a writer’s friends. I LOVE sitting in cafes and writing, reading or people-watching. In fact, the last two trips I took to London involved a LOT of time sitting on my butt in one coffee-shop or another and just looking at the people around me, soaking up the atmosphere.

    I love London. I’m glad you found a great little community to settle in for your stay! I also agree that coffee is definitively not the Brit’s forte… Too little/too much frothy milk, too little coffee in the cups, way too weak or so strong you could stand a spoon up in it… Yeah, going with the brand can be helpful sometimes.

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    • I’m so well-known in the cafe I frequent at home, sometimes they start making my coffee before I even order it. The other regulars also know which table is “mine.” I like to think if I had stayed in Muswell Hill a bit longer, the same rapport would have developed. One day, perhaps.

      I once had a cup of coffee in central London that tasted like it was burnt! How do you burn coffee?? The coffee may be bad, but I think it’s because the Brits put all their energy into making amazing cups of tea. 😉

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  3. What a wonderful place. I wish Starbucks would take a note and put the ones here in old buildings…but then we dont’ have many old buildings do we. Everything has to be modern and fresh and sterile. OH well. We do have great people and they tend to become a group when you inhabit a place long enough and then, with a little effort, the city melts away and we have our own community. Especially the writers. Thank you for sharing!

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    • I think that antique feeling is what draws me not only to London, but also the rest of Europe. There are literally stories wherever you look, and they are “old” stories buried underneath multiple layers of time. 🙂

      However, you are so right that people do make the place. The people are what keep me coming back to my usual cafe and why I loved Muswell Hill so much.

      Thanks for reading!

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  4. This is the type of writing that brings me the most pleasure, personal observations about the people and places the writer visits, their likes, dislikes and memories. Thanks for taking me with you, and I didn’t even need a carry-on. 🙂

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  5. Susanne

    I enjoyed reading about the Starbucks with a small town feel but in the middle of a large city. I bet they miss seeing your smiling face too. You’ll just have to go back and see if the gal with the dreads is still serving up brew.

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    • I’m hoping to make it back to Muswell Hill and soon. That place is simply too special to leave behind. 🙂 I took some serious notes on the girl with the dreads – she’s going to make a great character in a future story.

      Thanks for reading!

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  6. Enjoyed the reminiscence of Muswell Hill. For a short time, I was transported and I want and need to be transported. And, I want to paint that store front. And, I want to drink a cup of coffee there. Your writing entertains with vivid details.
    Thanks!

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