A to Z Abroad: Muswell Hill

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For my fourth trip to London, I decided I wanted to get a real sense of what it’s like to live in London, so I rented a room in a flat in the North London borough of Muswell Hill. That choice turned out to be one of the best travel decisions I’ve ever made. I spent three weeks in Muswell Hill and it didn’t take long for it to feel like home.

Muswell Hill has the feeling of a small town, despite being surrounded by the giant metropolis that is London. The streets and neighborhoods are surprisingly quiet, yet bustling with city energy. Made up of middle class and  working class professionals, this neighborhood feels a lot like my own back in the States. The only difference is instead of stucco homes built twenty years ago, the buildings of Muswell Hill are red brick and at least 150 years old! The mix of modern life and historical architecture is one of my favorite elements of the London atmosphere.

A street in Muswell Hill (that has a really great bookshop)
Photo by: c.b.w. 2011

Like most London boroughs, Muswell Hill has a central point where shops, public transportation, and social events converge. Muswell Hill Broadway serves as the central artery that pulls everything and everyone together.

Muswell Hill Broadway
Photo by: c.b.w. 2011

I spent more than a couple of days enjoying the shops of Muswell Hill Broadway. There are fantastic bookshops tucked into unassuming storefronts and more than a few worthwhile cafes. On one of my favorite days, I went to a great craft store, Art for Art’s Sake, and then the coffee shop next door.

Crafts and coffee made for a perfect day!
Photo by: c.b.w. 2011

Follow the curve of Muswell Hill Broadway and it leads to the center of town. This is the where the buses from the city come through and it’s the hub for all major streets. Bus 43 goes from Muswell Hill all the way to London Bridge. For the price of a bus fare, (£1.40 with Oyster card), it’s possible to see the all major sites of London from a double-decker bus, while also taking in the local scenery.

Hop onto Bus 43!
Photo by: c.b.w. 2011

Past the central hub is the area’s only movie theater or cinema, The Odeon. I saw “X-men: Origins” one afternoon and it was a hoot, (see Saturday Matinee in Muswell Hill). The Odeon is actually considered a historical building as it is well-known for its art deco architecture.

Watch a movie while surrounded by history.
Photo by: c.b.w. 2011

Last, but not least, Muswell Hill offers a very unique view of the London skyline. Whether peeking through side streets or from one of the hills of Alexandra Park, the landmark buildings of downtown London seem so far away even though they’re only a 15-minute train ride away.

A slightly different view of London!
c.b.w. 2011

View of central London from a hilltop.
Photo by: c.b.w. 2011

Aside from amazing city views, Alexandra Park is also a nice place to sit and feed the ducks. The roses always seem to be in bloom and there’s never a shortage of green.

Alexandra Park, Muswell Hill
Photo by: c.b.w. 2011

The best part about Muswell Hill is how easily the people accepted me as part of the neighborhood. Within a week the baristas knew my usual coffee order and said hello like I’d lived there all my life. I’ll never forget that kindness.

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Part of the A to Z Challenge!

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c.b.w. 2013

Saturday Matinee in Muswell Hill

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Going to the movies has always been a guilty pleasure of mine.  I don’t know if its the giant screen, the smell of popcorn, or the make-you-go-deaf sound system, but I love going to the theater.  It doesn’t help that my local theater offers $5 deals for any show before noon, (even new releases!).  I’m not picky either . . . I’ll go to see anything from big budget blockbusters to indie films that had to beg to be distributed.

So naturally, I went to the movies or the cinema, (if I may practice Brit lingo),  during my stay in London this summer.  The experience itself ended up being more entertaining than the movie!  As mentioned in previous posts, I stayed in the small borough of Muswell Hill in North London. It has a very small town village feel, even though it’s part of much larger city, and is steeped in history.  This atmosphere is beautifully reflected in Muswell Hill’s Odeon Theater on Fortis Green Road.  It was built in 1936 during a major theater building boon, just as motion pictures were becoming more and more popular.

Upon approach, I wondered why a brick wall obscured the front part of the theater. I did some research and found out the church across the street was concerned about the “glowing sin” that emanated from neon signs and movie posters, so a partial wall and side street were built to make the theater more discreet.   My, how times have changed!

There are three screens in the Odeon, one large screen with 400 hundred seats and two smaller screens with 167 and 169 seats.  The large screen is decked out in major art deco architectural style, but I didn’t get to marvel in its beauty.  Unfortunately, the movie I wanted to see was playing in Theater 2 (a smaller screen on the lower level).

When I went into the lobby of the Odeon to buy my ticket, I was so excited to get my first overseas ticket stub.  Just like I save stones and seashells, I also hang onto my movie ticket stubs.  I have stubs dating all the way back to 1994 and I keep them all posted on a large bulletin board, (but that’s another post for another day).  Sadly, I was let down a little bit because they don’t give out actual tickets, but rather a flimsy receipt that shows payment.  Rats!  After a few years, that thin piece of paper will fade away to nothing, but I’m certain my memories of this place will outlive the ink.

Theater 2 turned out to be smaller than the theaters that end up in the back corner of the multiplexes back home,  (you know, the auditoriums that play older releases and smaller films), but it’s actually pretty cozy.  There are no middle seats because the hallway runs down the center of the theater.  Instead, two equal sections of seats run along each side of the screen.  Stadium seating does not exist, but there is a slight incline from the front of the theater to the back.  Too bad it’s not steep enough to help a short person such as myself.  The only way to avoid the poofy hair and tall heads in the front rows was to sit at the far left side in the back.

Once in my seat, I got a chance to assess the screen I’d be watching for the next two hours. It was at this point that I realized I may be a bit of a spoiled American when it comes to the movie-going experience.  My first thought after beholding the Odeon’s screen was, “My TV is bigger than that.”   Even still, I had to chuckle because that cute little screen is quite befitting of a theater with so much personality.

What lacked in screen-size was more than made up for with the sound system.   As soon as the lights dimmed, the sides of the screen slid out a few more inches (I’ve honestly never been so excited over a few inches in all my life) and a little click snapped in the speakers.  A commercial for a video game lit up the screen and the sound almost blew me right out of my seat.   The surround sound alone was worth the £9.50 I paid for my “ticket.”

The spectacle of X-Men: First Class made for a fun movie that was perfect for whittling away a Saturday afternoon. However, what made this typical summer blockbuster so enjoyable wasn’t the special effects or the gorgeous lead actors, but rather the Odeon itself.  Even though I was far away from home, this little theater made me feel like I was sitting on my couch watching a movie on a big screen TV with a killer sound system.  Never once has a 30 screen multiplex given me such a warm embrace.

c.b. 2011

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

Wandering in London, Part I

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June 8, 2011

With my husband safely dropped off at the train station, I found myself alone and wondering how to fill my day.  I decided to cross Hyde Park and make an attmept to find a coffee shop and bookstore I remember visiting six years ago. So, I made my way to the High Street Kensington station on a vague hunch that a little ways down the road I’d find what I was looking for.  It’s been a long time since I last tread this stretch of sidewalk and much has changed.  Large new stores and redecorated facades have given this place a first class makeover (never mind that it was beautiful prior to the work!).   I was just about to give up when I spotted the familiar signs for both coffee and books, side-by-side just as I recalled.  Over the next three hours I enjoyed a hot cup of coffee and perused the latest paperbacks.  Here’s to retracing old footsteps!

June 9, 2011

I spent the morning on a walk through Mayfair guided by a book I bought a few months ago.  It took me through the main trendy streets and lead me into hidden causeways away from crowds and traffic.  At one point, I found myself in a park reportedly used by KGB spies during the Cold War as a communication locale.  The park was actually so beautiful, I decided to sit and read for a little while along with a few other locals.

Above: Mount Street Park. Nope, I won’t tell which bench was (supposedly) used to convey secret messages of espionage.

The end of the walk left me at the tip of Green Park, so I opted to go for a stroll through the oak lined paths of this smaller cousin of Hyde Park.  I picked a bench that allowed me a glimpse of Buckingham Palace, but kept me far enough away to avoid all the hoopla that usually surrounds the Queen’s home.  On my right, a group of locals worked hard on their soccer game while a school field trip commenced on my left.  To my delight, no one gave me the “Oh God, you’re a tourist” look.  As long as I don’t speak, I suppose I blend right in.

June 10, 2011

Not every day can be perfect, there always has to be a rough one in the mix.  I woke up to frigid temperatures and it didn’t warm up for the whole day!  The plan was to go to the Tate Modern Museum and everything seemed to head in that direction while I was on the Tube.  No problems, no delays.  Things went downhill when I emerged street-level and found myself in a cold, torrential rain.  I decided to tough it out and walk very quickly towards the Tate, but of course they closed off the sidewalk due to construction.  I tried to find another way, but ended up getting utterly lost.  And it was still pouring rain.  I gave up after about 40 minutes and after I was soaked to the bone.

I went back to my room and worked on getting dry and warm.  The day got better once I headed down to what I now call my Starbucks to get a cup of coffee and catch up online.  A hot mocha fixes everything and so does a couple hours of writing.

June 11, 2011

I caught a little chill from the previous day, so I decided to stay out of the main city and just relax for the day.  The last thing I wanted was a cold!  Saturday in Muswell Hill turned out to be a very nice way to use up some time.  I spent the morning and early afternoon camped out at Starbucks, where I wrote and wrote as though there were a million words swirling around in my head.  After my computer battery died, I walked through the high street and visited all the local shops.  I didn’t buy anything, but it was fun to see what was for sale.

Above: Muswell Hill Broadway.  Art for Arts Sake is easily one of the most fun stores I’ve ever been to – lots of fun and creative craft projects.

By early evening, I sat in front of my bedroom window took my time reading the newspaper and snacking on chocolate butter biscuits, which were absolutely divine (I will be devoting an entire post to delicious junk food I’ve been noshing on since I got to London!).  Good thing I walk an average of 5 miles a day or all the snack experimentation would spell bad news for fitting into my clothes.

Part 2 coming soon . . .

c.b. 2011