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How to celebrate the Fourth of July in London

TweetHow to celebrate this very American holiday in London? I’ve been wondering that myself for about a decade. The thing about celebrating Fourth of July is that the enjoyment comes from knowing all your family, all your friends, the entire nation is celebrating too. When I lived in in New York, the Fourth meant cookouts in Prospect Park organised by my friends, legendary party-makers and grillers John Fasciano and Frank Reilly. It meant ball games and hanging out among a whole bunch of other groups of people, all playing ball games and hanging out and happy to be off work. Everybody eats hamburgers and hot dogs and it’s all about ritual. In London, it’s still about ritual, but…different. I’m not lucky enough to be invited to the American ambassador Matthew Barzun’s party. The Democrats Abroad group has an annual ticketed picnic, but it’s always seemed a bit big and impersonal. Plenty of restaurants put on special menus with “American food”, god help us. Just booking a table with our little family seemed sad and anticlimactic as the kids don’t have any of the associations with the holiday that I do.   A few years ago my friend Jenn came to rescue. “Come to dinner for Fourth of July!” her email beckoned. She gathered a group together and booked a table at an American-style restaurant on the busy King’s Road, deep in the heart of West London. We came, we ate and drank, we waved little American flags. To be honest, the place where we eat is a little bizarre. It’s called The Big Easy — yes a restaurant for Fourth of July — and the menu looks like they free-associated when someone yelled, “Southern food!” Lobster, barbecue (Texas, Memphis, Carolina and Kansas style), jalapeno poppers, fajitas, jumbo shrimp, clam chowder…it’s like hitting every roadside diner from San Antonio to Charlotte.   This isn’t the holiday as we know it. No fireworks, no ball games, no John F. and Frank R. Today my husband is already anticipating his lobster bib (lobster for Fourth of July?) and ice-cold longneck. But it’s good friends and food and a new ritual. Happy Fourth of July! My tips for celebrating the Fourth of July in London If you plan a barbecue, have a rain-day Plan B in case English weather appears. This year it’s hot and sunny but it can just as easily go the other way. Book any American-style restaurant as far in advance as you can. They get packed with expats and...

London summer family fun: Polo in the Park

Tweet Summer in London is awash in festivals and outdoor parties, but there’s something quite special about Polo in the Park. The sport has real elegance, excitement and panache, and now it’s more family friendly than ever. (Scroll to the bottom for discount code for money off your tickets for the Friday or Sunday.) The organisers have teamed up with Sharky & George, the cool, fun children’s entertainers and party organisers. I love these guys — instead of doing the usual kids parties things, they organise imaginative, energetic and silly activities that they themselves enjoy, which gets the kids excited too. We’ve used them a couple of times for my daughter’s birthday or big family get-togethers and the kids always come away pink-cheeked, laughing and exhausted. That means amid the chukkers and mallet-swinging, there will be some very untraditional activities like water bomb catapults, space hopper polo matches (this I must do), a giant obstacle course, strawberry bootlace eating races, tug of war and other games galore. Polo in the Park runs over a weekend — June 5, 6 and 7. Sunday is the day to go with your family, not least because of the great activities, according to  Rory Heron, MD of Polo in the Park. Fridays tend to be more corporate; Saturday is the party day, packed with groups of young singles. When to go Sunday 7 June will be a fabulous family party, with peak time 11:30 – 2pm. There will be a bright pink slide on the field before play starts and at 11:30 you’ll be able to take the field, as Sharky & George have convinced Polo in the Park to allow a family pitch invasion. Original Travel will host a parents’ zone, where you can relax in a deck chair with a glass of fizz while the children play in the “Little Hooves” kids club. What is Polo in the Park? Chestertons Polo in the Park takes place at Hurlingham Park, Fulham, South London. It features an adapted game that is more accessible and geared toward the spectators. The field is smaller than a regular field, so visitors are closer to the action, the teams play with a brightly coloured larger ball (the kind used on indoor arena polo games) that looks like a miniature football, and there are 3 rather than 4 members on each team so the action is easier to follow. There are 4 quarters of 7 1/2 minutes per quarter. You’ll even get to see some professional polo players...

iPhoneography: Preparing for Chinese New Year in London

TweetI’ve always loved Chinese New Year, even if we don’t always celebrate it in grand style. I also love walking through Chinatown in London whenever I’m in the West End. Compared with Chinatown in New York, which has taken over Little Italy and goes on for block and blocks, London’s Chinatown is basically one or maybe two streets. It’s tiny, really. But whenever I am on my way to Leicester Square Tube station, I try to structure my route so I can walk down Gerrard Street. Last week I was lucky enough to be walking by while they were preparing for Chinese New Year, so it was more colourful and busier than ever. I like that even on this one street I feel transported into a different world. Food hangs in windows that I can’t identify. Signs are written in a script I don’t understand. All around people bustle, carrying in boxes of exotic vegetables to the grocery stores, reading the menus outside the restaurants.   When I walked through last week, they were hanging lanterns for Chinese New Year. Huge boxes were piled up, as a worker unpacked lanterns — made in China? — that they would string between the buildings.     Of course the big question is where to eat in Chinatown. I’ve tried several places that were all fine, all just about the same. But last week my husband came home raving after a lunch with colleagues at The Four Seasons Chinese Restaurant on Wardour Street. This is, not surprisingly, not related to the hotel chain of the same name. He had some “very good” crispy pork belly but the reason they went was for special roasted duck, which he raved about. I haven’t been there yet, but I’m looking forward to checking it out, if only to have another excuse to wander through our Chinatown. For more information about visiting Chinatown, go to www.chinatownlondon.org....

Finding music on the Tube

TweetThis evening, in a foul mood, having just stepped out of a shivery drizzle and into the Tube, I heard something of a rarity: live violin music. I love the musicians who perform in the official spaces in the official busking spaces of Underground stations. But here was a man on a train, travelling along the line, making beautiful music as we journeyed home. He was obviously homeless or at least had fallen on hard times. His gray hair was messy and looked unwashed. His fingernails had dirt not just underneath them but all around the base of the nailbed. When he spoke you could see a gap where we was missing at least one tooth. Even the violin had seen better days. The finish looked oily. The open violin case on the floor revealed a purple lining that had wholly worn away and ripped in places, exposing the styrofoam underneath. But as he started to play, his fingers moved swiftly — properly trained. His bow — with fluffly tangles of broken horsehairs at each end — coaxed flawless tunes from the instrument. He closed his eyes in concentration. His face was a man in love with music. In the short journey between Kennington and Oval he transformed the coach into a small recital hall. All the passengers turned their faces toward him; some gave up their seats on the crowded carriage to put a pound or a scattering of silver coins into the case, with a loud thunk each time. Between numbers he had a smooth patter with a gracious manner, describing the song and the composer before playing it. At the end people applauded, not in that meek embarrassed way I’ve seen people do for other performers in public spaces, but assertively, saying thanks as they stepped down onto the platform. Several people positioned themselves to take pictures or video. As the musician was getting off the train, his violin safely stowed in that tattered case, an older well-dressed man in a camel-coloured coat said, “That was excellent. Expect to see it on YouTube tomorrow.” The musician rejoined with a smile, “Again?”...

The best holiday ice skating in London

TweetOver the past several years my family and I have criss-crossed the city trying out different ice skating rinks. I’ve loved it since childhood, when I would force my mother to drive from 2 1/2 hours to the nearest ice rink so I could pretend I was an ice princess. (I have a great picture of me trying to do an arabesque on ice — the minute my mother hit the shutter, I hit a chink in the ice and she captured me on my way down.) This past weekend we went to a press preview of the Canary Wharf ice rink. We’d visited this one before in 2011 while reviewing a family weekend at the Four Seasons Canary Wharf. I keep hearing that the Wharf is transforming into a destination great for visiting with families. Just in the course of a year it’s become more bustling with children and parents and fun things to do. This year, the Canary Wharf rink has changed from a big square skating space to a smaller main square and a little route – an ice lane that winds around a sculpture by Ron Arad that looks like a giant flying saucer, past the windows of the cafe (a pop-up Boisdale) and back to the other side of the main ice section. While there’s less space for a triple salchow, going “round the lane” kept the kids entertained for most of our session. I like this part of town on the weekend as well because you’re not battling huge crowds. On Tuesday nights there are live jazz sessions, and you’re just above the big underground shopping mall, where you can also visit a Santa’s Grotto. “I’m not going in to see Santa!” both kids kept saying as we queued to see the jolly one. “Oh yes you are!” my husband and I said firmly. Helper elves worked the line, entertaining the children. Eventually we were ushered into a small room decorated in a homey style with a tree, wooden toys and Father Christmas in an old fashioned white-trimmed robe.   He invited the children to sit on the bench and chair and had a good line in friendly patter about their names, if they’d written a wish list and if there was something they really want. There’s always the chance that an encounter with Santa is a forced cheer moment, but this one had a very nice feel and the children got age-appropriate books as little gifts after their visit. The Olympics got...

Jumping on the giant inflatable Stonehenge

TweetI thought the coolest thing that Jeremy Deller has done was his documentary about Depeche Mode fanatics, “Our Hobby Is Depeche Mode“. That was until we visited Sacrilege, his inflatable Stonehenge. This is surely the only giant bouncy prehistoric World Heritage site in the world. It’s travelling around England and, looking for something more inspiring than another day at the local park, I sent my daughter off with her babysitter to Hampstead Heath a couple of weeks ago to jump on it. It was mobbed, they had to queue and even so, my daughter loved it so much that the next day we went to Clapham Common where it was set up the next day. We got there first thing, and there were a few delays – one related to council mandarins which is just too boring to detail here. They also had to deflate and patch a hole in Stonehenge, the benefit of that being that we got to see it slowly, dramatically inflate. They let groups of 100 on for 15-minute slots of jumping, which is enough to run ’round with high knees in a kind of moon walk, do flips and somersaults, lie down and let someone try to bounce you by jumping around you and squeeze between the “stones”. We ended up sweaty and laughing and ready for a drink. This interactive public artwork may make you consider how you think about historical sites. It definitely prompted some questions about Stonehenge from my children. Best of all, we didn’t have to site in traffic on the A344 to get there. There are still a few places Sacrilege is visiting over the summer. Find the dates and locations here. Visiting and jumping on it is free.  ...

Day out: Crazy golf on the roof of Selfridges

TweetIt turns out you can have your cake and golf it too. The clever chaps behind Bompas & Parr have teamed up with Selfridges to create an installation on the roof of the department store – a cake-based crazy golf course. These were the guys who last year flooded the roof to make an emerald green boating lake. Now they’ve created this 9-hole course with hazards made of cake. For years Bompas & Parr have been doing cool events and creating jellies and other edibles that combine science, food and theatre. They’ve done jelly in the shape of St Paul’s and glow-in-the-dark versions. I love these guys. I went to their Alcoholic Architecture walk-in gin and tonic several years ago in the Newburgh Quarter – you dressed in a whole body zip-up jumpsuit with hood (think the sperm outfits from Woody Allen’s film) then mingled in a room with aerosolized G&T. They’ve written a book on the history of jelly, called, er, Jelly and another one called Cocktails. Their studio with candy-striped walls features shelves stacked with intricate jelly molds, and Sam Bompas and Harry Parr come across as geeky food lovers, or perhaps foodie scientists (they call themselves foodsmiths). I met them several years ago when I visited their office and we chatted over very tasty ham sandwiches. What they’re doing is so exciting and fresh. Often they’re more geared to adults (see the G&T cloud); now finally there’s a Bompas & Parr experience I can take my daughter to. If you can nab tickets, it’s a don’t-miss this summer. Crazy golf continues through September. Tickets cost £6. You can book online, or they keep some tickets available for walk-ups. Under 16s must be accompanied by an adult. More info on Bompas & Parr Here’s a nice interview with the two, in the Independent Bompas & Parr on Facebook    ...

Video: Spitalfields Life

TweetI love this video of Spitalfields, which I found on The Women’s Room blog. I took a walking tour of Spitalfields with the kids about a year ago, so can play a bit of “where’s wallace” with all the locations. If you’re interested in the area, check out my latest post about Box Park and Bukowski Grill, in Shoreditch, East London....

Photo Friday: Bukowski Grill, Box Park

TweetI’m taking part this week for the first time in Photo Friday, hosted by DeliciousBaby.com. I took this photo on my iPhone at Bukowski, one of the eateries at Box Park. Box Park opened a couple of months ago near Shoreditch House in East London. It’s a pop-up shopping “mall”, an installation of shipper containers housing groovy fashion boutique and eateries that will live in this space for the next five years. Re-use of shipping containers as housing or other building blocks of modern urban life has been going on for a while. (Check out this home in Houston made from containers.) Maybe it’s the hoarder in me but I love this trend in recycling and urban planning. The way Box Park has put it into practice is simplistically brilliant. There’s an upstairs deck fitted with picnic tables and a host of little shops including a good coffee place, a sweetie shop, a row of containers selling cool t-shirts and funky shoes, and Bukowski. My husband heard it was a good place for a burger, so we went with our 8-year-old, squeezed in a one-sided booth for two. We ate burgers (with ethically sourced meat), pulled pork (not the greatest I’ve had but yummy), beer and homemade lemonade. The food was good but the atmosphere was better — genial, communal, hip. One guy was serving everyone but he happily fetched extra napkins and drinks for our daughter. It’s not a place to linger. After we sat down a line formed as people waited for one of about 5 booths to become free. I took this picture from our booth. A couple more groups were waiting outside. It all adds to a buzz rather than a feeling of pressure. Our daughter loved the novelty of the architecture of the entire structure and our tiny booth. The food was good here but it was the sense of real London personality that makes me want to go back. Bukowksi Grill Unit 61 BOXPARK Bethnal Green Road E1 6GY London  You can see more cool travel pictures on this week’s Delicious Baby Photo Friday post.   Bukowski burgers, Shoreditch, London The basic cheeseburger Coke, in bottles! The line for lunch Looking back toward the kitchen Light fixture...

A good children’s bookshop in Dulwich

TweetI don’t make it over to Dulwich very often, although we do go for the Midcentury Modern Fair. (See my review of the fair.) Now I have another reason to go: the Tales on Moon Lane bookshop. I’ve heard things here and there about this bookshop – great for kids, enchanting, and so on. In a recent blog post, Nell Gifford – who founded the excellent Gifford’s Circus of which I am a personal and avid fan – calls it the “best children’s bookshop in the world“. Have you visited it? Is she right? Is it worth a drive over to browse the titles? They’ve got some great events listed on their website and won a bookseller’s award in 2011. One thing I think I like the best, they offer “book baskets” – gifts for new babies or christening presents. Tales on Moon Lane Bookshop 25 Half Moon Lane, London, SE24 9JU...

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