Tag Archives: Hoxton Square

It Was a Beautiful Weekend

24 Jul Taken with iPhone Hipstamatic.

I am behind on daily posting! So I’ve written a dump-style recap — mostly in photos — of this past weekend. Which was excellent.

After a long run and some errands on Friday, I took the 243 bus north to Dalston to have a look at some used bikes. I’m holding out for a true Dutch-style ladies’ cruiser, which I can outfit with a big front basket and a bell and ride leisurely around flat London … a physical impossibility in hilly Seattle, where light, agile road bikes are key.

In Dalston, I found more eye-catching things to look at than I had expected.

Street art

Close-in, the entrance to a community garden

The charming garden has a great story -- local community organizations, the Hackney Council and the corporate landowner rallied together to have it designed, built and activated on formerly wasted space beneath the railway line.

The garden featured raised planting beds full of edibles, and lots of art -- created by both children (the scarecrow) and street artists (the mural).

This new building, facing the heavily marketed residential "Dalston Square," gave some visual clues about gentrification in the neighborhood.

Finally, the colorful storage lot where I met the bike dealer.

I looked at some impressive wares from Heaven’s Cycles, run by two young dealers who came highly recommended by a specialty bike mechanic I met Thursday at the Towpath dinner. They import secondhand cycles from Holland, and their reputation is legit … which is more than can be said about many questionable dealers found on gumtree (London’s craigslist) or at the local flea markets. The owner I spoke with was knowledgeable and straightforward, and the bikes were overall in good shape … but sadly, they cost about twice what I’d budgeted for a used bike. I may be kidding myself by hoping to find cheaper wheels that are reliable and safe, especially since the cute cruisers are in high demand. Still, I felt like I needed to do some more looking around before I could justify the asking price. So, for now, the bike search continues.

I met Mike back at home, and we headed to the outdoor Red Market, a weekends-only agglomeration of food stalls and pop-up cocktail bars, to find dinner.

Later, we took the tube north to the historically punk enclave of Camden Town to meet up with a few music-loving friends from Sofar.

Canal locks in Camden Town

Many thanks to Rafe for introducing us to a great young band called Nightmare & The Cat. Though their frontmen (brothers) are British-born, the band makes its home in L.A. They were a group of natural performers, particularly the bewitching, androgynous, Bowie-esque singer, and they played smart, lyrics-driven, bluesy rock with a lot of power. Definitely catch them if you have the chance. Click here for a video.


I spent most of Saturday in the posh West End, taking a 5-hour digital photography course in beautiful Holland Park. I am happy to report that I’m no longer afraid to touch the mystifying mess of buttons and dials on my Panasonic Lumix! Although flowers and ponds are not typically my subjects of choice, the afternoon of shooting in the park helped me and about a dozen other camera novices get a handle on the basics of aperture and shutter speed, within the limited capabilities of our compact point-and-shoots.

Mike worked the night shift on Saturday, so I was on my own. I treated myself to tea and a big piece of cake at Ruby, one of my favorite little cafes flanking Hoxton Square near our flat, where I read Cormac McCarthy’s soul-probing play The Sunset Limited, which I have on loan from the Hackney Library. I didn’t know anything about the book when I checked it out; I was just curious to read something by McCarthy. As I turned the last page, however, I found a note explaining that the work premiered onstage at the Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre in 2006 … not too long after I stopped working there. Life sends you funny reminders sometimes.

Maybe because of that, I decided I wanted to see a play. After some searching, I settled on On The Record, a new work about journalism produced by iceandfire, a young performance company focused on human rights issues. The theater was back up in Dalston, a neighborhood that I’m getting to like more and more.

(taken with iPhone)

The ensemble play was written using interviews with six real-life journalists operating in five sensitive areas around the globe — Iraq, Sri Lanka, Mexico, Russia and Gaza — and explored their work and their reasons for doing it. It was well written and well performed, and I was glad I went (and even glad I went solo), in particular because writing and journalism are close to my heart.

Waiting at the Dalston stop for my bus home.


On Sunday, Mike and I decided to explore the south bank of the Thames.

We visited the TurkishFest, where we found some of the best baklava I have ever tasted ...

... and Turkish Elvis.

We caught views of the Tower Bridge raising its drawbridge from the plaza outside City Hall.

An eye-catching footbridge

We walked across the Tower Bridge

A spectacular building in the financial district

Looking up at the Swiss Re skyscraper (known locally as the "Gherkin" or "Bullet"), designed by Norman Foster and Arup engineers, and built by Skanska.

Back at home, we ended the day with a perfect picnic in Hoxton Square featuring homemade pickles, sandwiches, organic chocolate, local strawberries and our Borough Market wine.

It seemed everyone else had the same idea.

Taken with iPhone Hipstamatic.

The Three-Picnic Day

10 Jul P1030845

Today is Mike’s last day before he starts work. We marked the occasion with some serious lounging, punctuated by novel-reading, a trip to our first regatta, and multiple picnics.

Picnic One was served at our kitchen table, so I suppose you could say that this was technically not a picnic. It was all fresh from yesterday’s trip to the market, though, so I say it counts.

Chopped radishes, one of my favorite things ...

Served with toasted handmade English muffins, fresh French sea-salted butter, coffee and, naturally, a side of digital interface.

At Mike’s suggestion (picked up from The Londonist’s invaluable “Cheap London”), we took the tube to Waterloo station, where we hopped on the National Rail to get to Kingston-Upon-Thames for the Kingston Amateur Regatta.

Kingston is a southwestern suburb (officially a Royal Borough) of London. Though well outside of the bustle of the city, I noticed it was still very densely built-up, at least around the rail station and the lovely Thames waterfront park. With the quick and simple rail commute to central London (maybe 30 minutes to Waterloo), I would guess it’s very easy to live in Kingston and work in London, even without a car.

(To get a sense of the National Rail network connectivity, check out this great map that Mike found, which overlays the National Rail with the tube.)

Just before we left home, we discovered Food Hall, a real gem of a gourmet food shop, just steps from our apartment. We combined a few our Borough Market spoils (cheese and Turkish olives) with some new produce, fresh-baked bread and beer for a truly indulgent picnic spread:

Avocado, tomatoes, soft-boiled eggs, cheese, baguette, olives, a fig and two ripe nectarines.

The amateur regatta, it turns out, was a very professionally executed middle-school sporting event, featuring mainly first-time rowers. Still, the races were generally close, and very exciting. It crossed my mind that my mom might have enjoyed certain rites of parental passage (ie, 4-hour dance recitals) if open container laws in the US were more like what they are in the UK.

We loafed around a little more, read and sipped some coffee, and then hopped the train back home. I shook off the day’s laziness with some yoga in our apartment, and then we headed out in search of dinner.

We settled on Thai carryout, spread out picnic-style in Hoxton Square at dusk and washed down with a few sips of wine from our Borough Wines refillable bottle.

Tomorrow, Mike will get up for work at 6 and I’m going to start putting myself back on a (somewhat) more disciplined schedule. We’re also looking forward to visits this week with three dear friends who happen to be passing through town … Nathan and Talia from Seattle, and Allison from San Francisco. We can’t wait to see you guys!

Finding a Flat in London

4 Jul The apartment is in a converted old pub building -- we like the green brick and signage.

I think we’ve found a perfect place to live. This is the story of our two-day whirlwind search for it.

As most of you know, we checked into a hotel with a 4-day reservation and the goal of finding an apartment for the year within that window. That seemed manageable — with a lot of prep on craigslist, we were able to find our first place in Seattle within a weekend, and London is well served by websites and agencies eager to connect us to landlords with empty space on their hands.

We began with a pretty focused idea of the neighborhoods we thought we’d like (based on advice from friends), our main criteria (clean, furnished, within 10 minutes’s walk of a tube station, and in an area where either of us could safely walk at any time, plus a few wish-list items including hardwood floors) and a budget (based on the percentage of income we currently spend on rent in Seattle).

I actually really love apartment-hunting, so I was looking forward to the challenge of finding the one that was right for us. One bit of trivia already had me curious: the UK builds among the smallest homes in the developed world. While the average size of newly built homes in the US is 2,303 square feet, the average size of newly built homes in the UK is only 818 square feet (sizes converted from square meters, per the chart below).

Although our apartment in Seattle is smaller than the average, we’re both accustomed to living in a lot more space — and with a lot more stuff — than we need. In the UK, listings typically don’t disclose the size in square meters, and few people I spoke with during our search even knew that statistic. The number of bedrooms is a more common qualifier — weird, because bedrooms are absolutely not created equal — and the importance of other factors including layout, finishes, furnishings and of course location, is magnified. Size is relative, too, of course: I’ve seen apartments in Hong Kong designed to house families of 4 or more in less than 450 square feet. We only need a quiet place to sleep, cook and get our work done — hopefully we won’t be spending much time at home this year anyway.

After 30 hours of non-stop apartment viewing, it was clear that the we were more inspired by the surroundings than the spaces themselves. We jumped on the only property that met all of our criteria, and were even able to successfully bargain down the price by £25 per week (many thanks to Jordan & Magda for the bargaining advice).

I’m estimating it’s actually on the larger side of what we’ve seen, around 500 square feet, with one bedroom and an open plan sitting room/kitchen. It’s in a converted old pub, which gives character to the outside, but the remodel is only five years old, so the windows, kitchen and floors are all brand new and in good shape. The furnishings are really minimal and clean, which I like (we viewed some furnished places with truly ugly furniture, threadbare mattresses, etc.). It’s got kind of a funny layout with all of the rooms opening off a tiny boxlike space that you enter from the hallway — it’s hard to explain, so I’ll take pictures soon.

The neighborhood is a total gem. You can find the area on Google Maps by entering part of our post code, “London, N1.” I think we’re technically in Hoxton, just steps from a little green courtyard called Hoxton Square. The square is ringed with really tempting-looking cafes and art galleries, and its grassy center is in constant use by visitors picnicking, reading, walking their dogs and just enjoying the space. The neighborhood of Hoxton/Shoreditch at large is really charming and full of eclectic shops. restaurants and arts venues (there’s a circus and a small theater company right on our block). We’re less than a 10-minute walk from the Old Street tube station and have ready access to numerous bus routes and several of London’s bike sharing hubs.

The apartment is in a converted old pub building -- we like the green brick and signage.

sunny, south-facing kitchen + living room

new windows in the bedroom keep it quiet

just enough storage, we hope.

We’ll get the keys to our flat within the next few days, once our background checks have gone through. Many more photos to come as we set up our cozy home base!

For readers who want more info, here are the lessons we’ve learned about searching for rental flats in London:

First, as a renter, you can either work with an agency or directly with a private owner. If you have the time to comb the classifieds for private listings, you’re likely to save quite a bit of money; however, you lose the security of an experienced broker/manager and — more importantly in our case — you have to work with each owner to set up viewings, negotiate points of the contract including furniture and pre-move-in cleaning, etc.

Working with agencies streamlines the search, because they handle the majority of rentals in the market, and because they help ensure that the contract between you and the landlord is legit. This efficiency and security comes at a price, of course — in our case, we were expected to pay anywhere between £180 and £400 in fees, and other agencies routinely charge even more. The main components of the total include fees for our background checks and a “finders fee” to the agent, and charges for both fluctuate broadly depending on which agency ultimately gets your business.

Although we viewed several privately owned properties, we ultimately chose an apartment that was managed by an agent, and decided that it was worth the extra fees. A few tips from our experience:

1. Seek agents that know their submarket well. Agencies typically have proprietary lists of properties, therefore, if you find a place you like, you need to work with the one agency responsible for leasing it. Logically, the agencies with the largest pools of rentals in the most desirable neighborhoods can charge the highest fees. We found our agent because we noticed the name of the firm attached to several properties we liked in the neighborhood where we wanted to be. It turns out, this agency operates exclusively within three London neighborhoods. We found the focused expertise and local knowledge was appealing, and helped us quickly narrow our search.

2. Ask about every fee you may be assessed up front, and require your agent to spell everything out for you. You could be expected to pay a cleaning fee, a move-in fee, a move-out fee, etc., and agents won’t necessarily tell you this until you’ve already put down your nonrefundable deposit.

3. Know what you want, and be firm, just as you would in the US. Don’t let the agent show you apartments beyond your budget, outside of the area you want, etc.

We used the following websites to search and filter apartment listings:

globrix.com — this was the most helpful because it has the most user-friendly interface, with the most options for customizing your search by area, unit type, price and other criteria; however, all properties on the site are leased by agents.

gumtree.com — this is like the British version of Craigslist, and the most fruitful place to seek direct deals with private landlords (though agencies list here as well). The quality is variable and you’ll need to be wary of scams.

sabbaticalhomes.com — a great find for us, this site links academics who need to sublet their homes with other academics in search of rentals. Agencies don’t list here, so all negotiations are direct with owners, and prices are highly competitive. You need a .edu email address in order to use the site. (Thanks to Austin for this recommendation)

zoopla.com — this site was recommended by a woman at our bank, and although we were already well into our search and didn’t get to use it much, we did see some compelling listings from both private owners and agents.

Finally, there’s the art of bargaining. You’re expected to haggle over the price of your flat, which is listed on a per-week basis. When we knew what we wanted, we made an offer that was £45 per week lower than the asking price. The agent came back with the landlord’s counter-offer. Although he said her price was firm at that point, we responded with an offer that was £10 per week lower (at this point my stomach was in knots because after viewing several other options that turned out to be awful, I knew we really wanted to sign the contract). The landlord accepted, and we got in at about £100 per month off the asking price. I realize that if she signed at that amount, we’re probably paying no less than she expected we would in the end, but it still felt like a success.


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