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London Notes: Part 1 – Live Barbican

The Barbican towers
This post starts with a recommendation and ends with a plea for recommendations. I finally found out last week that after 30 years of London (with some short educational diversions) that I will, from 1 July 2010, be living elsewhere. I will be living in a city I have never visited. In a continent that I have only glimpsed. A place where I don’t speak the language and I don’t know anyone. However, before I blog off to Hong Kong I thought I would get all nostalgic about London and switch it up by doing one post a week distilling what I have learnt in 30 years of box ticking obsession in this city.
Lloyd's of London - a short wander from the Barbican

My greatest recommendation would be “live Barbican” (if you can or at very visit it in earnest at some stage). If you have decided to live in London why would you not live in the City of London? And the distinction is important. Greater London contains Croydon; Fulham and Clapham. The City of London has Nelson’s tomb; St Pauls; Smithfield; St Bartholomew’s hospital; its Wards, Liverys and Guilds; the Inns of Court and Spitalfields (well Spitalfields is just in Tower Hamlets but it is owned by the City of London Corporation). The history, the buildings, the wealth, the experience; they are all concentrated here, right in the centre. And most importantly, right in its heart, built by and hidden inside millions of tonnes of concrete is the Barbican. Who could have believed that poured concrete could be so wonderful? Who would have thought that the very fact that the Barbican is an unknowable maze for all but residents makes it so particularly welcoming? If you live there, it is undeniably yours because no one else can find their way around it.

Smithfield meat market

 And its location, it is the nexus of the City of London and London itself. To the East the grotty delights of Bethnal Green and the gentrified edges of Spitalfields market. To the South the blood soaked glory of Smithfield meat market and to draw the border hard against Sarf Londoners (which I am by birth) there is the Thames. To the West you flow through Bloomsbury into the West End and the tourist hordes. To the North, Clerkenwell and Exmouth Market. 

Barbican fruiterers in Golden Lane Estate

And if you like food where else? Whitecross street market is on the doorstep (as is Jen’s love – Waitrose). Then there is a ring of good coffee to coax you out of bed in the morning (Kipferl, Pitch 42, Columbia Road, Caravan, Taylor Street Baristas, Dose Espresso etc.). Then you can eat at places like Medcalf, the Fox & Anchor, St John’s, Portal, Eastside Inn, The Modern Pantry, Boho Mexica, Hawksmoor, L’Anima, Comptoir Gascon and on… 

The modern extension to St Bartholomew's hospital

And the pubs. From those hidden under Smithfield meat market where you can get a pint at 6am with a dose of blood splatter (The Cock Tavern) to those which are officially located in Ely in Cambridgeshire despite being off Holborn (Ye Olde Mitre). The City of London and its higgledy piggedy passages and alleys are full of them.

The Barbican towers once again

 So, and I find myself quite mournful at the thought, this is what I am leaving. I still know nothing about HK apart from the fact there is apparently somewhere called “Happy Valley”. If anyone has any similar notes on HK they will be gratefully received… 

PS if you like this try the others in the London Notes series here


  1. gastrogeek

    Good riddance

  2. Tom

    You know you will miss me. Anyway your little co-conspirator – Jen – is going to be hanging around for a bit… You will have to come to the next pizza fest

  3. gastrogeek

    I only hope you manage to keep your frankly size-ist feelings in check, I really do. And that goes for the both of you. I pity the poor people of HK.

    Would love to come to the next one and try Jen's legendary pizza. When is it? (I'll wear stilts)

  4. Jen

    Next one coming up in a few weeks. Will email you the details. Will make it short and sweet, just for you.

  5. Anonymous

    You will love HK!!

  6. Lizzie

    Ah! Jealous! I grew up in Hong Kong. I can't give you any specific recommendations as I haven't been back since 1998, but if you ask @supercharz on twitter I'm sure she could help you out. The food there is GREAT.

  7. Tom

    Gastrogeek – due to excess alcohol I can't be sure but are you actually smaller than Jen (I bully her enough already about it)?

    Lizzie – glad to hear that an ex local still misses the place. I am about to start pouring over guide books. I am most excited about what I *presume* will be an amazing street food culture…

  8. Laura Nickoll

    A few friends of mine have resided in the Barbican complex, lucky sods. Beats crime-ridden Walthamstow, though with so many great pubs and restaurants around, I'm guessing overindulgence would kill me. Your post reminds me, I must re-visit Comptoir Gascon. Good luck in HK.

  9. ginandcrumpets

    The Barbican has anti-geography. It's the most confusing place in the whole of London and, proving that I'm not a local, I spend a lot of time going up and down stairs and through doors that lead me to another level of Not Where I Want To Be. I do like it, though. And the cinema in the Barbican is the nicest in London (mostly because I can go to the Fox and Anchor for dinner first).

    You're so lucky to be heading off to Hong Kong. I spent a few days there a couple of years a go and loved it, especially the food. Dim sum, eating in the wet markets, more dim sum, a bar that served chocolate daiquiris with Maltesers bobbing in them (this is better than it sounds), more dim sum – fantastic.

  10. Tom

    Laura – it reminded me as well. My trip to Comptoir last year was one of my favourite meals of the year. I expected it to be a bit of a disappointing standard French bistro affair (and not as good as Terroirs) but it was outstanding. Even better than a blow out meal I had had a few months early at Club Gascon.

    But it Walthamstow you have those beautiful (I don't know how to underline) houses and amazing high street. I am quite a fan of it.

    Gin – It took me at least 6 months to find myself around. I am also going to miss the Fox and Anchor and the nice goblets to drink out of.

    I have started reading guide books on HK now and what gets me most excited is the dim sum. I love love love dim sum and am looking forward to two years of it day in day out.

    Maltesers in daiquiris, I would have gone yuk but then I tried the cornflake milkshake at Hawksmoor which was wonder and awe..

  11. LondonRob

    Tom – can't believe you're leaving London! What about the blog? Where will I get my expert recommendations? Sounds like an exciting opportunity though – nice one. Love your post on the Barbican – although as a former Spitalfields resident now living in Wandsworth I do have to say there are also good things about south of the river. Maybe it's an age thing – until my mid 30s I was resolutely Zone 1!

  12. Tom

    Rob – I think the blog will continue though I have a desperate desire to move it to wordpress rather than the hateful blogger. I will see if that is easy or not…

    Jen is going to be staying in London for a couple of months so I will need the blog to keep me company in HK as I try a lot of new food.

    The problem is I grew up South – in Dulwich – and I have instinctive desire to stay central now. I am sure my desire to have a cat will overwhelm me one day and necessitate some form of outside space!

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