You’re in London, stuck in an endless January. The evenings are still getting colder and the frost won’t stop biting at your fingertips. You begin to question the stupidity of winter: “Just how many jumpers can a person wear before they’re weighed down by wool?” It’s time to rise out of the duvet and discover the warmer, welcoming side of winter. So…what’s the plan? We spoke to our good pal Bella to help uncover some of the best places for live music, cosy ciders and roasting fires in London. Here’s what she recommends to kick those winter blues…
Let’s start in the West with a gem of a pub. Tucked in silent streets just far enough away from King’s Cross, a monument to folkery and sturdy pub grub: The Harrison. Nothing spells Sunday like a gravy-drenched roast, a pint of ale, and one of The Harrison’s biannual free folk festivals with music from noon until midnight. (That even leaves time for a lie-in.) Upstairs in the chatter and sunlight, a hearty, traditional jam session; below, a homely, shadowy cavern full of crossed-legged onlookers and some of the finest music in the city. But if you miss out on these little treats, it’s not the end of the world – there are jams and comedy shows every week, so they’ll still keep you entertained.
In case the chaps behind the bar at The Harrison don’t have your tipple, just round the corner is The Euston Tap. The gatehouses to the old station, born anew as shrines to good beer and great cider, are surprisingly homely considering they sit on a main road. As a west midlands lass, I happily put my hand on my heart and swear by the selection at The Cider Tap: Broome Farm from Ross-on-Wye and Severn Cider from the Forest of Dean are liquid gold from an appley god. Go lap it up.
Next up, head north and hit the canal: you’ll find a pub that looks like any slightly stoic local, The Constitution. But pretty much any night of the week, if you grab your pint and disappear behind a little maroon door, you’ll find yourself circling down a wooden staircase into Camden’s own Narnia. In the flickering light beneath the ground every other Monday is one of the folkiest gatherings anywhere around! It’s done in such earnest, you might get hushed if you natter, but so long as you sing along to the songs being played around the circle you fit in no problem. And suddenly you’re surrounded by eerie waves of harmony echoing around the walls and your own slightly tipsy hum weaves into the roar and wraps around you. And then they do a raffle. Lovely. If you’re not a folker, fear not, they have blues nights, jazz nights, who-knows-what-else nights, and if you fancy something a bit lighter and brighter, in the summer it all opens up onto Regent’s Canal.
But let’s not forget the East. Half an hour on the Overground to Dalston and you’ll find yourself at Passing Clouds – a missing chapter in Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland, I’m certain. It’s hard to pin down what it is exactly, but they describe themselves as ‘Dalston’s progressive live music venue in the heart of the community. By the people, for the people’, which basically means you can expect a lot of cool things underway there. Downstairs, I’ve witnessed some of the greatest bands and DJs London has to offer, attended talks and debates about permaculture and eco-villages, but I’ve yet to attend one of their weekly swing dance nights. Now, head upstairs and you’ll find yourself in what feels like the nest of a really friendly, slightly-drug-addled antique dealer. The space is illuminated by those strange old lamps that project swirling, colourful patterns on the wall; the windows are hung with Indian blankets and patchwork; here and there are an old rocking horse, a sitar, a placard from a protest who knows when, and big dusty sofas that make you feel like you’re at a really bloody good house party with old friends. Another little stage in the corner never fails to have the whole room dancing: blues, traditional folk, world music, all sorts of lovely noises.
If you manage to pull yourself away, East London has more to offer just down the road. Woodburner is like the big family at the heart of London’s folk scene. The poppa of it all, Theo Bard, is a darn talented musician himself, and he’s something of a connoisseur of friendly people with unbelievable musical ability. It’s a nomadic collective, season to season, but if you find it in summer, it’ll probably have made its home in Dalston Eastern Curve garden – a little, glorious puddle of life and green in the looming yellow brick of Hackney. Some clever person has built a lean-to, with a bar, a clay pizza oven, and all the beanbags and bunting you could hope for. So you can curl up on the floor with a bottle of a local brew, a hot pizza in hand, and listen to some gentle music, or push back the seats and stomp to klezmer. Or, best of all, you might find yourself meandering down through the veg patches and fairy lights to a clearing where bands play standing on wooden pallets under London’s fluorescent night sky.
Before heading to the last venue, I best mention somewhere to grab some grub. Provided it’s daylight, Stepney City Farm is a damn fine place to find yourself feeling hungry. Joe, the chef, is a bit of a wizard with the fruit, veg and herbs that come out of the farm’s garden. And I’ve never known anyone give such generous helpings of bacon. Half an inch thick, and all cured on site. Find yourself here at the right time of year and they might even treat you to pig right off the farm. If bacon doesn’t tempt you, maybe fresh cakes and sourdough bread will, or magical concoctions like woodruff ice cream, rhubarb and rose sorbet, rosehip syrup, blackcurrant granita, all harvested and made on site. You may as well make a day of it: there’s a farmer’s market on Saturday, and courses in carpentry, ceramics and blacksmithing. And there’s a donkey!
And finally, one last shadowy corner for the terminally merry and those who like to dance. Just a quick walk from the farm is a venue with a slightly stranger setting than the rest. An old, red brick, Victorian sweet factory now converted into studios for artist, musicians, dancers and the like; it’s a bit on the shabby side of chic but Jamboree is the place to play if you’re in the London folk gaggle. And that gaggle covers all manner of sins: folk, jazz, world music, gypsy jazz, klezmer, blues – all the good stuff! And when you’re cooling down outside after all the dancing, you’re bound to bump into all sorts of interesting arty people and musicians (prepare yourself for husky French artists inviting you up to their studio for wine). A quick tip about Jamboree: I’m normally too merry to think about catching a train home and have, more than once, just managed to catch the last one in time, so maybe plan a bit better than me or you might have to take the artist up on their offer!
So, if you want to get to know a colourful undercurrent of London, here’s you’re map. You don’t need a compass but an oyster card would help, a bit of an appetite, and some boots you can dance in. Happy folking.
Bella’s an old friend of the Wriggle bunch. Hailing from the West but taking up residency in London town, she knows this fine land like the back of her hand. Exploring London’s hidden gems for grass-root projects, the best of live music and the finest cider, she’s certainly taught us a thing or two about the secrets of the city. If you’re in need of a good story or some musical inspiration, you’ll probably find her swamped in a woollen jumper beside a fire with a pint in hand in any of the fine establishments aforementioned.