Bushy Park Half Marathon – for the experienced runner

After all the indulging and criticising of Michelin-star restaurants, the calories must be burnt off somehow. And so I ran the longest distance since my 25km run in Berlin in May, at Runthrough’s Bushy Parks half marathon, a first time event.

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Torrents hit London on Saturday and the lazier side of me was almost tempted to bail, seeing the still lingering clouds in the morning combined with a few raindrops. Yet, my fellow runner’s “it’s meant to clear up around 10” response left no room for my doubts. There I was on my way, Victoria line down to Vauxhall, jumping onto the next train towards zone 6, a real adventure for a Central London girl like me.

Somehow lesser known than the other Royal Parks and its nearby neighbour Richmond Park, Bushy Park is beautifully situated right next to Hampton Court, surrounded by three stations, Teddington, Hampton Wick and Hampton Court, all an easy trip from London Waterloo.

Being a first time event and relatively small in size, the organisation obviously wasn’t the same like at those large scale races, something that has both upsides and downsides to it.

In some email, the organisers suggested that all three stations are almost equidistant from the race and about 10 minutes walk away. 10 minutes from Hampton Wick was true for being within Bushy Park but nowhere near the start line for the race (unless you were already dashing at your marathon pace) near the fountain on Chestnut Avenue. The size of the event meant no sign posting anywhere around the station, normal at mass races. And so I probably wasted about 5 minutes on walking the wrong direction out of the total 25 minutes I needed to get there.

Finally there, I experienced the rather positive side of a small race. Getting race documents and dropping bags in the little tents were just a matter of a few minutes, all the while still having time for a friendly chat with the volunteers, the start line right next to us. With just more than 240 participants, the start was very smooth with no delays. And for once, just as the Met Office and my friend had claimed, the skies had dried and even cleared towards the end with the sun peaking through.

The run was a three lap course through the park, a mix of road and a bit of trail. The previous day’s downpour caused parts of the course to be very buddy but also therefore knee-friendly. While slower runners like me could easily avoid the puddles, the more eager runners just dashed through and as the fastest overtook me right around the end of the second lap, I could see their backs covered in mud. Perhaps that’s exhilarating too?

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Adhering to the restrictions of the Royal Park, there was only one water supply (water and Lucozade to fuel up) around the start line, which meant only every 7km. Still, under the cool weather conditions, that was quite comfortable.

Past the second lap, I couldn’t see anyone at all behind me and started to wonder if I could be the last one, bottom at this race. It was a possibility given the small size, which usually means a more competitive crowd. So, I made an effort to slowly catch up to the person in front of me. Half a lap later, I was happy to discover that there was still an entire group of people behind me, all the while also catching up to those who gradually started to switch to walking.

Mostly only doing city road runs, it was a pleasant experience to run through the nature and while I did runs through other parks (Victoria, Regents and Hyde Park) before, it was definitely the first time I got to see deers so close by.

Through the goal, I happily received my medal, reunited with my friend who ran about half an hour faster than me and collected my L size t-shirt (not a running shirt, just regular cotton) to be used as pyjama. Finally, we also took a picture with our medals in front of Hampton Court.

With no run of this distance under my belt for the last few months, it was a strenuous experience on the rougher terrain. But this was definitely the right motivating run to get me back in the mood. Downsides to this race were the fact that there was only one water station and that due to its nature course, there were very few people to cheer you on (although the few that were around, did a very good job!). This makes me think it might not be the best for a first time half marathon, but more for people like me who are looking for a structured long run towards a longer distance goal, perhaps a step towards a autumn full marathon?

From me, there’s a thumbs up for the Runthrough team who organised this very friendly and fun run!

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La Chapelle – up for any special occasion

Ever since my first visit to Galvin La Chapelle three years ago, I have been a regular here. What is most amazing about this multiple award winning Michelin star restaurant in the 19th century grade II listed St. Botolph’s Hall, is its consistency, never failing from the standard which impressed me the first time around. And so, it isn’t very surprising that it was chosen as the venue for my roommate’s boyfriend to propose to her (among the short-listed competitors were Clos Maggiore and Oblix).

So this particular review is not only about Galvin La Chapelle in general but marks a very special occasion.

Having agreed on the location, the groom-to-be and I (his accomplice), went together about a month ago to check out the premises. Having been told that he was looking to propose, Galvin’s staff was incredibly forthcoming. Rebecca showed us around, suggested three locations within the restaurant, where he could expect some more privacy. One of the three was the first floor little stage-like area overlooking the rest of the restaurant accommodating about five tables. While it can be booked for larger parties, Rebecca suggested he could get a table there if no one should book it for that day. Luck was on our side and being a Wednesday and midweek, the space remained free from private party bookings.

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On the day, the semi-elaborate ruse played out well. The bride-to-be thought he was only taking her out for a nice dinner to reward her for a tough week at work. We had asked for the table to be set for two instead of 3 (me being the surprise guest to walk in to bring him the ring… Don’t ask, it’s just how close the three of us are!) and to our surprise, not only had we gotten that special table on the first floor, but the entire rest was kept free as well for us to be fully private. The only teeny tiny mistake that was done was that despite instructions for flowers sent to the restaurant to be handed over to me, they were placed at the table. She, however, did not get suspicious at all, just assuming he was being a nice boyfriend (given his good track record, it seemed plausible).

In I came as a surprise guest, standing in the door, not sure whether they could see me from upstairs at this angle, the staff reassured me and guided me through to them. Despite the momentary confusion, it slowly dawned on her what was just about to happen, especially given the giant gingerbread heart (my special touch in this proposal) with “Will you marry me?” written on it, being brought in behind me by the waitress (another thank you to the Galvin staff for playing along!). My roommate was in tears of joys, he was getting so nervous he couldn’t get the ring out and it all ended in the lovely words “Yes, of course!”

So now that the hard and emotional part is done (I filmed it all for future teary memories), let’s talk about the food.

In the past, I often had the Lasagne of Dorset crab, frisee & cornichon salad (£10.50) followed by their signature dish, the Tagine of Bresse pigeon, cous cous, confit lemon & harissa sauce (£29.50), finishing off with the Valrhona chocolate ganache, honeycomb & coconut sorbet (£11.50). Yet, this time around, I went for an all new line-up.

Landes foie gras, Provence nectarine, pistachio, lavender jelly & brioche £16.50

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Having recently experienced Club Gascon, supposedly the best foie gras house in London, I had some good grounds for comparison. Unlike Club Gascon, Galvin’s foie gras was much more straight forward: foie gras that could be recognized as foie gras by all senses. Melting in my mouth, it went perfectly with the piece of soft brioche, the lavender jelly adding the finishing fine touches to the taste.

Assiette of Herdwick lamb, ratatouille, San Marzano tomatoes & fennel £31.50

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The lamb was made out of several pieces from different body parts, providing a new taste with each. The diversity was a delight.

Banana soufflé, peanut praline & passion fruit sorbet £10.50

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This was apparently my roommate’s favourite dessert and I can understand why. Beautifully presented, the waiter then cuts a cross into it and fills it up with the berry sauce. It’s a deliciously sweet and light combination with the refreshing sorbet on the side.

At the very end we were served a last treat on the house for the celebration and the restaurant manager came to check all is well. Indeed, all was well. My roommate always liked Galvin but now it will carry a lifetime memory. After all is done, I can happily say this restaurant deserved being the chosen location for this special occasion.

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My recommendation: if it’s your first time, have the pigeon tagine!

Price: ££££

Food: *****

Service: *****

Decor: *****

Square Meal

Club Gascon – Cheese is not the answer to everything

It all started with my friend’s sudden desire for foie gras and her research on where to have the best in London. Only after having agreed to it, did I find out that I passed by this very restaurant almost every day on my way to work: Club Gascon, a Michelin star French restaurant next to Smithfield market and Barbican.

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With a movie scheduled for later the same night, we started rather early at 6.30pm. Only two other couples were there before us, both middle-aged Japanese, from the looks of it, tourists. Extra thin and long cheese straws were provided in a little pot on the table to fill our mouths while we looked through the menu.

The menu was… not self-explanatory… Five categories were there to choose from: La Route du Sel, Le Potager, Les Foies Gras, L’Oceane and Les Paturages… It was easy enough for my friend to find an area to focus on: ‘Les Foies Gras’! The waiter then explained that he’d recommend to choose two to three dishes depending on our appetite. We went for three, both picking a foie gras as a middle dish.

My final choice was as follows:

From ‘La Route Due Sel’: Braised snails ‘Diabolo’ & wild fennel infusion £15.00

From ‘Les Foies Gras’: Pressed duck & crabs, king crab & hot tomato £15.50

From ‘Les Paturages’: New season lamb, olive pearls, pop and corn sauce £25.00

Before we worked our way through these, we enjoyed the lovely fresh range of bread with two types of butter, followed a refreshing amuse bouche.

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My starter with the snails was beautifully presented, almost artistic with the pieces of snail strategically placed around the green to evoke nature’s image. Clearly a good start to the evening.

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The foie gras however did not necessarily strike me. Sitting on black crackers, it sort of reminded me of the crabs sitting on dark rocks in the Galapagos. Beautiful, I though at first. Yet, the taste did not impress. The pressed meat tasted a bit dry while the pieces were rather small. The crackers were similar to the things you get at a Chinese dinner instead of bread.

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Moving on to the lamb then… Delicious! If… there wasn’t the popcorn (yes, the “pop and corn sauce” has actual popcorn in it!)… Exotic can be good, but sometimes, keeping it simple is even better. I for one, prefer my popcorn in the cinema. But of course you can bash me for being such a simple narrow mind.

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The highlight in so many ways, was the dessert… I had somehow drifted past the fact that it included cheese. In my defense, the description was too fancy to recognize it really, not as clear as the one my friend chose, where it stated foie gras (yes, again!). And so I bit into my piece of dark chocolate… To have my mouth filled by the taste of cheese. I love cheese, believe me! But, cheese is just not the answer to everything and when I order a chocolate dessert, I hope for chocolate. But again, maybe that’s just me. And of course you can blame me for not having asked for a clearer explanation on the components of the dessert (not that I was offered one…).

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So, that’s all I have to say about the food. In retrospect, I might have been convinced to go again, if it wasn’t for the disappointing service.

The sommelier experience was one such shocker. As I asked for a full bodied red wine recommendation, she mentioned a name to me. The conversation thereafter:

Me: “What sort of taste is it?”

Sommelier: “It’s fruity.”

Me: “What sort of fruit?”

Sommelier: “What sort of fruit? (With slight disdain) It taste’s… like a fruit.”

Me: “Yes but what sort of fruit?”

Sommelier: (after some silence) “Like a berry.”

Me: (with slight resignation) “Ok, we’ll take that one.”

Then, also being offered bread twice after our first slice (yes, I admit I was carb loading way too much), the selection became smaller and smaller, leaving by the third serving only two pieces of choice on the rather large bread plate. Economical? Avoiding waste? That could well be…

Overall, what’s left in my mind after a couple of weeks, are more of the visuals (stylish interior, artistic plates, beautifully decorated dishes) rather than the food or the people. And on my list of criteria, that’s just not enough. So, I’ll just have to eat my foie gras/animal cruelty dish elsewhere.

Price: ££££

Food: ***

Service: **

Decor: ****

Square Meal

Liar’s League – Creativity on the 2nd Tuesday

Expanding on my recently developed passion for creative writing, I had a new London experience yesterday going to Liar’s League, an event partially run by my last creative writing tutor, Katy Darby. No, Liar’s League is not some criminal association, but a themed monthly fiction night where selected short stories are read out by professional actors.

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Their motto is “Writers write. Actors read. Audience listens. Everybody wins.” And despite not being much of a performing arts lover myself (usually rather feeling like I just wasted a few hrs of my life knowing I’ll never get them back), I must admit I quite enjoyed this experience (apart from the food served…).

The themes are advertised in advance and writers who are interested send in their unpublished work between 800-2000 words related to the topic at hand by the given deadline to then be judged and chosen by the committee (care to give it a shot?).

There’s an unpublished longlist and shortlist, whereby writers receive some feedback on their work. Finally around 5-7 stories get picked for the night in question.

The event takes place at The Phoenix@37 Cavendish Square, conveniently located just 5 minutes from Oxford Circus. Doors open at 7pm and entry is £5, where you get stamped on your wrist. The evening starts more or less at 7.30pm.

The theme for my night was “Life & Limb” and contained 6 works in total spread over about two hours with a 15 minutes interval in between (with a book quiz and a chance to win one of three books! This time, three short story collections including a Granta edition on travel).

Surprisingly many stories involved falling. Maybe this is the typical risk situation people imagine? But the diversity in which the theme was treated was impressive, starting off with a rather comical punchy story, followed by two emotionally deeper stories of which the second was a very literally artistic piece. In the second half again we had a mix, finishing off with an extremely energetic story funnily treating the theme of sex.

Maybe it’s just my ignorance? But I was utterly surprised at the range of emotions and moods the actors displayed, giving the stories real life just by reading them out. I was initially disappointed, since I somehow thought it would involve actual acting out but really in the end the readings were nothing short of totally engrossing. It was just as much about the writing as the acting.

Anyone would have at least found one story to their liking and would have still found utmost respect for the creativity put on display here in all works by writers and actors alike.

So, unless you’ve got other plans, mark your calendar for the second Tuesday of the month and give it at least once a try!

Before I Go To Sleep – switch off your brain before you read *Spoiler Alert*

I’m not sure whether when I initially picked this book, I was aware that the author was a graduate of the Faber Academy, a course similar to the one I’m just about to embark on. Either way, I did find out eventually and it was a partial reason for me to read on. The main character Christine is also a graduate from my university which sort of raised her appeal to me.

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Off to a good start with a gripping scene, we are catapulted right into the centre of the story with Christine totally lost in an unfamiliar setting. She suffers from amnesia. Right there, we know what the story is about. Good.

Yet, despite a very good premise and original idea (an attempt at evaluating what reality, truth and trust really mean), I found the final result deeply disappointing.

While the format of having most of the story told through Christine’s journal creates a very specific angle, it also regurgitates a lot of the same material over and over again (this might “set the mood” but at the same time is a danger element of boredom) and is also unrealistic when you come to ask yourself whether you’d be able to actually write that much and that precisely each day, then also have the time to read what you wrote before AND still have a life on the side to actually do things… Leave that aside then and just accept it…

The story still has too many holes in it (Would the medical profession really lack that much attention? Would she have so few friends to care about her?) and a very obvious ending that becomes clear at about 70% down the book. I found myself then skipping ahead on many pages to finally reach some action again…The fact that Christine seems to want to hump every single male character that comes along doesn’t add to her likeability either.

But more than anything, it was the weak ending that was such an anticlimax to it all… This was coupled with a conversation that explains every single action that was taken through the entire story to just not leave any sort of doubts or unclear points to the reader. No, absolutely nothing! Everything, every aspect of the story had to be explained, so the reader wouldn’t even be tempted to think about it (no, fear not, no brains needed! Switch it off right there!) and fill the gaps in any sort of way.

Then somehow the very end tries to leave a tiny tinge of doubt of possibility that this is not just a sudden happy ending like a rabbit pulled out of a magician’s hat. But really at that point too much has been already clarified to even leave any doubt that this might not be a 100% happily ever after ending to the max…

Overall, I’d definitely not describe this book as “brilliant” or in any sort of way memorable. No, this won’t be in the archives of literary history but… it’s an easy no-brains tube/bus read to be finished and forgotten again rather quickly, sort of like the protagonist’s memory. Just don’t overthink it and it might just be entertaining enough. And should you still not be tempted, the probably even more brainless alternative will welcome you soon on the screen apparently with Nicole Kidman as Christine.

City U short courses – a £230 door to a new world?

What was the trigger really? I’m not sure. Was it the poster up the stairs out of Barbican station that beckoned me? At least that’s how I found out about the short courses at City University. Browsing through all the course listings I found myself narrowing down to “Creative Writing.” Some distant dream from childhood bubbled up: I imagined myself being a writer. As an adult, I had scraped that dream just a tad by becoming a financial reporter and had sort of ticked it off as done. But what if I gave it another shot? After all, my clients seemed to truly enjoy my tiny morning anecdotes that I posted every day.

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And so it came that in January of this year, I enrolled for the 10 weeks class “An Approach to Creative Writing”  taught by Caroline Natzler.

This being my first creative writing class, I did not have any grounds to compare it to nor expectations. My initial impression of the class was that it was extremely diverse (with neither positive nor negative connotation, just diverse). The lack of any requirements when joining apart from being proficient in written and spoken English made it an accessible class for almost anyone willing to spare some time and money during the week after work. There was a veteran English journalist wanting to write something creative at one end of the spectrum and a totally novice black young writer whose ambition was to publish a children’s book by the end of the year on the other (I know to not judge a book by its cover but the latter even though I sincerely applaud the courage seemed rather unrealistic).

In retrospect, I believe the class was good as an entry point because of its low requirements. It was like a kindergarten class, not necessarily driven towards anything, just providing the caring parental guidance while letting us sniff at how creative workshops work, similar to kids seeing numbers and letters, singing songs for the first time.

Without this class, I would have probably never made the next step to keep on writing and sign up to “Novel Writing and Longer Works”  the following term. It may be too early to make such a bold statement but I already believe this course has changed my life.

This course, just as the previous one, had no entry requirements and my naive reasons for signing up for it then were 1. I wanted to continue the creative writing path and 2. it ran at the same time as the first course I’ve taken, making it easier to coordinate with my work colleagues.

This course though once it started, was very different from the first one I had taken. It wasn’t a Kindergarten anymore, but closer to an A-level class. Just as much as Katy Darby taught us, we were also expected to perform. Goals were clearly set. Goals which were much higher than I had expected at first. A 500 word synopsis of our novel idea was the first hurdle that hit me. Following that, we then had the first half of the course to finish up the first chapter or up to 5000 words of our novel. The same deadline for all of us, works to be printed out and sent to everyone. After the first half of the course tackling specific topics on writing, the second half was then almost fully dedicated to workshopping our chapters à la UEA style (something Katy adapted from her UEA MA experience). Katy is very encouraging, pushes you to believe in yourself but also expects you to perform at your best. Katy is clearly an A* at what she does.

But as important as the teacher is in this setting, so are your peers who are going to review your work and whose work you will learn from. And so I consider myself truly lucky to have met all of those on my course, reflecting an incredible diversity (in the most positive sense!) in life (ranging from a young Indian primary school teacher to an English librarian in her sixties) as well as in writing topics and styles (from Brazilian prostitutes in London to dystopian futuristic science fiction novels). Those that were not 100% into this dropped out rather quickly, leaving a very dedicated crowd. It wasn’t only their writing that was great. They were the sort of people that in trust exercises, you’d be happy to let yourself fall backwards knowing that they would catch your fall. Creative writing is an extremely personal experience and having people there you can trust, to whom you can open up is really what you need.

I went in with the goal to just keep on writing and came out with a synopsis, a written and revised first chapter and the sudden belief that I could possibly write an entire novel. Backed by all the encouragement, I have now sent in my work the UEA-Guardian Masterclass “How to complete the first draft of a novel”  and was accepted. No matter what comes from here, City University’s short courses were the first step.

So did it have to be creative writing? For me I think the answer is yes. But part of the course experience was to meet people I may not have met otherwise who still had one passion in common with me. This is probably true of any subject. I won’t vouch for the quality of any other City University short courses but for £230 (£23 for each week?) it was well worth it for me.