“Watford is the sort of town that makes you want to travel”. So said Lonely Planet. The travel bible’s declaration may sound harsh but as someone who hails from Watford, it rings true. There’s nothing really wrong with Watford per se. It’s not a tiny town by any means, but nonetheless growing up in this corner of Hertfordshire, I felt trapped and couldn’t quieten the voice in my head that kept screaming: surely there has be more to life than the Harlequin centre?
I think I’ve known since the age of 11, that one day I’d be gone. Throughout my teens, as a wannabe journalist, I dreamed of living in London - a mecca for media types - with its bright lights and black cabs. Subsequently while at weekends school friends were busy with boyfriends, I spent Saturdays working at the Watford Football Club shop before babysitting for the Ratcliffe family, and Sundays at Saracens Rugby Club shop in a desperate attempt to bolster my ‘get the hell out of Watford’ fund. A fractious family life (my parents were living under the same roof, while leading very separate lives and my younger, by one year, brother was going through an annoying Ali G phase) no doubt played a part in my desire to escape.
At 18, my wish was granted when I was offered a place at King’s College London. I deferred it for 12 months to embark on the prerequisite gap year, down under. It was a bitter sweet experience: make no mistake Oz is just wizard but on my second night in Sydney, I was sexually assaulted - a traumatic experience for any woman, not least a hitherto innocent 18 year old. However as Kelly Clarkson sings: “What doesn't kill you makes you stronger, stand a little taller”. I regrouped and returned to read English, followed by a one year postgraduate diploma in periodical journalism at City University leaving London only in the summer, to work as an au pair in Switzerland. (Home still resembled a war zone - my parents had separated but stayed put in the family house and my brother, despite being in his early 20s, was still behaving like Harry Enfield’s creation Kevin the teenager.)
It was after graduation, that my life in London really began. Somehow I scored a job at BBC Sport and rented a room in a house on Stowe Road, Shepherds Bush - a stone’s throw away from the BBC Television Centre.
My job wasn’t well paid and my room - replete with a creaking boiler, on the ground floor between the kitchen and living room - far from ideal. But I didn’t care. Finally I was fulfilling my childhood fantasy and living and working in London! I loved waking up in the mornings and walking the short distance to BBC Television Centre, savouring the buzz of Shepherds Bush - an area that has everything you could want in terms of activity and accessibility.
When I wasn’t at White City, I was out living and loving London - so much so, that my friends would jokingly refer to me as a walking, talking Time Out guide. If you wanted to know what shows were worth seeing (Democracy and Avenue Q), where to eat Ethiopian food at 3am (Mandola), order a mean mojito (Red and Green), get a caffeine fix (Flat White), take a date (Gordans), do brunch or body bop until you drop (KLR), I was your go-to-girl.
Of course all this exploring and experiencing, didn’t come cheap. Often, at the end of the month, I was so skint that a £1.20 patty or portion of plantain from Ochi Caribbean was all I’d eat for a day. But then when the pay check arrived, I’d splurge: shopping sprees at Spitalfields, lunch at the Electric and drinks, dinner and dancing at Floridita. Yes, London life was sweet. Sure it could be eye wateringly expensive but I figured - usually after a visit to see relatives in cheap, but not especially cheerful, East Anglia - for good reason. When visiting friends and family would complain about the capital’s prices, I’d go on about how London might make your palms moisten but that, unlike Little Thetford and Ely, it gives you something you can’t put a price on: energy. I couldn’t imagine living anywhere else but London. For me, the capital was the only place in the world to be.
It follows then, that when the BBC asked staff in the sport department who would be prepared to relocate to Salford (BBC Sport’s brand new home) I knew that despite the overwhelming affection I felt for ‘Auntie’ and the camaraderie I enjoyed with my colleagues, my unwavering love of London meant that I wouldn’t be making the move up the M1. In many ways, you could say that left my job at the BBC (which back then, pre Saville scandal, was a cherished institution) for the capital.
And then I turned 25 and almost overnight, something strange happened. I began to grow weary of being squashed up against a stranger’s armpit on a packed Central line tube during rush hour (at this point, I was working for a London lifestyle magazine in Primrose Hill). Of sending my white winter coat to the cleaners, after just one wear. I grew fed up of wearing ear plugs every night to block out the sound (walls in London are paper thin) of my housemates snoring, or worse, having sex. Of waking up with my feet overhanging my single bed in a tiny box on Tunis Road, W12, where there wasn’t enough room (and back then I was all of seven and a half stone) to swing a cat. Of the nightmare that is the night bus home (expect urination, violence and vomiting) at the end of an evening out. Bottom line? I no longer felt ‘tough’ - merely tired.
Of course as claustrophobic and filthy as it could be, I still loved London - with its brilliant bars, restaurants, parks, carnivals, museums, theatres and art galleries - but began to dream about living in a place where the sky wasn’t permanently the colour of porridge. So when out of the blue I was offered a journalistic job at Time Out Abu Dhabi (followed by Time Out Dubai), I pretty much jumped on the plane. Colleagues questioned whether, as woman, I would like working in the Middle East. School friends wondered aloud how I could even consider relocating solo to a destination, I had never previously stepped foot in. And family were concerned that I didn’t know anyone in Arabia. Me? I knew that leaving London was necessary for both my wallet and well being and the promise of year round sunshine helped allay any fears of the unknown.
To read the second part of my story, don't forget to check back next week!