London looks lovely in August

As regular readers will know, I have a love-hate relationship with London. To me the capital is akin to coffee. It has its perks (brilliant parks, carnivals, theatres, restaurant, museums and markets) but it can pose problems too (it’s crowded, dirty,  often unfriendly andeye-waveringly expensive).

Boundary rooftop - Long Table

But if there’s one month when London is, like caffeine, guaranteed to pick you up and leave you wanting more - regardless of whether you are a local or a tourist - it’s August.

In August the weather is good (even if it’s raining, temperatures will be warmer than winter) and the city empties out as put upon parents venture abroad with little Johnny and Jane, once the schools have broken up. For those of us left behind, London suddenly looks... well really rather lovely. For starters you can secure a seat on the tube - believe it or not - during rush hour. It’s amazing how something as simple sitting down for the duration of your journey from home to work (for which you have parted with a fiver), will put a smile on your face. And for an avid reader like me, an added bonus is being able to pick up a fresh copy of the Metro at any hour - not just pre 8am.


And those brilliant parks, carnivals, theatres, restaurants, art galleries,museums and markets I mentioned earlier? They’re a lot less busy too,meaning you can visit without the fear of getting crushed. My friend Simi and I recently ventured to Spitalfields market which is typically crammed with customers. However last Sunday it was noticeably sleepier and we were able to browse the boutiques and stalls without being pushed and shoved around (something we’re guilty of doing too!)

Perhaps because the capital is calmer during August, people are much more pleasant. Case in point? The big boss at one of the companies I have been working at recently, has taken it upon himself to pitch up at his employees desks every Friday at 4pm, armed with a generous jug of Pimms. If he insists...

Bizarrely my brother - a teacher by trade - tends to think that I’ll be miserable about being stuck in town when so many of our friends and family are fleeing. He's sorely mistaken. More fool them is my instinctive response, for August is easily my favourite month in London. And this year is no exception: I’m enjoying t-shirt temperatures (by both day and night) and the chance to soak up my city in a more relaxed manner.


So if you’re leaving London in August, my message is this: there’s really no need to feel sorry for me and the other Londoners left behind at home. I’m still planning on following in your footsteps and frying myself silly, on a glorious stretch of golden sand - but it will be during winter when I want a break from the biting wind and months of unflattering thermal underwear, colds and chapped skin.

See you in September!

Postcard from Beijing... no 4

Battling Beijing's big freeze

Speak to my friends and family and, without fail, they'll tell you that I am not a winter person. It's true: even though I was born and raised in London, a city known for its cold Christmases, I never got used to them. I know plenty of people who wax lyrical about winter - the crisp air, pretty powdery snow, steaming mugs of hot chocolate and, in the words of Nat King Cole, "chestnuts roasting on an open fire" - but I'm not one of them.

So how to survive Beijing's big freeze? Here's five tips I've picked up from born and bred Beijingers and veteran expats that I thought I'd share.

1. Layer up
The secret to staying warm is to layer up. Start with a pair of qiuku - autumn pants or long johns, if you will. Glamorous they are not. What they are, as any Beijinger will tell you, is warm and thus an essential part of winter life. Then add a sweater, chunky cardigan and a down coat. Finally accessorise with every means at your disposal, from Russian-inspired headwear (get yours over at Alien Street Market) to sheep skin lined boots. It's time to take dressing up to the max.

2. Stock up on DVDs
When the temperature plummets we'll all be hibernating at home. On those log winter evenings, hunker down with a good box set or two. Tom's DVD Store (5135-7487) is rumored to be the best in town, but if you don't fancy schlepping to Jiangtai Lu, Beijing's streets are awash with industrious bootleggers happy to test your conscience by offering DVDs of Hollywood blockbusters and hit sitcoms for peanuts. I nabbed Mad Men seasons 1-4 for a bargainous 35 yuan. Endless nights in bed with Don Draper? Suddenly winter in Beijing doesn't seem so bad.

3. Make mulled wine
Seek solace from the frostbite by making mulled wine - a hot alcoholic drink guaranteed to warm you up. It's popular in all cold countries, but it's an especially good drink to make in China, where home grown wine tastes like vinegar and imported bottles are significantly more expensive than they are overseas. With mulled wine, any old bottle of plonk works once you add the spices and sugar.

On the food front, if you haven't already done so it's time to try hotpot - a winter standby if ever there was one. Sweet potatoes from street vendors are another winter warmer - they'll warm your hands and your heart!

4. Join the gym
During the winter months, many Beijingers find themselves piling on the pounds. If you want to keep your body in shape, think about joining a gym. Curling up under a warm blanket on the sofa might sound like a more attractive option on a cold winter day, but make the effort to exercise. Regular exercise wards off weight gain, boosts your body's immune system and produces endorphins - all of which will help you beat the Beijing winter blues!

Finally, if none of the above work, go south.

Some (mad) people head north for the Harbin Ice Festival, but sensible sun seeking types (like me) head to Hainan - aka the Hawaii of the East. Here you'll find perfect beaches, turquoise waters and sunshine in spades. See you in the spring!