London Life: Taking air in the Big Smoke

I moved to London in May this year, and have to admit that the capital is growing on me. It is still unnerving to see commuters act like ghosts on the Tube, pigeons squabbling over a squished piece of gum, and know that my lungs, and the lungs of every tree around me, are inhaling illegal levels of air pollution

BUT, it is the bustle, the diversity, the dirty wrappers that make this city. When you can plainly see the issue (or tread in it), you can find the determination and resources to find a solution, whether individually or at the community level. Chewing gum campaigns, anti-food waste events, music as capacity-building for young people, clothes swaps, community clean-up campaigns

chewing gum campaign
The Gum Slam Dunk – Source: CIWM Journal Online

I haven’t found my niche yet, but that doesn’t matter. It’s actually pretty nice to be lost and a bit confused, as it provokes a curiosity to explore (with the help of City Mapper) the nooks and crannies to find faith in community, nature and culture in London.

Here are just some of the activities that have really settled me into London life these past few months:

Gardening in Camden

I do a voluntary gardening role at a little one-acre garden in Camden. Here, I work under the supervision of Jobs in Mind, a charity using gardening, youth groups and other community-building ventures to boost confidence, skills and employability of people living with mental health conditions.

chard urban garden
lettuce under netting
Lettuce under netting

The role is incredibly humbling, seeing members proactively turn up and do physical work, interact and build friendships several days a week. I’ve realised how much I love working outdoors too, using my hands to do delicate tasks such as transplanting lettuces or direct sowing kale seeds, or dirtying my jeans while piling wheelbarrows high with worcester-sauce-smelling Council compost (available from many boroughs in London, FYI!).

Seeing the leaves change colour and fall, burying our little emerging seedlings in their raised beds, makes me appreciate the seasons and the uncontrollability of nature. I have to learn patience, the best skill to have in London: If winter winds want to blow and tear down fleecing covering kale, or squirrels want to dig for nuts in onion beds, they bloody well will. We will take time to re-sow seeds, cover and warm kale beds, and be respectful rather than try and control the living environment.

No food waste meals

One of the rewards of volunteering in the garden is being able to take fresh, organic produce home. Hands down, I have cooked some of the best meals of the year using chard, green tomatoes and chillies from the garden.

rainbow chard and eggs
Rainbow chard and tomatoes with poached eggs on sourdough toast
chickpea and green tomato recipe
Chickpea and green tomato salad with feta and warm pita

I do realise that having access to a garden space in London is a luxury, and so I have also been on the look-out for events and organisations that advocate for a no-waste, shared economy. Shared economies focus on less tangible indicators of progress, such as community wellbeing, capacity and effective growth of human resources. They also focus on re-valuing and re-using resources, so that nothing is wasted.

When it comes to food, I have huge hope. In London, campaigns such as Feedback and the Felix Project are going from strength to strength. Here are two events I attended in the past month:


If you want to treat yourself, I would recommend visiting Tom Hunt’s restaurant Poco, which uses minimal waste and seasonal ingredients. We went there for a seven-course meal which utilised ingredients from chicken skin to barley hops, and cuisines from pan-Asian to reinvigorating savoury porridge with truffle oil. At £32, it was well worth it, but I am eternally grateful for having the ability to dine there and am fully aware it is not for everyone.

poco tapas bar
Poco tapas bar – Source: Tom’s Feast

Disco Soup

If you are strapped for cash, check out Disco Soups around London. We visited one in Pinner, hosted by various charities such as FareShare and the West London Waste Authority.

Charismatic staff dressed in carrot and farmer outfits jumped around, telling us all about what we can do in our households and how to know more about supermarket waste. It was not just talk: we all got involved in cutting up vegetables for a waste-free, vegetarian feast, and there was a chance to get sweaty on the dance floor or on a bike-powered smoothie machine. I felt a bit guilty seeing a small child frantically peddling away to produce a blackberry and banana drink, but the results were far too good to care for long…

disco soup west london waste authority
Chopping veggies at Disco Soup at Pinner Village Hall – Source: West London Waste Authority

Drawing as mindfulness

Finally, I have got really into doodling and illustration.

Elkhart Tolle, author of Power of Now, said that even if you are just relaxing, relax fully. Be completely present and surrender to the relax, don’t question what you ‘should’ be doing, and it will make that (probably small amount of) time feel so much more valuable.

Doodling is my idea of true relaxation.

I haven’t splashed out in order to quench my artistic thirst: I bought some really cheap pens (Crayola, as a true Geographer would), some biros and sketch pad, and just get them out whenever the mood strikes me.

doodle black and white
Swirls and nature
Tea and fruit bowl still life
Relaxing over a cup of tea

For example, when I was anxious, I doodled a ‘Breathe’ illustration, with the upwards curves of the squiggles signifying my ‘breath in’ and the downwards ones my ‘breath out’. Every time I feel a pang, I now return to that drawing and trace the lines with my fingers.

I also love creating visual education tools, such as doodling the key messages in book chapters. If you have the artistic talent, or simply courage to draw and not care how it turns out, I recommend learning through doodling, particularly for facts. Even a few months on, I can visualise what goes into an organic compost thanks to my doodle…

alice holden do grow poster
Alice Holden’s ‘Do Grow’ doodle

Maybe they should change the quote: Give a man a fish, he will eat for a day. Teach a man how to doodle interpretations of fishing guidelines, and he will fish for a lifetime.

Maybe not.

Over and out for now, and stay happy and relaxed until next time. x


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