My husband, Andrew, and I have lived in London for ten years, first for a long time in the heel of Belgravia near Orange Square, where we rented a cottage on one of the low-built Victorian roads that blur into Pimlico, and more recently in Barnsbury, the corner of Islington just north of Clerkenwell. In both of these places, the communities attracted us more than the houses. We were hoping to find the kind of neighbours who might get to know you by sight, and accept a delivery of multivitamins that you had forgotten was coming.
We bought our flat in Barnsbury, a late Georgian place with original shutters and a prefab kitchen, one September and, shortly afterward, I joined the residents’ association. The main topic of the first meeting – which ranged from brightening the streetlights (a mugging deterrent) to fundraising for the restoration of Holy Trinity Church – was Christmas. There would be a fair at Thornhill School with a raffle and trees for sale, and the association had been invited by the residents of nearby Lonsdale Square to go caroling (“a lovely Dickensian evening” predicted the meeting notes). I told Andrew I thought we had struck gold, multivitamin-wise.
Our next door neighbours in Islington, John and Kate, throw a Twelfth Night party in early January, where the people in our quadrant (that’s how the square we live on divides itself for parties – by quadrant. Being invited to an over-the-road quadrant is an uncommon compliment and has never happened to us) come to put faces to wrongly delivered council bills and detailed dermatological letters (“Oops! Sorry I opened this!!” shout the ragged envelopes in pencil). We stand with glasses of crémant, sending shards of cheese straws into the rugs while exchanging information about the celebrities we have heard live nearby but never seen. Then we walk the 90 seconds it takes to go home, in my case to put our infant son to bed and eat leftover Stichelton scraped on crackers in the bath.
I say we live in London, but that’s not strictly true anymore. Before the pandemic, we planned a renovation for the flat that would mean leaving for months. As the demolition began, we moved to a rural village in East Sussex where we knew only a handful of friends-of-friends within 20 miles, to a house covered in Virginia creeper just off of the South Downs Way.
The holidays come early to the country, at least in our stretch. We unpacked at the rental house at the beginning of autumn and, within weeks, I noticed fairy lights strung over wood stores and homemade wreaths pinned with hops and monk’s beard on front doors. In London, in a normal year, the pubs would have put out placards imploring you to book for turkey lunches at the end of August, but everybody else would have dragged their heels until Bonfire Night.
It’s difficult to imagine what December will look like this year. We hoped to invite family and friends to stay with us. I reserved a smoked gammon with our new butcher, which I thought we would put on a platter next to scalloped potatoes on Christmas Eve, and then with mustard in sandwiches, and finally whatever rinds were left would go into a white bean soup, enough to feed a group, around New Year. I’ve relished the idea of leading our London friends on a Boxing Day walk to the Firle Beacon, from which you can see the English Channel and the Sussex Weald. It’s a staggering, buoying view, but it’s a comfort to know that, like so many plans, it will keep.