London’s Burnsing!

Journal

London’s Burnsing!

A boat on the river Thames, taken from Blackfriars Bridge facing westward. In the background are the south bank buildings and the sky is blue.

In the olden days (mid-2010s) I’d make the annual trip down to stay with Cousin Iain & Nicola to attend a Burns Supper and Scottish themed quiz night that Iain hosted. I’ve usually done The Address to the Haggis (once in my kilt) and even Crazy Uncle John attended in the past, bringing his passionate recitals of the bigger numbers into play.

As with many other things, it all fell away during the pandemic and I hadn’t been down for it for years. However, Iain extended the invite well in advance for 2024 and I got flights booked early enough that they weren’t too expensive if I came down a couple of days early.

Thursday

My arrival on the Thursday afternoon gave us the chance to go to our mate Steve’s for dinner and to sample some of his fine whisky collection. So that’s what we did within a few hours of my arrival, making our way north via the Underground network to arrive at Steve’s for 7 PM via a traditional pub called The Old Ale Emporium.

Rob & Iain in a traditional old English pub called The Old Ale Emporium
Rob & Iain in a traditional old English pub called The Old Ale Emporium

Already with Steve were our friends, John & Lucy, who regularly attend GBBF with us and they’ve also been up for Helensburgh Ale Fest too. It was great catching up with them before Steve’s workmates arrived to join us and they turned out to be great company too. With the delicious meal consumed, we really did get stuck into the whisky and the night went by in a blur. Spirits were high and even John and I discussing politics didn’t upset the applecart!

Friday

With Iain and I barely making the last train home, it had been a late night and Friday morning was a bit hard going. Iain hadn’t been feeling well for days and he wasn’t much better after a night of whisky. I eventually coerced him into going for breakfast at the nearby Peterborough Café, a greasy spoon kind of place that serves breakfast fit for builders – several of whom were dining when we arrived.

Once fed, we went for a long walk to run some errands before getting back to the flat in time for Sarah’s arrival from Worcester. Sarah and I message regularly but it was the first time I’d seen her in real life for several years. With Iain worse for wear and Sarah and I giddy with excitement, we left him to rest and headed out to meet Julia in the Blackfriars area.

Taking charge, I got us on the first train that pulled into Parsons Green and then discovered a few stops later that I’d got us onto the wrong train! We had to hastily jump off at High Street Kensington and run over to the other platform to go the other way. I reckon this cost us five minutes at most but Sarah wasn’t going to let me live it down too easily!

We emerged into brilliant afternoon sunshine and a bit of a stiff wind at Blackfriars, crossing the bridge to the south bank where Julia had suggested meeting. Disappointingly, once we were in the shade of all the buildings it was freezing so we made a hasty retreat back across the bridge to sit in the beer garden of The Black Friar pub. I’d met Julia there back in October, so I knew the territory and told her where to find us.

Rob & Sarah at The Black Friar pub beer garden
Rob & Sarah at The Black Friar pub beer garden

Sarah and I had a natter, punctuated by raised eyebrows at the colourful conversation emanating from a table of builders nearby. It was a good people watching spot and it wasn’t too long before Julia arrived. As the three of us don’t often get together, it felt like the weekend had begun in earnest once she was with us and, after one more drink, we headed up to a pub called The Albion – another that Julia and I had been in a few months before.

Rob, Julia and Sarah upstairs in The Albion pub
Rob, Julia and Sarah upstairs in The Albion pub

After we’d been served, the staff suggested we could sit in the empty dining area upstairs and it was great to have a table and the place to ourselves for a couple of drinks. London is expensive and the area we were in was especially so, which made it an easy decision to keep ourselves in check and head back to Iain & Nicola’s

Once there, Julia had brought wireless microphones to use for karaoke and we took turns picking songs to sing from YouTube that had the lyrics. I did my usual Bryan Adams numbers, plus Footloose, and a duet of Pure Morning by Placebo with Julia. Iain was a bit bunged up but tried his best, and the girls finished on a high with These Boots Are Made For Walking before the karaoke was parked in favour of watching football.

Julia & Sarah singing These Boots Were Made For Walking
Julia & Sarah singing These Boots Were Made For Walking

The distraction of the game meant the evening lost momentum and even more so when our takeaway food arrived from Indian Express. Sadly, the meal was a bit of a disappointment and not to the standard we’ve come to expect. I don’t think I’ve had a bad curry from there before in 20 years of going so I’m prepared to write it off.

With Julia falling asleep and me flagging too, we called it a night and headed off to her place in South Norwood. As the crow flies, South Norwood did not seem that far away but we had to knit together the Underground and an over ground train to get there. It felt like a long haul and both of us were dead on our feet by the time we got in the door.

Saturday

We had a longer lie in than intended on Saturday morning and did not make it back to Parsons Green until mid afternoon. With only a short time to catch up with the gang before they headed off to prep for the Burns Supper, I felt like we were on the back foot a bit. I’d arranged to meet an old workmate who said he’d come to us from where he lived in Wimbledon.

After a quick dash to find Julia a new pair of shoes (somehow successfully!), I met Chris in The White Horse where we spent the next hour and a half trying to unpack the 12 years or so since we’d last seen each other in person. It was great to reminisce and talk about the paths we’d taken since our time together at Studio Liverpool.

Time was running short for us to get to the venue for the Burns Supper though, so we said our goodbyes to Chris and took an Uber up to West Kensington. The hall was already busy with people around tables when we got in but we still had time to dash to a Tesco for some beer before things got started.

At our table we had myself, Julia, Irish Paul, Sarah B, another Sarah B(!), and a guy called Matthew that Iain had introduced us to at GBBF. With quite a diverse mix of people I thought we’d be pretty strong in the quiz. We’d been provided with a couple of sheets with grids of flags no longer in use that we had to identify the country of, plus one filled with clues to the titles of different songs. The latter was more in my wheelhouse so I took that one and started jotting down the answers.

Samuel & Iain at the presentation table
Samuel & Iain at the presentation table

It wasn’t long before Iain was up on the microphone welcoming everybody and setting the scene for the night ahead. A short time later he read out the questions for the first round of the quiz. All of the questions were loosely related to Scotland and it was good fun seeing which of us would either know the answer or be able to make an educated guess.

Soon enough the food was ready and I was called up to perform The Address to the Haggis. It had been the first one I’d delivered since before the pandemic and as Nicola paraded the haggis about the tables my nerves were jangling. Once everyone was seated and I got going it was like riding a bike and I think I did it justice.

It feels like there’s something missing doing these things in the absence of Crazy Uncle John though, as it was he who got me involved in the first place. I suppose as long as I keep belting out The Address to the Haggis in a way he’d approve of, he’s still with us in spirit. We toasted him later at the table with leftover whisky Steve turned up with.

The meal of haggis, neeps and tatties was served not long after. I bowed out after one plateful but there was heaps to spare and plenty of folk went up for seconds, which is always good to see.

With the meal behind us I went up to recite To a Mouse. I’d been going through it for the past couple of weeks and thought I had it nailed. However, nerves and whisky got the best of me and I got stuck a few verses in, pausing for what seemed like an age to remember what came next. I was miffed at myself but these things happen and I got through it in the end.

The quiz entered the final furlong after that and it was becoming clear that our table hadn’t been blessed the diverse depth of knowledge I’d presumed early on. Marking the papers from other tables had as sighing “oh yeah, of course!” far too many times!

The evening wrapped up with a very fast paced version of Auld Lang Syne, done in a circle, holding hands as tradition dictates. It had been a great evening – one that I’m glad I came down for. People were so complimentary about my delivery of the poems but it really does feel like a small contribution considering the effort that goes into all the preparation of the hall and the food. Nicola, Elizabeth Anne, and Dave properly slaved away in the hot kitchen whilst I was out enjoying myself with our friends, so I always feel a bit of a fraud!

Goodbyes said, Julia and I dashed off once again for a mad combination of trains to get back to South Norwood. This time all of them were over ground, which made a nice change.

Sunday

We’d made no plans for Sunday but upon learning that Sarah had nothing to do whilst Iain & Nicola were out, we hastily arranged to meet at a café called Raffles up by Paddington, where Sarah had to be for the train back to Worcester anyway.

The café turned out to be superb and we each had a cooked breakfast and coffees, taking 3 more coffees to go when we left for a walk around Hyde Park.

It was a beautifully sunny afternoon – I really could have done laps of the park but with Sarah dragging her case along behind her we couldn’t go too far. Still, we got to wander through the Italian Gardens and down by the Peter Pan statue before we had to double back to the station.

When Sarah got her train, Julia and I went for a walk along the Little Venice canals. It was pretty swish seeing all the distinctly decorated narrowboats and barges. I don’t know which are which but it was fun all the same! We found a spot to sit by some of the most docile swans I’ve ever seen – they were a metre away from us and just doing swan things without a care in the world.

I was really happy just spending time with no urgency to be anywhere until, once again, time ran out on us and I walked Julia back to catch an Elizabeth Line train on her journey homeward. After I waved her off, I doubled back through Paddington Station and jumped on the District Line back to Parsons Green.

Back at the flat I packed up fast and managed to squeeze in a quick pint with Iain & Nicola at The White Horse before running for the first of my trains to Heathrow.

Rob, Nicola and Iain in The White Horse
Rob, Nicola and Iain in The White Horse

It had been a packed few days in London and I felt an exhausted sense of contentment with how everything had unfolded. Before I left, Iain asked if I’d come back to do it all again next January. I said that yes, I probably will. And I can’t wait!

Rob

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