London’s five most romantic neighbourhoods

From Hackney Wick to Eel Pie Island, “London For Lovers” reveals the city’s best date spots.

Forget Paris. London is today’s amorous city of choice, according to a new book, London for LoversBeautiful photography accompanies short guides to the city's finest romantic neighbourhoods - from the well-trodden (Notting Hill) to the less expected (Crystal Palace, anyone?).  Here are five worth discovering on Valentine's Day:

Lincoln's Inn Field

The largest public square in London, framed by the Gothic spires of the redbrick Lincoln’s Inn society of lawyers, this park is surprisingly easy to miss whilst power-walking down Holborn high street.

“Picnicking on the Field under the spring blossoms feels like stepping back in time,” write the authors, Sam Hodges and Sophie Vickers. Springtime it may not be, but the Inn has other curiosities to offer. The Hunterian Museum, a “less romantic but more macabre detour” on the park’s southside, is a bizarre collection of medical oddities. Collated by eighteenth century surgeon John Hunter, the museum boasts pickled foetuses and the skeleton of The Irish Giant, a 7 foot 7 inch wonder named Charles Byrne.

Dulwich and Forest Hill

The Dulwich Picture gallery, with its “crimson walls and topsy-turvey crowded galleries”, makes an ideal haunt for art lovers. It was also England’s first public art gallery whose first collection came as the gift from “eccentric” collector Sir Francis Bourgeois. He even bequeathed his own body to the museum.

Also recommended are the London Recumbents, cycle-hire specialists on the corner of Dulwich Park, where couples can hire “adult tricycles” with side-by-side seating, handy for roaming the surrounding greenery.

Wapping

Wapping is an atmospheric neighbourhood on the “brooding foreshore” of the River Thames laying claim to two titles of “the oldest”. The Prospect of Whitby calls itself the oldest Thames-side pub in existence, dating from 1543, while the glorious Wilton’s Music Hall, which has survived demolition scares and a takeover bid by Weatherspoons, has been around since 1725 (when it was an alehouse serving Scandinavian sailors).  This romantic venue is the oldest music hall in the world; comprised of a “pillar strewn” concert room and the Mahogany Bar, an antiquated drinking den where one (or two) can cosy up for a tipple.

Twickenham

Off the back of a Dickens quote, the Eel-Pie Island in Twickenham is flagged as a refuge for eclectic lovers:

“Unto the Eel-Pie Island at Twickenham: there to make merry upon a cold collation, bottled beer, shrub, and shrimp, and to dance in the open air to the music of a locomotive band.” – from Nicholas Nickelby

Separated from the Twickenham embankment by a curved footbridge, the secluded, car-free island is accessible only by boat. The place has a history of passion – the authors make mention of both Henry VIII, said to fill up on eel pies whilst journeying by riverboat from Hampton Court to the homes of various mistresses, and an artist couple who battled eight months with the Richmond council, eventually winning the right to rename their home ‘Love Shack’ (after the B52s' hit).

Hackney Wick

Londoners notoriously prowl for the “next” spot, and many have identified the current heart of chic as Hackney Wick/Fish Island - a cluster of warehouses bound on two sides by Union Canal and the River Lea.

It’s an area in a constant state of flux - there’s a good chance that any pop-up market or gallery mentioned here may be there one day, gone the next.” All the more reason to hurry there with a loved one tonight, to see what you find. 

Members of the English pop group The Tremeloes kiss their brides in Trafalgar Square, 1967 (Photo: Getty Images)

Charlotte Simmonds is a writer and blogger living in London. She was formerly an editorial assistant at the New Statesman. You can follow her on Twitter @thesmallgalleon.

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Charlottesville: a town haunted by the far right

Locals fear a bitter far right will return.

On 12 August, a car ploughed down pedestrians in the street where I used to buy my pecan pies. I had recently returned to London from Charlottesville, Virginia – the scene of what appears to have been an act of white supremacist terrorism – having worked and taught at the university there for four years. While I unpacked boxes of books, the streets I knew so well were full of hate and fire.

The horror began on the evening of Friday 11 August, when thugs with torches marched across the “Lawn”. Running through the heart of the university, this is where, each Halloween, children don ghoulish costumes and trick-or-treat delighted and generous fourth-year undergraduates.

But there were true monsters there that night. They took their stand on the steps of the neoclassical Rotunda – the site of graduation – to face down a congregation about to spill out of St Paul’s Episcopal opposite.

Then, on Saturday morning, a teeming mass of different groups gathered in Emancipation Park (formerly Lee Park), where my toddler ran through splash pads in the summer.

We knew it was coming. Some of the groups were at previous events in Charlottesville’s “summer of hate”. Ever since a permit was granted for the “Unite the Right” march, we feared that this would be a tipping point. I am unsure whether I should have been there, or whether I was wise to stay away.

The truth is that this had nothing to do with Charlottesville – and everything to do with it. From one perspective, our small, sleepy university town near the Blue Ridge Mountains was the victim of a showdown between out-of-towners. The fighting was largely not between local neo-Nazis and African Americans, or their white neighbours, for that matter. It was between neo-Nazis from far afield – James Alex Fields, Jr, accused of being the driver of the lethal Dodge Challenger, was born in Kentucky and lives in Ohio – and outside groups such as “Antifa” (anti-fascist). It was a foreign culture that was foisted upon the city.

Charlottesville is to the American east coast what Berkeley is to the west: a bastion of liberalism and political correctness, supportive of the kind of social change that the alt-right despises. Just off camera in the national newsfeeds was a banner hung from the public  library at the entrance of Emancipation Park, reading: “Proud of diversity”.

I heard more snippets of information as events unfolded. The counter-protesters began the day by drawing on the strength of the black church. A 6am prayer meeting at our local church, First Baptist on Main (the only church in Charlottesville where all races worshipped together before the Civil War), set the tone for the non-violent opposition.

The preacher told the congregation: “We can’t hate these brothers. They have a twisted ideology and they are deeply mistaken in their claim to follow Christ, but they are still our brothers.” Then he introduced the hymns. “The resistance of black people to oppression has only been kept alive through music.”

The congregation exited on to Main Street, opposite my old butcher JM Stock Provisions, and walked down to the statue of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark – the early 19th-century Bear Grylls types who explored the west. They went past Feast! – the delicacy market where we used to spend our Saturday mornings – and on to the dreamy downtown mall where my wife and I strolled on summer evenings and ate southern-fried chicken at the Whiskey Jar.

The permit for the “protest” was noon to 5pm but violence erupted earlier. Between 10.30am and 12pm, the white supremacists, protected by a paramilitary guard, attacked their opponents. As the skirmishes intensified, police were forced to encircle the clashing groups and created, in effect, a bizarre zone of “acceptable” violence. Until the governor declared a state of emergency, grown men threw bottles of piss at each other.

At noon, the crowd was dispersed and the protesters spilled out into the side streets. This was when the riot climaxed with the horrific death of the 32-year-old Heather Heyer. Throughout Saturday afternoon and evening, the far-right groups marauded the suburbs while residents locked their doors and closed their blinds.

I sat in London late into the night as information and prayer requests trickled through. “There are roughly 1,000 Nazis/KKK/alt-right/southern nationalists still around – in a city of 50,000 residents. If you’re the praying type, keep it up.”

No one in Charlottesville is in any doubt as to how this atrocity became possible. Donald Trump has brought these sects to group consciousness. They have risen above their infighting to articulate a common ground, transcending the bickering that mercifully held them back in the past.

In the immediate aftermath, there is clarity as well as fury. My colleague Charles Mathewes, a theologian and historian, remarked: “I still cannot believe we have to fight Nazis – real, actual, swastika-flag-waving, be-uniformed, gun-toting Nazis, along with armed, explicit racists, white supremacists and KKK members. I mean, was the 20th century simply forgotten?”

There is also a sense of foreboding, because the overwhelming feeling with which the enemy left was not triumph but bitterness. Their permit had been to protest from noon to 5pm. They terrorised a town with their chants of “Blood and soil!” but their free speech was apparently not heard. Their safe space, they claim, was not protected.

The next day, the organiser of the march, Jason Kessler, held a press conference to air his grievances. The fear is that the indignant white supremacists will be back in greater force to press their rights.

If that happens, there is one certainty. At one point during the dawn service at First Baptist, a black woman took the stand. “Our people have been oppressed for 400 years,” she said. “What we have learned is that the only weapon which wins the war is love.”

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear