London-by-Zee 8 – Diana Memorial Park

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Today Zara and I are meeting a fellow stay-at-home dad buddy of mine, Jerred, and his sons at the Diana Memorial Playground in Hyde Park. By now, I’m pretty comfortable carting Zara around in the sling, so a relatively long Tube ride doesn’t stir up as much anxiety as it used to – and I have rice cakes.

We get to Hyde Park in good time and head in. As we enter, a friendly looking dog comes bounding over. Before I know it, it’s springing up at Zara, sniffing around the sling and getting my back up. It does it again, getting way too close for comfort, but still the owner doesn’t come over to pull it away. By the time it jumps up at us for a third time, the owner still nowhere in sight, I’ve had enough. I stick my leg out and push the dog away.

Suddenly, a woman comes running over. At last. But to my absolute disbelief she starts shouting at me for “kicking” her dog. She calls me cruel and storms away. I can’t believe it. I have a dog. If my dog ran over and jumped up at a stranger’s baby I’d pull it away instantly, apologise profusely and slink away with my tail between my legs, hoping that the angry parent wouldn’t take things any further.

Before entering the playground, still in a state of shock, I ask the woman working at the gate if there’s anything I can do about the incident. Between breaths I tell her my story and she listens with a comforting amount of incredulity. She tells me to leave it. “Some dog owners are crazy,” she says. “God will judge them,” she adds. Funny, but I don’t think I want to take it quite that far. By the time Jerred and his two kids meet us I’ve calmed down. A coffee helps. And then we’re in the playground.

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It’s an awesome little space. Fenced in, so Jerred can let his older son wander around reasonably freely – mostly on the bustling pirate castle in the centre of the playground. The rest of us stroll around, checking out what the play area has to offer. We try out the metal chimes and musical hopscotch, which reminds me of that piano-jumping scene in Big. But Zara takes a while to warm up.

I try her out on the swings but she’s unsure. It’s her first time. Eventually, to my relief, I ease her into the seat again and she starts to let go. As she swings back and forth she starts to smile and really enjoy the ride, pointing at everything in sight; “Der! Der! Der!”

By now she’s totally into it, exploring the park as I run behind her, working hard to keep up. We revisit the sensory trail, peek through the tunnel under the hill and hit the swings again like old pros. And when Jerred and his kids leave Zara and I walk over to the giant pond, point at every bird in sight and head back to the station. We had a shaky start, but by the end she’s smiling from ear to ear.

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London-by-Zee 7 – Vauxhall City Farm (City Slickers)

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It’s a weird feeling, watching alpacas graze nonchalantly with the Mi6 Building and Vauxhall’s rapidly bulging skyline as a background. Surreal, really. But that’s exactly what I found myself doing this past Sunday at Vauxhall City Farm.

You see, Zara loved Hackney City Farm so much we thought we’d see what Vauxhall had to offer. And straight away, she’s in her element. It’s so much fun watching her experience new things. It must feel like her books have come to life, as she wags her finger, pointing enthusiastically at the horses, sheep and pigs and looking back at me, her eyes popping out of her head with bewilderment.

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On first impression, the farm seems a lot more ordered than Hackney’s. Less rustic. Ducks, geese and retired battery chickens aren’t running about all over the place. Roosters aren’t puffing themselves up under your feet. And giant pigs aren’t lounging around in the corners of a muddy pen.

Instead, the immaculate-looking animals are squared away in neat, clean-looking spaces. It feels a bit more “zoo” like, but still comes across as a charming, independent city farm. The well-groomed horses look like movie stars, especially Billy, the farm’s immense “gentle giant.” When they reboot Black Beauty and cast Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Billy’s the horse to call.

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The alpacas are the stars of the show, though. With their mop hairdos they all look like gnarly surfer dudes – or Scooby’s best bud Shaggy. And thanks to the 20p animal-feed gumball machines it’s easy to get their attention. Zara’s not sure what to make of them at first. We haven’t come across any curious animated alpacas yet. But she loves hanging out with them all the same – until we lift her up for a photo with them.

When we’re done checking out the leopard-print kune pigs, we head to the cafe for coffee and baked potatoes. The pond at the back is rammed with ducks, swans and the weirdest looking turkey I’ve ever seen. Zara looks at me like, “What the hell is that?” Turns out his name’s Trevor and he’s a Norfolk bronze turkey. He’s also a bit sensitive about his appearance, apparently, because there’s a note on his fence explaining why he “looks so weird.” The answer; caruncles and a wattle. The result; part Futurama Scammer Alien, part eccentric turkey diva.

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After lunch we breeze through the farm one more time, say goodbye to the goats and head back to the Tube station. Back to reality. I still can’t believe these farms are all free, minus an up-to-you, non-compulsory donation – that you’re more than happy to make. They’re such awesome little oases. Little time-outs from daily city life.

London-by-Zee 6 – Hackney City Farm

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Today’s the day. We’re taking Zara to Hackney City Farm. Finally. To celebrate her first birthday. And she couldn’t be happier. Then again, she’s always happy, and of course, she has no idea where we’re heading really. She does love a good train ride, though. It’s funny, to her, most experiences are new. But this time she’s in for a big surprise.

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Paul Don Smith

We get off at Hoxton and I take a few shots of the always flavoursome Art Under the Hood corner. Instagram gold, that. Suddenly, I catch a whiff of the good stuff. The couple in front of us are smoking a massive spliff, each! We catch up, pass them and I stare at their nonchalance with a mixture of disbelief and irritation. But the guy stares back at us threateningly, like, “What?”

For some reason, everyone’s carrying massive pot plants, bags of flowers and mini trees. I can’t work it out. It looks like a nearby botanical garden’s having a closing down sale. Or they’re restocking the roof garden of a department store. We walk on, past Roa’s rabbit, which has been reclaimed by the leaves.

Suddenly, we’re there. Hackney City Farm. A sign by the entrance advertises duck, goose and chicken eggs. The smell of well-trodden straw wafts towards us. A crew of ducks and chickens steam past. And suddenly, it feels like we’ve stepped into a bizarre pocket far removed from our daily jaunts around north London.

Zara’s literally jumping out of her sling, craning her neck to get a better look and pointing at the creatures from her picture books come to life. “Der… Der… Der,” she says. Pointing and looking back at me with sheer disbelief, amazement and joy.

A rooster puffs up his chest and crows at us. A group of Indian runner ducks stand on tiptoes and flap their wings. And chickens mill about like pigeons. We head in and check out the massive pig. But he doesn’t stir, his hulking body sprawled out on his cosy hay bed. We pass another giant pig passed out in his tin-roof sty, but the star of the show is the little paddock around the back.

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The sheep pretty much keep to themselves in the middle of the patch, leaving the entertaining to the more amiable goats and donkeys. Luckily, they oblige, coming right up to the fence to say hello (and eat leaves). Zara’s favourites are Larry the donkey, who’s 22 years old, and his younger girlfriend Clover, who’s 16.

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Incredibly, donkeys can mate for life and live for up to 50 years. Suddenly, an Italian friend’s comment about eating donkeys broke my heart a little. Later, Zara…

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I wash my hands on auto-pilot before leaving, brainwashed by the 500 signs telling me to do so. And on the way home I work out that the streets’ mobile flora is all streaming in from the Columbia Flower Market, which is just around the corner. I grab a cup of coffee and we walk the busy lane, stopping to smell the roses on our way home.

London-by-Zee 5 – Big Scream: Finding Dory

Finding dory

I’d been to one of Crouch End Picturehouse’s Big Scream shows before, with my wife and then-three-month-old daughter Zara. But today, flying solo with a now 11-month-old Zara for Big Scream’s presentation of Pixar and Disney’s Finding Dory, was a whole new kettle of animated fish.

It’s a short bus ride to the picturehouse and Zara loves the view from upstairs. The bus is pretty empty and before I know it I’m looking enviably at the cinema’s tasty looking selection of booze and craft beer. Just a flat white for me, thanks. I’m on duty.

The thing that bums me out about these kind of adventures is the different world’s Zara and I live in. To her, everyone’s a potential friend and she tries her hardest to make eye contact and make people smile. To me, a brown-skinned dad in a world of clicky, understandably suspicious moms, my parallel universe can be pretty alienating at times.

A couple walks by carrying their tiny newborn baby in a car seat, grandmother in tow. Grandmother looks at me with a patronizing, skeptical sideways glance. I smile at Zara and carry on regardless.

The moviehouse is pretty empty but we got a seat near the front. We set up, and encouragingly, Zara sits on my lap, captivated by the blaring screen. Maybe this could be easier than I thought. Last time she was oblivious to what was going on, other than the noise. This time she’s totally into it. Then the trailers and adverts roll on for what feels like forever.

It’s disgusting, really. The whole show is for parents, carers and babies. But the ads and trailers are just as relentless as always. And sure enough, Zara’s attention starts to wane and she gets fidgety. Then, finally, it’s Finding Dory time. No wait, there’s just enough time to squeeze in a last-minute Volkswagen ad, between the Finding Dory certificate screen and the actual movie. Then there’s the token Pixar pre-movie short. Come on already.

Luckily, Zara’s sucked straight into Disney’s colourful underwater world. Both of us haven’t seen the original film, but I’m guessing it’s not as complex as Game of Thrones. I’m sure we’ll pick it up.

Voiced by Ellen DeGeneres, it soon becomes clear that Dory, a blue tang fish, suffers from short-term memory loss – which had a fin in her being separated from her parents when she was a baby. Suddenly, Dory has a flashback, remembers she had parents and decides to head out on a quest to find them at the Jewel of Morro Bay – the only detail she can remember for now.

Of course, Dory is joined by Nemo and his dad Marlon – imagine the missed merchandising opportunities if she wasn’t. But before they leave, there’s an odd musical interlude about migration, featuring a bunch of rays singing a jolly song about “going home.” In today’s climate, it’s hard not to see the number as a not-so-subtle message on immigration, and immigrants returning to “where they came from.” Odd…

Anyway, as you’d expect, the story’s filled with wacky characters, sentimental moments and fishy jokes like “holy carp.” And eventually, Dory’s short-term memory loss turns out to be her biggest strength; “what would Dory do?”

After an animated film, it’s always fun to see if I guessed any of the voice actors right. Ellen was easy. And I also managed to spot Eugene Levy as Dory’s dad Charlie and Albert Brooks as Marlon. Quite a few I didn’t pick up on, though; Ed O’Neill as Hank the cranky-yet-lovable red octopus – a rookie mistake, as that describes just about every role he’s ever played. Idris Elba as Fluke the sea lion. Diane Keaton as Dory’s mother Jenny. And Ty Burell as Bailey the beluga whale.

One I really wish I’d known beforehand was Always Sunny In Philadelphia’s Kaitlin Olson as Destiny the near-sighted whale shark. Didn’t get that one either. Interestingly, Nemo’s voiced by newcomer Hayden Rolence, who didn’t play the world’s most famous clownfish in the original film. But a much-deeper-voiced Gould does make a cameo appearance as Carl the truck driver.

After the film there’s a long queue of moms and prams vying for the baby change room. I decide to head up the stairs and find two more bathrooms with change facilities. Impressively, one of them’s in the men’s toilet. I manage to distract a now cranky Zara with my bank card holder and get her in a fresh nappy for the trip home. For the 70% of the movie she was watching and in a good mood, it was awesome. She just sat on my lap, leaned back on my chest and watched. And all in all, a great morning out.

London-by-Zee 4 – Sky Garden, 20 Fenchurch Street

20 fenchurch street, the walkie talkie

Staring up at it from underneath, with my hand touching its imposing, futuristic frame, 20 Fenchurch Street – aka The Walkie Talkie – bulges out like an impossibly warped cartoon. It’s unreal. The front of the building actually seems to lean out and hang over you like a wave of blue glass. The white beams on its side are like twisting water slides touching the sky. And the top has a Sky Garden lookout point that’s free and open to the public – as long as you book two weeks in advance. Let’s go!

sky garden, fenchurch street

At ground level, the Sky Garden lobby looks like an all-white customs terminal, complete with beautiful smiling women in Emirates Airline-style dresses and stern security faces checking bags with plastic trays. The crowd builds steadily, as well-planned tourists with backpacks seemingly join the queue straight from the airport.

Things move pretty swiftly, though, and we’re soon ushered to a swanky lift door – and before we know it we’re on the 35th floor! Wait, did I miss something? The whole trip took seconds, and I can only imagine how fast we were actually travelling. A mate of mine lives on the 15th floor in Shoreditch, and his lift groans and gurns all the way up like a clanging old dinosaur. This was like Willy Wonka’s glass elevator.

view of the thames from the sky garden roof

Stepping out and around the corner, the view is breathtaking. The layout at the top is a lot like the lobby, and reminds me of Dubai International Airport; glass, steel and soulless with a bright blue skyline. There’s a posh-looking cafe in the middle of the hall, uncomfortable-looking IKEA couches scattered around the edges and massive-looking leftover meringues piled up on plates. We step out on to the balcony and take in our surroundings. Wow, my legs turn into jelly.

As usual, the first thing that grabs your attention is The Shard. And to be honest, the view is even more impressive than the one from the other side. The View from the Shard’s almost twice as high, and things feel much further away. The landmarks are tiny and – most importantly – your photos don’t look as good. The Sky Garden, on the other hand, is the perfect height; you’re high above enough London to gasp and breathe it all in, but not so far away that you’re looking down on a city for ants.

view of the thames from the sky garden roof terrace

sky garden

Zara seems spellbound by her lofted take on things. She stares at the view with a look of wonder and amazement on her face. And I wonder what’s going on inside her head. How does this all make sense? Two seconds ago we were on the ground, way down there, and now we’re in the clouds.

Eventually, when we can drag ourselves away, we head up the stairs and take in the rest of the view – but nothing compares to the lump you get in your throat stepping out on to the balcony for the first time.

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The actual “garden” is much less impressive, and feels more like an underwhelming add-on collection of neatly potted plants than the lush, botanic jungle in the sky we were expecting. Still, it’s a great morning that Zara really seems to get a kick out of.

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We head back down to Earth, breeze through Leadenhall Market and end up walking across Tower Bridge, before hopping on a bus and heading back home for a snooze, to digest our morning of sensory overload.

London-by-Zee 4 – Clissold Park

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Because of its close proximity to home, Clissold Park may be a bit of a cop out comfort-zone jaunt on the adventurous daddy daughter day out scale. But it’s a local attraction with added benefits. Especially now that they’ve opened the paddling pool.

First stop; Church Street. If you time it right, 125 Church Street’s the place to go before hitting the park. But the sandwich shop’s so hip it’s never bloody open. Even at 1:30pm on a Tuesday afternoon! Trust me, it’s worth planning around. And the cupcake shop next door, Ooh Lou Lou, makes a perfect compliment.

Dejected, we walk on, heading down towards Whole Foods and Yellow Warbler, where we buy park snacks and a bad ass flat white respectively. After that it’s a quick walk back up to the park.

Generally, I visit Clissold Park as two alter-egos; as a dog-owner and parent, and then as a parent. This time, as a parent, I opt for the dog-free section of the park attached to Clissold House. I used to turn my nose up at the seemingly elitist dog-free park goers, but it makes sense now, with babies crawling around all over the place and learning how to walk.

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Z loves this section of the park. Straight away she perks up and starts crawling all over the grass, giggling and slapping the ground. The park’s full of mom squads, with their prams loaded up to the teeth like corralled pack horses. Every scenario’s been experienced and planned for, and the amount of stuff they cram on them’s absurd – from push chairs to slings, scooters, balls, umbrellas, toys and more…

I get Z to crawl around chasing after her new ball, and she laughs, pleased with her own mobility and progress. Then she stands up, with a mixed look of nervousness, excitement and accomplishment, holding her balance for close to a minute before flopping back down and sucking on a rice cake.

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When she’s done crawling on me and smiling at pigeons we head to the paddling pool. Before today, I’d only ever noticed the pool on the weekend, when it’s a sprawling, uninviting mass of bodies and babies. Today, it’s pleasantly uncrowded. We sit down on the edge of the pool and dip our feet in. Z can’t get enough of it, and I have to take her shorts off and let her sit down in the water in her nappy. Next time I’ll bring her swimming one.

On our way out we stop in at Clissold House and I pick up a surprisingly decent flat white. Usually, on the weekend, the coffee production line’s out of hand, with some agitated-looking manager type bashing through orders like a drone, one after another. Today, a woman takes her time stacking my espresso shots and frothing the milk. And the coffee leaves a perfect taste in my mouth as we stroll through the park.

London-by-Zee 3 – Natural History Museum

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I always used to love going to the Natural History Museum with my parents and my brother. Obviously, the dinosaurs were our favourites. And my brother and I would always end up leaving with a new realistic, scientific-type dinosaur model each. Once I even got an ultra-realistic-looking gorilla – no angry red eyes or scary, fanged faces. So I thought it would make a fun daddy daycare day out for me and Z.

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Naturally, I assumed the place would be pretty empty on a random Thursday morning. I could not have been more wrong. I mean, last time I went on the weekend, with my wife, the queues were so long we just turned around and left. So it wasn’t that bad by comparison. But it was pretty busy; mostly large groups of school kids in high-vis vests and a healthy smattering of tourists thrown in for good measure.

We queue up outside for a while, listening to some am-dram announcer give his spiel about the museum guidebooks you can buy. Finally, we’re in. Our backpack gets checked and we head left to the dinosaur section. It’s pretty busy but we can still flow relatively easily through the aisles. The first thing that really stands out, of course, is the animatronic Tyrannosaurus Rex.

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“Where’s the goat?

I worry that Z might be scared of the moving, growling dinosaur, but instead she’s captivated by it. Leaning right out of the sling and craning her neck to get a better look at the intimidating, ominously lit tyrant lizard.

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Deinonychus

The one that does seem to scare her, though, is the moving Deinonychus, or “Terrible Claw,” models around the corner. To be fair, they do look pretty nasty. Like Velociraptors with feathers, and evil faces straight out of a low-budget ’80s sci-fi horror flick.

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I spot two old paleontologists reliving the glory days

We breeze through the mammal section. Quite sad, really. But still quite interesting to take in. A young girl in a Natural History Museum t-shirt holds an animal skull and opens and closes it for intrigued – and terrified – looking kids. My favourite new fact I learn is that orangutan means “man of the woods,” in Malay.

Zara at natural history museum

The highlight of the trip, though, is lunch; We head to the cafeteria. I grab a fancy ham hock and Emmental sandwich on wholemeal bread, a flat white and a high chair. Z loves getting out of the sling and sitting at the cafeteria table with me. I give her a rice cake and some banana and devour my sandwich. The flat white is surprisingly good as well.

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The Darwin Centre

We take a quick look around before leaving. And I notice “an early neanderthal status symbol” in the Cadogan Gallery’s Treasures exhibition. Ah, neanderthals and their status symbols…

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The Over Thinker…

London-by-Zee 2 – Primrose Hill, Camden

Primrose hill park view

Having conquered Soho, by eating pizza and organic rice cakes in the park and taking on a group of wiseguy pigeons, I decide to take on Primrose Hill next. I had a great time there one New Year’s. Watching fireworks erupt all over London, while a Chinese lantern stuck to a nearby branch and burnt out. Also, Yoda needed walking and this was an adventure he could tag along for.

I pack Z’s bag, sort Yoda and jump on the 29. We get off at Camden Town Station and it’s a quick, interesting walk to the park. The houses are awesome, the kind of massive, “painted ladies” style north London spots no doubt owned by hip UK celebs like Ricky Gervais, Kate Moss and Noel Fielding. We pass a Whole Foods and I try our luck, asking if they’ll let us in with a dog. But when I ask, a blank-faced dude looks at me like I’m crazy. Access denied.

Primrose Hill houses

Once we’re in the park it’s a steep walk up the hill. Z sleeps through the whole thing but Yoda’s in full-on explorer mode, taking in the new park and local wildlife – and making sure he pees on every tree in sight.

When we get there, the view at the top of the hill’s worth the trip alone. It’s the kind of panoramic intake of London you’d see in a Simon Pegg movie. No wait, that’s Hampstead Heath. Still, the effect’s the same (and last time I went to Hampstead Heath it looked more like a building site). I stare at the view for the appropriate amount of time it takes to appreciate and pick out a shaded spot under a tree, as Z starts to wake up and wonder where we are.

primrose hill view

She’s fine as soon as she sees Yoda, and starts giggling, yawning and taking in her surroundings with the kind of wide-eyed wonder that makes these outings so special. Z’s current objective is walking. That’s all she cares about. And she practices all the time.

The soft grass in the empty park’s the perfect setting for a bit of practice – interspersed with jumping and near-claps. And she has the time of her life. I should have packed a picnic, really. Still, we get a bit of reading done and start to pack up.

On the way home I try my luck again, this time at a coffee shop called Ripe Kitchen. And thankfully, he’s allowed in. I order a flat white and consider the delicious-looking selection of sandwiches and pastries. Next time.

The craft bottle store on the corner completes the happy ending with a free dog bowl of water and we head for Camden Market. If we didn’t have Yoda with us I’d have ordered a Chin Chin Labs liquid nitrogen ice cream and hit the canal. Trust me. It’s the business.

Here’s the honeycomb one I had last time I was in the area…
Chin chin labs honeycomb

London-by-Zee 1 – Pizza Pilgrims, Crosstown Doughnuts, Soho Square Gardens

Pizza pilgrims in soho square gardens

My wife went back to work last month and instead of shipping our eight-month-old daughter “Z” (Zee) off to military school (aka an expensive nursery), we decided I’d stop working full-time and take care of her. Eventually, squeezing in a bit of freelance work on the side – to pay for burgers and beer. So far, I’ve kept our day trips pretty local; Clissold Park. Church Street. Angel. Camden. Blighty Coffee. But last week I decided to step things up a bit. Baby steps. I also woke up with a Michelangelo-sized craving for pizza (exacerbated by my morning Instagram foodporn intake)…

On a whim, I decide to head to Pizza Pilgrims in Soho. Scary thought, at first. What if I had to change her in public. But the thought of swapping Finsbury Park for Soho – and my dough-eyed lust for pizza – was more than enough to yank me out of my comfort zone.

I get off at Oxford Circus and head down Oxford Street towards Soho. Everyone’s either French or Italian. And if not they’re in a MAJOR hurry. Oxford Street people don’t care if you’re carrying a baby, they’ll walk straight through you. I pass Lush’s Oxford Street megastore and before I know it, Z and I are sniffing bath bombs and looking for a till. She really seems to get a kick out of the natural smells, bright lights and colours.

I leave Lush and turn into Dean street. Rounding the corner I dodge a sickly smelling human vape cloud and get a whiff of pizza – there’s a Pizza Express across the road from Pizza Pilgrims.

Pizza pilgrims dean street soho
Italian pizza makers are the only people who can pull off Crocs, but even then

Interestingly, an Italian friend of mine once told me that Italian food’s all about the elegant combination and balance of simple, delicate flavours – so no burger-stuffed crusts or liquid cheese-filled bases then. And, aiming to bring a “slice of Naples to London,” that’s Pizza Pilgrims to a tee; Hand-stretched bases made while you wait, covered in a few basic, high-quality ingredients and bunged in a wood-fired clay oven for about five minutes.

I order the Nduja, with margherita and Calabrian pork sausage. And for a second, the sunshine tempts me with a Brixton pale ale. Instantly, however, something tells me that might be frowned upon, so I order a water and lick my lips instead.

A few minutes later and we’re sitting in Soho Square Gardens, mingling with tightly dressed office folk unwrapping Pret sandwich boxes and ignoring each other. We chase off a gang of Soho pigeons and set up camp.

These guys aren’t like regular pigeons. It’s a bit like an episode of Goodfeathers. They clear off, at first, but then they start to creep back, eyeing us out without trepidation. “Funny how?” Z’s completely fascinated by them and laughs uncontrollably. Meanwhile I break out her snacks and get stuck into my pizza, which is a far cry from Domino’s and Pizza Hut’s symmetrically placed wall-to-wall toppings and thick coats of cheese.

Crosstown doughnuts

To round things off we head past Crosstown Doughnuts on our way home – it’s about five minutes walk from the park. And to be honest, if I’d thought of it I would have stopped at Crosstown first and gone all in.

Ordering’s easy. A Peanut Butter Berry. Crosstown’s handmade take on peanut butter and jelly; a square sourdough base topped with a peanut butter glaze, blackcurrant compote and toasted peanuts. I get a flat white and head home, sipping my coffee – with a lid, which I’ve learned to live with – doughnut safely stowed for later.