November 22, 2022

A Cheapskate guide to Primrose Hill – with writer, podcaster and positive solitude proponent Francesca Specter

Francesca Specter is the writer of The Shoulds – a newsletter exploring the hidden rules & stories that shape our lives. She’s also the author of Alonement, a Times book of the year 2021, and host of an award-nominated podcast of the same name – now in its seventh season. Francesca has lived in Primrose Hill as a household-of-one for four years. 

What’s something amazing about Primrose Hill that only the locals know about?

I think it would have to be the man who ‘walks’ his parrots (they tend to sit on his shoulder) around Primrose Hill itself. I always do a double take when I see him! Oh, and the fact that, as lovely as the view from Primrose Hill is in the day, it’s almost better at night – when you can see the criss-crossed paths illuminated by dozens of well-placed street lamps, creating their own golden pools of light. 

Are there any local businesses you’d like to give a shout-out to?

Lume Restaurant & Wine Shop! It’s an authentic Italian spot just opposite the park entrance nearest the Church of St Mary the Virgin. Their homemade house focaccia bread is to die for, as are their traditional pasta dishes (I adore the bottarga and sea urchin linguine) and salted pistachio ice cream. I had a dinner for my 31st birthday there recently, and they let us take over the well-heated terrace – it felt magical, like dining out in Sardinia even though it was October.

Where’s your favourite place in Primrose Hill for a cheap bite to eat?

Call me basic for picking a franchise, but for a weekday treat I love nothing more than a sunny walk down Regent’s Canal (from my workspace in Camden), grabbing a spicy tuna sandwich from Joe & The Juice and eating it in the nearby Chalcot Square among the candy-coloured houses.

… and to go shopping?

It wouldn’t be my first choice for shopping, given the relative scarcity of useful clothing shops – that said, Mary’s Giving & Living is great if you want to trawl for vintage designer gems (a stylish friend once picked up a second-hand Burberry trench there, so I live in hope of a similar find) and Richard Dare is a chi-chi (read: expensive) but well-stocked kitchen supply store, if you’re on the hunt for a gift, say. 

Have you had any great celeb-spotting moments there?

I see Helena Bonham Carter so frequently, I believe and – to steal a line from Hugh Grant’s sister, Honey, in Notting Hill – have believed for some time now that we could be best friends. No actual discourse has taken place (so far), but I do observe her being polite and chatty to everyone, whether that’s a stranger on a bench in Belsize Village or the owner of the local corner shop.

What would your perfect no-spend London day involve?

I’d start with a run up Primrose Hill (I made a pact with myself that I’m not allowed to stop until I get to the top – even if I run at an almost comically slow-motion pace, as inevitably happens), try out the machines at the outdoor gym there, and pack a picnic breakfast to enjoy afterwards, because when on Primrose Hill…

Then, I’d head through Regents Park, heading down the secret footpath where you can spot the ZSL London Zoo’s zebras and penguins for free. I’d then head to the Wellcome Collection in Euston, which has free entry to its permanent and temporary exhibition (as long as you booked a timed slot): they’re currently exhibiting In Plain Sight, which explores the significance of sight in human society. The Reading Rooms there are gorgeous too – the famous staircase is a must-see – so I’d cosy up there with a good book after an active start to the day, maybe something like Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf to capitalise on the Bloomsbury setting. 

You write a lot about the power of solitude – what would your dream Alonement day look like?

So it would begin with a stroll (ideally through some green space, like Hampstead Heath), an oat Americano and a boutique exercise class – something low-impact but tough, like barre or power yoga. There’s a sense of ‘alone togetherness’ in these classes – you’re all on your own journey, but there’s a communal aspect too. Then I’d go for pancakes – good pancakes – Oliver’s Cafe in Belsize Village fits the bill.

Afterwards, I’d head down the canal to Kings Cross. I adore Granary Square, and how it’s been regenerated over the past few years – I used to live there a few years ago with my best friend, and it’s gorgeous to see how much it’s changed even since then. I’d mooch around the shops at Coal Drops Yard – Wolf & Badger is always worth a look – and then, as I love going solo to the cinema, I’d see if there was something good at the Everyman (Kings Cross has two outposts: Everyman on the Corner & the main one of Handyside Street).

If you could change one thing about the capital, what would it be?

E-scooters. Allow me a rant… I get the ease, but I see so many on pavements (particularly on the slope of Haverstock Hill, where users race downwards and whip around corners at a terrifying pace), or going through traffic lights, and it’s given me a baseline of anxiety I never had before. They’re likely here to stay, but there needs to be much stricter regulation around how they’re used – right now, it’s just not safe for anyone. 

In three words, what makes somebody a Londoner?

‘I’m not waiting’.

Francesca can be found on Instagram and Twitter. Listen to her podcast, Alonement, here. Subscribe to her newsletter, The Shoulds, here

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