Updated: May 6
'Neighbours, everybody needs good neeeeigh-bours' - it's true, especially ones who are really good at making cakes. Some might call it cupboard love...
There's nothing quite like a pandemic to bring out the very worst in people. If you're reading this from your phone while jogging through a busy park, or at home perched on your nine-foot tower of family-sized packs of toilet roll, I'm talking to you. Fortunately, there's nothing quite like a pandemic to bring out the very best in people, too. Those of us who abide by the rules will be sitting on our balconies or in our gardens (if you're lucky enough to have either) with a cup of tea or a glass of wine (wait, no wine? Grab a glass of water and pray - maybe Jesus can still pull his magic trick) and wondering what we can do to help those in need. I'm on super-enforced, longterm lockdown. A minimum of 12 more weeks, with my husband and I already seven weeks in because we realised quite quickly that we needed to take extra precautions due to my underlying health conditions. That means he can't go out either, save for a bi-weekly - if that - run to the supermarket just before closing time. We must be the only people to go on voluntary lockdown AND the only people to have not panic-bought toilet roll.
So, what makes our street so special? I'll tell you - it's like being in a 1970s sitcom every single day. It's also set on a kind of man-made island, which is mega hard to explain so I think it's probably best if I don't try.
Here we are on Robin's boat last summer when we were free to go out and drink wine and laugh our nuts off on boats and stuff. Snazzy, huh?
There's the villain who always wears red trousers and drives the fanciest car(s) in the street. There's the eccentric and delightful Bobbie, who is 82-years-old, lives next door, keeps falling over in her garden and hurting herself and who proclaimed loudly and somewhat worse for wear in the street on New Year's Eve, 'I'm not old, I'm a recycled teenager!' There's Geoff, a retired fireman-turned-gardener who also deep-cleans the local strip club every Saturday morning (don't ask, we didn't), and his charming wife Pauline who makes fabulous cous-cous that even people who don't like cous-cous like. Neil grows courgettes and cucumbers the size of nuclear missiles and (gently) crashed his boat on the first day of owning it. His wife, Christine, makes the most incredible and the stickiest pavlova you've ever tasted, and on the day that lockdown was announced, left one on our doorstep - and the doorstep of two other neighbours - complete with little pots of cream and strawberries to 'cheer you all up'. That's what you call 'Deliver-ooh'. She's just this moment sent Neil round with a couple of rock cakes. Brilliant. Graham and Jola live opposite them on the other side of the river, and while Graham builds machinery and sheds, Jola brews her own vodka (she is Polish, after all) and sends you home with something edible every time you visit. That might be biscuits, some prawns for our cat, a slice of her fine carrot cake or a tomato plant (edible eventually). When our cat, Squeaky, fell in the river two summers ago - yes, really - Graham and Neil rescued her from Graham's rowing boat. That's how I met Jola; more on that later.
I'm not finished. Last but definitely not least are Carol and Robin, who live a whole 15 steps away. They moved in just before us in 2017, and we've been taking care of each other ever since. Robin is like a one-stop DIY shop: he loans Gautier his waders when he needs to go in the river (don't ask why he does, it's a long story and nothing to do with fishing), has given him a pair of fishing wellies, says 'help yourself' to wheelbarrows and axes (again, don't ask) and drives me to the station when I go to London to save me paying for a cab. He's like a spare dad, which is great because my actual dad is 150 miles away (and he doesn't own a wheelbarrow OR waders). Carol and I walk their dog, Trixi, every Sunday morning, we often have Sunday lunch with each other and we go to the local pub - along with Neil and Geoff - every Friday at 6pm on the dot, actually knocking for each other along the way. Gautier is 43 and I'm 47; Jola and Graham aside, everyone else is 60-plus.
This is Trixi, ready for her Sunday morning walk
With Gautier's close friends and family in his hometown France, and my family and friends a long old trek down the motorway in London and Brighton, having new friends so close by is an absolute godsend. We're baking for each other, leaving parcels outside doors and texting to say, 'Banana muffins ETA five minutes!' and we also leave books we've enjoyed on each other's doorsteps, too (disinfected, of course). We're also trading food - 'anyone need eggs? I've got plenty but could do with two bananas' was my latest WhatsApp message to Pauline, Carol, Jola and Christine, followed by 'banana cake, incoming!' to Carol to signal my arrival on her doorstep as we can no longer linger upon the doorstep thanks to Covid-f*cking-19. I'll be writing now and again about our magical little street and all the cake exchanges and gestures of love and kindness. I even do swaps with Trixi the dog - she gets chicken leg bones (with some meat left on as a treat) or beef shin bones from our dinners and her mum brings us scones and banana bread. Trixi has not yet mastered the art of baking. There's still time, though. Most of the recipes I'll be sharing with you are from my neighbours and friends, along with a few classic French desserts from my mother-in-law and husband for good measure because, well, they're French. I hope you enjoy them as much as we enjoy making (and sharing!) them.