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The Line Gary Hume LIBERTY GRIP Greenwich Peninsula
Photograph: Adam Kaleta

45 cool things we learned about London in 2020 (after it all went to shit)

A look back at moments of joy and excitement from an ultimately strange and bad year

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This year sucked. Yes, almost everything life-affirming about London was curtailed, diminished or banned in 2020. But unless we find some way to feel positive about the future, the present becomes a grim place indeed.

In 2020, unable to rely on the conventional triad of friends, nice food and booze, Londoners had to find new ways to channel positivity. The city’s ever-resourceful pubs, restaurants, theatres, galleries, cinemas, performers and artists have found ingenious ways to keep going in the hardest of circumstances. And Londoners learnt and discovered new things about the city while their busy lives were on pause.

From takeaway pints and drive-in cinemas to canalside ballet and seated clubbing, here are some of the things that have brought joy in this godforsaken year.

Recommened: our Love Local campiagn supporting the city’s independent businesses. 

1. The city’s cornershops are heroic

Around the second week of March, supermarkets were swept clean of the basics. All that was left? Nescafé, rollmop herring and taramasalata – piles of the stuff. That’s no way to live. So, thank God for the cornershop. Spices? Got ’em all. Loo roll? Er, do we! When everyone was yelling about shortages, these little guys had our back.

Find chefs’ favourite cornershops in London

2. Wine subscriptions aren’t just for Waitrose types...

...They’re now a titan-sized trend, the outcome of the city’s bars, restaurants and wine shops laying dormant. Pioneered by the likes of Crispin and Top Cuvée, now there’s a whole host of start-ups, from Oranj to The Sorting Table sending out curated cases of natty vino – ideal if you don’t know a thing about wine except that you like it.

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3. London’s pollution problem is solvable

When flights were grounded, roads quiet and a large proportion of Londoners were working/having existential crises from home, scientists recorded significant drops in pollutant nitrogen dioxide. Readings also suggest the capital saw a drop in toxic carbon emissions by almost 60 percent between the start of March and May 2020.

4. Drag queens are our city’s innovators

Three stars got very creative in lockdown: Dolly Trolley launched virtual drag aerobics sessions. Like Joe Wicks with sass and ’80s lycra. The Amused Bouche did meal-kit deliveries with a side of dramatic doorstep musical numbers. And activist queens like Shakona Fire used their platforms to amplify the Black Lives Matter movement.

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Willy's Pies
Willy's Pies
Photograph: Andy Parsons

5. Pies can be objects of desire

Yer man Will Lewis was put on furlough in lockdown. Unlike a lot of us, the St John and Brat veteran didn’t immediately begin binge-watching Studio Ghibli films. Instead he started what can only be described as a nascent pie empire. Made in Will’s  kitchen, and delivered by his mates, the pies have become the talk of the town. The menu is ever-changing but the ethos remains the same. Pies are life. Pies are love.

6. Andrew Lloyd Webber will never ever die

Love him or loathe him for his music, politics, etcetera, there is no doubt that ALW has done his darndest to try and save the UK theatre industry: as a vocal advocate in front of the cultural select committee, and by ploughing £100k of his – admittedly substantial – fortune into tricking out the Palladium to be social-distancing compliant. The frontage of the Gillian Lynne Theatre, which is due to play host to his next musical, ‘Cinderella’, currently bears the line ‘opening spring 2021 – if they’ll let us!’

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London Fields toilet sign
London Fields toilet sign
Photograph: Stephanie Revell

7. Londoners care deeply about toilets

This was the year of the wild wee. With public toilets across the capital closed, people answered nature’s call, well, in nature. Fines for public urination were handed out, people campaigned enthusiastically for the return of public toilets and, once WCs across the city started reopening, a map of London’s public lavs went viral.

8. Rose Glass might be the capital’s most exciting film director

While everyone was busy tweeting about Christopher Nolan’s baffling ‘Tenet’, another much less heralded Londoner was doing her bit to save cinema. Rose Glass, an LCC grad, was the mastermind behind the immaculate spiritual horror ‘Saint Maud’. Comparisons with Ingmar Bergman and Paul Schrader came thick and fast – and deservedly.

Read our film editor’s five-star review of ‘Saint Maud’.

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9. This city has a LOT of classical music venues

With crushing loads of people into a room off the cards for the forseeable, seated culture has had its moment in the sun. One of the biggest winners? Classical concerts popping up all across town. Chamber music spot Wigmore Hall was one of the few music venues to reopen in September. Meanwhile there are also Spotlight Chamber Concerts in Waterloo. We’re all highbrow now.

10. A global pandemic was all we needed to make Londoners (perhaps inadvisably) talk to their neighbours

In the seven years I’ve lived in my flat, I never dreamed I’d be drunkenly crawling out of my downstairs neighbours’ door at 3am after six bottles of wine over dinner. But, that’s exactly what happened in July.

Until this year, I’d only known my neighbours as the vaguely familiar faces I’d mumbled odd greetings to in the hall, or a name on a parcel I’d signed for. All that changed in 2020. As we spent more time at home than ever before, our meetings in the hallway became a daily occurrence. Then hallway chats turned into cups of tea, tea turned into dinner and before we knew it we were drunkenly singing along to Prince in the early hours of the morning.

When surrounded by uncertainty, we tend to cling to those closest to us, and for most of us this year that’s been our neighbours. We’ve come together in camaraderie against the difficulties 2020 threw at us through Covid Mutual Aid groups and friendly messages on our local Facebook pages and neighbourhood apps. I signed up to my local Nextdoor app group in March, and over the last few months, I’ve seen neighbours help each other by collecting shopping, swapping sourdough starters and helping with DIY jobs. One man who lives by me posted a message saying the sight of houses with Black Lives Matter posters in the windows had made him feel more at home in our neighbourhood than ever before. If I didn’t feel pride. Alexandra Sims

 

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11. Electric vehicles are the future (just not the ones we expected)

In a year of ‘travelling as far as we can without getting on public transport’, E-bikes and scooters came into their own. Lime, for example, reported a 127 percent uptake in E-bike rides between March and October 2020.

12. Not even a pandemic can keep us away from a car-boot

Ooh, old tat. Touched by hundreds of grubby unsanitised hands over the years. Just what you need during a viral pandemic. Only it is, apparently. Answering demand, Peckham Car Boot carried on virtually through lockdown, running its sales online with sellers DMing in their items. The spirit of Del Boy lives on.

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13.  East Londoners will queue for plants...

When Columbia Road flower market reopened in July, the queues were huge. Like, really big. Think of the line that forms outside Palace on a drop day or Dishoom on a weeknight, except it’s Toast-clad couples waiting for cacti and cheese plants. We did all have bleak wfh set-ups to brighten up tbf.

14. ...And for pastry too

We guarantee, if you go to Pavilion on Broadway Market right this minute, you’ll find at least five people standing waiting to get their hands on a cardamom bun. It’s been that way since lockdown started.

 

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15.  Theatre audiences are MASSIVE

Theatre has a reputation as an elitist artform. But make it free to watch (and force people to stay at home for five months) and suddenly its audience is huge: the National Theatre’s weekly free streams of plays achieved a titanic combined global audience of 15 million. Now, if we can just get all those people into actual theatres.

16. Walking in London is truly great

There are three types of Londoner you’ll find taking a stroll.

One, the overstretched work-from-homer: You’ll spot them out at 4pm, after they finally manage to tear themselves away from Zoom. They’re wild-eyed and stomping through a 15-minute circuit, Slacking as they go.

Two, the overprepared hiker: As soon as they realised walking was going to be a big deal, they fired up Blacks and splashed out £800 on a mountaineering ‘performance’ jacket. They largely spend their time circling Hyde Park, sweating profusely.

Three, the mulled wine walkers: They’re looping Broadway Market in big fur coats and lipstick like they’re Victorians taking a ‘turn’. Glam. But in 30 minutes you’ll find them power-walking home, desperate for a piss.

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18. Londoners will stand in the freezing cold for a pint

The consistently good weather in Lockdown 1 meant that when the takeaway beer idea emerged, the trend popped off. Somebody even created a map that plotted those pint pick-up points. Did we foresee it lasting into the winter? Not necessarily. But some canny boozers – from The Red Lion and Sun in Highgate to The Pelton Arms in Greenwich – even started flogging takeaway mulled wine, too.

Find more places in London to drink mulled wine.  

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Laura Ford BIRD BOY Royal Victoria Dock
Laura Ford BIRD BOY Royal Victoria Dock
Photograph: Vassilis Skopelitis

19. Outdoor art is essential to the city

Turn any corner in this city, and you’ll probably bump into some art. It’s always been there, but outdoor art came into its own during lockdown. Being starved of galleries, people flocked to see the Barbara Hepworth on the side of John Lewis or to walk The Line sculpture trail. You just can’t stop Londoners from looking at art.

 

20. London can do drive-in cinema

Drive-in cinema always seemed like something the Fonz would go to on a balmy American night. But it turns out it’s something you can also do in a light drizzle in Hendon. The drizzle aside – peering at a film through a fogged-up windscreen is not great – it filled a gap for anyone yearning for big screens and big snacks. Obviously a lot less so if you don’t have a car.

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Soho Street Eating
Soho Street Eating
Photograph: ALAMY Stock Photo

21. Soho’s streets can look as sexy as Paris’s

Just in time for the UK’s July 4 celebrations (not Independence Day, but the reopening of hospitality after lockdown), Soho was given the green light for pedestrianisation. Officially, the plans were dubbed the ‘Soho Summer Street Festival’. Cue Daily Mail horror headlines. But the transformed area actually had a rather Continental vibe: demi-pints outside The French House and the like.   

22.  Our parks can double as gyms, WeWorks and clubs

As Covid upended our lives, parks became the centre of everything from socialising to social change. They were settings for birthday parties, work gatherings, alfresco gym classes, impromptu concerts, even protests and illegal raves. We ended up spending so much time in them, some parks put up signs telling us to go home to use the loo.

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23. It is possible to go clubbing sitting down

With nightclubs a no-go, Londoners turned to the next best thing. Er, sitting down to listen to DJs play in courtyards? The Cause rolled out more seated events this year than Boris rolled out confusing rules. Its best shout? Queer techno night Adonis became cabaret show Touché. Brixton Courtyard, outside Brixton Jamm, became a hub of good street food and great DJs, with a line-up curated by Percolate. And Night Tales transformed from a beer garden into an actual venue. Its USP? You’re allowed to dance there… so long as you wear a mask and stay within a marked box.

DistDancing
DistDancing
Photograph: Andrej Uspenski (@dancersdiary on Instagram)

24. Towpaths are ace ballet venues

While London’s great stages were shuttered, a group of furloughed Royal Ballet dancers took matters in their own hands and started staging impromptu dance shows along the Regent’s Canal in Hackney. For the dancers, it was a way to perform. For the public, it was a rare chance to see live dance for free. It’s not often you hear people screaming ‘One more dance. One more dance!’ near a light industrial estate.

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25. Online shopping doesn’t have to be evil

Indies took on the Internet proper this year. 

For food: Borough Market’s online shop expanded to offer nationwide delivery for Lockdown 2. 

For books: Pages of Hackney, The Word and Stokey Bookshop pivoted to delivery. Many shops offered free local drop-offs. 

For wine: Peckham Cellars launched its delivery service in Lockdown 1, with same-day drops.

Prince Charles Cinema
Prince Charles Cinema
SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

26. Londoners love their cinemas

Dalston’s Rio sold nearly 8,000 memberships between March and August, while the eccentric Prince Charles received £70k of advanced sales ahead of its October reopening.

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27. Nicholas Hytner is a theatre-saver

After hauling the National Theatre back into relevance during his golden age in charge, Hytner’s new gaff the Bridge was the leading light in what we might call inter-lockdown theatre, flawlessly executing a starry, diverse, 12-play rep season of monologues that accounted for something like half of the theatre this autumn.

28. The capital is surrounded by brilliant stuff

With proper abroad holidays off the cards, we discovered that, hey, London is close to loads of absolutely great places! Rye, Whitstable, Hertfordshire… And when it came to summer hols? Turns out Cornwall is basically Ibiza with worse weather but better pastry.

Find more brilliant weekend breaks from London. 

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29. The city’s homelessness problem is fixable

When the UK went into lockdown, the government managed to immediately rehouse London’s homeless population. Something they’d previously claimed it would take years to do. It proved that with enough political will (and resources) no-one needs to be homeless.

30.  A pandemic won’t stop us protesting

As the Black Lives Matter protests erupted around the world in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, our city came out in eloquent solidarity, including a huge demonstration in Hyde Park on June 3 and lots of local, socially distanced gatherings.

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Normal People
Normal People
Photograph:

31.  Connell from ‘Normal People’ lives in Hackney

May in London had a horny energy. The humidity began to rise, the days stretched into warm nights, and Paul Mescal – aka the man who made thin silver chains hot – decided to go for a run along the canal in Hackney. Shirtless. It started with a tweet or two from some thirsty Londoners. It grew into a full-blown media flurry.

32. Culture can go underground again

Pre-corona, despite virtually everything being billed as ‘undiscovered’ ‘secret’ ‘exclusive’ ‘a hidden gem’, it felt as though there wasn’t a square inch of the city that hadn’t been thoroughly mapped, snapped, raked up and reviewed by influencers, Google robots and, well, people like us. (Sorry about that.) But now? Overnight, the pub round the corner is serving takeaway schnapps, the derelict car wash next door has become a socially distant comedy club and your local restaurant is a shop. Suddenly your know-it-all friends don’t know it all. Nor do we, probably. Word of mouth is back. And your neighbourhood is full of surprises.

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Small Axe
Small Axe
Photograph: Small Axe BBC

33. Steve McQueen is a London expert

A Londoner right down to his anguished relationship with Spurs, it feels almost counter-intuitive that McQueen hasn’t set a film in the city until now. Boy, has he made up for lost time with ‘Small Axe’. From Notting Hill to the Old Bailey, via the best London house party committed to film, its celebration of the city’s West Indian community fizzes with authenticity and feeling.

Stream ‘Small Axe’ via BBC iPlayer

34. Supermarket veg is far outshone by our city’s veg boxes

My nearest supermarket is a tiny Tesco (or Shit Tesco, to give it its proper name), which I’m convinced exists solely to troll me. Pre-pandemic, I’d go in there with a shopping list, thinking: This time it’ll be different. It never was. Whatever I wanted, they didn’t have. Will they have mushrooms today? Nah. Peppers? No way. It was a bit like a lottery, the kind where no one wins anything, ever.

During the first lockdown, I was finally freed from the shackles of Shit Tesco by a plucky underdog: the humble veg box. I ordered my first box in April and I’ve been getting them ever since. Even when the supermarkets stopped resembling the aftermath of an apocalypse, I couldn’t bring myself to revert from my weekly delivery of brown paper bags filled with fruit and veg that actually tasted of something back to subpar supermarket produce wrapped in single-use plastic.

There are so many veg delivery services in London (shout out to All Greens, Pale Green Dot and Paul the Veg Man). Some let you choose what goes in them, but I prefer the set boxes, because sometimes they throw in rogue stuff that I’d never usually buy (if anyone knows what to do with a persimmon, I’m all ears). When the world fell apart this year and all our usual routines went out the window, the unwavering reliability of my weekly veg box was oddly comforting, which is something I’ve never been able to say about Shit Tesco. Ever. Isabelle Aron

Find more London fruit and veg delivery services.

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35. Bird-spotting in the city is nice

For me, birds ooze a sense of mood cool. I’ve always been obsessed. For example, I once had a flock of blackbirds stencilled on my bedroom wall. This year alone, I’ve read books about the goshawk, the robin and the blakiston’s fish owl (very edgy bird – check it out). Yet even more weirdly, despite this unsettling fixation, I’ve never been fussed about spotting them myself. Until, one day in lockdown, a blue tit landed on my balcony. Then another. And soon there were three pecking at our already stunted veg farm. The next day, I wandered along the River Lea. There were terns, cormorants and swans all nesting within 100 metres of the Blackwall Tunnel. What resilience. What beauty. Like so many others, I turned twitcher overnight. Birds, it strikes me, are the shit IRL too. Huw Oliver. 

36. John Boyega is an actual, earthly legend

When it comes to standing up and being counted, Peckham’s John Boyega really took it to the next level at the Hyde Park BLM protest on June 3. The ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Attack the Block’ star made an impassioned plea for discrimination and racially motivated deaths in the US and UK not to drop off the agenda, and for the next generation to be properly educated about them. Acknowledging that his outspokenness might not sit that well with Hollywood casting directors, he said, ‘Look, I don’t know if I’m going to have a career after this, but fuck that.’

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37. The Top Cuvée founders should go on ‘The Apprentice’

This Highbury bistro pivoted its business model so many times in 2020 we imagine it’s dizzy. First it became an online shop selling bottled cocktails from top bars. In summer the team cycled wine to punters. Now, come winter they’ve launched heat-at-home dinner kits. Busy, busy bees.

38.  Making burgers is fun it turns out

DIY meal kits have shown us all that fine dining is actually easy. Not sure what all those stressed-out cooks on ‘MasterChef the Professionals’ are so worked up about. You just take bits of food out of their containers and heat them up. In any case, the cuisine that Londoners seem to enjoy making the most is the burger: from Burger & Beyond, Patty & Bun, Honest Burger and even Burger & Lobster.

Find more DIY meal kits from London restaurants. 

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39. Seeing the city on screen will never, ever get old

There’s nothing like seeing familiar corners of your hometown on the telly – especially when you’re not allowed to visit them IRL. So it’s been a heart-filler to see London getting so much love on screen this year. Michaela Coel’s mesmerising ‘I May Destroy You’ (BBC) took a tour of the West End by night, while ‘Gangs of London’ (Sky) and ‘Industry’ (BBC) headed for the filthy-rich corners of the City. And gazing at them was ‘Rocks’ (Netflix), a film that turned Hackney’s rooftops into a viewing station across to that Grand Canyon of cash. Together, they were like an Oyster card for the eyeballs.

40. Theatres are masters of adaptation

How do you make an old venue new-normal safe? 

Ditch the actors. Donmar Warehouse’s ‘Blindness’ opened early because it was technically a sound installation. 

Ditch the audience. The eccentric legal provision allowing plays to go ahead without audiences during lockdown was proven good by the Old Vic’s In Camera series. 

Ditch the seats. The Bridge and the National Theatre removed two-thirds of seats, with the audience now in isolated pockets. 

Install the perspex. Southwark Playhouse put in massive perspex panels between audience bubbles. It was really, really weird-looking, but it felt very 2020.

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41. We’re all obsessed with nice coffee

In 2020, somehow, going to your local café, buying a cup of Joe and taking it straight home seemed like a reasonable thing to do. Meanwhile, ‘Save Pret’ became a meme: normality, embodied in a cup of slightly bitter and overpriced liquid.

42. London art is extremely good at ‘going online’

Suddenly, everyone had a virtual gallery. Some places (like the Guts Gallery) even did Instagram shows. That’s before we start talking about Zoom round tables and 3D gallery walk-throughs. There was the #artistsupportpledge, where artists put up works for sale for £200; once they’d made a grand they pledged to spend £200 on another artist. There was a sense that things weren’t shut, the focus had shifted.

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43.  Dominic Cools-Lartigue won’t quit

Originally planning to open a big ol’ food and culture hub at the start of 2020, Dom did a switch to kindness and started A Plate for London instead. Using his food contacts, he made sure tens of thousands got fed. Nice one. Somehow he also found the time to open food hall-slash-workspace The Tramshed Project in October too.

 

44. Restaurant merch is the new band merch

Four foodie faves have started serving #looks. Dark Arts Coffee does a very, very cool bucket hat. Dom’s Subs does good sandwiches and good T-shirts. Monty’s Deli has a clothing range. They call it ‘menschwear’ and it has big pickles on. And Yard Sale Pizza x Mangal II has marked the collab with a must-have top. 

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45.  And, finally... the best takeaway food comes vacuum packed

Eating food from a little pouch isn’t just for cats, astronauts and Bear Grylls, London’s best restaurants swerved Deliveroo to produce heat-at-home kits. Hot 4 U was a pioneer, launching a pouch-only service before finding a home at The Plough. This is its smoked mackerel with leek ragout. 

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