Sounds a bit ominous doesn’t it? Maybe it comes across as a bit whimsical, or maybe it sounds like I’m not feeling great and could be contemplating seeing my last sunset.
Thankfully, it’s not that bad but given the year I and many have had it would be understandable.
The last sunset I saw was Tuesday evening on 24th November 2020. I was on my way to meet a whisky friend and grab a socially distanced takeaway coffee. Well, that’s what I thought.
Rewinding just a little, let me explain why this sunset was so important and why it stood out for me.
I see sunrise more regularly than many people. It’s one of the joys of being a gardener. We work daylight hours and generally begin our day early. We have a natural affiliation with the seasonal rhythms and take an almost nerdy interest in weather. Our work depends on it. Even at weekends or on days off, I will still witness a sunrise, and will bask in the warmth on my face.
This year however, due to various restrictions and trying to do my civic duty, when I wasn’t working, I was indoors at home. My only window faces east. So it turns out that I can’t remember seeing a sunset this year. That small, guaranteed, taken for granted event that happens every single day had not noticeably made it’s way into my life this year, and the realisation hit me hard. I wasn’t expecting it, and when I did see the sunset on Tuesday, it choked me up. It made me realise how closed off my world has become over the last 10 months. On many levels I have found myself feeling lucky; my job enables me to be outside, I’ve made friends with an amazing group of people in the whisky world, some old relationships have faded, and some beautiful new ones have come about. I thought I had this year sorted, within the realms of what we have been allowed.
However, the thing that has become apparent, that all this time indoors by myself, set away from other people has led me to think that a lot of the outside world isn’t there, isn’t available. Yes, I’ve been walking and going to wonderful parks and green places and yes I have on occasion met with friends, but not regularly.
Don’t get me wrong, I love my own company and I’m good with being alone. But the intensity of this year has led me down a path I wasn’t aware I was on. I have become ridiculously isolated and I didn’t really know it. The sunset on Tuesday showed me this.
Now, back to the sunset.
I was meeting my friend around 4.30pm to give him some whisky samples. It’s good to share!! I got off the train at Shoreditch High Street, stepped outside the station, turned right heading to Commercial Street…and looked up. The sky was glowing purpley-pink and any reflective space was doing the same. I haven’t seen something so stunning for such a long time and it stopped me in my tracks. I saw an area that I normally absent-mindedly walk through in a completely different light…literally. I saw the colours of the amazing street art in the area glowing from the walls, the lights from the hand carwash creating an almost blinding, clinically white space. I was seeing London.
Upon meeting Thom he suggested we head to Brick Lane and Bethnal Green. Not being over familiar with the area, I followed his lead. Thom is a “Whisky Slinger” and works at Milroys, Spitalfields. On occasion I have the *pleasure* of his company when I either work at or visit the bar. His industry experience is far reaching, and I was just about to experience his local knowledge.
Now, we are in a national “lockdown” and the hospitality industry has been hit significantly. I have seen brand ambassadors gradually get laid off over the year, businesses shutting down and some, luckily have been innovative and diversified their offerings. Virtual tastings have been the huge success of the year, small whisky groups have been set up and meet in virtual pubs. Bars, such as Milroys have created tasting packs to be sent out to clients to then have online tastings with staff, cocktails have been bottled and made available for purchase.
What I hadn’t been aware of, was how other bars had managed. Walking down Brick Lane with the temperature dropping, the waft of Bagels, takeaways and general street smells were beginning to kick in. Thom headed towards a bar that looked closed, but once we got there the front window was open and there were various offerings of takeaway cocktails, hot drinks and canned beers. Welcome to The Cocktail Trading Company.
I had an Irish Coffee. Not just any Irish coffee, the cream part was infused with Tumeric. We spoke with the team there for a bit, cradling the coffee. Enjoying the contrast of sweet Jamesons whiskey, the bitter coffee, the slightly salty turmeric cream. Trust me, it was so good!! We grabbed a couple of cans of IPA and wandered towards Bethnal Green Road.
Its dark now, the windows of shops that are open are misted up with condensation and its cold. I can’t remember the last time I wandered London streets at night drinking alcohol…but I’m loving it. I’m starting to “feel” again, to experience more than my isolation. Along Bethnal Green Road, food shops with open frontage displaying all ranges of fruit, veg, meat and fish are open. On the other side of the same pavement are market stalls selling their wares. People are there, bustling about and doing their shopping. It’s noisy with people talking over each other. It feels normal.
I cracked open my can of IPA and continued to enjoy sublime, noisy, smelly normality of London.
Next stop was “Coupette”. A French inspired bar with a nod towards Brandy and cocktails. Again, the same system; a selection of takeaway cocktails was available, served from the front window. This time I had a Mulled Wine, served with (if I remember correctly) Hennesey. Warming, slightly dry, spicey…served in a takeaway bottle and plastic glass. Just a hug in liquid form.
From here we travelled a bit further along the road and came to our last stop, The Sun Tavern; cocktails and Craft beer in a Rustic space (so says Google maps). There was quite a number of people milling around (socially distanced of course), having a drink, smoking a cigarette. I looked through the hatch into the dark bar and could see a warm, welcoming space. Rows of spirits behind the bar and I made a mental note to return in more normal times. Meanwhile a lager was purchased. As we stood chatting watching the world go by, people-watching and just doing those things that were so normal, so unnoticeable in the past, I found myself witnessing my city through new eyes. Seeing the vibrancy, the community, the support. Feeling normal and sociable (very unusual for me). Also feeling a bit rebellious, this is us, this is London, we will get through this.
We were joined by a friend of Thom’s, and so we remained for another couple of pints and I think, another mulled wine. We were also joined by complete strangers. You know, the “interesting” guy in the pub, who has a lot to say, but says nothing at all; who doesn’t stop talking, makes comments that really should be called out, but you just listen, waiting to see what he may say next, whilst swapping wry smiles with your mates. Standard pub entertainment. And yes, it was getting colder. And no, you can’t use a toilet (men have this a little easier).
Eventually I had to call it a night and get home.
On reflection, this is probably one of the best nights I have had in many years.
Firstly, it wasn’t planned. All the best nights are unplanned.
Secondly, it gave me hope for the hospitality industry. It’s surviving by the skin of its teeth, but it’s surviving.
And lastly for me, it made me feel human again. I experienced the thrill of the unknown, of discovering a world I live near, but not in. I experienced a small adventure and some excitement. I felt I had been let in on a secret which few know. It reminded me of living in Bristol where I ran pubs and lived the hospitality industry, the unwritten rules and the community spirit.
I felt re-grounded. I felt a little more “Vokins” than I have done for a while.
So, wherever you live go out around sunset, and see where it takes you. You may just find yourself in a different world.
(The pic at top of piece was taken by me in India, 2015. No photos were taken on the night this piece talks about, because I was just soaking up the moment, through my senses, not a lens.)
NB. For anyone who may be experiencing feelings isolation, loneliness, anxiety or depression, please reach out to someone.
This link for UK may be helpful: