Welcome to the new Independent website. We hope you enjoy it and we value your feedback. Please contact us here.

Alex James

Alex James: Wonderful ways to enjoy the summer


Baker Street. I was nearly dead, almost beaten. I'd been up since the middle of the night. After a breakfast meeting and a lunch that had gone to extra time and penalties I was due at my accountant's to convince him that building a glass cathedral for the tomatoes had been a necessary move.

I was early but having 20 minutes to spare in the middle of town in daytime for a father of five just doesn't happen normally. I walked on past the accountant's and was drawn down a street I've passed a hundred times. It was as if I was alone. London was as hot and still as a dream for the first week of the summer holidays: deserted enough to call it my own.

In the blink of a weary eye, before you could say hot sauce, I'd walked into an empty barbershop, hung up my bag, taken off my jacket and was lying back with my eyes closed under a sheet in the number one chair. Maybe you can tell a decent barber's because there are always one or two guys hanging around not saying all that much.

Anyway, here I was drinking in the sound of the tiny transistor radio when biff, biff came the flannel, and the smell of orange extinguished the world. I was inside that smell. The towel was scorching, full of fizzing steam. He flopped it around and twirled it over my face so only my nose stuck out: the correct technique. I was in the hands of a master.

I floated off. The music coming out of that tiny radio was intoxicating. Then the sounds of the city flowed like birdsong, a solitary taxi, a distant siren, the ear-shattering treble of many bottles smashing. The mousse went on the blade. Ten minutes later I looked 10 years younger and felt ready to demand more places to grow tomatoes. These odd moments to spare in central London – lives turn on them, on the chance encounters and re-awakenings they trigger: one of the very finest things in life, an impromptu hot towel shave. Twenty minutes in Baker Street. That was all the summer holiday I needed.

Nothing beats the taste of home-grown cherries

Back at home as well it was calm and still in the heat: quiet enough to make you wonder where everyone had gone. In the garden I came to my senses, snapped out of a daydream by a row of cherry trees I planted the year before last in a remote corner of the garden.

Before I had a garden I hadn't given a thought to where cherries come from. I'm not sure I've ever seen them growing before and I've certainly never picked any.

A perfectly ripe one caught my eye. I was surprised that the trees had borne fruit so quickly. It was good to eat, too. The next couple I tried were on the sour side, but nice enough for me to keep on trying them. It was the fourth or fifth that was the monster. A perfect mouthful like a bomb going off on my tongue. It was one of the nicest things I've ever eaten and I began to gather them in earnest. I hadn't thought there were very many, but the more I picked, the more I found. I was beyond my worries, beyond time inside a bowl of cherries.

People are prepared to spend hundreds, thousands of pounds on fine wine but nothing I have ever tasted could compare with the obvious brilliance of those English cherries: as nuanced, delicious and intoxicating as the finest champagne. Those trees were only £10.95 plus VAT, too.

Just when I think I've done everything worth doing, the next interesting thing always comes along and I realise how little I know about anything. I ate more of the cherries with fresh goats' cheese later. The combination is sublime. You don't have to grow your own cherries or make your own cheese but you do have to try them.

Tweeds and ferrets at the country fair

What scenes at the CLA Game Fair. There must have been a thousand people for drinks in the big house, a hundred for lunch in the president's marquee. The event is one huge celebration of country living and no corner of the pastoral dream was left unexplored in the endless acres of stalls.

You could have arrived a steadfast metrosexual and left a fully-equipped quiet country gentleman. The woods and the wilds, all packaged up and ready to take home. I didn't know which way to look. There were wild fungi tour operators plying their trade next to home sausage- making outfitters.

Everything I could possibly have ever thought of needing. I'd be walking towards a wood chipper machine to make an enquiry and get completely distracted by bison burgers and rotisserie barbecues: there were guns going off, bows and arrows, ferrets. You could probably even get a wife to share it all with if you needed one. Tweed skirts and pencil legs everywhere. It was pleasing to see the denizens of the countryside en masse, getting together for a big day out.

The posh people seemed implausibly tweedy and the earthy contingent, well, extra rustic. It was all a bit larger than life. How nice it is to be normal, I thought, as I was having my photograph taken.