I don't normally do shop reviews, but I have to make an exception. In recent weeks I've tried to do Christmas shopping in central London, in Chiswick and in Richmond. Some expeditions were more successful than others, at least as far as finding what I was looking for. But all were crowded, hassled and stressful. The West End is ghastly at this time of year, so I expected the stress and hassle; but I didn't expect Richmond, or the Chiswick High Road, to be as grim as they were...
But yesterday I went into Kingston. I needed a branch of Lakeland, and there's one on Thames Street, near John Lewis. And I made two very interesting discoveries.
Firstly, I discovered that Kingston on a Sunday afternoon, nine days before Christmas,was busy enough to be bustling, but not so busy as to be unpleasant. The streets were just crowded enough to feel lively, yet I never once had to slow down or break my stride; there was always room to manoeuvre, room to breathe, room to stroll and stop and window shop... There was a great atmosphere, there were buskers playing in the streets - some of them very good - and a huge craft market near St John's church. Kingston has all the big High Street names you'd expect, plus a lot of independent retailers, plus a lot of cafés and restaurants (also a good mixture of big-name chains and independents). Staff in the shops were busy but not desperate; no-one looked as if they wanted to die, and I can't remember when I was last served by so many friendly people in such a short space of time. I found everything I was looking for except one book. And because I went to Kingston, the business of doing the last of my Christmas shopping was comfortable and civilised, even fun, and that is a rare thing in late December. It was Christmas shopping heaven.
Secondly, I discovered the best hot chocolate ever. There's a branch of Montezuma's on Fife Street. Montezuma's make some of the best chocolate around, so of course I had to go in, even though it was half-past two and I was meant to be finding somewhere where I could grab a coffee and a sandwich. But, having entered the store, I found myself looking at a sign saying "Café upstairs". Yes; there is such a thing as a Montezuma's Café. Oh. My. God.
I crept upstairs, suddenly aware of how tired my legs were, and found they had plenty of seats and some mellow light jazz playing; and two minutes later I was sinking my nose into a delectable Large Canadian.
Yes, I know how kinky that sounds. Montezuma's called it a Large Canadian, not me! I was not doing anything enjoyably wicked to Nathan Fillion. I was drinking superb, rich, dark, strong hot chocolate with a generous splash of maple syrup in it, and I was in paradise.
The maple syrup made the hot chocolate devilishly sweet, but also gave it that subtle, smoked-butterscotch note that is the reason why maple syrup is such an invention of the Gods anyway. The final marvel is that as well as being the best-tasting drinking chocolate I've ever come across, this mug of heaven also didn't get a skin as it cooled. How do they do that? The only other place I've ever found hot choc that didn't skin over was in Granada (where it isn't really a drink - it's goo, and is intended purely for the dipping of churros).
Anyway, I had a toasted cheese sandwich, a peaceful sit-down with nice music, and the best hot chocolate I've ever come across in my life. Then I went out, restored and refreshed (having paused to buy a few truffles, of course) and managed to buy everything else I was looking for. Then I got rained on; but no day is perfect. And at least the chocolate was.