Turning our boozers into Assets of Community Value
“It’s got the whole gamut of humanity in one place, warts and all.” Gavin Winterwell is talking about Kentish Town. We’re sitting under the arch next to the overground, plants hanging overhead, sipping hemp tea with shop manager Eliza Pollock, a sparkly spirit whose eyes are adorned with gold glitter.
As anyone who’s lived in the area for even a minute will know, the Fields Beneath is a much-loved local coffee shop warming neighbourhood bellies for coming up to a decade. In fact, today and tomorrow you can enjoy a free coffee in celebration of that remarkable milestone. “The business has had ups and downs, I’ve had ups and downs, but it’s all led to this. I’m just happy we’re still here doing what we’re doing”, Gavin reflects.
I ask them both if they can distill the area into a sensory image. Many of the people I interview go for Amy Winehouse, or an alleyway that smells of piss. “The other day I saw a van that offered a chandelier cleaning service and I thought that was quite apt for one particular side to this area”, Eliza laughs. “But really it’s a whole spectrum, the epitome of London”, Gavin chips in. “It’s got everything. It’s not just a pissy alleyway. That pissy alley has chandeliers on it sometimes.”
For nearly as long as the Fields have been open, Gavin has been trying to brighten up the wall opposite the café. “There’s been a lot of bureaucratic crap, but we’ve finally got permission to paint it.” Any artists interested in being part of the project are welcome to pitch their ideas for the space. The café will work with local artist, Kate Gibb to choose what they think will work best. There are no specific criteria, “just something that cheers people up, in keeping with what we’re trying to do here.”
What has working in hospitality taught Eliza and Gavin about people? “Hospitality is a great vessel for people to channel whatever they’re feeling, the good and the bad”, Eliza says. “You get people coming in who are absolute shitheads but it’s not really about you, they’ve just had a bad day. Equally, if someone’s had a good day you can really tell. In this job you see a lot of highs and lows. You’ve got to give people the benefit of the doubt. We’re all navigating life in different ways, coming from different environments.”
“It’s taught me how wonderful people can be”, Gavin pauses, “if they’re given the right environment to be wonderful in. That’s what we try and provide here, for both the staff and the customers.”
In 2017, before it became more mainstream, the Fields Beneath went completely vegan. “I made the change in my personal life and found I couldn’t keep putting slices of ham on bread. It felt weird. And I’m not that business risk averse so we just went for it,” Gavin explains.
The change went down surprisingly well. “I wanted to show that it was ok to be vegan and that you could still enjoy food.” What followed were various activism efforts, including a hanging mural next to a statue of a full size cow on a balcony along the canal, and a billboard in Brent Cross Gavin artistically attacked with the slogan ‘GO VEGAN OR GO HOME’. He even made a little book, which many locals will remember, simply stating the facts in an accessible non-judgemental way.
I’m keen to know what Eliza and Gavin’s favourite items on the menu are. At the moment, Gavin “takes his hat off” to the rarebit croissant and the tandoori tofu wrap, although the wrap is changing on Tuesday. “The new wrap is going to be my favourite, just based on the one mouthful I’ve had of it”, Eliza’s face lights up. Soon to grace the counter is the Thai peanut tofu wrap featuring satay tofu, pickled cabbage and carrot, cucumber, lettuce, and tamari roasted sesame seeds. Another firm favourite of Eliza’s is the eggy tofu. “I have to have at least two spoonfuls a day.”
What will the next 10 years hold for the Fields Beneath? “More of the same. Good people on both sides of the counter. And hopefully an end to the price crisis”, Gavin says. Eliza nods, “it would be nice for people to be able to come to places like this without having to think, do I buy this or do I heat my home?” It’s still too soon to tell how the rising cost of living will impact small local businesses but Gavin is trying to remain optimistic. “This is the first big hiccup we’re going to have to get through. And it affects everyone. But I’d love it if we were still here in ten year’s time.”
If the fairy tales are true and every bridge must house a troll, the troll living in this delightful hovel would probably be a pixie in disguise. Let’s all hope that the pixie will survive for plenty more decades to come.
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