What?: Kitschy Catholic iconography and gaudy soft-play structures coexist in this quirky church-cum-community centre, which is also home to a surprisingly brilliant cafe, a small gift shop and, oddly, a Post Office. The seemingly incongruous juxtaposition of crying virgins clutching squawking babes and a cheerfully hued play area filled with mirthful children is actually pretty apt given the emotional arc you will experience in an afternoon at The Sherriff Centre.
I’d put off properly investigating this place for so long because, on the two occasions we’d popped in to use the Post Office, the main space resembled an NCT postnatal outing to the Bugaboo factory, with pushchairs unceremoniously piled up by the soft play, harassed-looking mothers huddled around the cafe tables post-Hartbeeps (the centre runs a busy programme of weekday kids’ classes) and swarms of toddlers buzzing around at knee height – younger ones weeping in the ball pool and older ones screaming from the top of a multicoloured, multi-storey, multipurpose play hell.
At first glance it was everything I despised, but then there are those crappy weather/crappy mood days when even a room full of preschool children and primary-coloured plastic seems preferable to being cooped up in the flat with an angry infant. This was very much one of those days. So off I went, armed with a willing grandparent, a tantruming toddler and low expectations.
Now I’m not going to pretend that the soft play was anything spectacular, though Hullabaloo was noticeably pleasanter – and cleaner – than most and Bab really did seem to enjoy it. Shoes and over-twos aren’t allowed in the baby area, which means you don’t have to worry about your tiny person getting covered in filth or being kicked in the face by an army of five-year-olds. It’s large enough that you don’t have to climb over other people and small enough that you needn’t worry about losing your child anywhere other than the disconcertingly deep ball pool.
Older children can play unsupervised while carers grab a cup of coffee but little ones obviously demand a closer eye, so we took it in turns to unwind in the cafe while the other followed Bab around the squishy plastic play realm. I didn’t have massively high hopes for the cafe, as years of forced Sunday School attendance have made me expect little more from refreshments served in the back corners of churches than piss-weak Typhoo and stale malted milks. The Sanctuary, however, is a far cry from the post-Sunday service offerings of my youth, boasting an encyclopaedic hot drinks menu and wickedly good homemade cakes. We shared a ridiculously naughty Oreo brownie, which came topped with a thick layer of fudgy goo, and followed our lattes up with a couple of cinnamon rose hot chocolates.
Once we’d slurped our last mouthfuls, de-pooped Bab in the super-clean toilet and bundled her back into our buggy, we concluded our visit with a wander around the dinky shop, which sells cards, newborn and new-mum gifts, and toys; a browse of the lending library, from which you can borrow used adults’ and children’s books via an honesty system; and an amble around the front of the (still-functioning) church and its myriad statues. We might have been greeted by chaos, but we left with a strong feeling of calm – and that’s the beauty of this place; it’s not just a place of worship, it’s a Sanctuary and meeting point for parents, somewhere the kids can let off steam and make a Hullabaloo, a (sometimes) quiet haven for reading and reflection and, of course, a place to buy stamps.
Where?: The Sherriff Centre is housed in St. James’s Church, on the corner of Sherriff Road and West End Road in West Hampstead. West Hampstead Tube (Jubilee), Overground and Thameslink stations are all just a few minutes’ walk away.
Best Bits: The cafe has a whole menu dedicated to hot chocolate.
Worst Bits: Your instincts will tell you to run screaming in the opposite direction. However, once you’ve overcome the initial urge to flee, this place is beyond brilliant.
Facilities: Step-free access, buggy parking, baby changing.
Price: £2.50 for an hour of soft play. Coffee, hot chocolate and cake around £2.50 each. All profits go to the Sherriff Centre charity and help fund services for the local community.
Would We Come Back?: Yes. A million times yes.
Bab disappears into the ball pool at Hullabaloo, The Sherriff Centre, West Hampstead.