Finding a café in the UK is not so hard, if you need a caffeine fix there is usually 5 Greggs within a mile radius in any city centre, and now chains like Costa and Starbucks not only have standalone cafés, but also now have drive-thoughs, are inside clothes and book shops, you’re never too far from a hot beverage.
But when you want to sit down and enjoy your coffee, whilst working on a laptop or tablet…that’s more difficult.
Parking/walking distance from home
When I first moved into my flat, there was no wifi, so I had to find places to work – in hindsight the library would have been a good choice, but I only remembered that public libraries existed about 10 days into my wifi-less home situation. It needs to be somewhere close enough to walk to, because carrying your laptop, charger, phone, notepad, diary, pencil case, purse, hand cream (etc etc, you get the picture) is heavy, even if you have a proper rucksack. If you drive to a cafe on a retail park, you need to check there’s not some silly maximum 2 hour parking rule if you’re planning on spending the whole day there (which of course you are). Or if it’s near a football stadium on match day and there’s a one hour max or £50 in purchases rule to park there…Don’t think you’ll get away with it cos you haven’t seen a parking warden – ANPR (that’s Automatic Number Plate Recognition). As soon as you drive into the car park, the cameras know you’re there and if you’re even just one minute over your time, you’ll be sent a fine.
Free, unlocked* wifi
And not just free wifi for 30 minutes, or free wifi that only works intermittently, you need a good solid wifi connection if you’re working online and using the Cloud to save everything. Also, I need to be able to connect more than one device. Generally, I trust and can rely on The Cloud wifi hotspots (but sometimes that doesn’t let you use Whatsapp).
This is the bane of my life. I cannot understand why nobody in the UK seems to care about letting their devices run out of charge. Looking around me, I hardly see anybody with portable power packs and there is a serious shortage of plug sockets in BRITISH (the Chinese are on it with the plug socket thing) libraries (even university libraries, let alone the public ones), coffee shops, airports and hotels. Virgin trains must be commended here, they provide plenty of plug sockets and have done a very good job in that respect, but nowhere else are there enough plug sockets.
But seriously, in a cafe like Starbucks or Costa, that will have seats for 60 customers, why are there only 4 or 5 plug sockets? If there were more plug sockets, I would spend more time, buy more coffee and maybe even a cake. C’mon, wake up! Normally, after assessing the wifi, the first thing I will do is scout for a plug socket and plug my laptop straight in, that way I get fully charged so if someone comes along with their phone on 4% I will let them use it. Plug sockets are 98% of the time on the wall and not on the floor, so there’s no point looking at the tables in the middle of the cafe, start by searching the walls. Sometimes in Starbucks they are on the wall but under the seat, so check there too.
There’s nothing worse than seeing your pc screen go darker as it runs into ‘low battery’ mode and then having no way to charge it. I have quite a long cable to my laptop, luckily I’ve never needed to bring an extension cable with me – a trick I learnt on one of China’s slow trains. The train will have one plug socket in each carriage, so that’s what one per 100 people? 200? A woman travelling with her extended family brought 3 extension cables with 6 sockets in each, meaning that one plug socket turned into 15. Everyone probably got a tiny trickle of charge but it was enough and other people used the plugs too, thinking about it, she could have charged a few kuai for letting them use it.
Chair with a back
It’s better to sit with a chair that has a back on it. After getting there, checking the wifi is good and finding a plug socket, you need a chair with a back on. No stools! A table is kind of a luxury, most places have them, but I’m fine balancing things on my lap if there isn’t a table available.
After all that (and once you’ve found that perfect spot and reserving it in the truly British style by putting your coat on the seat), it’s probably time to go get a drink. By this point, I don’t care about roasted arabica beans or rainforests or decaf or skinny and any of the rest of that coffee talk. I just want something warm, that I can sit with for a while, so the baristers will leave me alone to enjoy. Try to keep hold of your mug for a while, so that when new staff come on shift (remember, you’re playing the long game) they won’t turf you out for not having purchased anything. If there is free tap water available, take a glass of that and leave it topped up on the table. If they take your mugs/cups/plates away and although you probably won’t be directly asked to leave or purchase something, you’ll be made to feel guilty by other customers (looking at that plug socket you’re hogging) or staff who wonder why you are here, alone, sitting on your laptop and haven’t moved for a good 2 hours. You’ll see it in their eyes.
In summary, finding a suitable working café for me involves (in this order):
- Ease of access – free parking, or within walking distance of my home
- Good, reliable wifi – that I can use with no time or device limit
- A power source – the more plug sockets the better, and they should be in reach of my table
- A chair with a back – for sitting back in and resting – no stools
- Drink – reasonably priced hot drinks available – preferably loose green tea with a huge flask of hot water for refills, but I haven’t found such place yet.
*This isn’t China any more where you can guarantee that 98% of the time, locked wifi passwords in places are either 88888888 or 12345678, or less common but still good to try if the first two don’t work – 66666666.