The Ideal Home Show, formerly the Ideal Home Exhibition, has been running most years since 1908. This year it's packing them in at Olympia, on account of Earl's Court being demolished, between the Saturday before last and next Monday. I assume most of those piling inside paid for the privilege, perhaps using one of the many cut price admission deals, but I grabbed a weekday ticket for nothing using a special backdoor offer for nextdoor.
The Eat and Drink Festival, allegedly "the capital's biggest and best culinary celebration", has been running at Olympia since 2017. It's accessed via the less accessible end of the complex, as befits its junior status, and mixes street food, sales pitches and demonstrations. If you've ever wanted to watch a salesman slice a frilly carrot with their magic knife, or buy airtight tops for every type of food jar, or sample a four course meal blended in a food mixer, perhaps you'll agree with the publicity that this is "foodie heaven".
All your favourite celebrity chefs turn up, not to mention the odd mixologist, but they don't turn up very often and more than likely you'll be left watching some minor chef knocking something up on a hob in ten minutes. I caught the last few minutes of an unsung bloke stuffing a ham hock, but mainly talking about himself, then hung around while a high street pasta chain cooked a carbonara. Their spiel was excellent, from a marketing point of view, and they won us over by handing out free wine while we watched, but I realised afterwards I'd learnt far more about their restaurant menu than the dish itself.
I also squeezed in for a session at The Drinks Station, essentially a cluster of barrel seating with a stage in front, where a chancer from Manchester had come to flog his gin. Again, nobody in the audience genuinely cared about his mid-palate botanicals, nor the lengthy plug for his bespoke distillery experience, but they did willingly knock back the free samples, delivered in plastic thimblefuls delivered to our tables repeatedly throughout. By ingratiating myself at several of the stalls nearby I also managed to consume a fair dose of low-calorie lager, several chunks of unusual cheese and a swig of Kendal Mint Cake Liqueur.
Exhibits from a Royal Wedding Cake competition were laid out across two tables, the least successful of which had attempted to model the royal couple in marzipan or icing. Elsewhere a wide choice of street food was available, although nothing especially over and above what some of London's regular weekly markets have to offer. Given the size of a human stomach nobody could sample even a quarter of what was on offer, and to do so would have cost far more than a full-price ticket, but many visitors availed themselves of the opportunity to chomp grilled meat and/or vegan wraps while a busker played inoffensive tunes on a central podium.
But quite frankly the best thing about the Eat and Drink Festival is that it's connected to the Ideal Home Show proper, and there was ten times as much of that to explore. Two of Olympia's great halls have been stuffed with stalls, displays and showcases, with additional companies slotted in around the upper balconies. This bourgeois bazaar includes everything from bubbling hot tubs and burglar alarms to a showman using a ceramic cutaway to demonstrate his revolutionary toilet cleaning brush. I fully expected some candidates from The Apprentice to wander over at any moment, but seemingly all of those selling mini-massagers and magnetic canine collars were 100% genuine.
All the big stuff is downstairs, divided into Gardens, Interiors and Home Renovation. Not having a garden, that was one whole section I didn't really have to bother with, plus I doubt most visitors have space in theirs for a safari-sized outdoor dining lodge or a full-sized hydropool. In fact a lot of Interiors and Home Renovation proved irrelevant too, given that my landlord decides what kitchen worktop I have and whether the double glazing needs redoing. It struck me that the average London renter isn't going to find much to splash out on here, and that this is really the Ideal Home Counties Show, as the circulating audience of grey-haired couples and chummy ladies confirmed.
I did queue for a peek inside the central showhome, just as I remember doing forty years ago, although the internal raison d'être has changed somewhat in that time. This year's two-storey detached isn't exemplifying good interior design, it's plugging British Gas's smart thermostat system, so every room has labels telling you about some electronic gizmo which could make your life warmer, or more efficient, so long as you shell out £20 a month for a subscription. Nevertheless the bottle-blonde lady following me round took every opportunity to slag off the decor, telling her friend how she didn't like the furniture and why the blinds were awful and how everything was much too dark. Not for nothing did the Daily Mail sponsor the Ideal Home Exhibition for many years.
Close by is the Super Theatre, an open-air space with limited benches, where "all your favourite celebrities" appear hourly. I got Calum Best, who slipped almost effortlessly from telling his lifestory to an attempt to shift his £23 mindfulness-optimised fitness journal. Upstairs his assistant sat silently on her oversized stall, surrounded by umpteen unsold embossed copies. I came back to see Martin Roberts laugh a lot about what it was like to be the man from Homes Under The Hammer, and how amazing he was on I'm A Celebrity, for as long as I could stand. But I couldn't be bothered to hang around to hear Martin Lewis offer his money-saving tips, and thankfully I came on the wrong day for Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen.
For a true peek into the British psyche, however, nothing beats The Distribution Of The Goody Bags. A few times a day free carrier bags of swag are dished out from designated points, and a mammoth queue builds up well in advance because everyone loves something for nothing. Those who get to the front of the queue before the supply runs out walk no more than five steps before pausing to check what amazing stuff they've been given, then continue round the exhibition proudly dangling their haul by their side. I waited less than ten minutes for mine, by picking the much-quieter of the two locations, and can confirm that those in the gargantuan line probably shouldn't have wasted their time.
The Ideal Home Show Goody Bag 2018
» 1 litre of barista-blend dairy-free almond drink
» 3 sugar-heavy cranberry and almond cereal bars
» 1 tub child-friendly mild korma cooking sauce
» 1 packet Colombian-seasoned corn coating mix
» 1 coconut-dipped Raffaello chocolate (wrapped)
» 1 tea bag (and a voucher for £1 off sixteen more)
» Free sample of Sanex 24 hour hydration lotion
» Flyer for German self-watering planters
» Application form to join the National Trust
All in all I enjoyed a fascinating few hours at Olympia, observing how the other half live and learning how to fend off the forceful overtures of salespeople. I chose not to walk away with a magic mop, a bottle of Shetland vodka or a lint removal device, instead focusing on the freebies, and musing on how uncommercial my home life has become. I'm unconvinced I'll be going back next year, but if you ever do, know that midweek rather than the weekend crush is the ideal way to go.