Ambulo x The Mindful Rambler: A Conversation Between Wanderers

Created by Matt Helders and James O’Hara, Ambulo is an all day café blurring the boundaries between cultural space and relaxed community hangout.

By Serena Ypelaar

Here at The Mindful Rambler, we talk a lot about interpretation, storytelling, and sharing experiences, often through cultural lenses. So naturally, as a museum/arts professional who cares a lot about engaging the public, I’m always thinking about more ways to explore the theme of visitor experiences. Last month, all day café Ambulo opened its first location in Sheffield, UK, and in following the café’s updates on social media, I was impressed by how successfully they’ve been sharing their story. Each of their Instagram posts is an invitation to the public – to everyone – to join them in the space and enjoy their visit.

Arctic Monkeys drummer Matt Helders and The Rockingham Group co-founder James O’Hara, who have been friends for years, conceptualized Ambulo and have seen it through to its opening. They collaborated with Museums Sheffield to launch two locations; the first at the Millennium Gallery, and the second opening soon at Weston Park Museum. Alongside its setting in a cultural space, Ambulo’s welcoming vibe makes it an ideal example of visitor engagement done right.

James O’Hara and Matt Helders at Ambulo. Photo: India Hobson, courtesy of Ambulo

Interestingly, “ambulo” means “to wander” in Latin, just like “ramble” means “to wander” in Middle English/Dutch. Ambulo and The Mindful Rambler seem to have an inquisitive outlook in common, and I was eager to explore this idea of learning and sharing in more depth. I recently spoke with James O’Hara, one half of the Ambulo duo, to hear more about the vision behind Ambulo, the significance of its location in museum/gallery sites, and how they’ve opened a café with inclusion as their priority.

Serena Ypelaar: What kind of visitor experience did you envision when you created Ambulo? Who is the space for?

James O’Hara: Our background with our previous ventures was very much more bar orientated and more focused on a late night offering. It was a very conscious decision with Ambulo to make a really light, open, inclusive space. There’s a definite feeling of responsibility that comes with providing a multi-faceted café in what is essentially the ground floor of a gallery.

The Millennium Gallery location. Photo: India Hobson, courtesy of Ambulo

SVY: Can you tell us about the partnership with Museums Sheffield and how Ambulo ended up in the Millennium Gallery?

JO: Essentially via a tender process. We were the only local independent to make it to the final 5, the rest were national operators with a much more experienced background in these sorts of spaces. However, I think our history of cultural engagement in the city (I’m the co-founder of Tramlines music festival) and our track record of transforming interesting, somewhat derelict buildings (Public is located in a former gents toilet) excited Museums Sheffield and our enthusiasm for the project balanced out the obvious risk element associated with choosing a smaller company like ours. 

Selections from Ambulo’s daytime menu. Photo: India Hobson, courtesy of Ambulo

SVY: You and Matt spent a couple of years wandering and testing food and drink to inform the creation of Ambulo’s menu. How was that creative process, and what did you learn?

JO: The idea for Ambulo started over 3 years ago – or at least the concept did – Ambulo means ‘to wander’ in Latin, and mine and Matt’s travels have formed a big part of the inspiration for the food and the brand. The main takeaway is that our favourite places and experiences don’t disguise themselves in pretension or opaque terminology. Our aim is to democratise the dining experience and provide great produce across our food and drink without all the associated nonsense that can often come with it.

Evening at Ambulo. Photo: India Hobson, courtesy of Ambulo

SVY: From food/drink to music to decor, there are many aspects to creating Ambulo as it exists now. Can you tell us about your collaborations with friends and local businesses?

JO: We have a core group of collaborators who we have worked with on almost all our projects. Rocket Design (Ben Pickup) make and build all our interiors, Totally Okay (Nick Deakin) has designed all the branding and associated imagery of this project and all our previous businesses, India Hobson takes all the photos, Swallows and Damsons have done all the beautiful floral displays and New Phase LED do all our lighting design. We’ve done so much together that we all have a real shorthand and understand how each party works. They’re an amazing group of people. 

SVY: What’s your favourite dish on the menu, and why?

JO: I would say the Kedgeree Soldiers. It feels like a very Ambulo dish – originally an imported breakfast dish from Victorian times, Exec Sheff has put this through a prism of modernity to come up with a really delicious and simple reinterpretation.

SVY: Thanks for taking the time to speak with us! I’m looking forward to following Ambulo’s future programming, and I can’t wait to check it out in person one day soon.

Ambulo is now open in the Millennium Gallery, 48 Arundel Gate, Sheffield, UK. The café’s second location is slated to open at Weston Park Museum, Western Bank, Sheffield.

Home for the Holidays

What does tradition tell us about the holidays? As Hanukkah is underway and Advent begins, we examine how collective rituals can unite us, both within and across faiths.

By Serena Ypelaar

What is tradition, really?  

It’s defined as the transmission of customs/beliefs between generations, and the nature of the word itself suggests its deep reliance on community. There’s a reason culture can be steeped in tradition – and a reason that there’s a stigma attached to solitude at the holidays. And that’s because tradition depends on sharing to survive. You can most certainly enjoy traditions on your own (I sure do), but the fact is that they don’t sustain unless they’re shared with other people and carried forward. Since we as humans are mortal, they obviously wouldn’t live past just us. 

Not unless we share them.

As we kick off December I wanted to take a look at the nature of community and its integral significance in holiday rituals. So here we go: a brief but hopefully interesting look that will prompt us to reflect and help us cherish the people that make the traditions great. 

Christmas | Christian tradition

Christians celebrate the birth of their saviour Jesus Christ by attending a mass or church service to have communion, as well as partaking in a feast and gift-giving. However much mass consumerism may exploit the togetherness of Christmas to sell more products, the holiday itself dwells in generosity, regardless of money spent.

Seth Cohen from the OC discusses how Chrismukkah has twice the resistance of normal holidays because it's half Christmas, half Hanukkah.
As the son of a Jewish father and Christian mother, Seth Cohen from the O.C. was a staunch supporter of “Chrismukkah”, getting people on board to sustain the hybridized traditions.

Hanukkah | Jewish tradition

Hanukkah is celebrated for eight nights to symbolize the successful rebellion of the Maccabees against the Seleucid empire. At the dedication of the Second Temple, the menorah burned for eight days even though there was only enough oil for one. Jewish observances also include playing dreidel and gathering to eat oil-based foods such as latkes.

Winter Solstice | Cree Tradition

Among Cree nations in North America, the winter solstice allows an opportunity for rest and renewal. As the shortest, darkest day in the year, the solstice sees Cree people reflecting on the past year and their connections with plants and animals by looking at the stars. Specifically, the Seven Sisters constellation, or “the hole in the sky” prompts Cree people to come together and reflect on their ancestors.

Kwanzaa | African-American tradition

Kwanzaa celebrates African-American heritage in the United States. Children are included in the observances, and respect is paid to elders and ancestors, concluding with feasting and gift-giving. Families also decorate their homes with African art and colourful African cloth such as kente.

Sinterklaas / St. Nicholas Day | Dutch tradition

Sinterklaas arrives in the Netherlands from Spain.
Photo: Wikimedia

Celebrated in the Netherlands, Belgium, parts of France, and former Dutch colonies, Sinterklaas Day celebrates the Feast of St. Nicholas, in which Sinterklaas returns from Spain. Children put out wooden clogs on the night of December 5 and awake to chocolate letters, ginger cookies such as speculaas and kruidnoten, and oranges in the clogs. The Sinterklaas parade is also a well-attended event among families in Holland.

Ōmisoka | Japanese tradition

Toshikoshi soba.
Photo: Flickr

Ōmisoka signifies the end of the year, and is celebrated on the final day – December 31. A few hours before the year ends, Japanese people join together for parties and eat toshikoshi soba or toshikoshi udon, long noodles which symbolize passing from one year into the next. From midnight, the first hours of the day are spent at a shrine or temple, and greeting one another. 

Tradition is an instrument of community. As we’ve seen, one person can practice rituals, but it takes many to sustain traditions for years to come. It’s interesting to imagine, with the rise of digital technology and its new prominence in our lives, the new traditions we may create and carry forward – and those which may falter. Nevertheless, one thing has endured throughout: our human craving for connection.