More words, and an unfortunate dog

Monday, October 31, 2011

It's been a busy weekend so I've had no time for swanning about London's museums, cathedrals, galleries and other blog-worthy spots.  Instead, you get a post I can compose entirely from the comfort of my couch!

bless = an abbreviation of the phrase “Bless her/him/them!” used when reacting to something cute or sweet or adorable.  As in “Is that a miniature dachshund puppy?  Awwww… bless!”.  Also used in the phrase “God bless his/her cotton socks”, which I am told is the mandatory suffix whenever referring to the Queen Mother (now sadly departed).  As in “The Queen Mum God-bless-her-cotton-socks was a keen fan of the horses.”

The Queen Mum
Gratutious picture of the Queen Mother God-bless-her-cotton-socks
cheers = Thanks.  It’s also used in the way we think of it: as a toast while clinking glasses together.  But it’s much more commonly heard now as a substitute for thank you.  Sometimes lengthened to “Cheers for that”.  And as ever in England it’s often used ironically, as in: “Ah, I see you’ve managed to reverse your Land Rover over my dachshund.  Cheers for that.”

Miniature Dachshund Puppy
Gratutious picture of a miniature dachshund puppy.  Awww... bless!
yonks = A very long time.  As in “Nigel!  I haven’t seen you in yonks, mate! Say, do you realise you’ve just run over that woman’s dachshund?” 

“Sod it.” = Screw it.  Also: “sod this”, “sod that”, “sod off”… you get the idea.  “Sod” is also used in the rather more colourful phrase “Sod this for a game of soldiers!”, which generally means “Screw it, I’m not doing this anymore it’s too difficult / too expensive / no fun  / not worth the effort.”  For instance our man Nigel in the Land Rover, who has just flattened some poor woman's dachshund, might get tired of the situation and decide to make tracks at which point he he could preface his exit with “Sod this for a game of soldiers!”

full stop = period - the punctuation mark that appears at the end of a sentence. Also used colloquially the same way we use period.  As in, “You’re not going anywhere until you apologise for running over poor Murgatroyd and that’s all there is to it, full stop!”

bottle = nerve, guts.  As in “I was going to call the police on that awful man who ran over Murgatroyd, but I lost my bottle when he pulled out a flickknife.”

flickknife = switchblade.

Old Bill = the police.  As in "Luckily, that's when the Old Bill turned up and nicked him!"

Old Bill
The Old Bill.  Though this seems to be an exceedingly Young Bill...
nick = arrest. As in “While he was being nicked, the bloke had the cheek to pull a face at the copper!"

(also: nick = steal. As in “I left my bike locked up at Vauxhall station one Thursday night and it got nicked.” Ironic isn’t it, that you can get nicked for nicking something?)

cheeky = impudent, sassy, mouthy, mischievous.  A mild rebuke, but can also be a bit affectionate.  As in, “That cheeky lad pinched my bottom!”  Also used to mean quick or sly, as in “Fancy a cheeky drink down the pub while the wife’s out?”  Cheek can also be used as a noun, often in phrases like, “I’ll have no more of your cheek young man!”.

pull a face, pulling faces = Making a face, making faces.  I have no idea why one MAKES a face in Canada and PULLS a face here.  However, pulling faces is part of a very odd rural English tradition, namely:

gurning = pulling faces. To clarify: a gurn is an ugly funny face, gurning is the act of making ugly faces.  Usually used in reference to gurning contests, which are just what they sounds like: competitions to see who can make the ugliest face.  The most famous of these is the World Gurning Championship, held every year at the Egremont Crab Fair.  The fair has been held at least as far back as 1267, when King Henry III granted it a Royal Charter.  It’s not known how far back the gurning contest goes, but a newspaper in 1852 referred to it as “ancient”.

Anne Woods, 27-time World Gurning Champ.  She is shown here pulling a face through a horse collar, which is apparently a traditional way of gurning and is known as “gurnin’ through a braffin’”.  Well why not?
doing porridge = serving time in jail (though of course here that's spelled gaol.  Strange but true.)  Odd phrase...  I believe it refers to the traditional breakfast served in prison.  It would be used thusly: "Poor Nigel's doing porridge for running over a dachshund, pulling a flicknife on the owner, and then giving cheek to the Old Bill.  He'll be gone for yonks."

"Result!" = a celebratory phrase used when commenting on a pleasing outcome.  As in:
Woman with flattened dachshund: "They've finally locked up the bastard who ran over poor little Murgatroyd."

Sympathetic friend:
estate car = station wagon.  That is all.  Really, what more can I say?  It means station wagon… how many more times do you think I can drag that poor dachshund into this?  Hasn't he suffered enough?

Tourist Stuff: The Old Operating Theatre Museum

Monday, October 24, 2011

This weekend I planned on finally visiting one of London’s blockbuster sights – St. Paul’s Cathedral.  Despite living in London for over a year and visiting for a good chunk of time before that, I haven’t actually managed to set foot in the cathedral since 1988, when I recall having a lovely visit.  But really, it’s the kind of place that bears visiting more than once every 23 years.  Unfortunately when I surfed on over to the cathedral’s website to check on mundane matters like opening times and admission costs I discovered that it has just been closed to the public until further notice due to the continuing “Occupy London” protest that has been camped on the doorstep of St. Paul’s since last week.  The decision to close the cathedral was made by the Dean of St. Paul’s and is, in the Dean’s own words, “unprecedented in modern times”.  The last time it happened was during World War II, which I suppose means the Dean is being a bit free with the term “modern times” but let’s not pick nits with the poor man, he’s had a hard week. 

I don’t care if you ARE the 99%, find somewhere else to have your little camp-out.  The Bank of England is just down the street - surely that’s a more appropriate location.
With my original plan thwarted I quickly scanned my list of Tourist Stuff to Blog About (of course there’s a list!) and hit on a new target: the Old Operating Theatre Museum.

“Operating theatre” is the UK term for an operating room – as in the place where one performs surgery. (You would know this if you’d been faithfully studying the Go Stay Work Play Live Glossary like good little blog readers.)  Operating theatres date to the late Georgian and Victorian era when the relatively new profession of surgeon – as distinct from the older medieval craft of the barber surgeon (they of the leeches and cupping and such) – became more common.  The boom in the profession resulted in the need for more schools, hence the existence of more students, hence the need for lots of students to be able to observe the procedures they were meant to be learning.  This led to the emergence of purpose-built operating theatres where a large audience of students and other interested parties could watch the gruesome proceedings with good sightlines and an ample supply of hot buttered popcorn.

Thus armed with this knowledge of UK vernacular and the surgical practices of the Victorians you likely won’t be surprised to learn that the Old Operating Theatre Museum is exactly what it says on the tin: a museum dedicated to showcasing the oldest operating theatre still in existence in England.  The museum is a tiny space accessed by a charming winding staircase that reminded me very much of the trip up to the ringing room at St. Botolph’s.

Look!  Pam’s feet are back! (That will only mean something to you if you read my old blog, where pictures of my feet cropped up irregularly.) (Or, I suppose, if you’ve got a thing about feet, which is something I would advise you to keep to yourself.)
The museum and operating theatre occupy a rooftop garret in St. Thomas’ Church, which was the chapel for St. Thomas’ Hospital.  The hospital started life as a hospice for the poor and sick near London Bridge some time in the 12th century, and St. Thomas’ Hospital stood on the same site until the whole works was packed up and moved west to Lambeth in 1862, where the current St. Thomas’ Hospital still operates.  When that move occurred the operating theatre was boarded up and forgotten.  It wasn’t rediscovered until 1956 when Raymond Russell investigated the attic of the church while researching the history of St. Thomas’. What he discovered was the shell of the old theatre and the adjoining garret, which had been used by the hospital’s apothecary for drying and storing a large array of medicinal herbs.

The Herb Garret, as it’s known, is now used as a display area showcasing oodles of cringey Georgian and Victorian era medical paraphernalia including, among many many other things, a wicked array of forceps for assisting in childbirth, assorted chunks of human anatomy preserved in their original Victorian jars of formaldehyde, a stomach pump that handily converted to an enema kit (with, one fervently hopes, separate nozzles for each function), and this lovely display of random jars and other assorted bits, which was backlit by the autumn sun in a particularly fetching way.

And then of course there was the operating theatre itself, now beautifully restored and including an original wooden operating table with lots of saw nicks along the sides, and the stands from which students would have observed the proceedings.

The Latin motto on the back wall says “Miseratione Non Mercede”, meaning “for compassion not for gain.”
“But wait”, I hear you saying, “Wasn’t it incredibly unsanitary to have a hundred grubby students hanging around during surgery?” Of course the answer is YES, 19th century operating theatres were incredibly unsanitary.  However this was in the time before the pioneering work of Joseph Lister, the man who first promoted the idea that hacking someone open might result in fewer fatal infections if the patient, surgeons, instruments and general area were actually clean.  Before Lister’s life-saving work (which started in about 1865) surgeries were regularly performed in whatever place was handy, and surgeons were more likely to wash their hands after an operation than before.  Surgeons were even noted for wearing the same old frock coat to surgery after surgery. Lister himself apparently “…wore an old blue frock-coat for operation, which he had previously worn in the dissecting room’, and which was ‘stiff and glazed with blood. Dirty coats were seen as a sign of a surgeon’s knowledge and experience, and the smell was referred to as ‘good old surgical stink’.”

You might wonder why anyone would possibly consent to surgery under such circumstances, especially when you consider that this was not just the pre-antiseptic era of medical practice, but also the pre-anesthetic era as well.  That’s right: NO ANESTHETIC.  This means that you had to be pretty far gone to agree to have your leg hacked off in the 19th century.  What made surgeries – especially amputations – common goes back to that pre-antiseptic problem.  The fact is that if you suffered a relatively common injury like a bad burn or a compound fracture there was a better than average chance that infection would set in.  And if your immune system wasn’t able to fend off the infection and it advanced into your bloodstream it was definitely time to start informing your next-of-kin.  Thus anyone who wound up on the operating table at St. Thomas’ had very little to lose.

The operating table and kit of surgeons’ tools including tourniquet strap, saws, knives and *shudder* BONE NIPPERS…
The most informative part of my visit to the Old Operating Theatre Museum was the free presentation on 19th century surgery (every Saturday at 2:00pm, which worked out quite handily for me).  A woman who never revealed her name gave a very interesting talk about the history of the hospital and about Victorian surgical practice in general.  For instance, she told us about the team of four to six “dressers” that would be employed for every surgery.  These would usually be senior students of the surgeon involved and their task was simply to hold the patient down once the cuttin’ commenced.  She also told us about the remarkable speed that the best surgeons were known for.  Remember that there was no anesthetic so the kindest thing a surgeon could do for the patient was to get matters over with double-quick.  Some of the most renowned surgeons of the day could remove a limb in under a minute.  She even demonstrated a favourite back-handed hook cut with a long knife and a somewhat disquieting glint in her eye.

Yes, the Old Operating Theatre Museum was pleasingly diverting, and a relative bargain at £5.90 for admission.  It’s also easy to get to (London Bridge tube and rail and the #133 bus goes there right from Brixton, if it just happens to be a weekend when the Victoria Line is off…).  The displays are interesting, but they didn’t hold my interest for more than about 45 minutes so if you’re keen on visiting I’d recommend arriving at about 1:00pm on a Saturday, thus giving you ample time to absorb the horrors of the convertible stomach pump/enema and other goodies and still get a good spot for the 2:00pm amputation.  Then you’ll have much of the afternoon left to take in the area’s other highlights like Borough Market or Southwark Cathedral or (if you’re especially clever) the George Inn, a particularly splendid pub dating from medieval times and now housed in a 17th century galleried coaching house.  The George Inn serves proper real ale and is Go Stay Run Eat Drink’s approved pub for the London Bridge area, so please mention me when you go and maybe the next time I’m there I’ll get a free pint. 

P.S.  As ever, there are a few more photos of my afternoon over at Flickr.

Stuff I miss from home

Monday, October 17, 2011

As requested by Karen, a few thoughts about, well, stuff I miss from home.  These are not the big obvious things like family and friends and properly insulated housing, just niggly items that crop up and make me think, “Darn.”

Half & Half: You know, the stuff you put in coffee. Or at least the stuff I put in coffee. Or at least the stuff I used to put in coffee. I love having cream - as opposed to milk - in coffee, but alas over here that love has mostly gone unrequited. I find this odd because the English are particularly good at the whole notion of cream. This is, after all, the home of the cream tea, whose central feature is the scone spread with clotted cream and jam. And the average grocery store is home to a (literally) heart-stopping array of cream products. To wit:
  • Single cream (also known as pouring cream), at 18% milk fat
  • Double cream, at 48% milk fat (do not ask me about the math there...) 
  • Extra thick double cream, also at 48%, but heat-treated to make it so thick it can't be poured and must be spooned and spread over whatever it accompanies (aaaahhhhh!)
  • Clotted cream, at an artery-clogging 55% fat, and the proper topper for scones in a traditional cream tea.
They also have the normal range of milk products, but the colours of the cartons are all wrong. You know how skim milk is always in a blue carton? And 2% is in red or pink? Well here blue is whole milk! And skim milk is red! And 2%? Green. Also notice that sour cream is here called soured cream. It’s a parallel universe, I tell ya.
But back to the cream. As I say, I like to have cream in my coffee. Milk just seems a bit sad and stingy, especially the lower fat versions, which turn the coffee a joyless kind of grey colour.  For a while I tried making my own half and half, but it seemed to go off quickly, so I’ve resigned myself to a milk-only existence when it comes to coffee.  Sad.

Robertson Screws:   How is it that the rest of the world hasn’t yet caught on to the brilliance that is the Robertson screw? 

Robertson screwdrivers are easy to use one-handed, because the tapered socket tends to retain the screw, even if it is shaken. They also allow for the use of angled screw drivers and trim head screws. The socket-headed Robertson screws are self-centering, reduce cam out, stop a power tool when set, and can be removed if painted-over or old and rusty. In industry, they speed up production and reduce product damage.
I couldn’t have said it better myself, Wikipedia. Here it’s all Phillips (or the slightly improved Pozidriv, which is simply a Phillips in sheep’s clothing).   If only Peter Lymburmer Robertson had been slightly more open with the licensing rights, the rest of the world could know the pleasure of brandishing a screw gun with a screw secured stuck to the end, ready for action.  Phillips! Bah!

Chocolate Chips, and the cookies thereof:  I’m not saying it’s impossible to get chocolate chips here, but its certainly not as easy as it is at home.  When I decided to bake a batch of banana chocolate chip muffins I took myself off to my local Tesco and spent several fruitless moments scanning the baking section to try and find chocolate chips, to no avail.  I finally flagged down a passing employee who took me to the chocolate chip section, and it quickly became clear why I’d had such trouble finding it.  It’s because chocolate chips come in packages approximately the size of a postage stamp, hence they are extremely well camouflaged on the shelves.  I ended up buying about 4 packs, because they were so ridiculously petite – about half a cup per package.  Half a cup? What am I supposed to do with that? That’s about how many chocolate chips are consumed simply in the testing / measuring out process, before a chip ever graces a batch of batter.  (Or is that just me?)

And chocolate chip cookies also exist, but they seem to be very much in the second tier of cookies.  I’d venture to say that in North America the default cookie is chocolate chip.  Here, I’d venture to say the biggies are: digestives, chocolate covered digestives, custard creams, bourbon creams, and rich tea biscuits (that’s a laugh… if there’s any biscuit on the planet that does NOT deserve the adjective “rich” it’s the rich tea biscuit.  They are the saddest excuse for a treat I have yet encountered – dry, bland, crumbly and beige.  Yet they are sooooo English in their utter modesty.  In North America for something to be called “rich” it would have to be dipped in melted butter and then covered in whipped cream and chocolate sauce.)  But back to good old chocolate chip… trust me when I say chocolate chip cookies would be way down on the list somewhere after Jammie Dodgers. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that “chocolate chip biscuit” just sounds weird.

Seasons: There was a small moment some months ago when I thought to myself, “Oooh, it will be nice when summer gets here.” And then I realized it was JULY.  Summer was here, it was just that the difference between spring and summer is, to be charitable, subtle.  Add to this the fact that it was a notably miserable summer in Britain – the average temperature was 13.6 degrees (sadly, that’s only 0.4 degrees below average).  There were only 10 days when the temperature got above 25 degrees over much of the island, and rainfall was higher than average.  And winter?  It’s not really winter for someone who’s lived for decades on the Canadian prairies.  Temperatures rarely dip below freezing, and snow is a relative rarity (as evidenced by last Christmas’s Heathrow debacle).  So sometimes it’s sorta cold, and sometimes it’s sorta warm, but mostly it’s somewhere in between.  This means that it feels perpetually like spring or fall.  Yes, there have been a few warm days, but the number of times I felt compelled to put on a pair of shorts and sandals can be counted on the fingers of one finger.  And yes, there are chilly days where you might have to scrape frost off a windshield, but your nosehairs are never going to freeze together, you know what I mean?  It’s like the big invisible rhythm of life is muted.  Thank God I don’t live on the equator.  Or in Australia!

Hockey:  First let me clarify for our misguided European readers:


Field Hockey



(Jeremy take note: I will NEVER concede this point.)
I’ve been a Habs fan since my Dad gave me a jersey for Christmas when I was about umm… seven? Eight?  I’m now on the third iteration of the Habs-jersey-from-Dad-for-Christmas. I think this one was even worn to the Conference final game in 1993 when the Habs went on to win their most recent Stanley Cup.  I also wore it to the riot after they won.  And the parade. And I brought it all the way to London. But I digress…).  Let’s just say that I do miss settling onto the couch on the occasional chilly Saturday evening for a classic Habs vs. Leafs or Habs vs. Bruins match-up.  The play-by-play, Coach’s Corner, the three stars at the end… fantastic.  I’m sure I could watch NHL games on the internet, but it’s really not the same. 

Yeah, I miss watching a bit of hockey.  But what I really miss is playing. I am no Hayley Wickenheiser by any stretch of the imagination.  I wasn’t one of those kids who grew up on skates at the neighbourhood rink.  I’m an adult-onset hockey player and I’ll always be slower to the puck than most.  But I do know that when I started playing ten or twelve years ago it was like I was fulfilling some kind of genetic destiny.  And when I’m skating down the wing on the world’s slowest breakaway I am Guy Lafleur and it’s the Stanley Cup Final and I feel sooooooo… Canadian.  There’s something about the game that’s in my blood I guess, and I miss the sounds and smells of the rink, and the satisfying snap of a perfect pass and the cameraderie and the sweaty, spent feeling of sitting on the bench in the locker room after a game.  Luckily I only miss it when I think about it and because hockey is very much not A THING here I don’t end up thinking about it much.  And due to the aforementioned problem with the unemphatic nature of the seasons over here there is never that moment when you step outside and the air is unmistakably sharp and the first flakes fall and you know it’s time to sharpen the skates and hit the ice.

Hockey does exist here.  I know I mentioned that it turns out there’s a rink down the road, but I haven’t found the time to check it out and I suspect I just won’t, especially with a new job and an extra-long commute eating into my schedule.  So it’s not that there’s no hockey at all, it’s just much more effort to find it.  Where in Canada you simply can’t avoid it, here there are far fewer rinks and hence fewer teams and less ice time.  Also, equipment is harder to find and more expensive.  I may just see if there’s room to bring back my skates when I go home for Christmas.  It would be nice to strap them on again, even if it’s just for a turn around the outdoor rink at Hyde Park.  Then again, maybe not. At £13.50 per hour for tickets I might just have to get my skating fix in Canada!

And I might just have to drive a few Robertson screws while I'm home too.  While I'm having a nice cup of coffee with cream.  And a chocolate chip cookie.

Oh yeah.

A Day (or Three) Out

Monday, October 10, 2011

You know how I mentioned earlier that London is great, but sometimes you just want to get out for a while?  Well that feeling came over me last week when I inadvertently ended up with a week off before starting my big exciting new job.  There I was with time on my hands and a definite need for a bit of relaxation before diving into what will certainly be the most demanding and high-profile gig of my life (so far…).  That, coupled with the fact that the Eurostar goes directly from St. Pancras Station, London to Gare du Nord, Paris in under two and a half hours and it was clear what was required.

How could I not?

I’ve been to Paris before.  Many of you will recall I had about ten days in the City of Light when I was on my Grand Tour, and this meant that I’d done a lot of Paris’s big sights: the Eiffel Tower? Check. The Louvre and the Mona Lisa? Check.  The Musée D’Orsay? The Catacombs? The Champs Elysée? The Arc de Triomphe? Montmartre? Check, check, check, check, check.  I even visited the museum of the Paris sewers.  All this meant that I was able to have a much more relaxing, less touristy time on this little break.  My plan was to arrive, sleep in every morning, seek out neighbourhood bistros, eat a lot of macarons,  sit in cafés with the crossword puzzle, check out a museum or two, and wander around a lot.  And I was, I believe, spectacularly successful in executing this plan.

So what were the highlights?  Well, I did find that neighbourhood bistro I was after. (Thank you Lonely Planet… it was nice to have your familiar blue presence at my side once again.)  It was a little place just around the corner from my cheap (but still over €100 a night!) hotel, and they did a fixed menu – starter, main course, cheese platter, and dessert - for €32 a head.  That’s all they did.  If you wanted to eat there, you made your selections and that was that.  There were no printed menus, just a bunch of big chalkboards with the day’s choices written on them.  When you were perusing the menu they just propped a board up on a nearby chair so you could contemplate the options.  It was perfect.  Even better, the first night I went there (I went twice…) I ended up seated at a table next to a chatty American business man who was friendly and interesting so I even had a dinner companion. (Nice meeting you, Mark!) 

And the cheese platter… mon Dieu.  After they cleared away the main course (first night: breast of grouse, second night: scallops roasted in the shell) the waiter came by with an enormous tray of cheeses – probably about ten different choices.  He left the tray on the table along with a side plate, and you were free to slice off bits of whatever looked good and decant then onto your small plate to be smeared onto the contents of the ever-present bread basket.  When you had what you wanted, off the tray went to the next table.  Brilliant.  So yeah, I went there twice.  The second night I was practically a regular and ended up helping translate some things for an Asian couple that the waiter was struggling with.  The poor guy was flapping his arms to try and get across the concept of poultry.  I loved that place.  LOVED.* 

In order to justify my continued trips to the cheese platter I also did a lot of walking.  Like most great cities (London, Rome, Hong Kong, San Francisco…) Paris is excellent for walking, and a lot of the best sights are really close together.  I did a couple of guided walking tours with Paris Walks, who I highly recommend.  We took in interesting sights, sacred and secular, and the guide was friendly and knowledgeable and a bargain for €12. I especially liked when he pointed out quirky things like this:

This small tile mosaic is the work of an urban street artist known as “Invader”.  He adorns city walls all over the world with these characters inspired by the video game Space Invaders.  Each tile is about an inch square, and once they’d been pointed out, I saw them all over the place.

This one was my favourite – on top of a building next to the Canal St. Martin.
Thursday night was another highlight.  On my last visit to Paris I had a very quick tour to the Musée des Arts et Metiers which I liked very much, but which I recall having to rush through in order to catch a train.  This time I could linger, and (BONUS) it turns out the museum is free after 6pm on Thursday nights!  It could not have been more perfect.  “Arts et Metiers” translates literally as “Arts and Crafts” but it’s really more a museum of the history of industry and technology and a repository of scientific instruments and inventions.  They’re probably best known for displaying the original Foucault pendulum, which French physicist Léon Foucault used to prove the rotation of the earth in 1851. They also have examples of original metres and kilograms and astrolabes and models of bridges (!) and early cameras and adding machines and looms and transport of all kinds and a lovely flying machine. 

Flying machine
But the thing that really made me smile was… the gears.  I realize here that it is insufferably geeky to be so jazzed about gears but I’m telling you that I lingered at those display cases with the goofiest grin on my face for an embarrassingly long amount of time.  But I ask you, how could you not find this incredibly cool? (Karen, I am talking to you.)

Toothed rolling curves with frame and quadri-lobed wheels!! (And look at that one in the background: a logarithmic spiral gear pair!) (And I am NOT making up those names.)

So what are our highlights so far? A cheese platter, mosaic space invaders and gears.  Well, that’s what everyone goes to Paris for, isn’t it? How about something a little more typically Parisian: pastries!

These are macarons – not to be confused with macaroons – the haystack-ish sort of coconut thingies, which are also quite lovely but not at all the same thing.

Macarons like the ones pictured above are about an inch and a half across (two perfect bites) and go for €0.65 to €1.00 each.  And though they look sort of meringue-ish, they are actually sort of chewy once you get through the impossibly light and fragile outer crust.  They come in 7.5 zillion flavours of which the best is (no surprise) chocolate.  I actually had to resurrect my Italian gelato rule and repurpose it for macarons while in Paris.  The gelato rule had two parts.  First: when in Italy, one must have gelato at least once per day.  Second: when ordering gelato, one must always order two flavours at once, and only ONE of these flavours can be chocolate.  This forces one to try other potentially good flavours, but also allows the backup option, in case the non-chocolate flavour turns out to be a dud.  I tried coconut milk, salted caramel, pistachio, raspberry, lemon, vanilla and passion fruit.  And four kinds of chocolate.

I did actually go to one gallery on my trip, though it was a small and sort of manageable one (not like the Louvre, which is daunting in a Hermitage – Prado – Uffizi kind of way).  The Musée de l’Orangerie is home to Monet’s famous Water Lilies, which are housed in two purpose-built oval shaped rooms designed by Monet himself.  I didn’t realize this, but the series of paintings we call the Water Lilies are actually HUGE.  There are eight in total – two sets of four – and they take up whole walls. 

One of the rooms.  I told you they were big…
The paintings themselves are quite lovely, of course.  What I found less lovely were the other people in the gallery.  There are signs as you walk in asking you to enjoy the place in silence which were roundly ignored by most people.  One particularly odious guy was taking long series of photographs of each mural that involved him sitting on the bench and panning across the room while his camera shutter clicked loudly like a tiny machine gun.  He did it once… then again… then again and again and again until I was seriously contemplating violence and glaring so fixedly at him that I’m surprised he and his camera didn’t spontaneously combust from the force of my hatred.  But like I said, the paintings were nice…

And, as I mentioned, I did a lot of walking.  On Friday morning I wandered along much of the Canal St. Martin and got to see TWO excellent bridges that swing out of the way of passing boats.  Since I have already subjected you to pictures of gears I will spare you the video of the pivoting bridge, but I was really tickled when I came upon it unexpectedly just as a tour boat was going past.  I also walked around the Latin Quarter and the area around the Bastille.  The Bastille was particularly good, and included a stroll along the Promenade Plantée, which is just what it sounds like – a planted promenade.  It’s a section of an old raised rail line in the area that’s been revitalized in a really clever way.  The arches that support the rail line have all been renovated into artist’s workshops and galleries, and the rail bed itself has been turned into a kind of very skinny 3 mile long park.  There are stairs and elevators interspersed along the way, but mostly it’s just this lovely green space, with fantastic long views of the city of the sides.  Very cool, and great for running on. (Not that I did any running… I was far too busy with vital cheese-related activities.)

The Promenade
And the view
I did manage a fair bit of sitting in cafés as well, and I squeezed in a visit to the Musée du Moyen Age (The Museum of the Middle Ages, not The Museum of Middle Age, as I first suspected.  Though the latter might have been fun, it likely would not have had the same extensive collection of tapestries.) And that was quite enough for three days, thank you very much.  I planned to blog on the train on the way home, but it was all I could do to keep my eyes open.  Though I did manage to do that long enough that while I was staring blankly out the window into darkened French countryside I spotted the end of a fireworks display off in the distance and watched it for long minutes as it grew closer and then disappeared behind me.  It was oddly compelling to watch from so far away, lacking the noise and spectacle that fireworks usually have - like a tiny little silent film just for me.  And when we finally rolled into St. Pancras Station and I turned my feet to the tube line for the quick hop home, my heart filled with contentment when I realized I was just a few minutes away from a nice cup of tea.

* If you are actually going to be in Paris in the near future and are interested in checking out my bistro, send me an email to gostayworkplaylive AT  I’ll give you the details.  

Off the tourist track: Open House London

Monday, October 3, 2011

All of London was off the tourist track for a couple of days recently, because it was the annual Open House London weekend. To quote their website:
"Open House London celebrates all that is best about the capital’s buildings, places and neighbourhoods. Every September, it gives a unique opportunity to get out and under the skin of London’s amazing architecture, with over 700 buildings of all kinds opening their doors to everyone – all for free."
What this means is that all over the city buildings that are normally closed to the public open their doors and welcome people in for a look behind the scenes. This could be somewhere as grand and monumental as the Bank of England or as small and quirky as a brand new eco-friendly residential house just down the street. They say it's free which is technically true, except that you really need the guide book to figure things out. The printed-and-mailed dead tree version of the guidebook was £6.50, but the downloadable PDF was only £3.50, arrived instantly, and was pretty friendly on the old iPad, making me feel very au courant. There was even an iPad app for $4.99, which might have been even better because I think it had interactive maps so you could fire it up, see where you were standing, and zero in on any Open House sites nearby. Perhaps next year...

Some of the site are very popular and require you to pre-book to hold a space when the program becomes available in early August. Because I was late to the party this year I was shut out of anything that required pre-booking, which meant my options narrowed a bit, though not a lot because as mentioned above, there were more than 700 sites. I eventually whittled down my choices and on a sunny Saturday morning I set out on the tube, leaving the bike behind to avoid a repeat of my continuing bike locking woes. I hit quite a few sites over the weekend because though I made certain plans I also stayed flexible, meaning that if I unexpectedly happened on the welcoming green Open House poster as I was on my way from point A to point B I was free to veer off to investigate point C. Some point Cs were places where I just poked my head in before deciding they weren't for me, and some were perfectly excellent. For the purposes of this blog post we shall concentrate on the excellent, glossing over the so-so. (There was, for instance, the archeological remains of the western gate of the Roman wall around the city, which were situated in a damp, locked, unmarked room that was part of an underground parking lot. That was only so-so, mostly because though the site was significant, there really wasn't much to see beyond a pile of rocks in the vague shape of a wall.  Also, the whole place smelled of exhaust and gasoline. And there was the aforementioned Bank of England, which I skipped because the queue was around the block.) Instead, let's talk about a couple of the hits:

St. Botolph's Aldgate Bells and Belfry:

My first stop on that sunny Saturday morning was to see the bells and belfry of St. Botolph's without Aldgate church (as distinct from St. Botolph's Aldersgate church, which astute GSWPL readers will remember from my blog about Postman's Park). The Open House program promised a visit to the belfry itself and a demonstration of bell ringing, which it turns out is a lot more complicated than just yanking on a bit of rope.

St. Botolph's
I had to wait around a bit after I arrived because space in the bell ringing room was limited and demand was high. After a half hour wait, and armed with a numbered bit of paper for the 11:30am visit, I ascended the steep, narrow, winding circular stairs up to the ringing room to find a surprisingly comfortable, airy space dominated by eight ropes hanging down through holes in the ceiling.

There was a gentleman there from the church's band of bell ringers who gave us some interesting facts about the bells and the craft. There are eight bells at St. Botolph's, which are normally rung in the change ringing style, meaning that a group of ringers will ring each bell in a sequence which changes as they go along. In order to be able to ring in such a controlled fashion, the bells are each hung in a rotating frame that's essentially like a giant pulley with the bell fixed inside it, upside-down. The ringer pulls on the rope, which runs in a channel along the outside of this giant pulley, thus rotating the bell down and back up the other way, almost 360 degrees. Along the way the bell's clapper strikes the side of the bell. The art of bell-ringing is in being able to time that strike to happen exactly on cue, even though the action of pulling the rope is separated by a second or two from the action of the clapper striking. Apparently it takes about six weeks before a novice bell ringer can reliably be expected to be able to, as the local ringer put it "make the bell go dong". And that's just the beginning. 

The real art comes in ringing the changes. This means that instead of simply ringing the bells from highest to lowest (1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8), they vary things by changing the order in which they ring according to a series of mathematical patterns which I will not attempt to explain because the charts they had hung up in the ringing room looked to the uninitiated like either 1) meaningless columns of numbers with coloured diagonal lines crossing through them or 2) a EEG with numbers written on it in apparently random places. The guy kept saying that it was all quite simple and all a ringer had to do was concentrate on his little bit of the puzzle and know where in the order he was without having to keep track of the whole thing. I am not buying it.

A video of ringing at St. Botolph’s.  (Sadly, this is not MY video of ringing at St. Botolph’s because I continue to be completely flummoxed by actually getting any of my videos to upload successfully to Blogger or Flickr or Youtube, which is starting to really piss me off.  Any technical assistance would be appreciated.)  

Hung around the ringing room were plaques commemorating the completion of what they call a "full peal" meaning that the ringers successfully completed every possible permutation of ringing eight bells in a different order (5,040 for those keeping track). A full peal is a bit like the marathon of the bell ringing world - it takes about 3-4 hours to complete one and you get no breaks once the peal has started. Also, if anyone screws up the peal is ruined and you have to just stop, give up, and go down to the pub to drown your sorrows. This means that full peals are only attempted rarely and on special occasions like the Queen's Jubilee or the appointment of a new rector at the church. I suspect that the ringing of a full peal is a bit of an event in the neighbourhood as well, since listening to ringing church bells is lovely for a few minutes on a Sunday, but for three and a half hours might start to be classed as tedious and possibly even unsociable. 

The eight bells of St. Botolph's range from the treble bell, (the name for the smallest one) to the tenor bell, which weighs in at 1.25 tonnes. All were cast at the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, which is just down the road from the church and one of only two bell foundries remaining in England. The foundry really deserves a blog post all it's own, since it was established in 1570 and is therefore the oldest manufacturing company in Britain. They cast the Liberty Bell and Big Ben! (And they do tours on selected Saturdays, though I think they fill up fast.) I even got to see that actual Whitechapel Foundry bells at the end of the ringing demonstration, when they took people up in small groups to see the belfry itself. 

The treble bell, positioned in its upside-down ready-to-ring state. Note the writing on the side indicating that the bell was cast in 1744.
The whole experience was really cool, and exactly what the Open House thing is all about - seeing something you'd never get to see otherwise. That is, of course, unless you decided to join the band of ringers at St. Botolph's, who seemed a thoroughly likeable lot and included the landlord of the local pub. And just think, it would only take you six weeks of Friday evening practices to learn how to make the bell go DONG, which I bet feels amazing.

The Grand Entrance Hall to Brunel’s Tunnel under the Thames:

This was a site I discovered when I realised that the index of the Open House Program had a whole section devoted to industrial sites like pumping stations, distilleries, engine houses and even the Royal Small Arms Factory.  Naturally, being something of an engineering geek, I was immediately taken with the description accompanying the entry for the Brunel Museum:
“Guided descents of subterranean chamber half the size of Shakespeare’s Globe. Self guided train tours of Thames Tunnel, one time shopping arcade, banquet hall and fairground. Award winning river gardens.”
Subterranean chambers? Shopping arcade? Banquet Hall*? It all sounded worth a visit, even though it meant another trip to the dreaded Canada Water – far flung home of the bike shop I’ve visited too many times.  Off I went. (And now, while I make my way out to Canada Water, a little back story on the Thames Tunnel and the brilliant Brunels, pere and fils.) 

By the early 19th century shipping traffic on the Thames had increased to such a volume that unloading ships sometimes had to wait months for a space to open at a dock so they could unload their cargo.  Once cargo was finally unloaded it could only cross the river on small ferry boats or by means of the two nearest bridges – London Bridge and Blackfriars Bridge.  London Bridge was closest to the docks, but so congested that it could take days to cross.  An alternative crossing downstream of London Bridge was desperately needed, but any bridge would have to allow tall-masted shipping traffic through, and  these were the days before steam engines were powerful enough to raise bascules like those of Tower Bridge.  (Remember Tower Bridge was not opened until 1894.) 

Enter Marc Brunel: French-born engineering genius who is probably best know for siring his much more famous engineering genius son, the fantastically named Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Brunel Sr. decided that a tunnel across the Thames was the way forward, despite the fact that the ground under the river was notoriously soft and difficult to dig, giving rise to the problem of the river impertinently pouring itself into any previously attempted excavations. In order to make it possible to tunnel in soft ground, Brunel invented the tunneling shield, whose basic principle is still in use today. His son Isambard, despite being merely 19 years old, actually supervised the work on the tunnel from 1826 to 1828, when a catastrophic flood of the partially completed tunnel injured him seriously, and forced him to leave the project.

The whole story of the tunnel is of course much more complicated and interesting than I can go into here without causing your coffee to go cold while you’re reading (even though it’s already probably decidedly tepid), so on to the aforementioned “subterranean chamber”.  This turned out to be what was once the Grand Entrance Hall to the south end of the completed Thames Tunnel. It’s actually a large round brick structure that was built above ground and allowed to settle into the earth until it was low enough to become the start of the tunnel.  It was once beautifully finished with sweeping curved staircases winding around the interior walls to allow the great and the good to access the tunnel. 

The entrance to the tunnel when it was opened.
Now, it’s a dank, bare brick hole which even the most imaginative would struggle to love:

Brunel Tunnel Chamber
The “Grand Entrance Hall” today. 
Far from being the “eighth wonder of the world”, as the Victorians (and the Brunel Museum’s website) claimed, it is in fact, disappointing.  However, we must pity the poor Brunel Museum, because the fact is that Brunel’s tunnel was so good means it’s actually still in use.  London Overground trains use it to pass under the Thames between Rotherhithe and Wapping every day.  If there were no railway, we could likely have descended into the tunnel itself, which would have been very cool.  Instead, visitors were offered the “self-guided tour” which was actually just a photocopied sheet with a few interesting facts that one could read while taking the train journey from Rotherhithe to Wapping.  I chatted with a woman from the museum to get her take on it and she confirmed my suspicion that there really isn’t much to see from the darkened windows of a speeding train.  Apparently last year during Open House weekend they actually agreed to slow down a few trains and turn the lights on in the tunnel so that people could see the grand arches and brickwork.   However, so many people complained about the slow trains that this year they weren’t available.  Because people suck.  

Still, I found the Brunel Museum quite plucky and charming, and even bought their little book about the Brunel’s and their tunnel (a mere £5, including an introduction by Michael Palin!).  They don’t have a lot going from them the poor Brunel Museum folks.  The location is not exactly central, and their big reason for being – the tunnel itself – is actually impossible to see properly.  The building the museum is in is the old engine house, and it’s small and a bit rough around the edges.  But they manage, and have some nice displays about the history, construction and opening of the tunnel.  And they have a good display of books for sale beyond just the one I bought, and they do actually have a lovely patio garden and a tea shop with nice looking proper cakes.

See? It’s a nice spot on a sunny Sunday. 
So I was generally satisfied with my visit to the Brunel Museum, especially since it was free (Thank you Open House London) and the day was warm and sunny, and it afforded me the chance to wander along the Thames path towards a more congenial tube station than Canada Water, during which wandering I discovered a whole other hidden gem of a spot which I’m not going to tell you about now, because your coffee is either gone or stone cold and I think it’s probably wise for me to keep a topic or two in my back pocket for leaner blogging times ahead.  Also, it’s my bed time.
Tunnel Banquet* Ok, I should probably explain the “banquet hall” bit.  During the construction of the tunnel there were a couple of big floods.  After the first, smaller flood, investors needed some reassurance about the feasibility of the project, so Marc Brunel arranged a banquet in the pumped-out, dried out tunnel itself.

“In the western archway, draped in crimson, a long table was covered in white damask and elaborately set with silver and crystal for a sumptuous banquet. Fifty selected guests, lit by decorative candelabra from the Portable Gas Company, dined while the uniformed band of the Coldstream Guards  played the National Anthem, Rule Britannia and See the Conquering Hero Comes.”

(from “The Brunel’s Tunnel”, my £5 bargain.)