Off the tourist track: The Sir John Soanes Museum

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Despite the fact that the pace at work is edging towards relentless, and the fact that I'm spending two hours every Saturday in driving lessons (more about that another time), I did manage to squeeze in a visit to a small but lovely museum in the Holborn area this Saturday. Saturday was lovely and sunny and quite warm, and I got to spend an agreeable amount of it sitting in trains traveling to and from my lesson (which went quite well except for one frustrating dash through a roundabout, which we shall not speak about again).  It's a lovely thing, I find, to sit in a train on a sunny day (a real train, mind you, not a tube train, where it is understandably difficult to appreciate sunniness) with just enough time to have a bash at the crossword, but not enough to get bored or restless.  And if that train happens to deliver you across a sparkling Thames River, and you get a quick glimpse of Big Ben as you look up from 19 Down before you glide into Charing Cross station, and if you then get to wander through the West End and find your way to Lincoln's Inn Fields and Sir John Soane's Museum... well, that's a damned fine way to spend a bit of your Saturday afternoon, I'd say.

Lincoln's Inn Fields The Lincoln's Inn Fields, across from the museum.  It's a remarkably quiet spot that's just a block away from a busy street and probably worthy of a short blog post all its own, considering it has a Coronation Tree (planted in 1953), a memorial to the Royal Canadian Air Force, a picturesque drinking fountain, and a history of homeless occupation in the 1980s, among, I'm sure, a few other diversions.  I tell you, London is just full of this kind of thing.

Sir John Soane's Museum is, unsurprisingly, a museum housed in the former home of the 18th century architect Sir John Soane (1753-1837).  The house itself was designed by Soane, and is interesting in itself, having been established as a public museum by an Act of Parliament a few years before the man's death.  However, the contents of the house are the real treat because Soane positively crammed the place with his collections of artwork, architectural models, classical sculpture, salvaged decorative ornaments from buildings, antiquities, and one perfectly excellent ancient Egyptian sarcophagus (more about which later).

The house is small-ish, and, as I mentioned, rather overstuffed with historically significant and fragile things, and there is no admission charge, which is probably why there was a queue to get in.  I did hesitate a bit about standing in the queue, but then realised if I bailed out I'd have nothing to blog about so I persevered.  There was a docent at the head of the queue letting small groups of people in as previous visitors were leaving.  Large bags had to be checked at the door (and by "checked"  mean "placed in the floor in the entrance hall with a small numbered tag attached to them").  Smaller items had to be put into plastic bags and carried in the arms.  You were not allowed to carry your coat.  Mobile phones had to be switched off.  And no cameras were permitted.  It all seemed a bit draconian, but it's their house, so they get to make the rules.  And as we will see later on, they have good reason to be twitchy about things.

The Library and Dining Room are the first set of rooms you enter, and they are likely the most conventional part of the house.  Properly panelled and painted and arrayed with 7,000 leather-bound volumes in glassed-in shelves, they are the kind of rooms you'd expect to see in a good costume drama.

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The Library and Dining Room.  No, I did NOT take any pictures.  Instead, I paid £2 for the small printed guide to the house, and then scanned the pics in that, so that you'd have a bit of a clue what I'm banging on about.  That's why the quality of some of these pictures is so mediocre.

I say these were the most conventional rooms, because at the back of the house you come into the Collonade and Dome, where things depart markedly from normal domesticity.  Here's where the bulk of the ornaments and statuary are kept, in what would have been (for the time) quite well-lit conditions.  Soane is known for his use of skylights in architecture and is noted for his design of the Dulwich Picture Gallery, which was the first purpose-built public art gallery in the country and introduced the use of skylights and interconnected display rooms that we come to expect in galleries today.  Soane was the one who did that first!  (Aside: The Dulwich Picture Gallery is right across from Dulwich Park, where I often go running.  They recently finished an exhibition of Group of Seven paintings that was hugely popular, even though it was a bit weird to listen to Londoners "discovering" the Group of Seven for the first time, as if they were new and exotic.)

In Soane's house, the Collonade and Dome rooms still feel a bit dark - the house doesn't employ a lot of artificial light, I suppose to give visitors an idea of what it would really have been like in Soane's time.  But the skylights add oodles more light than would have been possible from conventional windows, especially considering the house is completely hemmed in on two sides.

Screen Shot 2012-02-25 at 9.36.52 
A fuzzy, scanned glimpse of what the Collonade looks like, filled with statuary, antiquities and countless bits and bobs.  You can see what I mean about the light. And the somewhat OTT level of decorative excess.  Imagine stumbling through here in the middle of the night when you're just on the way to the bathroom... (CRASH! "Damn! What was that?  Oh drat, the Ephesian Diana... not again!")

The famous Picture Room is also on the ground floor.  It's a small room, but in it are hung more than one hundred paintings, including three by Canaletto and the famous "Rake's Progress" by Hogarth.  This density of art is accomplished in the small space partly by hanging all the way up the tall walls, but also with clever panels built into the walls. What look like ordinary walls are, in fact, large hinged panels that reveal more paintings on the walls behind them, and have paintings mounted on their reverse sides.  One half of the room even has a double-stacked set of these panels, the last of which opens to reveal a view through to another room, and a lovely if slightly titillating statue of a nymph (hidden from modest eyes by the clever panels).

It's in the basement, though, that I found my favourite part of John Soane's house.  The lower level is actually referred to as the Crypt, and was designed by Soanes to have an atmosphere reminiscent of Roman burial chambers or catacombs.  It's quite excellent, and there were even a few candles burning in some of the smaller anterooms, which gave a lovely, eerie tone to the place.  The museum actually opens one evening each month when they light the house entirely by candlelight.  Apparently people start queuing at 5pm to get in.

The best bit in the crypt is undoubtedly the massive ancient Egyptian sarcophagus displayed under a Victorian-era glass cover.  Housed in a room engagingly called The Sepulchral Chamber, the sarcophagus is thought to be that of the Pharaoh Seti I (1303-1290 BC) and may be one of the most important Egyptian antiquities ever discovered.  Soane bought it in 1824 (just a few years after hieroglyphs were first deciphered) from a former theatrical strongman turned Egyptologist who unearthed it in the Valley of Kings.  It was originally offered to the British Museum, but they balked at the £2,000 price tag, and so it sits in Soane's basement.

It's a magnificent thing.  Carved out of a solid piece of Egyptian alabaster, it's covered with engraved hieroglyphs inside and out.  Time and London's dodgy air quality have turned the stone a yellowish shade, and the blue paint that once highlighted the engravings is long gone. But it's still incredible to see.  Apparently Soane was so taken with it when he first acquired it that he held three nights of parties and hired 300 oil lamps to light the house while a thousand people visited.  The docent who was with the sarcophagus was particularly keen and talked endlessly about the piece and translated a few of the hieroglyphs and revealed that for special events burning candles would have been placed inside the sarcophagus, making the whole thing glow a rosy pink colour.  He even had a little flashlight that he held up to the glass and indeed you could see the light through the wall of the sarcophagus.  He was great, that guy.

The sarcophagus of Seti I in the Sepulchral Chamber, as shown in the 'Illustrated London News, 1864

Not so great was the next Soane Museum guardian I encountered, and it's because of him that I have one bone to pick with the good folks at the Sir John Soanes Museum.  I turned off the ringer of my phone when I entered the house, but was using it to take a few notes for the blog, as is my habit.  Most of the docents like Mr. Sarcophagus didn't bat an eye at this, but this one guy asked me to turn the phone off.  When I pointed out that I was just taking notes, he said that didn't matter.  Phones had to be off.  "That's why we asked you to turn them off at the door."  I resorted to scribbling notes in my £2 printed guide, but I honestly can't see what harm I was doing to the house, the other visitors, or the cranky docent by quietly tapping out a few notes. It honestly put me off for a bit, until something much more exciting happened.

I was in a side room of the Crypt called the Monk's Parlour when the sarcophagus guy came over and shooed us all out to close the room.  I overheard someone say there had been "an accident in the Picture Room" just above the room I'd been in, so I hung about trying to figure out what had happened.  It's worth saying here that the house is old, and the people that run it are fighting a constant battle against time to keep it in one piece.  I noted with sadness that Soane's famous skylights are covered one the outside with a layer of cheap corrugated plastic through which lengths of sticky tape could clearly be seen holding things together.  And the parquet flooring in parts of the Crypt has dried up so much that the individual pieces of wood in the pattern are no longer stuck down, giving one the impression of walking on a carefully laid out pattern of Jenga blocks.  On Saturday, the poor people at the Soane's Museum lost another battle.

As near as I can tell a bit of the orante carved ceiling in Picture Room simply gave up the ghost and fell to the floor.  I can't say this for certain, but there was a fair bit of quiet rushing about, and a dustpan and brush were fetched, and museum staff were overheard muttering things like "I heard a cracking noise" and "Falling apart. The house is falling apart." The room was closed off, and a big chunk of plastic sheeting was laid out on the floor with a grey blanket on top of it.  The facade next door to the house is currently obscured with scaffolding, and there was further muttering from museum people about the building work next door causing vibrations.  All in all it was a dramatic, if hushed event.  As I was leaving the Picture Room was closed until further notice, so I suppose I should be grateful I got to see things at all.  And I can understand why they are touchy about people carrying things through the house, if it's all that fragile.  I was glad I'd coughed up £2 to the effort when I bought my little guide. (But honestly, I still don't understand what hazard my iPhone posed in the whole scenario.)

The John Soanes Museum facade, at number 13 Lincoln's Inn Field.  With scaffolding shrouding number 12, which is also part of the house, and is undergoing a major restoration.

And that was my visit to the Sir John Soane's Museum.  It certainly worth an hour or two of your time if you're looking for a diversion and are in the area.  (Holborn Tube, Central Line, in case anyone is planning a visit.)  Look out for the tomb for poor Fanny, the devoted lapdog of Mrs. Soane.  And the sarcophagus, of course.  And a word to the wise: you might want to think about bringing a hard hat if you're planning on visiting the Picture Room.  

GRUB!: Chocolate Tiffin Cake

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Time for some more food, in the form of tasty make-at-home treats.  Our last foray into the kitchen was to whip up a batch of flapjacks, some of which are still languishing in my freezer five months later. (Note: this is NOT because the flapjacks were inedible.  Au contraire!  It's just because I wisely tucked them away in the freezer to prevent myself from eating the entire batch in two days.  And out of sight... well, you know the rest.)  This time, it's Tiffin Bars. Also variously known as Chocolate Tiffin, or Chocolate Tiffin Cake.  Like flapjacks, Tiffin Bars also fall squarely into the category of er... squares, and have the advantage of not requiring baking, which is handy indeed, especially if you're still trying to work out the symbols on the oven dial.  Tiffin Bars are a chocolatey, crunchy sort of a thing, with the added bonus of raisins and chocolate topping.  You're going to love them, unless you're one of those freakish people who doesn't like chocolate or raisins, in which case you probably also don't like puppies or rainbows or nice cups of tea or fuzzy socks and you should just leave now.

First things first: I have no idea why they're called "tiffin" anything, and they seem to have no relationship with the stackable Indian food containers.  Wikipedia goes on a bit about tiffin being a light lunch or snack, with the term originating in India under British rule, but again, I have no idea how this relates to the confection.

tiffin boxes
NOT Tiffin Bars.  Though they could certainly contain Tiffin Bars, which would be kind of cool. 

(On a totally unrelated but fascinating note:  Check out this Wikipedia article about the dabbawalas in Mumbai, who are, essentially, tiffin delivery men.  They fetch full tiffin boxes from the homes of workers all over Mumbai and deliver them to people in their offices in time for lunch, and then deliver the empties back to the workers' homes in the afternoon.  It's amazing.

But back to tiffin bars.  I've never seen them outside the UK, so I feel justified in including them here.  Also, they are yummy.  And they consist largely of a very very British thing: the Rich Tea biscuit.  Rich Tea biscuits present a real paradox.  They are, in fact, the dullest biscuits imaginable, so how did they ever end up being described them as "rich"?

See what I mean?  They don't exactly set the biscuit world on fire with their indulgent deliciousness.

I could go on and on about rich tea biscuits, but I think I'll leave that to the experts.  Here's an excerpt from the now-defunct blog A Nice Cup Of Tea And A Sit Down, which was dedicated to all things biscuit.
The Rich Tea presents us straight away with a paradox. If these are 'Rich' tea, where are 'Poor' tea biscuits and what on earth do they taste like? Well they would have to be fairly ropey old affairs because the Rich Tea itself is not exactly a self contained one biscuit flavour festival. What flavour it does manage to achieve comes from the various sugars in the recipe, sucrose, maltose and some glucose plus a little bit of salt...

There are attempts at turning Rich Teas into something more palatable, covering them in chocolate or sticking some sort of cream up the middle, but it's all a bit hopeless really. So what are they good for? Dunking of course. The Rich tea can drive even the staunchest anti-dunker to dunk. The Rich Tea then comes into its own, convincing you that you have done the right thing by giving the eater the reward of sloppy hot Rich Tea, which is actually better than what you started with.

What else are Rich teas for? Humility. Through Rich Tea biscuits we learn that not all biscuits have been blessed with a fantastic taste, and that there is space in this world for dry bland biscuits that you can dunk in tea.
I couldn't have said it better myself.  Rich Teas may be dull beyond belief (imagine a bland arrowroot cookie sort of thing), but they do make an excellent base for Tiffin Bars.  What else goes into Tiffin Bars? I'm glad you asked, because I took a carefully stage photo for just this occasion:

The Golden Syrup is back, along with cocoa powder, butter, raisins and a whole lotta chocolate for the topping.

And now for the recipe.  Note: this recipe includes metric measurements and weights, because I'm gradually getting all metric-ified with cooking.  Also, I now have access to a nice little digital scale in the kitchen.  This is because my housemate Paul, who previously only ventured into the kitchen to microwave something that came frozen in a black plastic dish, or to get a plate for his pizza delivery, has recently undergone a total cooking transformation.  He now owns (and shares) the aforementioned digital scales, and a meat thermometer, and a cast iron griddle pan, and a cupboard of herbs and spices AND two different cookbooks, including one by Heston Blumenthal. He also admitted that he has looked into the cost of a sous vide cooker. This is roughly the culinary equivalent of going from driving a tricycle to piloting the space shuttle.  Way to go Paul!

Paul's scale, and other good things.

Chocolate Tiffin Bars, adapted from a recipe at


110g (4 oz) butter (half a cup?)
2 tablespoons white sugar
3 tablespoons golden syrup, 1 reserved (Again, I caution you: coat the spoon and yourself with a bit of oil before you open the golden syrup tin)
4 teaspoons cocoa powder
225g (8 oz) Rich Tea biscuits, crushed (This is exactly 26 regulation-sized Rich Tea biscuits.)
1 cup raisins
250 grams chocolate divided between dark, milk and white. (That's about 3 large bars, don't scrimp!  You could probably substitute chocolate chips here, but don't get me started on the availability of chocolate chips over here again...)

  1. In a saucepan, melt the butter, sugar, syrup and cocoa over medium heat, stirring when it seems appropriate.
  2. Put the Rich Tea biscuits into a large ziploc bag (or other bag) and crush them until the pieces are, on average, about the size of a large pea.  Some will be bigger, and some will be dust.  That's all good.
  3. Add the biscuits and raisins to the saucepan when everything is melted. Stir to combine. 
  4. At this point I decided that everything was a bit to dry and crumbly to hold together, so I struck out on my own and boldly added a bit more golden syrup.  (It's a genetic thing.  I think my mother has never met a recipe she didn't "improve".)  So: stir in the last tablespoon of golden syrup.
  5. Pour the mixture into an 8x8 cake pan lined with foil or parchment paper and press it all down.
  6. Melt the different chocolates individually and swirl them together over the mixture in the pan to create a pleasing and tasty marbled effect.
  7. Put the pan in the fridge and leave for about 1 hour to set. 
  8. To serve cut into about 20 pieces.

The completed yummy Tiffin Bars

And that's all I've got for you tonight.  Frankly, I'm a bit surprised I found the time and energy to make anything today, let alone photograph and blog the whole business too.  Work in getting busier and busier and I honestly just felt like vegetating all night.  However, I'm glad I didn't.  Not as glad, though, as I am to be going to bed.  Right now.

Words to have fun with

Friday, February 10, 2012

Let's talk about some more words.  I'm sorry if you're getting tired of these wordy posts, but I find the subtle (and not so subtle) differences in language fascinating, and I love learning new words.  I've been here for a year and a half now, and while many many Britishisms have become part of my daily vocabulary (quid, rubbish, trousers), there are soooooo many more out there, and they just keep coming.  I've got a list of words that I add to as I encounter them, and it's currently hovering somewhere 300, so I don't think I'm going to run out of materials for these posts any time soon.  Today, we look at words to do with sex, love and relationships.

Chatting up = Trying to make headway with the opposite sex. (Or same sex, depending on your inclination) (Ok look, much of this post is going to be about relationships, and it's going to get really tedious to keep saying "women, or men, or both, or people in teddy bear costumes, or ring-tailed lemurs, or inflatable dolls, or left-handed rainbow coloured unicorns or blah blah blah".  So can we just assume that when I say "the opposite sex" or something similar that I mean "who/whatever-turns-your-crank-about-which-I-am-passing-no-judgement-whatsoever-just-please-keep-your-whips-and-gags-off-the-kitchen-table" and leave it at that?).  If you're chatting someone up, you might kick things off with a chat up line.

Chat up line = Pick up line.  As in "If I said you had a beautiful body would you hold it against me?" and other cringingly similar offerings.

Smart = Yes it means intelligent, but that's really a secondary meaning over here.  If you want to comment on someone's intelligence you'd be more likely to say they were clever rather than smart.  "Smartness" is more commonly about appearance. You might, for instance, have a few smart shirts or a pair of smart trousers for special occasions which, when worn, could elicit the comment, "Ooooh, don't you look smart!  Are you going out on the pull?"

Trousers that take themselves to the corner shop for toilet roll and teabags are clever, not smart.

Pull, pulled, "On the pull" = If you're out in the pub chatting up someone you're interested in, you are "on the pull" because you're trying to pull women (or men, or see above...). As in this particularly short-and-to-the-point chat up lie: "Get your coat, luv, you're pulled."

Snog, snogging = If you're successful in pulling someone (or allow yourself to be pulled), and things are going well (or you've had a few too many) you could well up up snogging. Most similar to the North American term "necking", with all that implies (tongues mostly, I suppose, and good measure of feverish groping to go along with).  You would snog the cute boy from your English class.  You would not, or at least I certainly hope you would not, snog your grandmother.

Shag, shagging = If the snogging goes well, things might progress to shagging, which is a common term for the act-of-a-thousand-euphemisms.  Screwing, doing the nasty, bonking, getting laid, making the beast with two backs, blah blah blah.  You can shag or be shagged or have a shag or be shaggable or be in desperate need of a good shag.  I don't think it has anything to do with carpet.


Fanny = This is one of those words that means something quite different here than it does in North America.  Imports from overseas do well to learn this one early and never, ever slip up on it.  If you're shagging someone female you're almost certainly going to encounter a fanny, which is not, as we know it in North America, a somewhat quaint term for bum.  Fanny refers to the female genitalia and is roughly equivalent to "pussy", so you can see why you want to hesitate before blithely tossing it into a conversation.  For the record, the term for those awful pouch-around-the-waist things here is "bumbag", which is important to know for the following anecdote:

Everyone in the office helped with processing the thousands of people who came to audition for the ceremonies last November, and some of us were assigned to the costume team. Costume people had to take the measurements of each auditionee, including numbers for the waist and hip.  I'm not the only Canuck on the ceremonies, and one of my countrymen was also on the costume squad one afternoon when a quite posh woman came in for measurements.  As he proceeded to read out the numbers he encountered the woman's bumbag and politely said, "I'm just going to move your fanny pack so I can..." at which point he was drowned out by the gales of laughter from everyone else in the room and had to have his error pointed out to him, which led to acute embarrassment on his part, and much repeating of the story on the part of everyone else.  Fun times.

(No pictures, please, we're British...)

Minge = (rhymes with "fringe") I get caught on this with alarming regularity, and it's not much better than fanny.  I often use "mingey" in the sense meaning titchy, ungenerous, scant or generally small.  Here, minge is the fuzz that surrounds the fanny, hence not something that often comes up in a meeting at work (unless your line of work is, shall we say, not something you'd discuss with the vicar at Sunday lunch).  A few times now I've unconsciously said something like, "Only six days to build all those widgets seems a bit mingey." And then people snigger and I realise what I've said and quickly blurt out, "THAT DOES NOT MEAN THE SAME THING IN CANADA AS IT MEANS HERE!!!" and then offer to fetch tea so that I can leave the room.

Mills and Boon = If your smart trousers and night out on the pull and chat up lines lead all the way to snogging and shagging then you might have a genuine Mills and Boon romance on your hands.  Mills and Boon are publishers of several series of cheap romance novels that are exactly equivalent to Harlequin Romances.  In fact, Mills and Boon were acquired by Harlequin Enterprises in 1971, though they were independent until that time, having been founded in 1908.  Mills and Boon, like Harlequin Romance, they tend to be schlocky, formulaic, and incredibly popular, accounting for three quarters of all romance novels published in Britain.

They even look like Harlequin Romances

Stag Weekend = If your Mills and Boon romance ends in a proposal of marriage, then the groom might well end up on a Stag Weekend.  Similar to a North American Stag Party, the full-blown Stag Weekend is an evolution of the form, likely as a result of the advent of discount airfares to cheap (often eastern European) destinations.  A typical Stag Weekend would see the groom and his mates on a Ryanair flight to somewhere like Tirana.  It's quite likely that no hotel room would be booked, since the intention is to start drinking before leaving the airport, arrive at the destination, continue drinking all night, decorate the streets of Tirana (or Prague, or Dublin) with a rainbow of vomit, and then carry on seamlessly the following day.  It's also possible the groom might end up semi-conscious and handcuffed to a lamp post, wearing nothing but Union Jack boxer shorts and shaving cream in his hair.

Hen Party (or Hen Night) = The female equivalent of the Stag Party.  Different from the male version because many Hen Parties require the participants to wear matching t-shirts (normally pink) or other gear.  T-shirts will identify the bride-to-be and will usually be emblazoned with something semi-literate like "Beckys Hen's" (sic).  The bride-to-be will also invariably be required to wear a large red "L" on a white background, which is the symbol learner drivers here have to display on their cars.  This is a not-overly-sly reference to the bride's supposed innocence of those same things we don't discuss with the vicar.

Hen Party Gear.  I've actually attended one Hen Party since I arrived, which was a first for me on any continent.  Luckily, this one did not require matching t-shirts, only fuzzy bunny ears.  And there was drinking champagne, and eating ice cream, and, unconventionally, running, so it was all quite fun.  

Pram = If you survive the Stag Weekend, and the Hen Night, and manage to get in a bit more shagging, odds are you'll eventually end up pushing a pram, which is the UK equivalent of a baby carriage.  It's a short form of "perambulator", which is a perfectly excellent word, and one whose abbreviation I think we should all mourn. (Interestingly, a pram is also a "flat-bottomed, snub-nosed boat", which sounds very much like the shape of an old-fashioned baby carriage, don't you think?  I wonder which came first?)

Prams also feature in a nice turn of phrase used when someone has a bit of a hissy fit. Where in Canada we might say, "he took his toys and went home" here they say "he threw all his toys out of the pram."

Buggy, pushchair = Once the occupant of your pram gets a bit bigger, you'll likely transfer them into a buggy or pushchair, the equivalent of a stroller.

Creche (rhmyes with fresh) = And finally, when you go back to your job and have to send your little pride and joy into the care of strangers you will entrust them to a creche, the UK term for daycare.  Similar to the situation in Canada, most people have to pay for a creche or other child care services themselves, though the government have introduced a childcare allowance by which employers can make payments for childcare, prior to tax, on employees wages.

Once your ankle-biter reaches school age there's a whole other universe of words and concepts that we need to deal with - A levels, O levels, GCSEs, league tables, revising, headmasters, prefects, school uniforms, and on and on - but I shall leave those for another time.  For today I think it's quite enough to have made it all the way from chat-up lines to the creche in just 1600 words.  Besides that, I'm actually on vacation this week, and it's high time I had a nap. Or possibly a drink.