GRUB!: Welsh Rarebit

Sunday, September 24, 2017

It’s been a while since I blogged about any local food (a year ago in fact, with Summer Pudding) and the weather has turned chilly enough that I’ve had to get the fire going some nights, which is lovely and cozy. This, coupled with my now work-free lifestyle made it good time to contemplate a nice hearty toasty yummy treat like Welsh rabbit, which you sometimes see spelled “Welsh rarebit” even though it’s always pronounced “Welsh rabbit”.

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Note: No rabbits were harmed in the production of the blog post, largely because Welsh rarebit has nothing at all to do with rabbits.

Welsh Rabbit is really just posh cheese on toast, and since I’m a big fan of cheese in any form I figured it was about time to test this out. This is despite the fact that toast is not really a boat-friendly foodstuff, because a conventional toaster draws about nine zillion watts of power, which is not healthy for one’s batteries. I do have one of those folding camping toasters to put on the stove, but it’s pretty crap. And it's possible to toast bread in the oven under the grill (broiler) but that’s not very fun, for reasons which will become clear below, which prompted this exchange between me and Karen when I was attempting to get her to tell me what food to stock up on for her recent visit.

I like bread
She’s flexible, I’ll give her that!

Having a gas stove is great for cooking. Having a gas oven is better than having no oven at all, but not brilliant. Having a gas grill/broiler is the worst of the lot. Mine didn’t work for ages because some kind of thermostat thingy was broken when I first bought the boat, but I've had that repaired. Still, it’s a remarkably temperamental bit of kit. I have to light it with a BBQ lighter (though that’s true for the hob and the oven as well) and then verrrrrry gently release the gas knob, or it will go out. And then verrrrrry slowly close the door, or it will go out. And then when you put the food in you have to verrrrrry verrrrrrrrrrrry slowly open the door, or it will go out. And if you have to relight it the odds of it going out again spontaneously, or at any of the above repeated stages increases dramatically. Basically, you need to be a Grill Whisperer to actually achieve toasting, which is kind of ironic because toast is not exactly Cordon Bleu Level cookery. That’s why I have a general reticence about toasting on the boat. However, I also have a general love of things that are toasted, especially cheese, so what the heck, let’s dive in.

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The grill in one of its rare moments of actually producing heat.

It’s not really clear why Welsh rabbit is called rabbit at all, nor why it is spelled sometimes spelled “rarebit” but still pronounced “rabbit”. The first recorded use, in 1725, was “rabbit”, with the “rarebit” option appearing 60 years later. Probably the alternate spelling was devised by killjoys who kept pedantically and cheerlessly pointing out that "there’s no rabbit in the recipe so really it’s misleading to called it rabbit and while we’re at it would you like a nice bowl of mock tertull soup?”

As for the Welsh connection, that’s pretty tenuous too and seems to boil down to something best expressed as, “Gosh those Welsh sure like their toasted cheese don’t they?” Wikipedia claims that "the notion that toasted cheese was a favourite dish irresistible to the Welsh has existed since the Middle Ages” and recounts a joke about St. Peter tricking all the Welshmen in heaven to leave by claiming there was toasted cheese just outside the Pearly Gates. Ho ho! What a merry jape!

The distinctive thing about Welsh rarebit though is that it’s not just a lump of cheese on toast, it’s grated cheese mixed with other yummy stuff on toast and then melted all together.

Let’s start first with the cheese, which should be a strong old variety, cheddar being the most common. The toast should be made from decent real bread that can stand up to toasting and then being smothered in yummy gloop without melting into pappy nothingness. If grilling your toast (instead of taking the easy way out by putting a slice of bread into some sort of electrically powered device that heats it evenly on both sides at once) it’s best channel your inner Grill Whisperer and toast both sides instead of slacking off and only doing one side.

What elevates the Welsh rarebit are the small additions to the grated cheese that loosen up the cheese mixture and add an extra kick of flavour. It seems to be generally agreed that some kind of liquid goes into the mix, with ale or other beer a popular choice. Mustard is also usual and Worcestershire sauce is mandatory.

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For the uninitiated, Worcestershire Sauce is in the orange labelled bottle on the left, and presents an even greater linguistic challenge that “rarebit”, being pronounced “WUSS-ter-sher” sauce, and originates in Worcestershire, obviously. Sometimes it’s even shortened to “Wooster Sauce” because the English like nothing better than leaving out whacking great chunks of words when they pronounce them. In the pantheon of typically English behaviours (alongside queueing, moaning and self-depracating humour) utterly ignoring three-quarters of the letters in a word is an area where the English perform effortlessly at an Olympic level.

Worcestershire sauce lives in the same family as other fermented liquid condiments like fish sauce. Originally formulated by the Lea & Perrins company in the 1830s, its makers did not find it particularly beguiling on first tasting, set it aside, and forgot about it. When the barrels were rediscovered months later it had mellowed into the umami-packed flavour festival we know today. The exact recipe of original Lea & Perrins Worcestershire sauce is a secret but a discarded note from the 19th century discovered in a bin in 2009 features vinegar, molasses, sugar, anchovies, tamarind and spices. A little goes a long way. As well as flavouring Welsh rabbit, it’s also used in a lot of beef dishes and, of course, in Bloody Marys and Caesars (which definitely deserve a mention I ever do a home-grown Canadian GRUB post.)

But back to Welsh rabbit. Here’s how I attempted to make it, with thanks to the Guardian recipes section.

WELSH RAREBIT

2 slices of chunky toast
1 tsp English mustard powder
3 tbsp stout like Guinness (tragically, the recipe uses a very small amount, so you’ll have to find another use for the remaining 26.3 tablespoons)
30g butter
Worcestershire sauce, to taste
175g hard sharp cheese, grated
2 egg yolks

1. Mix the mustard powder with a little stout in the bottom of a small pan to make a paste, then stir in the rest of the stout and add the butter and about 1 tsp Worcestershire sauce – you can always add more later if you like. Heat gently until the butter has melted.
2. Tip in the cheese and stir to melt, but do not let the mixture boil. Once smooth, taste for seasoning, then take off the heat and allow to cool until just slightly warm, being careful it doesn't solidify.
3. Pre-heat the grill to medium-high, and toast the bread on both sides.
4. Beat the yolks into the warm cheese until smooth, and then spoon on to the toast and cook until bubbling and golden. Serve immediately.

Here’s what really happened:

WELSH RAREBIT

2 slices of chunky toast: I actually managed this! Even with the recalcitrant grill.

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Photographic evidence of perfect toast, made on the boat.

1 tsp English mustard powder. Local grocery lacks powdered mustard so use a dollop of grainy mustard because I’m pretty sure that one recipe I read online somewhere mentioned grainy mustard.

3 tbsp stout like Guinness. No trouble. Tragically, the recipe uses a very small amount, so need to find another use for the remaining 26.3 tablespoons.

30g butter: Think to self, “This seems like an awful lot of butter for two slices of toast”. Use it anyways, because: Butter!!

Worcestershire sauce, to taste: This ended up being a couple of teaspoons.

175g hard sharp cheese, grated: Again think to self, “This seems like an awful lot of cheese for two slices of toast.” Prepare a bit less, and use up random bits of cheese from the fridge including the end of a bit of parmesan.

2 egg yolks: Start separating eggs having carefully set out a dish for the excess whites, but no dish for the yolks. End up leaving each yolk nestled in half an egg shell perched precariously on the counter leaning against random utensils thinking, “This is going to end badly."

1. Mix the mustard powder with a little stout in the bottom of a small pan to make a paste, then stir in the rest of the stout and add the butter and about 1 tsp Worcestershire sauce – you can always add more later if you like. Heat gently until the butter has melted: Mix everything in the pan and think, “This is awfully wet looking."

2. Tip in the cheese and stir to melt, but do not let the mixture boil. Once smooth, taste for seasoning, then take off the heat and allow to cool until just slightly warm, being careful it doesn't solidify: Add cheese and think, “Yes, I was right, this is awfully wet. This is going to be like ladling soup onto toast. I’ll add the rest of the cheese." Add more cheese.

3. Pre-heat the grill to medium-high, and toast the bread on both sides: Success!

4. Beat the yolks into the warm cheese until smooth, and then spoon on to the toast and cook until bubbling and golden. Serve immediately: Beat the yolks into the warm cheese until still a bit lumpy and very very soupy indeed. Spoon onto toast and think, “Yes, this is exactly like covering toast in a very tasty cheese soup full of raw egg yolk.” Put it under the grill. Open the oven door to check and hear the grill go out. Relight the grill. See the grill go out. Swear. Relight the grill. See the grill go out. Swear a lot. Relight the grill. See the grill go out. Give up on the grill and light the oven. Gently warm the proto-rarebit in the oven. Spoon the rest of the cheese soup on top, because the initial covering has congealed enough to support another layer. Monitor cooking and decide the oven is just not getting the job done. Put both slices of toast, soup-side down, in a frying pan on the stove, thus perhaps inventing something called Australian Rarebit.

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You can really see the extravagant butter content start to show itself here.

Sample the remaining 26.3 tablespoons of Guinness and cook until losing the will to continue and turning the whole mess out onto a plate. 

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Jazz things up with a sliced apple, artfully displayed. Nevermind that the rarebit itself does not look precisely appetising. Remember how much butter and cheese were involved and tuck in.

So I did eventually end up with warmed cheese on toast, though the process was arduous. If I ever attempt this again I'll probably need to outsource the toasting to save precious working grill time for the actual toasting of the cheese. Or perhaps I could make the toast the day before, to give the grill a chance to recover. (Though considering this is meant to be a simple and easy recipe, the need to prep a day ahead seems not entirely in the spirit.) And I'll use 90% less butter and probably skip the egg yolks or only use one, since I can't really see what they add to the party. It seems to me the irreducible elements of Welsh rarebit are: toast, cheese, mustard, Worcestershire sauce and a working grill. Perhaps those of you with toasters and working grills could do a bit of experimentation and report back. It's about time you lot started earning your keep anyway.

Thus ended my grand experiment in Welsh Rarebit, which I only embarked on because I thought it would be a quick and easy thing to blog about which then devolved into a messy, sweaty, sweary fight to the death with the grill.

Thank God for the Guinness, that's all I have to say.

Back to School Words (or: What the hell is a GCSE?)

Sunday, September 10, 2017

It’s back to school time for most of these days, so I’m taking the opportunity to review a few words and phrases related to schooling over here. I’ll admit right now that I find the English school system mostly baffling with its A-levels and GCSEs and league tables and such, but it’s about time I got to grips with it so here we go, starting at the beginning.

Primary School: Starts as early as age 3-4 with a year of Nursery School, which is followed by a year of Reception, then Year 1 (starting in the year a child turns 5), Year 2, Year 3 etc., up to Year 6 and lasting until age 10 or 11. For ease of understanding, this would be all the schooling you’d do BEFORE getting a letter inviting you to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. At the end of primary school students will take SAT exams - the Standard Assessment Test, or an Eleven-Plus exam.

Prince George
The media was abuzz this week with pictures of Prince William taking Prince George to his first day of school. Here they are, meeting the Headmistress of Thomas’s Battersea School, where the facilities include a ballet room, science labs, a pottery room, two libraries and a one-acre playground. The young prince, who will be known as George Cambridge, will get morning snacks of organic milk and freshly baked pain aux raisins, which is, with the addition of a shot of espresso, a lot like my morning snack.

Eleven-Plus: An exam taken at the end of primary school used to determine admission to Grammar School. The exam was introduced in the 1940s as a tool for streaming children into one of three levels of secondary school (known as the tripartite system). Grammar schools were the most academically oriented stream, and, despite being re-tooled in the 1960s it was far more common for children from middle class backgrounds to pass their Eleven-Plus exams than for working class children. The Eleven-Plus exams are now less common. Most kids do a different standardised test that’s more geared towards assessing progress than determining if little Electra and Hugo will make it into a grammar school like St. Custard’s.

Grammar School: A secondary school that selects students based on academic performance. So named because the original medieval grammar schools were developed to teach Latin. Grammar schools are academically-oriented state funded secondary schools, as distinct from:

Comprehensive School: A secondary school that accepts all students*, and is also state-funded. (* I say they accept all students but admission is based on the student living in the school’s local catchment area, which, when the school is particularly high in the League Tables, can fuel a run on housing as parents attempt to secure a place for their child buy moving into the area.)

League Tables: A system of ranking schools according to performance, partly based on students’ test scores in national standardised tests. Competition for rankings in the league tables can be fierce. This summer several grammar schools were accused of ejecting students for not achieving high enough grades, thus possible affecting the school’s all-important rank.

Secondary School: Also variously called Upper School, College, High School blah blah blah. Covering ages 11-18, these are the Hogwarts years. You can spend them at a grammar school or a comprehensive, but odds are that wherever you end up you’ll be in some kind of school uniform.

Hogwarts-dh2
Tragically, almost no schools in the UK look like this.

School Uniform: Most schools in the UK require students to wear a school uniform. For the most part, schools have pretty simple uniforms, usually with black or grey trousers, plain white or light coloured collared shirts or polo shorts and plain black shoes, all without obvious school “branding”. (This is to keep the cost of uniforms as low as possible because often these standard items can be bought at many different stores, not just from the school.) The basic uniform is normally supplemented with a jumper and/or blazer in school colours, often with a crest, and a school tie.

There’s actually a sort of competition among bargain high street shops to see who can offer the lowest price for a complete set of basic uniform items. In 2014 Aldi offered one jumper, one pair of trousers or skirt and two polo shirts for £4. In total. Not £4 for each item. £4 for four items of clothing. (Which makes me wonder if perhaps you’re meant to just throw the whole lot out at the end of the week and buy a new one?)

Younger boys usually wear shorts, and girls usually wear skirts instead of trousers, or sometimes something called a gymslip, which is a sort of pleated sleeves tunic dress. (Actually, at one school boys also have the option of skirts, as illustrated this summer. Temperatures got so hot that boys at one school, whose uniform did not offer shorts, instead borrowed skirts from sisters or friends in protest and wore them to school.)

Boys in skirts
Nicely done boys.

Some schools have particularly notable uniforms. There was one near the happy house in Brixton where the little girls wore blue gingham dresses and straw boater hats. Eton famously makes its boys wear a black tailcoat, waistcoat and pin-striped trousers, though they usually eschew the tophat these days. The prize, though, goes to Christ’s Hospital school, whose students wear a uniform first in fashion in Tudor times.

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Christ’s Hospital students. Rockin' the 16th century's hottest fashions.

Jumper: The generic term for what in North America is called a sweater. You’d also call a fleece a jumper. Basically, any warm knit long-sleeved top is a jumper.

Eton: (pronounced EE-tun, but please tell me I didn’t have to tell you that…) The oldest and most famous of England’s traditional boarding secondary schools, founded by Henry VI in 1441. Eton is a public school, which means it’s a private school. Go figure. Admission is selective and fees per year are in the neighbourhood of £36,000. Eton is one of only four remaining public boys’ boarding schools. (The others are Harrow, Radley and Winchester.) The school has educated 19 British prime ministers and has been referred to as the chief nurse of England's statesmen. The Duke of Wellington is often mis-quoted as having said "The Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton.” Students are referred to as boys and on graduating become Old Boys, and, more specifically, Old Etonians.

1257_eton
Eton College, which definitely has more than a faint whiff of Hogwartiness about it.

Old Boy: The generic name for a former pupil of a primary or secondary school, and the literal basis of the Old Boys Club and Old Boys Network. Different schools have different names for their graduates, usually based on the name of the school, hence the Old Etonians, Old Harrovians (from Harrow), etc. To graduate and become an Old Boy (or just a plain old normal person who finished school) you’ve first got to contend with the GCSEs.

GCSE (General Certificate of Secondary Education): Equivalent to the Hogwarts OWLS (Ordinary Wizarding Levels), GCSEs are the last stage of compulsory education, taken in Year 11, at age 15 or 16. Every student is required to take the 5 compulsory subjects (Usually English Language, English Literature, Math, Science and a second language of their choosing). In addition, students choose five more subjects from a laundry list ranging from Astronomy to Motor Vehicle and Road User Studies to Divination. At the end of the school year students will sit an exam in each subject (and note that here in the UK you “sit" exams, not “take” them.) If they pass, they will earn a GCSE in that subject, so you’ll often hear people say things like, “I took a GCSE in Punjabi but I can’t remember a thing now.” GCSEs replaced the old O-Levels system, eliminated in 1988. Attaining a certain number of GCSEs at a certain level is a requirement for further study, which comes as A-Levels.

A-levels: A Levels are subject-specific courses taken in the last two (optional) years of secondary school (Years 12 and 13, Age 16-18) commonly known as 6th Form. To complete our Hogwarts analogy, A-levels are like NEWTs (The Nastily Exhausting Wizarding Tests). Students choose how many A-Level subject to take. Most will choose three or sometimes four. I think my old housemate took six but we have already established that she is a clever clogs. The UK record is, I think, 11.

The A-levels system means that students study their chosen subjects (and nothing else) intensively for two years. I suppose it's assumed you’ll take subjects that you’ll go on to pursue at university and as a career. Like taking an A-Level in Defense Against the Dark Arts if you want to become an Auror, obviously. A-levels are required for entrance to university, and your A-Level results will often determine whether or not you get into your university of choice, since students often have a conditional offer of acceptance from a university that will be contingent on them attaining certain grades in certain A-Level subjects, based on the course they’ve applied for.

Clever Clogs: A person who is ostentatiously and irritatingly knowledgeable. A clever clogs will probably spend a lot of time revising.

Revising: Studying, as in the thing you do when you’re getting ready for an exam, not they general practice of learning something. I find this a particularly odd phrase but it is universal. I’ve never heard someone here say “I’m busy studying for my A-levels.” It’s revising, in order to sit an exam, and then wait for Results Day.

Results Day: The results for all GCSE and A-Level exams for all schools across the country are announced on the same day. (This year it was A-levels on August 17 and GCSEs on August 24.) Results Day generates a lot of sturm and drang and media attention and many photos of kids smiling or cheering or crying or all of the above because GCSE results determine whether you can go on to study A-Levels, and A-Level results determine whether you get into your university and programme of choice. If things don’t go as planned though, all is not lost. You can always try your luck at Clearing.

teswebresults2_2
Bad Haircut Guy: Uh Oh. This is not good. I needed an A in Modern Sanskrit and all it says here is "Must try harder". Or I think that's what it says. It's in Sanskrit.
Blue Hoodie Guy: You’re screwed mate. It’s Clearing for you.

Clearing: The Clearing process lets students apply for university courses that still have places available. This is for those who have not received any offers from a university, or (foolishly) rejected all their offers, or missed the conditions of their offers by sleeping through their A-level exams. Just like Results Day, Clearing is a huge topic in the media, with all kinds of guides to how to access the system and how lots of people have to go through clearing and still go on to lead fulfilled lives and how you should not panic because you’ve screwed up every chance you ever had of becoming a success and should probably just move to the Outer Hebrides except that you failed your A-levels in Salmon Husbandry, Peat-cutting, and Lard Cookery.

I could get into the university level stuff here too - the Russell Group and Oxbridge and the Colleges system and such, but that feels like a different blog. Also I've just an enormous bowl of incandescently good bread pudding so what I really need now is a nap.

Apropos of nothing: The Underground Edition

Sunday, August 27, 2017

It’s all London Transport all the time today, when I share a few quirky little things about the system that even some proper Londoners won’t know about, thus ensuring that Astute Go Stay Work Play Readers are equipped with the kind of random but meticulously fact-checked (read “occasionally looked up on Wikipedia”) nuggets that make up 31% of any GSWPL blog post. (The other 68% is made up of stuff about food, slightly out-of-focus photos, unrelated ranting, stuff about the boat, and dodgey math.)

First, spare a thought for the poor seats on a tube train. I suspect most people only think about the seats when they don’t get one, but the seats on London transport have one thing in common - moquette. See? Already, a new word! Moquette is the name for the dense pile fabric used in carpet and upholstery and, most notably, as a covering for the seats in Transport for London conveyances of all kinds - tube trains, overground trains, trams and busses. 

Even the dopiest Londoners will have noticed that TFL moquettes come in a few different and distinctive patterns. This is because when you run an operation the size of the TFL with an annual budget north of £11 billion pounds, you don’t just slope down to the local neighbourhood upholsterers and pick up a job lot of whatever is going cheap. Instead, you have competitions to select designs and have them woven by the kilometre, resulting in this kind of thing:

1024px-Barman_moquette
A pattern called Barman, named after Christian Barman, London Transport’s publicity manager between 1935 and 1941. Barman appears in Central, Jubilee and Northern line trains. Can you find the four London Landmarks hidden in the Barman pattern? If not, check out this video.

London-Overground
And here’s the design for the whole Overground system, which reminds me of being in an A&W in the 1970s. Oooooohhh... how great would it be if you could get onion rings on the Overground?

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The festively coloured moquette for the Croydon Tramlink, perfect for Christmas.

Crossrail Purple
And, excitingly, here’s a sneak peek at the moquette for the yet-to-be-completed Crossrail, now officially named the Elizabeth Line, after HRM. It will be coloured purple on the tube map. (Finally! How can the tube map have three different shades of blue (plus the DLR, so really FOUR) and no purple?!)

What do all of these patterns have in common? Here’s another tidbit for the GSWPL fact-o-meter: They were all designed by the same company. More surprisingly, it’s not a giant faceless mega-corporation, but a small team of two designers who work from a tiny shop near Kings Cross. I find it quite gratifying that the seats where millions of Londoners place their butts daily was dreamt up by a couple of independent designers a short walk from Angel Station. (Also, if anyone is struggling for gift ideas to express your gratitude for my EIGHT YEARS of faithful blogging, anything from here would be nice. I especially like the Bakerloo pattern...)

However, before you get to nestle your buns on a fuzzy Barman-covered seat, you’ve first got to find your way through a ticket hall and onto a platform. And in doing so, you might notice something unusual, like this:

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What’s that on the wall of this otherwise non-descript tunnel at East Acton station? 

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Here’s a close-up. It’s a labyrinth! (Additional bonus fact: A labyrinth is a single winding path usually set in a decorative layout and only ever containing one start and one finish point. This is distinct from a maze, which is a puzzle with many branching pathways and dead ends.)

This labyrinth at East Acton is just one two hundred and seventy different labyrinths - one for every station in the London Underground system. They’re all part of a major artwork installation commissioned by the TFL for their 150th anniversary in 2013. (So that’s where the £11 billion is going, obviously.) Each one is unique and was designed by Mark Wallinger, a Turner Prize winning British Artist. In fact, the TFL has a long history of supporting art on the Underground, with their well-known program called… wait for it... Art On The Underground. (And that’s just visual art. They also do poems, but that’s another blog.)

The labyrinths are depicted in black and white enamel on a metal background about two feet square, and they’re not all obvious. In fact, there are no descriptive plaques of any kind. No indication that they’re artwork. No credit to the artist. No explanation of any kind. They just… are. The graphic nature of them makes them a bit puzzling too, like they could be maps or advertisements or… who knows? They're also made by the same company and in the same dimensions and materials (sheet steel and vitreous enamel) as every station label roundel in the system, which makes them seem oddly familiar. The enamelling also gives the labyrinth a tiny bit of depth and texture, which makes is sort of pleasing to run your finger along the path, starting, of course, at the little red X.

Tottenham Court Road
Me pointing out where X marks the spot at Tottenham Court Road

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And here's the Swiss Cottage Labyrinth in situ, between a tube map and a photo booth. See what I mean? It could be anything.

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Cleverly hidden on the platform at White City

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Tucked behind a flower stall at Hammersmith

I recently started collecting the tube labyrinths, which really just means that when I come across one I take a picture. I’m up to 21 now, which is a whopping 7.7% of the system, but considering I’ve only been at it for about a month, I think that’s pretty good. If nothing else, it makes me pay a bit more attention instead of shuffling around tube stations like a zombie.

The labyrinths are all circular, echoing the shape of the iconic tube symbol, and come in a surprising number of styles that the artist put into categories like square, chamfered, woodcut, emboss, cretan, medieval, organic, and a few others. (There's a great documentary about the tube labyrinths here, which talks some about the mathematics behind labyrinth design and about the project as a whole.) There’s even a book of all the labyrinths, with photos showing them in situ and including interesting facts about the station. It looks lovely but large and hardcovered and not very boat-friendly in an overhanging, shelf-hogging kind of way.

And here's one more fun fact about the labyrinths - see the hand written numbers in the bottom right hand corner? 

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Here’s Camden North, 111/270 and cleverly hidden behind a large spider plant

They resemble the sort of numbering system that artists use when producing limited-edition prints. Which, in a way, they are. However, the number assigned to each station is not random, and has nothing to do with the the order in which they were produced. They’re part of another odd bit of tube-lore: The Tube Challenge.

The Tube Challenge is a competition for the fastest time to travel to all 270 London Underground stations, which has been a recognised Guinness World Record since 1960. The current record is held by Steve Wilson and Andi James, who completed the challenge in 15 hours, 45 minutes and 38 seconds on 21 May 2015. The Tube Challenge is a serious logistical puzzle that requires competitors to start early in the morning on the first train from a far-flung station, race on foot between nearby stations to optimise travel times, and pray there are no delays or signal failures. (And also deal with annoying, dead-end stations or ones that only operate on alternate Thursdays as dictated by the lunar cycle or some crap like that. Kensington Olympia and Turnham Green, I’m talking to you.) 

(Vaguely related aside: Sometimes the drivers and platform staff on the Underground can be really fun - joking and making silly comments over the public address system. My favourite example of this is one I found on a now-dead website of Tube lore: “Turn ‘em red. Turn ‘em yellow. Turn ‘em any colour you like, but this is Turnham Green!”) 

What does this have to do with my labyrinths? Well the numbering order of the labyrinths is based on the order in which each station was visited during Steve Wood’s 2009 record-breaking journey! (He subsequently bettered it twice, once in 2011 and once when he set the current record.) Chesham, at the far end of the Metropolitan line, is first on the list, which is not surprising considering it’s one of only two stations in Zone 9 so you really want to either start or end there. Heathrow Terminal 5 is number 270, which is a rough place to end up after 15 hours of sprinting and train-hopping. I wonder if they took the tube home after they finished their record-breaking journey?

So the Underground labyrinths, which most people already don’t really notice, have an even more obscure added level of tube geekery. And if that’s not the best, most obscure TFL fact you’ve ever heard, then basically you suck. 

Off the tourist track in Prague

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Along with gorging on pork products and mocking tiny wax statues, Karen and I had a few adventures in Prague that were decidedly off the beaten path. One of them even involved GEARS, which required Karen to show near-infinite patience. (So I guess I can forgive her for flatly refusing to visit the Kew Museum of Water and Steam while we were in London even though we went right past it on the bus.) 

For a while now I've been aware of the existence of a particular type of elevator/lift that’s become increasingly rare for reasons that will soon become obvious. A paternoster lift is sometimes described less colourfully as a “circulating multi-car elevator”. Invented in the 1860s by Peter Ellis, an architect from Liverpool, a paternoster consists of two parallel lift shafts containing a chain of open-doored cabins that move continuously in a loop, up on one side and down on the other. The name is derived from the first two words of the Lord’s Prayer in Latin, because the chain of cars is thought to resemble the beads of a rosary. A bit of a stretch if you ask me, but I guess it’s better than “Circulating multi-car elevator” or “Death-a-vator” or “Lift of Doooooooom”.

Paternosters work like this: riders approach the car and step into the cabin as it’s moving. On reaching the desired floor, they step out. Simple and efficient. (Other than the ever-present chance of amputation of course, which is why they are becoming increasingly rare.) They are apparently quite popular in Germany, which has more than 200 still in operation. And luckily for me there are a handful in Prague, which I came to know about through the lovely people at Taste of Prague. (Tag line: “Because you didn’t come to Prague to lose weight, did you?”) 

(There’s a whole lot more I could say about Taste of Prague, not least that we did a really good food tour with them that included handmade ice cream sandwiches and artisanal gin and tonics, but for now I will just say that their Prague Foodie Map is awesome and included the almost-hidden line of text that led me to drag Karen across Prague to a semi-obscure YMCA building to see and ride in my first paternoster elevator, helpfully noted in the Taste of Prague interactive map of paternoster elevators. Honestly, how can you not LOVE these people? The next time I go to Prague I’m thinking about just paying some kind of flat fee so I can hang around with them and pretend that they are my friends.)

Anyway… the paternoster. It was Monday morning and Karen was in a very indulgent mood, so we headed out from our spacious and well-appointed AirBnb to find the YMCA building, where I was expecting to have to go on a little hunt to find the elevators. 

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The unassuming entrance to the YMCA

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Instead, we walked into the main entrance just past the reception window and there it was, chugging away.

I think the guy at the reception desk might be used to having the occasional freak appear in his lobby to try out the lifts, though it’s just possible that other people don’t actually jump up and down a tiny bit and make clappy hands. Let’s just say I can get enthusiastic. Once I regained my composure Karen gamely climbed into an ascending car with me. Two people is generally the limit for a paternoster cabin, but that’s no big deal because there’s always another on on the way! We rode to the top floor and then got out to assess the next, much more daring move.

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Here’s the top floor. Karen insisted that I include the regular boring lift on the right in this photo as well, and that I let everyone know that many of the staff of the building seemed to be using that instead of the paternosters. Because obviously they are losers.

Astute Go Stay Work Play Readers may know what’s coming next. The obvious question with this sort of arrangement is “What happens and the top and bottom?” And that, dear readers, is what I was about to experience because I went over the top!

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There’s a giant turning GEAR at the top and bottom of the lift shafts, fitted with a very very heavy chain that forms a continuous loop. The cabins are hung on this chain and when they reach the top they are pulled up and over the giant gear and proceed down the other side. Simple. The same thing happens at the bottom in reverse.

Naturally you’re really not supposed to go over the top because in addition to the ever-present danger of amputation, the giant chain meshing with the giant gear is clearly not the kind of thing you want to get up close and personal with. However, there is plenty of room in the cabin to squish yourself against the back wall, carefully tucking in any appendages, and see what happens.

Here’s what it’s like if you’re Karen and are patiently putting up with me.

And here’s what it’s like from the inside! Sorry this is not the greatest and most compelling video ever, though I like to think the long stretches of inky blackness add drama.

I’ll admit I was slightly nervous the first time I went over. It does really get quite dark, and I wasn’t sure what to expect. In the end it was no big deal and the movement of the car going over the giant wheel was relatively smooth, and there was light at the top, and you would really have to try to get any bits stuck in the gears. I went up and over four times, and Karen was very patient with me, though she resolutely declined to join in the fun. That didn’t matter though, because later that day we had another off-beat adventure that also deserves a mention.

I’ve already said that we stayed at an AirBnB in Prague, but it turns out that AirBnB are now offering “experiences” as well as accommodations. These experiences range from the sublime to the ridiculous. (As far as I can tell that last one is a real thing!) Karen and I discovered our experience at a tiny shop called Skoba in our Prague neighbourhood. Skoba specialises in making blank paper notebooks using recycled materials. Their workshop promised to teach us traditional bookbinding techniques, and it slotted into our schedule perfectly, capping off our stay in Prague with a fun, relaxing and very enjoyable afternoon of arty crafty activity.


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Gathered around the table

Václav was our host, seen at the head of the table above, and it turned out that we were his very first participants in his very first public workshop. We started by searching through a large collection of old books and papers to find the materials to make the covers and dividing pages of our soft-sided notebooks.

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The assortment

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The cover pages were reinforced with a coating of sticky-back plastic, and cut to size with handy templates, or on this excellent giant chopper. 

The notebook pages themselves were already cut to size, but we got to add custom divider pages from the pile of stuff. Most interesting was the actual glueing together of the pages.

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We had to secure the pages together in a wooden clamp...

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...and then fold them over to expose a tiny bit of the edge of each page, which were then roughed up with sandpaper...

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... and smeared with special book glue. 
(I always wondered how they got enough glue along the vanishingly tiny edge of a piece of paper to make them stick together. Now I know. And so do you. Just another service from the good people here are Go Stay Work Play Live World Headquarters.)

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Then the whole thing is covered in a strip of cloth. Very clever!

The covers got glued on after along with end papers, and we even got to add an accordion pocket inside the back cover, with a pencil sleeve. The most magical part was after the glueing, when Václav took each rough book to the special cutter in the back of the shop and carefully trimmed the top and sides of the notebooks so they looked perfect and super-professional. 

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The magic cutting machine. I was hoping for more cast iron and giant screws and maybe a gear or two, but as you can see, this was a boringly modern device. Though still impressive in that it chopped through 200 pages with ease.

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My finished notebook, showing the back end paper and pocket, and a Koh-i-noor pencil, which turn out to be Czech in origin. (Fun fact: Koh-i-noor patented the first graphite pencil lead in 1802! They also originated the practice of labelling the hardness of pencil leads with the H/B plus number system, which is still in use today. There are 21 gradations, but you probably knew that already.)

The bookbinding workshop was a great experience, and during the brief pauses when we were waiting for glue to dry, Václav even provided homemade cake and beer (I think it’s required by law to provide beer in any gathering in Czechia involving more that three people or lasting more that 30 minutes.) The whole thing turned out to be a really excellent finish to our Prague experience and gave us a chance to wind down a bit and have a quiet afternoon following the previous few days of marathon walking and whole-pig consumption. And of course we each got handmade souvenirs to take home with us along with sore feet, and a third-degree pork overdose. Love ya, Prague!

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Here's the finished product, featuring the cover from a vintage Czech technical magazine. This woman is clearly creating some kind of chemically-enhanced lacrosse stick. Or possibly toilet plunger. Yay science!

The Prague Blog

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

A long break from blogging... I know. Here am I, safely back in London with no massive international stadium show looming, bobbing along in the boat, and rarely bothering to set an alarm in the morning, and yet still not finding the time or motivation to blog. What possible excuse could there be? Well, I've started to work on a new theatre show, for one. And for another, this:

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Karen was here! And there was champagne!

My bestie Karen was here for a leisurely two-week visit. She even stayed ON THE BOAT, which is a Lucky Nickel first. I think it worked out pretty well, despite the cramped quarters. Though she claims to be somewhat high maintenance, Karen managed #boatlife quite well, with minimal fuss. This is likely due to her long experience camping, meaning that she could understand if I got cranky about things like leaving the tap running while brushing teeth, or made her ask permission before using the hair dryer, or if occasionally when she was having a shower there was a brief gap in hot water delivery.  (I'm sure Karen will add her comments below.) Though I hasten to add that simply based on luggage storage, let alone the challenging logistics of moving around this space with other people present, and the limited supply of water, one additional person is probably the practical limit for this particular tiny B&B.

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The couch apparently served acceptably well as a guest bed.

And what did we get up to while Karen was here? Well, she had a few touristy London things on her list, many of which we managed to do in fine fashion. Which means we did not whip ourselves out of bed at the crack of dawn to hit three different world heritage sites before breakfast, then hop a train to Aberdeen for the day, then go to a West End show. Instead, each morning we had several cups of coffee and a pleasant breakfast on the back deck of the boat, set off at the crack of eleven, and generally limited ourselves to one site, two pubs, and half a kilo of cheese per day. A perfect pace. We hit Kew Gardens, and saw the Cabinet War Rooms, and even got an exclusive tour of the Foreign Office, thanks to a fellow Astute Go Stay Work Play Live Reader. And we visited the V&A and Kensington Palace, where they're exhibiting a collection of Princess Diana's dresses.

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The famous Elvis Dress. Interestingly, we discovered that I am almost exactly the same height as Princess Di, meaning that I could probably pull this off. (Note: This will not happen in my lifetime.) (Also note: Please do not make me put a clause in my will specifying that I am not to be cremated while wearing a replica of the The Elvis Dress. Or even the ACTUAL Elvis Dress, purchased through a Go Fund Me Campaign for the express purpose of putting the boot in for eternity. Though naturally I would totally rock that look.)

The highlight of the trip, though, was when we left London for a five day trip to Prague! We'd decided early on that part of Karen's visit should involve us both traveling somewhere together, and that somewhere should be a place neither of us had visited before. It turned out that Prague fitted the bill perfectly. It’s easy to get to, beautiful, and full of diverting sites and fun things to do and great food and cheap, excellent beer.

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Here’s a view of Prague including it’s craziest building, the TV Tower. And you see those tiny specs that seems to be crawling up the tower? They are giant sculptures of faceless babies. Crawling up the tower.  Because: of course.

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Giant faceless babies crawling up a remarkably ugly tower. Prague rocks. 
(Also, the TV Tower contains a One Room Hotel with, naturally, unparalleled views. It can be yours for a best rate of 549 euros per night. Though that includes breakfast and free wifi, so really it's a steal.)

We did a lot in Prague, so I'm not going to try and tell you everything. (Like I won’t bother telling you about how, when at Heathrow security the guy at the X-ray machine was heard reminding people to remove from their bags all liquids, gels, pastes and custards. Custards? Whaaa? Do they actually have a big problem with explosive custard?). But I will tell you about lunch on Thursday, because it kind of set the tone for the whole trip. We’d booked a fantastic Airbnb in a nice neighbourhood but arrived a bit early to check in, so we had lunch in a traditional restaurant just down the street. The waitress was unbelievably patient and translated the entire menu for us, meaning I got to order this plate of wonderfulness:

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These are dumplings filled with cured pork and served with the most amazing sauerkraut in the history of mankind. It was sweet and warm and I think I imagined it but in my dreams it’s studded with raisins. This sauerkraut elevated the humble cabbage to stratospheric heights. And it was so good that we had dessert, which was MORE DUMPLINGS. This time with blueberries and sour cream and melted butter and grated soft cheese, prompting Karen to comment, “I’ve been in this country an hour and I’ve gained ten pounds.”

Thursday night we managed to meet up with my friend Iain from London who moved to the Czech Republic a few years ago (and who's appeared in the blog before, in the bit about a very very long queue.) Iain gave us an impromptu walking tour that included one of Karen’s must-see sites in Prague, the Lennon Wall. Not to be confused with V. I. Lenin, the wall is an ever-changing mural of graffiti that originally featured John Lennon-inspired images and pieces of lyrics from Beatles’ songs. Started in 1980, it became a place where young Czechs could write grievances about the government in a movement they termed “Lennonism”. It’s been completely painted over twice, but each time it’s soon covered again in images and messages of love and peace.

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Part of the Lennon Wall

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Me posing with a fun bit of the wall

Friday we did an organsied walking tour which wasn’t really as fun as the one the night before, but did give us a good excuse later that day to eat MORE PORK, in the form of roast pork knuckle (or, as I took to calling it: roast hog foot). And since there were three of us, we also ordered a plate of mixed roast meat including duck and bacon. And more dumplings. And more sauerkraut. And beer. (In fact, from this point on you can probably just assume that in any picture that doesn’t actually show beer, there’s probably a beer just outside the shot. In Prague, beer is literally cheaper than water.)

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That edifice in the back is the pork knuckle, which is basically most of the back leg of a pig. It had an astounding amount of meat on it. And then we turned it over to discover...
EVEN MORE MEAT.

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Warren, me and Karen. Another thing I’m not going to mention is that after dinner we walked around the old town a bit and Karen definitely did not buy a bowl of potatoes cooked with bacon and sauerkraut for dessert. And of course Warren and I didn’t have ice cream.

Just to be clear, we actually also did a lot of non-food related things in Prague, and I averaged 14km walking per day so I managed to return less spherical than you might think. For instance on Sunday we basically walked all day, taking in random sites (and pastries) and stopping on a whim to drink a beer on a quiet side street. That’s how we happened upon a truly odd site. This is one that had been on our radar when planning the trip, though we’d actually planned to not bother with this one until we realised it was literally a half a block away.

The Infant Jesus of Prague is… weird. To be slightly more specific, the Infant Jesus of Prague is a small wax and wooden statue of the infant Jesus that’s displayed in the Church of Our Lady Victorious in Prague. (That’s not the weird part.) The tiny statue - less than two feet tall - was likely created as far back as 1555, and is an object of veneration for many who visit the church. (That’s weird, but only in the conventional way that I find all organised religion weird.)

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Here’s one of the eleven zillion photos online of the Infant Jesus of Prague. Or, as Karen and I like to call him: Sweet Baby Jesus of Prague. Or SBJOP for short.

The really weird thing is this. The original statue is quite plain, depicting Baby Jesus wearing a plain white robe. But that’s not how he looks when you visit the church, because this particular 48cm high wax statue has a massive wardrobe of ornately embroidered robes and giant hats for every occasion. The nuns of the church regularly take the statue down and dress it in a different outfits, coloured according to the liturgical calendar. And devotees from around the world send new outfits for the Baby Jesus, some of which are displayed in a small museum inside the church.

So let’s just go over this again shall we? There’s a small medieval-era statue that people pray to, that also gets dressed up like a Barbie doll in expensive ornate outfits that people send from all over the world.

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And here’s the best outfit EVER. Mexican Sweet Baby Jesus of Prague. Olé!

It was upon discovering this particular outfit, when I called Karen over and pointed and said quietly, “There’s a sombrero” that we were both overcome by sheer absurdity of the situation and had to flee, lest the oncoming divine thunderbolt destroy innocent bystanders. And this is only after we were approached by a friendly priest in the church who was clearly there to engage with the public and who, after finding out were were Canadian, inexplicably said something like, “America has 52 states. You have seven.” And don’t even get me started with the uncountable number of Sweet Baby Jesus of Prague souvenir statues that were available from shops in the area in sizes ranging from keychain to larger-than-life. Seriously organised religion - what’s the deal?

Later that same Sunday we’d planned to do another walking tour that would take us up to Prague Castle, but in the event neither of us felt like such a structured walk, so we meandered up to the Castle on our own and ended up seeing a concert of chamber music in the Basilica of St. George rather than following a paid guide through the crowded castle’s main sites.

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Nevermind that the sightlines to the players were frankly appalling and many of the people in the audience seemed intent on videoing it all on their phones. What were you filming, people? You couldn’t even see the players! I think I once caught a glimpse of the cellists head, but Sweet Baby Jesus of Prague!* Maybe you could just put your phone down and listen? 
(* This is now the me and Karen's default exclamation when at a loss for words.)

After the concert, as the sun was starting to go down, we walked back towards the apartment across the famous Charles Bridge. The bridge is always packed with tourists and touts, but I stopped at one particular guy who was cutting out silhouettes from small pieces of black paper. The guy was frankly astonishing, and hugely skilled. So, for just 200 Czech Crowns (about £6) I sat while the guy stared at my profile and, with just a small pair of scissors, cut my silhouette on the spot, in about three minutes.

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Also he was not hard on the eyes.

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And here’s my silhouette. Though I think he perhaps softened my chin a bit, and played up the eyelashes. I kind of think of it as Animé Pam. Still, pretty good. The hair in particular is impressive.

There’s more to tell about Prague. More food and more sites and more wacky adventures, which I'll attempt to blog about some time before Christmas. But that Sunday, after all the walking and shopping and pastry and tiny sombreros there was not much to do but drag our tired feet back to the apartment, where we could rest and drink wine and catch up some more and laugh a lot. Because actually, that was the whole point.