Birmingham Day Two: Cocoa & Curry

Sunday, February 23, 2020

After a cracking first day in Birmingham which included not just the Back to Backs but also a quick tour of the trendy Digbeth neighbourhood and a choral concert in Birmingham Cathedral, I was ready for more adventures and some company. But first I enjoyed breakfast at a ridiculously friendly café near the AirBnb, where I lingered in the warmth, read the paper, and basked in the glow of a truly excellent Full English, killing time before going to meet my four companions for the day when their train from London arrived at Birmingham New Street and we transferred for the short hop to Bournville, the physical and spiritual home of the Cadbury chocolate dynasty.

John Cadbury opened the first Cadbury shop in Birmingham in 1824 where he sold tea, coffee and a chocolate cocoa drink he prepared himself using a mortar and pestle. These hot drinks were intended as replacements for alcohol, which was frowned on by Cadbury’s Quaker faith. The shop was successful enough that in 1831 he started a commercial factory nearby producing 16 varieties of drinking chocolate and 11 kinds of cocoa. In 1847 an even larger premises was secured in central Birmingham. And by 1861 John Cadbury retired and passed the business on to his sons Richard and George, who planned the company’s next steps.

An early advertisement for Cadbury’s Cocoa

When a further expansion was needed in 1878 George Cadbury decided to try to create a factory that was a world apart from the dirty industry of Birmingham’s 1000 trades and crowded Back to Backs. Instead he sought out a parcel of land just four miles south of the city and convenient to both the railroad and canal where he built not just a new factory, but an entire model village to house Cadbury factory workers and their families. (And here I use “model” in the sense of “ideal”, not this.) Which is why we had to travel the short distance to Bournville, still a happily inhabited village and the aforementioned premises of Cadbury’s for the last 138 years.

Along with establishing a new factory, George Cadbury paid for the construction of a number of cottages for factory workers to ‘ameliorate the condition of the working-class and labouring population... by the provision of improved dwellings, with gardens and open space to be enjoyed therewith'. The village grew and George built more and more houses, along with extensive parks, field hockey and football pitches, and indoor and outdoor swimming lidos for the benefit of his workers. In 1900, he established the Bournville Village Trust, which still manages the rental of low income housing and maintains many green spaces and other facilities. Bournville is still a going concern and in 2003 was touted as the “nicest place to live in Britain”, though the one notable lack in the community is the absence of pubs. (Shock! Horror!) True to his Quaker faith, George Cadbury did not allow drinking establishments in Bournville, a prohibition that stands to this day.

And now, finally, on to the chocolate! In addition to the actual development and manufacture of chocolate, Cadbury’s now also operates Cadbury World - an attraction for visitors that’s so popular we had to buy timed entry tickets in advance. And while Cadbury’s chocolate is now manufactured at other sites as well, the development of every Cadbury product, including the iconic Dairy Milk, Flake, Milk Tray, Double Decker, Wispa, and Creme Egg happens at Bournville.

When we finally got to the front of the queue after killing time in the World’s Biggest Cadbury Shop, we were each given two full sized chocolate bars to sustain us through the attraction - a Crunchie and a Dairy Milk Oreo. (For the record, among the myriad varieties that have been spun off from the classic Dairy Milk are Dairy Milk 30% Less Sugar, Dairy Milk Big Taste Toffee Wholenut, Dairy Milk Big Taste Triple Choc, Dairy Milk Big Taste Bacon Blast, and Dairy Milk Premier League Pitch. One can only hope that the last one refers to the shape of the bar and not the flavour.) (Also, I might have made up one of those.) Thus fortified, we ventured in.

The experience starts with a fairly standard issue set of slightly creepy dioramas on the origins of chocolate, an area called the "Aztec Jungle”, which skips through the discovery of the Mexican delicacy by western explorers.

The story quickly turns to the Cadbury family, complete with the video commentary from actors portraying the Cadburys, père et fils. Thankfully, there was only a minimal amount of the tedious live action role-play that vexes me so much. There was, however, a very cheesy video about chocolate making where the audience seating benches actually shook back and forth to mimic the agitated journey of the cocoa beans through the manufacturing process. I think there was also a puff of air somewhere around our ankles at the point where the cocoa husks were blown away from the beans. Truly, it was a multi-sensory experience. There were further displays on manufacturing, but it was more fun when we got to attempt for ourselves the notoriously tricky process of tempering liquid chocolate.

One of two large tables where the ubiquitous purple-coated oompa loompas demonstrated tempering chocolate by hand. There were large signs nearby warning that we were NOT to eat this chocolate. However, we had recently been given ANOTHER full Dairy Milk Bar, so it’s not like we were gagging for the stuff anyway.

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Poised to display my savant-like skill in manual chocolate tempering. 
Or possibly in spackling walls.

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Soon after there was this bar where you could get a little cup of liquid meted chocolate that most assuredly was for eating, topped with various crumbly yummy things like Cadbury Buttons and crushed Oreos and mini marshmallows. Like a sundae bar, but without bulking up the whole thing with tedious scoops of ice cream.

After that extra sugar injection, it was on to a section about Cadbury’s advertising through the ages. It think this was probably the favourite area, despite that fact that only two of the five of us had grown up with Cadbury’s advertising and hence the rest were mostly baffled by the nostalgia reminiscences of the cheeky Wispa commercials and the Fudge Finger song. Still it was amusing to see the early print adds touting the health benefits of cocoa.

“Contains in a remarkable degree those natural elements of sustenance that give the system endurance and hardihood… Light refreshing and invigorating to the jaded mind and body” - Family Doctor.

But best by far was the oddly morbid but brilliant 2008 campaign for Creme Eggs, “Here today, Goo Tomorrow.” These short spots featuring stop motion animated Cadbury Eggs meeting their doom in various Heath Robinson-esque ways and are so utterly fantastic that you have to watch all of them right now.

Don’t even think about skipping this. It’s too brilliant.

Soon after we exited through the gift shop, home to a predictably dizzying array of chocolate products at such suspiciously low prices that it was hard to contain oneself.

For instance these Dairy Milk bars were about half the size of that small child for a mere £5.00. They also have what purported to be the world’s largest Toblerone bars - 4.5 kg of triangular goodness for £45.00. I was relatively restrained and only picked up a few bars of the new Dark Milk variety and a slab of the recently reintroduced Bournville Old Jamaica.

After we escaped the gift shop and were back in the harsh light of day we tried to visit one of the other attractions - the 4D Chocolate Adventure - but the queue for that was 45 minutes long and we’d already been shaken in our seats like naughty cocoa beans, so instead we popped into the Bournville Experience, a small museum on the history of the town itself and George Cadbury’s philosophy behind it. There was also a large display of almost 2,000 bits of Cadbury memorabilia gathered by one Gill Cocks, who donated her entire collection to the company in 2009. What we most assuredly did NOT do was stop in the Cadbury Café which had on its menu such delights as “Beef Chili with Cadbury Chocolate Sauce” and “Chilli Con Carne and boiled rice with Cadbury chocolate and tortillas”.

And this abomination. Shudder. For the love of all that is holy Cadbury, give it a rest!

We eventually escaped Bournville and its satanic mash feeling slightly queasy from too much chocolate and ready to find a drink and dinner. (Or at least I was most definitely ready for that.) After a brief detour for some sight-seeing in central Birmingham and a pint at a warm canalside pub we were ready to contemplate one last adventure, in the form of an unexpected but famous Brummie specialty.

Balti is a particular form of curry dinner that is popularly believed to have originated not on the crowded streets of Delhi or steamy southern beaches of Goa but in Birmingham in the 1970s. Balti refers to the meal itself and to the dish it comes in - a balti dish being a individually sized wok-shaped metal bowl pressed out of thin steel in which the meal is both cooked and served. It’s normally accompanied by naan bread instead of rice, with the bread used to scoop up the food and wipe the dish clean. Balti Houses, most of which are clustered in Birmingham’s famed “Balti Triangle”, are normally not licensed but allow diners to bring their own alcohol. Birmingham’s Balti heritage is so strong that in 2015 it was given EU Protected Name Status, like Melton Mowbray Pork Pies or Cornish Clotted Cream.

I’d never had a Balti before so I was excited to give it a go, especially since we’d taken pains to go to a particularly recommended Balti House - Adil’s - that served the famed “table naan” - bread so big it’s meant to cover the whole tabletop. How could we not go to a place that serves food the size of furniture?

It really is big.

The Balti itself was nice, but I didn’t find it particularly different from any number of other Indian dishes I’ve had before. It’s meat and veg in spicy sauce, in a metal dish. True, there were a lot of possible variations on that theme - Adil’s had twelve different styles of Balti, each available with chicken, chicken mince, chicken tikka, beef, beef mince, lamb tikka, vegetable, prawn or king prawn. Or you could mix and match your own combination. It was frankly a bit hard to navigate and despite everyone ordering something different what ended up arriving all looked (and to some extent tasted) pretty much the same. Still the food was tasty and the naan was huge and by that time in the day I was just glad there was nothing on the menu that came topped with Cadbury Chocolate Sauce and slices of Creme Egg. The only real snag was that the neighbouring shop-that-sold-wine didn’t open in time for us to have a glass with dinner (which seems like appallingly bad business sense on the part of Tom’s Wines and Spirits, through we eventually got over it).

And that was Birminghan, Day Two. However before I sign off, I'll let you know what I did with that Bournville Old Jamaica bar on a subesquent Sunday afternoon, when Storm Ciara hit. Tucked up at the marina there was no real danger, but the winds were still fierce and the boat rocked and the ropes creaked and the rain poured so I literally did not set foot outside for the whole day. Instead I hunkered down and, inspired by my reminiscences of Cadbury's, whipped up a batch of brownies from the collection of recipes on their website. (Which include this little number. I'm surprised it doesn't appear on the menu at the Cadbury World Café.) The only chocolate I had hanging around that I wanted to put in brownies (as opposed to putting directly in my face without the intervening baking processes) was the Old Jamaica bar and a rogue Dairy Milk. Hence the rum and raisin twist I imposed on the more classic recipe.

Bournville Old Jamaica Rum & Raisin Brownies

120g Bournville Old Jamaica Rum and Raisin Dark Chocolate (Astute GSWPL Readers without access to this delight could probably substitute other dark chocolate and add a splash of rum extract.)
120g butter or margarine
2 eggs
165g sugar
50g flour plus a bit
30g cocoa plus a bit (I even had actual Cadbury's Bournville cocoa on board!)
1 ounce rum (Rum! Mark my words, it's going to be the next big thing. We've reached Peak Gin. Gin is over. Rum's the thing.)
1/3 cup raisins (Just don't even think about bringing any raisin-hate my way. Or claiming it's an abomination to add raisins to brownies or whatever. My blog, my rules. Give me raisins or give me death!)

Soak the raisins in the rum. Let them sit for at least half an hour. (It helps to stab them repeatedly with a fork so the rum soaks in better. Also it’s fun.)
Preheat the oven to 175C (350F).
Line an 8” x 8" (20cm x 20cm) cake tin with parchment paper.
Melt the chocolate and butter in a double boiler (Bain Marie for UK readers) and then cool slightly.
Whisk together the eggs and sugar until thick and creamy and then fold into the slightly cooled chocolate/butter mix.
Mix the flour and cocoa together and stir it into everything else. (Note the recipe called for sifting this, but we know my thoughts on sifting already.)
Once you get tired of soaking the raisins squeeze off the excess rum, down it in one shot, and then dust the raisins lightly in a mix of flour and cocoa.
Fold the raisins into the batter.
Pour into the tin and bake for 20 minutes, until the middle is set but not too set.
Allow to cool before cutting.


Back to Backs in Brum

Sunday, February 9, 2020

Piran was going with some other friends anyway, to tour the Cadbury Factory. So I figured I might as well tag along because who wouldn't want the chance to play Charlie Bucket? And then I figured I should probably go the night before, since getting to the train station from my current mooring is a faff and they were leaving early. And then I thought if I’m going for one night I might as well go for two and actually see some of the town. Plus it was kind of my birthday weekend anyway. Which is how I ended up spending three(ish) days in Birmingham, England’s second city.

Quick Birmingham primer: First, it's pronounced BURR-ming-um. Not, under any circumstances, BURR-ming-HAM. (And while I'm at it please, for the love of God, can someone tell Canadian news readers that it's BUCK-ing-um Palace. Not BUCK-ing-HAM. Maybe I'm just overly sensitive due to the wall-to-wall coverage of the Harry and Meaghan thing but it's just got to stop.) Ok. Birmingham. The second largest city in the UK (population four million-ish in the metro area) is about 100 miles north and a bit west of London and was once the hub of a huge amount of skilled manufacturing, large and small, leading to its nickname: "the city of a thousand trades". Also affectionately called "Brum", the residents are known as Brummies and the Brummie accent is notable and distinctive. Being a former industrial hub, it's also got a lot of canals. If I'd kept going north on the Grand Tour instead of turning towards Oxford I'd have ended up in Birmingham. Brummies like to remind you that their city has more miles of canals than Venice. Oh, and of course there's "Peaky Blinders".

Moving on: the first order of business when I arrived on Friday afternoon was a warming lunch of ramen, because it was chilly and rainy and my next stop was a pre-booked tour of the Birmingham Back to Backs in what is now Chinatown, which promised to be interesting but not centrally heated. Back to Backs are a form of terraced house that were once very common in cities like Birmingham, Leeds, Liverpool, and Manchester. As the name implies, Back to Back house were built along a common back wall and - as with other terraced houses - with shared side walls as well. The front was the only wall with windows and doors. With so much shared structure it was a very inexpensive way of building a lot of houses, a necessity for the rapidly expanding factory towns in the late 18th and 19th centuries.

Back to Backs were built cheaply, often very substandard construction, and with no inside toilets, water or electricity. With only one open wall for doors and windows ventilation was bad, and they were poorly lit. Sharing outdoor toilets and a communal laundry room among all the residents of the courtyard, disease was also common and residents of Back to Backs were noted to have poorer health than more salubriously accommodated citizens. Nevertheless, the pressing need for housing and the cheapness of the form meant that at one point there were thousands in Birmingham alone and more than half a million people lived in Back to Backs. The Birmingham Back to Backs are the last surviving courtyard of this once ubiquitous form and are now owned by the National Trust and operated as a museum.

The Back to Backs Museum, exterior. The narrow arched opening on the right is the entrance to the central courtyard. And the corner is now a traditional Sweet Shop!

Our tour guide was excellent, and the museum is set up really well. Each of the four preserved houses is styled in a different time period, showing the progression of time and relative improvement in living conditions right until the last tenant of the last house left in 2000 (a commercial tailor… but more on him later). It’s particularly poignant because the houses depict the life of real people known to have lived in those very houses.

We assembled in the courtyard where you can see the other end of the arched access corridor on the left. The tour began in the house whose address was styled as “1 back of 50 Inge Street”, meaning that anyone who knew your address knew you lived in a Back to Back.

Number 1 was styled for 1830 and unlike most National Trust properties, in the Back to Backs we were encouraged to touch things, which was really refreshing. Our guide even told us it was fine to sit on the furniture and poke around in drawers and such. There was a decent coal fire burning in the grate on the ground floor, so I positioned myself there while listening. The detail in the rooms is impressive, (reminding me a bit of this place) but we were asked not to take photos of the interiors, so I’m relying here on photos from other people who flouted the rules and then brazenly posted their misdeeds online, supplemented with some nice shots by the National Trust itself.

The 1830s ground floor sitting dining room, including stencilled wall pattern in lieu of wallpaper. Apparently wallpaper was heavily taxed at the time and dodging the tax could result in the death penalty! I’m definitely a bleeding heart liberal, but even so I think we can all agree that execution for interior design is a bit harsh. And if you really must, then surely there are greater crimes than wallpaper? Like what about wall-to-wall carpet in the bathroom? That surely deserves at least a good flogging.

The houses had just one room on each of three floors with a narrow winding staircase linking them. Those stairs were an elfin safety nightmare and our guide warned us to be careful approximately eleven zillion times. The next level was the main bedroom, with a smaller bed for a child in the same room. On this level, they’d also knocked through to the front unit facing the street, which has been left in the state in which it was found when the National Trust acquired the property in 2000. It’s in a sorry state, with a lot of peeling plaster and layers and layers of paint and wallpaper (the tax was eventually repealed). Interestingly, the other two front-facing halves of the Back to Backs museum have been renovated into holiday homes that can be rented! One is done in Victorian style and one in 1930s style, with appropriate furniture and fittings and with the mod cons like a kitchenette and bathroom tucked away but still functional. Fun, but a bit out of my price range for a quick wekeend getaway.

The upper floor of 1830s house was set up as a bedroom for two boys and also housed the workbench for the father of the house, whose trade was making the cut brass hands for clocks. It was fantastic to be able to paw through the tools on the bench, which was set in the window on the highest floor to make the most of every hour of daylight available.

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You can just see a flattish peg jutting out from the concave cutout in the front edge of the work table, which is called a peg bench, and is common in jewellery and watchmaking even today. The wear and tool marks on the peg are unique to each craftsman, but the connection is universal, so a maker could remove his peg from one bench and slot it into another if moving among different workshops. Apparently this is the origin of “square peg in a round hole”! (This photo from the National Trust. Nicely done with the lighting effect here, NT.)

Moving into the 1870s house, you could see already that the living situation had improved. In 1830 all water had to be carried through the streets by the bucketful from a local standpipe. They had an example of the bucket in 1830-land and even empty it was hefty. Apparently it was common to send children as young as six years old many times a day to haul water. It must have been an exciting moment when around the time of the 1870s house a water pipe was installed in the shared courtyard.

The 1870s family - the Oldfields - had ten children, so one bedroom included a double bed in which four kids slept, topping and tailing (two at the head end and two at the foot end). Also crammed into the same small room was another narrow bed, curtained off with a single suspended bedsheet. This was let out to two strangers - possibly of mixed gender and not known to each other - who’d have to share the bed for sixpence a week, not including meals. It’s also worth noting that each bedroom I saw had a fireplace, but it was unlikely to have been used much. Coal was expensive, so fires were kept lit in the ground floor sitting room, but the other rooms were rarely heated. (A bit like living on a boat...)

Like the watchmaker from 1830, Mr. Oldfield also practised his trade from home, and the ground floor of the 1870s house included the worktable where he made glass eyes for taxidermy and for people who were victims of all-too-frequent industrial accidents. His tools included a tiny gas torch that was used to heat sections of thin glass rod in many different colours, which he’d mix carefully to match a customer’s eye colour exactly.

Mr. Oldfield’s Output (another photo from the National Trust)

Moving into the 1930s things improved significantly. The 1930s house had running water in the scullery and an electric light in the ceiling. The most interesting part of 1930 was in an upper floor bedroom where one of the beds was covered in a collection of seemingly random objects that we were encouraged to play with. Evidently the National Trust is oversupplied with odds and sods that people donate so they lay some as a way of getting use from things. Many of the items were hard to identify, but I was quite taken with a handheld device that resembled an oversized cigarette case, but had a handle that dragged a centre section back and forth on a rack and pinion system while flipping it over at each end. It turned out to be a device for stropping razor blades that would go into safety razors. A highly satisfying little mechanical gizmo.

The last building we visited was also the last to be occupied. It ended its working life not as a family home but as a tailor’s shop run by Mr. George Saunders. He ran his business in that location from 1974 to 2000, when he retired and donated the contents of the shop to the National Trust, who’ve preserved it as he left it. This was the only area of the Back to Backs Museum where we were forbidden to touch anything.

Tailor work room
The preserved work room above George Saunders’ shop.

George’s story is remarkable. A Caribbean immigrant who arrived in the UK from St. Kitts in 1958 he experienced such prejudice as a black person in the tailoring trade that he had to take work in a biscuit factory for years while saving up money to set up his own shop. He bought four Back to Backs and ended up knocking through the upper floors to create a work room big enough for a 25’ long cutting table, utterly ignoring the total lack of structure that resulted from removing the interior walls. Luckily, everything stayed standing throughout his 25 years of trading, though the National Trust were quick to swoop in with acro-props and engineers when they took over the property.

George Saunders Bespoke Tailoring was a respected fixture in Birmingham and though it was a small shop, George had some important and longstanding contracts, including making riding breeches for the Royal Guard and supplying uniforms for schools in Libya. No wonder he needed the extra space. And I’ve mentioned that the stairs in the Back to Backs were exceedingly steep, so you can probably infer that there wasn’t much headroom in those stairwells either. This makes it all the more remarkable that George Saunders managed to occupied the space for 25 years, considering he was 6’ 8” tall. Apparently he suffered from frequent bumps on the noggin. After his retirement George remained a friend to the Back to Backs, though one hopes the frequency of concussions was greatly reduced.

The last stop on the tour was back in the central courtyard to visit the shared facilities.

The earliest shared toilet was a simple bucket, emptied into a central cesspit in the courtyard that was also used for ash and other waste, called a miskin (a word still used in the local dialect for a dustbin). Later innovations saw a plumbed water closet installed, though it was still outside, shared, and very much unheated. It wasn’t until the 1960s when indoor, private toilets might have been installed in the houses themselves.

Next to the toilets was the wash house where laundry was done. This room was also sometimes called the Brewis (more of that local dialect, it’s a contraction of Brewhouse) where men would brew beer in between wash days. The wash house had a large water vessel suspended above a fire where water could be heated to wash clothes. Anything and everything might be burned in this fire to save on coal, including using dried potato peelings as kindling. And of course the water to fill the copper would have to be hauled by hand so it’s no wonder the hot water was used not just for washing clothes but also for boiling whelks, eggs and potatoes, steaming a pudding, or washing the baby.

Wash days were assigned to each household to prevent conflict. Which is good, because it wouldn’t do to get one of those heavy irons upside the head for jumping the queue.

We finished up outside in the courtyard close to two hours after starting and I was very happy to spend a few minutes warming up in the neighbouring sweet shop where I stocked up on rum balls for the trek to my AirBnb. Once ensconced there I quickly cozied up under a blanket with a cup of tea. There was still a lot more on the agenda in Birmingham, but that's another blog. So stay tuned for lots and lots of chocolate, another dip into Birmingham's industrial past, and naan bread big enough to shelter under.

GRUB!: Toad in the Hole

Sunday, January 26, 2020

It's been a very quiet start to 2020 here at Go Stay Work Play Live World Headquarters on board the Lucky Nickel. I’m stalled on two different work projects waiting for other people to do things, and motivation for any grand project or adventure has been low, so I’m contenting myself with minor boat maintenance and brief excursions into the outside world. (And a bit of wassailing of course.)

And photographing stunning sunrises like this one.

We’ve had some quite blustery weather of late, which along with the long travel times for me to get from the marina to anywhere besides Tesco, and the fact that dusk seems to come at about 3:15pm, has meant that I’ve been mostly cocooned in the boat listening to the ropes creak and bingeing on videos. As I said, I’m easing in.

Along with the foul weather and general aimlessness comes the desire for properly cozy food and the time to faff around with it. And since I’d rather cook up something yummy from the comfort of my home than venture out into the rain and wind to find something to blog about, it seemed a good time to pick from the list of potential GRUB! topics. Thus, Toad in the Hole! (Though I did ponder treacle tart quite seriously. All in good time.)

Toad in the Hole is a dish that falls into that enormous category of foodstuffs where meat - in this case sausages - is the star, supported and surrounded by a comforting carbohydrate of some form. The intention with these dishes is to stretch a small amount of an expensive ingredient into a meal for many people (like fish pie or, say, shaving black truffles over a big pot of Kraft Dinner.) I’ll admit now that I’d never had Toad in the Hole before I decided to try it out on this occasion, and if I’d given it any particular thought I suppose I’d assumed the the “hole” into which the toad sausage was planted was some kind of potatoey something-or-other.

(Pause for cries of shock and outrage)

Of course I was woefully misinformed on this subject. Toad in the Hole is, of course, comprised of sausages nestled in a crisp and tasty bed of Yorkshire pudding! This was a revelatory discovery and certainly put a bit more spring in my culinary step as I contemplated supper.

I suppose now I should pause because there’s a chance that somewhere out there in GSWPL-land there may be some sadly deprived readers who are living a grey and unfulfilled Yorkshire pudding-less existence. My condolences to you if you are one of those people, but cheer up because you are about to be introduced to the glory that is Yorkshire pudding!

First of all, this is one of those cases where we’re using the term pudding in its broadest possible sense meaning, basically, food. It’s not Bill Cosby Jell-o pudding custardy thing, and it’s not a chilled and set sweet thing like summer pudding. It’s also not a sweet steamed effort like sticky toffee pudding or Christmas pudding and it’s not a steamed savoury thing like steak and kidney pudding. Or even a sausagey sort of thing like black pudding. (And now I just have to pause and comment that I have blogged about a LOT of pudding.) Unaccountably, Yorkshire pudding is a light and airy baked affair that’s closest cousin is probably American style popovers. Which is to say that it’s a thin batter of flour, egg and liquid, baked with some fat and resulting in a crispy light puffed up golden brown thing that’s really really really good with gravy. Traditionally it’s made in a large baking dish and cut up to be served but it’s actually very common (at least when you’re not in Yorkshire) to get little individual Yorkshire puddings made in muffin tins. These little ones have the advantage of being mostly hollow when done correctly, meaning they are a perfect vessel for gravy.

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Yorkshire puddings made in a muffin tin, from Mary Berry’s recipe. Note that Yorkshire puddings are often simply referred to as “Yorkshires” or even simply “Yorkies” (Not to be confused with the dogs or the chocolate bars.)

So, Toad in the Hole is sausages in Yorkshire pudding. Simple. Filling. Sure to be delicious. And because it was sad to contemplate Yorkshires without gravy, I decided to whip up some onion gravy to go along, since it was mentioned in one of the recipes I found and gravy is pretty much always a good idea.

The gathering of ingredients, along with the chosen baking dish.

My effort was based on this recipe from the Guardian, though I’ve noted changes I made.

Toad in the Hole with Onion Gravy:

For the Toad:
6 sausages (I used 4. There’s only one of me and I suspected that a day’s worth of leftovers would be plenty.)

For the Hole:
3 tbsp beef dripping or good lard (I just used olive oil, which was the only oil I generally stock)
2 eggs
100g plain flour, sifted, plus 1 tbsp extra for the gravy. (Sifted? Who has time to sift? I’m unemployed and even I don’t have the time for that. Life is too short to sift.)
85ml whole milk
85ml ale (I think this is meant to add lightness to the batter but it’s probably very optional. Just make sure to end up with the right total amount of liquid.)
2 tbsp wholegrain mustard
1 tbsp neutral oil (Or perhaps might I suggest... olive oil?)

For the gravy:
2 medium onions
A bit more oil (Like maybe olive oil?)
500ml (2 cups) of beef stock (A stock cube is fine. This is not the Cordon Bleu.)
A bit of flour

1. Take the batteries out of the smoke detector. You’ll thank me later.

2. Put the oil/dripping in the pan and put it in the oven, which you are about to turn on.

3. Heat the pan with the oil to one million degrees. (This is the one thing that EVERYONE mentions about making Yorkshire pudding: you must get the fat in the pan very hot. Very, very hot. Mary Berry says “absolutely piping hot”. My mom says “screaming hot”. And my mate Simon says, “it should be one degree away from taking down the whole neighbourhood”. Note this might be slightly less that one millions degrees. Perhaps try setting the oven for 200-220ºC/400-450ºF.)

4. Brown the sausages and then set them aside. They’ll cook through in the oven, but won’t get that nice browned look without this step. Plus then you can use all the crunchy leftover bits in the pan for the gravy.

5. Make the batter by cracking the eggs into a large bowl and beating vigorously with a whisk or electric beater, until thick and voluminous. Beat in the flour and milk alternately in small amounts, until you have a smooth batter.

I don’t have an electric beater, but I do have this nifty little hand-cranked food processor sort of thing that I got at a dollar store in Azerbaijan. I has a chopping blade, a whipping attachment and a basket for spin-drying greens. Genius little device, plus this was the first time I’ve got to use the whipping thingy, so yay!

4. Add the ale and mustard and beat again. (At this point the batter will be worryingly runny and you might want to WhatsApp your mom if she is a seasoned Yorkshire pudding maker and send her a quick video of the runniness, after which she will assure you that it looks fine and mention AGAIN that the fat really must be very very VERY hot.)

5. Let the batter sit for a bit while you’re waiting for the oven rack to start melting, which is a good indication that the fat is almost hot enough. (This is the point at which I had the little boat oven turned up to gas mark nine, which is as high as it goes. That’s supposed to be equivalent to 275 deg c but was actually hovering around 200 on my oven thermometer. This is also the point at which I started to think my first Yorkshire puddings were not going to set any records for awesomeness.)

6. Get the fire extinguisher out of the cupboard and set it nearby. Remove the pan of hot fat from the oven and quickly pour in the batter, which should sizzle when it hits the oil. Add the sausages after that, take photo for your blog (optional), and then get the whole thing back in the oven. Bake for about 35 minutes until the batter has risen beautifully and is golden brown and delicious. (Alternatively, peer helplessly through the grease-spattered window of your inadequate oven trying to see if it’s rising at all.)

Optional Photo. Yes everything is kind of swimming in fat. 
This is not a diet food situation, people.

7. In between peering, get on with the gravy. Slice the onion thinly, add a bit more oil to the sausage pan, and get it all on the heat. The onion should cook slowly on low heat. Really slowly. They shouldn’t brown so much as melt. Help things along by adding a bit of stock to the pan.

8. Once the onions have cooked down a lot add most of the stock and let it cook down more to thicken. Once you get tired of waiting for it to thicken, add a spoon of flour to the remaining stock and mix it into a slurry and then pour that in to thicken things up because honestly who has time to wait for gravy to thicken when there is Yorkshire pudding to be had?

9. Get the Toad in the Hole out of the oven.

10. Put the batteries back in the smoke detector (do NOT forget this step) and put away the fire extinguisher.

11. Eat!

The finished dish. Not much rise on the Yorkshire pudding, but the gravy’s looking decent.

And that's Toad in the Hole, Lucky Nickel style. I also steamed some broccoli to go along with it, and even though the Yorkshire pudding was nothing like as high and light as it could have been, it still tasted like Yorkshire pudding, if a bit more dense. Plus I had almost a whole can of beer left and lots of gravy, so all in all I’m calling this a success and a very worthwhile way to spend an evening.

Here we come a wassailing!

Sunday, January 12, 2020

I’m finally back in London, back on the boat, and settling in to 2020. But there was one last festive event to attend before the first Monday morning of the new year: Twelfth Night!

As any fule kno, Twelfth Night occurs twelve days after Christmas and the day before Epiphany (the day on which the Magi visited the Christ Child). These two days are traditionally seen as the end of the Christmas season and many people take them as a cue to pack up the Christmas tree and get on with the drudgery of January. I took them as a cue to shake off the jet-lag of the previous day’s red-eye flight and accept Piran’s invitation to breakfast and a Twelfth Night celebration at Bankside, which promised to include wassailing, a Green Man, twelfth cake, mummery and a good old fashioned farandole. I mean how could you not?

First things first: wassailing has nothing to do with sailing. Wassail is a hot mulled cider drink whose name derives from the Old English “was hál” meaning “be hale”. Which is a lot like the Russian drinking salute "На здоровье!” meaning “to health”. (Also used in French, German, Italian, Greek, Irish, Spanish, Welsh... I could go on). It’s a toast! Which is funny because wassail is traditionally served with slices of toast floating in it and sipped from a big communal drinking vessel called a wassail bowl. Hence, the lyrics to the carol:
"Wassail! wassail! all over the town,
Our toast it is white and our ale it is brown;
Our bowl it is made of the white maple tree;
With the wassailing bowl, we'll drink unto thee."
Wassail is integral to the practice of wassailing, which comes in two forms. The first is very similar to carolling, involving going door-to-door singing and offering drinks from the wassail bowl (hence the lyrics of the song). The second, and more appropriate to my Twelfth Night festivities, is particular to apple and cider producing areas of England and involves visiting the local orchards on Twelfth Night, to drink and sing to the health of the cider apple trees and ensure a good harvest the next year. Often the soggy wassail toast is placed is the branches of the trees by the Wassail Queen (more on her later) as a gift to the tree spirits.

It’s all very folky and earthy, which brings us to the next component: the Green Man. He's frequently seen as carved stone decoration in churches and secular buildings and normally depicted as a face completely covered in or made from leaves. It seems like it must be some kind of ancient folklore so I was surprised to discover that this centuries-old architectural motif wasn’t even named “The Green Man” until 1939. Since that time the Green Man has been adopted as a counter-culture symbol of nature, rebirth, and the cycle of the seasons, which is how we found him on Twelfth Night, in his winter form as the Holly Man. (The Green Man is also a very popular pub name, with at least seven Green Mans in the Greater London area.)

The Holly Man and his supporters, crossing the Thames on the Millennium Bridge.

This is where Piran and I joined the crowd on Sunday morning, having enjoyed a very piggy breakfast which included three kinds of pig-derived yumminess and walked through the city to catch up with the revelry just as the Holly Man and his gang (including a piper!) were starting across the bridge at St. Paul's. The Holly Man himself is portrayed by David Risley, who dons the green every year, re-making the living bits every time. (I know this because of course the Green Man has a facebook page. Also: Piran told me.) His makeup was particularly impressive, as you’ll see later.

The Bankside Twelfth Night celebrations are led each year by a group of performers called the Lions Part, who also do an autumnally themed thing in October. We followed the Holly Man & Co. across the bridge to the riverbank near the Globe Theatre, where they were met by the other half of the company who’d paraded over from the George Inn (more on the George later).

More mummers arriving in thier distinctive costumes completely covered in multicoloured rags. They’re thought to originate with Mummers’ humble roots when poor performers would turn their only coat inside out and decorate the lining with cheap strips of discarded cloth.

After everyone arrived the group proceeded to wassail the boats on the river and the Globe Theatre, with the support and encouragement of the actual Mayor of Southwark, who appeared in full ceremonial robes. Luckily I’d bought a program so could recite along with the wassailing toast before the whole company moved a bit further east to get ready for the Mummers' Play.

Mummers' plays date from around mid to late 18th century and are traditional folk tales a bit like early pantos with a stock cast of characters that normally include the hero Saint George (or King George in our case, or Prince George... you get the idea) and a baddie called the Turkish Knight. These two fight to the death but then the vanquished character is brought back to life by the Doctor, who revives the casualty through odd and comic means, thus symbolically reawakening the earth from the dead of winter. Other characters also come into the play including Cleverlegs, a minstrel; Father Christmas; Beelzebub, who gives a topical monologue; and Jill Finney (modern gender-reversed version of the role) who exhorts cash donations from the crowd at the end of the performance. (I took a bunch of photos of the performance, but the sightline was awful so there’s no use posting them here.)

(Side note particularly for Far Eastern Canadians: Mummers and Mummers’ plays are obviously related to the old Newfoundland practise of mummering, wherein jolly gangs of mummers dress up in outrageous disguises which seem to require wearing extra-large undergarments outside your clothing. Mummers visit their neighbours houses where they sing, dance, tell jokes and do all manner of informal performance until the people in the house correctly guess their identities. The hosts are also expected to provide food and drink, and the whole thing sounds quite jolly. Oh, and these days there’s an annual parade!)

The final part of our Twelfth Night mummers' performance was the crowning of the Twelfth Night royalty: King Bean and Queen Pea. Small cakes - Twelfth Bakes - were given out to everyone in the crowd, and whoever got the pea and bean would be assigned the royal role. It's a bit like finding the sixpence in the Christmas Pudding but instead of conferring good luck, you get to be king for a day. The French do the same thing for Epiphany with King Cake.)

Handing out Twelfth Bakes.

So hopeful. Sadly, neither of us were crowned. The lucky two got to wear rustic handmade crowns. It’s thought that the simple paper crowns and other regalia once made for Twelfth Night royalty are the origins of the paper hats we now get in Christmas crackers.

With the royalty crowned it was time to move on, but to where? The pub, of course! The whole crowd was exhorted to join the mummers in a farandole all the way from the Globe Theatre to the George Inn on Borough High Street.

A farandole is a folk dance originating in France and in our case involved making a very very long moving human chain all the way to the pub, led by two of the mummers. Of course Piran and I joined in behind the Turkish Knight, who led a merry way through Southwark and Borough Market, winding and bending as much as possible and necessitating a few cries of “Mind the bollards!” as each obstacle was encountered. The line started out quite short, though it did include a guy who’d arrived on his Brompton. Rather than miss out, he simply hung onto the handlebars of his folded bike, and the next person in the line hung onto the seat. I thought this was quite clever since Bromptons can get tiring to carry on your own.

Of course I’ve got no photos of the farandole because both my hands were occupied the whole time. But it was quite fun, despite the awkward rotation of the shoulder that was required to stay connected with the woman behind me. The path to the pub was about half a mile long - not a short distance to travel without breaking the chain, especially with more and more people joining along the route. We also had to cross Borough High Street, a major thoroughfare. Luckily, mummer volunteers in rags and hi-vis vests were along to stop traffic, though by the time we at the front of the line were at the pub, the tail was still on the other side of the road at least 350 feet away. I’ve no idea how they managed to hold back the traffic for that long but one of the mummers was very excited because apparently this was the first year they’ve got all the way to the pub without breaking the chain! Surely this bodes well for 2020.

And now finally: The George Inn!

It’s a fantastic pub, and one I’ve been to many times. The last remaining galleried coaching inn in London, there’s been a pub on the site since the late 1500s! The inside is a rambling collection of cozy small rooms, but the big feature is the outside courtyard, especially lovely in summer. Sadly they no longer rent rooms so it's a bit of a stretch to call it an Inn, but I suppose when you've been around for 450-ish years you get a bit of leeway.

The galleried bit of “galleried inn”. (Neither of us got a decent photo of the yard so this one is from Wikimedia: By Ewan Munro from London, UK - George, Borough, SE1, CC BY-SA 2.0)

When we arrived the yard was rammed already and the bar was worse, so I left Piran to help wassail the George Inn while I fetched the beer. The Lions Part gang did some singing and I heard there was storytelling in the Snug, though we did not partake. Mostly we just hung out in the yard catching up and grabbing photos with the mummers when we could.

2020-01-05 15.35.25
See what I mean about his makeup?

Night fell, and I polished off a pint of George ale and a cup of some kind of mulled cider which I suppose was basically wassail (not including toast) but was mostly nice because it was very warm and did not include toast. The festivities wound down slowly and eventually we left for the walk to the station, having seen off the festive season in proper fashion.

Wassail, Astute Go Stay Work Play Live Readers!

And Happy 2020. 

Merry Belated Christmas. I got you a blog.

Sunday, December 29, 2019

Hey remember me? I know, I know. Even taking into account the work factor, it’s been a longer break than usual (or possibly ever). Reminder: I was in Abu Dhabi working on the UAE's National Day show, which I’ve done twice before, in 2018 and 2015. (Shortest job re-cap ever: It was fine.) Then I was in London for a grand total of six days - just long enough to bail out the boat (not kidding), swap shorts and t-shirts for scarves and gloves in my suitcase, and do a quick blitz of Christmas shopping. Then six days in Winnipeg visiting. And now Saskatoon for Christmas. There. All caught up.

I did think I’d manage to get at least one other Abu Dhabi blog post up before work go to be too much. I even sought out a touristy destination and took lots of pictures and notes and then promptly did no further blogging of any sort. I blame the fact that we were on a six day work week, which meant that the seventh day was mostly consumed with life admin like buying groceries and doing laundry and general self care (mostly napping and eating pop-tarts for lunch while sitting mesmerised by endless YouTube videos of van life and tiny houses.) Life, you know? It’s what happens in between blogs.

Qasr Al Watan. Also known as the Presidential Palace. It was pretty. I didn’t blog about it.

I do love this work, and I'm amazed that people continue to pay me to live in interesting places and work on the largest shows on the planet. But the lifestyle comes with sacrifices and one of those is that it can be hard to maintain something like a normality when you live in a hotel, get up in the morning, and sit at the hotel breakfast buffet with your work colleagues. Then get on the shuttle bus with your work colleagues. Then you spend your twelve hour work day with your work colleagues. Then get back on the shuttle bus with the same people to go “home”. And then maybe go for a drink in the hotel bar with… everyone from work. Then rinse and repeat the next day for four months. The people that do these shows are lovely, brilliant, and amazing and I’m lucky to call them not just colleagues but friends. But honestly, I do not need to be with them 16 hours a day. Love ya, but please go away.

One of the things I do to mitigate this is to eat breakfast in my room, which makes life feel a lot more normal. And because I was in town for twice as long as I have been before, I connected with the Abu Dhabi branch of the Hash House Harriers, who have always been my go-to solution for helping get out of the work bubble. As ever, the Abu Dhabi Hash was full of friendly, crazy, like-minded people who welcomed me to the club and gave me a social group outside of work, which can be more precious than all the pop-tarts in the world.

My first run with the Abu Dhabi Hash was only a few days after I arrived, in mid-August. It will not surprise Astute Go Stay Work Play Live Readers to learn that August in Abu Dhabi is, and I’m going to be indelicate here, fucking hot. I was not surprised by this. What did surprise me was the humidity. It’s supposed to be the desert right? How can it be so humid? I remember arriving at the airport late in the evening and walking out of the overly air-conditioned terminal straight into a wall of damp heat, and being consumed with hysterical laughter. I think my driver was a bit alarmed but I couldn’t help it. It was just so ridiculous think that people were expected to exist in those conditions. Indonesia, yeah. Indonesia should be humid. It’s basically a jungle. But Abu Dhabi? Whaaaaat?

Still, on the first Monday I was in Abu Dhabi I dutifully hopped in a taxi and made my way to the start point of that week’s run, the middle of a giant, baking parking lot near the Presidential Palace. And it wasn’t long before a few brave souls arrived to make up a pack of… five. I guess even hashers have their limits. Most of them were either on vacation or not crazy enough to want to be out running in those temperatures.

Because these are not running conditions. These are conditions for making beef jerky.

Regardless, I managed to stagger around the 5k loop in a sprightly 40 minutes. Many many many walk breaks are required when “running” in those temperatures. And I was relieved that after the run we all made our way to a boat and had a lovely evening zipping around the water in the dark before mooring just off a sandy beach where we ate shawarmas and drank beer. Proper hashing!

I even managed to set my own running trail for the group while I was in town, before work got to be too much. This was nice, because setting a trail every once in a while is part of the deal, so I was glad to do it. However this did require me to go scout out the route several times in advance, meaning I was running outside even more than the once-weekly hash run. This proved challenging. I ran the trail at least three times in advance of the actual run date, just to make sure I had things figured out. And this was in mid-September when temperatures were still hovering somewhere between surface-of-the-sun and blast-furnace.

In those temperatures, any breeze might feel good. I say “might". It might also feel like you were running across a giant griddle while an enormous monster with bad breath exhaled fulsomely in your face. You might, while you were running, silently pray for the wind to stop, just for a bit. Then you might run into the lea of a large building where you were sheltered from the wind and you might then suddenly feel the full dead weight of the heat press into you and quickly decide that any breeze is better than no breeze and hasten to the next open stretch.

Yep. Running in the summer in Abu Dhabi is hard work.

However, running in the desert in November sounded like it might be a blast. By November the weather is noticeably more tolerable. It’s still hot during the day, but by evening it cools enough that it’s genuinely pleasant (as opposed to simply less awful). Sometimes you even want long sleeves. Which is why I organised my work calendar and warned my colleagues they’d have to cover for me one Saturday in early November so that I could go for the Abu Dhabi Hash House Harriers annual Rehydration Run.

Re-hy (rhyming with knee-high) sounded like a perfect day. Drive out to the desert, pitch a tent, run a trail full of themed drink stops, get back to camp in time for sunset, sit around a big campfire until all hours hanging out, drinking beer and having fun, pack up the next day and go back to work. Perfect. And because it’s the Hash, it took about three minutes before someone responded to my group WhatsApp request to borrow some camping gear, which was then delivered to me at work, and included a tent, sleeping bag and camp chair.

Setting up the tent in my living room, as a test. 

Getting to the campsite involved hitching a ride with another friendly hasher and then meeting up with a convoy of others at a gas station on the last stretch of paved road before the site. The convoy was a necessary precaution. I later learned that you basically don’t drive out into the desert by yourself because the odds of your vehicle getting stuck in the sand are so high you kind of always need a buddy to pull you out. It would be like leaving on a Christmas road trip on the prairies without jumper cables and a shovel.

Our car made it out the to the site, though several others got stuck, and the has rescue team spent a lot of time pulling cars out of the sand before we finally got around to starting the run. This left the rest of us free to set up camp, get the beer on ice, and take photos.

Of the campsite

On the haunted camel graveyard.

And here’s something that is obvious in retrospect: tent pegs do not work in the desert. Instead, tents are secured by tying them to heavy weights like plastic bags filled with the one thing you’re never going to run out of… sand. 

The other thing that is obvious in retrospect: everything you bring and every surface of your body will be completely coated in sand after approximately 4 minutes in the desert. Nothing is spared.

When we finally did get out on the trail, I contented myself with walking most (all) of the way. And how do you stop the sand getting in your shoes on a trek like that? Easy. Leave your shoes in the tent.

On the advice of those far more experienced, I walked 5k through the desert in my socks. And they were right, it was comfy and fine. Anyone who did wear shoes ended up having to stop frequently to pour out the sand anyway, and many ended the run in sock feet with their shoes hanging around their necks.

The run itself was longer than expected, and involved scaling a few wickedly high sand dunes. Happily, it was also punctuated with five different drink stops, each designed after a different TV show, which was the year’s theme.

Our first stop was ER, where we had appropriately anaesthetic libations.

Then it was on to Vikings, where we first had to negotiate with the advance raiding party.

Then on to a couple other stops, including “America’s Got Talent” (featuring a battery powered karaoke machine!) Before we got to the last stop, a golden oldie:

M*A*S*H! Complete with an IV bag of red wine.

Along the way there were ridiculously picturesque vistas

And the beginnings of a nice sunset

Once we got back to camp there was beer and food and a large bonfire. And of course there was a guy with a guitar so there was also a lot of singing including at least one loud rendition of “American Pie” and an excellent solo “Ring of Fire” by guitar guy putting on a heavy Irish accent, which gave that old standard an excellent fresh new sound. I stayed up late, sang songs, hung out, and finally made it to bed in the wee hours, very tired and completely coated in a thin layer of sand and sweat.

The next morning people roused themselves slowly and packed up. I had to be at work later that same day so when I got back to the hotel I had a bite of breakfast and one of the top three showers of my life and left the unpacking for that evening, so that I could attempt to prevent the sand from coating every surface in the room. This was marginally successful, though the hotel plumbing system must have had a bit of a shock when I finally shook everything out in the shower stall and rid my luggage of a few cups of desert sand.

So yes, I’m back. I’ll try to be a bit more regular with the blogging, though no promises about frequency (as usual). It might just be possible that after blogging more or less continuously for eleven years I’m getting just slightly burnt out. ELEVEN. YEARS. 480 posts. That’s probably about a million words. So maybe you should all count yourselves lucky that I’m still here at all, even if it’s four months between posts.

’Til next time.

Palm trees, pumps, and pop art

Saturday, August 31, 2019

Utterly uninspired. That’s what I’ve been lately. At least when it comes to blogging. Plus I figure you got way more than your usual ration of blogs through July, what with the whole Grand Tour thing, so I haven't been stressing much about the lack of output, blog-wise. Also I’ve actually been busy, mostly because a few weeks ago I packed my bags for a return visit to Abu Dhabi for this year’s edition of the show I did last year. I’m here earlier in the process than I have been before, so this gig is occupying a funny in-between status: still only half as long as a genuinely big job like Jakarta, but twice as long as the other times I’ve been here. Not short, not long. I guess it’s a Goldilocks Gig.

It’s all fine here. We’re in a different hotel than last year which, while lacking the OTT opulence and private beach of last year, is actually within walking distance of the stadium, so, you know, swings and roundabouts. Still there’s no denying it - I miss the beach. But only an utter ingrate would complain about being put up in a very nice hotel with 3 meals a day at the buffet and a lovely young man named Mazhar who brings me fresh towels every day and will apparently not be content until I’ve got at least 50 litres of bottled water stockpiled regardless of how may pleading notes I leave asking him to stop adding to the collection.

Nice room. It’s got a kitchenette, and the toaster and washing machine and fridge all behave, unlike last year. The couch is a bit cement-like but you can’t have everything.

Maybe it’s because I’ve been here twice before, or maybe I’m just getting kind of jaded in general, but I’ve not been at all inspired to go out and do things around Abu Dhabi this time around. The one thing I've managed to do is meet up with the Abu Dhabi Hash House Harriers. And, as ever, they turn out to be friendly and welcoming even if they are possibly more insane than other Hashes, because they run outside in Abu Dhabi in August. (Though of course they are universally incredulous when I tell that that yes, of course we hash in the winter in Canada, reasoning that running in 38° heat with 85% humidity might be uncomfortable, but running in -38° plus windchill is beyond imagining.)

It may make me sound like a broken record, but any time I’ve managed to connect with a Hash group while on a gig it’s always been a Good Thing. In fact, it’s probably simplest if I just copy and paste what I said here six (!) years ago when I was on my first overseas gig in Russia, because it’s the same pattern that’s repeated itself again and again around the world, and I’m still just as grateful for it now as I was then:
"As I mentioned, I've been running with the local Moscow chapter of the international "drinking club with a running problem". I've said it before, but it bears repeating... I love the Hash. I'd been in town for exactly four days before I found myself running through a farflung park in the outskirts of Moscow with a group of like-minded, friendly, crazy people who welcomed me like I was family. It was a place I'd never have gone as a tourist, but with the Hash it was routine. Then on the following Friday I met up with them again for weekly drinks. And I've just returned from my second Sunday run, in another lovely park. And I've been invited to a casual run on Wednesday and a dinner party next week. I bet I have colleagues in the office who've been here months longer than me but have no one to socialise with who's not also working on the Ceremonies, so I am pathetically grateful to the Hash for giving me a ready-made social group of people with local knowledge, common interests and, of course, beer.”
So yes, I’ve hashed a couple times. Oh, and I went with colleagues to a ridiculously over the top all you can eat and drink brunch.

There was so much cheese they had it in a separate room. A Cheese ROOM.

And a dessert room. Not pictured is the area where you could ice your own giant cookie from a piping bag suspended over a plate. Or possibly just hold your open mouth under the piping bag while no-one was looking.

I also took a taxi to the Waitrose to visit the hidden pork room. And I… I… ummm, ok that’s pretty much all I’ve done in three weeks other than work, run on the treadmill in the hotel gym, eat too much at the buffet, watch videos, and fight with my VPN (which is really not working well and forcing me to take desperate measure in order to watch the new series of The Great British Bake Off). (And can someone explain to me why Pop Tarts are kept in the pork room? Oh, ok.)

Which is all a really long-winded way of saying there’s really not much to blog about out here so far. Instead, I’m going to tell you about a few fun things I did before I left London, back when I had the boat in the Far East of London and had nothing better to do than noodle around in Walthamstow and environs. I was a bit surprised to find Walthamstow as interesting as I did, though I was equipped with an extensive itinerary provided by Piran that included no less than nine stops, of which I managed seven. (The other two were closed on Saturday. But honestly, three of the seven were mostly just drive-bys.)

I started the day at the Pumphouse Museum, a hodge podge of a place housed in a former sewage pumping works. The Pumphouse Museum falls in to a category of museum I like to think of as “Small But Plucky”. It’s run by volunteers and sort of unfocussed, but you can’t help being equally charmed and puzzled by it. For instance, there were two garage bays filled with fire engines and assorted fire fighting paraphernalia, including an unlabelled display of six different standard household smoke detectors. And there was a crane and couple of underground train carriages up on blocks in the yard, one of which was shrouded in tarpaulins. And of course there’s the restored engine house that still holds the old sewage pump, along with a merry and assortment of other machines and Walthamstow-related bits and pieces, and a whole other room full of model trains and railroad memorabilia.

Really charming. And the old guy who explained everything was endearingly enthusiastic about sewage pumping, so I liked him.

The next stop was at the other end of the museum spectrum - The William Morris Gallery. William Morris (yes, the wallpaper guy) was born and lived in Walthamstow, and his former home, set in lovely public gardens, is now a Grade II listed building and houses 2013’s Museum of the Year. It is gorgeous and well laid out and beautifully maintained and full of thoughtful, articulate, multimedia dispays and explanations of Morris’s life and work.

This room demonstrated the methods used in tapestry making and block-printing wallpaper.

You didn’t think you’d get away with hearing about the William Morris Gallery without seeing a picture of wallpaper did you?

It was all in sharp contrast to the Pumphouse Museum. And I’ll admit that though I found the Pumphouse charming, I elected to have lunch at the café of the William Morris Gallery, overlooking the gardens, and not at the Pumphouse canteen. I did, however, leave some money in the Pumphouse donation box, because while I might doubt their ability to make a credible flat white, they do have a reciprocating steam engine and 2/3 scale prop-built replica of a London “B” Omnibus, and that’s worth supporting.

Slotting neatly between the Pumphouse Museum and the William Morris Gallery on the Go Stay Work Play Live Museum Continuum (patent pending) was my next stop, the Vestry House Museum. It’s a museum of local heritage housed in an old workhouse.

Evidence of the building’s workhouse origins, the inscription above the entrance door reads, “if any would not work neither should be eat”.

The Vestryhouse was also a bit unfocussed. There was a room about life in the workhouse (spoiler alert: not actually very nice) and I enjoyed the displays of Victorian kitchenware, and the inevitable cabinet of articles related to wartime rationing. (Maybe I’m getting over-muesumed, but I feel like I’ve seen the same display in at least seven other places.) They also had a whole room of vintage toys, most of which had been made in Walthamstow, or sold in beloved local toy stores.

If anyone is struggling with what to get me for Christmas, I’ll happily take a set of “Construments - The Hobby of Ten Thousand Thrills!” (Makes £20 worth of Magnifiers, Shadowscopes, Cameras, Kaleidoscopes, Signalling Lamps, Photo-Printers, Watch Projectors, Lamp Stands and Experimental Instruments) All for the low low price of 18 and 6.

The Vestryhouse museum was nice, but the ultimate goal of the the day was to visit a truly unique spot, tucked into a hipster alleyway that still has one or two actual industrial business not yet crowded out by the architecture studio, three craft breweries, two artisanal sausage carts and gin distillery (of course). Yes friends, the goal of the day was nothing less than God’s Own Junkyard.

From the outside you just get a tantalising hint of the wonders within.

Inside, you’ll find the largest collection of neon lighting and signs in Europe and it is utterly fantastic.

God’s Own Junkyard was founded by the late Chris Bracey, a second generation neon artist whose father moved to Walthamstow after World War II and set up shop as a neon signmaker for fairgrounds and circuses, eventually branching out into industrial signs as well. The younger Bracey started out as a graphic designer before joining the family business, and spent the first half of his neon career making signs for bars and strip clubs in Soho. When neon fell out of fashion, Chris ended up salvaging a lot of neon signs that were being removed. Those vintage rescues, many of which were Bracey’s work to begin with, form part of the collection at God’s Own Junkyard.

A collection that leaves you wondering where to look. 
Maybe at the largest mirrorball in Europe?

Then your eye starts to pick out favourites in the visual cacophony.

A lot of what you see is Bracey’s original artwork

A chance meeting with a film industry art director in the 1980s led Chris Bracey into making neon signs and props for film sets, many of which are now also part of the scene at GOJY. He also developed a clientele of celebrity collectors for whom he did custom work and shortly before he died he held his first solo exhibition of neon art in the UK.

The Junkyard is now maintained by Chris Bracey’s sons and is open to the public, free of charge, a few days a week. The rest of the time they seem to do a good trade in hiring out neon signs individually, hiring out the whole place for photoshoots, and continuing to produce original pieces for sale. They also sell souvenirs, and are home to the brilliantly named café, Rolling Scone. And refreshingly, there was nary a ration card in sight.

The Sunday I was there a neon maker was set up in the corner with a flaming gas jet, quietly working over a long section of glass tube to match a pattern laid out on his work table. It was fascinating to watch.

God’s Own Junkyard is absolutely worth the trek out to the far north-east (especially considering how easy it is to combine with a lovely G&T). And if you manage to time it so you can take in a few of the other Wonders of Walthamstow, so much the better. Meanwhile I'm 6,998 km away in the desert, slowly wilting like a tube of glass in a gas jet, and hoping to find something worth blogging about before the work schedule takes over again.