GRUB!: Christmas Style

Monday, December 19, 2011

Yes you're right, there was no blog last week, and I am unrepentant.  What is my excuse? Well, last weekend I had a lovely few days in Brussels where I ran around the city with hashers, crawled pubs, drank some truly excellent Belgian beers, had a formal dinner, danced to ABBA, stayed out until 4am two nights in a row, met some fun people and topped off the beer with am generous helping of mulled wine.  I had a really excellent time, but the schedule was packed and didn't leave a lot of time for blogging, so I took a week off.  Get over it.  And now, on to your irregularly scheduled blog post:

It's a festive fiesta over here at GSWPL today!  Time to talk about some traditional English Christmas treats.  First up:

Mince Pies:

Mince pies are tiny sweet pies filled with mincemeat, a dark, thick jammy substance made by cooking suet with stuff like apples, raisins, sultanas, currants (or other dried fruit) candied peel, spices, sugar, and a generous measure of something boozy like brandy or whisky. Astute GSWPL readers will note from this list that mincemeat has no MEAT in it (Thankfully, and oddly, because over here hamburger - ground beef - is actually called MINCE.)  Still, mincemeat... no meat.  This has not always been the case, because the recipe seems to have originated as early as the 15th century when they were much more cavalier about mixing sweet spices and fruit with meat.  Over the centuries the meat faded into the background, leaving us with modern mincemeat which often now even skips the suet in favour of a vegetarian fat of some kind, resulting in a pie that looks very much like this:

Mince Pies
A tasty pile of mince pies from our work Christmas Lunch.  Yes, LUNCH.  It's normal over here to have the big Christmas meal - turkey, roast potatoes, Brussels sprouts, gravy, Christmas pudding - in the middle of the day,  possibly right after the Queen's Christmas Message.  Presumably you then lie around semi-conscious for the rest of the day pondering when you might next be able to cram something into your mouth.
In fact, mince pies are quite yummy, though possibly an acquired taste.  Luckily, it's a taste I developed as a child, having grown up in a family that embraces a whole lot of traditional English foods and customs (including steak and kidney pudding, another food which sounds like it can't decide whether it's dinner or dessert, and which is definitely a whole other post.)

Mince pies are utterly ubiquitous at this time of year.  They appear in grocery stores in boxes of 6 (for about £1! Fantastic!).  It's also impossible to enter a coffee shop without being presented with a pile of mince pies.  They are a staple at any Christmas function, and I've even seen them given away on the street for store promotions.  There is no escape, meaning that I have consumed approximately 7.3 times my bodyweight in mince pies in the last three weeks.  Luckily, they're small.  Unluckily, this makes it easy to eat nine in a row without noticing (it's the Jaffa Cake Conundrum).  Sadly, the power to resist mince pies decreases precipitously in a direct relationship with your consumption of:

Mulled Wine:

Red wine, heated through with a mixture of spices like cinnamon and clove, and often with sliced apples and oranges added.  Like mince pies, mulled wine is everywhere.  In Brussels and many other European countries it's called gluhwein.  In France it's vin chaud.  Brussels even had it for sale at outdoor gluhwein stands in the Christmas markets, which was quite lovely.  I've had it at work functions, on the street, and at house parties.  (Where it was once served with bits of chorizo sausage added for extra zip, though I am assured by other that this is a highly unusual practice.  Still, what is it about this place that makes people put meat in places where meat was not meant to go?)

Mulled wine is generally made with pretty cheap plonk, since it makes no sense to spend any more than you need to on a bottle (or box) that's going to be stewed to within an inch of its life in a pot full of cinnamon sticks and, if it's unlucky, a bit of sausage.  This means that it's not particularly high quality alcohol, hence it can be the cause of a wicked hangover.  It's very Christmassy, but should be approached with caution.

Selection Boxes:

I've heard it said that Christmas is not Christmas without a selection box.  Technically speaking, a selection box is a package containing a range of sweets from a single manufacturer.  A box of Pot of Gold chocolates would, over here, be referred to as a selection box.  And last week I got a Cadbury's selection box that had six different Cadbury's chocolate bars in it (Cadbury Flake, Dairy Milk, Fudge, Buttons, Crunchie and Caramel!).

But at Christmas time it seems the two grandaddies of the selection box game are Quality Street and Cadbury's Roses.  Chocolates in these kinds of tins are generally made with pretty low quality chocolate, but are fun because they're all different shapes and wrapped in brightly coloured foil, so it's easy to develop favourites, like the Quality Street long skinny gold one, which is toffee.  Or the green triangle.  Or the famous Purple One, which used to be a whole Brazil nut covered in chocolate, but is now, for reasons unknown, a hazelnut.


Quality Street
A tower of Quality Street selection boxes, in my local Sainsbury's
Brussels Sprouts:

Pity the poor Brussels sprout!  Trotted out at Christmas every year and often boiled into oblivion, they are the nightmare of British children the nation over.  (Last year I read a tongue-in-cheek article outlining key dates in the run-up to Christmas and somewhere in mid-November appeared the helpful hint: "Grans: Last chance to put the sprouts on to boil!")

brussel-sprouts-bacon-and-chestnuts
Roasted Brussels Sprouts with bacon and chestnuts, which are very traditional accompaniments
Sprouts get a bad rap, probably because of the aforementioned overcooking, which can release a chemical compound (glucosinolate sinigrin) that makes them smell sulphurous and hence less-than-yummy.  Much better to sautee or roast them.  But everyone I've talked to says that Christmas dinner is not complete without a bowl of sprouts that get politely ignored by most people at the table.  I like them myself, though this was not always the case.  Apparently they're often served with bacon and chestnuts, which sounds excellent.

Christmas Pudding:

Christmas pudding is the truly proper end to a Christmas dinner (whether served at 1pm or 7...) and is familiar territory for me.  I've had Christmas pudding every year since, I suspect, I was in utero (except one).  And it bears repeating that in England "pudding" is a very broad term.  North Americans might fall into the trap of thinking a pudding is a smooth, gloopy, spoonable dessert advertised by Bill Cosby.  No so in England; here the term is used generally to describe any kind of dessert.

For those of you who haven't had the pleasure: a Christmas Pudding is another one of those mixtures of suet, dried fruit, sugar and booze (no meat this time!) with a touch of flour added to bind it all together into a batter.  It's traditionally cooked by pouring the whole mixture into a ceramic bowl called a pudding basin and then steaming it for hours, which results in a moist, rich, dense cakey sort of thing that resembles half a bowling ball in colour and weight when turned out onto a plate.  It's normally served by dousing it in brandy or rum and then setting it alight, and is accompanied by custard, brandy butter or - my favourite - hard sauce.

800px-ChristmasPuddingHardSauce
Christmas pudding (the bowling ball on the right), hard sauce (down centre) and a few mince pies thrown in for good measure.
(Aside on hard sauce: It's not hard, nor is it really a sauce.  Instead, hard sauce is a tooth-achingly sweet mixture of butter and sugar, possibly with a bit of vanilla or booze mixed in, which makes it quite thick - more like a spread.  My association with hard sauce goes back as far as my association with Christmas pudding.  Because a Christmas pud is very rich and dense and sort of challengingly flavoured - especially for kids - it was always a bit of a tough sell at our table.  The hard sauce, though, was a guaranteed hit.  Hence it was decreed that if you wanted hard sauce, you had to have at least a small slice of pudding to go with it.  This resulted in many years of being served a slice of pudding so thin you could read The Times through it, topped with an enormous helping of hard sauce.  Happily this tactic worked, and I'm now completely won over to the charms of Christmas Pudding.  As long as there's hard sauce.)

Christmas Crackers:

No, not crackers as in things-to-be-crumbled-into-soup.  These are crackers as in things-that-go-Crack!  Despite my Anglo-centric upbringing, this is one Christmas tradition that never made it into my personal list of Christmas Must Haves.  But over here Christmas crackers are mandatory.  A cracker is a small cardboard tube wrapped in paper so it ends up looking like a giant hard candy.   The intention is that the tube is pulled apart to reveal the contents inside.  The crack part comes because the tube is also fitted with a thin strip of cardboard impregnated with some kind of chemical banginess, so it make a sharp cracking noise when pulled apart (sort of like a cap gun).

Traditionally it takes two people to pull a cracker, with each person grabbing one end.  Similar to breaking a wishbone, the person who ends up with the larger bit after the pull is the winner, and is entitled to claim the entire contents of the cracker.  At less cutthroat tables, each person has a cracker and keeps its contents to him or herself, though the actual pulling of the cracker is still definitely a two person operation.

Crackers normally contain three things: a brightly coloured tissue paper hat, usually shaped like a crown (which must be worn); a small plastic toy of some kind (which must be crappy); and a small slip of paper containing a joke (which must be very very bad and which also must be read out to the rest of the table).

Cracker joke
A cracker and joke from the office Christmas lunch.  I told you the jokes were bad. (Other joke that appeared that day: Which side of a chicken has the most feathers? The outside!)


And there you have it - a few English Christmas traditions to chew on (ha!) over the holidays.  I'm heading back to Canada soon for two full weeks of friends, family, jetlag, food, presents, sleeping in and Christmas pudding with hard sauce.  I may blog while I'm there, and I may not... you'll just have to tune in to find out.  

The Games People Play: Rugby

Monday, December 5, 2011

It's high time I went to a rugby match, especially since I've been here for about a year and a half now and rugby really is one of The Big Three spectator sports in England, the other two being football and cricket of course.  (The "Big Three" thing is not any kind of official designation or anything.  I totally just made it up.  But it's still true.)  And most especially because one of my good friends is a HUGE rugby fan (in the sense that he has a great love for the game, not in the sense that he is physically huge and also happens to like rugby).  And most most especially because that same friend promised to take me to a rugby match oh, about a year and a half ago.  High time indeed.

Luckily, the last time I pestered Paul (the huge one) (kidding!) about his promise he was ready for it and offered a real treat.  We wouldn't be going to some piddling local match between the Little Whinging No-Necks and the Snortby-on-the-Plim Hippos.  Not us.  We were going to Twickenham, the spiritual home of English rugby and the largest rugby stadium in the world, with 82,000 seats.  (Twickenham Pronunciation Guide: It's "TWICKENum".  Certainly NOT "TwickenHAM")  Even better, the game was to be a fundraiser for the Help for Heroes charity, who raise money for wounded British servicemen.  Win-win!

Quick rugby primer: Forerunner to American/Canadian style football, the point of the game is for each 15-man team to try to advance the ball, which looks like a fat North American football, down the field to the opposing goal line.  If a player touches the ball to the ground past that line he scores a "try", which is the major scoring play and is worth 5 points.  (It also leads to an odd use of the phrase "Nice try" which doesn't actually mean, "Good effort, but not quite." It literally means... nice try.)  The ball can be run or kicked down the field, but no forward passing is allowed.  Also, there are points for kicking through the goal posts.  And there are a few odd plays like the scrum, which is sometimes used to put the ball back into play after a stoppage.  Scrums are a sort of structured pushing match involving very large men and very obscure rules.  Even Paul, who actually played the game, admits he does not understand the complex rules for scrummaging. (What a great verb!)

A short but creepy CGI video about the scrum

I probably should have mentioned that Twickenham is the home of Rugby Union, as distinct from Rugby League, a different variant of the sport.  Without going into too much tedious detail, it seems the major differences between Union and League are that League uses 13 players per side, and have tweaked the rules so that there are fewer chances to contest possession of the ball after a tackle.  Where Union players continue to hammer away after a tackle, League players stop.  League uses a system of six downs before possession switches automatically, similar to North American football.  There are no downs in Union; possession only switches when it is earned.  Union is generally the game that's played internationally.

As with everything in England, rugby exhibits some pretty iron-clad class characteristics.  Culturally, it's  considered an upper class sport, as befits its birth at Rugby School, one of the oldest public (posh) primary schools in England.  The oft-quoted maxim is this:
Football is a sport for gentlemen, played by thugs.  Rugby is a sport for thugs, played by gentlemen.
Rugby Union is certainly upper-class, and most popular in the more affluent south of the country.  Rugby League is more popular in the North and with working class fans.

But enough of the rules and the cultural baggage and the schism between Union and League - what about the game?  My foray to the heart of English rugby started with a traditional pint at the Cabbage Patch Pub, so named because Twickenham stadium itself is built on a former cabbage patch, which was purchased by the Rugby Football Union in 1907 for the sum of £5,550 12 shillings and sixpence.


After a warm-up pint at the Cabbage Patch we walked to the stadium, which is really big! Along the route the streets were lined with vendors selling burgers and mini donuts and cornish pasties.  We were early, so we hung around a bit, and had another pint, and I had a quite respectable chicken pie and mash, and we chatted and commented on how cold it was, and how we were both woefully underdressed (I think that by the time I was finishing that second pint the beer was colder than when it had been poured...).  And then it was into the stadium:

I told you it was big
It wasn't until I was in that stadium that it really became clear to me how popular rugby is.  Coming from North America, where rugby is a fringe sort at best, it was a bit like walking into an 80,000 seat badminton arena.  No disrespect to the rest of the planet, much of which likes the game very much (especially Australia and New Zealand and South Africa and, oddly, France).  And no disrespect to the game either, which is fast and rough and exciting and in that respect is very much like hockey and hence is A Good Thing. (Also, no disrespect to badminton.  Well, maybe a little...)

When I say the sport is rough I'm not kidding.  The players wear almost no padding, and the tackles can be vicious.  Also there are very few substitutions - many players are on the field for the whole game, which has two running-time 40 minute halves.  (One of the ways you can be sent off is in a "blood substitution", which means you're out to receive medical attention.  So like I said... rough.)  However, it can also be quite elegant.  When the ball moves down field in a choreographed series of running backward passes it's impressive.  As is the "lineout", a means of throwing the ball back into play from the sidelines.  Some time ago a bright spark got the idea that if a player were lifted up on cue he'd be able to receive the sideline pass well over the heads of the opposing players, so now whenever there's a lineout the players on both teams do this impressive lifting move to try and gain possession.

It's practically ballet!  Sweaty, dirty ballet performed by men who weigh 250 pounds and can probably tear phonebooks in half. 
The game was billed as the "Help For Heroes Northern Hemisphere XV against a star studded Southern Hemisphere team", and featured former professionals, players from the armed forces, and selected young "academy" players. I don't know any better, but Paul said there were a few legends in the lineup.  Naturally we were cheering for the North, who ended up being soundly smacked by the South by a score of about 17 to something-more-than 17...  But the North had a few nice tries and the South had a few more, and we cheered for those too, because rugby fans are a remarkably civilised lot.  In fact, rugby fans are known for being even-tempered and appreciative and, unlike football (soccer) fans, never have to be separated from opposing fans in the stadium, or escorted to waiting buses - for their own safety - when at away games in "hostile" territory, or hauled away in police cars or ambulances (or caskets) after altercations.  There is simply no such thing as a "rugby hooligan", which is a lovely thing.

And so even though the North lost, a good time was had by all.  Paul and I left the stadium chatting happily and trying to get blood moving back into our frozen limbs.  And even though 30,000 people were headed to the train station the walk was orderly and the wait for the train was surprisingly short and the trip home was quick.  So it was a nice afternoon - I finally got to see a game live, and Paul gets to stop having me pester him about the rugby, and the Help for Heroes people made some good money.  Win-win-win!

Me and Paul at Twickenham (See?  He's not huge at all!  I, on the other hand, apparently have a touch of jaundice...)


P.S.  Paul is doing a big bike ride next summer as a fundraiser for Help for Heroes.  Send him money for it!  Even if you're not a fan of this or any war, it's still a good cause.  Also, I suggest you make your donation contingent on him wearing his famous pink lycra cycling shorts.  Win-win...

Apropos of Nothing, son of the sequel

Monday, November 28, 2011

More short, random observations of life on this side.

On the oddly bi-polar nature of driver's licences:
First of all, they're not called driver's licenses, they're called "drivING licences". I guess it's not the person that's licensed, it's the act.  I recently traded my Canadian driver's license for a UK one, which was relatively painless and not even that expensive.  The annoying thing is that driving licenses in the UK require you to take your test in a manual transmission vehicle if you want to be licensed to drive a manual transmission car.  Of course there's no way to prove that I took my driving test (27 years ago...ohmygod) in a manual transmission car because no one in Canada gives a damn about that and hence no records of that are kept (oh, also I didn't take my test in a manual, but that's not the point.)  The point is that I wasn't able to get a manual transmission license.  This, despite the fact that every vehicle I've ever owned and registered was a manual.  I suppose the fact that I owned them is no guarantee that I drove them.  So now I have to arrange to take a test to upgrade my license, because about 90% of vehicles in the UK are manuals, which is all kind of boring.  That's the first bi-polar thing about driving licence - the manual/automatic differentiation.

The other thing is the physical licence itself. It comes in two parts, like the old Saskatchewan licences.  There's the plastic photo card part that most people carry around, which is familiar. Then there's the "paper counterpart" which is a full A4 sized sheet and is a legal part of the licence itself. Theoretically you're supposed to carry both halves at all times, which almost no one does, partly because it's a pain and partly because it's just a flimsy piece of paper that will decompose in a wallet in no time flat.

Driving License 
It says: "Important Document - The photocard and paper counterpart should be kept together. Both must be produced when required."  And that's my photocard in the corner, the pink thing with the EU symbol and the unflattering photo.  Then again it's not nearly as unflattering as the ID photo on my new Olympic Park pass which makes me look 70 years old, three-quarters dead and supremely uninterested in everything. People gasp and make involuntary vowel sounds when they see it.  Then their eyes start bleeding...

On the similarly dual nature of laundry detergent:
Again, we've got a linguistic clarification to make here.  It's not actually called laundry detergent here, it's called "washing powder".  Also, dishwashing soap is called "washing up liquid" because doing the dishes is referred to as "doing the washing up". "Washing up" is apparently a phrase that refers exclusively to the dishes.  So it's "washing up liquid", unless it's "fairy liquid".  Not because it comes from fairies, but because the best-known brand of washing up liquid is Fairy.

Fairy liquid
Lemon Fairy Liquid, though it's most common form is Mild Green Fairy Liquid.
But back to the washing up powder, and something that baffled me for a long time after I arrived before I finally got off my butt and asked about it.  All washing powder over here is clearly divided and appropriately labeled as belonging to one of two camps: Biological and Non-Biological, usually abbreviated to Bio and Non-bio.

Bio vs. non bio
See what I mean? Clearly labelled.

And what's the difference?  According to our friends at Wikpedia (and let's just pause for a moment and consider that there are actually people out there who care enough about this subject to write a short but reasonably informative article about it) (Oh, and let's also have a short moment of reflection to admit that I am also in the process of writing about it.) (And don't forget you are reading it, so don't get snooty)... but back to Wikipedia, which says that biological detergent contains "enzymes harvested from micro-organisms such as bacteria adapted to live in hot springs... whose purpose is to break down protein, starches and fat in dirt and stains on clothing... for example food stains, sweat and mud."  Apparently those enzymes increase the cleaning power of the detergent, especially in cold water, which is odd if they're harvested from hot springs.  (And exactly how does one harvest micro-organisms from hot springs? With extremely tiny nets?)  I can't believe there are enough hot springs in the world to produce enough of these enzymes to fill the shelves at every Tesco, Sainsbury's , Lidl, Waitrose and Asda in the UK.  (Especially not the Asda at Putney Vale, which I think is large enough to be visible from the International Space Station.)  

No matter, the bio stuff supposedly works about 10-15% better. However the bio stuff is also harsher, probably because those enzymes must have to be pretty tough characters to survive in steamy, mineral-laden hot springs. Hence the existence of non-bio washing powder for babies, people with allergies and anyone who is generally just a whinging wimp. Nonetheless, the wholesale and absolute division of the entire laundry detergent world into two discrete types was disconcerting - a bit like walking into the grocery store to find the entire dairy section had separate areas for left-handed and right-handed yogurt.

On the most excellent nature of Christmas lights on Oxford and Regent Streets:
Oxford and Regent Streets are the hub of retail consumerism in London, centred at the intersection (or junction) of the two main roads, called Oxford Circus. There is handy tube station at Oxford Circus which I have NEVER exited without being completely disoriented.  This is because unless you were to conduct an exhaustively mapped, years-long, three-dimensional study of the various exits from Oxford Circus Station, I think it's completely impossible to know upon exiting which direction you need to walk to get to the Apple Store. I generally stumble up out of the tube and try to locate All Souls Church, which I firmly believed to be in an easterly direction along Oxford Street, and then orient myself from there.  Naturally it turns out that All Souls is actually north up Regent Street.  And surprisingly it also turns out that Regent Street and not Oxford Street is the one that curves south and east into Piccadilly Circus. Huh.  This goes a long way to explaining why I've always found Oxford Circus a tad confusing.

Navigational challenges aside, Oxford Circus is a shopper's paradise.  The area is home to big department stores like Selfridges, Debenham's, and the beloved Marks and Spencer (which really deserves a post all its own), and to the flagship stores for a lot of major retailers like Apple, Uniqlo, and the famous Hamley's toys store.  And because Christmas is high season for shopping, the Oxford/Regent Street businesses really do up the place with festive lights, which is really fun.

This, for example, is a Boots Drug Store (Chemist):

Boots Christmas Lights
Nice work Boots, but not quite as classy as:

Debenham's Christmas Lights
Debenham's, which I would say is roughly equivalent to The Bay.  But bigger, of course.  And highly skilled with the Christmas lights.

Lights like this are generally called "fairy lights".  So if it's Christmas time you could theoretically make a batch of fairy cakes and then wash up the bowl with fairy liquid all under the gentle glow of fairy lights.  How lovely.  Especially the cakes.  And not so much the washing up.

Brixton Station Steel Drum Band:
Lastly, a little taste of one of the things that makes living in Brixton fun and cool.  There is an Iceland store just next to Brixton Station (Iceland is another of the grocery chains,this one with a particular focus. And I'll admit now that it took me an embarrassingly long amount of time to understand that focus.  This after I'd had numerous trips to Iceland wherein I'd wander up and down the aisles thinking to myself, "Damn, they have a LOT of frozen food in this place. Weird."  Yep.  Iceland sells... frozen food.  Not one of my shining moments.)  Anyway, the front of the Iceland is a popular spot - usually for guys selling sticks of incense which is smelly and annoying and which I strongly suspect is a thinly-disguised front for drug sales.  The Bible-thumpers tend to hang out a little farther down the street around the same place as the Communists, but when the stars align the steel drummers come out, which is my favourite:


How fun is that?  All they need is some fairy lights and we'd have it all.

GRUB!: Pie and Mash

Monday, November 21, 2011

It’s been too long since we indulged in any local delicacies and this weekend I had the perfect opportunity to seek out a classic.  This is because I’m now working in the Far East (of London) which has historically been a very working class area, and one of the time-honoured foods of  London’s working class is pie and mash.

First I should clarify that over here pie is always assumed to be meat pie unless otherwise stated.  Fruit pies exist but are much less common; in the UK the default setting for pie is meat.  And mash is mashed potatoes of course.  So pie and mash is meat pie – usually minced beef (hamburger) – with mashed potatoes.  There’s a third critical element to traditional pie and mash, but I’ll get to that in a minute.

So there I was at work in deepest darkest East London on an odd split-shift Saturday morning facing a long break before I’d next be needed. Clearly there was no choice but to dragoon a couple of coworkers - one of whom cleverly knew the way - and head to a traditional local pie and mash shop.

G Kelly Pie and Mash Shop
G.Kelly Noted Eel and Pie Shop, Est. 1937
Ok, I suspect you're wondering about the "Eel" part of that sign, and there's really no way to talk about pie and mash properly without talking about eels (of course). This is partly because they're both proper working class foods. Eels were cheap, nutritious and readily available - coming right from the Thames itself. Hence they, like pie and mash, became a staple for London's poor.  There are two common cooking methods for eel. The first is to boil them in water and vinegar and then allow the mixture to cool.  Because eels are, as Wikipedia charmingly says, "a naturally gelatinous fish", a sort of jelly forms when the cooking liquid cools resulting in a batch of the delicacy known as jellied eels.  (Aside: Yes, I realize that the day is coming when the blog topics become thin on the ground and I'll have to take up the "Steve's Weird Food" Challenge once again and at least try some jellied eel, but let's hope that day is a long long way off, because a big ole plate of jellied eel is a terrifying thing to behold.) Thankfully eels are also served warm with the broth they're cooked in.  That broth is the "critical third element" I mentioned earlier.  Fortified with lashings of chopped parsley which turn it an odd green colour, eel broth becomes something called "liquor", the traditional accompaniment to a proper meal of pie and mash.  Pie and mash and liquor - that's what I was after.

And so my hardy companions and I headed off to G. Kelly's, which is situated on a particularly old thoroughfare, as you can see by this picture of the street sign:

P1080888
I told you it was old.  Apparently it's the oldest known trade route in Britain (taken by Boudicea on her way to burn the Romans out of London).  
A properly traditional pie and mash shop is decorated with white tiles on the walls and has white marble tables and counter top, and I am happy to report that G. Kelly's had both, along with a woman behind the counter who referred to everyone as "lovely" - and that's a noun here, not an adjective, as in "That'll be three pound sixty, lovely."  When pressed for time "lovely" gets abbreviated to "luv" but either way, it's great.  

P1080895
Emma and Jo at the white marble counter of G. Kelly's.
The menu at G. Kelly's is extensive. You can have pie and mash, or double pie and mash, or double pie and double mash.  Pie comes in beef mince, chicken and - surprisingly - vegetarian mince.  Liquor is optional, but very traditional.  You can even have just a bowl of mash and liquor if you're not in the mood for pie, but why would you possibly go to a pie shop if you weren't in the mood for pie?  We, of course, were very much in the mood for pie and all three of us had a single beef mince pie with mash and liquor and a mug of hot tea.

P1080896
My plate of pie, mash and liquor.  Note the mash is scraped off the serving spoon along the edge of the plate.  Apparently even this is traditional.
I can't say that Kelly's pie and mash was like a party in my mouth. The mash was lovely, but the liquor was oddly bland and the pie was average: pastry a bit tough, filling a bit meager.  Then again you really can't complain when a lunch of real food made by real people, including a nice cup of tea, comes to £3.60.  Pie and mash is still cheaper and more nutritious than a Big Mac and fries.  And after our pie we had... more pie!  G.Kelly's stretches to some lovely little fruit pies in cherry and apple, along with rhubarb or apple crumble. They even had mince tarts, which taste like Christmas!  All in all it was a resoundingly successful and quintessentially East London little outing. G. Kelly's was as proper a pie and mash shop as you could hope for (except possibly for the inclusion of the vegetarian option) and came complete with local punters in flat caps eating pie and mash while filling out betting slips.

Roman Road even has a reasonable street market on Saturdays, so we had a wander through that as well. The market runs quite heavily to cheap clothing that looks like it "fell" off the back of a Top Shop truck, along with a few fruit and veg stalls and the usual jumble of other merchandise with suspicious origins, but it was diverting and festive.

P1080889
Third floor... ladies wear... lingerie...
And because I was lucky enough to be with friends I got them to take a picture of me, standing in the churchyard of Bow Church, a lovely little spot tragically located in the middle of a traffic island.

Me and Bow Church
Me at Bow Church. (In my super hi-vis cycling jacket.  I got it on Amazon, which boasted that it was waterproof AND breathable, which turned out to be a complete fabrication.  Waterproof, yes, but that jacket is about as breathable as mustard gas.  It's like wrapping yourself in clingfilm (that's saran wrap for the folks at home).  Still, I wear it whenever I cycle because being sweaty is better than being dead.)  
And that's the story for this week.  Now please excuse me while I go finish the ironing and the next episode of "Master Chef" where, sadly, they never do pie and mash.

A Day Out: Cambridge

Monday, November 14, 2011

I asked around a bit and the consensus seemed to be that of the two big university towns – Oxford and Cambridge – Cambridge is more interesting to visit.  Even Rick Steves says so!  Thus it was that I ended up setting the alarm on Sunday morning (horrors!) and then catching the 8:50am train on a beautifully clear and sunny day.

The first thing I noticed when I stepped out of Cambridge station were the bikes – there must have been thousands of them parked in two big lots outside the station.

P1080787
I’m not kidding… thousands! 
I later found out that there are about 30,000 bicycles in Cambridge, and a bit more than 100,000 people.  I think I probably saw more bikes than people that day – they are chained to every fence, pillar, post, or stationary object in the city.  I suspect if I’d stood still long enough I would have ended up with at least four bikes attached to me, three of which would have had wicker baskets on the handlebars.  Since there are no vehicles allowed in parts of the historic city centre, cycling remains the best way of zipping from getting around town, especially if you’re a student on a tight budget with a full class load.

I managed to navigate from the station to the main market square with only minimal confusion.  (This was not helped by the fact that my iPhone – my primary navigation tool – has developed the alarming tendency to drain its battery from a full charge to nothing in about 4 hours.  Charming.  It looks like there’s a new phone in my immediate future…).  I knew I’d reached the centre because there was a nice market where I wandered around slightly grumpily after discovering that the Tourist Information Centre, which had been my navigational goal, is closed on Sundays.  This was a minor setback, but I fortified myself with coffee from a market vendor and set off to discover a bit of the city on my own before returning to see if the promised 1:00 pm guided walking tour would actually take place.

The first thing I found was something I’d been planning to seek out, but which I stumbled on accidentally – the Corpus Clock.  This is a relatively new site in Cambridge, having been unveiled near Corpus Christi College in 2008.  It’s a large gold plated mechanical clock surmounted by a nasty looking borg-like grasshopper.  The grasshopper – called “Chronophage” (time eater) - is actually the clock’s escapement, and is the world’s largest “grasshopper escapement” (an escapement is a method of converting the motion of a pendulum into rotational movement, a rather important notion in clock-making).  The grasshopper appears to march along the top of the clock while pushing the outer ring around it.  Instead of hands, the Corpus Clock lights up a series of blue LEDs that shine through slits around the clock’s face. It’s a bit hard to explain, but if you check out this video, all will be revealed:

It’s a bit long, but this is the inventor of the clock itself explaining how it works, which is cool. (Ian – this one’s for you.)

Since I arrived just before the hour I stuck around long enough to see the clock strike eleven, which was satisfying in a rattly, mechanical way.  Then as I started walking down the street I was stopped by the sounding of the 11am gun marking the start of two minutes of silence – it was Remembrance Sunday.  I waited where I was standing and looked around to see that a lot of other people had stopped too.  As time passed more and more people clued in and just stopped and stood quietly where they were facing towards the sound of the gun.  Even cyclists stopped in the street and stood astride their bikes.  A few foreign tourists were clearly baffled by the whole thing - I imagine they thought it was some kind of elaborate practical joke and were looking for hidden cameras - but I thought is was bloody excellent.  Then after a full two minutes a second gun fired and everyone went about their business.  Nice.

I eventually did find the one o'clock guided tour after a pleasant wander on my own, a light lunch and another cup of coffee to counteract the early alarm.  Sadly the guide was only mediocre despite sporting the coveted Blue Badge. However, she did explain about the college system at Cambridge (and Oxford), which is quite different to how North American universities operate.  Cambridge is comprised of 31 colleges, which are not to be confused with the departments/faculties.  Colleges are where the students live, and include residences, dining halls and libraries.  Faculties are the areas of study.  Thus a student might belong to King’s College but study biological science in a class with students from Trinity College and St. John’s College and Corpus Christi and so on.  Colleges concentrate on housing, welfare, social activities and tutored study sessions for undergrads, whereas departments deal with classes and research.  Clear as mud, right?

Never mind, the important thing if you’re a tourist is that the oldest colleges have stunning architecture and  lovely grounds covered in untouchable grass that is a super-intelligent shade of green.  (The grass really is untouchable – only fellows of the college and their guests are allowed to walk on it.).  Most colleges admit visitors to poke around (though not inside the buildings) and some are so popular they can charge admission.  This is the case with perhaps the most famous – King’s College.  Luckily, my £15 walking tour included entry into King’s College and, most importantly, into its famous chapel.

P1080828
King’s College Chapel, from the outside
The chapel is one of the finest examples of  perpendicular architecture and has huge stained glass windows dating to the 1500s.  The most striking feature of the building is its fan-vaulted stone ceiling which weighs close to 2,000 tons and is the largest anywhere - 289 feet long, 40’ wide and 80’ high.

P1080819
Nice work!  The interior of the chapel is also festooned with Tudor roses, because though it was started by Henry VI in 1446, construction was delayed due to the War of the Roses. It wasn’t finished until 1515, under Henry VIII.  He’s the one who added all the Tudor bits and had his and Anne Boleyn’s initials carved into the oak organ screen that divides the chapel. 
The walking tour continued when we left the chapel and walked along the Cam River (Cam-bridge, get it?) and through Queens’ College, even crossing over the famous “Mathematical Bridge”.  It’s an arched wooden bridge purportedly designed by Isaac Newton without the use of bolts or fasteners.  The legend is that students were so fascinated by the design that they took it apart to see how it worked and then were unable to put it back together, which is why it’s now assembled with hardware.  Sadly, the story is merely a legend; the original bridge was designed by a carpenter 22 years after Newton’s death.  It’s a great story though, and the fact that names like Isaac Newton are tossed out so casually is an indication of the depth of history and prestige associated with Cambridge. For instance, Queens’ College boasts a bit of masonry called Erasmus Tower.  Why?  Because the 15th century Dutch theologian and humanist Erasmus studied and lived there, of course.

P1080838
The Mathematical Bridge, linking the two halves of Queens’ College across the Cam
The River Cam is crossed by nine bridges in Cambridge, and is the site of a particularly diverting pastime for tourists and students alike – punting!  A punt is a shallow, flat-bottomed boat that’s propelled by a punter (no really, that’s what they’re called) who stands on the back deck with a comically long pole and moves the boat along by dropping the end of the pole to the riverbed and pushing off.  I forked over £13.50 for the pleasure of 45 minutes being propelled along the Cam with a group of other tourists by a quite yummy young Cambridge resident named Nick.

P1080855
Nick, with his pole.
Nick was a much better guide than woman from the walking tour, and he amused us with anecdotes about the different colleges, and about punting, and was skilled enough to avoid the continual parade of amateur punters in self-hire boats who managed to end up perpendicular to the river blocking traffic at regular intervals. Even though it got a bit dark and chilly, the punting was a great activity and well worth the money, if only because I got to sit back for 45 minutes and have a nice break from the hours of walking.

P1080839
A punt and punter and a load of… errr...  puntees?
After the punting I was quite chilled and hungry, but I still had one more important thing to do in Cambridge so I decamped to a pub for some mediocre roast beef and some good real ale and a disappointing rhubarb crumble with custard.  This was all to kill a bit of time and to fortify myself for the last activity of the day.  King’s College Chapel, which you’ll remember from about 600 words ago, was to hold a special Remembrance Sunday Requiem service at 6:00pm, and I was determined to attend so I could hear the famous choir of King’s College Chapel, who were to sing that night, accompanied by an orchestra.

I arrived to the entrance of King’s at about 5:30pm, having been warned that there would be a full house.  Indeed there was a queue forming in the dark, and I took my place dutifully and even struck up a bit of a conversation with two older gentlemen, one of whom was in academic robes and both of whom were so quintessentially “Old Boy” that it was a bit hard to believe.  The queue wound slowly through the grounds past the untouchable grass until we were outside the doors to the cathedral.   While we waited a small church across the street started ringing its bells – proper change ringing, mind – and the organ in the chapel echoed the sequences back so you could say it was just a tad atmospheric.  And of course there were the inevitable queue-jumpers who were met with muttered indignance by all they passed (“Just shameless…” said the guy behind me, but not so loudly that anyone else could hear.  So English!).  And then we filed quietly into the cathedral.

It was fantastic. It was dark outside and the space was lit mostly with candles and just one or two floodlights aimed up the walls.  (Well, they’re not going to hang banks of fluorescents from the fan vaults now are they?)  Everyone found a spot in the pews, which are arranged parallel to the long sides of the church facing towards each other, and there were programs of the service on each seat.  The choir and clergy entered, and everyone stood, and then the orchestra started up and the choir started singing – 14 men from the college and 16 boy sopranos from the King’s School – and it was pretty magical.  Yes, there was a lot of standing and a lot of back and forth between clergy and congregation about how we all were not worthy and were wretched sinners. (High Church of England services are just a spit from Roman Catholic it seems - there was even incense).  And there was a long wait while people lined up to take communion (optional, phew).  The service lasted just over and hour, and it was dim and moody and the music was great.  The whole thing was quite lovely, even for a godless heathen like myself, and I found myself thinking that while the church may be responsible for a lot of nastiness, they’ve also given us unbelievably beautiful buildings and soaring music that’s pretty hard to criticize.

And then I filed out of the church, leaving a little something in the collection plate.  The night had grown chilly and the walk back to the station turned out to be an unmitigated navigational disaster that required stopping in a shop to ask for help and being pointed in a direction 90 degrees from the one I’d been doggedly following.  Thus I arrived at the station slightly out of sorts but was able to get right on a slow train back to King’s Cross where I intended to start blogging right away but was so utterly done in that I contented myself with the crossword and a little light emailing.  I finally walked in the door at about 10pm in time to join my lovely housemates and guest for the cheese course, a glass of wine and some nice conversation. 

And that was Cambridge.  I saw a lot, but there is much more I didn’t do – like the Fitzwilliam Museum of art and antiquities, which had an exhibition of Vermeer on that people were queuing for outside the gates.  And there’s the Scott Polar Research Institute Museum (closed on Sundays) and more colleges, and more super-intelligently green grass and more markets and shops and about a zillion galleries, and… well you get the picture.  Cambridge is certainly worth another visit.  And perhaps next  time I can find a decent rhubarb crumble.

P1080832
Me, on a bridge over the Cam




P.S.  More photos of Cambridge, Nick, and me are in the Cambridge set of photos on Flickr.

Tourist Stuff: The Imperial War Museum (and thoughts on remembrance)

Monday, November 7, 2011

It was only when I arrived at the Imperial War Museum that I realized what an appropriate choice it was for this time of year, considering Remembrance Day is just around the corner.  That, coupled with the fact that the museum is a short bus ride from Brixton, and, like many of London’s great museums, is free to enter, meant it turned out to be a perfect choice for a grey Sunday afternoon.

Hippie Pam
Me outside the museum, standing next to a 15” shell (inactive, I hope). (And check out that hair! I’m a freakin’ hippie!)
Oddly, they do not have remembrance ceremonies on Nov. 11th here unless the 11th happens to be a Sunday.  Instead, “Remembrance Sunday” occurs on the second Sunday of November.  However, ceremonies of remembrance here are much that same as those in Canada, usually centred around local war memorials or cenotaphs.  The official national ceremony is held at the Cenotaph on Whitehall, at 11:00am on Remembrance Sunday.  Wreaths are laid at the cenotaph by a lot of important people including the Queen, five princes (Philip, Charles, Edward, Andrew and William), one princess (Anne) and loads of politicians and military officials.  A field gun on Horse Guards Parade is fired at the beginning and end of two minutes of silence, and Royal Marine buglers sound “The Last Post”.
Whitehall Cenotaph
The Cenotaph.  If it looks familiar, that’s because the design was copied and adapted for war memorials all over the Commonwealth.  (And did you know that the word “cenotaph” derives from the Greek “kenos” meaning empty and “taphos” meaning tomb?  Shut up, you did not.)
Like at home, poppies are worn at this time of year, and are sold all over as a fundraiser for the Royal British Legion.  However, poppies are different here!  They’re just as prevalent, but the design is not at all the same as at home.  They’re made of paper so they’re not fuzzy, and they’re shaped differently, and have a little green paper leafy bit, and a big black plastic bit in the middle.  The stem is green plastic and meant to be threaded into a buttonhole, with pins provided as an optional extra for those poor souls whose lapels  lack an appropriate orifice.  Handily, the green plastic stem has a little upwards pointing barb on it that helps stop it from sliding out from behind the pin.  This means your average UK poppy stays put better than the Canadian variety, but overall I’d say the British poppy is inferior to the Canadian version, which is pleasingly fuzzy and definitely sturdier, being made out of plastic instead of paper.
P1080730
Head-to-head comparison of poppies, English paper version on the left, fuzzy Canadian one on the right. (The Canadian one is so sturdy that it’s actually last year’s version, which I picked up at the Maple Leaf pub at an ex-pats get together in November of 2010.)
But back to the museum:
P1080696
The Imperial War Museum, London.  (Interesting aside: The museum is housed in the building that was previously the Bethlem Royal Hospital in Southwark.  It was the first hospital devoted to psychiatric patients but for a long time conditions were so dreadful and the patients so out of control that the general level of uproar and confusion that reigned meant the hospital’s name became synonymous with that state.  Hence the term “bedlam”.)  
The building pictured above is one of five venues of the Imperial War Museum.  In addition to the Bedlam building they also maintain the Churchill War Rooms and the HMS Belfast in London, an aviation museum in Cambridgeshire and another purpose-built museum in Manchester.  Yet even though I was only tackling one of those spots, I knew the collection would be far too extensive to see in one visit.  Once again, I’m grateful to be living here because unlike when I was traveling I knew I could come back any time and dip in to the collection.  I also meant I didn’t feel the slightest hesitation in pausing during my visit for a nice lattĂ© and a scone with whipped cream and jam in the museum cafĂ©.  If there’s anything I learned in my spell as a full time tourist it’s that taking a moment to rest and refuel can make the difference between a pleasant afternoon and a grueling ordeal.

So… what did I actually see at the museum?  I focused on two main areas – one that’s part of the permanent collection and one temporary exhibit.  The Children’s War and 1940s House is a temporary installation looking at the experience of children during the Second World War and at the home front in general.  It concentrated a lot on the evacuation of children from the cities to the countryside, which was undertaken because it was believed that major centres would be targets for German bombing.  More than 800,000 children were relocated during the war, many of whom had been raised in poverty in London’s poorest districts and who had never seen the countryside.
Operation_Pied_Piper
Poster about the evacuation
There were lots of touching excerpts from letters written by children to their parents back home, like this one:  
“They call this spring, Mum, and they have one down here every year.” - letter from evacuated child, 1940
Some kids apparently had a quite jolly time - there were heart-warming tales of frolicking in verdant meadows, swimming in ponds, chasing frogs, and being properly fed - with fruits and vegetables!  (One 6-year old girl was noted for having requested beer and cheese for breakfast... maybe I should try that some time.)  Many gained weight and ended up much healthier than when they were in the city, and some formed lifelong bonds with the families that fostered them.  Of course there were also tales of children sent to unfriendly, cold, nasty places straight out of Edward Gorey.  Following on from the stories of the evacuation there was a nice recreation of a wartime house, and lots of stuff about rationing and other home front topics which were pleasingly diverting.

After that I skipped into the WWI section, which was also quite good, and extensive, and included a walk-through recreation of a section of trenches called, inevitably, the Trench Experience.  Despite this annoying name the exhibit was quite good - dark and moody, with lots of interesting audio loops playing as you walked past the different areas.

P1080722
An officer in the Trench Experience, looking like he's ordering a pizza. ("And no anchovies this time, dammit!")
And what didn't I see?  I skipped rather quickly through the main entrance hall which is full of tanks, submarines, guns and planes, and I missed most of the exhibit on World War II, and the bit on conflicts since 1945, and the galleries of both WWI and WWII artwork, and about six special exhibitions.  I also made a very conscious decision to skip the Holocaust exhibit, thinking it might not be the cheeriest thing to dive into on a cloudy, chilly November day.  But that all just means there's plenty to go back for.

Imperialwarmuseumatriumpanorama
The Hall O' Tanks
I also have to mention to the Imperial War Museum's audioguide because it was a type I've never encountered before, and I consider myself something of an expert on the whole subject of audioguides.  Unlike any previous examples, this one actually had a colour touch screen and showed pictures to accompany the commentary - very swish!  And at a mere £3.50 it seemed a good value, despite the fact that the first one I got crapped out at the beginning of World War I and I had to trek back to the reception desk for a replacement.  The museum also has a nice gift shop where I was tempted by many Marmite-themed products including a whole set of AndyWarhol style coffee mugs and a couple of cookbooks.  (Though I was at a loss to understand what Marmite has to do with war...)

And there you have it - another site worthy of your attention for the next day you find yourself at loose ends in Lambeth.  And another site I certainly wouldn't have visited yesterday if I hadn't felt obliged to bash out another thousand words for the three of you who are actually reading this.  If nothing else, at least the blog is  forcing me to get out of the house on a regular basis, which means I can feel quite smug in the office on Monday morning when everyone else has to admit they spent the whole weekend eating Indian takeaway and watching re-runs of "The X-Factor".  And as an added bonus it also means I (and you!) can annoy co-workers with pointless trivia like the origin of the word "bedlam" or Victorian surgical practices, or the reproductive practices of certain palm trees.  There's no need to thank me...

More words, and an unfortunate dog

Monday, October 31, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

flickknife = switchblade.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tourist Stuff: The Old Operating Theatre Museum

Monday, October 24, 2011

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

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

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

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

P1080690
Look!  Pam’s feet are back! (That will only mean something to you if you read my old blog, where pictures of my feet cropped up irregularly.) (Or, I suppose, if you’ve got a thing about feet, which is something I would advise you to keep to yourself.)
The museum and operating theatre occupy a rooftop garret in St. Thomas’ Church, which was the chapel for St. Thomas’ Hospital.  The hospital started life as a hospice for the poor and sick near London Bridge some time in the 12th century, and St. Thomas’ Hospital stood on the same site until the whole works was packed up and moved west to Lambeth in 1862, where the current St. Thomas’ Hospital still operates.  When that move occurred the operating theatre was boarded up and forgotten.  It wasn’t rediscovered until 1956 when Raymond Russell investigated the attic of the church while researching the history of St. Thomas’. What he discovered was the shell of the old theatre and the adjoining garret, which had been used by the hospital’s apothecary for drying and storing a large array of medicinal herbs.

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

P1080675
Pretty!
And then of course there was the operating theatre itself, now beautifully restored and including an original wooden operating table with lots of saw nicks along the sides, and the stands from which students would have observed the proceedings.

P1080680
The Latin motto on the back wall says “Miseratione Non Mercede”, meaning “for compassion not for gain.”
“But wait”, I hear you saying, “Wasn’t it incredibly unsanitary to have a hundred grubby students hanging around during surgery?” Of course the answer is YES, 19th century operating theatres were incredibly unsanitary.  However this was in the time before the pioneering work of Joseph Lister, the man who first promoted the idea that hacking someone open might result in fewer fatal infections if the patient, surgeons, instruments and general area were actually clean.  Before Lister’s life-saving work (which started in about 1865) surgeries were regularly performed in whatever place was handy, and surgeons were more likely to wash their hands after an operation than before.  Surgeons were even noted for wearing the same old frock coat to surgery after surgery. Lister himself apparently “…wore an old blue frock-coat for operation, which he had previously worn in the dissecting room’, and which was ‘stiff and glazed with blood. Dirty coats were seen as a sign of a surgeon’s knowledge and experience, and the smell was referred to as ‘good old surgical stink’.”

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

P1080689
The operating table and kit of surgeons’ tools including tourniquet strap, saws, knives and *shudder* BONE NIPPERS…
The most informative part of my visit to the Old Operating Theatre Museum was the free presentation on 19th century surgery (every Saturday at 2:00pm, which worked out quite handily for me).  A woman who never revealed her name gave a very interesting talk about the history of the hospital and about Victorian surgical practice in general.  For instance, she told us about the team of four to six “dressers” that would be employed for every surgery.  These would usually be senior students of the surgeon involved and their task was simply to hold the patient down once the cuttin’ commenced.  She also told us about the remarkable speed that the best surgeons were known for.  Remember that there was no anesthetic so the kindest thing a surgeon could do for the patient was to get matters over with double-quick.  Some of the most renowned surgeons of the day could remove a limb in under a minute.  She even demonstrated a favourite back-handed hook cut with a long knife and a somewhat disquieting glint in her eye.

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


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