The Tube

Monday, August 29, 2011

Today I've decided to spend a bit of time delving into something that's a central feature of life for many Londoners: the Tube. Or, to be more correct, the London Underground. 

Brixton Underground Cropped
My Tube station – Brixton – proudly displaying an enormous version of the London Underground roundel (the big red circle), the instantly recognizable symbol of the Tube.  This picture was taken on a rainy Friday morning from the top of a double-decker bus.  (The Tube, a double-decker bus, and rain.  It’s a London trifecta.)
First things first, let's talk about pronunciation, and this is a bit subtle.  I know it looks like it should be pronounced “toob” like it rhymes with “lube”, but this is not correct.  The correct pronunciation is “tyoob”.  There’s a crucial “y” sound in there that should not be omitted.  When in haste, or if you want to sound a bit South London (pronounced “Sarf London”), you are allowed to say “choob”.  Those are your choices: “tyoob” (when speaking the Queen’s English) or “choob” (when pretending you are Jamie Oliver).  What it most definitely is NOT is a subway.  A subway is an underground pedestrian tunnel.  Access to the Tube is often via a subway, but the thing itself is the Tube.  (It’s also not a Metro, in case you were wondering.)  The Tube is also capitalised, presumably to differentiate it from all other random, unimportant bits of hollow roundness.

The London Underground is the world’s oldest underground railway system, with the first lines opened in 1863. (1863!  That’s before Canada was even Canada!)  It currently operates 260 different stations over 11 lines and has 250 miles of track, making it the second largest in the world, after Shanghai.  The Tube serves approximately 3.4 million people on an average weekday, hence it’s difficult to overstate the importance of system to London, though anyone who has lived through a Tube strike has some idea.  I’ve been through two Tube strikes in the last year.  Luckily, buses normally keep running but they get so overburdened, and traffic is so much worse that they also almost grind to a halt.  The best options are bike, foot, or staying put.

When the Tube is running, though, it’s a remarkably efficient way of getting around the city.   It may seem a  bit daunting but really, it’s all quite straightforward if you familiarise yourself with a few basics: (Mom, I’m talking to you.)

Tube Basic #1: The Tube Map
The first requirement for getting around on the Tube is the Tube map, which has become rightly famous as an icon of design since it was first devised by Henry Beck in 1931.  Maps of the system existed before that time, but they often didn’t show the whole system, because the scale of the more far-flung stations made the centre areas too small to read.

1908 Tube Map
1908 Tube Map
Beck’s genius was to realize that when travelling underground, passengers didn’t need stations to appear in the correct geographical positions as long as the lines and interchanges showed the correct relationships.  He spaced the stations evenly along each line and restricted the lines (including the River Thames) so they only run horizontally, vertically, or at 45 degrees.  Hence, the modern tube map was born, a portion of which today looks like this:

Tube Map Cropped
Centre section of the current tube map, not including Brixton, which is two stops past Vauxhall (bottom centre), on the pleasingly light blue Victoria Line.
Because of Beck’s lack-of-scale, the modern tube map can be a bit misleading.  For instance, on the map the distance between Covent Garden and Leicester Square looks the same as the distance between Hatton Cross and Heathrow Terminal 1, which is certainly not the case.  Covent Garden is a pleasant 400m stroll from Leicester Square.  Walking to Heathrow from Hatton Cross would be a dreary three mile slog and is therefore not recommended, especially if you’ve got a plane to catch.  Despite these limitations, Beck’s essential concept of the tube map has been copied by most similar transport systems around the world and is also one of my Favourite Things (if only because of this). 

Tube Basic #2: The Oyster Card
Tube fares can be not cheap.  The fare system is divided into zones 1 through 6, with 1 being the most central and 6 being approximately at the outskirts of Glasgow.  A single ticket to travel within Zone 1 and 2 will cost £4.00 if you’re paying cash, which is nothing short of highway robbery.  What you need to prevent this thievery, even if you’ll only be in London for a few days, is an Oyster Card. 

Oyster Card, Take 2
My Oyster Card, displayed along with the current paper wallet, which is themed exactly how you think it’s themed.
The Oyster Card is a contactless, re-loadable card that allows access to all London Underground, buses, proper mainline trains within London, and a variety of other odd offshoots like the Croydon Tramlink, the Docklands Light Railway and some riverboat services.  You can charge the card with pay-as-you-go credit, or a weekly or monthly pass, or a combination of both.  You touch it to a card reader when you enter the system, and you touch again to leave, and credit is automatically deducted.  The big advantage (other than convenience) is that the same £4.00 fare I quote you above will only cost £1.90 if you’re not traveling during a peak period. Like I said, those cash fares are highway robbery.  Get an Oyster Card!  In fact, if you’re coming over, let me know and I’ll get one for you. They are mandatory.

Tube Basic #3: The Escalator Rule
When using an escalator on the Tube (and there are a LOT of escalators involved) the rule is: Stand on the right, walk on the left.  This means that if you’re just going to stand like a lump and let the escalator do the work you must park your lumpish self on the right hand side.  People who wish to climb up or down while the escalator is in motion do so on the left.  Therefore if you’re lumpishly blocking the left hand side you can expect to hear an almost inaudible “Harumph” from someone trying to pass by, which could escalate (ha!) to a pointed “Excuse me please” if you don’t get the hint.

Angel Escalator
The escalators at Angel Station (Northern Line), which purport to be the longest in Europe. 
Tube Basic #4: Mind the gap
Anyone who’s travelled on the Tube is aware of the infamous GAP.  The gap in question is the distance between the train and the platform, which, due the the curved nature of some platforms vs. the faceted nature of tube trains, can be significant at some stations.  Public address announcements exhort everyone within range to “Mind the gap” with such regularity that the phrase itself has become a bit of a joke. 


I say it’s a bit of a joke but some random bit of Tube trivia I read somewhere said that there were 87 gap-related accidents on the Tube last year.  Even that didn’t really sink in for me until last week when a colleague at work actually HAD a gap accident wherein he was jostled at the door to the train and ended up putting his foot down the gap and, I think, sank up to about the knee, and sort of got stuck, and needed medical attention.  He ending up taking the day off work and came back with the knee in some kind of brace only to find that the guy across from him had thoughtfully recreated the “Mind the gap” warning in white tape on the floor beside his desk.  It’s good advice, really. (Other good advice: Don’t share an office with a smart-ass Norwegian who has too much time on his hands.)

Now that you’re all up on the Tube Basics, let’s get on with something even more London-ish than the Tube, and that is: moaning about the Tube.  Londoners, like all English, love a good moan, and moaning about the Tube is pretty much an official subcategory of moan.  You can moan about the trains being slow, or overcrowded, or hot, or not running at all.  You can also moan about unplanned delays, which are usually explained on the public address system like this: “Due to passenger action at Farringdon, trains are delayed by approximately 3 minutes.” (That’s usually someone blocking the closing doors while trying to get on.) More cringe-inducing is the announcement “We are currently experiencing significant delays on the Victoria and Piccadilly lines due to a person under a train at Finsbury Park.” Luckily, that’s not one you hear every day.

A Bakerloo line train, looking uncharacteristically bright and pleasant, mostly because it’s on a bit of track that’s not underground.  Only 45% of the track is in tunnels, but it’s the bit in the middle where most of the traffic is.  As the lines get farther out, they move above ground.
Because the system is 148 years old, and because the rolling stock comes in about 47 different types and sizes, the maintenance and upgrading of the system is a more-than-full-time job.  With the Olympics coming in less than a year, London Underground have been pouring on the hours to try to get the system into better shape.  This means that every weekend huge chunks of the Underground get closed down completely (oh, the moaning!).  I get an email from the good folks at Transport for London every Thursday detailing every line and station affected and this week alone there are disruptions on 8 of 11 lines.  Often whole lines are closed down, which can be a bit of a nightmare.  But it can also be the source of amusement, as evidenced by @haikunewsuk, a twitter feed I follow that tweets topical, funny news in haiku form:
What’s long, thin and blue
And stops working most evenings?
Victoria Line
Yes, the Tube can be a source of frustration, but during the Blitz in WWII, it was an important lifeline.  Because the deeper stations are really very very deep (a maximum of 221 feet at Hampstead, but in central London about 135 feet) people instinctively flocked to them as ad hoc air raid shelters.  At first officials discouraged this, but later they capitulated due to public pressure (and the fact that thousands of Londoners were doing it anyways).  The system became formalised and authorities eventually provided 22,000 bunks, and latrines and catering facilities.  There were even libraries and night classes at some stations.  Eventually, more than 170,000 people were sheltered in Tube stations and tunnels during the war.

Tube Air Raid Shelter
A Tube line inhabited by Londoners who’ve actually set up light housekeeping on the tracks themselves.  One can only assume the power was cut off… (There was a recreation of the whole Tube Air Raid Shelter experience last fall in a disused Tube Station at Aldwych which sounded very cool and which I naturally did not attend because I suck.)
Despite the depth of the stations, some direct hits did result in fatalities at Marble Arch and Balham.  By far the worst disaster, though, was at Bethnal Green, where a crowd of 1,500 attempting to gain access to the shelter panicked on the stairs causing someone to trip and fall on top of the next person, while the crowd continued to push. Before the downward motion could be stopped, 173 people were crushed to death.  It was the largest single civilian loss of life during the war.

And on that cheery note, let’s wrap this up.  I’m cycling to work these days (the Double Lock System is holding so far) and when I don’t go by bike I take the bus, so I don’t spend much time on the Tube anymore.  Back when I was commuting from Arsenal I used to crush onto a Piccadilly line train every morning, and change at King’s Cross, and then crush onto a Northern Line train, and then get a bus.  It was all a bit much at 7am (and was immeasurably worse at 8:00…). The Tube may be efficient, but using it during rush hour requires a sort of stoicism that I’m happy to leave to others.  But you should totally take the Tube when you come to London because despite the occasional moment when you're stuck with your nose in someone else's armpit, it really is a remarkable service.  Just remember to MIND THE GAP.

A Day Out: Bletchley Park

Monday, August 22, 2011

Is there anything more agreeable than settling into an almost-empty train carriage on a sunny Saturday morning with a fresh Telegraph crossword and the bucolic English countryside sliding past the window and an interesting destination ahead and another pleasing train ride home to look forward to at the end of the day? Well probably, but for the moment that will suffice.  London may be a magnificent city and an exciting place to live, and also be absolutely chock full of interesting sights, but sometimes it’s nice to get out.  Therefore, I’m pleased to present the first in what I hope will be a recurring series of posts about sights that are an easy trip out of London for those days when the big city is just a bit too much.  First up: Bletchley Park.

Bletchley Park is an estate in the town of Bletchley, located just outside of the much-maligned city of Milton Keynes, a pleasant train journey to the northwest of London.  It’s famous and interesting because it was the site of the UK’s main World War II code-breaking efforts and home to the Government Code and Cypher School. (No, that not a typo.  That’s how they spelled cipher back then.)  Bletchley Park, or, more accurately, those who worked at Bletchley Park, are best know for cracking the codes encrypted by the German Enigma and Lorenz machines, leading to intelligence breakthroughs that Churchill claimed shortened the war by as much as two years.

Bletchley was staffed with some of the finest minds in the country, drawn from Oxford and Cambridge (both easily accessible by train) and also found by other more interesting means, my favourite of which is this: In 1941 “the ability to solve a Daily Telegraph crossword in under 12 minutes was used as a test.  The newspaper was asked to organize a competition, after which each of the successful participants was contacted and asked whether they would be prepared to undertake ‘a particular type of work as a contribution to the war effort’. The competition was won by F H W Hawes of Dagenham, who finished in less than eight minutes.” (Wikipedia) Clearly, this was my kind of place (though if I ever manage to complete a Telegraph crossword in eight, or even twelve minutes, you’ll be hearing about it on CNN).

Most people go to Bletchley Park to see the Enigma machines and learn about how the code was broken, and here we will get into a bit of technical stuff because I think it’s cool and interesting, and it’s my blog, so settle in.

Enigma Machine
There were many versions of the device, but a typical Engima machine looks like this.
Here’s how Enigma works: When you press a key on the keyboard, like J, it completes an electrical circuit.  The current passes from the J on the keyboard to a plug board where J might be patched into Q.  From the Q of the plugboard the current goes to the first of three rotors.  Each rotor is hardwired so that current entering as one letter passes out again as a different letter.  So the current might enter the first rotor as Q and exit as H.  It enters the second rotor and H and comes out as E then enters the third rotor as E and comes out as P.  Then the current is reflected back through all the rotors again, changing the letter three more times before it then lights up a letter on the indicator board.  Thus the initial key press is changed seven times before reaching its final encrypted state.  Also, every time a key is pressed, the first rotor rotates one stop.  When it completes a revolution (26 stops) the next rotor moves as well.  And when the second rotor completes a revolution the third rotor also moves.  This means that the code changes with every letter.  Tricky!

To further complicate matters, German operators were instructed to change the settings of the machine every day to confound code-breakers. Though only three (and later four) rotors were used in the machine, it came equipped with five.  Thus the operator had to be told which three rotors to use, the order in which to use them, and the position in which to start each wheel.  Finally, the patch cables on the plug board would also be switched.  However, if a sender and receiver set up their machines in the same way a text could be encrypted, sent over the radio with Morse Code, and then the encrypted text typed into an identically configured machine, thus revealing the message.

Even though the Allies had captured and recreated Enigma machines, they could not begin to decipher the enemy messages without knowing the settings for each type of machine each day.  A properly configured 3-rotor Enigma machine can create 158 million million million different combinations of settings, so clearly the brute force approach was a non-starter.  This is where the code breakers enter the picture.  What eventually scuppered the German Enigma machine was a combination of a simple quirk in the machine’s design and, not surprisingly, human error. 

The quirk was this: Enigma could never encode a letter as itself. The human error part is this: the Germans encoded everything.  Not just top secret troop movements and such, but every bit of radio traffic they sent, including mundane things like weather reports.  This meant that is the allies got hold of a message they knew came from a weather station in Rome, they could be reasonably sure that somewhere very near the beginning of the message would be the phrase “weather report for Rome”.  Sure enough, this was the case, and by taking that known phrase and comparing it to the cipher text, while bearing in mind that no letter could be encrypted as itself, they were able to make an educated guess about how the message was encrypted.  This guess, called a “crib”, was then fed into an enormous machine called a Bombe.

The Bombe was designed by Alan Turing, the brilliant mathematician and famous code breaker.  The machine is an electromechanical device used to test possible rotor settings, based on the educated guesses from those “cribs”.  Though all existing bombe were ordered destroyed at the end of the war, in true British boffin fashion, a group of amateur enthusiasts have recreated a complete working Bombe which is on display at Bletchley Park, and I was there on a day when they actually had the thing fired up and running.  It’s huge - about 8’ wide x 6 high x 2’ deep, and it’s all spinning, clicking, clunking stuff, coupled with about 47 miles of wiring and relays and resistors and such in the back.  I have no idea how it worked but it must have, because at one point there were about 200 of them in operation at different sites around the UK, and they managed to crack the codes fast enough to make a huge difference in the war.

The open back of the recreated Bombe.  I took a video that shows it in all its whirring, clinking glory, but video is just not cooperating with me these days...
This makes it sound a bit like it was simply a matter of scanning an incoming message, flipping a few switches and Hey Presto, there was the message, all neatly deciphered: “Send more sauerbrauten.  Supplies low.”  In fact it was hugely labour-intensive.  First, the messages had to be recorded at Wireless Intercept Stations all over the country (where they had likely been copied by two or three woman at the same time to ensure accuracy).  Then the messages were sent by motorcycle courier (also women) to Bletchley Park where they went to the codebreakers for the “crib hunt” which resulted in the method to program the Bombes.  This programming (also done mostly by women) took the form of re-plugging the cables behind the machine and was not a speedy process.  Then the Bombe was started and each time it spit out a potential solution that had to be fed into a separate checking machine.  Sometimes a whole day would pass and no solution would be found.  However, when correct Enigma settings were discovered a British-made Enigma-like machine could be set up to decipher all the days messages that corresponded to those settings (and each branch of the German military used different machines and different settings).  Like I said, labour-intensive.  At the height of the war there were as many as 9,000 people working at Bletchley Park, and the volume of messages that passed through was staggering – 2,000 on an average day, but during the D-Day landings they handled 18,000 messages in one day!

So Bletchley Park is all about the code breakers and Enigma Machines and the Bombes and all that.  There are displays of the different machines and explanations of all the procedures and such, which you will now never have to read because you made it this far in the blog post. There are also lots of displays relating to the war itself, most of which are housed in the actual wooden huts that once were home to the code breakers, though many are in a sad state.

Not in good shape at all.  The brick walls used to go up above the windows to protect against bomb blasts.
But Bletchley Park is also bizarrely crammed with about a zillion other things to divert your attention, some of which are appropriate to the era and subject matter, some of which are linked rather tenuously, and some of which I suspect are just there to pay a bit of rent and help keep the doors open.

There are displays about life at Bletchley Park in particular and about life during war time in general.  I liked those bits, including lots of posters about rationing and morale and such.


There’s also the estate mansion itself to see, though much of it is closed to the public.

And there is a garage of old cars…

… and a museum of old toys and games…

… and a tiny Post Office…

… and the National Museum of Computing (including the first ever programmable computer, called “Colosuss” developed to break the twelve-rotor Lorenz cipher)…
Everyone at Bletchley, including my tour guide Tony (free guided tours, on the half hour, are included with the admission price!) were a bit touchy about the American claim that they were the first to invent the programmable computer.  Apparently Colossus predates the earliest American effort, but no one was able to talk about it for years because of the Official Secrets Act.  And whatever you do, don't get them started about the Hollywood movie that claims Americans recovered the Enigma Machine from the sinking U-boat. 
.. . and a display about Ian Fleming’s connections to Bletchley, a decaying Harrier jet parked on the lawn, a museum of cinema and projection (huh?), a collection of wireless radio equipment, a display of model ships, a model railroad layout (of course), a garden trail, a man-made lake, a canteen serving hot and cold food, and a huge room full of the largest collection of Churchill Memorabilia in the world, attended by the one man who collected it all, who greets you personally at the door, which is slightly creepy.

Everything here was amassed by one guy.  Truly, he has embraced the concept of the classic English Eccentric.
But there was one unlikely display that kept me transfixed even more than the Enigma machines.  To paraphrase the bard: “Cry havoc and let slip the pigeons of war!”

Tucked away in a side room in Hut 8 was a display about the National Pigeon Service.  Yep.  Pigeons.  Who who knew that homing pigeons were the unsung heroes WWII? (Shut up you did not.  You're just showing off.)  The homing pigeon’s amazing ability to return to its loft even when released hundreds of miles away in unfamiliar territory meant that more than a quarter of a million pigeons were used to carry messages for the Allies in the war.  Some were parachuted in canisters behind enemy lines to resistance workers, who could then send reports back to England.

Pigeon Parachute
Parachuting pigeon system.  Presumably this was slightly off-putting for the pigeon
All RAF bombers carried pigeons in water-tight containers so that if they had to ditch at sea the bird could be released with a message containing the approximate position of the wreck, thus making rescue much more likely.  Thousands of servicemen were saved in this way.  Pigeons were so useful that both sides used them extensively and anyone in Germany caught with an unregistered pigeon was executed. British pigeons were recruited from the best breeders all over the country, including the Royal lofts at Sandringham.  Some breeders were instructed to put their best birds in unmarked boxes and leave them at an appointed hour at St. James’s Park tube station, where they were retrieved by government pigeon operatives. The secret pigeon service was called MI 14. (I am not kidding.  There’s MI 5, there’s MI 6.  And there is, or at least there was, MI 14, the secret pigeon service.) 

Remarkably, 32 homing pigeons were even awarded the Dickin Medal, commonly referred to as the “Animal Victoria Cross”.  One recipient was Mary of Essex, a pigeon who was attacked by a falcon during a mission, but still returned to deliver her message.  She was deemed so valuable to the war effort that her owner was instructed to stitch her up and get her back in the air.  After her 22 stitches healed  she returned to work, survived several other falcon attacks, and never failed to complete a mission. (TWENTY-TWO stitches?  IN A PIGEON?  Is a pigeon even 22 stitches long?) Mary of Essex died of old age and is buried in an animal cemetery.

Peregrine falcons were used by the Germans to intercept and kill British pigeons.  And the British eventually trained falcons to capture German homing pigeons without killing them, thus intercepting their messages.  The British even managed to drop “double agent” pigeons behind enemy lines who were unknowingly adopted by German pigeon handlers but promptly returned to their British lofts when released, thus delivering their German messages into Allied hands.  I’m telling you, these pigeons rocked my world.

Finally, I have to tell you about the remarkably fitting end to my day.  I took a few well-needed breaks during my day at Bletchley Park, because you really have to when tackling a site like that.  And on my breaks I worked on the Daily Telegraph Saturday Prize Crossword which felt very fitting given the day’s theme.  I made good progress on the puzzle (half-way mark reached at 2:01pm) and had it almost finished by the time the train pulled in at Euston.  Then, with one or two clues left, I finally cracked it on the tube on the way home to Brixton, which pasted such a goofy smile on my face that people in adjacent seats edged away from me.  It was the fist time I’ve ever completed a Saturday puzzle, and it felt like the ghosts of Bletchley Park must have been with me.  Then, when I got home, I pulled out the “52 page Ultimate Puzzle Book” that just happened to be a special inclusion with the day’s paper, and which I’d lugged around all day. And what did it say along the bottom of the front cover? “Crosswords. Logic. Sudoku. Visual. Numbers. PLUS BLETCHLEY PARK CODEBREAKERS”  I’m not kidding, there was a whole section in the book about Bletchley Park and code breaking.  And best of all, they reprinted that 1941 crossword that was used to recruit potential codebreakers.  So my whole day hung together perfectly, like a good crossword clue.  And you can’t ask for better than that.

P.S.  Total cost of this Day Out: Picnic lunch (including treats) from Sainsbury’s: £3.49, freakishly appropriate Saturday Telegraph: £2,20, Same Day Return Off Peak train ticket from Euston Station: £14.00, Admission: £12.00 (valid for one year), coffee from the canteen: £1.70, coffee for the train home: £2.20.  Total: £35.59.  Not exactly cheap, but really not bad.

P.P.S.  All my pics from the day are in the Bletchley Park Set, at Flickr.

GRUB!: It's Pimm's O'Clock

Monday, August 15, 2011

First things first, since I suppose I MUST mention it: the riots.  I thought about devoting a whole blog to the subject since it’s been the dominant topic here for the last week.  But because of that dominance and the  accompanying media saturation (which has been, if possible, greater than that of a certain wedding of a few months ago) I’m a bit tired of it all.  Instead, I want to talk about something that seems much more English, and is in keeping with the season, which is warm, and with the news that England has finally climbed to number one in the international test rankings, which is most excellent. (That’s cricket, mind.  And I said it in a tweet, and I’ll say again here: I must be truly assimilated now.  Not only do I understand, but I can really appreciate the exceedingly rare and happy phrase: “Tendulkar out for 1.”  If you’re not familiar with cricket in general, and with the current giants of the game in particular, you’ll just have to wait until I get around to blogging about it to see what I mean.)

The weather here has finally turned into summer.  No, it's not 35 degrees (thankfully) but it's warm enough that people are commenting and wearing sandals and enjoying being able to moan about it being too hot instead of moaning about it being too rainy.  This means that it's the perfect time to introduce our first drink in the GRUB! series.  Shockingly, it's NOT beer, but that most quintessential of British summer tipples: Pimm's.

Pimm's O'Clock
Pimm's is the best known example of a fruit cup, which is a traditionally English summer drink made of hard liquor - usually gin - that's flavoured with a proprietary blend of  herbs, spices and fruit.  It's intended to be mixed with a soft drink like ginger ale or lemonade, and served over ice, usually with sliced fruit added.  (It also bears telling that over here when someone says "lemonade" they do NOT mean a beverage made by squeezing lemons and adding water and sugar to taste.  Basically, they mean 7-Up.)

Pimm's Cup Number One (there are six) is the original, and was invented by James Pimm in 1823.  It's made with a gin base, quinine, citrus, and some herbage, and is a sort of reddish tea colour with a whiff of orange and spice in the nose. Pimm produced it to serve in his oyster house as a digestive aid and it became popular enough that it went into large scale production in 1851, and was being sold by hawkers on bicycles by 1859.  That's what we need more of in this country I say: people selling Pimm's from bicycles.  Preferably wearing knotted handkerchiefs on their heads and sporting a sunburn and wearing socks with sandals for best and most English effect.  But back to Mr. Pimm, who, by 1865, had sold the whole shebang, along with the rights to the name, at which point we’ll leave the tedious narrative of who owned what when.

Along with Pimm's No. 1, there have been Pimm's Cup No. 2 (based on Scotch whisky), Pimm's No. 3 (brandy), Pimm's No. 4 (rum), Pimm's No. 5 (rye whiskey) and Pimm's No. 6 (vodka).  Of these spin-offs, only No. 3 and 6 are still produced.  Pimm's Cup No. 3 has been re-branded as Pimm's Winter Cup, and is intended to be mixed with warm apple juice and sliced orange.  No. 6 is rarely seen (or at least rarely seen by me). However, Pimm's No. 1 Cup, or simply Pimm's, as it is universally known, is seen just about everywhere.  Most pubs of a certain type will have it, as will lounges and restaurants and especially anywhere that has a terrace.  It's sold by the glass and by the pitcher and is sort of the English equivalent of getting a jug of sangria to share among friends on a warm Sunday afternoon.

The traditional recipe for mixing is:
  • 1 part Pimm's No.1
  • 2-3 parts chilled lemonade (the fizzy 7-Up kind)
  • sprigs of mint, and sliced cucumber, orange and strawberry  (Please do not ask me to explain the cucumber.  Just accept is as one of the English things like beans with breakfast and move on.)
I intended to take my own photo of my own pitcher of Pimm's made by my own self, and even stocked up on all the necessaries to do so.  But I ended up making rather merry with a group of West London runners last night and hence am not exactly in the mood for a pitcher of anything stronger than London tap water.

Pimm’s is one of the traditional drinks served at Wimbledon and the Henley Royal Regatta (the other being champagne, of course) and is also popular at polo matches so really, how much more stereotypically English can you get?  There are even a few variations on the traditional mix, a particularly paralyzing one of which is the Pimm’s Royal Cup.  It combines Pimm’s No. 1 (already at 25% alcohol content) with champagne and a single strawberry.  You wouldn’t need too many of those while sitting in the sun at Wimbledon before you’d not only have trouble keeping track of the ball, but the court, and indeed your own extremities.

I sense that Pimm’s is currently enjoying a certain retro popularity, which was started by a self-mocking ad campaign from 2003 featuring an endearing/annoying toff character called Henry Fitzgibbon-Sims (played by Alexander Armstrong) who would happen upon groups of people in odd situations and end up serving up glasses of Pimm’s all ‘round and spouting the catchphrase “I make that Pimm's O'clock!”  They are quite fun, and so I include a few of my favourites here, so you can get an appreciation for the genre:

Sadly, Fitzgibbon-Sims was retired and the current ad campaign is not quite so clever, though it does include Morris dancers, and socks with sandals, so it’s also worth a look. 

And there you have it: Pimm’s!  Luckily I am reliably informed by my sister, who developed a strong taste for Pimm’s on her recent visit, that the genuine article is available on foreign shores (or at least in Calgary).  So get out there and give it a try while the weather is still warm and the evenings are long.  Just don’t forget the cucumbers.

P.S.  Ok, ok, ok, a bit more about the riots, though there’s probably not much I can tell you that you haven’t already heard: riots started in north London on Saturday night, at first as a reaction to the shooting death of a young black man by police in a botched arrest attempt.  Rioting and looting spread to other areas Sunday night, and if there was any pretense that people were protesting the shooting it was long gone by Sunday.  The general opinion is that things devolved completely into opportunistic, thuggish vandalism and thievery.  One of the areas affected on Sunday night was my neighbourhood, Brixton.  Looters hit shops on the main street and a couple of big box stores a few blocks from my house.  Despite this, the whole event – in Brixton in particular and the rest of London and England in general - had no real effect on me personally.

Well, that’s not strictly true. What is true is that the effect on me personally was very small.  Here’s how my life was changed:
  1. When I stopped at the newsagent on Monday morning to pick up the paper they had no papers of any kind because there had been no deliveries, because of the riot. At that point on Monday morning I had no idea what had happened in Brixton Sunday night.  This is because I generally listen to the Canadian news from the night before over breakfast, and I don’t get the day’s paper until I leave the house.  So when the guy in the shop mentioned a riot I thought, “Riot? What riot?”  Then I cycled past the burned-out Footlocker store on the high street and the light slowly started to dawn.
    The former Footlocker Store
  2. I had finally convinced my West London running group to come to Brixton where I was going to lead them on a run through the area on August 18th (including a lovely jaunt through Brockwell Park and a Pimm’s drink stop in my front garden).  As a result of Sunday night’s rioting in Brixton the powers that be at the group determined that Brixton had been a dodgy enough place to begin with that turnout would be too low (it’s not really especially dodgy, but those West Londoners are a twitchy bunch when lured out of the leafy suburbs).  Following the riot they politely told me to find a new venue, which left me annoyed and cranky for much of Monday.
  3. As a result of my general crankiness on Monday I decided I wanted to skip cooking and went to my local pub for supper instead, but it was closed because of the riots.  This is perhaps a good indication of how nervous everyone was on Monday night because really, CLOSING THE PUB???!!!
And that’s IT.  That’s the sum total of the direct effects the riot had on me.  I actually slept through the whole thing in Brixton on Sunday.  Yes, the shops on the high street were shuttered and boarded up for most of the week.  Yes, there was that burned-out Footlocker, whose door I had never darkened anyway. And there were endless conversations around the office at work.  But by the time the violence hit its peak on Monday there was basically nothing left to steal in Brixton, and everything was shut up tight, so it was a quiet night.

Morley's Boarded Up
A boarded-up local department store on Brixton Road.
There was a point somewhere around Tuesday morning where the messages I was getting from home made it sounds like the rest of the world was assuming that the entire city was in flames, which was simply not true.  There were a lot of areas where violence flared up, but the total area affected was miniscule compared to the overall size of the city.  Then again, there have been suggestions that the property damage was the worst and costliest in London since the Blitz and many small shopkeepers are expected to be put out of business by the looting since a large number don’t have insurance against acts of terrorism.  Luckily (for the shopkeepers and homeowners, if not the taxpayers) many will be entitled to compensation under the The Riot Damages Act of 1886, which pays out compensation for any building that has been damaged or suffered losses as the result of rioting.

Now, a week after it all kicked off, things are very quiet, though there are still shops with broken windows and an unusually high number of police on the streets.  And the newspapers are still solidly packed with articles about what happened and speculation about why it happened, and shocking stories about 11-year olds in court accused of looting bottles of wine, and straight-A students caught on CCTV cameras trying on stolen running shoes, and looters attacking Poundland shops (A Poundland is like a dollar store, so it’s hard to imagine getting your money’s worth looting one without giving yourself a hernia in the process.)  It’s expected somewhere around 2-3,000 people will eventually face charges, and the courts have been running 24 hour a day to process cases, so it’s safe to say we’ll be feeling the after-effects of this week’s events for a long long time to come. 

And that's all the more reason to bring back the bicycling Pimm’s salesmen, don't you think?

Tourist Stuff: Tower Bridge

Monday, August 8, 2011

You may recall that last week I had buy a new bike (and mudguards and kickstand and helmet and TWO new locks...).  Forgive me if it seems like I've been banging on about this whole bike business for ages what with the accident first and the theft second but lately, and with apologies to Lance, it really has been all about the bike.  One of the many annoying things about having to buy a new bike is that the particular bike I wanted to buy (ie: the cheapest one possible) required schlepping all the way out to Canada Water.  Despite its obviously excellent name Canada Water is a bit far-flung, and the area surrounding the bike shop is a something of a wasteland if one wants to, say, sit and have a nice cup of coffee while one's mudguards are being fitted.  And considering I was sort of cranky to begin with because of the whole need to go to Canada Water and spend a bunch of money on a new bike in the first place, I was not in a brilliantly cheery frame of mind by the time I was ready to leave on the aforementioned new bike.

(Brief aside about Canada Water, 'cause I know someone is going to ask: Canada Water is a small, man-made freshwater lake which is now a wildlife refuge.  It's located in an area called Rotherhithe on the south side of the river, which is in one of the funny bloopy bits of land created by the meandering Thames (similar to the Isle of Dogs on the other side, or North Greenwich, farther to the east.).  Rotherhithe is part of the area generally known as the Docklands, so named because it used to be the hub of the commercial shipping in London, hence there were a lot of docks.  Canada Water is named after Canada Dock, which handled most of the shipping traffic from Venezuela.)

So I was at Canada Water and though my mood was dark the day was exceptionally warm and sunny.  And it was Sunday afternoon.  And despite sleeping in to a shockingly late hour and then dawdling to the local shop to buy the aforementioned helmet and locks and then trekking to Canada Water and faffing around with mudguards and other paraphernalia, I actually finished up and cycled off just after 1:00pm.  With an unexpectedly free afternoon in front of me I decided to try and salvage the day by having a nice lunch and then play tourist by checking out something that's been on the list for ages and was (sort of) on my way home anyway: Tower Bridge.

See?  I really do live here!  (Also: check out that hippie hair!)
As I've said before, Tower Bridge is probably my favourite sight in London (and possibly my favourite bridge
ever).  The origins of the bridge date to the late 19th century when "the East End of London became so densely populated that public need mounted for a new bridge to the east of London Bridge, as journeys for pedestrians and vehicles were being delayed by hours." (from the Tower Bridge website).  Never ones to miss the opportunity for a bit of bureaucracy, those crafty Victorians created the "Special Bridge or Subway Committee", which was formed in 1876 and opened a public competition soliciting designs for the new river crossing.  Because it was critical that the new bridge allow tall-masted ships to access the areas upstream, designers were forced to employ and odd array of schemes to achieve that goal.  More than 50 designs were submitted, my favourite of which is this bizarre offering from E. J. Palmer:

Crazy Bridge
It looks like it has the advantage of allowing traffic to continue flowing while ships are passing through, but also has the significant disadvantage of looking like someone has dropped a giant pair of 3D specs across the Thames.
Luckily good sense prevailed and the design submitted by Horace Jones was chosen. I say good sense because I personally love the design of Tower Bridge.  Yes, it does kind of look like a cross between a Meccano set and a wedding cake, but isn't that its charm?  Apparently not everyone thinks so, since one opinion at the time stated that "A more absurd structure than the Tower Bridge was never thrown across a strategic river".  Spoilsport.

Jones’s design for Tower Bridge was (and still is) a combination bascule and suspension bridge.  "Bascule" is a French term for see saw and is used, I suppose, because referring to something so big and impressive as a "see saw" seems a bit undignified.  So the centre section of the bridge that lifts to allow shipping traffic to pass through is the bascule section, and the side approaches are suspension bridges.  The side suspension bits  (and their two million rivets) were originally brown but were painted a jaunty combination of red, white and light blue for the Queen's Silver Jubilee in 1977, and remain so today.

There is nothing interesting to say about this photo. It just illustrates my point.  Also, I had to wait a couple of minutes to take it because a woman in a sari was standing in the way.  (I told you there was nothing interesting...)
The pulling forces that act on the side suspension cables on the towers are counteracted by two elevated walkways between the towers, which, beside performing a vital structural function, also allowed pedestrians to cross the bridge while it was open.  That is to say, it allowed particularly energetic pedestrians who were presumably on very a tight schedule to climb up to a height of 116' above the roadway and then back down the other side.  Unsurprisingly few people chose this option rather than simply waiting for the roadway to descend and the walkways soon "gained an unpleasant reputation as a haunt for prostitutes and pickpockets" (Wikipedia).  They were closed to the public in 1910, a mere 16 years after the bridge was officially opened.  The walkways remained closed until 1982 when they were refurbished to become part of the "Tower Bridge Experience" for which I paid £8 last Sunday.

(Another brief aside: Why must everything these days be an "experience"?  First of all, it's smarmy and pretentious.  Second, it's completely unnecessary.  Redundant, even.  Everything we do every day is an experience, so why is something with an admission price and a gift shop so much more EXPERIENTIAL than anything else that it's very EXPERIENTIALNESS has to be pointed out? Pfftt....)

So yeah, I EXPERIENCED the walkways, which are lined with some diverting displays about the bridge, and about other famous bridges of the world, and do allow you some pretty excellent views along the Thames.

Spot The Shard, the London Eye, the Tate Modern, HMS Belfast, the BT Tower, and St. Paul's (The walkways and rooms inside the towers are also available to rent for special occasions like weddings, which I think is great, though probably eye-wateringly expensive.  Still, if I ever get married I think I’m doing it at Tower Bridge.  Anyone free?)
Also part of the Tower Bridge Experience is a trip into the old engine rooms that used to drive the bridge's bascules, which was bloody excellent.  Sadly, the old steam machinery is no longer used to raise and lower the bridge - that's now done with hydraulics powered by electric motors.  The nice thing about this is that it means you can now get a close up look at the old Victorian steam engine, and there's nothing like a good old Victorian steam engine I always say.  Or is that just me?  Am I the only one who loves to watch the smooth-running, spinning, whirring, clicking, ratcheting splendor of a good bit of giant cast iron machinery? Perhaps I'm actually a six year old boy at heart. Then again, how could you not love this:

I particularly love the paint job, and the diamond-shaped spinning thing that looks a bit like an astrolabe and is probably called something like an Encapsulated Boggs-Flinder Compensator.

The steam engines didn't drive the bascules directly.  Instead, the pressure they created was used to raise two enormous accumulators, which are essentially Big Heavy Things.  By pushing the Big Heavy Things up in the air, much energy was stored so that the bridge could be raised or lowered at a moment's notice by allowing the Big Heavy Things to descend on cue and thereby push water through the system.  Clever Victorians!

Ok, I'll stop talking about steam engines and accumulators and the splendor of polished brass Encapsulated Boggs-Flinder Compensators now.  Instead, how about a wacky story from 1952?  Back then a gateman used to ring a warning bell to stop the flow of traffic before the bascules would be raised.  On one day in December the warning system failed when a relief watchman was on duty.  The failure occurred just as the #78 bus was approaching the split between the bridge decks from the south.  As the bridge started to rise, the driver, the extremely plucky Albert Gunter, made a split-second decision, stomped on the accelerator of his double-decker, and jumped the bus across to the northern side.  There were no injuries. And it’s not like the guy was driving a stunt motorcycle, or even something so nimble as an Austin Mini.  He was driving a freakin’ double decker bus.  Albert Gunter, you rock.

(One more aside: I have taken the #78 Shoreditch bus traveling north across Tower Bridge and nothing even remotely that interesting happened.)

Another wacky Tower Bridge anecdote:  In 1997, President Bill Clinton's motorcade arrived slightly late for its bridge crossing.  Below, the sailing barge Gladys arrived bang on time and the bridge was duly raised for her, thus cutting Clinton’s motorcade in half.  The president’s security staff were naturally rattled by this turn of events, but could do nothing but wait until the bridge was lowered again. A spokesman for Tower Bridge was quoted as saying, "We tried to contact the American Embassy, but they wouldn't answer the 'phone." (Wikipedia).  Ha! 

Those same bridge decks still lift about 1000 times every year since they reopened in April after a multi-million pound refurbishment.  Want to hear something else I love about Tower Bridge?  Naval traffic still takes precedence over road traffic (presidential or otherwise), and ships do not pay to have the bridge raised; they simply have to give 24 hours notice.  The schedule for lifting can be found here, where the SB Gladys still makes regular appearances.

And there you have it – Tower Bridge.  It rescued my Sunday afternoon, and I hope it brightened your Monday morning.

One last look at the fairytale brilliance of Tower Bridge 

P.S.  If you want to see all the photos I took at Tower Bridge that afternoon, check out the Tower Bridge set at Flickr, where you can also find sets for the Lambeth Country Show and the Tate Modern, and the Royal Wedding, and Postman’s Park… Hmmm, perhaps I should have mentioned this Flickr set thing sooner…
P.P.S.  The route of the London Marathon crosses Tower Bridge, which is another reason for me to get off my ass and start training properly again, except that the 2012 race is already full.  Phew.

Apropos of nothing, the sequel

Monday, August 1, 2011

More random observations about the little things that make life different, or interesting, or just plain odd, on this side of the pond.

On the disturbing nature of the packaging and storage of eggs:
Eggs.  They are so simple.  They are so basic.  What can possibly be weird about eggs?  Well, let's start with the fact that cartons of eggs come in several sizes in my local Tesco.  I can get a carton of six eggs, which is not strange in the slightest.  The strange thing is that the next size up from six is… ten.  A carton of TEN eggs.  What the Hell is that?  How can you mess with something so fundamental as a dozen eggs? It's like selling socks in packages of three.  I ask you: What kind of a society packages eggs in cartons of TEN?

Photographic evidence
I'll tell you.  It's the kind of society where eggs are stacked on supermarket shelves approximately 732 miles away from refrigeration of any kind.  The cartons (of ten!) are just piled up on a shelf like bags of flour or cans of beans.  I suppose it must be safe.  I mean it's not like people over here are dropping like flies due to unrefrigeratedeggosis or anything.  And I'm sure someone will pipe up here about how it's totally fine (Ian?), but as a person who grew up in a world where eggs belonged in the refrigerator, it's just kind of creepy.  Next I'll find people storing open jars of mayonnaise next to the Corn Flakes.  Ick.

Eggs on the shelf

I am honour-bound to report that sometimes eggs come in cartons of a dozen.  But not always.  And if you look closely at the above photo you’ll notice that they also come in cartons of 15.  Honestly, it’s like the Wild West out here when it comes to egg packaging.
(Bonus odd food packaging related thing: Store bought bagels come FIVE in a bag. Weird, I say.  Just weird.)

On the frustrating nature of multi-directional parking:  
You know how in North America you can look down a street full of parked cars and all the cars on one side of the street are facing in the same direction?  That does not happen here. Here, even if you're traveling down the left side of the street, it's perfectly acceptable to cross a lane or two of opposing traffic to park on the right side.


Let me stress here that I did not have to search for a place to take this photo.  I was sitting on the couch blogging and thought, “Damn, I need that parking photo” and picked up my camera, walked out the front door, turned down the first side street, and snapped away.
Aside from the fact that it seems slightly unsafe to allow people to swerve across the street to bag a parking space, there's another reason this practice is annoying.  If, for instance, you happen to have grown up in a country that drives on the right and you happen to move to a country where they drive on the left then you're already at an disadvantage when attempting to cross the road.  At first your instinct will tell you to look to the left, which is wrong.  Then you'll gradually get used to things but start to second guess yourself, so you look left, no wait right, no, no left was right... and so on.  Then you start to look around for other cues about which direction the traffic is flowing so you're not forced to rely solely on your faulty instincts.  You may not have realized it, but one of the big cues we (or at least I) use to figure out the direction of traffic flow is by looking at which way parked cars are pointing on either side of the street.  Ha! No luck there.  Like Mom always said: “Look both ways when you’re crossing the street.”

On the lawless nature of phone number mnemonics:
Phone numbers have an extra digit, and you've always got to dial the area code, which means eleven numbers.  That's not hugely weird in and of itself.  What's a bit strange is that there seems to be no generally agreed way to break those eleven digits up into a series of shorter numbers as a memory aid.  You know how North American phone numbers always go "da da da (pause) da da da da"?  Or if you're including the area code it's "da da da (pause) da da da (pause) da da da da". And you write the numbers this way: (xxx) xxx-xxxx.  Always.  Without exception.  Oh sure, sometimes people who are trying to be arty will leave out the parentheses or the dash.  But no one would ever write a phone number as xxxx xxx.  Ever. That would be freakish and possibly borderline sociopathic.  Here, there are no rules.  I tend to think of my mobile as xxxxx xxx xxx (5 3 3).  But my work number is xxxx xxx xxxx (4 3 4). 

Just recently, walking down the street, I saw signs that display phone numbers as 3 4 4 and ones that are 4 3 4.  It's just disconcerting. I never really thought about it, but I suppose at some point in the formative stages of North American telephony someone laid down the law about how we write phone numbers (something to do with that "Pennsylvania 6500" thing I guess).  Whoever that person was, he had no equivalent over here, leaving Britons to flounder and make things up as they go along. 

(Bonus odd number-related thing: I’ve noticed that when people are telling you phone numbers over here they are much much more likely to say “double two” instead of “two two”.  But the quirkiest thing is when you get three digits in a row it’s not “two two two” or even “two double two”.  It’s “treble two”.  That’s so cute!)

On the heartening nature of billboards in the public transit system:
Here’s something I notices almost as soon as I arrived, and I love it.  You know what they put on billboards in the tube?  Yes, there are ads for movies and car insurance and video games.  But there are also ads for books.  Books!  Posters advertising new offerings from popular authors sit right alongside the ads for the latest Hollywood blockbuster.  And you know what else you see a lot of?  Ads for galleries and museums.  I know London is a town that thrives on the tourist trade, so I suppose it’s natural that they want to make sure everyone knows what’s on a the Tate Modern or whatever, but I just find it charming and sort of restorative of one’s faith in humanity.  I mean how can you say too much bad about a society that produces six foot high colour ads for a book?
Book ads
Ok you’re right, it’s not like they’re pushing a new edition of “The Canterbury Tales”, but still…nice.

On the fleeting nature of bicycle ownership in London:
Remember last week, when I told you all about my troubles on my bike?  Well my shoulder is pretty much fine now, thanks.  As for my rear derailleur?  The fact is I’m not precisely sure how my rear derailleur is anymore, mostly because it’s not precisely my rear derailleur anymore.  This is because I presume it’s still attached to a bike that is not precisely my bike anymore.  It turns out that you can lock your bike up at Vauxhall Station late into a Thursday evening for two weeks in a row with an apparently laughably inadequate lock, but if you go for three weeks… well, that’s pushing your luck.

The sad, funny, you-gotta-laugh-because-if-you-didn’t-laugh-you’d-cry thing is that I’d been having an ongoing debate each week with a fellow hasher and experienced London cyclist who I often share a train with on Thursday evenings.  He was convinced that my lock was a joke and the fact that I was leaving my bike at Vauxhall with that lock was simply asking for trouble. So for the first two weeks I gloatingly sent him triumphant little text messages when I arrived back at the station, unlocked my bike, and headed for home.  Then last Thursday rolled around and it was his turn to gloat.

So on Friday morning I got back on the #59 bus and it was miserable.  It was slow and crowded and slow and full of annoying people with their iPods playing too loudly or people applying makeup or people talking loudly on their phones.  And I got to pay £1.90 for the pleasure of arriving at work cranky and too late for any quality crossword puzzling time.  Two days later, I got another bike.  This one is exactly the same as the old one, except that the rear derailleur is pointing straight up and down and functioning properly, which is refreshing.  (When I walked into the inconveniently-located sports mega-store where I got the first bike I went straight to the display of the same bottom-of-the-line £129.99 bike I’d bought 36 days before, flagged down a sales person, pointed, and said “I’ll have one of these, please.”  The sales guy was a bit taken aback and said “Have you had a chance to look around at all the models that are available?”  Clearly, he was not used to dealing with the now-hardened London-cycling type I have become.  My housemate only half-jokingly suggested that I might just place a standing order for this type of bike, so that I’d always have one or two in reserve. She’s freakin’ hilarious, she is.)

My new new bike.  And my new new bike helmet...
The other different thing is that the new bike is equipped with new locks.  Yes, that’s lockS, plural.  I’ve got £130 worth of bike (well, £150 with mudguards and kickstand) and I’ve got £121 worth of locks to keep it safe, which seems bizarre but apparently that’s what it’s going to take.  (The other other different thing is that these new locks add nine and a half pounds to the weight of an already sturdy steel-framed bike.  Yeesh.)

The Two Lock Strategy is one proposed by a few people in proper bike shops, and by my not-at-all-gloaty-VERY-sympathetic train-riding, texting friend.  I guess if you’ve got a really good, heavy chain lock and a very good quality U lock the would-be thief has to carry two different sets of tools to deal with them, which usually means they’ll move on to the next bike on the rack.  Note I said “usually” because of course there are no guarantees.  The simplest strategy will likely be for me to modify my Thursday night schedule so that I’m not leaving my bike at Vauxhall station but in the locked bike cage in the parking garage at work, which means my trip home will get longer, but not as long as the walk from stupid Vauxhall station.