Apropos of nothing: The Underground Edition

Sunday, August 27, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cleverly hidden on the platform at White City

Tucked behind a flower stall at Hammersmith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Off the tourist track in Prague

Sunday, August 13, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

The unassuming entrance to the YMCA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gathered around the table

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

The assortment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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