Tourist Stuff: Hampton Court Palace

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

It seemed like a good idea at the time: a sunny Sunday afternoon with my visiting Mom and her husband, coupled with a lovely and significant historic palace and gardens in a picturesque suburban setting. What could possibly go wrong? Well, for starters you could be trying to get to a relatively untraveled spur line station which was inevitably going to involve a bit of faff. Then you could consult your most trusted app for London Life, Citymapper, and discover that trains to that particular station were curiously absent from the myriad of suggested routes. And you could also consult the helpful concierge at the Mom's hotel who would suggest going backwards to central London only to travel back west again on a train that seemed - according to Citymapper - not to exist. Then you could get slightly mixed up between Twickenham and Teddington. (Twickenham being much easier to get to and great if you're trying to see a rugby match, and Teddington being sort of tricker to get to and also curiously absent of trains, but actually much much closer to your intended destination.) Then you could stride forth anyways and make your way to Wimbledon, which is at least in roughly the correct southwesterly direction and expect to find a train when you got there only to be told by local station staff that there were no trains whatsoever from Wimbledon that day, and certainly none to any station within striking distance of where you were going, but you were welcome to sit for an hour or so on a Bus On Rail Replacement Service (five of the saddest words known to Londoners). And you could resign yourself to the dreaded B.O.R.R.S and go out to find absolutely no sign of buses or where to get them. And then you could just give up and get a fucking Uber. And then, after a still surprisingly long ride, you would, dear readers, end up at Hampton Court Palace.

Here it is, Hampton Court Palace. (Ironic quote from the Wikipedia page for Hampton Court Palace: "Today, the palace is open to the public and is a major tourist attraction, easily reached by train from Waterloo station in central London and served by Hampton Court railway station in East Molesey")

Construction of Hampton Court Palace was started by Cardinal Wolsey in 1515 but ended up being a favourite of the Tudor King Henry VIII, who seized it from Wolsey in 1529 and enlarged it. The Baroque era King WIlliam III also enlarged it a bunch, so the palace shows both Tudor and Baroque architectural styles. But we didn't want to see any boring Baroque stuff so we mostly stuck to the Tudor bits the building and to the gardens, which is where we started, because they're the site of the famous Hampton Court maze.

Mom and Bill in the Maze

The maze was laid out and the hedges planted in the late 17th century, and was the first proper multicursal hedge maze in England. It was originally all hornbeam bushes but was later replanted with yew. And here I will remind less Astute Go Stay Work Play Live Readers of the different between a maze - as in Hampton Court - and a labyrinth, as in our recent blog post. A labyrinth is unicursal, having only one path to the centre, being intended not as a challenge but a route for contemplation. A maze is multicursal - a puzzle with dead ends and forks and wrong turnings, which is much of the fun. However, as our party was comprised of a science teacher, an astro-physicist and one who might sometimes be described as just a tad on the methodical and rigid side, we entered and immediately implemented the "only turn one way" system which is a simple method of cracking any maze. This means we took every left turn available and therefore covered a lot of technically unnecessary ground but easily made it to the centre of the maze, where there was a mandatory photo op.

Two thirds of the triumphantly systematic team

Having ticked off the maze, we continued to explore some more of the massive grounds of the palace, which includes 60 acres of formal gardens set in 750 acres of surrounding parkland. The Kitchen Garden was the next stop, originally planted in 1689 during the reign of William and Mary, using some of Henry VIII's old tilting grounds. It originally supplied fresh fruit, vegetables and herbs for the entire household but fell into disuse when Victoria consolidated all royal kitchen gardens at Windsor Castle, and was converted to a pleasure garden in the 1930s. The present garden is a recreation of the original 17th century garden and was just opened in 2014. It was looking a bit sparse when we were there but we were still able to identify a lot of familiar species. The yield of the garden is sold to the public at a weekly market stall from June until the end of the season, for those who prefer to get their Brussels sprouts with a tinge of faded royal glory instead of just nipping out to Tesco for stuff any commoner can get.

A bit scruffy these days, as I said

After a quick glance at the Rose Garden (lots of roses), we headed for the palace itself. Being more interested in the Tudor bits, we first headed to the kitchens. When the palace was a royal household, between about 1530 and 1730, the kitchens catered for up to 400 people each day, though not for the King himself - he had a separate Privy Kitchen. The main kitchens were there to feed to staff of the estate, and were a massive operation divided among several rooms. The first rooms showed some of the crockery and utensils used, and there was a staff member explaining things.

Explanation of something in progress, possibly involving stirring small pots of something? Or is that a shirt on the right? And I think that's a whisk...

More interesting was the roasting kitchen, where huge fireplaces were used for roasting whole beasts on a turning spit. They had one fire going when we were there, though all they were cooking was two (relatively) little joints of beef. Back in the day they got through 1,240 oxen, 8,200 sheep, 2,330 deer, 760 calves, 1,870 pigs and 53 wild boar in a year, meaning that operating fires like this took an enormous amount of firewood. I took notes as I listened to the guide, but I wonder if I actually wrote it down wrong because my note says each fire took one ton of wood per day. And there are six fireplace just in the roasting kitchen. Imagine how many others there were in the rest of the kitchens for cooking and in the rest of the palace for heat. No wonder there’s no forest left.

Members of the public were invited to have a go at turning the spit. This little guy looked like he would have fit right in as a bedraggled kitchen boy. Also, charmingly, each time they do a roast like this they hold a raffle among the staff working that day to see who gets to take home the joint! Mmmmm... historic meat!

After the kitchens we went through the Great Hall, with its impressive hammerbeam roof and hung with a famous set of tapestries depicting the story of Abraham. Hammerbeam is a method of supporting wide ceilings with timber shorter than the overall span. The short projecting beams coupled with the longer vertical post are meant to look like a hammer and support the ends of the centre arches that in turn support the highest section of the roof. Very clever. It was actually kind of Hammerbeam Roof Week, since we also visited Westminster Hall at the Houses of Parliament the next day. Hammer-rama!

It’s also got nice windows and an impressive collection of dead animal heads.

Continuing along the tour we started to hear the sounds of choral music when approaching the Chapel Royal, with its impressive vaulted ceiling and ornate gold and blue paintwork. It seemed to be a recording playing to set the mood but it turned out to be the actual choir of the Chapel Royal rehearsing for the afternoon service, complete with angelic boy sopranos in red choir gowns. (No photography allowed, so thanks Google). It was an unexpected treat.

The Chapel is still in use for religious services today and if we’d been so inclined we could have attended the 3:30pm Choral Evensong. As it happened we were not thus inclined, because we had to go see more sumptuous rooms and ornate gardens and possibly find ice cream and souvenirs.

Along the way we visited the Chocolate Kitchen which was not a kitchen made of chocolate but a separate kitchen for the preparation of hot drinking chocolate. Its existence was known about from palace records, but its exact location in the palace grounds was lost until 2013, and its now been restored. The Chocolate Kitchen is where the  king’s specialist Chocolate Chef would start with raw cacao beans, roast them, crush and process them, and add sugar, milk and spices before personally serving the cup of chocolate to the King. Records show that aniseed and even chili were used as flavouring, which I guess means that the trendy chili flavoured chocolate you see now is hopelessly old fashioned.

Chocolate 1
This is the chocolate crushing thingammy in action. Not only was this kitchen not made of chocolate, there was also no actual chocolate available to be consumed, which seems like a ridiculous oversight.

Skipping further along we ducked out into the gardens again and strolled through the large and formal Privy Garden, which is overlooked by the William & Mary era east front of the palace, a much more modern looking affair. The garden itself is a very accurate reproduction of the 1702 design for William III. Its accuracy is due to the very detailed records kept by the gardeners and workmen involved in the project, making it a simple matter for the modern palace staff to restore the gardens exactly. Amusingly, those records are so complete not because of the consummate professionalism of those 18th century workers, but because the king died before the garden was completed and they were afraid they might not be paid, hence kept very robust records of their work.

Privy Gardens

More interesting was the glass house enclosing the Great Vine - the longest grapevine in the world. Planted in 1768 by the famous landscape architect Capability Brown, the vine is now 13’ around the base with the longest branch extending 120 feet. It still produces sweet black table grapes (for eating, not wine-making) with each season’s crop averaging about 600 pounds in total. Originally the fruit of the vine would have been reserved for the royal inhabitants of the palace. Queen Victoria had them sent to royal residences at Windsor Castle and the Isle of Wight. But during the reign of Edward VII, the king decided they could be distributed to the masses so now the grapes are carefully harvested in early September, packaged by volunteers, and sold in the gift shops of the palace. We must have just missed them!

This is the latest of six or seven glasshouses that have contained the vine. This one was built in 1969 and completely encloses the 1900s era steel framework that had become so entwined with the vine that it was impossible to remove.

By the time we’d made it through the Privy Gardens and the grapevine we all agreed we’d pretty much sated our desire for gold leaf, stained glass, broad avenues of topiary, perky costumed staff and gift shops. So there was really only one thing to do.

Ice Cream. Of course.

This was followed by another Uber ride to Richmond, and a walk along the river, and a tasty full roast dinner at a very agreeable pub, including a positively transcendent sticky toffee pudding. Then there was a quiet journey back to central London on the slow but steady District Line. I'm generally irked by the District Line (really TFL, how can you possible argue that it's ONE line? It's got three different termini in the west. THREE. It's almost as bad as the Northern Line...). But on that day it had one great advantage over mainline trains in that it was actually running trains. Radical.

GRUB!: Welsh Rarebit

Sunday, September 24, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Here’s what really happened:


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

Photographic evidence of perfect toast, made on the boat.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, September 10, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Boys in skirts
Nicely done boys.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Apropos of nothing: The Underground Edition

Sunday, August 27, 2017

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

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

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

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!