Saturday, 29 December 2012

Buskers on the Tube

Ted Emmett, TfL busker
Hearing music floating up the escalators on London's tube always gives me a lift, even when going down, not up. The performers are usually very, very good and deserve a coin tossed their way. I stopped to listen and talk to one Ted Emmett who was playing some really nice stuff. Apparently there is stiff competition to hold one of the 39 pitches available in 25 underground stations. Transport for London vets each applicant and licences them to play, and TfL also send all their buskers a newsletter and can serve as a go-between to put them in touch with the public who would like to hire them for gigs. Seems like a win-win situation for everyone. I just wish I'd see more people contribute to the cause  – after all, it's nice to reward a good player for their efforts rather than have someone stand on a corner with a begging cup.

Chelsea Buns for Christmas!

I was devastated last year when I visited Cambridge and found Fitzbillies bakery closed for business. Then Tim Hayward and Alison Wright came to its rescue and Fitzbillies, that most Cambridge of institutions, are selling their wondrous Chelsea buns again, along with – extra bonus – slices of their incredible Sachertorte cake! (So you don't have to buy a whole cake.) Others are rapturing about the delicious menus in the new café-restaurant, but I am just glad for the take-aways.
   Yes, we fell in love with Fitzbillies Chelsea buns during our time in Cambridge but are somewhat glad we don't have access to them too often anymore. They are very special food, and so what did we eat this past Christmas day? Not turkey like every other household in Britain but Chelsea buns! What a treat.
   As for the Sachertorte, having loved the Fitzbillies variety, we were very excited one year to be in Vienna to visit the Sacher Hotel, which made the cake famous. With watering mouths, we ordered our Sachertorte – and, it didn't hold a candle to Fitzbillies' version!
   You can read all about the excitement of the new opening of Fitzbillies this past autumn and their various offerings on their website. And if you can't get to Cambridge to try these delicacies, both Chelsea buns and Sachertorte are available by mail order. Enjoy!

Sunday, 16 September 2012

Japanese Deer Dance at the Thames Festival

Kanatsu Shishi Odori
at the Ashmolean Museum
8 September 2012
Last week, England was visited by a Japanese troupe of 14 deer dancer cum drummers. Invited to the Thames Festival, which took place on the weekend (Sept 8-9), they also danced at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford and at the Embassy of Japan in London. The troupe is from Iwate Prefecture in northern Tohoku where they traditionally dance at festivals and blessing ceremonies; here they danced in memory of those lost to the tsunami last year. Though the dance is stately and serious, the audience was wowed by the tossing of horns and flattening of the white spires to the ground as they bent over.

The dance is called Shishi Odori. We actually heard a Japanese guy telling his British girlfriend at the Thames Festival parade that it was a Lion Dance from Fukushima. Wrong! It is a Deer Dance from Iwate, even though the word shishi in Japanese is written with the Chinese characters for 'lion'. The word shishi itself is ancient, meaning 'meat', and there are several kinds of meat mentioned in old documents:  ka-no-shishi (deer meat), and i-no-shishi (boar meat), with inoshishi becoming the normal word for 'boar'. The tossing of the heads resembles real deer behaviour, and the dance may symbolize ancient hunting practices revering the animals providing the food. Several other origin myths surround its distant beginnings.

Deer Dancer kneeling,
from the back
The dance costumes are very heavy, weighing about 40 pounds, a lot of the weight residing in the headgear. The long spires are bamboo that are slivered into spikes, then tied together with string into which folded papers are entwined. The papers are similar to those used in Shinto rituals to call down the god(s). Two of the fourteen dancers have spired with black bands at the top: these are the troupe leader and the single nominal doe in the group, this time actually played by a woman dancer. Traditionally the dancers have all been male, but women can now join the groups. See their dance in the Thames Festival night parade, at 0:55-1.14 minutes.

The headdress is fixed with steel antlers and has two long flaps that cascade down the back. These are painted with designs similar to those painted onto wide back panels of the divided skirt (hakama). Many such costumes, drums, and actual dancers of Tohoku performing arts were lost to the tsunami on 3.11; for this particular troupe, one drum was washed away but came floating back – taken as an auspicious even among tragedies. Sponsored by the Japan Foundation, it was quite an undertaking to bring a large dance troups and their accoutrements to London, but we hope to see them here again sometime.

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Bone marrow at the Court Restaurant, British Museum

The Court Restaurant is a classy place to eat lunch at the British Museum. Situated high up in the Great Court, you get good views of the wonderful geometric glass ceiling over the court and can see the clouds beyond. Because there are two coffee shops in the court below, the buzz of conversation from there is a little diverting, but the restaurant's tablecloth settings, including a live miniature chili plant (with chilis) instead of flowers, give a fancy ambience. For those pleasures, the menu is stiff: ca. £22 for a 2-course or £28 for a 3-course meal. But a la carte held some surprises.

Bone Marrow at the Court Restaurant, British Museum
In the past month, I have seen three references to bone marrow on menus. Where has this come from suddenly?? I suppose bone marrow is consistent with the traditional down-market English cuisine of whelks, steak & kidney pie, tongue and tripe, etc. I first ate it (trepidatiously) mixed in with mashed potatoes. Wonderful! What a flavour. So yesterday at the British Museum, I thought I'd try the Small Plate meal of Bone Marrow (£6.50, not a bad price for lunch).

What did I get? Four halves of a long bone and three slices of baguette. I needed more baguette! The stuff was so rich I could only eat one and a half of the bone contents, sharing an equal amount with my co-diners. That took care of the three baguette slices and left one bone contents uneaten. So I asked to take all the bones home with me (of course, the waitress thought it was for a dog, but it was really for my husband to try, on a rice cracker).

How was it? Well, straight from the bone, it wasn't as tasty as the mashed potatoes. It might have been better if I had loaded the seasoned salad garnish with sea salt onto the bread as well. In making my open-face sandwich, it was hard to spread the marrow. It has the consistency of jello (English jelly) and tends to wobble around a lot and fall off the bread. It looked kind of greyey pink, somewhat like a pink speckled jelly bean. And I felt like a Stone Age carnivore eating it.

Would I try it again? Yes, for the novelty and to see if the flavour changes with different ways of cooking and presenting it. It was a great conversation piece over lunch and cost a quarter of what the others paid. So, see you at the Court Restaurant for a real experience!

Sunday, 2 September 2012

Toilet paper rolls (literally!)

Toilet paper rolls!
Here they make 2- and 3-ply (!) quilted toilet paper that is so heavy, when you get towards the end of the roll, it unrolls itself onto the floor. Bonkers, or what?

When we were in graduate school in the States, we lived in a house with five students. There was an almighty row between two of them over how much toilet paper one should use (reflecting on household costs, of course). One said you only need three sheets, while the other would pull off two or three swaths of TP. The argument eventually broke up the household. The one that left would have liked this British quilted TP; she could have used only two sheets and saved even more money!

Sunday, 12 August 2012

Mackerel: sky over Durham and fish in my fridge

Mackerel Sky
Lamb or Sheep clouds
Thursday we had a spectacular mackerel sky in Durham, where I took these pictures, that lasted for at least an hour. So unusual for England, where heavy undistinguished clouds are more the norm. Lots of people I talk to don't know what a mackerel sky is, so I looked it up on Weatheronline to provide more information. They are high clouds, forming between 6-10,000 m (20-33,000 ft). High winds disrupts cloud formation to make them streaky or puffy: the former look like stripes on a mackerel, the latter look like sheep. And indeed, these sheepy clouds are called schaefchenwolken in German (lamb clouds) and nuages moutonneux in French (sheep clouds).
    I always learned that high clouds don't rain, but Weatheronline says that a mackerel sky foretells rainy weather and storms, as any sailor or fisherman can tell you. It forms about 400km in advance of the rainy patch. Sure enough, Friday was cloudy with some pretty dark ones up there.
Smoked mackerel & banana
   Despite the rarity of mackerel sky, England can lay claim to some other, pretty nice kinds of mackerel:  honey-smoked mackerel, smoked peppered mackerel, even chili smoked mackerel. These are filets sold vacuum packed in supermarkets and are the perfect quick food, hot or cold. They can be mixed with cream cheese to form a tasty dip, or I like to eat them stirred into a ripe mashed banana. How disgusting, you might think, but a friend says it is a common food in places like Madagascar. Well, I've never been to Madagascar, but a trip there to see the birds and eat mackerel/banana sounds just the thing.
Mackerel sky over Durham
   When spending long spells in other countries, I really miss smoked mackerel – it's such a cheap and plentiful fish, I'm surprised more places haven't taken up this way to serve it. Personally, I don't like cooked fresh mackerel (too fishy) and can't think of anything much more repulsive than tinned mackerel like they sell in the States (well, maybe tinned pilchards are worse). Anyway, with the push to eat more Omega 3s, think of the lowly mackerel, with or without the banana!

Thursday, 9 August 2012

What is a bacon buttie?

It used to puzzzle me, not so much the bacon but the 'buttie', or 'butty' as it is more often spelled. The Oxford Dictionary says it is a sandwich that derives from 'butter', and the word seems to be used only for hot fillings. So the sandwich filling of a bacon buttie is bacon, but what is the bread called? Up Durham way: a 'bap', of course, or a 'stottie/stotty'. Baps are soft like hamburger buns but they can grow very big, like 6" across; stotties are more dense and heavy, made as 12" cakes. Tremendous differences across England in naming these kinds of bread, though.
Bacon at St Lawrence market, Toronto
streaky bacon on left, peameal slices in
middle, peameal bacon loaves on right
   So, a bacon buttie is a bacon sandwich. The filling? Bacon – what Americans would call 'Canadian bacon' (made from pork loin), more solid than normal bacon which the English call 'streaky bacon' (made from pork belly) and the Canadians call 'side bacon'. The Canadians themselves have 'peameal bacon', so named because the log of pork loin meat is rolled in ground dried peas; when sliced, the bacon pieces have a rim or crust of peameal. Because of its excellent preservative qualities, this kind of bacon was apparently the biggest Canadian contribution to England during the war; it was called 'lorry' or 'boot' bacon because of its transportability.
   I learned all this from our trip to Toronto recently where we ate peameal bacon sandwiches at the St. Lawrence market (highly recommended to us). And upon returning to England, I decided it was high time I tried a bacon buttie, which I had been avoiding all these years. Rather than being disgusting (because all there is is bacon, butter and bread), it was actually very very tasty, probably due to the six kinds of umami in bacon which are thought to be addictive (see the Wikipedia article on 'bacon' – very informative!). Apparently bacon sandwiches were a favourite food of Fergie (the Duchess, not the footballer) before she went on her various diets. And they are ubiquitous in England – many people eat these for breakfast on the run.
   So how do bacon butties compare with peameal bacon sandwiches, and BLTs for that matter? Though sparsely appointed, a bacon buttie goes down very smoothly, while I struggled to finish even one half of my peameal bacon sandwich (had to take the other half away) because it was so stuffed with 8 layers of bacon. I presume the peameal bacon and BLT (bacon, lettuce and tomato) sandwiches are better for your health because they at least have some vegies in them, and the latter can be made with wholemeal bread. But I must say, that bacon buttie was sure tasty, probably because it was hot bacon and had more fat in it than the cold peameal bacon sammie. (The British Sandwich Association gives an annual Sammie Award; maybe I should nominate the bacon buttie.) Now converted, I'll have to try not to make them a habit. Maybe a 'chip butty' is next.

The Toronto peameal bacon sandwich
from Oink, St Lawrence Market
Bacon buttie at the Dun Cow in Durham
 served 11-2, Mon–Thurs

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

More interesting things from Japan

Automatic chain barriers to parking lots
Ok, I admit they aren't a necessity, but these chain barriers are pretty neat. When a car comes out of the parking lot, it triggers the automatic dropping of the chain down to the ground so the car can exit; then the chain is raised again in this cool gate-post structure. Good thinking!

Challenges to obesity
Again, England could take a clue from Japan. There, waist measurement rather than BMI is paramount. Unfortunately, the single measures they apply to men and women (separately) take no account of body height and bone structure. You can lose your job if your waist doesn't meet the required measurement. To help out people losing weight, not only are commuters encouraged to take the stairs instead of the escalators/ lifts, but how many calories you will burn by doing so are stated in some stations (here -2.0kcal on the "subway diet"). At least these signs make you think and remember so you can make a choice to walk instead of stand like an automaton.

Sunday, 17 June 2012

Paris CDG Terminal 2E architecture

It seems to be a obsession. I am documenting the new airports of the world...

Here is the 2E K-gates terminal building at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris. Another beautiful use of wood in the interior, like Madrid. Moreover, the terminal floor is encapsulated in the oval tunnel, which wraps itself around the floor as it extends to the lower jetway. Really beautiful, innovative architecture – though now a few years old. The wooden ceiling of the boxy security area is frayed and not so attractive.

It is unclear which part of terminal 2E collapsed in 2004, but if the K-gates departure area is new, it dates to 2008, otherwise 2003. There is a nice YouTube offering of the 2E E-gates which look substantially like the K-gates area (I have never experienced such a confusing nomenclature of terminals and gates as at CDG).

To the left is the roof over the jetty, and below you can see how it curves around down under the jetty to meet the ramp to the jetway.

Despite the collapse, the building maintains its curved structure without any internal supports. Apparently it wasn't the architectural design that was at fault but material defects, which I hope have been corrected. A shame if it is rebuilt in a boxy style, like the Kansai International Airport (KIX). Soaring spaces, yes, but all rectangles, steel and glass. No soft woods, soft lines that really sooth when travelling.

Friday, 15 June 2012

FOUR things England should borrow from Japan

1. Lowered passenger-side windows on trucks/lorries
In Japan as well as England, bicyclists risk getting squashed by trucks turning left. Back in the 1970s there was such an uproar about housewives getting killed while going shopping on their bikes that the government mandated that the windows on the passenger side of trucks had to be lowered so drivers could see the bicyclists alongside them. Here, 35 years later, Brits are catching on that lorry-caused bicyclist deaths are unacceptable; there are thus a few lowered windows around but they are not mandated...

2. Fully descriptive station signs
Note this subway sign has the name of the station as well as the previous and next stations, with an arrow pointing in the direction the train is going. Below in orange is the name of the major commercial area in front of the station. Note also the green circles; these are colour coded to the train line, the colour appearing on the train itself as well as on train-line maps, and here the stations are numbered, so even if you cannot read the station name, you know where your stop is if you can count.
    I pity the poor tourists coming in for the Olympics (or any time) dealing with the London tube network. Not only are most of the trains unidentified on the sides of the trains as to which line it is, the lines are not identified in the digital signs showing arrivals. I don't know how many times I have been asked to differentiate the Circle, Hammersmith&City, and Metropolitan from the digital signs showing destinations. Why should anyone know or care where the train is going (unless one is interested in that stop) – what is vital is the name of the line and what the next stop is.

3. Men's toilets with baby-changing facilities
Back in the 1980s, at the height of the bubble, young Japanese men began deserting the Salaryman route to a career in droves. They valued family time more than 12-14 hour days in the office. These 'new men' have infiltrated Japanese society now to the extent that men's public toilets are beginning to appear with baby-changing facilities. Now, when do you think these will ever become popular in England??

4. Subway track shields
Japan has a high rate of suicide, with many choosing to throw themselves in front of a train. The subways are now being equipped with barriers on the platforms, so that people do not have access to the tracks very easily. London could use some of these, to keep people from falling, being pushed or jumping in front of tube trains. Note that the barrier doors open exactly in the same spots as the train doors, and arrows in front of them mark where people should queue to get on. Standing directly in front of the opening doors is therefore discouraged. London could use some of these, too.

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

More Hanging Gardens, this time in Madrid!

In Madrid near the Prado Museum we saw this enormous hanging wall garden. Given how much biomass one often removes seasonally from one's own horizontal garden, this stuff must weigh a ton. It seemed to be growing in a wall of fiberglass with little pockets for the plants. Irrigating it all must also have been a challenge.
Hanging wall garden on 6-story building, Paseo del Prado, Madrid

Compare with my previous photos of wall gardens in London at:

Edwardian experience in Edgware Road station

Sunday brunch at St Ali

And as for the latter, I had to make a special trip to St Ali just for coffee (great coffee!) a few days after my return from Spain, I missed strong Spanish coffee so much...

Saturday, 2 June 2012

LHR Terminal 5 & Madrid

Last time I travelled, I commented on the new tray delivery system at Heathrow's Terminal 5 security (in gleeb goes to Toronto). This time I got a picture of them; follow the arrows to get your trays from underneath the conveyor belt. We wondered last time how they turn the corner at the other end of security and travel back without turning upside down; we also wondered whether they might begin their return journey before you got all your things out of them. Mysteries solved: an operator manually pushes a lever which depresses the end shelf each tray going through security ends up on, and as the shelf dips down, the tray is delivered to the lower conveyor belt which takes it back to the starting point, underneath where you begin to load them.
New tray delivery system at Heathrow Terminal 5, London

New Madrid terminal, Spain
Flying from Heathrow Terminal 5, we entered an equally stunning new terminal in Madrid. While T5 is all white, the Madrid terminal is orange and natural wood. Very nice indeed. Except we spent far too much time there as our flight was delayed, meaning we missed our connecting flight to Seville, spent several hours in the terminal trying to arrange alternatives, and then had to stay overnight in Madrid, of course at Iberia's expense. Don't expect very friendly service from Iberia staff if you have to travel with them...

Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Watch birds, don't shoot them!!!

Sorry, I've been in Spain bird-watching without good internet connections, but then I return home to this from our birding guide:

We’re being asked to pay for the destruction of buzzard nests to subsidise the shooting industry. This is from DEFRA, whose Minister is a landowner and rejoices in game shooting, from a survey by the game and shooting industry.
They’ve already reduced Hen Harrier numbers to near zero in England and now want to do the same to Buzzards.
They even want the taxpayer to cough up over £300,000 for it.

Sign the petition at this URL; it even gives the US as its first country choice, so not only of interest to Brits...In fact, it is of interest to the entire world. 

The Buzzard is an indigenous protected bird of prey that is about to be persecuted by DEFRA subsidy. It is supposedly to protect a tiny fraction of...

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

I am the Vindo Viper

Did you ever play the telephone game when you were a kid, calling up someone unknown and saying (in your deepest bass voice): “I am the Vindo Viper. I come for you today.” Of course, the recipient is terrified and immediately hangs up. You call them again, and repeat your message, but then they hang up before you finish. Finally, you call again, saying “I come to vipe your vindos. I come today.”  Ha, ha, laughs all around.
No? Maybe it was just an American thing because we all had telephones in those days.* It certainly wouldn't be politically correct today.

But this scene on the CityPoint entrance, near Moorgate tube station, brought back those telephone memories. How many window wipers can you see? I count four. Just think what great transferrable skills these guys got mountain climbing, since they all seem to be on belay. The eight Singaporean house cleaners who recently died could have used some of these skills. They were forced to wash the outside of windows in skyscraper flats; I wouldn't like to fall off a building, would you? Apparently the Singapore government is reviewing the situation... 

CityPoint skyscraper entrance near Moorgate tube station, London

CityPoint, formerly the Britannic House, has enough accolades for listing in Skyscraper News. I guess this is a website for building spotters, kinda like train spotters except the spotters themselves have to move around to see fixed sites rather than stand still watching moving trains.

* Unlike in Britain, where only 35% of households had telephones even in 1970 (according to the only stats I could find) []

Saturday, 28 April 2012

Durham's venerable 'vennels'

What's a vennel, you might ask. Wikipedia defines it as a 'passageway' and explicitly says they are common to Scotland and Durham! Well, Durham was once contested land between England and Scotland, so it is no surprise that customs should be intertwined.

As the far northern outpost of the Norman conquest, Durham Castle was built by the command of William the Conquerer in 1072 on the peninsula formed by the River Wear (pronounced 'weir'). The castle was followed by the building of Durham Cathedral from 1093. Castle walls surrounded the castle and cathedral to the south, but those on the east have disappeared and been replaced by buildings in medieval times.

A covered vennel leading to Vennel's Cafe,
off Saddler Street in Durham
Vennels are narrow passageways that wind between the buildings crowded so close to the castle grounds. One vennel opens onto an inner courtyard, used as a patio for none other than Vennel's Cafe; another vennel leads out of the courtyard in another direction. Both of these vennels (but not the patio) are covered, as they form tunnels; but other passageways are open to the sky, notably Moatside Lane.

Vennel's Cafe is a very popular locus for lunch and tea – great sandwiches and cakes. I particularly like the brie and grapes sandwich, while their banoffee pie is to die for...

Moatside Lane, an open air vennel,
taking off opposite the Post Office
on Silver Street, Durham

Such vennels are great fun to follow, especially since on first try, you don't know where they lead. Moatside Lane in fact takes you up onto the western cliff of the castle, running just under the castle wall. From there you can reach the Archaeology Museum, Palace Green and the Almshouses coffee shop.

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Russell Square tube station: another icon

Along with Edgware Road tube station on the Bakerloo Line, Russell Square tube station on the Piccadilly Line is another of the iconic products of Leslie Green. It still retains its red tile facade and cast iron lanterns of the Edwardian period. Inside the station you will find the original black, green, and white tiles complete with the exit instructions fired onto the ceramic tiles. The way tiles have been laid across the platform tunnel ceiling, contrasting with the keystone-framed train tunnel, is an excursion into exquisite design. Don't you think?

Platform tunnel at Russell Square tube station,
Piccadilly Line, London
The framed tile instructional signs recall the shapes of the ticket windows at Edgware Road station. But just in case you think that these signs circa 1906 might not still be accurate, the modern sign (in smaller font) reinforces the message.

Saturday, 21 April 2012

Quilted piano covers

Quilting is a big thing in America: there are tons of women who pride themselves on carrying on the colonial tradition, with books documenting favoured patterns and stiches over time. The Shakers had a famous quilting tradition, in line with their use of natural materials and hand-worked items. My mother had a friend who collected swatches of cloth and embroidered signatures from all her adulthood friends and sewed them into a scrapbook quilt. But I wasn't prepared to encounter two quilted piano covers in quite different settings in England. I had never seen anything like them.

Upright piano quilt in Gainford Village Hall, County Durham
The first was a cover for an upright piano, standing in the Gainford village hall west of Darlington. It was an imaginative use of panels to replicate the music scores usually found standing on the piano as well as the keys. What fun!

The second was a cover for a baby grand piano in The Maltings, in Farnham, Surrey. This one had its origins embroidered onto the side, and music was represented in some of the patches.

Baby grand piano quilt in The Maltings, Farnham, Surrey

Monday, 16 April 2012

Cate Blanchett at the Barbican

This is the story of a woman with two vices: she is a slave to words – loves to talk but has no one to talk to, and she loves to help people – but no one wants her help. These cost her her marriage. We first meet her on a holiday in Marrakesh, alone, not joining in on any activities, only eavesdropping on the “amazing” voices she hears on the terrace. Back home, she is thrown out of her home to wander among people searching for a soul she can talk to and help, all in vain.

The story is a splendid vehicle for Cate Blanchett to showcase her talents: not only in her range of voice and vocal expression, her communicative facial expressions, but her body language which documents her increasing psychosis as she is rejected by one person after another – fellow tenants, primary school friend, pick-up lover and long-lost brother. But the interesting thing is that these people and others along the way (including an absolutely ingenious pup tent as a character) are equally weird in their own manner, making one reassess just who is normal in this psychological thriller.

The staging for this play was minimal, with one or two props per scene. Sitting in the upper circle gave an added perspective, for though one had to use binoculars to see Cate’s face, her body was projected against the black box of the stage as an insect under the microscope. It was like watching an ant in an increasingly frantic death dance, as Cate minced and flailed across the stage like Jack Black – a puppet on a string. (Ok, so you didn’t see the Orange ad for Black’s appearance in “Gulliver’s Travels”…)

One wonders about the title. A line from Cate’s character Lotte in the play may give a hint: she feels her husband is out to make her “small”, implying he is a “big” journalist. The Barbican press release casts her as an Alice in Wonderland, “sometimes Lotte is too big for her surroundings and sometimes too small to be noticed within them.” But I prefer to think of the details of life overwhelming Cate as the ‘small’, while the ‘large’ is the existential angst of us all trying to find our place in the world. To which Lotte would say, “Oh, what big words, Amazing!”.

The audience for this play on a Sunday afternoon was astonishingly male, probably 70-80%, all coming to see Cate on a off-work day. They gave her many ululations and a standing ovation for what was surely an outstanding performance. Well done, Cate!

“Gross und Klein” by Botho Strauss, in English translation by Martin Crimp, produced by the Sydney Theatre Company, directed by Luc Bondy. At the Barbican through April 29th.

Friday, 13 April 2012

Plutonic lunch: new understandings of Shap granite

Recently, we ate lunch at the Honest Lawyer pub outside Durham – an oxymoron for sure. Staring at me from the table was the belly of a possible volcano: a granite tabletop! It looked suspiciously like Shap granite from Cumbria, but unfortunately the quarry provenience was not known to the waitress.

As any volcanologist (but who else?) knows, granite is mainly formed in volcanic arcs where magma rises through the Earth's crust in 'diapirs';  most of these diapirs solidify as plutons 5 to 20km deep in the crust, but some make it to the surface where magma is extruded through volcanoes as lava or volcanic ash. The magma that doesn't make it out cools slowly in the chamber or pluton, allowing very large mineral crystals to grow. In this kind of pink granite, the large pink rectangular crystals are potassium (K-)feldspar, also known as orthoclase. Regular feldspar (plagioclase) forms the white crystals surrounding the large pink ones, while the grey bubble-like crystals are quartz, and the black grains may be biotite or amphibole.

Shap granite is featured as the Rock of the Month for December 2011 by the Open University. The Shap granite outcrop in the Lake District is intrusive into the Borrowdale Volcanic Group, which was once an island arc off the micro-continent of Avalonia in the Iapetus Ocean between 460 and 444 million years ago [1]. However, Shap dates later via processes quite different from the subduction zone granite emplacement described above. After Avalonia was accreted to Laurentia (North America), the area of the Iapetus suture in northern England (demarcated by the Solway tectonic line) was subject to magmatism on both north and south sides of the suture. It is thought that a period extensional tectonics, creating a pull-apart basin 21km wide, was able to generate higher temperatures that caused both mantle and crustal melts to rise into the upper crust [2]. These were emplaced in the subsequent period of Acadian Deformation between 400 and 390 million years ago. Shap granite, therefore, stands as the representative of a newly understood source of magma generation that is totally divorced from subduction tectonics.

Many buildings around England feature Shap granite floors or columns. So you can also walk on it  or bump into it as well as eat off it. Just keep those sharp eyes open for Shap and you will be rewarded by a trip to the center of the Earth (or at least 5 kilometers down where granite forms).

Oh yes, and the Honest Lawyer has great Eggs Benedict. Did I say lunch? Maybe it was brunch...

[1] Huff, WD; Bergström, & Kolata, DR (2010) "Ordovician explosive volcanism," pp. 13-28 in The Ordovician Earth System, ed. by FC Finney & WBM Berry. Geological Society of America Special Paper 466.

[2] Brown, PE; Ryan, PD; Soper, NJ & Woodcock, NH (2008) "The newer granite problem revisited: a trans-tensional origin for the early Devonian trans-suture suite". Geological Magazine 145.2:235-256.

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Store signs that make you laugh

I really enjoy thoughtful signs. Somebody put a lot of thought into these two:
Logo of a fish pedicure shop
Are they really closing down? They've dropped their trousers regardless...

Sunday, 8 April 2012

The "Barnes Dance" crosswalk in London!

A year ago, the papers in Colorado were full of emotive laments that Denver was going to eliminate "Barnes Dance" crosswalks. These were invented by the city traffic engineer Henry Barnes in the 1940s. As Wikipedia can tell you, they have now been exported all over the world: Japan, Australia, Germany, New Zealand, Canada and even England.
   Apparently we have three in London: in Balham, Wood Green and Oxford Circus. These are great! A Barnes Dance allows diagonal crossing of an intersection, as all traffic is stopped. There are some intersections where all directions have walk lights, but the streets are not marked with diagonal crossings. Cross diagonally here at your own risk (but it works).
The Oxford Circus "Barnes Dance" crossing in London
   The Barnes Dance at Oxford Circus has special pavement showing the crossing areas. This was not the only change to the intersection however. The corners used to have fence-like iron barriers to confine people to crossing at the crosswalk and not jaywalk. These barriers have proven deadly to bicyclists, who have gotten crushed against them by trucks (lorries) turning left. The absence of barriers is also accompanied by the absence of curbs, which is kind of scary, especially for blind people. Unfortunately this lack of curbing is becoming common in London (Exhibition Road) and city centres around England, with coloured pavement marking the differences instead. Not helpful if you are blind...

Thursday, 5 April 2012

Tickets & barriers in British train stations

Britain is a country that has traditionally operated on the honour system. You did what was expected of you without question. But that old morality has changed in recent years, especially with the increase in slackers, who try to get away with anything, and immigrants who don't know the system.

   Bendy buses (the articulated kind) with a back door entrance were chronically abused: people boarded there without paying the fare. These buses were instituted by former Mayor Ken Livingstone to alleviate congestion (they take more people, leaving fewer buses on the road) and to increase safety (because they replaced the hop-on hop-off kind without a door). Well, the upshot is that nobody liked the bendy buses and they were a financial disaster. So this year, they are all being replaced by the current Mayor Boris Johnson with new hop-on hop-off buses without doors. We'll see how they fly financially.

The new ticket barriers at Durham station
   Meanwhile, most British train stations have not had ticket barriers. You were expected to buy your ticket and show it to a ticket inspector on board, if ever any inspector showed up. This was really a hit and miss operation, and it was easy to avoid the ticket inspector by going to the loo at the time. So this past year, stations all over England (at least) are having ticket gates installed. Thank goodness these are better designed so that the flaps don't close on you or get caught by your luggage going through – as do many of the tube barrier gates. In order to teach people how to use these gates by feeding your ticket through (!!), station staff stand at the barriers and feed your ticket through for you. Lots of labour time, here...

   But not so many people are now shirking on their tickets.
• Firstly, I implore you: don't get caught out! The penalty is wicked. You have to buy a ticket on the train for an inflated price that is not sold on-line or at the ticket counters. I once did not have my seat reservation ticket, without which my ticket was not considered valid. Instead of using my £9.95 ticket, I had to buy a new one at £143.00. No kidding. Luckily I was able to claim the cost back because I had actually purchased a seat reservation but left the ticket in the ticket machine.

• Secondly, I implore you: be sure to check the drop box for tickets in the ticket machine very very carefully. The tickets sometimes drop down the side where you can't see them. Feel the box as you would the washing machine at the laundromat, so you won't leave any socks (or tickets) behind.

Monday, 2 April 2012

English Houses: pebble dash & crazy paved surround

And here's something we couldn't understand at first. The house we bought in Cambridge so many years ago was described in the Estate Agent (Realtor) leaflet as having pebble dash front and a garden pool with a crazy paved surround (what?). 'Surround' isn't a noun in American English; of course, it comes from the verb 'to surround' and it means something around something else. Then, 'crazy paved' isn't a verb in American English; but of course it means being paved crazily.

Crazy paving and its disadvantages
It still wasn't clear what the crazy paved surround was all about until we went to see the house. There in the back garden (not yard)* was a small pond with a concrete-tiled area around it, much like in this photo. The fact that the tile pieces were not of regular size and shape made it 'crazy'.

The other day, someone was trying to find our current house and asked me on the phone, "Is it the one with pebble dash on the side?". I had to stop and think, because I don't usually consider this house having pebble dash. But indeed, the whole west side of the house is pebble dashed!

As in the photo, you can see that pebbles are embedded into concrete. I was amazed to see this being done once while renovating, the builder having a bucket of pebbles and throwing them by the handful at the wet concrete. Some fell off and we had to clean up later. And much later, more fall off, as you can see from the empty pockets here.
Pebbledash on a house in England

Pebble dash is characteristic of inter-war houses, built between the Great War (World War I) and the Second World War (World War II) or soon thereafter. It isn't much used now: must be the labour costs are too high, to have someone standing there throwing pebbles at the house.

Just for comparison, here is an American 'crazy paving' – stencilled on at Trimble Hot Springs!
Crazy paved stencil in America

* A 'yard' in England is a paved area, like a courtyard; and 'garden', as I've said previously, means 'lawn + flowers'.

Friday, 30 March 2012

More Chainsaw Art at Thornley Woods

Frog meets snake
Back in October, I wrote about a visit to Thornley Woods, west of Newcastle, where a chainsaw artist had just finished carving a series of sculptures into rooted, standing dead trees. For some reason, this has become my second-most searched for blog! People like chainsaw art? Is it the macho aspect that appeals? The reuse of natural materials? The proletarian art movement? 
Comments, please...

Meanwhile, I'll mount some more photos taken that day of Tommy Cragg's creations. Which ones do you like best in these two blogs? Why? 


Beetle 1
Beetle 2

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

gleeb visits Toronto: standing on Scotland

Scotland used to be part of North America – a continent called Laurentia. The opening of the northeastern Atlantic Ocean around 55 million years ago sundered Scotland from its homeland and left it attached to Albion, the isle of Britain. In Toronto, I was hoping to visit the homeland of Scotland by looking at the Canadian Shield, the 'original' landmass that was the core of Laurentia.
What I found was different!

When I first learned about the far northwestern Scottish rocks called the Lewisian metamorphic rocks, I was fascinated that they were 2 billion years old. I wanted to go walk on them. Later I visited the Royal Gorge in Colorado, which cuts deep into the Earth's crust, and I discovered that the rocks at the bottom of Royal Gorge were also about 2 billion years old. So, maybe also would be the Canadian Shield.

Walking on Canadian Shield rocks in
Village of Yorkville Park, Toronto
The name Canadian Shield comes from the flat roundish shape of the metamorphic rocks that form a craton, a continental nucleus that has existed since the Precambrian (before 542 million years ago). So in the Village of Yorkville Park in Toronto, they have established an artwork that recreates the feeling of the Canadian Shield. Segments of metamorphic rocks from the craton have been concreted together in a shield shape. These particular rocks may not be 2 billion years old, but you can get the feeling of walking on an ancient landscape here in the middle of the city. Find them just north of the busy Bloor upmarket shopping street on Cumberland, across from Old York Lane.

Sadly, the closest relatives of Lewisian Scotland lie not on the Canadian continent but on Greenland. So I did not fulfill my wish of standing on Scotland in Toronto. But thinking about the landscape in broad swathes certainly does give one a different perspective on a visit to a new country.