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 Castle walls surrounded the castle and cathedral to the south, but those on the east have disappeared and been replaced by buildings in medieval times.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'.