GRUB!: Serbian Style (Subtitle: Death by Food)

Sunday, October 16, 2016

As I mentioned last time, I recently took a few days off for a quick trip to Belgrade (in Serbia, of course). It’s perhaps not the first place you’d think to go from Baku, not least because it’s more than 3,000km away. The flight was about 10 hours long and involved an annoying amount to travel in the wrong direction - to Qatar - before I changed planes and made it to Nikola Tesla Airport. On the plus side Qatar Air gets two thumbs up for serving me a hot breakfast on two consecutive flights and having a lot of cheesey superhero movies on tap. Belgrade, though, was merely the setting, not the purpose of this trip. The real reason for the trip was to meet up with some old friends who were in the middle of a longer trip that involved a four day stop in Belgrade.

Here’s a look at part of Belgrade's Kalemegdan Fortress, which is set in a large, green park in the centre of town at the confluence of the Slava and Danube rivers.

Rob and Wes have been vacationing together for years, so I was honoured to be asked to join them. Though in a way this was simply the extension of the Dinnerus Maximus tradition that started in London in 2011 and was always intended to involve the possibility of more exotic locations. Certainly the agenda for Belgrade was highly food-centric, since Wes had already researched and booked a private food tour that promised to be six hours long. As it turns out, any previous dinners together could be viewed merely as training for the non-stop food fest that was to be Belgrade.

Wes and Rob, at the start of the food tour, still blissfully hungry and unaware of the scale of the event to come

First, though, a bit about Belgrade itself. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but was pleasantly surprised on all fronts. I arrived a few hours before the guys, so I wandered a bit in the central part of town which is pleasingly pedestrian friendly, and got a local SIM card for my phone, and had a really lovely lunch at a Lonely Planet recommended restaurant, and marvelled at the favourable exchange rate with the Serbian Dinar, and sat on a series of benches in the park surrounding Belgrade Fortress, all while trying to stay awake after my overnight flight. And I geeked out a bit about the Serbian language, which means you have to sit through that before I tell you about the food.

Serbian is a distinct language in itself, but part of the Slavic family (Russian, Polish, Ukrainian, etc.) and uses it’s own version of Cyrillic which has a few different characters than Russian Cyrillic. I found it very familiar and was only slightly less comfy with it than with Russian, which is to say in Serbian I’m an utter moron whereas in Russian I’m merely an idiot. The really fun thing about Serbian, though, is that is it basically the only European language that displays synchronic digraphia! (Stay with me here because this is actually cool. No really.) Digraphia means that two different alphabets are used by the language. Most often this means that one alphabet was used historically, then replaced with another ("sequential digraphia"). In Serbia though, they use two different alphabets at the same time! There’s the Cyrillic one I mentioned, and a modified Roman one too. You see signs in one, or the other, or both, and the population read and write both interchangeably. Synchronic digraphia! The Go Stay Work Play Live Phrase of the Month.

I was so taken with this concept, which I discovered while noodling around at lunch on that first afternoon, that I bought this little fridge magnet.

And here’s a street sign showing both scripts

But back to the food, er, I mean the city. Wes’s food tour was brought to us by Taste Serbia, who you should all book with right now because they were GREAT. It’s a small operation, but their website is really nice, because the two guys who run it - Djordje (pronounced “George") and Goran - are IT professionals by day (Djordje for a local ice cream company, which will become important later). In their off-hours though, both are dedicated foodies. Djordje and his wife Maia were our guides for the day. They picked us up at our apartment at 1pm and the three of us squeezed into the back seat of Maia’s car for our first stop, a tiny neighbourhood pastry shop selling traditional rolled burek pastries in a variety of flavours. Burek are a favourite breakfast food and especially popular after a night out. The place we went to is open 24 hours a day, and is apparently busiest in the hours after the bars close. Djordje ordered a small mountain of them for each of us, which was our first clue that Djordje’s notion of portion control was going to be a major challenge as the day wore on. The burek were served with mugs thick plain yogurt to drink, which is the usual accompaniment.

Filled with cheese or meat or mushrooms or greens or onion & garlic 
or cabbage or sour cherry or...

Djordje gently suggested that we not eat all of what was presented, and arranged to get the leftovers packed up for us to take away before we hit the next stop on the tour, a traditional kafana. Kafanas exist in most former Yugoslav states, though they take different forms in each. In some countries they’re strictly for coffee and alcohol but in Serbia, happily, they are all about the food. A Serbian kafana is a sort of bistro / pub / family restaurant and usually includes live performances of traditional music along with the food. Sunday lunch at a kafana is a favourite Serbian family activity and the food at our kafana was not in short supply. Witness the buffet table. There's an equal number of dishes on the far end, masked by the enormous bowl of fruit.

Here’s Djordje at the buffet, loading up a sample plate for me, and instructing Rob and Wes to copy his choices. We went at it slowly - visiting the buffet for about five different courses. Or was it seven? It was still early and yet it was already starting to become a calorie-soaked blur.

If I start getting into a blow-by-blow of all the different things we ate I’ll have to consider renaming the blog Go Eat Eat Eat Eat. Instead I'm going to concentrate on a few key Serbian treats that kept coming up again and again, the first of which is kajmak (pronounced KI-mak, to rhyme with highjack). Kajmak is a sort of butter/cream product that was described to us as “layered milk fat”. It’s used as a condiment or topping for breads but also on top of grilled meat, which Serbia has a lot of. It’s sometimes described as being similar to creme fraiche or clotted cream, but none of the kajmak I ate reminded me of that. I found it much more like a tangy whipped butter. At first I wasn’t sold, despite Djodje’s frequent imprecations of “More kajmak!”. However, by the next day’s lunch we were found ordering extra bread and kajmak so I can begin to understand the fervent Serbian devotion to it.

Here’s our first plate of food at the kafana - mostly cured meats, including some very nice dry local salami and lovely sort of ham like proscuitto. That white ball on the right that looks like a tiny scoop of ice cream is kajmak. And the tobbacco-like stuff at about 7 o'clock was a sort of dry shredded pork fat kind of thing. Oddly tasty. We called it "pork floss". Surely there's a marketing idea in there...

The other ubiquitous Serbian delicacy we kept running into was ajvar (pronouced EYE-var. To rhyme with, er…orange.) Ajvar is savoury sort relish / spread made of roasted sweet red peppers. It’s even more more-ish than kajmak, and a staple on any Serbian table. Traditionally a winter food, homemade ajvar is prepared by families in large batches in the fall and preserved in jars. It’s very labour intensive, what with all that roasting and pepper-peeling, but it's also available commercially, even in Azerbaijan, where I can get it in sweet or hot varieties at my local grocery shop. I’ve been spreading it on all kinds of things, kind of like Serbian salsa. It’s got a distinctive bright orange colour and silky texture and is sometimes even referred to as vegetarian caviar. (Even though it is clearly nothing like caviar expect in that it is a spreadable foodstuff.)

Wes and me at the “more kajmak” lunch. And almost-empty bowl of ajvar can be seen in the bottom right.

So the kafana was our introduction to a lot of traditional Serbian foods - the preserved meats, kajmak, ajvar, and a lot I didn’t mention specifically. We also had chicken soup, lamb soup, many different salads, goulash, potatoes, a few different ground grilled meats, and a nice smattering of desserts. Frankly, we were all well on our way to groaning insensibility by the time we left the kafana and headed to the next stop, where we concentrated on my favourite course: dessert!

Ambar restaurant is on a newly redeveloped strip of former industrial land along the shore of the Slava river.

Ambar has an extensive menu, but we were there to try a medley of favourite Serbian desserts. These included a Serbian version of Floating Island - a cloud of meringue set in a dish of custard, which I’ve seen on Masterchef but never tried. (Verdict: Nice, but unlikely to win out over anything with pastry or chocolate or caramel in it). We also has a very nice sort of mille feuille of sliced peach and creme patissiere and a sour cherry pie, sour cherry being a popular flavour in Serbia.

These were both very very good. Not pictured was a dish of Kokh (pronounced with that throat-clearing sound at the end). It was a piece of plain sponge cake soaked in cold milk and served sitting in a puddle of cold milk. It was not a hit. Because… ewww. Why? Why would you do that to cake? What did that cake ever do to you, Serbia??

By this point, since we were having dessert, I sensed that the end of the tour must be drawing to a close - a seriously rookie mistake. In my defense, my brain was probably not working properly due to extreme ajvar overload (Ajvarloading, perhaps? Ha!) (Ok, I'm sorry about that. Sometimes I can't help myself. It's genetic.) In any case, I was mildly alarmed when I found out we had TWO more stops to hit, including another kafana. Luckily, on the way to the next spot Djordje produced a jar of his grandfather’s homemade rakija, the traditional fruit brandy of Serbia usually made from plums, which loosened the mood somewhat.

Here’s Rob and Wes in the back seat, Rob having just sampled the rakija

The specialty of our second kafana was Serbian sač, (pronounced “saatch”) which I though I’d know all about since saj is a big deal here in Azerbaijan (I have to blog about Azerbaijani saj some time…). Serbian sač is both the physical cooking vessel and the foodstuff it produces. The sač is a large round metal dish that gets stuffed with meat and potatoes and left to roast slowly over coals for a very long time. Serbians don’t use a lot of spices in their cooking (basically it’s salt, black pepper and red pepper). However, despite (or maybe because of) this minimalist approach, the meat that comes out of a sač is beyond succulent.

This is the sač we were served - a large piece of pork that was simply sublime. It was almost sweet, and a bit sticky, having roasted for hours in it’s own piggy goodness. (You may have detected by now that Serbia is not a vegetarian wonderland.) Also, ironically, the kafana where we had this piggy goodness was housed in a former synagogue.

Luckily we were allowed to take a doggy bag of the leftover pork which was very nice for breakfast the next day. And miraculously we were still able to squeeze into the back seat of Maia’s car for the trip to our last stop - more dessert! On the way Djordje produced another round of homemade rakija, this time his uncle’s variety made from quince and after a few sips of that we found our way to a beautiful sort of taverna that jutted out into the Slava river, away from the centre of town. It was a lovely and quiet and Djordje managed to restrain himself and only ordered one type of dessert, a cooked apple served with lashings of whipped cream, along with a cup of very strong coffee served in the Greek / Turkish style with lots of gritty stuff at the bottom.

Wes and Rob waiting for more dessert.

By the time we finished up we were almost in a paralytic food coma, and it was dark, and Djordje and Maia were not just guides but friends. We drove through the darkened city in Maia’s car, laughing and talking, and marvelling at the amount and quality of food we’d enjoyed and listening to Djordje and Maia tell us not just about food but about Belgrade and Serbia and their lives and whatever happened to come up. Then the car was pulled over at a corner shop and Djordje hopped out and returned to deliver the coup-de-grace - ice cream bars. They were the ones he made in his day job at the ice cream company, the Serbian analogue to a Magnum bar. And like the trained eating machines we had become, we ate.

The whole food tour was fantastic, and turned out to be just the beginning of three days of fun and food in Belgrade. The following night we returned to Ambar restaurant (home of the sour cherry pie and the weird milk cake) and had their unlimited Ambar Special - an unending succession of small plates that once again has us on our knees after fourteen individual courses. At one point the waiter came over and asked “Shall we continue?”. When we said yes and managed two or three more courses he eventually conceded, “You are Canadian, but you eat like Serbians!”. High praise indeed. Other things happened in Belgrade too. We walked around, and did a tour of the fortress and went to the Nikola Tesla Museum and the Automobile Museum and had some local craft beer and went into a nice Orthodox Church.

But mostly we ate and talked got caught up with each other, which was really the point all along.

Red Light, Green Light

Sunday, October 2, 2016

I’ve been back in Baku for about a month now and settling in reasonably well. The new hotel room isn’t as cozy as my old apartment, but now that I’ve moved around the furniture and stuck things on the walls and bought a few plants, it’s feeling more like home. And it’s got a basic kitchen with a two-burner hob, which means I can cook for myself. I suspect some sort of toaster oven thing will be necessary when the cold weather hits, so one could possibly roast a chicken or sweet potato (if one could find a sweet potato) but more importantly, I’ve figured out how to get The Great British Bake Off, so it’s all good.

Here's the entrance and kitchen area. Not bad!

And here's the living room. The bed is separated from the lounge area, which helps the whole "not-a-hotel-room" vibe.

This hotel is in a different neighbourhood to the old apartment, which Astute Go Stay Work Play Live Readers will recall was near the old city. Now I’m further east next to the main metro station and near a big modern mall. It takes 15 minutes to walk to the office in the morning (mostly pleasant) but this means I’ve got no regular crosswording time (kind of disappointing). It’s also a much busier area, with quite a different vibe. The walk to and from work is, as I’ve said, pleasant, but it does involve crossing some busy streets, which can be disconcerting. You always need to be on your toes as a pedestrian in Baku, but this time around it feels like pedestrian v. car is a central fact of life.

Some things have improved in the year I’ve been away. For instance, a lot of the street lights now have countdown timers that show how long before a red light will turn green, and then count down again to when the green light will turn red. This is highly useful for pedestrians attempting to cross four lanes of Bakuvian traffic. And they’ve also painted zebra crossings (crosswalks) at a lot of places too. Even more surprisingly, cars will generally stop when you venture out into a zebra crossing. True, there is still a gut-churning moment when you need to poke yourself far enough out into the street that it becomes clear to oncoming traffic that you intend to cross. And then you have to wait for each lane to stop, which happens in a sort of wave ahead of you. Helpfully, cars will often turn on their hazard lights (4-way flashers) to let you know they’re going to stop. (Presumably because slowing down gradually and thus telegraphing your intentions to the waiting pedestrian is, er, not A Thing here.)

So that’s all good, right? Well, not entirely. Yes, there are zebra crossing that mostly work when they exist in isolation. Where the system falls down is when a zebra crossing appears along with traffice lights - in a controlled intersection. It feels like the Bakuvian pedestrian is slightly confused on the topic of zebra crossings. True, when there are no traffic lights governing the junction, a zebra crossing is a great way to get people safely across the road. However, there seems to be a general feeling that a zebra crossing trumps all other forms of traffic control, including red lights. This means that you sometimes see pedestrians blithely diving out into oncoming traffic against a red light, forcing traffic to stop for them. Sometime this includes mothers pushing children in strollers (push-chairs). It’s terrifying. Honestly Baku, where are you going that it’s so important you need to get there 37 seconds sooner? You don't appear to be bleeding or in labour, so what's the rush? In fact, further observations reveals that zebra crossing or not, Baku pedestrians are quite used to fending for themselves and simply cross whenever and wherever they want.

But let’s not assume cars are innocent in this equation either. Yes, they mostly obey the red and green lights, but Bakuvian traffic control has not achieved the dizzying heights of the Left Turn Arrow yet so as a pedestrian, even if you’re crossing with the light, you still have to dodge cars that are turning across your path. They will generally stop but it’s clearly done begrudgingly, and always at the last moment. There have been a few times when I’ve involuntarily produced alarmed noises and gestures at a driver who’s stopped about 8 inches from my path while trying to turn through a pack of crossing pedestrians.

A view from the ninth floor of the hotel. This is a “controlled” intersection. I don’t even know what to say about this.

But topping all this is another bit of traffic mayhem on the way to the office. I like to call it The Triangle of Doom, for reasons that I hope will become clear. (And apologies in advance because this is a bit hard to explain without charts and maps and a laser pointer.) It's all about the intersection of Uzeyir Hajibeyov* Street and Azadliq** Prospect… yikes. Uzeyir Hajibeyov is six lanes of fast-moving west-bound traffic. Azadliq is three lanes, one way, moving south. Most of the traffic on the big westbound street wants to continue moving west but needs to jog a bit south on Azadliq before it goes west again one block later. This means that most of the cars in those six lanes of fast moving traffic have to squeeze into the three left-hand lanes that turn onto Azadliq. Naturally, this squeeze happens at the last minute, which means there’s quite a lot of high-speed lane-changing and cutting in that happens right at the intersection. An accident waiting to happen.

This is bad enough, but add pedestrians into the mix and it becomes gut-churning. If you’re a pedestrian trying to cross through this intersection, you might think you were in luck because there are zebra crossings and countdown timers in both directions. Sort of. There is a normal zebra crossing on the north side across Azadliq, but there is no zebra crossing on the west side across Uzeyir Hajibeyov. To get across the larger street you have to negotiate a two-stage right-angled zebra crossing. Rather than spanning the entire width of the road, the crossing includes an intermediate island in the middle of the intersection. And when I say “island” what I mean is “triangle painted on the road”. We're not talking about a raised concrete area with, say, big cement bollards or iron fences between pedestrians and the oncoming traffic. It’s just a spot in the middle of the road where you wait while six lanes of crazed traffic whiz past and squeeze together while aiming directly at you. It’s The Triangle of Doom.

Triangle of Doom
A low angle picture of the intersection, with helpful annotations

I can’t tell you how awful this is. I did it a few times but it was so terrifying that I have instituted a personal policy of never ever ever waiting in the Triangle of Doom. This means that I cross Azadliq on the normal zebra crossing. Then you’d think it would be a simple matter of crossing Uzeyir Hajibeyov from north to south on another zebra crossing. Ha! Of course there IS NO zebra crossing marked there! Don’t ask me why. Perhaps the Venerable Brotherhood Of Bakuvian Funeral Directors lobbied hard during the planning stages. Instead I cross where there should be a zebra crossing when the oncoming mayhem of the westbound traffic is stopped for the red light. Unfortunately this means that technically, I’m jaywalking. Also unfortunately, there are often police stationed at this intersection in the morning who issue tickets to pedestrians, which I suppose is a good thing and should be encouraged. However, what would be an EVEN BETTER thing would be if they didn’t require pedestrians to risk their lives in order to NOT incur a 20 manat fine. On days when the police are hanging about, I walk further down the block and cross. And if I have to, I’ll walk around the whole damned block. Because the Triangle of Doom is (bad language warning) FUCKING INSANE.

Having said that, I do actually go through the ToD on my morning run, but that’s when my path (north east corner to south east corner) means the lights allow me to cross completely without having to wait in the ToD, so that’s an entirely different thing. And on the way home in the evening it's possible to time things just right that you arrive in the Triangle of Doom just as the oncoming traffic stops for the red light, eliminating the wait. But honestly, the fact that I have to devote this much time and energy to negotiating a single intersection safely is indicative of the fact that on many levels, Azerbainjan just isn't quite there yet.

Ranting aside, it is encouraging to see these improvements in Baku traffic management. The countdown timers and the zebra crossing are genuinely better than what was here before (which was nothing). Last week I actually saw police pulling over a car that had run a red light! And while I might complain, issuing tickets to pedestrians as well as drivers should eventually teach people not to plunge into oncoming traffic. I do find it frustrating though, because a solution for the bigger, more dangerous intersections is so blindingly obvious. Astute Go Stay Work Play Live Readers will probably already have realised that without any added infrastructure costs, they could simply re-sequence the traffic lights to allow a pedestrians-only phase. As follows:
  1. Cars going one way. 
  2. Cars going the other way. 
  3. People only, going every way. 
  4. Repeat. 
This would solve the problem and completely eliminate the deadly wait in the Triangle of Doom and also let all those left-turning people at other intersections proceed without pesky pedestrians getting in the way. However, I suspect Bakuvian drivers would find it hard to cede those precious seconds of spittle-flecked, lead-footed forward motion. For now, I’ll continue to allow and extra five minutes for my morning commute to the office.

And in other news, by the time this post is published I'll be in Serbia! I'm taking a few days of holiday time to meet up with friends from home Rob and Wes, who are on a longer trip that includes a four day stay in Belgrade. They'd already booked an Airbnb that sleeps seven, so they figured they could probably squeeze me in, especially since I'm vaguely in the area these days. AGSWPLRs will recall Rob and Wes from a particularly memorable dinner in London. This time around Wes has booked a 6 hour private food tour of the city, whose guide has instructed us to arrive hungry, which is very promising. And there's the Nikola Tesla Museum and a tour of underground Cold War bunkers and, most importantly, a few days of really good company and catching up that are long overdue. Who knows, maybe there will even be a Belgrade blog...

(*Uzeyir Hajibeyov, after whom the street is named, is one of Azerbaijan's most famous composers. He wrote the national anthem, is seen as the father of classical music in Azerbaijan and was the first composer of an opera in the Islamic world. He’s also the inspiration for the Uzeyir Hajibeyov Annual Music Festival. I went to a concert that was part of the festival a while back, and it was great. A visiting orchestra from Germany performed Beethoven in Baku’s Philharmonic Hall, which is a tiny but amazingly lovely venue near the old city.)

Here's the outside of the hall. Very picturesque.

And here’s the orchestra rehearsing in the space.

(** And Azadliq is the name of a major newspaper in Baku. I have no idea why they named a street after it. Or perhaps the newspaper is named after the street?)


Sunday, September 18, 2016

By the time I left for Baku I'd been living full time on the boat for close to nine months, and I'm pleased to report that I'm finding it a much more pleasant, normal, comfortable existence than I expected.  Yes, there are some compromises, but they seem almost invisible to me now. Human beings are remarkably adaptable, though, so recently I've begun to wonder whether my boat life really is as normal as I think it is, or whether a hundred small compromises have blended together into what now seems normal but is objectively actually kinda weird. And being aware that there seems to be a certain appetite for blog posts about the boat (Steve G, I'm looking at you... Are you still out there?) I thought I'd examine this theory in more detail, using a couple of specific examples.

I often say that boat life makes you very aware of everything you consume. This is because every resource on the boat is finite, including some intangible ones. For instance: As soon as you moor in a new place the clock is ticking - you can only stay for a maximum of two weeks. Mooring time is finite. So is the amount of water in the water tank, the amount of diesel to run the engine, the amount of electricity in the batteries, the amount of coal and kindling for heating, the amount of propane for cooking and hot water, the amount of empty space in the toilet tank, and the amount of Internet data each month. Everything you do is a small trade off and those trade offs, while mostly invisible or untroubling, are a constant part of boat life. The happiest of boat days is when I've successfully moved to a nice new mooring with no engine-related mishaps along the way, having filled the water tank, emptied the toilets tank, disposed of all garbage and recycling, and landed somewhere with a strong mobile phone signal. Bliss.

One of my favourite moorings, near Westbourne Park.  It's central, close to transport and groceries and cafés with free wifi, but still leafy and pleasant.

On the less weird end of the spectrum, I am always very conscious of the battery level on the boat. Like, VERY conscious. I even bought a fancy digital battery meter that tells me to within 0.1% the battery charge level. And it tells me exactly how much current is flowing in or out. And the wattage, and the number of amp-hours left at the current consumption rate. Love that meter. Things that consume a lot of power include the water heater, water pump and shower drain pump (but they all run very intermittently, so they're no biggie). The inverter that turns my 12 volt battery power into 240 volt mains power is a bigger hog, especially when I charge my computer, and of course the big culprit is the hair dryer. So I outsource stuff when I can. For instance, the computer and iPad often get charged in cafes or other mains-powered places when possible. Or when that's not possible they get charged when the sun is shining or the engine is running. Hair drying is not outsource-able. Damn. When I dry my hair I tend to stand right next to the battery meter and do it in stages. Dry a bit. Let the battery recover a bit. Dry a bit. And so on. And I simply don't have some things that are big power hogs. I have a hand-cranked coffee grinder instead of electric. And I don't have a microwave (though that's more about not having the space). I do miss having a toaster, though. And there are times when a little electric heater would be really nice.

My super-smart battery meter

Internet access can also be a concern. I have one of those wireless thingies that spits out wifi, but it's limited to 20GB each month. If I run out, an extra 5GB is £15. None if this is the end of the world, but it does mean that I don't do any big downloading or streaming on board. For instance, if I'm posting photos to Flickr for the blog, I'll do it at a cafe or other public wifi spot. But what about Netlfix? How do I watch "Stranger Things" Not having that ability would be the kind of thing that made boat life feel like a real compromise and not a proper normal 21st century existence. Here's where it gets more clever. My phone plan includes unlimited data (for £20/month! Eat your hearts out Canadian readers!) This means that, with the help of an exorbitantly priced and annoyingly fragile Apple video adapter, I can plug my phone into the TV and watch on the big screen. Usually this works just fine, though if the mobile signal where I'm moored is a bit weak it can be frustrating. That's when I turn to stuff previously downloaded onto another device. All in all, it works just fine. And when it doesn't work, I can always read a book, right?

Boat life weirdness gets a bit more pronounced when considering water use. One of the things I was concerned about when I moved on board full time was the size of the water tank. That tank supplies all fresh water on the boat for cooking, washing up, laundry and showers and holds about 200 litres. (I use two litre bottles of water for drinking, which, happily, also double as ballast in the boat. Multi-tasking is an important concept on the boat. Also, occasionally a slug gets into the water tank, so you don't want to be drinking that stuff.) Two hundred litres is not a lot of water. And running out of water is a show-stopping event. Even if I was happily ensconced in the best mooring spot in London, if I ran out of water I'd have to decamp to fill the tank, hence probably losing the mooring.

Go Stay Work Play Live's crack fact-checking team (AKA "Google") have conducted extensive research and determined that the average one-person household in the UK uses, on the low end of the scale, about 45 cubic metres of water annually. That's 123 litres DAILY. Now that I live with a keen appreciation for water conservation, I find that figure staggering. If I used that much water every day I'd have to fill up every 38 hours. Obviously that's ridiculous, but equally obviously, I was right to be concerned.  However, fret not, dear readers. I'm not sure how those figures are calculated (maybe they slipped a decimal point?) because I'm happy to report that I have found it's not difficult to make 200 litres of water last two weeks.  And yes, I am showering.

How do I do it? Well, one of the biggest water hogs is eliminated right away - I've got a chemical toilet so there's no fresh water being flushed down the loo. (Eventually I hope to have a composting toilet, but for now the chemical is more than adequate.) Beyond that, the big water consumers are showering and laundry. When I can, I do laundry at laundrettes, because that means I don't have to festoon the boat with drying laundry for a day. Even so, in a normal two-week cycle, doing one load of laundry is fine. Where the laundry system falls down is with items that need ironing. Even with my mostly-not-working casual boat lifestyle, there are still some things that just need it. Luckily, I've realised that local dry cleaners will wash and iron shirts for a few quid each, and that's been working well. Yes, there's a small cost, but that's #boatlife.

Picturesque backlit tea towels. Note the ingenious bungee cord clothesline system. No clothespins required!

As for showering, if I don't run or get horribly sweaty during the day, I don't bother. This means I probably shower about five times a week as opposed to every day. (London-based friends can, I hope, report that I have not become notably dishevelled or smelly since moving onto the boat.) And when I do shower, I do the "navy shower" thing.  Turn on the water long enough to get wet and lather up. Turn it off. Wash. Turn on the water to rinse. A boat shower uses about 12 litres of water. (Yes, I have measured. I actually have a gauge to measure the water level. Some people might call it "A Stick With Lines On It" but I call it a gauge.)

Here's the water tank, which sits under the bow deck. That's the deck hatch/lid leaning against the boat. And the lid of the tank itself is slid open a tiny bit to insert the gauge, which is clearly reading 100 litres.

As for washing up (that's dish washing for Astute North American Go Stay Work Play Readers), I have a few strategies there as well. For instance, I never fill the sink full of hot soapy water. Usually I only have a few dishes to do, so I'll heat a bit of water in the kettle and fill a small container in the sink - something like a plastic tupperware tub or a small saucepan. Soap goes in there, and I dunk a washing sponge in, wash each dish, and set it aside in the sink. Then I turn the tap on at a low volume and rinse and stack the dishes in the rack.  Easy peasy.

Note that I said I heat water in the kettle. (Which is heated on the stove of course - certainly not electric!) This is because firing up the water heater comes with that long period of time where you run water through the system while it heats up. No way! It's a more efficient use of water (and possibly gas as well) to simply warm up the kettle a bit. It doesn't even have to be boiling. On the more extreme/weird end, I often boil an egg in the shell for breakfast, meaning I end up with a small saucepan of boiling water after the egg is removed. On those mornings the lid goes back on that pot to conserve the heat and when breakfast is done that water gets a squirt of soap and does double-duty for washing up.  This is one of those things that makes me wonder if I've tipped over the edge from clever to weird. Is this simply smart use of resources? Or has boat life blinded me to the fact that I've become a water-hoarding freak? Comments welcome below.

Here's the washing up system. Including saucepan in the sink with soapy egg water.

And let's expand on that shower thing a bit. (Setting aside the not-showering-daily thing, which I know some people might struggle with, but is not really overly odd.) I recently realised that the showering experience on the boat which now seems perfectly normal to me, is, in fact, somewhat complex. Here's how I'd explain things to you if you wanted to have a shower on the boat;
"A shower? Yeah no problem at all. Just a couple things... I have to turn on the inverter, so the water heater has power. That just takes about thirty seconds to kick in. Fine. It's fine now. Now you want to turn on the hot water full blast. Just the hot. Full blast. Because the hot water heater requires a high volume of water to turn on. You'll hear it kick in. It makes a faint "fwoomp" noise. There! Did you hear that? No? Well it was there. See? It's warming up. But if it doesn't kick in you can turn on the hot tap on the bathroom sink as well, which increases the water flow and then when it fwoomps you just turn the sink off and it'll all go to the shower. And then it will get really really hot, so you can add cold water, but not too much because then the flow to the water heater will go down too much and it'll stop and you'll have to fwoomp it again. Ok? Good. Also just make sure the circuit for the shower drain pump is on before starting. So anyway, I normally soap up and then turn the water off to scrub. Then while it's off you can turn on the drain pump. Just feel outside the shower on the wall there's this little switch. Turn that on. You'll hear the pump working. Then when the sound changes from a sort of pumping noise to a sort of sucking noise you can turn it off. You'll be able to tell. No really, it's totally obvious. Then you can turn the water on again and fwoomp it and rinse off. But keep it quick, OK? And then when you're drying off run the pump again. And that's it. Oh, except remember to turn the inverter off when you're done. Unless you want to dry your hair. Which is no problem at all. Just a couple things about drying your hair..."
Ok is that weird?

I've realised that there's actually a lot more I can say about life on the boat, so I'll continue to parcel it out as and when the mood strikes. In the meantime I'm back in Baku which is weird, but also weirdly normal. For instance, the power in the wall never stops. And the water flows out of the taps forever. Again, weird but also weirdly normal. But not long after I arrived and got into my hotel room, I realised that even though it's bigger and more comfortable and someone comes and brings me clean towels when I want... I still miss my little boat.

Off the tourist track: Highgate Cemetery

Sunday, September 4, 2016

A visit to north London’s Highgate Cemetery has been on my list for a long time. We’ve touched on the topic of cemeteries in London before. I was sure I’d also blogged about a good book on the subject (“Necropolis: London and its Dead”) but apparently I dreamed that, somewhere in between the dream where Bill Byrson emails to say he’s been lurking on the blog for years and invites me up to his place in Yorkshire for a pint and a friendly ramble across the countryside and the dream where Harrison Ford comes and builds new kitchen cabinets for the boat. But I digress.  Back to Highgate Cemetery, which I visited a while back after managing to secure one of the limited number of tickets they issue for guided tours each week.

I seem to be blogging about the Victorians a lot these days - Crossness and Bazelgette, the ropemaking, Brunel’s boat and bridge - but honestly, they were a pretty interesting and clever bunch and I like reading and writing about the interesting and clever things they did, so settle in. Astute Go Stay Work Play Readers will recall that for most of London’s existence the dead were buried in small local churchyards, often one on top of another to pack more and more corpses into the finite space available. By the mid-1800s though, this practise was becoming unsustainable and, frankly, pretty gross, what with the stench of rotting corpses oozing up out of the ground, along with the occasional stray arm or foot. In 1832 parliament passed an act encouraging the establishment of large privately run suburban cemeteries outside the metropolis of London and eventually seven were created under the auspices of the London Cemetery Company, with Highgate Cemetery opening in 1839. Shortly after, in 1851, the new Burials Act prohibited fresh burials inside London, thus firmly establishing the “Magnificent Seven” as going concerns.

Here’s the main entry to Highgate Cemetery, with the chapel on the left side.

Highgate Cemetery is divided into west and east sides. The west was established first, on 17 acres of land below Highgate village, most of which is on a steep hillside with sweeping views south towards central London. Its grounds were laid out with exotic formal plantings and stunning gothic architecture in order to attract wealthy investors. The Victorian attitude towards death was different than our own. As with their buildings and bridges, graveyards and grave markers became a way to show wealth and status, especially with elaborate headstones, crypts and tombs. The prices for plots in prestigious areas of Highgate were not cheap, and with lots of space to fill and an ever-renewing clientele, Highgate grew quickly. More than 10,000 graves had already been created in the original west side when the cemetery it extended across the road to another large swathe of land in 1854. The east side is home to Highgate's more modern graves.

This is Nero the lion, at the grave of George Wombwell, shoemaker-turned-menagerist.  

Despite what you're probably thinking, this one isn’t actually broken.  It was a fashion at the time to depict columns broken off, symbolic of a life cut short.

All this Victorian grandeur is part of what makes Highgate a beautiful place to visit today. It’s known most particularly for the architectural features laid out by the site’s designers. The Victorians had a particular fascination with ancient Egypt, and Highgate’s designers played to those fashions and worked cleverly with the existing steep slope to create the cemetery’s most notable architectural features.

As the Highgate website says: "In the heart of the grounds was created the Egyptian Avenue, an imposing structure consisting of sixteen vaults on either side of a broad passageway, entered via a great arch. These vaults were fitted with shelves for twelve coffins and were purchased by individual families for their sole use.”

"This avenue then lead to the Circle of Lebanon which was built in the same style and consisted of twenty vaults on the inner circle with a further sixteen added in the 1870s, built in the Classical style."

The Circle was created by excavating around a 300 year old Cedar of Lebanon tree that already existed on the site.

You might think that things look a bit rough and overgrown in these photos, and you would be correct.  It’s true that running a large cemetery in Victorian England was - initially - a great money spinner. Highgate's grounds were originally open and manicured, with the aforementioned sweeping views. However, Astute Go Stay Work Play Readers will realise that the business plan behind large cemeteries is fatally flawed. (Ironic.) The difficulty is this: plots are generally sold in perpetuity (their occupants almost never decide to relocate) meaning that once a plot is sold it can never be resold. However, this means that the number of plots available to sell grows smaller and smaller, thus income shrinks. Meanwhile the cost to maintain existing plots, grounds and structures increases, especially as the structures age and decay. Therefore, sources of new revenue eventually dry up as the cemetery is filled, but the expenses grow, leading to financial decline.

Add to this the fact that attitudes towards death and practises surrounding it changed greatly after the First World War, with elaborate crypts and tombs falling out of favour, and smaller graves and markers becoming more common. Plots became more and more neglected as families broke up or moved away, and maintenance on those plots declined. In 1960, the great London Cemetery Company - first formed in 1836 - declared bankruptcy and Highgate Cemetery’s gates were closed and the site abandoned. For fifteen years the cemetery was neglected, becoming a vast, overgrown and tumbledown labyrinth. This was unfortunate, but it’s part of what makes the site so beautiful now - the air of stillness and wildness.

See what I mean? Apparently, they recently discovered the grave of Michael Faraday back there.  Or maybe it was some other surprisingly notable scientist you might expect people to have kept better track of.  (My notes are sketchy on this, consisting entirely of the great man's last name, spelled wrong.)

Finally, in 1975, a group of local residents formed the Friends of Highgate Cemetery and slowly began a decades long, and still ongoing, process of clearing the overgrown landscape and pathways and repairing some of the more significant and beautiful memorials. The work is slow, and funded mostly by donations, tour fees and the small revenue stream created by new burials. (It’s still possible to be buried at Highgate, even on the west side, though a spot in a prime location now sells for about £10,000.) Part of the ongoing difficulty of managing the cemetery is that the original plots were not intended for single burials but rather as family plots, with enough space for 12 bodies (two wide, six deep). The same is true for the crypts in Egyptian Avenue and the Circle of Lebanon; the vast majority of the graves are underused, with many crypts almost empty and the registered owners long gone, leaving no legal means of opening and making use of much of the available space in the cemetery.

Alexander Litvinenko.  One of the most recent and notable graves in the west side.

The west side of Highgate, with its Victorian grandeur and overgrown Gothic monuments, is closed to the general public expect on the aforementioned guided tours. (Family members wishing to visit gravesites are accommodated privately in the morning.) The general closure is in order to preserve the monuments themselves, many of which are fragile and unstable, and also to preserve gormless members of the public who would be certain to injure themselves in stupid (though possibly amusing) ways while clambering, unchaperoned, over crumbling stonework. Happily, the east side of the cemetery is open to the public every day, and though it's more modern and less evocative that the west side, it does have a few notable residents.

Me and Karl Marx.  I'm saluting the workers of the world, obviously. 

I love this one.  Modern artist Patrick Caulfield.

And this was my favourite - author Douglas Adams*. Apparently people leave pens in the little pot here all the time. I guess they're tidier and take up less space than towels. (I have a great personal one-degree-of-separation anecdote about Douglas Adams, but it's best related face to face. Buy me a drink the next time you see me and I'll tell you all about it.)

Charmingly, when you stop a cemetery worker to ask directions to a particular gravesite they invariably say something like “Oh, he’s just past the fork in the path on the left.” As if the object of your search is going to be found sitting on a bench having a cup of tea rather than six feet under.

And that's Highgate Cemetery. Tick another one off the list for a summer that seems to have included a good crop of bloggable stuff, coupled with a bunch of time off work, an improbable abundance of sunshine, and a respectable amount of cake, which has all been very nice indeed.

However, by the time you read this GSWPL World Headquarters will have relocated from our location aboard the Lucky Nickel back to foreign climes! As much as I'd like to spend the late summer and fall putt-putting down the canal or refitting the kitchen or walking the Cinque Terra or something, duty calls. I've been asked to go back to Baku, Azerbaijan to work on the Opening and Closing ceremonies for the Islamic Solidarity Games, which will be held there in May of 2017. So the boat is tucked up at a marina in north London, and I've packed my bags and made the trek back to Baku. I'll write more as things progress, of course. And as usual, you can expect the blogging to become more infrequent as the old work-blog balance shifts. For now, I'll just head this off at the pass:
  1. "Islamic Solidarity Games? Huh?" I know. I know. If you thought my last Baku gig was a bit obscure, you've got another think coming. But they are a real, if intermittent, thing. I've taken to calling them the Islampics, but suspect I should probably stop that.
  2. I have no idea if the women will wear full body covering when they're running the 200m hurdles or synchronised swimming or whatever. I'll let you know. But really, is that ALWAYS going to be the first question people ask?
And that's it. I'll update on Baku as I get settled, and I'll continue to post London-y, boat-y stuff too, because there are still fun things to report from the summer. Watch this space!

GRUB!: Summer Pudding

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

It’s been too long since we talked about food, but recently a few things came together to correct that. The first thing was this:

The towpath where I’ve had the boat moored in the last few weeks features a good collection of wild blackberry bushes. (Actually it turns out the towpath is a veritable supermarket, as pointed out by an oddly friendly and garrulous woman who was passing the boat one day as I was leaving and showed me where the hazelnut trees were and talked about growing up picking all kinds of produce on the towpath, including crabapples and other things I can’t remember because I was slightly unnerved by how she absolutely glommed onto me to relate this information.)

The second thing that led me to the inevitable was an email exchange with a local English friend in which I semi-bragged about having a particularly “Swallows and Amazons” day that started with picking said blackberries on the towpath and then proceeded to a very agreeable spell of moving the boat in the bright sunshine.

(Aside for Astute-but-non-UK-based Go Stay Work Play Readers: "Swallows and Amazons" is a series of young adult novels, an accompanying 1960s tv series, and two feature films about the four siblings of the Walker family who have grand adventures in the Lake District involving sailing, camping, fishing and piracy. It's all a health and safety nightmare that would never fly today. However, in the Swallows world, the Walker dad - a naval officer absent on duty in Malta - remotely gives the children permission for a particularly dangerous nighttime sailing mission with an oft-quoted telegram reading, "BETTER DROWNED THAN DUFFERS IF NOT DUFFERS WON'T DROWN", an utterly un-modern message, but indicative of the sort of Empire-building, Blitz-surviving qualities that make some over here go all misty-eyed. "Swallows and Amazons" is English and summery and nostalgia-for-a-time-now-lost.)

So my email about blackberries and boating led to this response:
"Fresh blackberries, how fantastic. The start of a summer pudding ;-)"
A bit of explanation is probably needed here, for the above mentioned AbnUKbGSWPLRs. First, a reminder about pudding.
"In one sense, "pudding" refers to the entire panoply of sweet stuff you might have at the end of a meal. In fact, the course called dessert is often called pudding here, which I find just charming. As in, "What's for pudding, mum?” Sadly, the term pudding is slowly being supplanted by "dessert", which I also find kind of sad. It's like hearing "fries" instead of "chips" or "cookies" instead of "biscuits" and feels like the last small tumble in the fall of the Empire. More specifically, "pudding" can refer to a whole family of cakey sort of things that are cooked by steam, and can include both sweet and savoury options.  Christmas pudding is probably the best known pudding out there, but other favourites include the most excellent Sticky Toffee Pudding, and the giggle-inducing Spotted Dick."
Summer pudding falls into this category, though it’s not actually cooked at all. But it is a sweet end-of-meal treat and it is prepared in a pudding basin (or not, as we shall see). It’s a cold dessert made with stale bread and soft summer fruits, usually raspberries, red currants, and blackberries, but can also include strawberries, blueberries and other fringe fruit like black or white currants, loganberries and tayberries (which I'm pretty sure are made up). (Also note that the currants listed here are the fresh variety, not the dried fake-inferior-raisin thing you might be thinking of.)

I reviewed several recipes online before settling on one from the BBC website as a guide, but being genetically incapable of following a recipe to the letter, I free-styled it a bit, partly because I wasn’t going to make anything like the volume of pudding the recipe called for, and partly because I didn’t feel like doing a lot of measuring, and partly because of the aforementioned inherited propensity to muck about with recipes. For instance, it seemed utterly boring to cook the fruit in water. In a stroke of genius I can only describe as utterly inspired, I elected to use Pimm’s as my stewing liquid, reasoning that a bit of booziness would only add to the party, and what says English summer more than Pimm's?

The recipe on which I based my summer pudding is here, but I sense it’s the kind of thing you can muck about with infinitely, so I’ll just outline what I did and pretend it's a proper recipe. The amounts suggested here are from the BBC and are for a 1.25 litre pudding basin which seems to be about 17cm (or size 30, for those fluent in the arcane field of pudding basin sizing). I do own a proper pudding basin, but it's massive (size 18 maybe?) and since I was not making summer pudding for the entire England Test Cricket side, I used a non-traditionally shaped metal bowl of about half a litre. Not really tall enough for a properly shaped pudding, but it yielded four small though adequate portions.

Towpath Summer Pudding:
  • 7-ish slices of strong white bread, about 1 cm / 1/2" thick. (Enough to completely line your bowl, including a lid.)  Staleness is a bonus.
This should not be that plastic kind of mass-produced pre-sliced white bread that basically melts when confronted with liquids of any kind.  And no whole grains.  Now is not the time for overly healthy sanctimoniousness.  Some recipes recommend brioche, which would probably be really nice.
  • 1.25kg / 2 lbs of mixed raspberries, blackberries, fresh currants, strawberries, tayberries, loganberries, whateverberries… (Enough to fill your bowl. It seems to be traditional to go heavy on the raspberries.)
  • 175 grams / 3/4 cup white sugar (caster sugar for UK readers)
  • 3 tbsp Pimm’s (or water, but really?) I found I needed more juice, so be generous.
  • Cream, for serving. Ideally, double cream.
Other stuff you need that are not ingredients:
  • Pudding basin or deep bowl. Straight-ish sides is nice.
  • A lid or plate or flat circular thing that fits inside the top of the bowl
  • Small heavy thing that can sit on the lid/plate/circular thing
  • Saucepan and spoon
  • Sieve or colander (Or, if you live on a boat and don't have a colander, the upside down lid of an Ikea cheese grater.)
  • Clingfilm (Saran wrap)
  • Wash the fruit and dry on a paper towel (piece of kitchen roll). Slice the strawberries.
Rasperries and blackberries, washed and waiting
  • In a saucepan, melt the sugar and liquid together and then add the fruit (except the strawberries, if you’re using strawberries)
  • Bring to a boil to extract the juices from the fruit, but don’t cook so long that the fruit starts to break down.
  • Strain the juice into a bowl and reserve the fruit for later.
  • Meanwhile, cut the crusts off the bread slices and shape them so they can completely line the bowl. Cut a circular bit for the bottom of the bowl, or fit two pieces together to cover the bottom, and then use slices or fingers to completely fill in the sides. Also cut a piece or pieces for the top. Dry fit these all and then set them aside. (Aside: I’m guessing this might be the first recorded use of the term “dry fit” in a culinary context…)
Line the bowl with a big piece or pieces of clingfilm (saran wrap) - enough to completely cover the sides and fold up over the top. This will make it easier to de-mould the pudding later.
  • Dip the bottom bread piece(s) quickly into the fruit juice on both sides so they get soaked, and put the bread into the bowl. Continue dipping the side pieces and placing them until the whole inside of the bowl is covered. Use small scraps to fill in spaces and overlap if needed.
It really doesn’t matter if it looks a bit raggedy.
  • Fill the bread-lined bowl with the cooked fruit, dotting in slices of uncooked strawberry if you’re using strawberries.
  • Drizzle in any remaining juice. (I didn’t do it, but I sense this would be an excellent time to put in another splash of Pimm’s. I remain haunted by that lost opportunity.)
  • Cover with the top bit(s) of bread and fold the clingfilm over the top to cover it all.
  • Put the plate or lid or flat circular thing on top of it all and then put the small heavy thing on top of that to press everything down. (A tin of something from the cupboard seems to be traditional.)
Chill the pudding in the fridge for at least 6 hours, though overnight is better.

While chilling, something sort of magical happens as the juice soaks in all over and everything gets pressed together. When you turn it out onto a plate the next day the whole thing holds together remarkably well. Maybe it’s the pectin in the fruit? Whatever the cause, my pudding was decidedly flatter than most pictures you see if you Google for images of summer pudding but still, I think, still turned out quite credible.

The completed pudding, already missing a piece.  Fantastic colour!

The big question, of course, is how did it taste? Short answer: great! The bread was surprisingly not soggy - ending up with a texture that was more like very very moist cake. The berry flavour was huge and yummy and sweet and tart and perfectly summery. And a pour of double cream over the top turned it into a luxurious treat to have with a cup of coffee on a sunny afternoon.


Happily, this recipe is super easy to make and doesn’t include anything that’s difficult to find in Not-The-UK (like Marmite or golden syrup or red telephone boxes), so I urge you all try it out. It’s summer in a bowl. And if you wanted to swap out the coffee for a glass of Pimm’s, we here at Go Stay Work Play Live World Headquarters would heartily endorse that variation. 

Off the tourist track: Crossness Pumping Station

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Really this post should be in its own category called “Way way way off the tourist track” because even for an enthusiastic and experienced London tourist, this one was a push.  This is not just because it is bloody miles from anywhere.  I took me  fully four hours to get there and back, including 45 minutes on a bus each way, trundling through some of southeast London’s least picturesque industrial estates.  No, it’s not just the location that’s challenging.  The subject matter is also a bit of a stretch.  There’s no getting around it - a sewage pumping station is always going to be a tough sell to your average tourist.  However, if you’re going to spend the better part of a humid Sunday navigating your way to any sewage pumping station, surely Crossness must be at the top of the list of options.  (Also, I think by this point it’s fair to say I am by no means an average tourist.)

To fully appreciate the wonder and glory of Crossness Pumping Station we need a bit of historical background.  This time, back to the summer of 1858.  (Though Astute Go Stay Work Play readers will recall I’ve actually touched on this topic before.)  By this time waste management in London had progressed beyond the open sewers of the medieval era, with more than a hundred covered brick sewers having been built.  A few of these simply covered over some of London’s now-buried rivers like the Fleet and the Tyburn and these, along with a host of entirely manmade tunnels, emptied raw sewage directly into the Thames.  This system worked, more or less, until the population of London tripled from one to three million and until the flush toilet arrived on the scene, the combination of which resulted in a vastly increased amount of water and effluent being discharged into the Thames.  Naturally, this lent the river quite a pungent aroma which, combined with the unusually hot weather and low river levels during July and August of 1858 resulted in what is known as “The Great Stink”.  During a debate in Parliament (the buildings of which eventually had to be abandoned due to the stench) Disraeli called the Thames "a Stygian pool, reeking with ineffable and intolerable horrors”.  This, coupled with the increasing threat from cholera, meant something really needed to be done.

Luckily, British engineering came to the rescue.  You all know I’m a big fan of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, but this time we must tip our hats to another titan of the age: Sir Joseph Bazalgette (pronounced BAZ-el-jet).  A few years earlier, Bazalgette had proposed a system of giant gravity-fed tunnels running parallel with the banks of the Thames to intercept the existing sewer outfall and carry it downstream outside the greater metropolitan area.  With 82 km of large diameters tunnels and a network of 1,300 km of smaller sewers feeding them, under Bazalgette’s plan London’s sewage would be carried, stinklessly (yes, that it a word) downstream where it could be discharged into the river as the tide was flowing out to sea.  It was a monumental undertaking but just the kind of thing the Victorians liked to get stuck into, which they did.  Remarkably, those same tunnels are still in use today.

NPG x646; Sir Joseph William Bazalgette
Bazalgette.  What excellent facial hair.  You can practically taste those muttonchops!

I’m just going to say that again because I think it’s bloody amazing: London’s sewage is still efficiently and effectively carried in brick tunnels built by hand about a hundred and fifty years ago.  Apparently when calculating the diameter needed for the various sewer pipes, Bazalgette "took the densest population, gave every person the most generous allowance of sewage production and came up with a diameter of pipe needed. He then said 'Well, we're only going to do this once and there's always the unforeseen' and doubled the diameter to be used.” Joseph Bazalgette, you rock.

So what happened when all that waste made it out of London?  In order to be able to discharge it at the right time - when the tide would carry it out to sea - the waste needed to be pumped up out of the gravity fed tunnels that, by the time they reached their end point, were thirty to forty feet below sea level.  This required huge pumping capacity and therefore huge pumps.  Luckily, the Victorians were absolute demons at big steam-powered machines and Bazalgette’s designs for the system included not just the tunnels, but also the pumping stations to raise the effluent up into reservoirs ready for discharge.  The station on the north bank of the Thames is located at Abbey Mills and the one the south is at Crossness.  Also luckily, those Victorians did nothing by halves, and created not just highly functional but also truly beautiful machines.

The facade of the public entrance.  This building used to house the boilers.

Thus our historical background concludes and we can rejoin our weary blogger at the gates of Crossness Pumping Station on one of the very rare Open Days when they actually run - with steam - one of the giant old pumps that they’ve painstakingly restored, and let people wander around watching it all happen (which happens a mere six times this year).

I started out in a relatively new exhibition that told the story of London’s sewage - uplifting subject matter for a Sunday afternoon to be sure.  There were a lot of carefully researched information boards telling, in much greater detail than I’ve done here - the problem of sewage disposal, the risks from cholera, the history of the engineers involved, the impact of the system on the river, blah blah blah.  In truth, it was all pretty interesting stuff, but by far the most fun was the large display of historic toilets.

They also had a very informative display on toilet paper alternative used throughout history and in different cultures. (Including, if I recall correctly, corncobs and seashells.)

I absorbed as much information as I could, but in truth I really just wanted to go look at the giant machine.  The beauty of these Victorian engines is not just in the effectiveness and cleverness of the machine itself, but in the fact that the Victorians were particularly good at making machines not just functional but gorgeous.  Crossness Pumping Station is sometimes called “The Cathedral on the Marsh” because of its spectacular and brightly painted ornamental ironwork.

The main beam

Gratuitous but excellent Victorian frippery

And now settle down for a quick primer on beam engines, the particular bit of machinery on display at Crossness.  A beam engine is perhaps best described as a powered see-saw.  Steam power drives a big piston that pushes on one end of a giant beam (the tippy bit of the seesaw).  The other end of the beam is attached to a huge flywheel.  And in between, closer to the pivot point, are two shafts that lift plungers which actually pump the sewage, operating in opposition to one another and driven by the motion of the beam.  And when I say giant, I do mean that.  The main beam of a Crossness engine is 42’ long and the flywheel is 27’ in diameter and weighs 52 tons.  When in operation, each pump could lift 6 tons of sewage at a stroke, so one revolution of the flywheel would move 12 tons.  And considering that Crossness was equipped with four such engines, each running at about 10 RPM, that allows almost 5,000 tons of sewage to be moved every minute.  The Crossness Engine is thought to be the largest rotative beam engine still in operation in the world.  (The "rotative" part is the flywheel, which converts the uppy-downy motion of the beam to turny-roundy motion.  Sometimes beam engines are just uppy-downy.)

For steam-fans, the engine is a triple expansion, as is clearly obvious from the diagram.  Duh.

Bazalgette’s sewage system proved to be transformative for London.  The stink disappeared, along with the cholera that was thought, at the time, to be carried along with this “bad air”. Luckily, in wrong-headedly solving the problem of the smell, the Victorians also unintentionally eliminated cholera in the water supply, and outbreaks of typhus and tyhoid also decreased considerably.  However, let’s not forget that raw sewage was still being discharged into the Thames estuary, just not in London’s front garden.  (Unsurprisingly, the effect on downstream communities was not good.)  Now, of course, the sewage is treated properly, but London’s system still combines sewage and rainwater into the same sewers (unlike, for instance, Paris, where the two are separate).  And because the systems in London are combined, when there’s a large amount of rainfall in a short amount of time the system gets overwhelmed and they have to dump out into the Thames.  Yes, you read that right.  Even now, in 2016, London regularly dumps raw sewage into the river.  And not just a couple times a year.  Apparently this happens about once a week.  Seriously people?

Anyway, as I said, the station was equipped with four identical beam engines, loyally named “Victoria”, “Prince Consort”, “Albert  Edward” and “Alexandra”, located at the four corners of the Beam Engine House.  “Prince Consort” is the one that’s been restored, along with that corner of the room, while the rest of the space is decidedly unloved, which makes for an oddly divided space.  Most of the room has the sad but intriguing feeling of an abandoned warehouse or factory - dusty and rusted and full of seized up bits of machinery whose purpose one can only speculate about.

See what I mean?

And could you possibly devise a better setting for the final chase scene in a Sherlock Holmes adaptation that this?  It’s got “Hidden Supervillain Lair” written all over it.

Spin around though, and you’re presented with an improbable festival of colour.  It’s not just the engine itself that’s made of cast iron, the columns and floors and archways in the room are all made of the same material.  And all of it is decorated with scrolls and vines and lettering and embellishments of all sorts, and painted in an unexpectedly brash combination of colours.

This is part of the octagonal centre of the room, taken from the upper floor.

And here you can see where the restoration starts and stops.

It must have been a monumental amount of work to bring an engine back to life.  They were last run in the 1950s and at the time it was deemed uneconomic to dismantle them for scrap, which I guess is lucky.  Instead, as the Crossness website says, “...the pumps and culverts below the Beam Engine House were filled with a weak sand and cement mix to reduce the risks from methane. This has meant that some 100 tons of this sand had to be excavated from around and beneath the pumps before there was any hope of moving the beam and flywheel.”  That excavation had to be done before they could even start to get the machine working. (Not so lucky...)   The restoration of the overall site was started in about 1988 and is still ongoing, though the engine “Prince Consort” was working by 2003.  And it is magnificent.

Seeing something so large moving so gracefully and quietly is amazing.  I took a video but still have no luck in managing to get videos uploaded properly, so you’ll have to look at this much much much better one I found on Youtube.

It is running on steam, though the old enormous boilers are long gone.  Steam is now provided by a boringly tiny modern boiler from an industrial laundrette.

One of the reasons I like this video is that it shows the use of the barring engine.  I didn’t know what this bit of machinery was for, but the volunteers at Crossness are absolutely top notch and answered all my questions.  So - lucky you - you get to hear about barring engines! Because the beams are so massive the engines need a bit of help in getting started.  It was explained to me like this:  think about your bicycle pedals.  When you’re waiting to push off you instinctively position the pedals so that the pedal under the foot you’ll use to push off is at an advantageous angle.  If, for instance, it was sticking straight up or straight down you’d put your weight down on the pedal and it wouldn’t move.  It’s the same with a beam engine.  The beam needs to be at the most advantageous angle (just a bit above horizontal) in order to get going.  The barring engine drives a small gear (yay gears!) that can be meshed to teeth on the flywheel and used to position the wheel (and therefore the beam it’s attached to) in the correct place.  Normally this is done with steam power, but there’s also a backup manual version.

The backup manual barring engine

It was finding out about things like barring engines that made this such a great visit.  And really, the volunteers were lovely.  The ones who tend the engine wear sort of period clothing, and are clearly having a ball, even the guy who was using sort of a mini-mop to slop grease onto one of the moving pistons. (From the diagram, I'm guessing that's the low pressure cylinder.)

Surely for absolute historical accuracy this should have been done by a barefoot orphan dressed in rags, but I guess we can forgive that anachronism.

Even the people who ran the little café were dressed up, and served me a nice little pork pie and salad for a very reasonable sum, fortifying me for the long journey home.  And it was long.  By the time I got back to the boat, despite the fact that mostly all I’d done was sit on a long succession of buses and tube trains, I was utterly knackered.  So I had a nap and contemplated refitting the Lucky Nickel's smelly, noisy and intermittently non-functional diesel engine with a nice quiet steam driven engine painted bright red.

P.S.  Just to reassure you all - the fabulous patching system outlined in my last post is still holding strong.  In fact, I've decided that inch-thick layer of submarine grade epoxy is probably now the strongest part of the boat's hull.  And Jackie loved the flowers.