Black Holes & Transportations: The Science of Getting Around London

Commuting, I discovered, does strange things to the space – time continuum. I don’t just mean the wibbly wobbly relationship between the timetable and when trains actually turn up. No, we’re talking proper time travel here. When we lived in the Village, the train to London lasted 30mins, but somehow my journey always took 2 hours.  It was like travelling in some weird, London Midland shaped Tardis.

Now that we’re back in London, I’m even more convinced physicists are missing a trick. Why go to all the hassle and expense of building giant telescopes or putting people in space? Just spend a couple of hours on the Tube and you’ll have proved a host of scientific theories:-

Wormholes

Connections from one part of the Universe to another. In principle, it’s possible to travel through them, but you’ll probably be crushed. Pretty much describes the Central Line most mornings.

Chaos Theory

The science of surprises where even small changes in the status quo have drastic effects overall.  ‘Nuf said really. Nearly 4m people use London Underground every day and almost all of them know full well the chaotic consequences for their commute if just one tube driver forgets to set his alarm in the morning.

Expansion of the Universe

Apparently, the universe is getting bigger. Not in the sense of things simply moving further apart (that would be way too easy: after all, this is theoretical physics we’re talking here!), rather the distance between objects is increasing even though these objects haven’t actually moved. Impossible? How many times have you been on a packed tube train with barely an inch to move when some 6ft, 16 stone oaf manages to fit himself into that millimeter gap you were fiercely defending. Clearly metric expansion isn’t so preposterous after all.

Time Dilation

London moves fast, very fast. If Einstein is to be believed, the faster you go, the more time slows down – which must explain why most Londoners consider waiting 5 minutes for the next tube on a par with eternity in Hell. Back in the Village, real eternal damnation was far more likely : if I’d only 5 mins until the next train, I’d half kill myself running for the platform for fear of missing it.

Black Holes

Whilst scientists have as near-as-dammit proved the existence of black holes, they’re still struggling to find one.  Clearly someone needs to give a few NASA folk an Oyster Card. All Londoners know how they suck everything out of your bank balance and no matter how much money you put on them, it always disappears without trace.

Then again, much scientific research nowadays seems to involve propelling objects through tunnels deep underground, usually with unreliable results. . .

Maybe science has been taking lessons from the Tube after all.

The Meowist Movement : Moving House with Chairman Meow

Chairman Meow was due before the Parole Board today. It’s been a month since we moved back to London and all the official guidelines say to keep your cat indoors for the first 28 days.  I’d like to claim he got time off for good behaviour but bad behaviour is closer to the truth. Ten days in, he was having none of this house arrest nonsense and legged it out the back door.

They say dogs have owners, cats have staff. If moving house with a cat has taught me anything, it’s the true meaning of “pussy-footing around”. Even our decision to return to London kept being delayed out of concern for The Chairman: We’d have happily squeezed ourselves back into some grungy one bed but there was no way Meow was getting anything less than a house and garden and traffic free access. So hardly surprising it took ages to find somewhere a. on brief and b. affordable without a winning lottery ticket. Even then, there was this nagging doubt that London just wasn’t the right sort of place for a cat. Eventually, it boiled down to a leap of faith : If Chairman Mao could conquer the city from the country, we reckoned our Meow would manage ok.

But first, how to get him there. The usual advice made no sense: “consider booking your cat into a cattery for a few days whilst you get everything sorted”. I’m sure there are superhuman domestic goddesses out there who can be done and dusted in just a few days but down here, amongst us mere mortals, we knew we’d still be lugging furniture and unpacking for weeks to come.

As our life increasingly descended into a chaos of bubble-wrap and boxes, it was clear separation wasn’t the answer for Chairman Meow. He clocked we were on the move and refused to let us out of his sight (It really is quite disconcerting when your cat won’t even let you go to the loo on your own!) Given his origins as a rescue cat*, he was always more likely than most to have abandonment issues, but he seemed genuinely worried he’d be left behind.

Rebellion will be punished

In the end, the fact that Chairman Meow was a rescue cat actually made the move easier: We’d been through the process before of introducing him to a new home and so were more confident in what to do and what to expect. At either end, we kept him in the spare room, safely out of harm’s way, whilst the removals men did their job. The travelling, we knew, was always going to be the hardest part. Cats are connoisseurs of comfort. Anything less than five star accommodation and a first class ticket leaves them pretty unimpressed, let alone a pet travel box and long car journey.

For the Chairman too, this was clearly nothing like as traumatic as coming home from the rescue centre. Yes, there was a new house to get used to, but at least he didn’t have to adjust both to a new neighbourhood and new owners (aka staff) . Back then, we had weeks of cowering under the bed plus moments of pure Psycho-Kitty madness. This time, he only hid for 24hrs before curiosity got the better of him and he came out for an explore.

A month on and it’s obvious Chairman Meow actually prefers his new pad. We’d been so focused on all the bad things that were to be found in London, the traffic, the people, the foxes etc, it never occurred to us to think about the ones that weren’t – in particular, other cats. Back in the Village, everyone seemed to have a cat; and since all cats are born believing they’ve a divine right to rule, the Chairman was forever battling neighbours and rivals as they tried to rob him of power. Here, he’s finally claimed his rightful position as Supreme Leader.

Since moving to London, we’ve noticed a real change in the Chairman: He’s confident now, sassy and street-wise, not-so-much unfriendly but definitely diffident and decidedly difficult to impress.

A power-crazed puss perhaps? No. Just a typical Londoner.

*For more about Chairman Meow and his transformation from humble orphan cat to great Meowist leader, click here

Keep Off The Grass : The Floral Lawn at Avondale Park

A friend of mine protects her tweets. Apparently she doesn’t want “people” reading what she has to say. Bizarre. I always thought that was the whole point of Twitter. It’s like going to a nudist beach and complaining because you have to take your clothes off.

Oh well, something else to add to the list of Life’s Little Paradoxes, up there with alcohol-free wine, trains cancelled to “regulate the service” and instructions to “Keep Off the Grass”. Why?  You don’t get signs at the beach saying “Keep off the Sand”; And like sand, a soft, open patch of grass is just crying out to be walked on. It’s not even as though it’s all that attractive – certainly not by comparison with the glorious Floral Lawn in Notting Hill’s Avondale Park.

The Floral Lawn is the UK’s first grass-free lawn and the brainchild of Lionel Smith, a PhD student at the University of Reading. The inspiration came from his childhood memories of the 1976 drought : “The grass had died in the lawn and all the wild flowers were flowering and it was absolutely beautiful. It stuck in my mind and I thought, ‘I’d like to be able to repeat that’”. After 4 years of research and the support of The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, the dream has become a reality in a 200m2 corner of West London.

Never having seen a floral lawn before, I wasn’t sure what to expect. It doesn’t have a flower-bed’s supermodel glamour, all perfect grooming and the latest technicolours. Its charms are softer, subtler, more girl-next-door. What hit me first and foremost was its greenness. Not the bland uniform green of grass, but a riot of every shade of green you could possibly imagine. Next the textures : plants spongy , feathery, spiky, leafy, some clinging low to the ground, other standing tall and proud. Only then, finally, did I notice the flowers, the patches of burgundy, yellow and pink.

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No matter how many times you visit the Floral Lawn, you’ll always spot something different. There are British natives such as daisies, a host of ornamental cultivars (including four-leafed clover!) and even some foreign specimens. Over 65 different species make up the lawn, each of which will flourish or recede according to the conditions and time of year. Bar the occasional trim and perhaps a water if it gets too dry, the lawn is essentially designed to be self-regulating.

However, the pleasures here aren’t just visual. The Floral Lawn is intended to be an interactive experience. Although a fence helps protect from too much trampling, amazingly you can still walk on it. As you do so, the air carries a waft one moment of mint and then the next, maybe thyme. All the while, there’s a constant, gentle humming of bees because a third more insect life can live here versus a typical lawn.

As Lionel Smith puts it, the Floral Lawn “by being beautiful actually is beautiful in the greatest and widest of senses”

Maybe we should all keep off the grass after all.

For more information about Grass Free Lawns, visit www.grassfreelawns.co.uk

Wobbly Bottoms and Other Country Hazards

Chairman Meow is on a diet. The Vet has branded him a podgy puss and it would hardly do for a great Meowist leader to turn into a capitalist Fat Cat

The Chairman isn’t the only one who’s found himself out of shape after a year in the Country. Rural living, it seems, can seriously damage your waistline. That said, it’s not as though we weren’t warned. Just down the road from us was Wobbly Bottom Farm on Wibbly Wobbly Lane : clearly a sign.

WWL final

Like many, we left London in pursuit of a better life. What we found was often cleaner, cheaper and less crowded, yes, but healthier, no – not least because we were suddenly so dependent on our car. Like the Grand Old Duke of York, the railway network will march you up and march you down, but cross-country is a completely different story.  I’d have given anything not to drive half way round the M25 everyday, but it was practically impossible to get to work by public transport.

On the domestic front too, we found ourselves completely reliant on four wheels. In London, you’re never more than half a mile from countless grocers, restaurants and clothes shops. Most Home Counties have just a few hundred of each and even then, they’re mainly concentrated in the large towns. Our nearest big supermarket was 10 miles away – far too far to walk for the necessities of life like 25% off 6 bottles of wine.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that we didn’t go for walks, many of them glorious. It’s just that we had to choose to go for a walk just as you choose to go to the cinema or go to the gym. And much like going to the gym, it’s amazing how much more appealing even ironing can seem when it’s pissing it down with rain. When we did actually venture beyond the front door, there was a real sense of ‘big day out’ and any health benefits were rapidly undone en route with a celebratory pub lunch

Around 5.7m journeys are made on foot every day in the capital. Much like breathing, walking in London is something that just happens unconsciously: walk to the tube station, run for a bus, pop down the road for a pint of milk. You can try and avoid walking, but it’s probably not going to do you much good: Cycling is all the effort but with added danger (just ‘extreme walking’ really), taxi hopeless if you’re south of the River, helicopter a tad extravagant and a bitch to park.

Of all the reasons for coming back to London, losing a few pounds seemed as likely as moving to Iceland for a tan. Frankly, gaining a few pounds was (and is!) far higher up the agenda. There are over 50 Michelin starred restaurants in London and after a year in the culinary wilderness (ie an Italian, an Indian and a dodgy Chinese takeway) I’m hell-bent on sampling them all : It’s just I’m taking it (literally) one step at a time.