The British Library of Euston Road, London

The British Library of Euston Road, London


Shhh . . . in the Library 

The British Library of Euston Road, London is next to King’s Cross and St Pancras International rail stations. It received the highest listed building status, and joins the top 2.5% of listed buildings in England.  As per History of the British Library, the origins and foundations of this significant library which was established in 1753 started as a donation that was given to the library from the Royal book collection of King George III.

Libraries were in existence long before Britain was even called Britain.  Over millennia they have embodied intellectual high point of a civilisation promoting the values, traditions and history that bind a people together.  This fact is also well understood by conquerors who will typically attempt to destroy all forms of social cohesion that might spur resistance.  Libraries and museums are prime targets for destruction for more than financial reasons.

The destruction of the Great Library of Alexandria is also one of the greatest cultural losses in history (one of many).  This institution was at its height from the 3rd century BCE and was the focus of academic studies of all kinds in the ancient world.  Destruction took place in waves beginning with the Romans under Julius Caesar and reaching a conclusion sometime after the Muslim conquest in the 7th century.

There are many other lamentable examples, the Imperial library of Constantinople was destroyed by Christian crusaders, the House of Wisdom in Bagdad was destroyed by Mongol invaders and the Madrassah library in Cordoba was destroyed during the Christian reconquest of Spain.  Oddly, there are more recent examples too, in 1548 CE, Glasney Library in Cornwall was destroyed in an attempt to suppress Cornish language and identity.  These events, alas, continue.

Before the advent of printing, books were often truly irreplaceable.  They were the possession of the very wealthy or academic institutions in `chained’ libraries.  There are still a few chained libraries to be seen around Britain.  As books began to cheapen in the 18th century, subscription libraries were formed.  This still left libraries out of reach for most people.  In 1850, the Public Libraries allowed local authorities to run free libraries and these rapidly thrived.  Into the 20th century, these were heavily used, however, books continued to become cheaper and up-to-date information is often more easily be obtained online.  I do know that libraries are practical but I too am tempted by the pristine look and feel of new books and the wonderful sales pitch on the book which has been phrased by some of the world’s most talented wordsmiths.     A new paper book often costs £7 and that is not cheap for a lot of us at all.  We get them home we often read them once and put them on our bulging shelves in our small modern houses.  Libraries have modernised and now also offer very popular internet services but there is still pressure to close them and many have closed already.

Although books are cheaper than ever, however, they are not free and many people on lower incomes (often those on pensions) do rely on libraries.  Where libraries have closed some local communities have found imaginative places to create tiny local libraries and informal book exchange is popular in all kinds of places.  The internet is corruptible; books can last centuries and embody us.    I do hope we can remember to use them and look at content rather than covers.

Meanwhile, I would like to invite all to Explore the British Library.  and / or pay it a visit if you happen to be in the neighbourhood.  According to Wikipedia, the British Library is the national library of the United Kingdom and the largest library in the world by number of items catalogued.  It also has a document storage centre and reading room near Boston Spa, 2.5 miles (4.0 km) east of Wetherby in West Yorkshire.

‘Road Rage’ these days in the UK a frequent topic in the newspapers


‘Road Rage’ these days in the UK a frequent topic in the newspapers means driving here is stressful and involves very high level of concentration because of the state of the roads and the volume of traffic.  You combine that with the fast-paced time orientated working life of most people and you have a toxic, boiling mix of anxiety and frustrating that spills over in the uncontrolled environment on the roads.

Pedal Power to the rescue ?


There is one particular flashpoint of anger and that involves other road users such as motorcycles and bikes.  There vehicles have the ability to weave (dangerously) in and out of traffic to avoid queues.  In addition, cyclists have their own lanes in some places and this is a cause of some resentment because those lanes normally amount to white lines drawn on the road that effectually narrow a road that once was wide and easy to negotiate by car.  Cyclists in turn are frustrated that cars often park in these lanes, wide lorries use them and they disappear when the road narrows because the road is too narrow to sustain a cycle path and another road!

Mortality rate for cycling is similar to Sweden’s which appears on the face of it to make the UK safer than even the Netherlands which prosecutes drivers for any fatality involving a cyclist regardless of fault.  The truth, however, is that although the death rate per car is low, it does not represent the number of journeys by bicycle that are actually taken or the location of them.  Many towns like my own are particularly dangerous for cyclists, having hills, narrow roads, and fast, condescended traffic.  Use of bicycles is much lower than in my grandparent’s day and shrinking in everyday even if we produce Olympic stars like Bradley Wiggins.  As a leisure activity cycling is thriving (perhaps because weekend cycling is quieter) but most less fit, shoppers like myself stay off road most of the time.

Other problems for myself include the restriction in the number of bikes allowed on trains, you cannot plan a trip out the country or town by bicycle and get to the station to find no space in the racks on the train.  In the past, the different arrangement of trains allowed for a good many more bikes in the old fashioned Guard’s carriage.  The same carriage also gave space for wheelchairs or pushchairs that are now much more restricted.  Trains, have thus, become limited in use.  Security is another problem.  Once secure parking could be rent off road in towns and now parking is independent and out on the road.  However, one hopeful sign is that there are many more cycle racks to park in than twenty years ago.

Early cycling !

It would be nice, however, to once again ride free and easy, with a nice picnic, out to a country or town station for a pedal about.

I would invite everyone peruse through the following site.



further reading is on the Guardian .

National Health Service


Healthy Britain . . .

For all the lovely things in Britain, for me and most others the best thing about Britain is our National Health Service.   You don’t pay to see a doctor or use a hospital for things you need.  It has often been called the Envy of the World and rightly so.   It might be one of the greatest advances in social justice  ever seen and has remained unmatched since its inception in 1948.

The health of the general population has been crucial to those in power at many key points in British history.  No-one, of course, escaped the effects of the Black Death which killed up to a third of our population.  Many whole communities were destroyed.  But the whole ancient feudal system entered a terminal decline that allowed people to become untethered to their overlords, free to sell their labour to the highest bidder.

For most of our history, treatment, such as it was, was administered (freely) by religious communities and these provide the roots of many of our oldest established hospitals.  Most people, in history, however, were cared for at home using traditional medicines.  And therein lies some of the reason for the late growth of comprehensive free healthcare, and that is, until recently, most illnesses were pretty much untreatable and accepted as part of life.  However, things changed rapidly from the eighteenth century onwards.  When Edward Jenner created a vaccine to cure Smallpox, it was freely promoted in order to stop the spread of this deadly disease.  Vaccines for Smallpox have been so effective that the disease itself was declared eradicated in 1979.

Crossness Pumping Station of London’s Sewer System

Through the Victorian era there were various Public Health Acts, including the 1848 establishment of (still working) sewers that stemmed the spread typhus and cholera.   The government also came to glance into the most personal aspects of citizen’s lives.  In the 1800 it was estimated that as many military personnel were lost to venereal disease as in battle and in the Victorian era there was a real fear, for the same reason, that there were not enough healthy sailors to man the fleet if it needed to sail into battle.  In 1864, the Contagious Diseases Act allowed women to be snatched off the street, examined and hospitalized if they were suspected of carrying VD.

The general health of the population continued to be worry to governments during the First World War.  Many potential recruits had be turned away because of ill-health often stemming from the effects of poverty and neglect.  During this time, the cogs slowly rolled towards the establishment of our National Health Service.   A National Insurance Scheme was established in 1911 and access to medical help improved.  In 1943, at the height of the Second World War, the Beveridge report proposed the `Cradle to Grave’ welfare system that has improved the life of every person in the country, directly or indirectly.

Great Ormond Str Hospital Junior Doctors demonstration

The Longer Voyages for Exotic Goods


Worse things happening at sea . . .

Britain has long been known as a sea-going nation and it was dominance at sea that opened up a vast empire to our tiny island from the eighteenth century onward.  The sea, however, was no smooth road. The longer voyages for exotic goods or worldwide discovery amplified all the natural hazards and people now determinedly took on the ancient scourges of the oceans.

In the eighteenth century, extraordinary navigator Captain Cook commanded a circumnavigation without loss of a single man to scurvy, an achievement rare in much shorter voyages.   This was thanks to the radical idea of adding fresh food to the sailors’ diet giving them vital vitamin C.

Some foes, however, could not be defeated.  The weather, for example, could, at best, be evaded.  Prediction has, of course, improved to the point where we can have some trust in forecasts.  The first step was quantifying the weather.  Sailors always had, had their own specific expressions for different types of weather and from that took some prediction of the likely course of events.  For example, we all know that a building wind and dark clouds might indicate a storm but more precision was needed at sea when the results might be so catastrophic.

In 1806, Rear Admiral Francis Beaufort, came up with a scale now known as the Beaufort scale.  Here it is:

The original Beaufort Scale – 1806




Faint breeze or just not a calm


Light air


Light breeze


Gentle breeze


Moderate breeze


Fresh breeze


Gentle, steady gale


Moderate gale


Brisk gale


Fresh gale


Hard gale


Hard gale with heavy gusts




The kind of storm we had the other day without the terrible noise


The scale came to be measured in knots, which was the standard method by which ships measured their acceleration at sea.  Ropes were tied to a float at the end, knotted at even distances and cast into the water from a spool.  Over the course of a day, with frequent measurements, you could tell how far you had travelled and thus, where you now were.  That so long as you also took good account of the sun and stars or compass.

It is obvious that combining the visual clues with the confirmed acceleration would improve your chances of a good forecast and safe harbour for the night.

Wishing you all a safe harbour from this dark, wet, stormy night in England.

From Lin Petrie

The Great British Bake Off: an Extra Slice


Glamour in the kitchen . . .

I was lucky enough to be in the audience for the chat show, The Great British Bake Off: an Extra Slice.  It was actually a, humorous look at the famous cookery show but there was no mistaking the deadly serious devotion of fans and the production team making the show.  We were privileged to watch the show three days before it was shown on TV and signed a document committing us to keeping its secrets until then.   We are reminded of our oath several times by the staff.  I once signed the British Government’s Official Secrets Act but it did not seem half as solemn an undertaking.

Better than anything I could make but not perfect unlikely to win the prize

`The Great British Bake Off’ is one of the most popular programmes on TV and has made huge stars of its judges Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry.

Mary Berry and Co.

Celebrity chiefs these days are an industry unto themselves, not only producing recipe books but all sorts of products bearing their names.  An obscure ingredient that might appear on a cookery show will be emptied off of the supermarket shelves in no time at all.

The earliest known recipe book was written by a chief called Mithaecus in Sicily of the 3rd Century BC.  The Roman Chef Apicius’ recipes used exotic meats like ostrich as well as spices and honey.  The British Isles seemed to remain silent for a long time.  I think this might be explained in the following old children’s rhyme :

Oats, peas, beans, and barley grow,
Oats, peas, beans, and barley grow,
Can you or I or anyone know
How oats, peas, beans, and barley grow?

Medieval Cookery

The British diet was very limited until the time of the Romans (even commonplace creatures like rabbits are not native species) and then only gradually did we come to enjoy the spices, herbs and fruit and vegetables of the Mediterranean.  It is no coincidence that early cookery books seem to come from places with reliable harvests and a great range of high-quality fresh produce on hand.   Lyon in France is still the gastronomic centre of the country because chefs have daily access to the freshest and best ingredients.

For people, who are able to choose what they eat, food provides more than a sensory delight.  Today, many of us are dieting and closely tailoring what we eat to promote our long-term well-being.  Surprisingly, this is not a modern concept.  In Europe, Black Pepper was once thought able to cure Insomnia, Constipation, abscesses and toothache. Whilst it has been shown that this and culinary horrors like beef tea are unhelpful, there are many herbs and spices that have a positive effect.  For example, saffron really does lift the mood.

In times of relative peace the aristocracy thrived and sought out all forms of luxury whilst the variety of foodstuffs kept increasing spurring a competitive level of banqueting.

Gradually, all classes of people began to sample more exotic fare and by the end of the Victorian era, British people finally had tasted curry.

Celebrity chefs seem to set us impossible standards but so much better than Chaucer’s crude-talking cook:

And he could roast and boil and broil and fry,

And prepare a stew, and bake a tasty pie.

But a pity it was, it seemed to me,

That on his shin an open sore had he;

For sweet blanc-mange, he made it with the best.

Chaucer’s Cook