British Museum

Wonders of the World at Espresso Base, Bloomsbury

Hasten coffee, long black, black coffee, espresso base

‘Has Bean’ coffee at Espresso Base

Espresso Base is exactly the sort of café that you want to make sure that you know about, but part of you is selfishly quite happy if not too many others do. It is not that the the place is small, far from it. There is plenty of space in the courtyard at Espresso Base, beside St George’s Church, to sit and enjoy your coffee. The thing is, it is great to have the place almost entirely to yourself. With few others around, the oasis-like quality of the place is emphasised, astonishing as it is so close to the busy Bloomsbury Way. Only this oasis serves great coffee. Their coffee is roasted by Has Bean, which I admit is the reason that I first dropped into Espresso Base a few weeks ago. The black coffee that I had was certainly very good and the environment in which to enjoy the coffee was thought provoking which, for me, is an important aspect of any café. Cafés need to be places that you can go, slow down and notice things and Espresso Base certainly falls into that group of cafés that I would highly recommend both for the coffee and the café.

stone recycling, slate, slate waterfall, geology

The purple slate waterfall feature in the courtyard area at Espresso Base. You can just see the stone with the rectangular holes carved into it at the bottom of the wall.

On the day that we arrived, it had been raining. For a café with seating outside this may have posed a problem but the chairs had been thoughtfully folded so that they remained dry. The rain had however seeped into some of the paving slabs around the chairs and so that was the first thing to notice, the fact that many objects when wet appear darker, why? Opposite our seating was a rock feature that to me looked like a waterfall made out of slate, the slate had a purple tinge which again, had been made slightly more purple by the rain. Below the slate ‘waterfall’ and forming a wall, were a series of stones that had clearly been taken here from somewhere else. I say ‘clearly’, because the stone at the bottom had two holes that had been carved out of it, one square, one slightly more rectangular. Presumably the stone had been used as part of a gate post in the past and yet there is no evidence of the remains of a gate on the other side of the courtyard (I think that a gate post would have to be deeper than the square indent in the paving slab that is at the other side of the courtyard). It is therefore more likely that the stone had been used somewhere else beforehand and ‘recycled’ for use in this wall. This juxtaposition of slate above and recycled stone below reminded me of the early geologists and how they identified the Great Glen fault that runs through Loch Ness in Scotland. Slate is a metamorphic rock, meaning that it has undergone changes due to the high pressure and temperatures within the Earth. Slate is however quite a low-grade metamorphic rock so, compared with higher grade metamorphic rocks, it has not been subjected to that much pressure or that much temperature. By mapping the lower grade and higher grade metamorphic rocks along the Great Glen, the early geologists noticed a line that sharply separated the metamorphic rock types. This fault would have, in the past, caused earthquakes as the ground slipped along the fault.

Replica of Mausoleum of Halicarnassus

The steeple of St George’s church, Bloomsbury Way. The statue on top is of King George I rather than King Mausolus in  his chariot. The statue of Mausolus, his wife/sister Artemisia and a horse from his chariot can be seen in the British Museum.

On leaving Espresso Base I turned and looked up at the church. If you get a chance, take a look at the steeple. Particularly ornate, the stepped steeple is apparently built to the description of the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus by Pliny the Elder. This monument was one of the seven wonders of the Ancient World and was built to be the burial chamber of King Mausolus of Karia. Described as standing approximately 40 m in height, this massive stepped, marble pyramid stood on top of 36 columns surrounded by statues. Topping the pyramid was a statue of King Mausolus himself, in a chariot. This ancient wonder is thought to have been destroyed by an earthquake in the fourteenth century after which the stones were ‘recycled’ by the Knights of Malta to build a fortress. A history that is aptly mirrored in the geology and stone recycling evident in the courtyard of Espresso Base.


Espresso Base can be found in the courtyard of St George’s church, Bloomsbury Way, WC1A 2SE

Artefacts from the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus can be seen in room 21 of the British Museum (conveniently just around the corner from Espresso Base).

Geology help from: “Geology Today, Understanding our planet”, Murck/Skinner, John Wiley & Sons, 1999

A gift fit for a King?

Adoration of the Magi, Andrea Mantegna, 1431-1506. Digital image courtesy of the Getty's Open Content Program.

Adoration of the Magi, Andrea Mantegna, 1431-1506. Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program.

There is currently a very thought provoking painting on display at the British Museum (although it will soon be gone, the Ming: 50 years exhibition, of which it is a part, ends on 5th January). The painting depicts the moment that the three kings, (or three wise men) present their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to the Christ child. The three kings are on the right of the picture. Notice Melchior however, who is presenting gold to Jesus at the bottom of the painting. He presents his gold gift in a porcelain cup. The painting suggests just how valuable porcelain was to the Europeans of the 15th-16th century.

For many years, the Chinese had the monopoly on porcelain production and they ensured that the recipe was kept secret. Nonetheless, by the 17th century porcelain was being traded with Europe and by the 18th century the Europeans had started to mass produce it. Bramah has argued (in the excellent book “Coffee Makers”) that the explosion in popularity of tea and coffee drinking in Europe during the 17th-18th century was due to the introduction of porcelain into general use and its mass production. So it is worth taking a closer look at one of the key figures in the production of ceramics: Josiah Wedgwood.

Wedgwood painting

Portrait of Josiah Wedgwood, FRS. © Trustees of the British Museum

As a ceramics maker, Wedgwood (1730-1795) was interested in ensuring his pottery came out of the furnace well each time and to do that, he realised that he had to know the temperature of the oven. Other pottery producers of the time judged the furnace temperature by the colour (red hot, white hot etc), Wedgwood asked if there was a better way. Eventually he designed a “pyrometer” (“fire” meter) made from bricks of Cornish clay. Wedgwood used the fact that the clay shrank when fired. The amount that the clay shrank indicated the temperature of the oven. Wedgwood could then quantify what was “red” hot etc. Of course, there were problems. Wedgwood’s thermometer worked at temperatures of around 1000ºC, where ordinary alcohol or mercury based thermometers could not be used. How can the temperature scale (that became known as degrees Wedgwood) be correlated with the temperature scales that we are familiar with (such as degrees Centigrade)? Another, perhaps more significant problem was that the technique was not transferable to other practitioners, different clays shrank by different amounts. The Wedgwood scale required a specific Cornish clay. It was left to Louis-Bernard Guyton de Morveau to improve the pyrometer, basing his high temperature thermometer on the expansion of platinum. Today, we use devices based on electrical properties of metals to measure such high temperatures.

A porcelain bird feeder (1426-1435) from the Ming dynasty. © Trustees of the British Museum

A porcelain bird feeder (1426-1435) from the Ming dynasty. © Trustees of the British Museum

If you are in London, it is worth popping along to the Ming 50 years exhibition before it closes on 5th January 2015. Along with this painting, there are many examples there of excellent Chinese porcelain. One of the things that struck me as I went around the exhibition was just how annoyed visiting European diplomats must have been if they ever visited the Imperial palaces. Not only did the Chinese use this rare and valuable porcelain for cups, they also made exquisitely designed, porcelain, floor tiles and bird feeders. While in Europe we were struggling to make any porcelain, the Chinese were not only walking on bits of this valuable material, they were allowing their birds to feed from it too! An interesting history for next time you take a sip from your favourite mug.

Please leave any comments using the form below. I am very grateful to the image reproduction polices of the British Museum and the Getty Museum for the images shown in this article. Information was taken from:

“Coffee Makers”, Bramah&Bramah, Quillar Press Limited, 2002

“Inventing Temperature”, Hasok Chang, Oxford University Press, 2007