coffee house

Which direction? At Jacob the Angel, Neal’s Yard

Jacob the Angel, coffee Covent Garden
It is easy to miss Jacob the Angel as you enter Neal’s Yard, but an angel above the hoarding gives it away.

Jacob the Angel is tucked into Neal’s Yard in London’s Covent Garden. Named after Thomas Neale (1641-1699), Neal’s Yard is part of his development which is now known as Seven Dials. And rather like the larger 17th century development, this cafe-physics review of Jacob the Angel has a similar dilemma: so many avenues to explore, each wrestling for attention, which one to pursue?

But first the coffee. Roasted by Square Mile, coffee is available as the usual espresso based drinks or on V60 pour over. I had a Rwandan V60 that was full bodied and full of treacle like flavours. Owing to the geometry of the cafe, I didn’t get to check my ‘flavour notes’ against what the tasting notes thought I should perceive. The cafe space itself is fairly small but with a surprising amount of seating. Given this, it can feel a bit close as you squeeze past some of the people sitting down in order to place your order, (hence not double checking the tasting notes) however that is quickly set aside as you can gaze at the large selection of cakes (all with allergens clearly marked) arrayed on the counter.

On the walls of the cafe were paragraphs about the history of coffee and how a man named Jacob opened Britain’s first Coffee House in 1651 at the Angel Inn (in Oxford). The coffee itself came presented in a manner that was reminiscent of solar eclipses, while the sink next to our table was strikingly similar to those in my A-level chemistry lab. Unable to dissociate my memories of the sink with the reality of the environment at Jacob the Angel, it was a bit shocking when someone came to fill their glass of tap water there – don’t they realise what could have been in that sink?! Each thought train surfacing as a potential direction for the review, but then, above me, something moved. Looking up it was clear that a plant that was hooked to the ceiling was moving in a draught, but where was the breeze coming from? A small air-conditioning/heater unit was on the other side of the coffee house, circulating the air that was moving the plants.

plants, Jacob the Angel, Coffee Covent Garden
Plants above the tables at Jacob the Angel. How do they move in the breeze?

The moving plant had appeared to my peripheral vision as if it was floating in the breeze or perhaps flying. Now clearly there cannot be a flying plant, but in some ways the swaying leaves do illustrate the fluidity of air, which is a necessity for flight. The moving air demonstrates how the air imparts a force to the leaves (and the pot) causing them to sway. For things that genuinely fly this would be experienced as ‘drag’ – something that we have probably all experienced, even when not flying. Drag is increased if the object moving through the fluid (air) has a larger surface area perpendicular to the direction of movement: all being equal, bigger objects experience more drag. Imagine moving a spoon through coffee, it is easier to move a stirring stick rather than a tablespoon. But then, drag also depends in a non-trivial way on the shape of the object and how that changes the vortex wake behind it (look again at the spoon and how the vortices form behind it as it is dragged through coffee, you do not see those so easily with a stirring stick).

It is partly this sort of shape effect that seems to be behind Orsted’s recent restatement of the calculation of the amount of energy that their off shore wind farms can generate. By actually going out and measuring the air flow around the off shore wind farms, Orsted discovered that the air flow (which would be used to generate power) is affected not just by the individual windmill (as had been known and calculated), but its neighbours and the way these combine into the shape of the wind farm. There is still a lot we don’t understand about exactly how spoons move through coffee.

vortices in coffee
Vortices behind a spoon dragged through coffee.

But there is also a connection to a different type of “flying machine” if only through the name of the coffee house. For it was from the Angel Inn in (what is now) Aldwych that, more than 250 years ago, that an unusual ‘flight’ took place*. It was described in an advertisement in the paper:

“On Monday, the 5th of April 1762, will set out from the Angel Inn behind St Clements Church in the Strand…. a neat flying machine, carrying four passengers, on steel springs and sets out at four o’clock in the morning, and goes to Salisbury the same evening, and returns from Salisbury the next morning at the same hour… Each passenger to pay 23 shillings for their fare, and to be allowed 14lb weight baggage”.

How many more avenues could be followed while enjoying a slow coffee at this small but fascinating little cafe? Do let me know what you ‘see’ next time you visit.

Jacob the Angel is in Neal’s Yard, Seven Dials, London.

*”London Coffee Houses” by Bryant Lillywhite, pub. 1963