Lunar society

Hidden Coffee in Camden

coffee Camden Road station
Single origin pour over, banana bread & water at Hidden Coffee, Camden Road

Hidden Coffee is inside Camden Road station. But this is no ordinary station-cafe, because of what lies within, perhaps you could say, ‘hidden’, from the view from the street. A few tables outside barely suggest the fairly large area inside. You can choose from a variety of the usual types of coffee or enjoy a coffee on pour-over while you sit down to ponder your surroundings. We also had a vegan, gluten free, nut free banana bread, which does make you wonder what was in it, but which went very well with the single origin Guatemalan coffee I had on pour over.

The space suggests that it used to be a pub, or that it is open at night, however the signs clearly indicate that Hidden Coffee is closed by 5pm. Because looking inside, it is clear that there is a vault extending into an area screened off from the main cafe, plenty of space that must have been used by the restaurant that existed here before Hidden opened recently. Mosaics on the walls of the vault glint in the reflected light from the cafe and the roof curves intriguingly back into a large, inaccessible, space. There is currently an art exhibition at the cafe featuring pictures of local buildings.

vaults, deductive reasoning
Iron work and vaults. Inside Hidden Coffee

The vault is a consequence of the train line overhead, now part of the overground system. The vaults being a way of providing the strength needed to support the railway line above but also giving space for shops and businesses beneath. This could take you onto a consideration of how architecture assists in distributing load, or the idea and limits of deductive reasoning and its reliance on an idea of shared, knowable truths (we know there are train lines over head partly because of our familiarity with this form of architecture, partly because we walked through a door next to a train station). Or you could notice the glinting mosaics and wonder about the chemistry of the pigmentation in each of the pieces.

Looking out the window while drinking my coffee though I noticed the pine cone decoration on the railings. Several thoughts suggested themselves. How do squirrels remember where they hide their winter stocks? And related to that, how does memory work: why can I never remember the tasting notes of the coffees I enjoyed if I don’t write them down (only that I liked the coffee)? Why were the railings so obviously re-purposed? They are either not original or they have been adapted to incorporate a concrete step beneath them? And how do pine cones work?

The pine cone opens in response to dry weather to expose the pine kernels and closes in response to more humid weather so as to protect the seeds. But it was only back in 1997, that researchers used electron microscopy to see the structure of the cones and to measure the response of different types of cell to controlled humidity. They found that the response of the cells to humidity depended on the winding of cellulose structures around the cell. If the cellulose was wound with a high winding angle, the cell tended to elongate in humid conditions. Conversely, the cells having cellulose aligned more along the cell length (a low winding angle) didn’t elongate so much in response to humidity. The effect of coupling these two cell types together was to create an analogue to a bimetallic strip which bent in response to humidity rather than temperature.

exterior hidden coffee Camden Road
Pine cones and railings. And you see why it is obvious they have been repurposed?

It is reminiscent of a device I once read about, created perhaps by a member of the Lunar Society. The designer had cut a series of discs out of a small log of wood and joined them loosely together (presumably with a type of resin) so that they formed what would have appeared as a wooden caterpillar. On the front disc, he (and if it was a Lunar Society member it would have been a he) put a hook facing backwards on the bottom of the disc. A similar hook was placed on the back disc. When the humidity increased and the wood expanded, the caterpillar extended and hooked forwards. As the humidity decreased and the caterpillar shrank again, the back of the caterpillar would move towards the front forming a ‘self-propelling’ model caterpillar.

Unfortunately I can no longer find the reference to this device so if you know who invented it or where it is referenced please do let me know. In the meanwhile, enjoy the effects as the days turn humid/dry as we change seasons, and perhaps contemplate a hidden coffee while you do so.

Hidden Coffee is in Camden Road (overground) station, 33 Camden Road.

Communities at Wilton Way

exterior of Wilton Way, Hackney Coffee

Wilton Way cafe on Wilton Way

There are two things that may strike you as you walk past Wilton Way café. The first is the prominent La Marzocco espresso machine on the counter. The second is the “ON AIR” sign in the corner next to the window. Indeed, it is best to look out for these two as there didn’t seem to be any other sign indicating that this café was the Wilton Way cafe, home to the London Fields Radio that is broadcast from here (hence the “on air” sign). In the late afternoon, the café offered some shade on a sunny day and so we popped in for a tea, though there is seating on a bench outside should you wish to enjoy the Sun. Although this website is supposed to be about coffee (which is roasted by Climpson & Sons), sometimes a fresh mint tea is what is needed. This particular mint tea was very refreshing with plenty of mint leaves in the cup. Sadly though, in what seems to be a common pattern at the moment, this was another café at which there were few cakes on offer, presumably as it was late afternoon by the time we visited. However, what is sad for the mind is perhaps good for the waistline, we’ll have to revisit in the morning for the cakes next time.

Corrugated iron supported the counter while the (plentiful) seats inside the café appeared to be made of recycled wood and boxes. Interestingly, this is mentioned in the description of the Wilton Way café on the London Fields Radio website, apparently the interior was designed to be a mix of modern and reclaimed materials. Choosing a seat at the back allowed us to survey the space and people-watch while sipping the tea. On the counter was an old-style Casio cash register while in the far corner at the front of the café, the microphone and broadcasting equipment stood waiting to be used for the London Fields Radio.

the broadcasting equipment at the WW cafe Hackney

London Fields Radio, broadcast from Wilton Way cafe

In the book “Radar, how it all began” the author, Jim Brown reminisced about how he had played with a crystal radio set as a child in the 1920s¹. Many scientists can remember making their own radio sets as children (or indeed as adults). It seems playing with things, taking them apart and building them again is part of the personal-history of many scientists and engineers (particularly experimental ones whether they be ‘professional’ scientists or not). The Lunar Society (which was active at the end of the eighteenth century and into the early nineteenth) featured a group of keen “tinkerers”. These were people who experimented with nature and invented new devices in order to explore their understanding of the world. Though each of them were only doing science ‘on the side’ as they each had other day-jobs, individuals within the group did make some important contributions to our understanding of the world. One such contribution was by Josiah Wedgwood who by observing the “waviness of flint glass” noticed its resemblance to “that which arises when water and spirit of wine are first put together before they become perfectly unified”². The reference is to mixing fluids of different density. Isn’t this experience of tinkering with things similar to our enjoyment and appreciation of coffee? The more we experiment, the more coffee we try (including cupping coffee as with this how-to from Perfect Daily Grind), the more deeply involved in coffee we become and the more we value it. Isn’t it actually true that in order to deepen our relationship with coffee we need to explore it (and experiment with it) more fully? Cannot the same be said for our relation to our world?

interior of Wilton Way cafe

The view from the corner. Spacious and quirky, the Wilton Way cafe has plenty to offer the coffee (or tea) drinker who wishes to slow down and appreciate the moment.

But then a second thought that, to some extent flows from the first. No development would be possible without a community, each contributor bringing a different talent but each contributing to an idea of a greater good. The London Fields Radio would not be possible without the scientists and engineers who design and optimise the broadcasting (and receiving) equipment. But neither would it be possible without talented DJs and musicians, thinkers, poets and performers to give us something to listen to. Two more groups of people are needed for London Fields Radio to be a success. Those who provide the space for the broadcasting equipment (i.e. the café) and those who listen in. Again there is an analogy with coffee. No cup of coffee could be there for us to enjoy without the farmers, the traders, the roasters, the baristas and finally many other people like us who enjoy a good cup. And the more each of us tinker with appreciating another’s work (cupping the coffee like a roaster or tending an allotment to appreciate the growth), the more of a community we become and the better coffee we get for it. We do not imagine while ‘cupping’ coffee that we are really about to take on the role of the coffee trader or roaster, yet by playing at their job we can appreciate their importance and skill more and so realise more effectively our own role too. We could go full-cycle here and consider how playing with radios and experiments can help us to understand the role of technology and science in society and our participation in it, but perhaps that is left as a point to ponder in another café: How can we each contribute to a better society, understand our role in it and appreciate the contributions of others?

One final thought that came from the Lunar society but appears to have a very contemporary relevance. Wedgwood once said to Richard Lovell Edgeworth “But in politics… as in religion, hardly any two people who thought at all, thought exactly alike on everything.” The main thing was “to agree to differ, to agree on impartial investigation and candid argument”.² It appears the Lunar men still have a thing or two to teach us.

Wilton Way cafe can be found at 63 Wilton Way, E8 1BG

¹Radar, How it all began, Jim Brown, Janus Publishing Ltd, 1996

²The Lunar Men, Jenny Uglow, Faber & Faber, 2003