Established over 80 years ago, HR Higgins in Mayfair’s Duke Street is somewhat of an institution. From the pavement, you can look into the cafe space in the basement below while the shop upstairs offers coffee beans and tea for retail. During the (earlier) mornings, coffee is also prepared for take-away at the entrance to the shop on the ground floor while the cafe downstairs is closed.
The first time I came here, it was only to buy beans. That time I tried the Rwandan Women’s cooperative coffee and was impressed by the scales used to weigh out my 250g: a proper mechanical scale set complete with weights. The second time I tried it, again I only had time to purchase beans but I determined that the next time I would definitely try the cafe downstairs because if there was so much physics to appreciate upstairs with the scales and the decor, how much more would there be downstairs. And so, I arrived one morning at 8.30am having checked the opening hours and the cafe downstairs was… closed. It turns out that although the shop is open, and although take-away coffee is served from the front of the shop, the cafe only opens much later at 10am (on weekdays).
However, what was an initial disappointment turned into a great opportunity as I was able to have a proper look around, completely on my own, while the man upstairs prepared my V60. Having no intention of actually ‘taking-away’ the take-away, when I came back upstairs (and had another look at the scales and tins of coffee at the back of the store) I went outside to the “H.R.Higgins” bench to sit and enjoy my coffee and the surroundings. There were a few pastries that were also available for take-away but this time I just took my coffee and sat down.
The coffee was really good. I had been given a choice of two coffees for the V60 and went for the Honduran as it was recommended as being particularly good for the V60 brew method. It was packed with flavour notes and character as it cooled while I sat on the bench. The bench offered a view of city life. The busy cafe next-door to my left; the old sign “Duke Street, W”* on the wall opposite; the imposing “Brown Hart Gardens” which is above an early 2oth century electrical substation just to my right and of course, the cafe itself in the basement visible behind me. The bench was also a good spot for people watching. Many people, with many characters, walked past (or got their coffee in Higgins and then walked past). I thought perhaps that I even saw George Osborne** wandering by but decided to let my mind wander to think about the physics instead.
Of course there was a lot to ponder. The nature of scales and the definition of the kilogram had been an obvious starting point but the reflection of the cafe name in the window opposite me provided further directions of thought. The patterns of the tiling in the cafe could provide several avenues of thinking while the history involved with the establishment of this establishment would have prompted a significant diversion. Finally, the antique bike standing next to the bench took me on the thought-journey that occupied the rest of the time I spent on the bench and enabled me to keep my phone left solely for taking photographs.
Now used as a flower pot holder, this old bike looked as if it had been adapted from a delivery bicycle of a fair few years ago. The brakes were immediately attention grabbing. We have become used to the wires used to operate the brakes on modern bikes but these used firm metal rods to transfer the action on the brake levers on the handle bars down to the wheels. And then the wheels themselves had rubber tyres. Again, this is somewhat obvious and very familiar except the first bikes had iron wheels because rubber tyres had to be invented.
There is a potential diversion here to the story of rubber, which could almost be a cafe-chemistry review but we won’t go that way today. Nonetheless, it is worth pondering that rubber tyres are, just like coffee, a product with a varied history of globalisation, trade and colonisation. What enabled the bicycle wheel to evolve from cast iron to pneumatic tyres was the chemistry involved in the ‘vulcanization’ process invented by Goodyear that meant that the rubber no longer suffered from getting too soft at higher temperatures and too hard at lower temperatures. Anyway, that’s a digression.
Returning to the bicycle, a lot of physics is involved in cycling. Is it actually clear how any of us can balance on a bicycle? A short answer, and the one that is often off-handedly given, is that we can cycle because of “conservation of angular momentum”, but it turns out that it is a little more tricky than just that. A few years ago, a chemist decided to test the ideas put forward to explain how we balanced on a bicycle by building so-called “un-ridable” bicycles and found that he could actually ride some of them, thereby showing that some of our ideas on bicycle riding needed a little ‘tweaking’. The basic ideas of conservation of angular momentum were correct, but like many things, if you actually want to understand it, you need to go a bit deeper (and do a couple of experiments!).
As we move beyond the basic physics so we move to the technology of cycling and the improvements that are being made to competitive cycles (and their riders) to make them more aerodynamic. We have moved a long way from brakes using rods and delivery cycles. And yet, sometimes there are advantages to the old ways. Just as the scales at H.R. Higgins still work perfectly well with the balance and weights system, so new delivery bicycles are re-appearing in London, swapping polluting vans for cleaner-greener delivery vehicles. Just these ones no longer have metal rods for brakes and they perhaps have a pedal-assist electric motor.
Have you enjoyed a coffee at H.R. Higgins (or somewhere similar)? What did you notice that enabled you to put your mobile phone down and really think about your surroundings? Do let me know in the comments section here or via social media.
H. R. Higgins is at 79 Duke Street, Mayfair, W1K 5AS
*The single “W” on the sign (rather than the post code of the area “W1”) shows that the sign has been there since before the first World War when the London post code system was refined from the merely “W” to the W1, W2 etc. that we use now.
**George Osborne was the Chancellor of the Exchequer (finance minister for the UK government) from 2010 to 2016.