A return to Pritchard & Ure

A view from the terrace at Pritchard & Ure, overlooking the garden centre.

It is always great to realise that we have enough time to head across town to enjoy a coffee at Pritchard & Ure. If you haven’t yet tried it, Pritchard & Ure is a lovely spot in Camden Garden Centre (near Camden Road overground station). I first visited back in 2018 and ordinarily, I would not do a second cafe-physics review. But then 2020-21 have not been ordinary either and Pritchard & Ure too has changed. Back in 2018, a swaying pendulum prompted thoughts on how we knew that the Earth rotates. Since then, the world has moved in a different way.

In the case of Pritchard & Ure, this is reflected in a definite physical change to the cafe: a new terrace has been built overlooking a semi-outside section of the garden centre. This bit of the garden centre is sheltered from the rain by a permanent roof, almost like a permanent umbrella (see picture). The cafe on the other hand is protected from light rain and wind by a series of garden umbrellas. Apparently the indoor section of the cafe remains open if the weather becomes too awful (or presumably in autumn/winter). But in these times when it is good to be able to socialise outside, the new terrace offers a perfect place to do it. Accordingly, I took the opportunity to have an oat milk latte. While black coffee is normally a good test of the coffee in a cafe, I knew Pritchard & Ure served great coffee from my previous visit. Roasted by Workshop, the coffee is still offered in either a 6oz or 8oz size. But it’s been a while since I had enjoyed a properly made latte in a cafe and so why resist? We also enjoyed a spot of brunch, all while admiring the number of plants (and cacti) on view.

Can there be too much physics in one picture? Let me know what you see.

As before, obvious thought trains went in the direction of the science of plants and ecology. The large number of cacti just below our table was particularly suggestive of the changing conditions of our planet and the tendency for some areas of our world to be subject to more drought. The flowering plants too could prompt reflections on insects and how climate change is affecting them, including the possibility of mass extinctions. The past couple of weeks have seen Extinction Rebellion back in London as we prepare for COP26. One action that they took was an occupation of the Science Museum. The museum was targeted because Shell sponsor some of the exhibits including the “Our Future” exhibit about climate change. Extinction Rebellion have written an open letter to the Science Museum arguing, amongst other things that Shell gains “prestige and implied endorsement by the Science Museum group”. This is despite Shell’s own business plans not being “in line with limiting warming to 2C“. The museum disagrees with the principle of boycotting sponsorship by Shell on the grounds that such companies have the “capital, geography, people and logistics” needed in order to fight climate change. They also argue that some of these exhibits which help to inform the public about issues such as the science around climate change are only possible because of the financial muscle of companies such as Shell. It is a tough ethical cookie. One where we may have to try to read about the arguments and yet withhold judgement, knowing that most of us do not know enough, or have not thought deeply enough, to comment authoritatively.

The canal system built during the eighteenth and early nineteenth century required significant engineering expertise. This is a view from inside a loch on a canal within the M25 that surrounds London as the water fills through the gates, showing the loch gates and the walls of the canal.

A somewhat similar issue concerns the site of the garden centre itself. At the beginning of the 19th Century, the land belonged to William Agar (hence Agar Grove just north of the garden centre). Agar himself lived in Elm Lodge which was approximately where Barker Drive is now. He was involved in a dispute with the Regents Canal Company. He did not want the new canal to cut through his land. Finally, at the end of 1817 he relented and now, the canal cuts NW to SE just west of Pritchard & Ure. Was Agar a NIMBY (not in my backyard) or was his objection more complex? It’s another issue on which we have to suspend judgement. Though maybe this is easier to do as the case is over two hundred years old. Would we be so balanced if the Regents Canal were being built now and we wanted to react quickly on Twitter? What if the Regents Canal were HS2?

A more physics-based issue of balance could be seen in the umbrellas arranged over the terrace. They were supported not centrally but from the side, so the umbrella could be easily placed above the tables without the supports getting in the way. Immediately we could make connections to counterbalances and cranes. How is it physically possible that such a weight can be held by an outstretched (mechanical) arm? The weights of the flower pots standing on the umbrella bases may give us a clue.

There were many opportunities to think about issues of physics or balance on this terrace. It was a reminder of how good it is to go to a different cafe, put aside the smart phone, and just sit, enjoy a well made coffee and ponder about any subject that strikes your mind. Pritchard & Ure is a perfect place to do this, it remains a friendly space with good coffee (and food) at which you can enjoy thinking. And now, with the outside terrace, there is even more reason to go there as it is rare to find a cafe close-ish to central London with a large outdoor, and socially distanced, seating space.

Pritchard & Ure is at 2 Barker Drive, NW1 0JW

Bridging worlds at White Mulberries, St Katherine’s Docks

chalkboard at White Mulberries

Sign board at White Mulberries.

Five minutes walk from the Tower of London is an area that feels far removed, physically and metaphorically, from the crowds swarming around the central tourist sights. St Katherine’s Docks offer a peaceful retreat a stone’s throw away from the bustle of the Tower. And if you are in this area, there is no better place to have a coffee (and potentially a cake) than White Mulberries. This café looks over the central basin of the three docks in St Katherine’s and is, seemingly, in the only 19th century warehouse still standing in the docks. On each occasion I have visited White Mulberries the coffee has been very good. As a black coffee drinker, the taste of the coffee has to be great as there is no hiding a bitter espresso with the milk of a latte and White Mulberries has passed every time (their website says that they rotate the coffee roasters, so I can only assume that they have a great relationship with their suppliers). If Latte Art is your thing though, White Mulberries also has that. It was an example of the latte art at White Mulberries that accompanied my recent article in Physics World.

Bascule Bridge, St Katherine's Docks

A moving bridge at the entrance to St Katherine’s Docks. There are youtube videos of this opening.

The point of a “café-physics” review on Bean Thinking though is only partly about the great coffee on offer (all cafes that are featured in the Daily Grind have great coffee). Part of the point of a café-physics review is to look around, slow down and notice things and see what physics there is around the café in question. There is always something to notice, always something science-like to appreciate. White Mulberries is no different, with an enormous number of things to notice, from the water in the docks to the Aeolian harps made by the rigging on the yachts moored nearby. What I would like to concentrate on today though are the bridges. Bridges are often used in scientific outreach with children. I think it is partly because so many concepts in physics can be communicated by practising making bridges. Forces need to be balanced (Newton), stress and strain needs to be considered, the properties of materials are unconsciously learned. And this, I think is another reason that bridges are a great ‘outreach’ tool, because bridges are inherently multidisciplinary. To make a good bridge requires elements from physics, chemistry, mechanical and civil engineering and art to name just a few. A bridge needs to satisfy the aesthetic demands of the public that use it as well as the structural demands of the people that will stand on it. And the bridges in the docks required yet more work and more understanding, for these aren’t just bridges that span a waterway, these bridges need to move somehow to allow boats to pass, either by having a platform that rises up (as with the nearby Tower Bridge), or platforms that swing around (which was the design of some of the original bridges at St Katherine’s Docks). Great thought and understanding went into the design and building of these mechanisms for moving the bridges. There is much to be gained by contemplating bridge design.

Microcord image of Tower Bridge with tourist in foreground

Tower Bridge, Photo © Artemisworks Photography,

Which brings us to another bridge, this time a metaphorical one between White Mulberries and the Coffee Houses of the past. The designer of St Katherine’s Docks was Thomas Telford (1757-1834). As well as specifying the design of the docks, he was responsible for some of the original bridges in the docks themselves, particularly a swing bridge that was built in 1828. St Katherine’s Docks was Telford’s only London project but that didn’t stop him from being a regular in a Coffee House near (what is now) Trafalgar Square. For many years Telford drank coffee in the Salopian Coffee House (most likely in Spring Gardens, just behind Cockspur St). This was where he stayed when in London and, as he was a famous engineer by that point, he started to attract crowds of engineers and admirers to the Salopian in the hope of meeting him. So important was Telford to the business of this central London coffee house that, when he left to live in Abingdon St, the new landlord of the Salopian complained to him “What, leave the house? Why sir, I have just paid £750 for you!”.

Fortunately, White Mulberries has far more to attract customers to it than one illustrious coffee drinker, though perhaps it has those as well.


White Mulberries is at St Katherine’s Docks, E1W 1AT,

A good book on bridges is: “Bridges – the science and art of the world’s most inspiring structures”, David Blockley, Oxford University Press (2010)

Coffee House anecdotes from “London Coffee Houses”, Bryant Lillywhite (1963)