Coffee review Observations Science history slow

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)