Coffee & temperance at the Penny, Old Vic

inside the Penny Old Vic

Coffee at the Penny

A café with good coffee in a theatre? I admit to being a little dubious when I first read about Penny at the Old Vic. Fortunately, there was no reason to be concerned. Penny serves Workshop coffee in an unusual setting (even accounting for the fact it is in a theatre). Going through the doors to the Old Vic, you turn left and head down a staircase to the basement where a long counter stretches out in front of you and to your right. Being a theatre café, there were a wide selection of snacks, bar meals, beer and wine in addition to the coffee being served with the La Marzocco espresso machine. As you’d expect, the usual range of coffees were on offer but if you prefer non-dairy milk, there was oat and almond available in addition to the more usual soy based milk. (Although almond milk is one to watch for if you have a tree-nut allergy as there is a risk of cross contamination).

There was also a wide selection of chairs and tables to choose from, ranging from a standard table, to a high table with stools and, around the corner, some chairs that look like you can sink into them and enjoy your coffee way after the performance has been called. The café is open all day (in fact from 8am until 1am on week days) and, if you are not there during a performance is quite spacious (though during the intervals it could probably get quite crowded).

staircase, Old Vic

The lighting on the staircase periodically got brighter and then dimmer. How easy is it to keep our national electrical supply constant such that blackouts and brownouts are not a problem?

The café certainly provides a service for good coffee in Waterloo (it’s within 5 minutes walk from the station) and it is a great place for refreshment if you are visiting the theatre, but is it also the sort of place at which you can slow down and enjoy the moment? The type of neighbourhood café where you can sip your coffee while letting your mind wander onto a café inspired thought train? At first glance, it is perhaps unpromising as it has clearly been renovated and made to be a modern café. But then, thought trains do not happen “at first glance” but as a result of slowing down, sitting, watching and absorbing the surroundings. It is as you do this that I think Penny at the Old Vic starts to speak to you.

The first thing that you may notice is the lighting. A number of different types of lightbulb including an industrial looking art-piece on the stairwell coupled to what appeared to be natural light coming down through another staircase. This theatre was first built in 1816-1818¹ (but with significant rebuilds since then), how was the stage lit at that time? Where did the theatre patrons go to get a cup of coffee or a glass of wine between the scenes and how could they see anything in the dark?

Around 3.5 miles away, one of the first housing developments to have electric lighting was being constructed in the 1860s. The electricity was supplied by seven steam engines housed in a building just off High St Kensington and sent to the new development next door, “Kensington Court”¹. Evidence of the electrical power station (which supplied DC not AC electricity) can still be seen on a stone sign on the building alerting passers by to the “Electric Lighting company”. It is probable that no such set of steam engines provided power for the lighting in the Old Vic, which was more likely still run on candles and gas lighting. However, it is something that was nearly contemporary with the development of Kensington Court that gives this post its title. It is also the reason behind the name of the cafe.

Soya hot chocolate at the Penny, Old Vic

Lord Kelvin got thinking about viscosity as a consequence of drinking a hot chocolate.

In the 1880s, a woman called Emma Cons took control over what is now the Old Vic. When she ran it, the theatre was called the “Royal Victoria Hall and Coffee Tavern” and ran ‘morally decent‘ productions for local people (note though the importance of the coffee to the project!). These productions included scientific lectures for which the entrance fee was a penny, hence, apparently, the Penny café. Apparently she also ran science classes in the disused dressing rooms and, though the mind boggles as to what experiments were done in this theatre at that time, the classes and the lectures were so popular that soon, Cons founded Morley College to continue this adult education. Morley College continues as an adult education college to this day and is now one of London’s oldest adult education colleges.

So it would appear that, even though the Penny café is a relatively new addition to the Old Vic theatre as we know it, the associations between the theatre and coffee (and the theatre and science) go back a long way. First appearances can be deceptive and, with good coffee and much to ponder, the Penny is definitely one to sink into a chair and to listen.

Penny café is in the Old Vic Theatre, The Cut, Waterloo, SE1 8NB

Inside the Penny

Penny at the Old Vic.

¹The London Encyclopaedia, 3rd Edition

Environmentalism inside and out at Farmstand, Covent Garden

Farmstand Drury Lane

Farmstand on Drury Lane

How can we live sustainably, buying locally, being mindful of our ecological footprint and still drink coffee? A recent trip to Farmstand on Drury Lane revealed a café conscious of its environmental responsibilities, somewhere that is trying to help us to make a difference while still enjoying good food and great coffee. Is it possible for us to have our coffee and drink it? The people behind Farmstand certainly seem to think so.

The bare brick walls inside the spacious Farmstand have a certain rustic charm that serves to emphasise the environmental concerns of the café. A focus on local, free range meat and GM free vegetables means that this is definitely a place to be considered when looking for a lunch spot (though on this occasion, we only tried the coffee). Coffee is obviously not locally grown but is roasted by Workshop which is, relatively speaking, just down the road. Tea meanwhile comes from Postcard teas, just up the street. Water is complementary and is provided on tap so as to reduce plastic waste. The service was friendly and with such a bright and airy feel it is a very pleasant space to enjoy an Americano (though I imagine it is fairly crowded at lunchtimes). However, the Americano was served in a take-away cup (when I specified I was staying in). After a bit of digging on their website, I discovered that they use compostable and/or recyclable packaging sourced from London Bio Packaging. However, as it is not easy to either recycle nor to compost cups in regular waste collection (including recycling collections), it would be interesting to know details of how they dispose of their cups so as to know how they reconcile this with the otherwise careful environmental policy.

Interior vertical gardening

Green wall inside Farmstand

As you enter the café, there is a staircase on the left hand side. Potted plants are fixed to the railings making what seems to be almost a miniature green wall. A great way to get houseplants into a small space, this seemed a small scale example of the green walls that are starting to pop up around our cities. Green walls are vertical gardens. They can be grown either with climbing plants or with a second structure on the wall that supports the hundreds of plants. Along with an aesthetic appeal (certainly true of the structure at Farmstand), these green walls have environmental benefits too.

A big environmental problem in cities is particulate pollution from exhausts. Specifically, particulate matter that is less than 10 μm diameter (think Turkish coffee grind) can irritate the lungs and cause health problems for the city’s inhabitants. Particulates less than 2.5 μm diameter are even more dangerous to health. Worldwide, in 2012, 3.7 million early deaths were associated with poor air quality. In London, a 2010 study showed that approximately 4000 deaths per year were the result of exhaust fumes. Which brings us to the first reason that green walls in cities may be such a good thing: Plants adsorb the pollutants.

Green wall Singapore

A green wall at the Ocean Financial Centre in Singapore, Image shared under cc license (attrib. share alike) by smuconlaw.

Over a three month period, a study by Imperial College showed that a single green wall on Edgware Road tube station had removed 515 g of particulate matter from the atmosphere. Using a mix of plants on the wall was found to increase the air turbulence around the wall and so increase the adsorption of the pollutants. Of course, different plants performed differently (in terms of their ability to remove particulate matter from the air). One of the plants on the wall (Convolvulus cneorum) could take out up to 2.73±0.16 g/m² of particulate matter*. On the other hand, another plant on the wall (Hedera helix) took out much less, removing only 0.28±0.02 g/m². However, we know Hedera helix by another name: Ivy. And ivy plants can produce a lot of foliage per plant very quickly. Convolvulus cneorum on the other hand, is a small plant with small leaves. While its efficiency could be very high, the amount of pollution it can remove may not be as great as an ivy plant, purely as a consequence of its leaf size.

Which brings us to questions of aesthetics and practicality. The wall at Edgware Road is planted with many different types of plant in order to produce an effect that reduces pollution while also being good to look at. Similar walls have sprouted up all over the world. However, for short term projects that require a large amount of foliage quickly, planting ivy can be a good option as a pollutant remover. Some of the temporary structures built along Park Lane for the Crossrail project are now covered with ivy. Although I had initially thought that this was due to a lack of weeding, it turns out that this is part of a step towards pollution reduction in our cities (modelling data has indicated that these green walls can reduce the local particulate pollution by 10-20% depending on the geometry of the wall and the plant species growing).

A small step perhaps, but one that is definitely in the right direction. The green wall at Farmstand could therefore be said to illustrate the idea that if we are to make a difference to our external world, we must start by reforming our own interior one. We need to make green walls not green wash and we can start by paying attention to what we plant inside and out.

Farmstand is at 42 Drury Lane, WC2B 5AJ

*The study looked at particulate matter between 2.5 µm and 10µm diameter (i.e. PM(2.5)-PM(10)).



Crystal Perfection at Workshop, Holborn

Workshop coffee Holborn

Diamonds are forever, Workshop coffee Holborn

The brand identifier of Workshop coffee is a diamond, a representation of which hangs on the wall as soon as you enter the Holborn branch. I had arrived at Workshop in order to try their coffee after I’d had a great espresso made with beans roasted by Workshop at Knockbox in Lamb’s Conduit Street. The coffee brewed in their own café certainly did not disappoint. I enjoyed a very good La Soledad filter coffee and a cake (which was confidently nut free, this brings me to another plus point for Workshop, they know the ingredients of their cakes!). The interior of the cafe, just beside Holborn Viaduct, is quite spacious and, if you sit at the back, you get a great view of the workings of the espresso machine as different people come in to get their ‘take out’ coffee. It is very possible to spend quite some time here in order to relax and enjoy your coffee while taking in your surroundings. To a physicist who studies materials (like me), the diamond logo of Workshop represents a fantastic material. A material in which the structure of the crystal determines so much about its properties. Were the carbon atoms in diamond bonded slightly differently, they would form the soft, pencil lead material ‘graphite’, rather than the hard, transparent material of diamond.

unit cell, repeating structure

The floor at Workshop reminds me of my crystallography text books.

Whether it was intentional or not, the crystal theme of the logo was replicated in the floor tiling of the Holborn branch. Crystallography is a branch of science that probes the building blocks of solids. It reveals how the atoms that make up different solids are arranged to form the solid. The atoms could be arranged in a simple cubic arrangement (as with salt) or hexagonally (as is the case for graphite). To establish the crystal structure you need to find the smallest repeating unit in the whole. Many introductory solid state physics or crystallography text books use 2D examples of repeating structures to help the student to understand how to build up these “unit cells” into full blown crystals. Many of the examples of such lattices look stunningly similar to the floor at Workshop.  Fundamentally, the idea of the crystal is that it is a simple repeating structure, just like the floor of Workshop. Indeed, the word “crystal” as used by Pythagoras implied perfection, harmony and beauty, a sense that is really conveyed by the crystal structure of the diamond logo of Workshop.

Crystal cake, LaFeSi cake, grape atoms

When a colleague left our lab, we made her a  cake that was a representation of part of the crystal structure of the material that she had worked on. Chocolate grapes and profiteroles represent different atoms in the structure.

The ancient Greek term for “crystal” actually implied the type of hard ice that is wonderfully clear and transparent. And it is ice that connects the area surrounding Workshop with a famous chemist who won a Nobel prize for his work in crystallography in 1962.  Max Perutz (1914-2002) described crystallography as a technique that “explains why diamond is hard and wax is soft, why graphite writes on paper and silk is strong”. Once you have enjoyed your coffee at Workshop, if you head down the stairs on the viaduct and descend to Farringdon Road you quickly get to Smithfield Market. It was here that, during the Second World War, Perutz helped to develop the material Pykrete. A “secret weapon” of World War II, Pykrete was developed five floors below Smithfield Market in a room cunningly disguised with animal carcasses. The planners in the war effort had wanted to design a boat made of ice but the problem was that when it was shot at, ice shattered. Could scientists develop a type of ice that would not shatter if it got hit by enemy fire? Pykrete was the answer. Pykrete uses the fact that materials such as plastics can be strengthened by adding fibres to them. In the case of Pykrete the “fibres” were sawdust and the material to be strengthened was ice. Not only does it not shatter when shot at (instead, the bullet creates a crater in the ‘boat’), it takes a lot longer to melt than ordinary ice. The sawdust encased in the ice acts to insulate the ice and increase its longevity.

Perutz’s Nobel prize was for his work to determine the crystal structure of haemoglobin, it took ‘just’ 25 years to do so. The field of crystallography continues to enrich our understanding of the behaviour of solids, though now we’re expected to get results more quickly than the 25 year time frame Perutz enjoyed. If you know of a good café where lots of physics goes on, or of a good café near a site of special (or unexpected) scientific interest, (or even just a good café) please do share your story either in the comments section below or by contacting me on email, Twitter or Facebook.

Workshop Holborn is at 60 Holborn Viaduct, EC1A 2FD

Quotes and other useful facts taken from:

In our time, 29th November 2012: Crystallography“, (BBC Radio4)

Max Perutz “I wish I’d made you angry earlier” (2002),

Ichiro Sunagawa “Crystals, Growth Morphology and Perfection”, Cambridge University Press (2005)