Just my cup of tea

A public apology

We, noders of the British Isles, would like to apologise for our correct spelling of such words as 'colour', 'centre' and 'metre'.


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Arthur's Seat is one of the extinct volcanoes that make Edinburgh what it is. Rising way above the city, this vast basalt mound is visible for miles around. Its silhouette has been compared to a sleeping elephant, and when Edinburgh wears the haar like a shroud, it sometimes feels like you are living in that elephant's dream.

To get up there is a fairly difficult walk, or a relatively easy climb - there are paths most of the way up through the hills around it, with just a short scramble to reach the very top. Nothing that is out of the reach of any but the least confident climber, but plenty to challenge the heart and lungs of all but the fittest hillwalker. The view from the top is astounding - Edinburgh is an extraordinarily beautiful city whether viewed from street height or above, and you can see almost the whole thing from up there. Calton Hill, which seems so tall when you are up it, is seen way below, and beyond it spreads the whole of Leith and the Firth of Forth. The view of Castle Hill from there is perfect, with Edinburgh Castle and The Hub at the peak and much of the Royal Mile's gentle descent visible below. On the other side, past a few miles of Edinburgh streets, is Blackford Hill with its gorse-strewn slopes and observatory.

A little way below the peak to the east - the angle of easiest ascent - is Dunsapie Loch, an oddly elevated reservoir attracting many wildfowl. To the south-east is a secondary peak known as Crow Hill, or, for those who think of Arthur's Seat as a lion rather than an elephant, the Lion's Haunch. To the west the jagged lines of the Salisbury Crags tell a story of geological upheaval, ancient volcanic flow over even older sedimentary rock, knocked askew by ancient shifts of the land, stripped bare by the passing of glaciers. Indeed this spot is considered the birthplace of geology, where James Hutton hit on some of the science's foundational insights. Off to the north can be seen the ruins of St. Anthony's Chapel, and the swan-strewn St. Margaret's Loch.

The peak is probably named after the legendary King Arthur, like so many ancient sites in Britain, both natural and man-made - and like so many, it is considered a possible location for Camelot. There are traces of hill forts and signs of prehistoric cultivation here. The 650-acre park that Arthur's Seat dominates (and sometimes, misleadingly, lends its name to) is officially known as Holyrood Park, named after a vision of a holy rood, or cross, that King David I of Scotland saw at the foot of the hill, between the antlers of a stag that miraculously decided not to gore him. In those days much of the area was covered by forest, a rich private hunting ground for the royals, but few trees remain now, and the biggest wild animal you are likely to see is a raven.

Among the oldest surviving Beltane traditions is the washing of one's face in the May Day dew, on the slopes of Arthur's Seat, at dawn. They say it will make you magically more beautiful. Maybe it will, maybe it won't, but I can tell you for sure that it is amazingly refreshing.


The National Monument is a structure on Calton Hill in Edinburgh, Scotland, inspired by the Parthenon in Athens. It was never completed, apparently due to lack of funds, and for this reason it was once popularly known as 'the pride and poverty of Scotland' or 'Edinburgh's Folly', but the folly of the National Monument seems pretty trivial next to the Scottish Parliament building down the road, which cost £430 million - more than ten times its original budget, and ten thousand times that for the National Monument* - for something far less attractive. In my experience most people call it 'the Acropolis' these days, which annoys pedants because the real Acropolis is the hill the Parthenon sits on, not the building itself, and anyway that's not its name. Wikipedia calls it 'The National Monument of Scotland', presumably to avoid confusion with various other National Monuments, but as far as I can tell that's not officially its name either.

Calton Hill rises dramatically just to the East of Princes Street, Edinburgh's main drag, and while it can't quite match Edinburgh Castle on the other side, the drama is greatly enhanced by what they did get round to building of the National Monument - a series of enormous stone steps leading up to a platform with a series of twelve towering Doric columns, capped by an architrave. The view from the platform is breathtaking, among Edinburgh's best; you can see all of the northern part of the city spread out beneath you, everything that's not hidden by one of Edinburgh's spectacular extinct volcanoes, Castle Hill and Arthur's Seat. Beyond Leith you can see right out across the Firth of Forth, and on a clear day you can see the Fife shore, all the way over on the other side. I know of nowhere better to witness a Scottish sunset.

The view of the platform is also pretty good, and the monument acts as one of the main performance areas for Edinburgh's Beltane celebrations. It is here that the needfire is lit, with sparks and dry brush, and once the new fire is burning, the May Queen makes her entrance over the platform's top, between rows of processional drummers whose rhythms represent the heartbeat of the ceremony. More ritual performances take place up there later in the night.

The monument was conceived as a memorial to the Scots who died in the Napoleonic Wars. The decision to have a specifically Scottish monument was significant, and contentious. To quote Historic Scotland's Listed Building Report:

The situation was likened to that of Athens under Roman rule, subsumed into a wider empire, but seen as stronger in terms of intellect and culture. Edinburgh was therefore beginning to be seen as Athens to London's Rome, a claim which was strengthened by Scots achievements during the Enlightenment, and the extensive adoption of the Greek Revival style of the architecture of Edinburgh in the early nineteenth century.

There was a foundation ceremony for the monument in 1822, during a visit from George IV (who did not deign to attend) and an appeal was launched for £42,000 for the building of it. By 1826 £15,000 had been raised, designs had been drawn up by leading architects C.R. Cockerell and W.H. Playfair, and building started in earnest. The original plans included catacombs and pylons in addition to the colonnade we see today, but after three years that £15,000 was exhausted, no more money was forthcoming, and construction ceased.


*Adjusted for inflation, the Parliament building still cost a hundred times as much as the budget the National Monument failed to raise.

The haar is the thick sea fog that rolls in from the North Sea, especially in eastern Scotland. Its sudden appearance and striking opacity mark it out as a distinctive feature of the local weather, forming a part of the national character and worthy of a specific name, in much the same way that Scots would be at a loss without the word dreich to describe those chilly, overcast days when the drizzle never stops unless it's to rain a bit harder.

The haar is formed when previously warm air blows in over the cold North Sea, bearing moisture that it is now too cold to hold onto. Droplets condense out of the vapour to form a thick fog, while the wind spreads the cold upwards, building the fog ever higher, and all the while blowing it over the land. The haar is usually quick to come in, and slow to leave. You might be in Edinburgh or Aberdeen enjoying a sunny afternoon - a bite in the breeze perhaps, but pleasant enough - when in the space of half an hour the city just disappears, as fingers or whole fists of fog make stealthy but rapid progress through the streets, around the hills and over the buildings. Before you know it you can't see the far side of the road, the fog is shading into drizzle and it's hard to believe it ever felt like summer.

It usually is summer when the haar hits, though, at least officially; it's most common between April and September, though it can come at almost any time. It might not be the most joyous of weather, but there is something quite magical about it. In nine years of living in the Scottish capital, I never got over the awe the haar inspires me, or the sense of unreality.

Credit to this BBC article for some of the meteorological details. It also points out that much the same phenomenon affects north-east England, where it is known as sea fret.

What might London look like a thousand years from now?

Michael Pinsky explored that question with a simple public art installation, Plunge, which appeared in London in the early months of 2012.

Pinsky wrapped three iconic London monuments, the Duke of York column by St James's Park, the Paternoster Square column near St Paul's Cathedral, and the Seven Dials Sundial Pillar near Covent Garden, with a simple band of blue LED lights at a height of 28 meters.

The Guardian suggested that these blue rings "could be mistaken for those ultraviolet fly zappers popular in kebab shops."

The lights, which had no accompanying signage or expalanation, marked a waterline one thousand years in the future, when sea level rises will have put much of the city underwater. (There is no scientific data to determine the height of the Thames in the year 3012, so the 28 meter mark was chosen by artistic license).

The glowing halos were meant to have Londoners and visitors to the city see the monuments in a new light (literally), and elicit a vision of a possible future, one where anthropogenic global warming leaves London a ghost town of towers and monuments emerging from the water.

Photos of Plunge can be seen here and here.

Plunge was commissioned by Artsadmin and LIFT.

"Yorkshire caviar", a British Comfort Food

"Fish and chips without mushy peas? That's just not right!"

Seven-plus years into my life in the USA, and people are still asking me what I miss about England. Most of them are food-related, things like pork pies, Cornish pasties, The Pub, fish and chips. I miss rain; living in California's Central Valley, there's not a lot of it, even in our wet winter season. I regret leaving behind narrow streets, ancient buildings and the BBC on the radio. Some of these things I can find; Cornish pasties are available quite locally, or by frozen-mail-order. There are narrow streets and older buildings an hour's drive away, and I can put the sprinkler on for pretend rain. There is even a fish-and-chip shop in Davis, and I have eaten there, but it lacks the atmosphere of a true British experience. And most of all, it lacks comfort. It lacks mushy peas.

So what is mushy peas? Well, firstly, it's a comfort food, filling and warm. Once a staple of a poor family's diet, the dish at its simplest comprises boiled marrowfat peas, and at this level, it is, as Willie Rushton once said "the world's almost only grey food". That he said this of porridge may tell you something of the nature of the beast. Yer basic pease made in this fashion is fairly bland, and the kind of grey-green that I think a space-alien's skin should be. In fact, given this unappetising description, it's hard to imagine why it's so popular.

But popular they are. In most parts of England, a decent chippy will have them on the menu. When sold, they are green, with a texture ranging from a thick soupyness to a fairly stodgy pottage. The green colour is achieved by cheating with food colourings, the texture depends on the supplier or recipe. Most of the cheaper shops buy their supplies in tins, but (rarely, these days) some do make them in-house. If you are fortunate enough to have such an emporium close at hand, relish the fact. But do not tell me, as I will become jealous.

How Mushy Peas Are Made

The basic marrowfat pea is large, starchy and tough as old boots. Like its distant cousin the chickpea (aka garbanzo bean), it is picked when fully mature and dried, not young and juicy. Preparation begins in the same way as the garbanzo, being soaked overnight and simmered until soft enough to eat. Buying packets of pease in the supermarket is the best way forward, and ofttimes the packet will contain a tablet of bicarbonate of soda (more about that later). In some areas you may also be fortunate enough to be able to buy in bulk.

Some folk will tell you to use split peas, and that can work. There are also those, including the dreadful Jamie Oliver, who would have you make this with fresh garden peas. Yes, you will have a pea dish, but it will lack that quality of true British "sticks-to-your-ribs" quality that is traditional. Mushy peas simply demand to be made with the correct ingredients, Mister Oliver, so stick that in your pipe and smoke it. I have also seen recipes that add meat or meat broth, but in my opinion, that's more associated with pease pudding.

So let us begin. Eight ounces of pease will make for a good helping for four people. If buying them loose or in bulk, check for foreign bodies like bugs and grit, and wash them thoroughly. Place them in a bowl or pan and cover with lots of water, seriously lots. I err on the side of too much, although a pint and a half will suffice. (Time was, I'd convert to metric and whatnot, but not today.)

Now, to the baking soda. Some people add this because it does help preserve the greenness of the dish, but at a cost, in that it reduces the content of vitamin C and the B vitamins. The choice is yours; personally if I want the buggers green, I will add some food colouring, or cook up and mash some garden peas and stir them in before serving.

Once they are well-soaked, they will be plump and firm as fresh peaches, and can be cooked. Add them to a pint of water in a pan, add a little salt and bring them to the boil, then simmer for around twenty minutes, stirring every few minutes. The peas will begin to break down and in time, form a fairly thick soup, and this is where you can ring the changes and play with the texture of the dish. Adding more or less water changes the dish radically. Some people like the idea of the stodgy mass that seems to have become the norm, but as I prefer mine a little moister, I tend to leave a little more water. If I have time, and think enough about it, I take about a third out when they are still al dente, so there's an even wider textural range.

At this point, the dish is more or less ready. Some people cook it longer to create a more even texture, some people mash it up with a fork. I wait until the liquor is beginning to really thicken, and add a knob of butter and some pepper and cook for a minute or two longer.

There is also a cheat for speeding up the preparation time, one I use with many pulses. This involves fast-boiling the pease for ten minutes, and letting them stand in that water for an hour or so. I say "or so" because unless I'm in a big hurry, I leave them for an hour and a half, but they can be left for some hours in the fridge. Then, I drain and wash the pease and cook them up.

Serving Options

As a little wertperch, I was taken to Nottingham's Goose Fair, and at the time, one of the food treats available (alongside candyfloss, toffee apples and "cocks on sticks"¹) was a bowl of mushy peas served with mint sauce. Seriously warming on a damp and chilly autumn day, and very, very popular.

There are many local serving options, such as in the Midlands and North, where a popular dish is the "pea mix" of chips smothered in peas. I've seen spoonfuls of it deep-fried in batter and served as a "pea fritter", I've had bowls of it with sprinklings of pepper and malt vinegar, and in one wonderful meal in Malham, ladled over a meat pie.

The possibilities are endless, and I admit that it's a dish I manage to miss whenever I buy fish and chips. Perhaps I need to go on a crusade to introduce the dish to every American "chippy". Wish me luck.

¹ A sugar confection, shaped like a cockerel. On a stick. See cock on a stick.

DonJaime says re Mushy peas: Very complete, very informative to the higgerant savage. But you neglect to mention how irredeemably revolting they are.