I spend a lot of my time these days up at the Royal Free Hospital in Hampstead, helping out with undergraduate teaching. It’s marked a new phase of traipsing up and down on the Northern Line to my lab on the main campus, but now that term has started I’ve settled into a routine that seems to work for everyone, myself included.
As a workplace, the Free has a lot of advantages. It’s right next to the Heath, nestled into a leafy village of pretty shops, streets, pubs and houses. This time of year the foliage is spectacular, crimson and flame and every shade in between, heaped up in layers on the pavement and making a satisfying swishy noise as you shuffle through them. The boutiques have shocking price tags, but the charity shops have lovely clothing for a snip. (You know that universal musty smell that charity shops and their wares tend to give off? Well, not in Hampstead they don’t.) This means I’ve been able to kit myself out as a proper pedagogical academic for only a fistful of fivers.
The hospital itself is full of cutting-edge medicine and science. Its National Amyloidosis Centre, for example, is world-class. And famously, it is the only institute in the UK allowed to accept Ebola patients. Just the other day, the entrances were blocked by an RAF ambulance, a sinister-looking lorry and several dozen personnel in military drabs. But rumors soon trickled down that it was only a drill.
Or else, that they wanted us to think that it was only a drill.
Or else, that it was a double-blind and that the lorry really did harbor a patient in a bubble after all. Given the distinct lack of helicopters and news stories, I guess the first rumor was correct.
I am still getting my bearings – the building is of a proverbial “can’t get there from here” layout, and whenever I get lost, no matter where I start or which direction I double back towards, I invariably end up in the MRI suite. (It makes me wonder if I’ve got any metal imbedded into my body that I don’t know about!) And so confusing are the passageways that the only way for me to find my way back to the undergraduate office is to actually exit the building and circle round until I’ve located that oh-so-handy landmark for weary lost travelers, The George.
Today I needed a break so I went out the Rowland Street entrance, up the hill I’ve trudged a hundred times before. The sun was unexpectedly warm, and the air was mild. Squinting like a cave-dwelling mammal in the light, only then did I happen to notice the incongruous cornfield, visible down a flight of stairs leading into a disused corner:
Any ideas? Nope, me neither.