I’m back, and ready to lightly and cheerily distract people from their woes!
We had a great time in England – in fact, it was our most fun visit EVAH! I’m not quite sure why it was better than previous trips, but suspect it was partly due to a good combination of people, activities, and beer, and partly due to Mr E Man knowing many of my UK friends and family better than he used to, plus spending time with people we both know from Vancouver.
The trip was also substantially geekier than usual. Some of the geekiness involved meticulous planning via multiple email threads over many weeks, whereas other parts were unplanned; England is just so full of geeky delights that you’re bound to stumble across them accidentally. In fact, some of them just show up and sit down at your table in pubs… but that was on the second day, whereas the geekiness actually began within a few hours of our arrival, and I may as well do this in chronological order.
We landed at 11pm Vancouver time / 7am UK time after a cramped, noisy, and completely sleepless ten hour flight. After showers and cuppas my sister took us out for a tour of her neighbourhood, to blow away the cobwebs and get some sunlight to try and stave off the jet-lag. Since she lives in Crystal Palace, we headed straight for the park, where my sister promised me we would see hilarious Victorian renderings of dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures. The statues – from the Great Exhibition of 1851, not long after dinosaur fossils first captured the British public’s imagination – did not disappoint; they were gloriously silly, and I had great fun running around taking photos and chortling.
The running around taking photos continued the next day (albeit with substantially less chortling and more quiet reverence at the wonders of
Nature nature), in Kew Gardens, which I’d never visited before and which are wonderful. The treetop walkway featured a series of panels explaining photosynthesis, tree rings, seed dispersal mechanisms, plant cell structure, the relationships between different plant species, and other aspects of plant biology that I vaguely remember from high school:
whereas the rest of the gardens feature lots of pretty flowers, cute ducklings and goslings, and lots of gorgeous mature trees, several of which are older than Canada.
From Kew we went to the pub to meet up with Bob O’Hara – in town for a very fortuitously timed conference – and assorted other, non-bloggy, friends. (I don’t seem to have any photos of this momentous event, unfortunately). The pub kept running out of the kinds of beer we’d so carefully selected from their multi-page menu, but there was always something tasty to drink, and the steak and ale pies were excellent. Mr E Man observed that Brits and Canadians employ different pie crust-eating techniques; a
manuscript pie is currently in preparation.
The third day featured lunch with Dr. H. G. of Cromer, who is just as erudite and interesting in person as he is on-blog. We talked science, travel, carpentry, and assorted other topics, and a wonderful time was had by all. Henry even wore his Crocs, and I have the photos (taken outside the British Library) to prove it:
After lunch, it was on to the Museum of London! A couple of people had independently recommended this splendid chronological romp through London’s history, from prehistoric times to the present day, and it did not disappoint. My sister – visiting for the first time, despite having lived in London for 11 years – even got to confront her childhood fear of “skellingtons!!!11!!”:
And, for the evening entertainment: Occam’s piss-up!
Clockwise from the far left: Erika Cule, some guy whose name I forget but I’m sure Richard will remind me, my sister, Bob O’Hara again, Stephen Curry, Frank Norman, me, Richard P. Grant, and Jenny Rohn. Blurriness of photo (taken by Mr E Man on my iPhone) possibly due to Richard choosing a venue that didn’t serve food.
I’ve met several bloggers before, but never a group of them en masse, and I had an absolute blast. Everyone was close to exactly how I’d imagined them to be – i.e. lovely, interesting, and tons of fun – and, again, a wonderful time was had by all! Mr E Man and my sister had been joking all day about how they were going to sit in the corner and say “blog! blog! blog! blog!” to each other in a silly high-pitched voice, but they only resorted to this form of conversation once or twice, and commented afterward on how much fun they’d had and how nice everyone is. Oh, and Jenny signed my copy of Experimental Heart, for an added geeky bonus!* Hopefully we can all get together again soon, with even more people – and preferably some food to soak up the beer!
Another day, another old friend I hadn’t met yet – yup, it was off to the geek heaven of Cambridge, where I finally got to meet Eva Amsen and prove that we are, in fact, two different people!
Eva – who is also lovely, by the way, as is her cat Penny – very kindly let us stay in her spare room, even though her attempts to beat our taxi home from the station on her bike were thwarted when she dropped her jam, and then her bike, as we drove past laughing at her.** She also took us on a walking tour of Cambridge, taking in the Eagle pub, famous for its Watson and Crick connection (yes we did stop in for a geeky beer):
and the Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences, a delightfully old-fashioned rocks ‘n’ fossils museum that also – fan girl gasp! – contains several of Darwin’s notebooks from the Beagle.
As if these delights weren’t enough to earn Cambridge the title of Geek Capital of Britain (even the local MP is a scientist, FFS!), I then got to meet up with three former lab-mates who I know from Vancouver, but who now live in Cambridge, for more beers and geeky discussions.
The geekiness quotient was much diminished after we left Cambridge; we spent a week in York with my parents, then visited several places in South-West England (including another reunion with a sorely missed former Vancouver labmate, from whose house we hiked, via an excellent country pub, to a 4500 year-old burial barrow, which was thankfully sans barrow wights:
before getting pleasantly sozzled together (photos on Facebook only, sorry!) in front of a Canucks game – just like old times!) before ending up back in London for the last couple of days.
This was where the level of geekiness briefly picked up again: a friend had recommended the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons, so we headed there on our last full day, an old high school friend of mine in tow. Photography was unfortunately prohibited, but I can not recommend this gem of a museum highly enough. It features exhibits documenting the history of surgery, as well as more jars containing picked anatomical specimens – normal and abnormal, human and animal – than you could shake a stick at. It was amazing. We all ran around finding weird and wonderful things – a horribly deformed bound foot from China; a massive bone tumour; a fetal calf skeleton with the skull inside the rib cage; you name it, we found it – and dragged each other back to the relevant case to share our discoveries. My friend is an optometrist and focused (sorry) on the pickled eyes; my sister works for a medical publisher and found lots of specimens relating to her speciality; Mr E Man lingered over the antique surgical tools (save for the male genito-urinary surgery section, which he moved over rather more rapidly); while I generally ran around like an annoying puppy, trying to see everything. It was great. You should go.
Needless to say, leaving was hard. Luckily our seat-mate on the flight home was heading to BC for the first time, and we spent an hour or so telling him how great the province (and Vancouver in particular) is. Our Tourism BC pitch helped mitigate our disappointment to have reached the end of our trip -as did our arrival back home during STANLEY CUP FEVER 2011 ZOMG – and I highly recommend this strategy at the end of all fantastic trips.
And the best news?
The geeky blogger meet-ups didn’t end with our return to Vancouver! I finally got to meet Massimo and his wife on Tuesday; we had some excellent beer and vegetarian food (thanks again, Massimo and Anto!) and discussed academia, blogging and politics, with even the waiter chiming in on the latter topic. Yay!
TL;DR version: England is awesome, especially for geeks. You should visit, and meet as many bloggers as you can while there.
*I hadn’t started it at that point, partially because of lack of time, and – I confess – partially in case I didn’t like it, because I would have hated to have to lie to Jenny on our first meeting! 😀 Luckily I really enjoyed it, and it even made me miss the lab (the culture of fun and friendly labs, rather than any latent yearning to start doing minipreps again). It got slightly far-fetched toward the end, I thought, but by that point I was well and truly invested and engaged and found myself not caring. Nice work, Jenny! I’ll read The Honest Look at some point this year, I promise!
**A couple of days later, at my parents’ place, my Mum was trying to put a hot dish from the oven down, but couldn’t because there was a jar of jam in the way. I thus got to say “why does everyone keep being thwarted by jam?!” for the first, and I suspect only, time.