Sunday, November 02, 2014

A real Art Deco gem: London Fire Brigade Headquarters

Wandering around the streets of London often rewards one with sights of amazing buildings from all architectural ages, but it is not often that one would come across an entirely unfamiliar building which so perfectly epitomises a particular style. On Saturday, walking along the Thames from Westminister towards Battersea, we discovered the old London Fire Brigade Headquarters (8 Albert Embankment, Lambeth). Its construction, along with its external ornamentation, is for me the complete embodiment of the 30s Art Deco spirit. I am, of course, adding it straight to my Art Deco London list.



Arguably, the most eye-catching features are the fire engine doors, with their oriental motifs.


Relief works

The sculptor behind the amazing relief works is Gilbert Bayes, who was also responsible for the Queen of Time statute welcoming shoppers into Selfridges.

The work above depicts the story of Phaethon, who was the original boy-racer, almost reducing the planet to ashes.

This next frieze is my favourite piece of ornamentation on this building. Firemen with shell-shaped helmets, putting out fire with water-spouting fish! Hell yeah!

A couple of superbly carved blocks pay tribute to our brave firefighters.

Note the hook ladder the fireman on the left is holding in the photo above. Not sure how it is (or was) used? Check out this crazy Youtube video:

Future unknown

The London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority (LFEPA) stopped using this building as its headquarters in 2007, and has been trying to sell it off. Neighbouring residents campaigned against private redevelopment plans in 2013. The future of this Grade II listed building is yet unknown. This seems to be a classic case of a clash of interests, not an uncommon problem when it comes to heritage buildings:
  • current owner wanting to sell off a disused building to make money
  • private investors wanting to make loads of money
  • English Heritage wanting to save the building
  • local residents (quite rightly) looking after their own interests

Saturday, November 01, 2014

More Candies...

I wrote a post just over a month ago about my first impression of Crank Brothers Candy 1 on my road bike. I can say that after what must have been around 300 miles, I am pretty happy with them. I like the float and the smooth unclipping action, while, at all times, I feel fully confident that the pedals are firmly attached to my feet, even when I'm climbing the steepest of ground.

After riding with Power Grips for years on my singlespeed, I decided last week to buy a new pair of Candy (Candy 2) for my road bike, and swap those Power Grips for my Candy 1.

Here are the new shiny orange Candy 2 on my road bike. Unlike the Candy 1, these pedals have machined aluminium bodies, which should add to their durability (and sexiness, dare I say). Otherwise the two versions are pretty much the same. They still use bushing inner bearing. Only Candy 3 and Candy 11 offer needle inner bearing.

Candy 1 now on my singlespeed!

Of course, it is still too early for me to comment on their long-term reliability. People seem to have mixed experience with them. Watch this space!

Monday, September 29, 2014

Shimano SPD vs Crank Brothers Candy: First impression

I have always used Shimano M520 on my road bike (I am ignoring the disdainful look from some of you - I like the fact that clipping in is easy when commuting!) and I am curious about other multiple-entry MTB pedals, so I decided to try out Crank Brothers Candy 1, which, like the Shimano, do not cost the earth.

Disclaimer: this really is a first impression. I have ridden less than 30 miles on the new Crank Brothers pedals.

Shimano M520
Crank Brothers Candy 1
Crank Brothers Candy 1


One has to use a 8mm Allen Key, and not a pedal wrench, to install the Crank Brothers pedals. No problem!

First "click"

Alright, it took me a couple of goes to actually clip in, but that was probably more to do with my excitement than anything.

First "unclick"

Well, it is more a slide than a click! I have to say, I am surprised by how smooth the unclipping action was, while all the time, my feet felt perfectly secured when pedalling. It just feels good.

Further thoughts

  • The extra platform seems to help with power transfer when pedalling, though it may just be a psychological thing. There are plenty of people online comparing the Eggbeater (basically Candy without the platforms) with the Candy, and concluding that there is little difference between the two, as long as you have reasonably stiff-soled cycling shoes (I have Shimano M087).
  • Likewise, a lot of people comment on the extra "float", i.e. how much you can rotate your foot before the pedal unclips, which I can definitely feel. Not sure how much it actually helps with saving the old knees. I guess I will probably find out after a longish ride.

I will provide another update once I have actually been on longer rides. I hope I will grow to like these pedals!

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Wainwright 214 Fells Data Visualisation

We are off to the Lakes soon (pretty excited!), and I thought, since I have always wanted to do a data visualisation project, why not play around with Wainwright 214 Fells data a bit, and see what I can come up with.

So I started off looking for the following:
  • data source
  • a data visualization library
    • I went straight went for D3.js after reading a bit about its declarative approach and its rich animation support. Though as it turns out, I could have done my project using jQuery just as easily, but learning and using D3.js had been fun!
  • a bit of inspiration (as I am not at all a designer!)
  • and after I decided to include a map, a better map than Google Map
    • Google Map is great but does lack details for outdoors mapping. I guess they have not employed Google walkers yet!
    • Comes the power of crowdsourcing! OpenStreetMap turns out to be excellent for the Lake District fells.
    • It is possible to show OpenStreetMap tiles using the usual Google Map v3 api, but on the OpenStreetMap wiki, I came across the Leaflet api, which is what I went with instead.

Initially, I wanted to try out some animated graphs showing the height distribution of the fells, but I soon became obsessed with the idea of displaying the fell names inside the shape of a, well, fell! Scafell Pike, standing at 3209 feet, right at the summit, and Castle Crag, at a mere 951 feet, at the base. I could not quite figure out how to flow text inside a isosceles triangle using css, but I did come across the idea of css shape-outside, and this excellent polyfill from the Adobe web team. So I decided to go with a right-angled triangle instead, which I think actually works better!

This is the end result, voila:

This is how it looks on a larger screen. In order for the contents and iteration to work on a smaller mobile screen, I decided to offer a pared-down mobile responsive design:

Check it out on my site:

Incidentally, so far Sze Kiu and I have walked up:
  • Helvellyn
  • Skiddaw
  • Bowfell
  • Great Gable
  • Crinkle Crags
  • St Sunday Crag
  • Green Gable
  • Carl Side
  • Froswick
  • High Pike (Scandale)
  • Fleetwith Pike
  • Base Brown
  • Haystacks
  • Low Pike
  • Wansfell
  • Helm Crag
And we hope to go up a few more this time!

p.s. big thanks to all those OpenStreetMap contributors, js library contributors, as well as folks behind

Monday, September 15, 2014

Regent's Canal: Angel to Camden

Sze Kiu is still busy with her dissertation, so I went onto the ever resourceful IanVisits to figure out what to do on Saturday. I found this voluteer-led canal walk from Angel to Camden ( Over the years, I have walked quite a few times along both the Regent's Canal and the Grand Union Canal, but the section from Angel to Camden (and the associated history) was unfamiliar territory for me. It is also an area of new exciting development, with Central St Martins and Google establishing base north of King's Cross station.

I turned up outside Angel tube station and found Neil the guide waiting in his hi-viz. Soon, others started showing up, and we ended up with a group of about 10. I have to say, much to my surprise, I was by far the youngest person in the group (At 33, I am not even that young!)

It suffices to say that I was extremely impressed by Neil's knowledge and also his delivery, and I would absolutely recommend this walk to anyone who has the slightest bit of interest in canals and the history of London. Neil is running this walk on a trial-basis at the moment, and there is one remaining date in October this year. Refer the Canal River Trust webpage for date and details.

Here are ten interesting things I learnt about the Regent's Canal from the 2-hour walk:

1) Boris Johnson

Apparently he lives in one of those Georgian terrace houses by the eastern entrance of the Islington Canal Tunnel (the Regent's canal runs underground through Angel). The worst-groomed man this side of Hoxton?

2) Tolpuddle Street (and Copenhagen Fields)

Perhaps rather ironically, not far from chez Boris, one would find the site where, in 1834, thousands marched in support of The Tolpuddle Martyrs, who had been sent to Australia for forming a trade union.

3) Caledonian Road

So named because there existed an orphange for Scottish children. I have always wondered.

4) The Plimsoll Line

The area along the canal north of King's Cross station used to house a number of coal yards in the 1800s. One of the owners, Samuel Plimsoll, was also a Member of Parliament. He found out that boats were sinking, and crews were getting killed, due to overloading. As a result, he invented the waterline which can still be found on vessels nowadays.

5) A lonely watertower

A Victorian Gothic water tower can be seen opposite the newly relocated Gas Holder no. 8. It is, of course, a genuine George Gilbert Scott (architect of St Pancras station) monument. It used to be part of St Pancras. It was removed brick by brick, as the station was getting converted to a Eurostar terminal, and reconstructed in its new location. More info and photos here

It now looks yearningly south towards its former home, across the huge industrial wasteland that separates the two.

6) Gas Holder no. 8

Grade II listed gas holder! A park is being created inside it.

7) Mary Tealby

One of the abandoned warehouses along the canal used to be a shelter for dozens of stray dogs, run by a lady called Mary Tealby, who went on to create the famous Battersea Dogs & Cats Home.

8) A crenellated Starbucks

Near Camden Lock, the castle-looking Starbucks used to a Victorian pumphouse. The pumphouse was supposed to power the then newly-invented hydropneumatic lock, which was subsequently replaced by a more traditional lock.

9) The Ice Wharf

Next to it, you will find a Weatherspoon called The Ice Wharf. There used to be an ice well, similar to the one inside the London Canal Museum in King's Cross. Before the invention of refrigeration, this is how people would keep ice. Needless to say, ice was a luxury item back then.

10) Electricity and water

Along the towpath, you would often find yourself treading on concrete slabs with water seeping through to the surface. Underneath your feet are in fact high-voltage electric cables. Canal water is being used to keep them cool!

Thanks, Neil!

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Bateman's and a Kipling poem: "If—"

Over the bank holiday weekend, Sze Kiu and I went to visit Bateman's, the former home of Rudyard Kipling in Burwash, East Sussex. I must admit, previous to the visit, I only knew Kipling to be the author of The Jungle Book, and I was more interested in the Jacobean house itself and, potentially, its surroundings than the fact that Kipling used to live in Bateman's.

To a certain degree, the visit itself was more educational than inspiring. In fact, as it turned out, I was more intrigued by the accompanying watermill than the house itself. Don't get me wrong, the house was immaculately preserved by the National Trust, and it contained a large number of fascinating objects belonging to the Kipling family - I was just not that into Kipling.

Before we left, we made our customary cake stop in the little teashop. I noticed, written across two horizontal beams, two lines from what I could only assume to be a Kipling poem:

If you can dream - and not make dreams your master;

If you can think - and not make thoughts your aim;

Later on, when we got home, I went online to find out more about the poem "If—". I was mesmerised by how simple, and yet how profound, this poem is. Ironically, I suddenly had this urge to read up more on Kipling and his works. What a fascinating character! On the one hand, he was, almost certainly without doubt, a supporter of imperialism. On the other hand, he seemed to be able demonstrate boundless ambivalence in his works. He called himself an atheist, but he was clearly a God-fearing man.

Despite the imperial/colonial connection with this poem (it was inspired by Leander Starr Jameson, a British administrator of the then Cape Colony), I am totally mesmerised by it. I have never seen so much strength and depth conveyed by so few words.

Anyway, as a tribute to this great poem, I wanted to play with a few design ideas to create a little web project. I had this idea of a line transforming into the word "if" as one reads/scrolls down the page. I even had a play with processing.js, but it soon became apparently that my artistic skill left a lot to be desired. So I went with a simpler idea, which was to turn the word "if" into "dot-matrix" text, with the dots becoming filled in, as one scrolls:

Check it out and, more importantly, enjoy reading this great poem.

I hope you will be inspired too.

P.S. On the subject of poems, we came across the following, presumably etched onto a pane of glass in the watermill by Kipling...

Thursday, July 03, 2014

London hidden gems: museums

London is famous for its world-class museums, but what constantly amazes me is the abundance of small museums. Some are often run by no more than a handful of volunteers, with limited opening hours during weekends.

I am going to try and pick my top five hidden gems. Yes, there is going to some bias, i.e. my wife and I are very much into historical buildings. One important selection criterion is: they must be open to the general public. Openhouse one-offs don't count.

#1 House Mill

"An 18th-century tidal mill"

Location: E3 3DU
Opening times (check website for latest): Every Sunday from May to October, and first Sundays in March, April and November

Hidden behind the Hancock Road Tesco by river Lea, this four-storey mill is possibly the largest surviving tidal mill in the world. Built in 1776, the House Mill once produced flour for the bakers in Stratford, before being taken over by a gin distiller - JW Nicholson & Co.

The building is now Grade I listed, and is managed by a trust which runs guided tours on Sundays.

When we were there, the visitor centre was not very busy, and we were taken on an extensive tour to see all floors of the building (which incidentally is a timber structure, clad in bricks on the entrance side to make it look expensive). Detailed explanation was given on the working of the sack hoist, the mill stones and the tidal sluices. Though eerily empty now, one could easily picture what it must have been like when the multiple mill stones were all turning at the same time, sending vibration throughout this giant of a building. There was also a fascinating collection of wooden pattern blocks for the different machine parts.

Speaking to the volunteers, it sounded like the arrival of the Olympic park round the corner did not bring a huge increase in the number of visitors to the mill. Bromley-on-Bow is still a bit of a backwater. But who knows - with more funding, perhaps the machinery would be brought back to life one day, showing the future generation how nature was once harnessed in an eco-friendly way (I assume!) to produce energy.

#2 Kirkaldy Testing Museum

"Facts not opinions"

Location: SE1 0JF
Opening times (check website for latest): First Sunday of every Month

This place is all about one man and his machine. David Kirkaldy designed and commissioned the testing machine which is still functional inside this building.

Cast iron and steel were the crucial materials that drove the industrial revolution, e.g. the first iron bridge in Coalbrookdale. However, the Victorians did not necessarily understand the characteristics of such materials initially, which resulted in many disasters. Kirkaldy's business was to provide the facilities for material testing for construction and for accident analysis.

The place felt very much like a workshop (or a lab) with the machine taking the centre stage. The volunteers gave demonstrations of the machine literally pulling metal apart, and in doing so, on how to work out the tensile strength of the metal. There were also smaller rooms showcasing other testing apparatus.

The museum's website suggests that they are currently undergoing lease negotiation. Situated between London Bridge and Waterloo, the museum is sitting on a piece of premium land. I really do hope the future of the museum will be safeguarded. All the skyscrapers around owe much to this man and his machine.

#3 Museum of Immigration and Diversity

"19 Princelet Street is home"

Location: E1 6QH
Opening times (Check website for latest): Occasional openings on Sundays

Situation between the old London ports and the City, Spitalfields used to be home to generations of immigrants. There are still rows of Georgian terrace houses off Brick Lane. They would have housed many of these immigrants, from the French Huguenots, the Jewish, to the Bengalis.

On the outside, no. 19 was just like any other Georgian houses on the street, with fading paintwork, and a generally distressed appearance. However, unlike the others, which I could only assume were rather posh in the inside, the interior of no. 19 had not been modernised. Generations of occupants extended and converted the house until the last resident moved out in the 60s. This place is a real time capsule.

Walking through the hallway where the ceiling was propped up by metal poles, I totally did not expect to find that the house would suddenly open up to become a synagogue, complete with a gallery for female worshippers. Downstairs in the basement, a volunteer explained to us that we were standing on the spot where the locals once held meetings to halt the Oswald Mosley march into the area.

Around the house, one would find artwork to do with the theme of immigration. These objects and the building itself constantly challenged the visitors to reflect on the subject of identity. In a way, this is less of a museum, more of a space for storytelling.

Though listed, the place is desperately in need of maintenance, which is actually stopping the museum from opening more often (for health and safety reasons). Magical and thought-provoking at the same time, the Museum of Immigration and Diversity deserves to be visited by more people.

p.s. Dennis Sever's House nearby is also worth visiting.

#4 Brixton Windmill (aka Ashby's Mill)

"An inner-city windmill"

Location: SW2 5EU
Opening times (Check website for latest): Usually second weekend of each month from April to October

Situated next to Brixton prison, this windmill is unknown to even a lot of the local Brixton residents. I could not easily spot the windmill from a distance as it was hidden behind trees. However, once it revealed itself, this jet black tower mill was completely at odds with its surroundings - a middle finger up to modernity in many ways.

Built in 1816, and leased to the Ashby family the following year, this is the last remaining windmill in central London. Later on, as the surrounding area became more built up, the spot where the windmill stands became more and more sheltered from strong wind. The windmill was deprived of its driving force, and the sails turned for the last time 46 years after the windmill's construction.

Volunteers run guided tours to take visitors to see all four floors, explaining the workings of the various parts of the mill.

#5 Old Operating Theatre Museum and Herb Garret

"Miseratione Non Mercede - For Compassion and not for Gain"

Location: SE1 9RY
Opening times (Check website for latest): Everyday apart from 16/12 to 06/01

Unlike the others on this list, this museum opens every day. There were two parts to the visit, the garret where herbs had once been dried for medical use, and the adjoining operating theatre itself.

Just opposite St Thomas' Hospital, the entrance to the museum was peculiar enough. One had to climb a very narrow spiral staircase up the side of a church to get to the shop/ticket office. The garret and the operating theatre literally sit on top of the church.

The garret - a massive timber-framed loft - contained displays of medical-related animal specimens, herbs and apparatus. I learnt that frogs were once used for pregnancy tests. There were also constant reminders that, with the lack of medical knowledge which we now possess, people did not use to live that long. This led us to the highlight of the visit - the Old Operating Theatre itself, where those who were operated on did not seem to stand a high chance of surviving. Surgery was often seen as a last resort. Death aside, this was a wonderful place, and one really could see where the name "operating theatre" came from. I saw a little note which indicated that, to prevent blood from seeping down through to the church below, sawdust was packed underneath the floorboard.

This place is full of wonderful, if slightly morbid, stories. Well worth stopping by if you are in the area.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Trundling along the Thames Path

For me, the river Thames represents continuity: It links Oxford, where my wife used to live, and London, where we now live; George Gilbert Scott built a gothic bridge across the river in Clifton Hampden, while his grandson - Giles Gilbert Scott - built the imposing Art Deco Battersea Power Station downstream; Marc Isambard Brunel built the first tunnel under the river near Rotherhithe, while his son - Isambard Kingdom Brunel - built the Moulsford Railway Bridge further upstream.

My ambition is to walk the whole length of the Thames Path. I have perhaps walked a third of it so far.

This started off as a fun design / visualisation exercise, where I came up with the idea of representing the outline of the river using names of cities and towns that it passes through. After I made an interactive version, I decided to actually write about my walks, and here it is: a little website about my journey along the Thames.

Check it out here:

I hope this will inspire you to embark on a journey, be it along the Thames or anywhere else. Go out there and explore!

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Search now available on Art Deco London

A while ago, one of my colleagues mentioned lunr.js - a pure Javascript client-side full-text search engine library. In the author's own words: "A bit like Solr, but much smaller and not as bright".

So the other day, I decided to give the library a go, and added searching to

The library is incredibly simple to use. Admittedly, I have not done any benchmarking, but for my 100-item index, it certainly seems to perform very well.

Give it a go!

Friday, March 07, 2014

Mapping London Art Deco Buildings

Being a bit of an architectural history geek, I have always had a thing for art deco / modernist buildings. London is dotted with hundreds of them. Some are still standing glorious with their bold, white facades, but many have seen better days.

A while ago, after being unimpressed by the map viewing experience of a number of websites on mobile devices, I decided I want to make a responsive website with google map as a main navigation element myself, to try and understand the problem and come up with a usable layout.

This is how came about - an interactive map of London art deco buildings.

These are the "desktop" and the "mobile" layouts that I experimented with:


I hope you enjoy looking at these wonderful buildings (I do encourage you to see the real thing, of course), and please give me feedback.  I have currently only listed 57 buildings, but over the next few weeks, I will be adding more.


Some interesting things I have learnt: