Nine Elms Apothecary Experience

This weekend, exhausted by an unexpectedly debilitating strain of hay fever, Megan suggested the two of us find something to do in London that didn’t involve parks or other pollen-filled outdoor spaces.

We found ourselves on a bright, blowy section of the Thames, on a bend with views to the left of Battersea Power Station, and to the right of more familiar sights like the London Eye. Our destination was the Nine Elms Apothecary Experience (a/k/a The Horticultural Spa), along the South Bank (close to Vauxhall tube station, MI6, and all that).

Nine Elms Apothecary Experience

Nine Elms Apothecary Experience

Set back from the river’s edge was a modest-sized translucent dome with a wooden structure attached. Scattered around were chilled people of various ages enjoying free herbal tea and the summer sun. The dome was smaller than we’d anticipated, but roomy for 10-12 visitors to gather inside it.

After a short wait, we entered through a Velcro airlock – my boots covered with plastic overshoes, Megan’s flip-flops removed – and found ourselves in a rather otherworldly space.

Nine Elms Apothecary Experience

A small device was pumping out a steady flow of steam, and two volunteers talked us through the whole thing. One would add herbally-infused essential oils and waft the steam with a towel, and the other would occasionally chip in – between deep nosefuls of vapours – to explain the significance of that particular scent.

Sat on the floor of the tent – some of us bundled up, and others stretched out – our small group proceeded to control our breathing, and to allow ourselves to become engulfed by a thick cloud of steam. At times, visibility was such that you could barely see the ends of your own outstretched legs. It was much like sitting in a steam room, or perhaps quite like being caught within a cloud on a mountaintop. There was a nicely odd acoustic quality to our little plastic bubble, too, which added to the strange effect.

We spent fifteen minutes or so in an almost meditative state as five different scents were carefully added to the vapour. Our session seemed to be aiming at restoring balance, both to our mindset and our digestive system, with the aid of dill, coriander, rose geranium, lavender, and parsley.

Occasionally the wind – along with the hazy sensation of the sun, only a dim reminder of the outside world – would knock the sides of our vulnerable bubble. This would cause droplets of condensation to drip drip drip down, feeling almost like a wander through woodland after a shower.

As the scent programme came to an end, we were encouraged to take our time before leaving. It was an unhurried, relaxing experience. To wander in off the South Bank to a womb-like sanctuary for a brief spell made it feel like precious a resource, and one to treasure. Alas, I don’t think it is there any more. But I’m glad we found it while it was.

And as an antidote to hay fever? Well, I sneezed once when the dill first wafted in and my nostrils adjusted to the humid cloud, but from the blissful look on Megan’s face as it came time to leave, I’d say it had the desired effect – at least temporarily.

Nine Elms Apothecary Experience

Michael Palin on the diary habit

Have made a decent start at documenting this wonderful weekend away. Next: sorting the photographs. 😊

Michael Palin’s recently-launched website,, features a fun selection of new writing which I hope will be added to over time. They don’t appear to be in the form of blog entries, but have the feel of them.

In one, the avid diary-writer explains how the habit makes him feel, and encourages others to take it up:

When I’m not travelling I keep my hand in by writing up a daily diary. I like the fact that I have to take some time over it. It’s personal and doesn’t ask for replies or re-tweets. It’s only between me and myself, so I can take as little or as much time as I want. I find my daily diary entry is like doing morning exercise. The equivalent of a shot of Pilates. Something you do each morning (or each evening) that makes you feel better.

If you feel the same way as I do, then go out and buy yourself a good-looking note-book, put the year and the day’s date at the top of the page and start remembering tomorrow. It’ll be hard at first. There are so many reasons to give up, but, believe me, if you persevere, you’ll never regret it.

I have similar thoughts about my own habit.

I have kept a diary in one form or another for about thirteen years. Although it’s sometimes rather less than daily, I always feel better when there is a steady trickle of entries, and confess to feeling something akin to anxiety when I know I’ve gone a while without an update.

When you read Palin’s post, above, in full, you’ll see that he suggests writing longhand is a more involved but ultimately more rewarding process. I have mixed feelings on this – and my diary is a testament to that.

While I was at university, I tended to keep my diary in longhand. I had more time to reflect, and to write, and I took great pleasure in sitting down with a fountain pen to scratch into a ruled, spiral bound notebook.

These days I use Day One, a Mac and iOS app, and make entries on iPhone, iPad, and Mac. I find I can type fairly quickly, and I enjoy the ability to pull out the tool nearest to me and quickly tap out a few lines, knowing that the content will be added to one central collection. The added metadata on each entry – such as weather or location – is also a bonus.

Before I used Day One, I used a variety of online tools like Livejournal and DiaryLand, as well as a blog. Thanks to others more clever than me, I’ve been able to convert those entries into one format, before ultimately re-assembling them all in Day One. This gives me a database of entries – all except the handwritten notebooks – that I can search by keyword with ease, and that I know is backed up in multiple locations.

The keyword lookup isn’t something I use terribly often, but whenever I’ve felt the need, it’s been a massive reassurance to know that I could. Sometimes it’s to remind myself when I first did something, or went somewhere. Other times it’s to jog my memory in another way. Occasionally it’s been an enlightening revelation that, no, I didn’t actually write about a particular Life Event which I’ve later come to understand the importance of.

I recently went away for a beautiful long weekend to celebrate my thirtieth birthday, a wonderful treat from Megan. Knowing that we would effectively be ‘off the grid’ for a few days meant that I bought a little notebook (seen above) to record our time away. I could have written the entries locally on my iPhone, but I find that when I’m away, or travelling, then that is the time to fall back on notebook and pen. It vexes my archivist’s mind in terms of the digital/analogue split, but I’ll worry about that on a rainy day.

For now, however, I know I have the diary-writing itch, and I’ll continue to scratch it whenever I feel the need to, and in whatever format.

Enhance! Finding tiny treats in huge old photographs

I’m a fan of old photographs scanned in at eye-seeringly high resolution. In fact, I’m sure I’ve mentioned this on my blog in the past.

Beyond the gorgeous, crisp look of these old images, it’s the details that sneak in which get me really excited. Little features that you could easily miss when looking at the image in full, but which can be scrutinised more closely when zooming in.

Here are a couple of recent examples I’ve stumbled across.

From a gorgeous shot, circa 1911, of Waterlow Court, a beautiful, low-cost arts and crafts housing scheme on Hampstead Garden Suburb, we can spy a cosy-looking desk in the back corner:


But what’s on the desk? It looks to a quick 21st century glance rather like a laptop, or even an iPad.


Ah! It’s a calendar, or something like it, in a frame. Of course it is. But how nice to get these extra details – a letter-writing kit, some framed family portraits, a notebook, and a desk blotter pad. It’s the little personal details that make it even easier to see this place as it was lived in – even in the absence of humans in the image itself.

Another one, this time from Archives New Zealand, shows a 1930s railway carriage – but a rather fancy one.

In this one, again, there are lots of sumptuous details to behold. But it’s the tech that catches my eyes…

Phwoar – would you get a load of that phone/radio receiver setup? Look how shiny. Gorgeous.


If you want an easy source of the kinds of beautiful, high-res images that set my pulse racing, I’d always recommend (just click each image to view large), meanwhile the National Library of New Zealand has a staggering amount of images online, which if you drill down enough, you can usually view at incredibly high resolution.

Pitchfork Review: Ryan Adams – Live at Carnegie Hall

Live at Carnegie Hall makes Adams’ impromptu comedy the main draw: somewhere within this three-and-a-half-hour package is one of the funniest standup records you’ll hear in 2015. And the subject of nearly all of Ryan Adams’ jokes is Ryan Adams. This is a career-spanning project, so “Ryan Adams” becomes a very, very broad topic. Adams offers countless punchlines about the prevalence of tears and rain in his music as well as his penchant for using this reputation to his advantage—”Probably like 86% of you are on Paxil, so you understand about depression. So… you’re at a fucking Ryan Adams show,” he cracks at one point.

via Ryan Adams: Live at Carnegie Hall | Album Reviews | Pitchfork.

There’s a new Ryan Adams album – and it’s a live recording. I was initially blasé about this, given how many essential Ryan Adams live recordings are available via the network of bootleggers and uploaders that have followed him for so long. But for all those amateur live recordings, we really do need a handful of definitive collections, and it sounds like this one comes pretty close.

It’s been a while since I frothed rabidly about Ryan Adams, and lord knows I used to do that a lot more often in the past. So it’s reassuring when a new Ryan Adams thing pops up every year or two to remind me that he’s still great, and also of fun times past.

The reviewer above says this set won’t please the hardcore fans – I guess partly because of the ubiquity of those essential live bootlegs I mentioned. But it’s been a while since I poured a glass of wine (or two, or three), and devoted a few hours to Ryan Adams, so I’m looking forward to drinking this one in.

Listen to Live at Carnegie Hall (Deluxe) on Spotify.

016/100 – 7-11 Herbrand Street, London

7-11 Herbrand Street - Wallis, Gilbert and Partners 1931
7-11 Herbrand Street – Wallis, Gilbert and Partners 1931

Now occupied by a communications agency, this wonderful 1930s building feels slightly tucked away. But as soon as you see it – WHOOSH. The glorious paint job helps, but there it is, all subtle curves and fine black lines.

Dating from 1931 (as if you couldn’t tell), this was a coach station and garage, for Daimler car hire. What really knocks me out is that sweeping spiral car ramp, and the bold lift tower. I was interested to see it used to be a coach station – you can see similarities with Victoria Coach Station.

The building is grade II listed, and the entry contains the following ‘historical note':

Daimler-owned cars were stored on the upper floors while the basement was used as a car park, for privately owned cars, with a waiting-room, attendant’s office, lavatories and telephones. Each floor had an electrically operated pressure washing plant for the cars.