22 September 2009

Hunting Treasure

Around where we live, autumn is the season of conkers, the harvest, and treasure hunters, the last two being tightly linked. Apparently, there are other parts of UK where the last two also go hand in hand.

I would imagine that many Americans don't realize or don't think much about the fact that the Roman Empire once encompassed the British Isles. There are lots of places around the country where Roman building sites can be found. Apparently, there are also lots of known Roman merchant routes, and along these routes it isn't uncommon at all to find coins that merchants and locals of the day dropped long ago.

This is where the harvest comes in. After the farmers have claimed a field's crop, they turn the top layer of soil over to mix in whatever is left of the plants, and thus make whatever items that might be buried there a bit more accessible to those who would seek them.

Enter the treasure hunters. Arriving in small platoons, camping in the fields, and armed with metal detectors and sufficient patience, they perform a careful sweep across the fields along these routes (with the farmer's permission, of course), searching for antiquities. And this isn't a fool's errand-- they indeed do find treasure. One gent gave our son a small Roman coin. A bit of research we've done indicates that often a deal is struck with the farmer to split the findings. Further, any significantly valuable artifact must be reported to an appropriate government agency who may elect to purchase the artifact from the hunter for a suitable price. Otherwise, these gents sell their discoveries on the collectors' market, or of course keep them for their own pleasure.

It would be romantic to think that the UK has a subset of its population that fits the Indiana Jones demographic, but I get the impression that this is largely a hobby, and a "boys weekend out" when a group arrives to hunt. One hunter we spent a bit of time chatting with was a financial adviser when he wasn't on the prowl for Roman coins. He was hunting in the fields adjacent to our garden with a bunch of his chums, and I find it unlikely that many of those gents were full-time treasure seekers. But hey, who knows? Even Indy needs to know how to invest the proceeds from his discoveries.

08 September 2009

The Knowledge

Most Americans from big cities are used to a street system laid out according to some plan that makes it easy to get an idea as to where to find a specific address. Chicago bases everything as either north or south of Madison and east or west of State. New York has that rather alien-feeling system which involves giving addresses as “X street between Y and Z”, which to me seems odd but is taken in stride by the locals. But NYC's system seems clear as glass compared to finding an address in London.

I've only seen few London addresses that reach above 100. How can such a big city not have higher numbered addresses? Obviously they have plenty of streets. The secret is to continually change the name of a street. It's quite common for a street's name to change as you follow it through an intersection, and for it to change names several times. And every time the name changes, the address numbering starts over from the beginning again (at least they're all positive numbers).

To add to the challenge, the streets aren't laid out in any familiar pattern like a grid. Roads are in a mad tangle of rings, crescents, straights, and loops, more like they grew there organically than were planned in any fashion. I'm told that's not far from the truth, that many roads are simply paved-over versions of horse paths that developed as London grew. It makes sense, and it certainly gives one a great sense of the history present in the very streets of the city, but that doesn't help much when you're trying to find the dentist's office.

So to my mind, this makes it amazing that London's cab drivers are able to find just about any address so handily. There's a secret here too, and it isn't that there's a trick that they don't tell Americans about. It's due to the acquisition of something referred to as "the knowledge". In Chicago I'm used to cabbies only knowing the major streets and needing a passenger to provide the number of blocks N/S and E/W to find a destination. In London, you pretty much just tell the cabbie where you want to go, and somehow they can just take you there. This is due to the knowledge, a comprehensive map of London's streets that's more or less been tattooed on the cabbie's brain.

To be licensed as a London cab driver you must acquire the knowledge, a process that takes a few years of study. To demonstrate a mastery of the knowledge a prospective cabbie must undergo a series of tests that involve finding the most efficient path to a destination taking time of day, road works, and passenger preferences into account, while simultaneously being able to name every street traversed during the journey as well as being able to recite what's visible along the road on the way. Apparently obscure destinations are often thrown in to test depth of knowledge, and a cab driver is also expected to be able to recommend attractions, restaurants, and pubs to passengers who inquire about them. Clearly, cab drivers are expected to serve as unofficial good-will ambassadors for the city. And I have to say it works pretty well.

You can easily spot a cabbie in training in London; these are the people on the scooters with a clipboard mounted on the handlebars that's holding a map. They can be found in traffic frequently checking their map, or pulled off to the side where they're studying the map and the surrounding area. Obviously, you have to really want to do this job, as it's clearly no picnic to become a black cab driver.

Generally speaking a Chicago cabbie doesn't fare well in a comparison with the London version. While Chicago cabbies are expected to know the major streets in town, they often need the fare's help in finding the final destination. Not only is the London cabbie required to know how to get you to the doorstep of your desire, but are also expected to know points of interest along the way, including "streets, squares, clubs, hospitals, hotels, theatres, embassies, government and public buildings, railway stations, police stations, courts, diplomatic buildings, important places of worship, cemeteries, crematoria, parks and open spaces, sports and leisure centres, places of learning, restaurants and historic buildings" (quoted form the Wikipedia article linked above). Essentially, you could book a cab for a day and have a pretty thorough tour of London.

And somewhere in this I can't help think there's a bit of insight to be had into the folks here. In a country that has a reputation for bad service (deserved or not), since 1865 they have institutionalized a level of taxi service that mostly likely has no equal anywhere else in the world. I have to wonder if national pride doesn't play a significant role in not only setting this standard but in people raising to the challenge it presents.

05 August 2009


There are a few common hallmarks of childhood in the US-- superheroes, Barbie, Halloween, scouts. For kids in the UK, one of the common denominators of growing up here is conkers.

A conker is both an object and an activity. From the object perspective, a conker is the nut from the horse chestnut tree, two to three of which can be found within a single spiky green husk. The nut is a gorgeous reddish-brown color, and every time I hold one I find myself sorely tempted to eat it. But it's poisonous to humans, and so they predominantly serve as food for squirrels. The ground around the horse chestnut is littered with these things in autumn, and on public land the tree will be surrounded by kids too, collecting as many nut-filled balls as they can.

This is due to the activity aspect of conkers-- the nut is used in a game of the same name, and kids around the UK can be found playing conkers every fall. To play, you make a hole through the nut and thread a string of some type through it (I hear that the tradition is to use a shoelace), tying a knot at one end to keep the conker from slipping off. Then two players line up for battle: one kid lets his conker hang at the end of the string, while the other kid uses his string to propel his conker at the first kid's in an attempt to smash into it, trying to break it. After the second kid takes his shot, the first kid gets a turn. This keeps going until one conker lies is shards on the ground, leaving the other conker's owner the winner. Lots of conkers get broken while playing, which explains why kids collect so many of them.

As with many things British, I thought my neighbor was pulling my leg when he first told me about conkers, especially since I had never noticed the kids around the trees in the fall. His stories of sore knuckles from errant missiles didn't help convince me that his tale was on the level.

As with almost anything, you can find lots of conker-related websites on the net, telling of “world championship” competitions, relaying playing tips, and even sharing ways to cheat (keeping the conker for a season, for example, is a good way to harden the nut up, while other bake them to increase hardness). And of course, lots of “conker porn”-- lush photos of baskets overflowing with the tempting but inedible nuts.

Now, I can remember collecting acorns as a kid, but for no other reason than it seemed cool to have a bag of acorns (my threshold for cool as a child was pretty low). And I can remember having “buckeye fights' with other kids in the woods of Pennsylvania where I spent some of my childhood. But none of these approached the cultural prominence of conkers. In fact, I can think of no equivalent, certainly not at a national level, that compares (although some some regional practices, like the annual “pumpkin chunking'” contests that go on, are close).

And now I get to relive someone else's childhood. With a 5 year old who's growing up here, my life becomes conker-intensive every autumn, and given that a 5 year old is their keeper, fugitive conkers from last October keep showing up in the odd corner of the house all through the year. Maybe they'll be hard enough to serve as a ringer.

Conker image made available under a Creative Commons license by Andrew Dunn: http://www.andrewdunnphoto.com/

23 July 2009


Getting something notarized in the US is virtually a non-event. Notary publics are everywhere, and often people in your very office have their notary license and can happily notarize documents for you for a modest fee (last I saw it was around $15 or so).

So it was a bit of a shock the first time we had to have a document notarized here, something like 7-8 years ago. It was a document having to do with the sale of our house back in Chicago, and they needed a notarized hard copy of this closing document couriered to them. So the first surprise came when we attempted to find a notary; they aren't as common here as they are in the US. It seems to be a bit more of a specialized service. The second surprise was the fee: ₤75 for the magic stamp. We had it done at a solicitor's office as that was the most convenient place to where we lived, so perhaps it was a bit pricey, but a current Google search of UK notaries yields services with fees ranging from ₤60 to ₤250.

But the real surprise comes when you see the stamp. Here's how it played out for us: we signed our docs with the solicitor in attendance, showing our id to prove who we were, and then the signed docs were whisked away to another room by an assistant. During their absence, we had the standard pleasant chat with the solicitor regarding where we were from, how we were liking the UK, and how we were getting along (very well, thanks). When the docs returned, we weren't prepared for what we saw. No simple rubber stamp was used-- instead, the notary seal was embossed in a big lump of sealing wax on the front page. Embedded in the wax were a few strands of ribbon that were wrapped around the docs in such a way as to make it impossible separate seal, docs, and ribbon. Clearly they wanted no chance of this official affirmation to be separated from the docs it was affirming.

When you finish the notary process, it's very clear that you were then in possession of some Very Important Paper. But it was a mild struggle not to laugh at the pomp of it all. Walking out of there I felt like I was holding the deed to the Louisiana Purchase, not the sale of my little three-bedroom. You've got to wonder about the backstory to that practice.