My Humphry Davy MOOC review and a visit to the Royal Institute, London

I can imagine many of you wondering what on an earth a MOOC is. Simple really. It’s A Massive Online Open Course. Or in other words an online course, often created by a University, open to anyone with an Internet connection. I discovered them recently whilst browsing the web and decided to try one out.

Why did I study a MOOC?

I completed a Natural Sciences degree through the Open University (OU) in my 30s and often think about studying again. However I cannot afford the time or money to study another degree at the moment.

Fortunately many MOOCs are free and take just three to six weeks to complete. In the UK, FutureLearn (a private company offshoot of the OU) have been providing courses since 2013. They work with UK and international universities and provide an eclectic choice of courses. There’s bound to be something for everyone!

Humphry Davy MOOC

Sir Humphry Davy, Bt by Henry Howard oil on canvas, 1803 NPG 4591 © National Portrait Gallery, London
Sir Humphry Davy by Henry Howard NPG 4591 © National Portrait Gallery, London

Created by Lancaster University, this MOOC focussed on the life and works of Sir Humphry Davy. I have a fascination with polymaths and Davy fitted the bill perfectly. Probably best known for inventing the miners’ safety lamp, he was also a chemist and a poet. He isolated several elements, experimented with nitrous oxide, helped found the Zoological Society of London and wrote Salmonia, the fly fisherman’s bible. A man of many talents.

The course took place over four weeks, with about three hours study per week. It’s easy to extend this if you want to read more around the subject; indeed I’ve just bought one of the further reading suggestions.

The course is a mix of online videos, reading and discussions. Each week we looked at two or three different aspects of Davy’s life. For example, investigating the controversy around the Davy safety lamp or looking at Davy’s possible connection to Frankenstein.

The work involved was quite straightforward but I struggled to understand and enjoy some of his poems. Whilst I appreciate Davy’s many talents his poems were not to my taste.

Davy’s safety lamp - and a variety of other designs, Royal Institution, London
Davy’s safety lamp – and a variety of other designs, Royal Institution, London

Students were encouraged to contribute to online discussions with comments and questions after each piece. I didn’t always have time to add my thoughts but it was interesting to read everyone else’s. The course educators also commented and created a weekly summary arising from the online discussions.

Whilst browsing the comments I couldn’t help but sneak a look at some of the other student’s profiles. Most appeared to be retirees who I guess have time on their hands and want to occupy their brain cells. It also appears that once you’ve completed one course you start another. That’s my experience too as I’ve already signed up for another two courses!

And what’s the connection to the Royal Institution (Ri)?

I’m a regular visitor to London but have never considered visiting the Royal Institution. That is, until it was offered as an opportunity as part of the Humphry Davy course.

Founded in 1799, the Ri was set up to promote scientific education and research. Humphry Davy lectured at the Ri; his chemical experiments were incredibly popular but would be a health and safety nightmare today.

Professor Frank James at the Royal Institution
Professor Frank James at the Royal Institution

Located in Mayfair the building is set amidst luxury hotels, jewellers (Faberge is at the end of the road) and high end restaurants. Not an area I’d usually visit.

Our course educators had arranged for us to view some of Davy’s notebooks from the archive, take a guided tour of the Faraday museum and listen to them presenting in the lecture theatre that Humphry Davy presented in. Professor James even demonstrated how Davy’s safety lamp worked (with real flame!). It was an incredible opportunity to learn more about Davy and a definite highlight of the MOOC for me.

Although the Ri is open to visitors I’m not sure I’d gain the same enjoyment from a visit without the context of the course. You’d need an interest in the history of science to truly appreciate the Faraday museum but I’d certainly attend the regular public lectures if I lived closer.

My introduction to the world of MOOCs was an excellent experience. I think my other FutureLearn courses will have a high bar to overcome!

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10 quirky ways to spend an hour in London

According to my oracle (Trip Advisor) there are over 1600 attractions in London. Enough to fill years of sightseeing. But what if you’ve only got an hour to spare? Maybe you’ve seen the major sights and are looking for something different. Well, look no further; here’s my top ten quirky ways to spend an hour in London:

1. Shop for silver at The London Silver Vaults, Chancery Lane

The place to buy silver in London. Housed in a large underground vault there are silver shops for all occasions and budgets. Access is via a security check and huge steel doors; all I could think about was the Hatton Garden robbery!

London silver vaults, Chancery Lane
London silver vaults, Chancery Lane

There are silver items galore in the shop windows, most leaning towards traditional rather than contemporary design. We didn’t buy anything but it’s definitely the place to come if you’re looking for a special gift.

And I’ve happily ticked this off my UK bucket list.

2. Visit a London film set

From Westbourne Park Road (Notting Hill) to Chalcot Crescent (Paddington) London is packed with film locations. A quick Internet search will help you find your favourite film locations.

Regency cafe, London
Regency cafe, London

My favourite? It has to be the Regency Cafe on Regency Street. A star of the film Layer Cake (and several other TV productions) I primarily love this cafe for its huge fried breakfasts!

3. Tour West Highgate cemetery

The hour long tour around West Highgate cemetery takes you through an Egyptian Avenue, into the catacombs and on a whistlestop tour of the resting places of many notable Victorians. Ivy and bracken spill over the gravestones and danger signs mark out unstable crosses; it really couldn’t be more atmospheric! Read more about our visit to Highgate Cemetery.

4. Admire the carvings at BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir, Neasden Temple

Be transported to India in Neasden. This huge Hindu temple is made from intricately carved marble, granite and limestone. The story of its construction is incredible; more than 26,000 parts were carved in India,  shipped back to the UK and assembled by over 1000 volunteers.

BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir
BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir

Neasden temple is open to visitors from Monday to Saturday 9am-6pm. As the temple is a place of worship do read the visitor guidelines beforehand. You can read about our visit here.

5. Play the games at Novelty Automation, Holborn

This strange mix of arcade machines would have been at home in Banksy’s Dismaland.

It’s a hugely imaginative, irreverent and entertaining place to spend an hour or so; our family loved it. There’s no entrance charge, simply pay for the machines you want to use (generally £1-3 per go).

Novelty Automation, Princeton St
Novelty Automation, Princeton St

My daughter braved the Autofrisk machine, whilst I tested my nerve in the dog’s cage. I don’t want to spoil your fun by revealing what happens!

6. Grant Museum of Zoology, Bloomsbury

This University zoological museum is stuffed (literally) full of preserved animal specimens and skeletons. Housed in a single room you’ll find dodo bones, dissected brains and a python skeleton. It’s most popular exhibit appears to be a jar of moles!

The Grant Museum of Zoology is open Monday to Saturday afternoons, admission is free.

7. Buy a neon sign from Gods Own Junkyard, Walthamstow

Tucked away on an industrial estate this is the place to go if you’ve ever wanted to buy a neon sign. Or just to look at someone else’s collection of them. Although housed in a relatively small unit it’s packed with neon lights and retro signs.

Gods Own Junkyard, Shernhall St
Gods Own Junkyard, Shernhall St

Out the back there’s a small cafe; grab a coffee and slice of cake to enjoy in the courtyard garden whilst you contemplate where to put a neon sign in your home.

8. Sir John Soane’s Museum, Lincoln’s Inn Fields

A museum worthy of a longer visit but doable in an hour. This architect’s house is packed full of antiquities, paintings, sculptures and a sarcophagus. It’s eclectic, cramped and definitely quirky.

Sir John Soane’s museum is open 10am-5pm Tuesday to Saturday. Entrance is free, no photography allowed.

9. Ride the Emirates Air Line across the River Thames

A fun way to cross the River Thames. The cable car provides great views of London and it’s much cheaper than many other viewing experiences in the city.

Cable car across the Thames

We combined our visit with a trip on the DLR and a boat ride along the Thames, taking full advantage of our London travelcard.

10. Hunt out street art

We enjoyed searching for street art in the area around Brick Lane. It’s easy to find (sometimes with help from the Internet) but if you’d like to find out more about the artists and their work I’d recommend joining a street art tour.

I hope you’ve enjoyed my list of quirky things to do in London in an hour. What else would you add to the list?

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10 things to do in and around Hawes, North Yorkshire

I loved visiting the Yorkshire Dales last year. We stayed in the small market town of Hawes, which is a great base for a Yorkshire Dales holiday. There are several attractions in the town itself and there’s plenty to see in the local area. Read on for our suggestions:

1. Wensleydale Creamery

By far the best known attraction in Hawes is the Wensleydale Creamery, home of Wensleydale cheese. The centre offers cheese making demonstrations, a small museum and viewing gallery, cafe and shops. The creamery has a lot to thank Wallace and Gromit for; the animated duo helped increase production at a time when sales were slowing. Nowadays the creamery sells a cheese named after them, I bet it’s a popular choice for visitors.

Wensleydale creamery
Wensleydale creamery

The best part, for most visitors, is the cheese shop. It’s full of samples, even for those people who (dare I say this) don’t like Wensleydale cheese.

You can visit the cheese shop for free; a family ticket (2 adults and 2 children) to the museum and cheese making area costs £7.50.

2. Hardraw Force waterfall

Hardraw Force is England’s highest above ground single drop waterfall, with a plunge of 100 foot. It’s a short easy walk to the waterfall through the grounds of the Green Dragon Inn. We visited during a dry spell; I’d imagine it’s even more impressive after heavy rain.


The waterfall is open daily from 10am. A family ticket (2 adults, 2 children) costs £7.50.

3. Hawes Ropemakers (Outhwaites)

Outhwaites Ltd, Ropemakers, Hawes
Outhwaites Ltd, Ropemakers, Hawes

Located in the town this traditional ropemaker is worth popping into for 20 minutes or so. It’s mesmerising standing in front of the machines watching rope being made. There are machines making braids of all thicknesses and lengths from church bell ropes to skipping ropes. And if you’ve got a dog, their leads are available to buy and very popular.

Entrance is free.

4. Sheepdog demonstration

Countryfile have resurrected “One man and his dog” over the last couple of years which may account for the popularity of this evening out.

Sheepdog demonstration, near Hawes
Sheepdog demonstration, near Hawes

Run by a local farmer, Richard Fawcett holds weekly demonstrations in a field just outside Hawes throughout the summer season.

Visitors are introduced to the dogs and watch them working the sheep. They make it look easy even if the sheep don’t always behave according to plan!

Check Richard’s website for details of upcoming dates and times. Tickets cost £5 for adults, £1 for children.

5. Dales Countryside Museum

The Dales Countryside Museum is a small local museum that focusses on the Yorkshire Dales and its people. Housed in the old railway station you’ll find exhibits ranging from Bronze Age spearheads to a Victorian smithy. Outside there are railway carriages with activities for younger children.

Dales Countryside Museum, Hawes
Dales Countryside Museum, Hawes

The Dales Countryside Museum is open daily except over the Christmas period and throughout January. Admission is £4.50 for adults, children are free.

6. Red squirrel spotting at Snaizeholme

First, an admission. We didn’t see any red squirrels because we didn’t actually make it to the squirrel viewpoint. Why? We made the mistake of randomly driving to the area shown on the Red Squirrel Trail map without arranging parking first. Don’t make the same mistake as us. Call in to the tourist information at Hawes to arrange parking before you go! Alternatively you can book the on-demand bus service from the Dales Countryside Museum.

Once you’ve conquered the transport there’s a 40 minute walk to the red squirrel viewing area where, hopefully you’ll be able to spot one.

7. Drive up Buttertubs Pass

Buttertubs Pass links Swaledale with Wensleydale and has the rather dubious accolade of being Jeremy Clarkson’s favourite road in the UK. I can understand why petrol heads might enjoy zooming around the twisty turns and bends but I decided on a more careful driving style.

Buttertubs Pass
Buttertubs Pass

We drove up on a misty and murky day. About halfway along there’s a small lay by to pull in and view the buttertubs; deep limestone potholes once used to store (you can probably guess) butter. Heading back towards Hawes the clouds cleared and we were treated to great views, and a very low flying helicopter!

8. Aysgill Force

We walked from Gayle Mill, along the beck to Aysgill Force. It’s about a mile or so to reach the 40 foot waterfall. Well worth the effort, although be prepared for mud and slippy sections if visiting after rain.

Aysgill Force, near Hawes
Aysgill Force, near Hawes

9. Gayle Mill

Gayle Mill is a restored 19th century sawmill with working machinery and water powered turbines.

The mill can only be visited on a guided tour but, if like us, you arrive at the wrong time you can always browse in the craft shop. Gayle Mill also offers heritage craft workshops with some great options such as making your own cartwheel (sadly rather pricey).

Gayle Mill, near Hawes
Gayle Mill, near Hawes

10. Explore the village

I’ve seen Hawes mentioned as a tourist honeypot but I think it manages to absorb visitors without harming the character of the town. It’s easy to spend an hour or two browsing the shops and stopping at one of the cafes. Although if you visit on a Bank Holiday weekend be prepared for hordes of motorcyclists, all apparently visiting for fish and chips!

I hope you’ve enjoyed these suggestions. If you’re looking for an active break in the Yorkshire Dales you might also enjoy reading about our Three Peaks walks and our trip down Gaping Gill pothole.

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Exploring World War 2 London with children

A visit to the Imperial War Museum in London has been on the cards for some time but we wanted to wait until the children were old enough to understand and appreciate it. They’ve both learnt about the Second World War at school now so during half-term we combined the museum with a trip round London to view some of the other war legacies.

If you’re interested in a similar exploration I’ve listed below the places we visited and further suggestions that could be incorporated. I wouldn’t advise following our exact route; I had specific plans for lunch so our itinerary is based as much around our stomachs as World War 2 sites!

Site of the first bomb on the city of London, Fore Street

We started in Moorgate, looking for a plaque which commemorates the first bomb of World War 2 to fall in the City of London. It’s thought that German bombers were heading for an oil refinery along the Thames but dropped them, possibly mistakenly, over the city instead.

Plaque to remember possible site of first Second World War bomb in London, Fore Street
Plaque to remember possible site of first Second World War bomb in London, Fore Steet

Much of the City was rebuilt after the war but it seems to me that it’s being rebuilt again. The whole area around Moorgate Underground station is a building site which made it a little difficult for us to find the plaque. When we finally found Fore Street a construction worker kindly pointed out where to see it (down the end near St Giles Cripplegate Church).

Christ Church Greyfriars

We walked from Moorgate to Christ Church Greyfriars. Almost all churches in the City of London were damaged during the Blitz, including many designed by Christopher Wren after the Great Fire of London. Christ Church was one of eight Wren churches hit on the night of 29th December 1940.

The ruins of Christchurch Greyfriars
The ruins of Christ Church Greyfriars

The church was almost completely destroyed although the west tower survived and is now a private house; what an amazing place to live! The remains of the church are a public rose garden, perfect for lunchtime breaks.

St Paul’s Cathedral, just a few minutes from Greyfriars, escaped major damage despite almost all of the surrounding buildings being destroyed. This was mainly due to a group of fire fighters who took special care to protect the cathedral.

World War 2 shelter sign – 36 Longmoore Street

Although the Underground stations famously doubled as air raid shelters during the war many other places were also put to use. These were signed to help the public locate them, some of these are still visible today.

One sign can be found at 36 Longmoore Street. Walking along the road you can see that most of the residents have converted their basements to kitchens. Back in World War 2 public shelters were found in vaults in these basements. We could just make out the writing on one of the walls directing people down the stairs to the shelters.

Public shelter sign, 36 Longmoore Street
Public shelter sign, 36 Longmoore Street

Whilst trying to find out more history of the street I couldn’t resist a peak at property prices. The relatively modest 3 bedroom houses all appear to be worth upwards of £1.8 million, wow!

Tate Britain bomb damage

Few places in London were immune to bombing damage in the Second World War. Even Tate Britain suffered as you can see from the photos below. I wonder how many people notice this when they visit the galleries?

Tate Britain war damage
Tate Britain war damage

I popped inside briefly to confirm that we were actually looking at bomb damage and spoke with a helpful assistant. He told us that the gallery was damaged by bombs several times in the war but most of the art was moved to Picadilly Underground tunnels for safe storage (the door key is on display in the gallery).

Imperial War Museum

Our main destination was the Imperial War Museum which covers conflicts from World War I onward. Although we were primarily there for World War 2 we also visited the Great War exhibits and had a brief look around at the more recent collections.

I thought the World War I rooms were by far the best, although busy due to school holidays. In comparison the World War II rooms didn’t seem as comprehensive although there was still plenty to see.

Japanese Zero fighter, Imperial War Museum
Japanese Zero fighter, Imperial War Museum

Whilst the children liked the big and obvious military exhibits I preferred the personal aspect of war stories. For this reason I focussed on the Family in Wartime exhibition which explored the life of the Allpress family during the Second World War. As well as reading and listening to audio clips about how their lives were affected there was a model of their home and an Anderson shelter.

I enjoyed seeing this letter from an evacuee, particularly the postscripts. I could imagine writing them myself as a child!

Evacuee letter, Imperial War Museum
Evacuee letter, Imperial War Museum

We missed the Holocaust exhibiton out as it’s only recommended for children aged 14 and older. I’ve read that it’s incredibly moving and sobering; definitely worth a visit on a future trip.

Admiralty Citadel

Our last stop of the day was the Admiralty Citadel. I loved seeing this! The Citadel is one of the ugliest and most out of place buildings you can imagine. It’s ‘hidden’ in full view of the public just off of Horse Guards Parade. Can you imagine this getting planning permission nowadays?

Spot the Citadel!
Spot the Citadel!

The bomb proof citadel was built as the Admiralty communications centre in 1940 and is linked by tunnels to government buidings. It has a 6 metre thick concrete roof which was laid with a grass lawn to help camouflage it. Take a look at this British Pathé film of the roof grass being cut and raked back in 1950.

The building is still in use today; I’d love to pop in for a nose around!

More World War 2 sites in London

We only scratched the surface during our trip. Other World War 2 sites in central London which I came across during my research are shown below.

Cabinet War Rooms, King Charles Street: the secret underground bunker used by Winston Churchill during Word War II. We had planned to visit this but ran out of time. Entrance charge applies.

HMS Belfast: highly recommended. This floating museum ship shows how life was on board during and after the second world war. Lots of stairs and ladders so not for those with mobility issues. Entrance charge applies.

Churches: All Hallows-by-the-Tower survived the Great Fire of London but was almost destroyed in the Blitz; you can still see lead from the roof which melted during the bombing. St Dunstan-in-the-East was destroyed in the war but the ruins have also been turned into a public garden.

Air raid shelter signs: can be found in Queen Anne’s Gate, Brook Street and Lord North Street

Memorials: The Cenotaph and Monument to the Women of World War II are both on Whitehall. The Animals in War memorial can be found in Brook Gate, Park Lane.

Have I missed any? Let me know if you can suggest other central London World War 2 sites.

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