Archive for September, 2009

Dublin – Let There Be Light

River Liffey, Dublin, copyright Claire Burdett

River Liffey, Dublin

The Art of Light in the City of the Black Stuff

Dublin is full of light; a clear, luminous light that is the result of all the moisture in the air, otherwise known as the weather. And the weather is something that affects the national character as well as the light. When it rains as often as it does in Ireland, when you can have all four seasons in a day, and sometimes in an afternoon, you have two choices as a culture – either you become dour and miserable, or you shrug and make the most of what you do have. And the latter is thankfully what they do in Dublin.

And what they have to make the most of in Dublin is a lot of pubs, the wonderful black stuff (aka Guinness), fabulous raw ingredients within easy reach, their friendliness and sense of humour, their cultural and intellectual inheritance, and, of course, the marvellous light.

It’s quite a lot to be going on with.

Dublin doesn’t feel very cityish, to be honest, not like New York, for example, or Paris. It’s small and rather scruffy, a city that seems to be continually in the midst of reinventing itself. You can be in the centre of the city and see beautiful Georgian houses that are still run-down tenements, look up and see cranes on the skyline in every direction, and turn a corner and have to gingerly pick your way past a derelict building about to be spruced up.

It’s like there’s a city-wide “How clean is your house?” meets “What’s your house worth?” television programme going on that you haven’t been told about, and somehow you keep expecting God to appear in a blinding flash, booming “Let there be light!” and “ta da!” suddenly the freshly-minted and shiny city of Dublin will appear from behind all the plastic sheeting.

In the meantime, while you are waiting for that blinding revelation, there is much to enjoy. Dublin is fairly compact and so entirely do-able in a weekend. And it is best to walk because not only will you want to take advantage of the fabulous hostelries for pit stops, but also because Dublin’s jewels are for the more discerning, those with time to look and find, because they have to be sought out, unlike Oxford, Bath, or Rome, say, where they are massed densely in whatever direction you look.

For a Catholic city stuffed with churches, the ecclesiastical architecture isn’t in your face. The cathedrals look more like churches and the statues are all of (important, inspirational, but still ordinary) people rather than angels, Madonnas, Emperors, Kings or cherubs. And while this could be disappointing if you were hankering after grand and awe-inspiring extravaganza, it actually forms part of the city’s appeal. Dublin is on a human scale, which is entirely as it should be because the real gems of this city are its friendly and chatty people who are rightly most famed for their way with words (blarney starts right here!), their wit, and their hospitality, rather than their history or their pomp and ceremony.

And it isn’t an urban myth that Dubliners are welcoming and talkative. Everyone here has an opinion, and often many more than one, and no Dubliner seems to have taken on board their Mother’s warnings about stranger danger because they talk to everyone and anyone about everything. And everyone knows how to drink, And dance. And argue. And tease. And laugh. So if you are of a sociable persuasion it’s almost impossible not to have a good time, even if you are on your own. Perhaps especially if you are on your own.

The creative and intellectual inheritance of Dublin is phenomenal, especially considering its diminutive size. Some of our foremost and most popular intellectuals and crusaders, authors and musicians originated here, including U2, Bob Geldof (and his Boomtown Rats), Thin Lizzy, James Joyce, W.B.Yeats, Elizabeth Bowen, Bram Stoker, Samuel Beckett, Oliver Goldsmith, J. M. Synge, Oscar Wilde, Jonathan Swift, Roddy Doyle, Maeve Binchey, Basically if there’s something relevant to the human condition that needs commenting upon or expressing, in whatever form, you can bet a Dubliner won’t be far away.

Nowadays the city hosts a huge amount of music from big rock concerts and top djs to classical events and the Eurovision. On a more personal level, the city has a tradition of making music that, unlike many Northern cultures, it has retained, so nobody will complain or be upset if you’re listening to someone playing in a pub and you decide to join in for the ‘crac’ – in Dublin it can be live karaoke every night.

Put this all together and you have a social culture that is second to none. Because of the weather, no one in Dublin expects it NOT to rain, so the whole brave expectation you get in so much of England, of tables set out on patios and in courtyard with the hope that it will be warm and sunny, is missing. The Dubliners expect it to be moist, breezy and possibly a tad chilly, and they are rarely disappointed – and isn’t it a nice surprise when it isn’t? But like all Northerners they crave the light, so here you get a neat solution – nearly every café, restaurant, or bar you go into of any size either has walloping huge glass doors and windows to bring in the light, or glass atriums, or lots of skylights, or all of them together, plus walls of mirrors that reflect the light and make the most of every ray.

It occurs so often that it becomes a noticeably Dublin feature, a design signature if you like. Add the reflective and metallic vases and surfaces that they use everywhere, plus the retro furnishings combined with funky modern Irish designs, and you have a very stylish, inside kind of city that is dazzlingly full of light and luckily doesn’t take itself too seriously.

Getting There

Whenever you go it’s almost certain to rain, although it tends to be a soft kind of nothing rain in the summer, hardly enough to bother getting your umbrella out, unlike the storms that can blow up from the sea in winter. There’s something major happening most months, depending on your personal taste – August sees the Temple bar Blues Festival, September brings Dublin’s answer to the Edinburgh Fringe. In October you can sample the delights of the Dublin Theatre Festival, November sees the start of Opera season, while March is all about St Patrick and the black stuff, with parades and fireworks.

Following the introduction of cheap flights (see below) Dublin has rather turned into a weekend Stag and Hen land, with an influx from the UK on a Friday afternoon through to Sunday, and it gets crammed and somewhat messy. So if that’s not your bag, go midweek.

Flights go from Bournemouth, Bristol, London, Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester, Blackpool, Leeds, Durham, Newcastle, Edinburgh, Glasgow, and Aberdeen, and cost anywhere from £20 up to £170 return, depending when you go and which airport you fly from (it’s worth checking the ones within striking distance). The most popular airlines are Ryan Air and Aer Lingus. Make sure you wear your walking shoes on the plane – Dublin airport is, like so much of the city, being refurbished and improved and the walk to the baggage area is very very long.

Where to Go

At the centre of the Dublin lies College Green, and this is a good place to get your bearings.

Here the main 18th century promenade, O’Connell Street, leads down from the north of the city, punctuated by the Spire of Dublin (see below) and numerous statues of influential and significant people, to cross the Liffey and arrive at College Green between the Bank of Ireland (the old Parliament building) and Trinity University. Here the north to south road, now called Westmoreland Street, meets Dame Street, which travels west from College Green up towards the Old City, and College Street, which heads off east along the flank of Trinity and ultimately leads to the City Quay. The southern route travels on as trendy Grafton Street towards the Georgian splendour surrounding St Stephen’s Green.

In the centre of College Green stands the statue of Henry Gratton, Prime Minister and a supporter of Catholic Emancipation (see box), caught declaiming one of his ringing speeches towards the front of Trinity and the statues of two of Trinity’s famous alumni, Edmund Burke and Oliver Goldsmith.

Bank of Ireland
The 18th century, curving, colonnaded building that is now the Bank of Ireland began life as the Houses of Parliament. The House of Commons is now the bank’s cash office, but the House of Lords is relatively untouched and can be visited. There are guided tours – don’t miss the fabulous 1,233-piece chandelier and splendid Huguenot tapestries.

The university was founded by Elizabeth I in 1591, and only Protestants were admitted until 1793, with Catholics only really attending in any numbers after 1970. Trinity now has over 5,000 students and is considered a close third in preference for students after Oxford and Cambridge. The famous Book of Kells is housed here in the Treasury, while Brian Boru’s Harp (the one that appears as Ireland’s icon) is displayed in the breathtaking Long Room.

Grafton Street area
Grafton Street is the city’s main social and shopping artery, with numerous alleys and streets and shopping areas leading off and situated around it (Dawson Street, Wicklow Street, South Grafton Street, Powerscourt Townhouse Centre), all filled with a wide selection of shops, bars, cafes, and pubs. At the entrance of Grafton Street stands a very buxom statue of Molly Malone, she of the city’s most famous song “In Dublin’s Fair City” and who, in typical deadpan manner, is known in Dublin as the “tart with the cart” (told you they had a way with words). The street itself is constantly filled with buskers and street performers, as well as flower sellers, and although it seems buzzy, it is a street along which to amble, not power walk.

St Stephen’s Green
At the end of Grafton Street you will find the Fusilier’s Arch that marks the entrance to St Stephen’s Green, a nicely informal park that is a very pleasant place for a stroll or a picnic, especially on weekday lunchtimes when there is always a band performing in the bandstand, regardless of the weather.

Marrion Street area
At the far end of St Stephen’s Green, beyond the Shelbourne Hotel (see below) lies the Marrion Street area, famed for its beautiful Georgian houses, and home to Dublin’s political and government life. Here you can visit Newman House, where you can see the finest examples of Irish 18th century craftsmanship, as well exquisite furnishings from the period.

The Old City
Take a westerly walk up Dame Street from College Green, and visit St Patrick’s Cathedral, Christ Church Cathedral, and Dublin Castle for a taste of Dublin’s most colourful period of history. The guided tour of the castle takes you through sumptuous state apartments from where English rule held sway over Ireland for seven centuries, while in the basement are the interesting remnants of Viking settlement. Outside in the courtyard you can check out the statue of Justice holding her scales over the archway “with her face to the Castle and her back to the city” as disgruntled Dubliners were wont to remark.

Guinness Storehouse
Everyone should visit this temple to one of Ireland’s greatest exports. It’s no showroom or factory outlet, but a full-blown, creatively-conceived and craftsman-built installation that explores every layer of the history, creation and marketing of this most famous drink and brand – quite literally as its all arranged on ascending floors. The entry ticket also includes a complementary pint of Guinness straight from the factory and enjoyed at the top of the building in the *8 bar, which gives you a 350° view of Dublin (you can play Spot the Crane) and the beautiful Wicklow mountains, 30 minutes to the south of the city.

The Guinness is, of course, excellent.

Temple Bar
Quirky artisan and arts area that despite having been ‘discovered’ and becoming a Mecca for Stag and Hen parties still retains much of its charm (look for the engravings in the flag stones) and is a popular student hangout. The pretty Ha’penny Bridge (that was the toll to cross the river) crosses the Liffey here – go through the Merchant’s Arch on the north side of Temple Bar.

The Custom House
On the north side of the river lies the French-inspired 18th century ‘palace’ that was commissioned by the chief taxman of the time. Topped by the Statue of commerce, the Custom House now houses the Department of Environment and Customs and Excise. There is a visitor’s area where you can appreciate the neo classical design and interior.

The Four Courts
Also on the north side of the Liffey is the Four Courts. Designed by the Gratton, the architect responsible for the Custom House and the Bank of Ireland’s façade, the circular and colonnaded Four Courts houses Ireland’s High Court and Supreme Court.

The Spire of Dublin
Casually referred to by Dubliners as the “Spike”, this was erected in 2002 on O’Connell Street, and is constructed of rolled stainless steel, rising 120 metres with a luminous tip. Its shiny form reflects the weather and the light in a wonderful way, the whole of it glowing in the setting sun and the tip seeming to disappear in the cloud on overcast days.

Where to drink

Nearly every pub is a gem in Dublin, but here are a couple of particularly choice ones you really shouldn’t miss.

The Old Stand
Exchequer Street

One of the oldest pubs in Dublin, with the original charter thought to have been granted in the 15th Century, The Old Stand is on the excellent Literary Walk, which tells the tale of writers and their drinking holes (get details from the Tourist Information Centre, St Andrew’s Street). The décor is unspoilt (you step down into a flagstoned interior), the food is good, and the bar staff friendly and knowledgeable.

The Horseshoe Bar
Shelbourne Hotel, St Stephen’s Green

Horseshoe-shaped bar in the Shelbourne Hotel (see Where to Stay, below) that sees an influx of politicians, government bods and media types in the early evening, Has a “clubby” décor (the owners retained it’s original design when the hotel was recently refurbished) and the standard of people watching is superb.

Where to Eat

The food in Dublin is good. The mix of Mediterranean influences and fresh local ingredients is a winner, and you will be hard pressed to have a bad meal here, whether you eat in a café, a pub, or a restaurant.

Café en Seine
Dawson Street

The Café en Seine is a beautiful light-filled place designed with a funky Art Deco theme and filled with eye candy is every direction, including a Louis XIVth bust, brass chandeliers, ornate mirrors, and 40ft palms. Like many Dublin establishments, it is a café by day (go for Sunday brunch, when some of Dublin’s best jazz bands play) and a happening pub by night, complete with bands and djs.

Dakota Bar
South William Street

By day a bistro filled with light and congenial chat, by evening a social hot spot with cocktails and food for the young crowd. The food is local produce with a Mediterranean twist, and is excellent – try their spicy fish cakes with lime crème fraîche or pan-fried fillets of wild Irish salmon, or their Irish bangers and mash if the weather has you craving comfort food.

The Cedar Tree
St Andrew’s Street

Lebanese restaurant that is always full and always has people waiting (best to pop in early and book ahead, or ring). The menu is comprehensive, with everything you’d expect including lots of vegan and vegetarian options. The service and ambience is fabulous (they will cook something specially for you), and although it is quite pricey it’s probably one of the very best vegetarian options in Dublin.

The Port House
South William Street

Candlelit cellar Spanish restaurant with masses of ambience and appeal: they run a waiting list for tables, it’s that popular – and rightly so. The food is good and there’s a great wine list – try any of their pinchos (means on a stick) or cold tapas while you are waiting for a table or as a starter, and then try their Galician octopus with smoked paprika, or spicy lamb stew with paprika, peppers and garlic, or Pisto manchego, a vegetable slow-cooked stew topped with cheese.

Bad Ass Café
Crown Alley

Studenty haunt in Temple bar, the Bad Ass is a typically Irish café/bar that is perfect for a pit stop – the light floods in through the huge windows, the orders whiz down to the kitchen and bar on what looks like a home-designed pulley system, and the menu is littered with puns on its name. The food isn’t bad either, although not in the gourmet stakes. Try their The Bad Ass Got Your Goat salad (goat’s cheese and pine nuts) or their Pesto We’re Impressed-O pizza – or ask for the DIY list and create your own.

The Lemon Crepe and Coffee Co.
Dawson Street & South William Street

Funky little coffee and crepe cafes, with huge selection of pancake fillings on offer, from their lemon breakfast crepe with maple syrup and lemon through to the creamy pastrami filled with Irish Cashel blue cheese, pastrami and caramelised onion. If you have a sweet tooth, don’t miss their Choc Ice Baileys crepe, which is pretty much what it says on the packet. Perfect!

Butler’s Chocolate Café
Wicklow Street

Butler’s chocolate is the ‘other’ dark stuff of Dublin, and their first (and still the best) chocolate cafe is situated on the corner of Wicklow and South William Street. The coffee is good, the hot chocolate even better, and their handmade Irish chocolates sublime. Odds on you won’t be able to leave without buying a little souvenir – for yourself, obviously, why waste such delights on philistines?

Where to Stay

It’s not a cheap place, Dublin, but the quality of the hotels is good, the breakfasts substantial, and a central location really does mean that here.

Shelbourne Hotel

St Stephen’s Green
Dublin’s finest and the sort of place you feel the need to whisper when you are talking to the reception staff. Has huge amount of old world appeal. Home of the horseshoe bar (see above).

The Morgan
Fleet Street
Cool boutique hotel near Temple Bar where your every comfort is catered for.

Drury Court Hotel
Lower Stephen’s Street
Popular 3-star hotel with large comfortable rooms near St Stephen’s Green.

Trinity College Accommodation
Trinity College
Accommodation in student quarters, with a lovely setting on campus, Available June-September only.

© Claire Burdett.

First published in Citylife Magazine 2008

Please only reproduce this article with permission, in its entirety and with a hyperlink to Thank you. The accompanying photos to this article can be found at


White Hot and Cool

The original Ice Hotel, Sweden

The original Ice Hotel, Sweden

As technological advances push the boundaries of what is possible, our ability to enjoy the winter cold wherever we are increases apace. We now have the largest igloos ever known, carved from the ice and erected anew every year, machines that blast out snow where there isn’t any so we can ski whenever we want, and a London bar totally built and furnished from ice transported from Lapland.

Surreal? Yes, but very hot and very cool. See you there…

Would you like ice with that…?
The world’s first ice hotel, and still the most famous, is the one near the village of Jukkasjärvi in Sweden, 200 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle in Lapland. In the winter of 1989, Japanese ice artists visited the area and created an exhibition of ice art and that spring, French artist Jannot Derid held an exhibition in a cylinder-shaped igloo in the area. One night there were no rooms available in the town, so some of the visitors asked for permission to spend the night in the exhibition hall. They slept in sleeping bags on top of reindeer skin – the first guests of the ‘hotel’.

The entire hotel only exists between December and April and is made completely out of ice blocks taken from the Torne River – even the glasses in the bar are made of ice, something that is replicated in the Absolute IceBar in London, see ‘Chill Out Zone’. The river is covered with an exceptionally clear meter-thick ice layer in winter, and it is this that is used to build and sculpt the ice hotel and the chapel anew every autumn. The latest incarnation has more than 80 rooms and suites, a bar, reception area, and church, and each room is unique, having been designed by a different designer.

Although the hotel itself has become very famous, it stands in what is still pristine wilderness. Around Jukkasjärvi there are vast forests and unclimbed mountains and in winter the white blanket of snow show the footprints from wild reindeer, moose, and wolves. Lapland stretches across four countries and is still the ancestral home of the Sami people, the original inhabitants. In the area around the Icehotel their traditional way of life continues relatively undisturbed by the amazing feat of engineering and technology that rises on the banks of the River Torne each autumn.

The experience of actually staying at the Icehotel is a surreal one, and pretty uncomfortable, truth be known. The hotel is never warmer than -5°C to -8°C inside, which actually feels warm compared with outside. The unique rooms are decorated with ice art and sculptures, and since it is a museum during the day (between 10am and 6pm) the rooms don’t feel ‘yours’ like they do in other hotels, especially as you can’t take your luggage in as it will freeze (the porter takes it to a special heated luggage area) and, apart from in the deluxe rooms, there are no doors, simply curtains. Thermal sleeping bags are provided, and you actually sleep on a bed made of a giant ice block topped with a thick mattress covered in reindeer skins.

Staff wake you in the morning with a mug of hot lingonberry juice, and there are heated washrooms and changing facilities, as well as morning sauna facilities, in the adjoining buildings, all of which is included in the package. The hotel has permanent chalets as well as the Icehotel, so you can stay for longer than a single night (trust us, one night in the Icehotel itself will probably be sufficient), and the hotel specializes in organizing winter adventures for their visitors, such as dog and reindeer sled trips, ice fishing, moose tracking, and the legendary winter ptarmigan hunt, which is conducted entirely on skis.

The ephemeral chapel has become a popular place for children to be baptized and couples to renew their wedding vows, and you can even choose to get married here if you want a wedding day that is truly memorable.

Chill Out Zone

Fancy that, but want a taste of it without having to pack up and travel to Lapland? Then you’re in luck, because the recently opened Absolute IceBar in Mayfair in London offers just that. A collaboration between Absolut and Icehotel, the IceBar is a -5°c vodka bar where everything from the bar stools to the glasses is carved entirely of crystal clear ice imported from the Torne River in Sweden. The £12 cover charge gets you entrance, one drink and 40 minutes in the bar. And there’s no need to wear your skiing gear because thermal parkas with attached gloves are provided. Fashionable they are not, but essential if you don’t want to be shivering within minutes of being allowed in through the air-locked entrance, which is specially designed to maintain the -5°C environment inside the bar.

The bar area is rather small, but that’s not an issue since the number of people inside at any one time is regulated (you’ll need to book in advance). The walls are all made of ice, as is the furniture including the telephone booth, and there are photo-opportunities galore, from kissing the statue of a man carved out of ice to toasting the bar staff in their Russian fur hats. The vodka-only menu (there are some alcohol-free drinks) is short, but all the drinks are quite complex (mine had blueberry liquor among other things) and are served in a hollowed-out cube of ice. While the allocated time span might seem short, it is actually quite generous because by the time you’ve finished your first drink (and no, the ice glass doesn’t melt when you hold it), the cold starts to set in and  you need to decide whether to grab a second (iced) drink or move on, perhaps next door to the more chic and warm Below Zero, the lounge and restaurant adjacent to the IceBar.

And yes, it is a bit gimmicky, but let’s face it, where else can you drink perfectly chilled vodka out if an ice goblet while wearing a giant thermal poncho and entombed in ice from Lapland while standing in the middle of London? Hats off to technology and go and experience it at least once.

The White Stuff

Whether you are a seasoned snow-bunny, have baby bunnies in tow, or are strictly aprés, we have rounded up 10 of the very best places to indulge your passion for the white stuff. You can go for black-run thrills, beginner’s lessons, a bespoke chalet party, or just about whatever takes your fancy so long as it involves snow. Santè!

1. Borovets, Bulgaria
Best for families on a budget

Situated in venerable pinewoods of the Rila mountains and the oldest Bulgarian winter resort, with a history dating from 1896, today Borovets is the biggest and most modern resort in Bulgaria. Brilliant for families on a budget, Borovets offers crèches and kindergartens, ski schools, and free lift passes for children aged 8-12, as well English-speaking instructors, traditional folk music and ‘horo’ dancing, barbeques, wine tasting, oh, and good value, very good, skiing for all levels and tastes, including a World Cup run behind the village, night-skiing and ski jumping. See for more details.

2. Chalet La Sonnaille, Chatel Portes du Soleil, France
Best for a family house party

The Chalet La Sonnaille is a small, owner-run chalet in Chatel, an unspoilt village on the French/Swiss border that still has its Savoyarde farming village charm in shovel loads, with pretty, rustic looking chalets and hotels. The Chalet La Sonnaille is a favourite destination with families in the know, who describe it as “fabulous ‘bespoke’ skiing in a house party atmosphere”. Sleeping up to 12 adults and 12 children, if you go with just your immediate family the owners will make sure you are sharing with other families with kids of similar age, although it’s obviously much better fun if you fill the place with all your mates, especially as there is an outdoor jacuzzi, indoor sauna, adults-only lounge, and separate children’s playroom.

Childcare is provided in the chalet for young children and on the slopes with qualified instructors for older kids, with a flexible mix between the two. Book direct at

3. Bacqueira-Beret, Spain
Best for chilling out

Famous as the resort where the Spanish king and his family come to ski, the resort takes its name from the neighbouring traditional Spanish villages of Baqueira and Beret, and is hidden in a secluded Pyrenean valley some 160km from the nearest main airport. Once you’ve survived the hair-raising drive along narrow mountain roads amid spectacular scenery complete with shaggy ponies and cattle, you find a perfect gem of a skiing village. Stunningly beautiful and renowned for the wildlife and sunshine, it’s small, but perfectly formed, with intermediates having the best of the skiing – although for true snow bunnies there’s the infamous Escornacrabes run from the top of Cap Baqueira, a steep and narrow downhill plunge with a name that translates rather ominously as ‘the place where the goats die’! Once there, there’s a range of top class hotels to choose from, including one of the ‘Small Luxury Hotels of the World’, La Pleta, where you can relax in the on-site Spa Occitania. See for details.

4. Krvavec, Slovenia
Best for snow bunnies

If short transfer times and maximum time on the slopes are the only things that really matter to you for a skiing break, then Krvavec in Slovenia beats other resorts standing. It has one of the world’s shortest transfer times from any city airport, at around 15 minutes from Ljubljana by taxi, followed by a seven minute gondola ride right on to the mountain. The wide open, varied alpine meadows at the edge of the Kalška mountain range, do not require a deep blanket of snow to create ideal skiing conditions, and with snow guns to ‘assist’ nature covering up to 90% of the trails, the season normally lasts 150 days and 100 days are guaranteed. See for more details.

5. Banff, Canada
Best for sheer luxury

Pure unadulterated luxury seems strangely out of sync with the bustling and friendly little town of Banff in the Canadian Rockies. Set in the beautiful Banff National Park it’s not unusual to see elk and the occasional moose wandering the streets. However, luxury is provided in no small measure by top flight hotels including the five star Fairmont Banff Springs and the five star Rimrock Luxury Hotel, both offering spa treatments, steaming outdoor pools and hot tubs, and relaxing chill-out lounges. See for more details.

6. Seefeld, Austria
Best for cross-country skiing

Seefeld is the home of cross-country skiing (“langlauf”) and is Austria’s leading cross-country resort, with an impressive 250kms of marked trails including the course designed for the 1976 Olympics and the 1985 world championships. The gentle incline to the slopes of Seefeld also make it a superb place to learn to ski. Seefeld’s position above the Inn Valley, close to Innsbruck, means you can get there is about half an hour from the airport, and there are excellent après facilities, including a huge selection of restaurants and the casino. See for more details.

7. Ischgl, Austria
Best for après ski

Set high up in the stunning Silvretta mountains, Ischgl has become the Alps’ party central. Concerts in the resort routinely feature A list performers, the nightclubs and bars are excellent, and it is true to say that the aprés-ski here is probably the best you’ll find anywhere – once you find out they have their very own Pacha nightclub, you know exactly what to expect! Top spots include the nightclub at the five star Trofana Royal and, obviously, Pacha at the exclusive designer hotel, Madlei, a mere 100m from the skiing track. See for more details.

8. Soll, Austria
Best for beginners

Söll forms part of Austria’s large 250km linked ski and snowboard area, known as the Ski Welt, in the Wilder Kaiser mountain range, and is one of the best places to go to learn to ski, although experts find thrills hard to come by. Many good UK ski operators include it in their ‘Learn to Ski’ tuition and equipment-hire packages. A lively and good-value former Tyrolean farming village, it has an abundance of things to do when ski legs tire, including a large sports centre, tobogganing, squash courts, sleigh rides. See for more details.

9. Chamonix, France
Best for snowboarding

Chamonix is legendary amongst the snowboarding community. A traditional Alpine town set against breathtakingly spectacular scenery at the foot of the majestic Mont Blanc (Europe’s highest peak), Chamonix’s long-standing reputation with skiers has been enhanced over the last couple of decades by the growing band of dedicated Chamonix snowboarders, many of whom just went there on holiday and never wanted to go home again. The amenities in Chamonix are excellent, the après ski very good, and you can book yourself into the snowboarding school if you want to learn or improve. See for further details.

10. Sainte Foy, France
Best for style

Exquisitely pretty, traditionally-built French ski resort, Sainte Foy is currently the in-place to go if you want to ski with the in-crowd. Rather lacking on the apres ski front, it more than makes up for it in sheer attractiveness, with charming vistas and sweeping runs, not to mention the style and luxury of the accommodation. Here you will find log fires, saunas, jacuzzis, and every luxury you can imagine, regardless of whether you choose to stay at one of the internationally-recognised hotels or a catered chalet.

There is a concierge service that will help you organise everything you need for the perfect break, from a qualified nanny to reflexology and husky rides, and the restaurants are also superb. See for further details.

© Claire Burdett. Please only reproduce this article with permission, in its entirety and with a hyperlink to Thank you

First published in WTF magazine, 2008


Relocation, Relocation, Relocation

Many Britains dream of relocating permanently to a 'place in the sun'

Many Britains dream of relocating permanently to a 'place in the sun'

Dreaming of big blue skies, sparkling white beaches, sipping a glass of wine outside at a table in the sun…? In short, are you dreaming of being anywhere else but here…? If so, you’re not alone. It is predicted that 10% of Britons emigrated to other countries in 2005, and these figures represent just the latest wave of wanderlust Brits to leave our shores for pastures new.

Strangely, given the furore recently about immigration into Britain from East European countries, we are actually the most likely nation to up sticks and move to a different country and culture. And this is nothing new: emigration is something Britons have done for centuries. Perhaps it stems from being an island nation of seafarers, explorers and colonisers that makes us restless. Whatever it is, the tug of resettlement, of going to live a life elsewhere, does seem to be stronger in the British psyche than it is in most other nations.

All of which is reassuring if you are finding yourself spending a disproportionately large amount of time dreaming of relocating abroad because that means it is a road well trodden. There are enclaves of Britons resident all over the world, from 1.3 million living in Australia, via 761,000 resident fulltime in Spain (and not all of them are retired), to the frankly amazing 900 Brits currently settled in the Ukraine. Each and everyone of these people had to go through the process of creating a new life and leaving their old one, so there are a huge amount of resources available to help you if you choose to do the same.

So who actually relocates abroad?
Emigration from Britain seems to go in waves, generally peaking every 200 years; we are currently witnessing a rising trend, and it is most popular amongst the 30-40 year old age groups. Emigration tends to be higher when our economy is buoyant coupled with a rise in the cost of living in the UK. Many émigrés cite conditions at home as reasons to move, although for most it is eventually the draw of something better that makes them up and leave, rather than home conditions driving them away. A smaller group move abroad because of international assignments, while another group retire abroad, often to Spain.

If you want to try before you buy, so to speak, have a look at, which is good for temporary jobs and studying abroad, as well as ‘teaching English as a foreign language’ placements (also see If you are specifically thinking of studying or teaching abroad then check out the Socrates-Erasmus programme’s website at, which organises student and teacher exchanges. If you are considering volunteering as a first taste, start by looking at

Visit for a comprehensive mini hub offering sound advice from people who have gone before you, as well as country profiles, jobs, properties for sale and rent, plus lots of links to other region-specific websites. They also have a section for people who are considering retiring abroad. The British expat mini hub and magazine can be found at, and provides a lot of essential information for people planning to emigrate, and is especially strong on the financial side of things for before you go as well as once you arrive. is another good resource and expats in Western Europe also benefit from, which covers Belgium, France, Germany, Spain and the Netherlands, as well as featuring the only expat dating site! The HSBC lives up to its tag as the world’s local bank and provides some good information at

Culture shock can be a problem, advises, the language and cultural specialists, who have a selection of really good resources and articles to help you, as well as providing the necessary resources and links to help you learn the language. And if you have a beloved pet you can’t leave behind, check out for comprehensive advice and shipping.

The government’s own resource for can be found at, and is good for getting the facts about tax, pensions, and the like, as well as advice about schooling and education. If you want to move to the USA, Canada, Australia, or New Zealand, is a good resource, as is, which also offers a comprehensive diy immigration kit as well as links, pro-departure seminars and immigration disaster recovery.

If you are looking to buy a property, whether to buy as your new home or as a second home ‘taster’, first get an overview at Then spend some time searching the internet for your chosen country. You will find that the main destinations for Britons moving abroad will have dedicated websites, such as,, and

Tips for Moving Abroad

Advice is invaluable, especially if you are planning on moving overseas without support from your employer and you are buying, so here are some top tops from people who have blazed the trail before you and are already living la dolce vita…

• Learn the language. Vital, and anything is better than nothing – it shows you are making an effort and even just the basics will get you a lot further than you think if you make the effort. Offer free English conversation in exchange for chatting in the foreign language. Be aware that you will have good have language days and bad language days so don’t get discouraged!

• Research the country and areas you want to look at well in advance of going out and take a decent amount of time once you are there to look around.

• Use the internet, books and magazines, but don’t always trust what you read; people are sometimes out to make a quick buck off you, Don’t always believe the scare stories – they are very good for selling advice books!

• Make a list of what you want and what you are looking for. If you can tick off more than half the things on the list you’re doing really well! Don’t just be ruled by your heart, use your head – is it really a good idea to buy the nice chateau or villa or is it better to buy something smaller and/or scruffier and keep some money in the bank just in case?

• Take photos and lots of notes about the areas you are visiting, distances to the shops/schools/bars – airport train station, and why you liked it (or not). You will probably see lots of interesting places so it’s good to keep records with photo documentation, it makes it a lot easier to remember!

• Once you think you have found somewhere you like, move away and look at other areas. If the original area is still calling you back then you know you’re on the right track.

• Rent for a while in the area you want to move to and try different times of the year – you need to see an area at its worst as well as its best.

• Appreciate the culture you might be moving into. Not all cultures are to everyone’s taste and you remember you are moving to their country, so don’t judge your new country too harshly.

• Think about the reasons you are moving and write a list of pros and cons for moving – think them through carefully. Are you running away from something or towards something? The best moves are towards something.

• Look at the legal and health system. Don’t move without getting yourself covered, and check with the Inland Revenue to find out what you need to do well in advance. For example, if you are renting out a property in the UK you will still be liable to pay UK tax. Organise bank account/s well before departure – being stranded with no money is no joke.

• Over-budget and over-estimate everything. This is not a scare tactic, but you just never know and it’s always best to leave yourself some room for manoeuvre.

• Have a back-up plan if things go wrong. In fact, have two.

• Be prepared to feel homesick. You will be way out of your comfort zone but remember that this is an adventure most people will never have the chance to experience, so try and enjoy it!

• Don’t be shy. Ask everyone you meet in the areas you are going to about everything and anything you want to know, and ask your network for contact details of anyone they know in the area. Most people are only too delighted to help a new arrival find their feet.

• Get involved. Go to the local sports events, use the bars and the shops, try and get involved in the community as much as possible, including making new friends.

And most importantly – enjoy!

© Claire Burdett. Please only reproduce this article with permission, in its entirety and with a hyperlink to Thank you.


Rome – City of Emperors, God and la Dolce Vita…

RomeAlthough 21st century Rome is a living museum of centuries of history and culture, it is a modern city that is as much about the people who live here now as it is about those who lived here in the past.

So whether that’s the hip dude in his sharp suit and Armani sunglasses with his pretty amore in her Dolce e Gabbana outfit, staggering heels and toy dog tucked under her arm, or  the duo of elderly matrons with their wheelie shopping bags, gossiping on their way back from market, or a flock of nuns in their white habits stopping for refreshments at the local café, they all typify Roman life against a backdrop that seems straight out a movie set.

Of all European cities, Rome is the ‘one stop shop’ of the entire history of Western civilisation, a layer cake if you like, with each era added on alongside or on top of the previous one, and all in the space of a few square miles. The sheer amount of history and culture, from Emperors and God to incredible art, sculpture, and architecture would weigh down the communal mindset if we were anywhere but Italy, causing the locals to take themselves seriously and reverently.

But it doesn’t.

Instead, Rome is a city of fun and passion, light heartedness, in your face fashionistas and good living (la dolce vita to be sure). It’s a city of immense depth and beauty and significance, but it’s also a manageable city, a city you can easily explore on foot without losing yourself.

The periods butt up against each other good-naturedly, forming an architectural pattern that is reminiscent of a patchwork quilt created over a long lifetime: that piece of Imperial Roman Villa in the wall of that beautiful 15th Century palace, that pagan temple cut and adjusted to accommodate that Baroque church, and that gorgeous picture window and roof garden cut into the roof of a medieval tenement overlooking that fabulous landmark, all with shining gems scattered throughout, such as the Trevi fountain, the theatrical stage set that is the Piazza Navona, and the beautiful Pantheon.

In fact, absolutely everywhere you look there is something amazing, so plan on ambling between key points of interests so you don’t miss anything… that roof garden above your head… a fabulous fountain… cherubs carved into a street corner… an alter to the Virgin Mary tucked in a tiny archway… a view through a doorway into an oasis of a courtyard. And luckily some of the most amazing are all within a relatively small area, so getting your fill of incredible art and architecture is easily achieved just by strolling your way through a long weekend.

Piazza NavonaThe History of Rome

According to legend, the twins Romulus and Remus founded the City of Rome in 753 BC. The city was the cradle of Roman civilization, producing the most enduring empire in the known history of the world, and responsible for the spread of Greco-Roman culture that endures throughout much of the world to this day. Rome is also the home of the Catholic Church, and the State of the Vatican City, lying within the boundaries of Rome, is the smallest independent nation in the world at 44 hectares (108.7 acres), and has it’s own radio station, publishing house, newspaper, and postal service.

Spread across its seven hills, and buzzing with life and activity, 21st century Rome is thoroughly modern and cosmopolitan. As one of the few major European cities that escaped World War II relatively unscathed, central Rome remains essentially Renaissance and Baroque in character, through which you can catch glimpses of the other eras that have shaped it.

Etrusan Rome

Collections of artifacts from Rome’s earliest period of settlement from 800-500BC, including fabulous jewellery, can be seen in the Vatican Museum. Most famously, the bronze statue of the She-Wolf who legend tells as suckling Romulus and Remus after their evil uncle tried to drown them in the Tiber, can be seen in the Capitoline Museum, as well as in replica on signs and buildings throughout the city. The 16th century Villa Giulia in the Campo de’ Fiori area houses an amazing collection of Etruscan tomb artifacts, and the detail and craftsmanship of this artwork from 2,800 years ago will absolutely astonish you – you’ve never seen stuff so old looking so good!

Roman Republic 500-44BC

During the Republican period, Rome’s troops conquered the surrounding tribes and her skilled engineers developed the city itself to accommodate the increasing population. While most of what remains lies underground, like the Tomb of Scipios in the Caracalla district, you can also see remains above ground at the Area Sacra at the Largo di Torre Argentina, the square on the corner of the Campo de’ Fiori area at the top of Via Arenula.

The Ponte Fabricio, located at the edge of the Ghetto on the far eastern corner of the Campo de’ Fiori area, also dates from this era. This bridge was built to link Rome to the Isola Tiberina (Tiber Island), where the sick were sent in to quarantine. There is still a hospital, as well as a beautiful medieval church, St Bartolomeo all’Isola, on the island, and from here you can carry on across to medieval Trastevere, so it’s a great place to see the different layers of Rome all together, including modern Romans sunbathing and playing frisbee.

Imperial Rome

Caesar was assassinated a mere month after he became dictator in 44BC and so began a civil war that ended 17 years later with the formation of Imperial Rome, headed up by the first Emperor, Augustus.

By the 3rd century, the Roman Empire was immense, spreading from Britain in the north to Africa in the south, and this richness and diversity was reflected and celebrated in lavish buildings throughout Rome, as well as in the proliferation of goods and jewellery.

The Colosseum, Rome

The Colosseum, Rome

There remain relics of the period throughout the city, such as in the Jewish ghetto quarter where you can see the remains of the Porto of Octavia, but the sheer magnificence of the time of the Emperors is undoubtedly best conveyed by the Pantheon and the Colosseum.

Early Christian Rome

From the 1st century onwards, Jesus’ teachings of a religion based on ‘One God’ rather than ‘Many Gods’ spread slowly from the outskirts of the Roman Empire. At first Christians were persecuted, yet slowly the new religion gained in converts until it had permeated right to the top of Roman hierarchy by the 4th century, when the first Christian Pope was appointed as Head of State. There are many beautiful churches from the period, many of them converted Roman temples or built on the site of martyrs, such as that of St Cecilia in Trastevere. St Cecilia, patron saint of music (because she sang throughout the hours it took to kill her), was an aristocrat who was martyred here in AD230, and her house can still be seen beneath the gem-like church that was built in her memory in the 4th century.

Medieval Rome

As power shifted east from Rome to Constantinople (modern day Istanbul) in the 4th century, Rome’s population plummeted to a few thousand inhabitants. Throughout the Middle Ages, the importance of the papacy kept the city alive, although violent conflicts and invasions throughout the 10th, 11th and 12th centuries took their toll, resulting in the papacy moving to Avignon in France in 1309. Regardless of the conflicts, many fine churches were built, including Rome’s only remaining Gothic church, Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, near the Pantheon.

Renaissance and Baroque Rome

The Middle Ages saw a shift back towards wealth and power for Rome, but this time it centred on religion rather than political or armed force. The papacy inspired some of the finest artists and craftsmen to work for the glorification of God, leaving an amazing legacy, such as the Sistine Chapel and its frescoes, plus many other fabulous works by such giants as Michelangelo, Bernini, and Botticelli.

Unified Rome

The civil war in Rome in the 1820s centred on the fight to make Rome the capital of Italy and unify the country as a single entity. The rebels eventually succeeded in storming the city wall near Porta Pia, the Pope retreated and Rome was made the Italian capital. Italy’s first King, Victor Emmanuel, was crowned in 1861 and the Victor Emmanuel Monument was completed in 1911. Known rather insultingly as the ‘wedding cake’ or ‘typewriter’, this austere white marble building is one of modern central Rome’s landmarks – there seems to be no point in the City where you can’t spot one or both of the white winged charioteers on top of its two columns, which is great for orientating yourself.

Getting there

There are daily flights to Rome from all the major UK airports: check out Air Alitalia and BA for direct flights; the flight takes about 2.5 hours and you can expect to pay about £150 return. Once you arrive, you can take the train into the centre of the city (€11 euros; takes nearly an hour), which is a great way to get the feel of Rome, although the bustle and confusion of the main train station once you arrive can be off-putting, especially if you don’t speak Italian.

A taxi from the airport to the city centre will cost about €50, with extra charges for lots of luggage and Sunday pick ups, although it does have the advantage of taking you door-to-door and can actually be the cheaper option if there is more than one of you.

If you book in advance you can arrive in style in a Mercedes, as well as it often being a little bit cheaper than an ad hoc taxi – try U.A.R.A. ( or Nando Cese (he speaks decent English) at Limousine Service (Italy +347 8200487).

Tips and recommendations

It’s a friendly place, Rome. The people smile a lot and most will go out of their way to help you. It’s generally clean and extremely civilised, with few of the usual beggars or menacing gangs of youths you can come across in the centres of other cities. The roads are fast and furious, for sure, and the average Italian driver does seem to have a death wish on first glance, but even this is more part of the bravado of the Roman psyche than any desire to do you real harm (even the police ride around on their bikes with their arms in the air!). Act as confidently as they do, swagger your way across the road when you have every right to, and all will be well.

The bus service is okay and once you’re familiar with where you are staying it can be a great way to get ‘home’ if you are fed up with walking at the end of the day, although they can be crowded and when they arrive can be more down to personal whim than the timetable! The metro system is limited and somewhat chaotic, as ancient ruins keep getting unearthed every time the city tries to build an extension!

Many guides include a bus and metro map, which is helpful, and bus and subway tickets are interchangeable. These can be purchased at tobacco shops (tabacchis), news stands, and some bars. Ticket vending machines are also located in stations, on street corners, and at major bus stops. Keep an eye out for the ‘ATAC’ logo. Tickets cost €1 and are valid for either one Metro ride or unlimited bus travel within 75 minutes of validation. A Biglietto Integrato Giornaliero (BIG) ticket allows for unlimited bus or train travel within one day and costs €4. A Biglietto Turistico Integrato (BTI, or a three-day tourist ticket) costs €11.

Taxis are everywhere and very convenient, but will cost you more – there’s a minimum charge of €2.50 during the day and roughly €5 after 10pm, plus a 10% tip as standard.

At most of the major attractions you will also find horse-drawn carriages (carrozzelle) patiently waiting. These will take you from site to site, or can be hired for an hour, half days, or full days. They carry up to five people and the price can be negotiable, especially for longer trips, but do make sure you understand whether it is per person, per hour or for the full trip before moving off.

You can also hire scooters if you want to pretend you’re starring in ‘Roman Holiday’! They, and the helmets, can be hired by the day, and they can be delivered to wherever you want – try for further details.

However, if you are staying in the centre you are unlikely to need to take any transportation at all. Everything major is situated so cheek-by-jowl that walking is the very best way to get around. It also means you get to see the hidden gems and immerse yourself in Roman life.

One word of warning – the entire centre of Rome is cobbled, but the infilling between most of the cobbles has worn away over time, which makes them deadly for walking on in any sort of heel. You will see the diplomatic wives and fashionistas slowly tiptoeing their way down the streets in their stilettos, but it’s not a good move if you want to cover more than one street per day! So ladies, ditch your heels in favour of flat boots, pumps, or trainers.

Walking boots are practical but look so out of place given the overall stylishness of Rome that you may want to give them a miss. And if you haven’t anything flat, funky and comfy in the footware department, don’t worry, Rome has loads of shops specialising in just that type of footware (how else do you think the locals cope?) – try along the Via Giubbonari in Campo de’ Fiori for starters.

So what are you waiting for?
Grab your most stylish clothes and funkiest shoes, pack your guidebook and your sense of adventure, and make an appointment with yourself and a significant other to go on the most passionate, lighthearted and cultural weekend of your life.

Just one word of warning: Once you’ve been to Rome you will want to visit again and again and again because, yes, it truly hold the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven.


© Claire Burdett.

First published in Citylife magazine, 2008. Photos taken by myself and Frank Tyson to go with this article can be seen at


Pulling Wheelies – Future of Biking

Pick up and drop off bike hire is getting more and more popular in European cities.

Bike hire station in Toulouse, France

Suddenly it seems that the humble two-wheeled iron horse has become hot news, with the range of options aimed at filling every niche in the market increasing year on year.

In fact, from funky folding options to robust mountain bikes that are almost weightless, to ride and park city schemes and stylish bespoke makeovers, the bike is fast becoming a central part of worldwide future transportation.

So why now?

Afterall, the bike has been around for a century and a half, so what is suddenly driving its popularity and catapulting it into the realms of uber cool for the first time in well over 100 years? The first, and most obvious reason, for Westerners at least, is pollution and carbon footprints. Bike riding is non polluting, and bike making is generally less polluting than other means of mass produced transportation, such as cars, which obviously means that by choosing a bike over a car you reduce your carbon footprint.

Then there is sustainability. Bikes are cheap to buy and maintain, rarely go wrong and fixing them isn’t usually horribly expensive, unless you have gone truly high end (in which case we’ll assume you can afford your F1 bike!). In addition, traffic congestion doesn’t really affect bike riders, and neither does high parking charges, or indeed the ability to park anywhere at all in some urban areas. The bike is suddenly looking highly attractive…

And finally there’s the issue of lifestyle and fitness, which is an important factor in the sedentary Western world, where fun and sociability are also pegged as good reasons by enthusiasts, despite the weather in Britain threatening put a bit of a dampener on that one, although if the sun is shining the appeal is obvious. Indeed, the trend to get on yer bike is so pronounced that even in the UK, where the cycling hours per person per year is a mere 38 miles a year per person compared with 652 miles a year clocked up in Denmark for every person, there is now a dating website for cycling enthusiasts! See www.cyclingsingles .com if this floats your boat (or pumps your tyres).

Style, design and function
So back to the actual bike. How would you like it, sir or madam?, because let’s be honest here, no longer is a bike just “a vehicle with only two wheels, which is held together by a pipe. The people sit above the pipe and push forward with movements of their feet,” as they were described by one of the Chinese delegates visiting Paris in 1866. Now your bike is a statement of you, and can be as simple, unique, or technical as you choose.

Indian Cool Revival
Following hot on the heels of the phenomenal universal success of Bollywood comes the cool-than-cool bicycles of India. Why so fabulous? Combine funky Indian British style with sturdiness and functionality, throw in low production costs, and you have a winning combination on any continent, a trend bourn out by the current cycle-crazy Dutch love affair for Indian imports. Check out Hero’s Bicycles ( offer a sturdy and funky all-pink “Star-Girl” that has taken the subcontinent by storm and is starting to make an appearance in trendy European cities such as Copenhagen.

Dutch City Bikes
Old fashioned sit-up-and-begs are actually the best urban bikes of choice, as the huge numbers used in China and India demonstrate. This is because they offer the urban cyclist a better view than do racing or mountain bikes, which is essential when negotiating through the traffic or checking for oncoming traffic at intersections or thoughtless pedestrians stepping off the pavement. The design is also more practical for the work-clothes-wearing commuter, while a basket and additional storage makes perfect sense when you have a handbag or laptop to transport…the trouble is that they aren’t, well, very cool. Or rather, they weren’t very cool, until now. If your fancy hasn’t be tickled by the Bollywood bling of Indian imports (see above) and yet you still want something that isn’t frumpy, then check out Dutch city bikes, where design and function come together to create something simple, nifty, and practical. See for inspiration.

At the Cutting Edge of the Mountain
When it comes to technological advances few can match Scotts. This innovative firm has its roots in the middle of the last century when they were the first to come up with the modern-day ski pole design. Since then, Scotts have made it company policy to stay one step ahead of the game with technical advances in the sports arena. They launched their first foray into mountain biking in 1992 with the introduction of the first full-suspension mountain bike, and this was swiftly followed in 1995 by ‘Endorphin’, the first carbon fibre mountain bike. Their latest state-off-the-art baby is the ‘Ransom’, a fully set up, long-travel mountain bike that offers really low weight, deliberately designed crash proofing, and ultra-practical touches, such as bottle holder, enclosed cable lines, and unique triple chamber high pressure ‘Equalizer’ shock system for the smoothest ride in the most challenging conditions.

Folding Bikes
There’s a lot of innovation in the area of folding bikes, although practicalities (wet bikes, cumbersome fold downs, small wheels making the cycling more effort) dictate that these are likely to remain novelties rather than have mass appeal. However, if it ticks your boxes, then you have an increasingly wide and varied choice, most off which are already in production. Check out the chopper-esque ‘Go-Bike’, with its neon orange frame and chopped front end, or the A-framed ‘Strida 3’ that folds down to what looks like a unicycle (but is easy to transport because you can wheel it rather than carry it), and the ‘A-bike’, which most likely has the smallest wheels ever seen on a bicycle. And then there’s the funky ‘eZee Quando’, which looks rather like it’s been made from reclaimed metal tubing, and the prototype ‘Locust’, designed by Josef Cadek in bright green and yellow around a circular centre frame (the bike folds into that; very neat), but which unfortunately looks as if it has just been delivered from Toys R Us.

Customised Bikes
Want something truly unique? You and many others it seems, if up and coming companies such Specialbikes, based in Manchester, are anything to go by. The company takes old bikes and refurbishes them using state of the art parts and highend craftsmanship to create sleek and stylish one-of-a-kind bicycles. Frames are stripped down and sandblasted, and then recoated in a variety of eye-popping colours to each customer’s individual specifications. Offering a unique blend of recycling and customisation, customers can either have their own bikes refurbished or by a ready refurbished one from Specialbike’s stocks.

On yer bike– Schemes and innovations around the world

City Bike Sharing
Schemes for bike sharing and have become the newest 21st century thing in European cities, including Paris, Barcelona, London, and Frankfurt. Exactly how each works varies depending on the operator and city, but all include bikes being parked in busy areas, such as tube stations and public buildings, key interchanges and universities. Some involve clients pre-registering and paying a set fee or the user fee being taken from their registered card; others, such as ‘City Bikes’ in Copenhagen simply require the insertion of a coin to unlock the bike, which are funded by the government and corporate sponsors. All bikes must be returned to a proper rack, much like a paid-for supermarket trolley.

Taxi Bike Rescue
Ever ridden your bike into work and then watched in growing dismay as the clouds open and you know you either have to a) be utterly drenched riding home or b) lug it on public transport to the severe disapproval of your fellow travellers, even if it’s a fold away? Well, this is a dilemma of the past in London since the launch of Climatecars, an eco-friendly taxi service who offer a bicycle rescue service. Each taxi carries a bicycle rack and the extra service is offered at no extra charge. Bargain.

Electric Bikes in China
The world leader in terms of two-wheeled power has recently discovered the joys of the electric bike, or e-bike. Giving the option of using human power or electricity (from a rechargeable battery), with zero local emissions. National E-bike Standards require top speeds of no more than 20km/h, although most bikes are believed to go faster than this owing to consumer demands coupled with lax enforcement of the standard. While there are estimated to be over 450 million bicycles nationally, there are thought to be over 20 million e-bikes in China, with popularity peaking in areas where people are under served by public transport or where they need to commute for long distances.

Brazilian Bike Bus Gyms
In Rio de Janeiro, the Bus Bike is now on the road. The Bus Bike must be the world’s first mobile gym, and is a modified bus containing 16 exercise bikes and offering bike classes with an instructor, as well as changing rooms, fridge and sound system. Members can get on and off at three pre-prescribed stops, and the round trip lasts 45 minutes. Brilliant for people not near enough to a gym for them to visit in their lunchtimes, while watching the buzz and diversity of Rio during your exercise workout must certainly beats the mindless television in the [static] gym.

Indian Re-cycle
Many charities, such as Re-cycle, are refurbishing unwanted bicycles in Britain and other Western European countries, refurbishing them and sending them out to several locations in Africa. Here they are distributed to the most needy and necessary repair and maintenance skills  taught on the ground. Beneficiaries include children, many of whom need to walk upwards of 5 miles each way to and from school; commuters and farm workers; outreach workers, such as medical personnel, enabling them to bring their skills in to more inaccessible places to help the local population; and women who have to deal with a myriad of demands, such as carrying water and goods, getting to and from work, fetching goods to market or children to school, relatives, or other childcare.

And finally, if you needed any more convincing that the bike is the transportation of now and future times, bus-type advertising has hit bikes in the Netherlands.

Here a scheme has been launched to give free bikes to students in return to the bikes carrying the sponsors advertising on a 25cm triangular billboard, as well as fenders and mudguards. So far 22 universities are participating in the scheme and over 4,000 students have signed up.

© Claire Burdett. Please only reproduce this article with permission, in its entirety and with a hyperlink to Thank you.

First published in WTF magazine, 2007


Fashion Spyder

Occasionally something comes along that fills a niche so neatly that you can’t ever imagine how you did without out it.

Spyder ski wear is cutting edge and iconic

Spyder ski wear is cutting edge and iconic

For skiers and outdoors enthusiasts, that something is Spyder wear, first launched over 30 years ago and still breaking new ground every year with their revolutionary technological breakthroughs, cool designs and innovative features, with specially designed clothing for adventurers and skiers alike.

Take their limited edition jacket launched a couple of years ago, which combines innovative fabric MP3 controls with high technology ski wear. The full limited edition outfit includes the jacket, with an integrated iPod employing Eleksen’s smart textile technology. In an amazing fusion of future technology with existing design techniques, Sypder have built the jacket using  ElekTex, Eleksen’s patented conductive fabric touch pad technology, to transform the sleeve into an electronic control panel, allowing the wearer to play, pause and skip tracks simply by touching the control buttons on the arm. The suit is crafted in full stretch fabric with a Dermizax-MP waterproof membrane, exclusive X-static silver fibre insulation, Spylon water repellent coating, and Spyder Heat, their special technology that captures and retains the wearer’s body heat for extended thermal protection.

So what’s the technology behind the integrated iPod? Eleksen’s ElekTex fabric is essentially a sandwich of conductive textiles with two outer layers separated by a partially conductive inner layer. Eleksen’s core technology, ElekTex, is based around a unique sensing fabric, which opens the door to a whole new range of ‘soft’ products as both sensor and interconnectivity are fabric and eliminate the need for external hard components.

Very clever stuff.

And their design innovations just keep on coming, as enthusiasts, such as the US Ski Team and the Canadian Alpine and Freestyle Teams, are well aware. Their Venom brand is designed for cross country, backcountry and freestyle skiers and safety is a prime consideration, so the jacket interior lining sports a white cross on a red background, a universal symbol for distress. Backpack waistband waist entry portals allow the pack straps to be secured under the jacket, not over, so the jacket can be removed more easily, while their updated technology allows an even higher warmth-to-weight ratio, with built in vents in many designs to prevent over heating. They achieve this by their use of patented insulation solutions that use a unique blend of ultra-fine multi-diameter fibres that are specially treated and water resistant, to help form a dynamic insulating structure.

Other innovative features in their suits include the built in shock protectors, which are made from specially engineered material with Intelligent Molecules, which flow with you as you move but lock together on impact to absorb shock. The Intelligent Molecules react instantly, and then when the impact is over they instantly return to their free flowing state, again and again and again.

© Claire Burdett. Please only reproduce this article with permission, in its entirety and with a hyperlink to Thank you.

First published in WTF magazine, 2008. Claire writes, blogs and tweets about technology at The Funky Agency.

NB To see how technology-to-wear has accelerated since this article was written just over a year ago, see


And So To Bath

Weekend breaks - Bath

View of Bath from the rooftop pool at Thermae Spa, Bath. Credit: Thermae Bath Spa

There’s something timeless and yet thoroughly cosmopolitan about Bath.

Perhaps it’s the mix of Roman remains flanked by the Medieval Abbey and surrounded on all sides by stately Georgian architecture. Perhaps it is its situation, nestled in a basin of green hills.

Maybe its just down to the honey-coloured stone that is used everywhere.

Whatever it is, you certainly get the feeling when you arrive that this is a golden, summertime city, comparable in its way to many Italian cities, such as Rome or Venice. Visitors throughout the centuries have felt the same. As Cecil Roberts says right at the end of “And So To Bath”, which was published nearly 100 years ago:

“From the windows of my hotel, as I looked out on the quiet crescent of houses, a glowing sunset made Bath a city of gold. I began to wonder about the many famous figures who had walked these noble pavements, whose sedan-chairs have been set down in many a stately doorway…”

Jane Austin was one of those famous figures, living here for six years in total at the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries. She made Bath the setting of two of her books, ‘Northanger Abbey’ and ‘Persuasion’, and the life she led while she was here is reflected in both stories, and much of what she would have been familiar with still exists today. However, Bath’s history is much more complex and lengthy than Jane Austin would have even started to imagine, and it starts right back with in Celtic time with the goddess of the hot springs, Sulis.

The History of Bath

Celtic Bath
Legend has it that Bath was founded by Bladud, the eldest son of the legendary King Lud. Bladud discovered the miraculous hot mineral springs when he saw that when pigs rolled in the mud they were cured of their scurvy. Although Bath was, in fact, founded nearly 1,000 years after Bladud, it was without doubt a major centre of power in Celtic time, with Celtic forts situated on the surrounding hills and a Druid’s sacred grove, dedicated to the goddess Sulis, in the valley below near the hot spring.

Sulis is a diety who is unique to Bath because the Celts saw her as the very embodiment of the essence of the thermal spring-water, which gushes out of the ground at a rate of a quarter of million gallons/million litres a day, at a constant temperature of 46°C/120°F. The Celts saw this miraculous phenomenon as being nothing less than the nourishing, life-giving waters of the Mother goddess herself. And so Sulis was born.

Roman Bath
Once the Romans arrived, they lost no time in honing in on the potential of the hot springs and a significant and revered town, Aqua Sulis, was established, and the springs were controlled and channelled in to a sophisticated system of baths and the great temple of Minerva was founded. Aqua Sulis was one of the most one of the major therapeutic centres of the Roman world and by the 3rd century its stunning temple and five luxurious baths attracted significant numbers of pilgrims. An elaborate hypocaust heating system serviced a series of hot sweat rooms, with swimming pools and cold rooms afterwards. At the centre, in its own hall and lined with 14 massive sheets of lead, was the Great Bath. Surrounded by the gods, whose statues would have emerged mysteriously from the swirling steam, it must have been one of the wonders of the ancient world.

Water always attracts wishes, and the springs of Aqua Sulis were no exception. Over the centuries, pilgrims inscribed dedications, vows and curses on thin pewter sheets that were then usually rolled up and placed in the water. Typically each curse stated a lost love or piece of stolen property, and there was usually an appeal that the guilty should meet some foul end!

Medieval Bath
In the Middle Ages the benefits of the hot springs were once again utilised after the ‘dark ages’ that followed the departure of the Romans and the invasion of the Saxons. Saxon Christians dismantled the sacrificial altar to use as paving stones for their new monastery. Before long the hot spring had returned to marsh and the site of Minerva’s great temple became a dumping place for town refuse and, in later times, a Saxon graveyard. However, the benefits of the hot springs were recognised by the monks of medieval England, and the monastery that flourished here later in the 14th and 15th centuries offered hospitality for people coming to take the waters of the spring for their health. Begun in 1499, Bath Abbey is the one of the last surviving great English medieval churches. The West Front is unique as it depicts the dream that inspired the Abbey’s founder, Bishop Oliver King, to pull down the ruined Norman cathedral and raise the present building on its foundations, and depicts angels ascending and descending to heaven.

Regency Bath
In 1702 Queen Anne came to take the waters, and a whole new era in Bath’s history was launched as fashionable society followed her lead and within a century the population had risen from 2,000 to 30,000 and Bath became the eighth largest city in England by 1801. The Bath revival in the Regency period had three main figures at the helm:

• Richard Beau Nash – Bath’s Master of Ceremonies, (organiser and leader of the social scene), as well as self-confessed dandy and gambler. He was responsible for much of the levelling of polite society, which meant it was much more acceptable for women to go out on public, and for people to mix across social classes, something that is clearly shown in the novels of Jane Austen. In this way, Nash became a significant architect of social change.

• John Wood Senior – architect of much of Bath’s Georgian splendour, including Queen’s Square. He was later succeeded by his son, John the Younger, who added the gorgeous Royal Crescent as the feather in their joint architectural cap.

• Ralph Allen – post master and Mayor of Bath who decreed that all new buildings in Bath should be made of the distinguished honey-coloured Bath stone, mined from a nearby quarry, which coincidentally belonged to him. However he was also a benevolent man, giving money and the stone for the building of the Mineral Water Hospital in 1738.

Where to go

The Royal Crescent
This is John Wood the Younger’s masterpiece and is a piece of architecture unmatched anywhere else in Europe. Number One, Royal Crescent was begun in 1767 and was built for a certain Mr Thomas Brock. It is a fabulous Georgian town house and today it is furnished exactly as it would have been in the 18th century, which gives you an authentic feel for how life was in Regency Bath. The rest of the Crescent is now apartments, apart from the two central houses that form the Royal Crescent Hotel.

At the time when the Crescent was built it would have faced open farmland, complete with sheep and cattle. This was taken advantage of in the design, which incorporated a ‘haha’, a low wall in a ditch that kept the animals on the other side but was invisible when viewed from the Crescent, thus giving the coveted 18th century impression of an endless vista of open parkland. The haha can still be seen, and the lawns in front of the crescent are the most fabulous setting for a picnic – get your provisions from Chandos in George Street, their smoked marsh lamb is incredible!

The Assembly Rooms
Commissioned by Beau Nash, in Regency times the Assembly Rooms consisted of The Ball Room, Octagon, Tea Room, and Card Room, and were a place where guests ‘assembled’ for balls, to drink tea, play cards, listen to music, or just to talk and flirt. The balls were extremely popular throughout the Season, and less than 1,000 guests was considered a poorly attended event.

The Museum of Costume
In the basement of the Assembly Rooms is situated the Museum of Costume, which is celebration of all things fashion for both men and women dating from the Elizabethan period through the Regency fashions to the present day. They have really good exhibitions, including the humorous ‘Corsets Uncovered’, where you can try on a corset like the one your great, great grandmother might have worn – if you are tiny enough to get into it that is!

The Pump Room
The Pump Room is a beautifully proportioned salon and the place where the hot spa water was, and still is, drawn for drinking, or as the Georgians put it “where you took the waters”. People seeking a cure would drink up to eight pints of spa water a day as well as bathing in it first thing in the morning. In Jane Austin’s time the Pump Room was the central point of the upper classes social scene, where people met and mingled, men talked politics and economics and women talked marriage and fashion, and all sampled the waters. It is best summed up in the following passage taken from Austen’s ‘Northanger Abbey’:

“They set off in good time for the pump-room, where the ordinary course of events and conversation took place; Mr. Allen, after drinking his glass of water, joined some gentlemen to talk over the politics of the day and compare the accounts of their newspapers; and the ladies walked about together, noticing every new face, and almost every new bonnet in the room.”

Sally Lunn’s House
In 1680, Sally Lunn, a refugee baker from France, arrived in Bath, bringing with her the recipe for a type of sweet bread, like the French brioche today, and the rest, as they say, is history. The famous buns are still served on the premises, made to the original recipe, and the kitchen that she used can be seen in the museum. Sally Lunn’s is one of Bath’s few remaining medieval houses.

Pulteney Bridge
Crossing the River Avon, Pulteney Bridge was built in the 18th century to link Bath with the ancient estate of Bathwick, which was owned by the Pulteney family at the time, hence the name. The bridge is unique in Britain as being the only one which still has shops built upon it, much like the original London bridge (of the nursery rhyme) and similar to existing bridges in Florence and Venice.

American Museum in Britain
Situated in elegant Claverton Manor just outside Bath, the American Museum is the only museum of Americana outside the United States. The Manor is set in 120 acres of gardens, which include Mayflower Garden and a replica of George Washington’s American garden at Mount Vernon. The museum uses period rooms imported from Stateside to show how Americans lived from the time of the early New England settlers to the eve of the Civil War. Their summer exhibition, ‘Dollar Princesses – American Heiress to Peeress in late Victorian and Edwardian Britain’ is well worth a look.  In the 1870s, London was recognised as the social capital of the world and ambitious bourgeois American mothers looked to British high society to satisfy social aspirations and claim a title for their daughters. Perhaps the most well known ‘Dollar Princesses’, a term adopted by the ladies themselves, was society belle Jennie Jerome. She famously became Lady Randolph Churchill and the beloved mother of Winston. The exhibition features period costumes, including a sumptuous white, fur-edged evening coat worn by Winnaretta Singer (Duchess of Manchester). Equally as sumptuous and somehow more touching is the museum’s extensive collection of American quilts, while if you have a yen for travel and love maps, the Museum’s collection of maps, some dating from the 12th century, is wonderful; the hand-painted illustrations are particularly amazing. Downstairs in the basement you will find the American Heritage Exhibition, complete with Wild West and Native Indians, which the kids (both large and small) will adore.

Wells Cathedral
The cathedral was begun in 1180 and is one of the most impressive of all the English cathedrals, not least because it is one of the few to have survived with all its associated 13th-15th century buildings, including the Chapter House, the Vicar’s Hall and Close, and the Cloisters. Wells is the site of natural springs, and remains show it was also settled and used by the Romans. In Medieval times the springs were harnessed to drive mills, flush drains, and provide a piped supply of drinking water for the needs of the cathedral from the late 12th century onwards. The water still flows under the cloister, where the remains of the medieval ‘dipping place’ (drinking basin) are preserved.

© Claire Burdett. Please only reproduce this article with permission, in its entirety and with a hyperlink to Thank you.

First published in Citylife magazine 2008


The Train Line

The fastest train so far, The Maglev, is powered by magnets

The fastest train so far, The Maglev, is powered by magnets

The history of trains is beloved of every young trainspotter and uber-geek, and it does make fantastic reading.

From the revolutionary Rocket through to the high speed journeys of the Mallard and the Flying Scotsman, Japan’s sleek electric Bullet and France’s pride and joy, the TVRs, and on to the mindblowingly-fast Maglev, it is true to say that train travel has come along way, baby.

Of them all, the world’s fastest train, the Maglev, is perhaps the longest- and most eagerly- awaited. Because despite it being a frankly futuristic concept of a train running on magnetic tracks, there has been an astonishing seven decades between the first (German) patent in 1934 and the first commercial service launched in Shanghai, China, in 2004. Other commercially operated lines now exist in Japan, most famously the Linimo, a magnetic levitation train line in Aichi, near the city of Nagoya.

Unbelievably quiet apart from the ‘whoosh’ of air as it passes, the sleek Maglev train ‘flies’ – yes, it really is officially described as flying – at an incredible 300 kilometres per hour in two minutes flat, tops 400 kph in three minutes, and has been known to go over 500kph during test runs. That’s just over two hours from Paris to Rome, making it only 10 minutes slower than taking the plane!

Ahhh, the plane, yes, that’s what it reminds you of, because despite having no wings (or engine or wheels either, but more of that later), the Maglev is much more like a plane than it is a train, and so is as revolutionary as the Stephenson’s Rocket was back in 1829. Transrapid, the German firm that developed the system, describes the Maglev as “the first fundamental innovation in the field of railway technology since the invention of the railway.”

So how does it do it? Maglev is short for magnetic levitation, and magnets are the magic ingredients. In practice this means that the trains float a centimetre above the guideway that replace the old train tracks using the basic principles of magnets. Known as electromagnetic suspension (EMS), it’s just like the science you did at school or when you played around with those ladybird or frog magnets when you were a kid – basically the opposite poles attract and the like poles repel each other. Electromagnets are similar to other magnets in that they attract metal objects, but the magnetic pull is temporary, and the magnetic field that this creates is how the Maglev train rail system works. Even its components are simple, comprising of:

• A large electrical power source (no conventional engine)

• Metal coils lining the guideway (no overhead cables)

• Large guidance magnets attached to the underside of the train (no wheels)

No conventional engine, huh? So how does it move? Back to your frog magnetic ‘running’ (ie being pushed) away from it’s twin across your school desk. Basically the train runs the same way – the magnetic field created by the electrified coils in the guideway walls and the track combine to propel the train as it floats on a cushion of air. And that completely eliminates friction, which when combined with the trains’ aerodynamic design allows these trains to reach unprecedented ground transportation speeds.

The best-known high-speed maglev currently operating commercially is the IOS (initial operating segment) demonstration line of the German-built Transrapid train in Shanghai, China, that transports people 30 km (18.6 miles) to the airport in just 7 minutes 20 seconds, achieving a top velocity of 431 km/h (268 mph), averaging 250 km/h (150 mph).

However, all of the operational implementations of maglev technology have had little, or no, overlap with wheeled train technology and so are not compatible with conventional rail tracks. Consequently, Maglevs must be designed as new and complete transportation systems, which have proved one of the main stumbling blocks to their development to date.

So why with all this exciting futuristic train travel in other parts of the world, why hasn’t a new age of the train dawned right here in Britain? Let’s not go in to another “Britain is rubbish” fest here, because it simply isn’t true, despite the inescapable dire state of our nation’s railway. It’s simply that we pushed out the frontiers of the train so fast and so early that is an engineering, logistical and financial nightmare to add electric cabling, such as is needed for the TVRs, to most of our existing railways because of the tunnels and bridges and other factors.

Just think of Victorian technological breakthroughs, such as Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s extension to the Great Western Railway along the south Devon coast to Plymouth, which still uses a system of five tunnels through cliffs and a four-mile sea wall, and you’ll understand the engineering problems inherent in converting our train system. Basically the whole thing needs scrapping and rebuilding, instead of patching and adapting, and the cost of that would be prohibitive. So probably not something that is likely to happen in our lifetime.

However, in the here and now, countries like China, the United States or Australia, where there is a vast expanse of open country largely unconnected by train, could easily opt for a Maglev system. And let’s not forget that the Maglev is pollution-free, so if the megapowers take advantage of its technology, at least it will benefit the rest of us at the same time, even if we can’t just step on and enjoy the flight.

© Claire Burdett. Please only reproduce this article with permission, in its entirety and with a hyperlink to Thank you.


The Future of Aviation

A long time ago the story of powered flight was started by bicycle makers on beaches on either side of the Atlantic – the Wright brothers in America and John Gaunt here in our very own Stockport. The earliest planes were, quite literally, fragile air kites made of wooden struts and canvas, with wheels and propellers powered by cogs and chains.

At the threshold of the 21st century, flight has developed to a point where huge passenger aircrafts furnished with gyms and beds, bars and entertainment, have launched into our skies. These airbuses, as reported in the previous issue of WTF, have been made possible by the incredible technological development of engineering, chemistry, and electronics, where the actual way things are made and the materials from which they are created have been applied to avionics in order to reduce the weight and bulk of aircraft to an all time low, thus allowing larger aircraft to fly safely.

Amazing stuff, yet where does it leave us, and what is in store for avionics as it goes forward through the next century? Have they really taken it as far as it can go with the Airbus, or will we see commercially viable supersonic, even hypersonic, flights in the future? Because despite all the hype surrounding the Skycar and Virgin Galactic (as reported in WTF issue 1 – see for articles), the commercial application of the physics of aviation hasn’t really pushed forward very much since the huge strides made in the mid 20th century when airflight went from the subsonic speeds of the Wright brothers and the early aircraft of the 20th century through to the transonic speeds of commercial carriers of the 1930s-1940s. And viewing Concorde as the blip that it undoubtedly was in 20th century avionics, modern commercial flights still cruise at subsonic speeds owing to the problems associated with breaking through the ‘sound barrier’ or to be more precise, travelling faster than the speed of sound.

Ah, the sound barrier, which was one of the great urban myths of the early 20th century, because scientists were for a long time baffled by its very existence and whether it could be ‘broken’ and supersonic or hypersonic flight achieved. Despite misgivings (and remember that they had no computers, simulations or animated design packages then with which to test their theories), physicists worked with engineers through the middle decades of the 20th century until the quest to create an airplane that could fly supersonically culminated in the iconic Concorde. Beautiful and technologically advanced as Concorde was, however, it was never commercially viable and the last one was withdrawn from service in 2003. And thus the achievement of commercially viable speeds beyond that of sound seemed to be dealt a deathblow that was hard to believe given the phenomenal advances in technology that was happening all around it. Only avionics seemed to be going backwards rather than forwards, and as Jeremy Clarkson, another technology and speed buff like ourselves, and who was one of the passengers on the last BA Concorde flight on October 24, 2003, said, paraphrasing Neil Armstrong to describe the retiring of Concorde: “This is one small step for a man, but one huge leap backwards for mankind”.

So why is the application of technology to airplanes so complex and why is it so difficult to make aircraft that fly faster, even much faster, than the speed of sound, commercially viable? And what is the speed of sound, anyway, and why does it matter to aircraft?

The speed of sound

If you think of air as being like water (it’s easier to visualise than air for all us who aren’t pilots, physicists or uber-geeks), then when an aircraft moves through it at speed, the molecules become disturbed and agitated and leap about and over the aircraft, like water will around the prow and body of a ship or submarine. This then affects the speed of the aircraft by ‘dragging’ at it, but exactly how and to what extent is dependent on the ratio of the speed of the aircraft to the speed of sound.

The speed of sound is typically measured at 760 mph, and is given the special Mach parameter (it’s known as Mach in honour of Ernst Mach, a physicist who studied gas dynamics in the late 19th century) of Mach 1. When an aircraft flies at very much less than the speed of sound, it’s said to be subsonic. Typical speeds for subsonic aircraft are less than 250 mph, and the Mach number M is therefore much less than one (and is written as M << 1). For subsonic aircraft, compressibility effects are practically nil and the air density remains nearly constant, which basically means it’s pretty calm and unchanged by the aircraft that is flying through it.

The first powered aircraft to fly subsonically was the Wright Brothers’ 1903 airborne bicycle, and modern general aviation and commuter airliners continue to fly at this speed because propellers provide a very fuel-efficient propulsion system, thus making the aircraft very economically viable. The wings of subsonic aircraft are typically rectangular in form and made of lightweight aluminium, although we have already noted, the earliest planes used wood and cloth in their wing construction.

As aircraft go faster, however, some of the aircraft’s energy (speed, heat) compresses the air and changes its density where it is close up against the plane. This compressibility effect changes how much pressure and drag there is on the aircraft, and this obviously becomes more of a factor as the speed increases and the aircraft approaches what is known as transonic flight. Typical speeds for transonic aircraft are greater than 250 mph but less than 760 mph, which is the speed of sound. In transonic flight, the Mach number M is nearly equal to one (M ~= 1) and the small disturbances in the airflow are transmitted to other locations isentropically or with constant entropy. Lost you yet, have we?

Ok, think of water flowing through a nozzle. When the flow is constant and ideal (not dribbling or gushing) it is scientifically described as ‘isentropic’, a combination of the Greek word “iso” (same) and entropy. Entropy is the second law of thermodynamics (energy is the first law), and without going in to the formulae, their relationship is the basis of pretty much everything, with the first law expressing how things remain the same, while the second law expresses all that which changes and what motivates the change ie the fundamental time-asymmetry in all real-world processes. So to get back to our nozzle, what comes through (ie the air in this instance) is constantly in motion and change (entropy), but in a constant manner (the same = iso). So in transonic flight, the air disturbances stay fairly constant in so far as they are ruffled, with localised changes. It’s simply a complicated way of saying it’s a bit choppy but constant.

However, a sharp disturbance, such as a power surge into supersonic speed or a boost into the realms of hypersonic speed, generates a shock wave that affects both the lift and drag of an aircraft as it is pushed beyond the speed of sound. And when it does that all sorts of interesting things start to happen.

Now, the first powered aircraft to explore transonic flight were the high performance fighters of World War II, and these aircraft seemed to encounter a so called ‘sound barrier’ where it was found that drag was increasing faster than the thrust. This led to speculation in the mid-1940s that manned flight was not possible at speeds above the speed of sound, even though the muzzle velocity of rifle bullets is supersonic.

So what is supersonic exactly? Its when the aircraft is going faster than 750mph, the speed of sound, but slower than 1500mph, so the Mach ratio is 1 < M < 3, and initially this was thought to be an impossible thing for human beings to endure. However, the flight of the Bell X-1A in 1947 proved that people could fly faster than sound, and when Concorde (Mach 2.03) was developed it became the supersonic pin up, a luxurious and incredibly fast design icon that meant any person with enough money could fly supersonic. In style

The problems inherent with supersonic flight are, however, myriad, include increased drag, air compression and air density, which we have already discussed and which, in supersonic flight, are negatively affected by shock waves, mass flow choking, and sonic boom.

Shock waves
Like an ordinary wave, shock waves carry energy and are characterized by an abrupt, nearly discontinuous change in the characteristics of the medium. Across a shock wave there is always an extremely rapid rise in pressure, temperature and density of the flow, thus affecting the speed.

Mass flow choking
To understand mass flow choking we must return to our nozzle, and understand that when the air gets too hot or pressured as it tries to move through the nozzle it can change its density and become static, or choked. This then causes loss of thrust, and therefore loss of speed.

Sonic boom
The noise of Concorde, and of all supersonic jets, was distinctive and unavoidable. The result of sonic bomb, it is where the shocks caused by the aircraft passing through the air creating a series of pressure waves in front of it and behind it, similar to the bow and stern waves created by a boat. These waves travel at the speed of sound, and as the speed of the aircraft increases the waves are forced together, or compressed, because they cannot avoid each other, and eventually merge into a single shock wave travelling at the speed of sound (761 mph), 167 megawatts per square meter, and exceeding 200 decibels. Basically it generates enormous amounts of sound energy, much like an explosion.  While this isn’t unknown in the natural world, because thunder is a type of natural sonic boom created by the rapid heating and expansion of air in a thunderstorm, it’s pretty unpleasant if you happen to live in the flight path. The upshot is that you used to be able to get to New York before the time you left Paris or London, as Concorde’s cruising speed exceeded the top speed of the solar terminator ie it was able to overtake or outrun the spin of the earth. Neat, and much publicised by BA with their “Arrive before you leave” campaign.

So what happens when you make aircraft go even faster? Well then you get in to rockets, Virgin Galactic and Moller Skycar territory, and the realms of hypersonic flight.

Hypersonic flight

When aircraft speeds are much greater than the speed of sound, the aircraft is said to be hypersonic. Typical speeds for hypersonic aircraft are greater than 3000 mph and Mach number M greater than five (M > 5) although NASA’s experimental space scramjet, the X-43A, set a new speed record for aircraft on November 16, 2004. In the unmanned test flight, the plane reached Mach 10, 10 times the speed of sound, or about 6,600 miles per hour.

The chief characteristic of hypersonic aerodynamics is that the temperature of the flow is so great that the chemistry of the diatomic molecules of the air must be considered. At low hypersonic speeds, the molecular bonds vibrate, which changes the magnitude of the forces generated by the air on the aircraft. At high hypersonic speeds, the molecules break apart, producing an electrically charged plasma around the aircraft, and large variations in air density and pressure then occur as a result of shock waves and expansions. For Mach numbers greater than 5, the frictional heating of the airframe by the air becomes so high that very special nickel alloys are required for the structure and so in some hypersonic aircraft it is proposed that the skin will be actively cooled by circulating fuel through the skin to absorb the heat.

So can we have manned hypersonic flight? Well, we already have, with the X-15, the SpaceShipOne, and the Space Shuttle during re-entry. Others that are in the development phases for commercial application are the Virgin Galactic and the Moller Skycar, both of which we have reported on previously.

SpaceShipOne was an experimental air-launched (it was slung below the belly of the ‘White Knight’, a turbofan-powered airplane that carries the SpaceShipOne up to 45 to 50,000 feet) suborbital (ie it didn’t go right round the Earth) space plane that used a hybrid rocket motor to propel it and the SpaceShipOne and its pilot, Michael Melvill, to an altitude of 62.5 miles (100 km) above the Earth’s surface. Which officially makes Michael an astronaut.

SpaceShipOne was developed by aviation company, Scaled Composites, wholly without government funding. On June 21, 2004, it made the first privately-funded human spaceflight, and on October 4, it won the $10 million Ansari X PRIZE. The competition challenged independent designers to safely put three people into space twice in two weeks with a reusable spacecraft. It did so, and in addition, during its testing regimen SpaceShipOne set a number of important ‘firsts’, including first privately funded aircraft to exceed Mach 2 and Mach 3, first privately funded spacecraft to exceed 100km altitude, and first privately funded reusable spacecraft.

Much like Branson and Moller, SpaceShipOne’s creators at Scaled Composites, the company behind the project, envision a world where space travel is a thriving commercial business catering to anyone who has the desire to venture to the stars. However, with development costs estimated to be $25-million plus, this isn’t likely to be any time soon, although with ever accelerating technical achievements in the field of avionics, it may yet be sooner than we think.

So where do you stand?
Is the future supersonic as spearheaded by the ‘Save Concorde’ group’s campaign, who are committed to returning a Concorde to service, or hypersonic with SpaceShipOne? Or perhaps you, like Richard Branson, who keeps his foot firmly in both camps, think there’s room for both? After all, the future is flying closer all the time.

© Claire Burdett. Please only reproduce this article with permission, in its entirety and with a hyperlink to Thank you.


More Forward Please

The history and future of robotics

The history and future of robotics

When it comes to the cutting edge of robotics, the Japanese are sharpening it year-on-year while the rest of the world simply watches on in wonder. Maybe it’s because they are so interested in the whole subject that they are so driven to explore the whole area of robotics, in the same way, perhaps, that the Russians were particularly interested in space travel and so were the first to explore that arena.

Whatever the reason, practically whatever you might want crave in
the way of a robotic entity, from manservant or receptionist,
companion to dog, or even cat, has been made created in the last
couple of decades by one of the Japanese manufacturers. True, not
all of them have been profitable and so have, in some cases, gone
out of production, or in other cases haven’t quite made it to market
as yet. But the technology is there. And the ability to use that
technology to turn a dream into a tangible reality.

So, let’s start with ASIMO (Advanced Step in Innovative Mobility),
which is currently the most high profile of the huge Japanese
robotics family. No short timeline this, as the crux of the challenge
was to create a robot that could walk upright on two legs in a stable
and intuitive manner, something that has taken Honda two decades
to achieve. And if you are wondering why they would bother with
something, well, so mundane, the engineers see ASIMO as
something that can help people in need, a robotic replacement for
tasks that are too dangerous for humans to perform, such as
fighting forest fires or cleaning up toxic waste. Such situations are
highly likely to involve uneven surfaces underfoot and a stranded
robot might as well not be there, hence the quest to create ASIMO.

Honda’s first humanoid robot, P1, introduced in 1987, was a rather
startling 6’ 2” (nearly 2 metres) tall. The reaction was unanimously
negative to this size of humanoid robot, and so the height was
swiftly adjusted in the following versions and the present P4 is a
much more manageable 5’ 2” (1.20m) tall, which means it is at eye
level with a seated adult. The present ASIMO (P4) can run, walk on
uneven slopes and surfaces, turn smoothly, climb stairs, and reach
for and grasp objects, as you have probably already seen on
Honda’s charming adverts. It can also use its camera to map its
environment and avoid knocking into obstacles, as well as
comprehend and respond to simple voice commands and recognize
the faces of individuals.

People instantly seem to take to ASIMO, perhaps because of its
chunky, what Honda call ‘friendly’ design, which is reminiscent of
Star Wars’ R2D2. The same can be said about Sony’s robotic dog
AIBO (Artificial Intelligence BOt in English, and meaning
‘companion’ in Japanese), which was produced by Sony for seven
years and sold well over 130,000 units worldwide before being
discontinued a year ago following a cost cutting drive.

Whatever standard you measure against, Sony’s AIBO represents
the most sophisticated product ever offered in the consumer robot
marketplace. AIBO was programmed to walk, feel objects with its
feet, ‘see’ in colour via camera (and take photographs), hear in
stereo, and understand commands – although as Sony were at
pains to point out, because they strived for it to show true dog-like
behaviour, it was also programmed to occasionally ignore them.

It also has (and we’ll revert to the present tense now because
although production has ceased there are still thousands out there
in the world continuing to do their robotic doggy thing) the ability to
learn, adapt to its environment, and express emotion. In fact, these
robotic pets are considered to be autonomous robots, since they are
able to learn and mature based on external stimuli from their owner
or environment. Owners responded to this by forming emotional
attachments to their AIBOs, especially when SONY introduced the
sophisticated software, AIBOware, which enabled the robot to be
raised from pup to fully grown adult while going through various
stages of development.

AIBOs robust platform also made it particularly attractive to
students of computer science and robotics. In the technical arena,
the RoboCup competition has used AIBO since 1998. Dr. Manuela
Veloso, professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University
and a leader in international RoboCup competition, praised the AIBO
for its contributions to research of multi-robot systems:

“Teams of AIBO soccer players have captured the hearts of
researchers and spectators while they search for the ball, struggle
to take possession, beautifully move, kick, and aim at the goal.
They eventually score, dance with happiness, and receive roaring
cheers of enthusiasm and praise.

The RoboCup Federation and Research Community are in debt to
SONY for the development of these remarkable AIBO robots which
researchers and students have used in research and development of
four-legged robot soccer teams since 1998.”

In the consumer arena, there are numerous internet ‘roboblogs’
filmed independently by individual AIBOs as they wander around
taking periodic pictures, mainly of ankles and chair legs, to be fair,
but still, these robots are definitely part of the family, not the
furniture, and Sony certainly spared no expense with the creation of
the AIBO. The sounds were programmed by acclaimed Japanese
DJ/avant-garde composer Nobukazu Takemura, who is considered
by many to be one of the foremost masters at fusing mechanic and
organic concepts, while the bodies of the ‘3x’ series (Latte and
Macaron, the round-headed AIBOs released in 2001) were designed
by visual artist Katsura Moshino.

But perhaps you prefer cats? Then you may have been tempted by
the NeCoRo, a fur-covered cat animoid launched by Omron in 2001
at about the same cost as AIBO. Omron is a company best known
for electronic health products such as blood pressure gauges and
digital thermometers, and the NeCoRo was initially designed as a
replacement for use in therapy and in cases of emotional
deprivation. However, NeCoRo had glass eyes, a synthetic fur coat,
and has been described in some quarters as looking like an
animated zombie cat, so perhaps the design wasn’t completely
thought through for the market.

That apart, the technology that was utilized in the NeCoRo was right
up there with the best, as it was able to perceive human action and
thoughts via internal sensors of touch, sound, sight, and
orientation. In addition, using 15 actuators inside the body, it
behaved in response to its feelings, so became angry if someone
was violent towards it, and purred when stroked, cuddled, and
treated with lots of love. Like AIBO, NeCoRo was designed to inspire
emotional attachment and adjust its personality to that of the owner
through a learning/growth function.

Just a shame it was looked so spooky, although Segatoy’s Yume
Neko Smile ( ‘Dream Cat Smile’ in English) robot cat, which was
released this year, seems to have addressed the problems inherent
with the NeCoRo. Yume Neko Smile has the functionality and cat-
like programming, plus it looks and feels incredibly like the real
thing so people mistake it for a real cat! Owners report they just
want to keep on stroking it, which makes it purr and (very
realistically and exceptionally cutely), stretches out it toes when its
tummy is being stroked! Aargh…presumably it’s really aimed at all
those Japanese kids who are desperate to have a cat but can’t in
Japan’s tightly squeezed urban landscape, and it should be the
answer to their prayers as there’s definitely no spookiness about it
at all. Guaranteed.

But while the pets have been mesmerizing, it’s the humanoids that
have really clamoured for our collective attention. ASIMO is a an
example of what we collectively respond to in a robot, as is Toyota’s
Partner Robots, which are designed to function as personal
assistants and are described by Toyota as being “agile, warm and
kind and also intelligent enough to skilfully operate a variety of
devices in the areas of personal assistance, care for the elderly,
manufacturing, and mobility.”

Interestingly they also have artificial lips that Toyota claims have
the same finesse as human lips, apparently developed so that the
robots can play musical instruments. Although the mind boggles
slightly at the idea of a band of musical instrument-playing Toyota
bots, but perhaps it’s no odder than the robotic ‘elderly companion’,
ifBot, which was the winner of the 2003 Good Design Award, and
whose software was developed by Dream Supply, a Nagoya-based
IT firm. Standing just 45cm tall, the ifBot looks like a little alien
spaceman and is “designed to provide hours of companionship to
lonely elderly folks who don’t have a loved one to speak with.” This
is a big area of concern in present day Japan, and this little bot has
been designed to fill the void. To achieve it, the ifBot is pre-
programmed with millions of word phrase at about the level of a 5-
year-old child, which apparently helps keep elderly folks from
becoming forgetful by keeping their minds sharp. In addition, the
ifBot plays puzzles and memory games, sings songs, comments on
the weather, offers advice, and does medical checks. Seems more
like a babysitter than a carer, really, and maybe that’s how they will
pitch it when, and if, it loses its Japanese exclusivity and it is
eventually marketed to the West. Interestingly, the ‘Hello Kitty’
robot is produced by the same company, but this one is aimed more
at teenagers and children.

On a different stage, so to speak, is Takara Tomy’s Omnibot2007 i-
SOBOT. Certified by the Guinness Book of Records as the smallest
humanoid robot in production, it stands just 165mm tall, has an
LCD-equipped remote to controls its programmed motions, and also
responds to voice control. And it is a bit of a mover, able to play
music, dance, and respond to applause and other external stimulus,
and can also make its own punching and kicking sound effects, so
there could be some entertaining robo-duels (or duets!) if you had a
pair of them. The Omnibot2007 i-SOBOT CAMVersion includes a
camera that can send pictures to your PC or phone, and its head
can swivel 60° in each direction. Yes, it’s very neat and highly

In contrast to the stylised bots we have so far discussed, the robots
Repliee and Geminoid developed by Professor Hiroshi Ishiguro at
the ATR Intelligent Robotics and Communication Laboratories at
Osaka Universit, are what you would expect an AI robot to look like
– ie incredibly human.

Their skin is composed of silicone and appears highly realistic.
Internal sensors allow the Actroid models to react with a natural
appearance by way of air actuators placed at many points of
articulation in the upper body, so the robot looks like it is breathing.
The Actroid can also imitate human-like behaviour with slight shifts
in position, head and eye movements and the appearance of
breathing in its chest.

So far, movement in the lower body is limited, mainly because the
compressed air that powers the robot’s servo motors and most of
the computer hardware that operates the AI are external to the
unit, which is a contributing factor to the robot’s lack of locomotion
capabilities. The operation of the robot’s sensory system in tandem
with its air-powered movements make it quick enough to react to or
fend off potentially damaging approaches, such as a slap or a poke,
as well as the ability to react differently to more gentle kinds of
touch, such as a pat on the arm.

Additionally, the robot can also learn to imitate human movements
by facing a person who is wearing reflective dots at key points on
their body. By tracking the dots with its visual system and then
computing limb and joint movements to match what it sees, the
individual motion can then be ‘learned’ by the robot and repeated.

The interactive Actroids can also communicate on a rudimentary
level with humans by speaking. Microphones within those Actroids
record human speech and this is then filtered to remove
background noise, including the sounds of the robot’s own
operation. Speech recognition software is used to convert the audio
stream into words and sentences, and when spoken to they also use
a combination of ‘floor sensors and omnidirectional vision sensors’
in order to maintain eye contact with the speaker – to see this in
action, you can watch the videos posted on YouTube. It’s quite
incredible how humanoid they are.

In addition, the Actoids can respond in limited ways to body
language and tone of voice by changing their own facial
expressions, stance, and vocal inflection. It’s all very realistic,
although what the longterm practical application of the Actroids will
be is difficult to predict at this point. The company suggests that the
demand is as receptionists and as, perhaps, nurses, although the
high cost of hiring one at the moment is very high and possibly only
something a very high profile company would consider. Which is a
shame as the science and technology that have gone into
developing the Androids is immense.

Perhaps the best application, however, and one that would justify
the high cost of production, would be as a stand in presenter,
speaker or lecturer. This is precisely why the Geminoid was
developed by Professor Hiroshi Ishiguro in the first instance, and it
stands in very successfully for its human double in lectures when
the professor is unable to travel in from his home an hour away.
The robot is loaded with the lecture and the students get the
information they need, albeit at one remove. Genius.

We shall see. But with each new wave of new robotics (and trust us,
we have only scratched the surface in this article) it becomes
increasingly clear just how hard it has been for the Japanese to
transform their robot achievements into profit-making reality.
Interestingly, American robot firms, such as iRobot, while less
ambitious and cutting edge, have generally been more successful
than Japanese firms at marketing their non-industrial robots (like
their vacuum cleaning robot, Roomba) simply because they are so
focused on the practical applications rather than the fantasy of
humanoid or animalistic application. But then fantasy is where
breakthroughs occur, so without the Japanese it is likely there
would be little in the way of development.

So what’s the future, then? It’s looking very Japanese.

© Claire Burdett. Please only reproduce this article with permission, in its entirety and with a hyperlink to Thank you.

First published in WTF magazine, December 2007

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