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The Ancestor’s Trail 2014

Long-time readers of the blog may remember that, in 2012, Sasha and I participated in a secular pilgrimage called The Ancestor’s Trail. It is an annual event inspired by Richard Dawkins’ book The Ancestor’s Tail. We had to take a hiatus last year because Sasha was out of town and I had transportation issues (one day, I really must get a British driving license). This year, however, we were both able to participate–which was particularly good considering that I had been invited back as a speaker.

Previous iterations of the AT took place in Somerset’s beautiful Quantock Hills. This year’s version was in a new, and very different, location: Epping Forest, which straddles the border between London and Essex. Sasha and I hit some terrible traffic during our drive to the southeast and ended up being trapped in the car for about 8 hours instead of the 5 that we were expecting. After spending all that time sitting down, we were more than ready to stretch our legs on the 12.5-mile Human Trail–the longest of the many walks that cumulatively make up the AT.  This portion of the trail started at the Chingford Station just before 10 AM on the 30th of August.

starting point
The field in which we began our walk. Each footstep along the trail took us away (metaphorically speaking, that is) from the point at which humans became a separate species, and towards the earliest form of life on Earth.
road ahead
Because the trail is arranged such that you are metaphorically walking backwards in time towards the first living organism on Earth, the view ahead may show you your own future, but it simultaneously shows you your evolutionary past.

Although we met at the train station, the real starting point of the hike was a field just behind it. There, and at subsequent stops along the route, we paused to think about the evolutionary history that had inspired our journey: the appearance of Homo nearly 6 million years ago, the development of mammals 220 million years ago, the emergence of vertebrates some 500 million years ago, and the origins of life approximately 3.8 billion years ago (to name but a few important evolutionary benchmarks).

beneath the oak
This was one of our first stops of the day; I believe we were still on the primate branch of the family tree at this point.

Although this year’s trail was in much closer proximity to human-disturbed habitats, it still had some stunning scenery. My favorite portion of the trail was the one that took us under the canopy of some beautiful beech trees:

If you think those trees look a bit manicured, you’re right; Epping Forest is known for its long history of coppicing, pollarding, and other forms of arboreal manipulation.

We also spent a fair amount of time out in more open habitats–especially towards the end of the day. We passed by and through pastures and agricultural fields, all of which were surprisingly calm and quiet given our proximity to the city.

cloudy sky
One of many unused fields we passed during our long walk

One of the big differences between the 2012 and 2014 Ancestor’s Trails was that this one involved the theatrical skills of Ioan Hefin, from Theatr naÓg. Ioan specializes in impersonating/portraying Alfred Russell Wallace, the explorer and naturalist who independently came up with a theory of natural selection very like Darwin’s. Oddly enough, this was the second time that Sasha had seen Ioan perform, having also enjoyed one of his Wallace soliloquies while being inducted to the Linnean Society of London last year.

He walked the whole 12.5 miles in costume, but not always in character.

My next favorite portion of the trail was the area where we stopped to have lunch. We had just left the Epping Forest behind and transitioned into the open countryside that lay between the forest and the woodlands of the Lee Valley Regional Park where the trail ended. It was obviously a relatively posh area, with quiet country retreats and bridleways for horseback riding. We even passed a very upscale-looking fenced estate.

We weren’t the only ones out and about on the trails; we also passed equestrians, joggers, bikers, hikers, and dog-walkers.
This cat sculpture made me do a double-take, which I'm sure is its raison d'être
This cat sculpture made me do a double-take, which I’m sure is its raison d’être.
grassy field
This is my favorite photograph of the day. I love the pale golden color of the grasses, and their wispy texture makes the hills look soft and velvety. (They weren’t; they were actually a bit scratchy.)

If you look at the back right-hand portion of the photograph above, you’ll notice a man in red. That is Jon Bagge, a professional photographer who also attended the trail last year. He returned this year to collect images for Urs Willmann, a journalist who was writing a profile of the trail for the German newspaper Zeit. Jon very kindly shared his photos with those of us who were present on the day, which means that, for once, I can show you the view from the other side of my camera lens.

Sasha and I follow closely behind trail organizer Chris Jenord
Sasha and I follow closely behind trail organizer Chris Jenord
2014-09-06 06.03.36
Sasha and I discuss…something, while journalist Urs Willmann (behind me in the black t-shirt) interviews a trail participant.
After a long day of walking, I rest my feet with some of my fellow pilgrims. This image gives you a particularly good view of my Darwin-riding-an-archaeopteryx t-shirt (by Stated Clearly), which I thought was an especially relevant fashion statement given the theme of the day.
CK Ancestor's Trail
I find something amusing. Or maybe I’m just thinking about how awesome my t-shirt is.

I would be lying if I said that 12.5 miles wasn’t a bit of a trek–even for someone who loves walking and nature as much as I do. I was worried that my back would start to hurt, but actually it was my feet that ultimately betrayed me. Maybe I need new hiking shoes, or maybe I just shouldn’t ambush my body by taking a walk that is three times as far as I would normally go in a single day. I don’t think I’m the only one who began to feel battered; whereas people had been quite talkative and jokey early on in the day, conversations dwindled and became quieter after lunch. More and more hikers simply put their heads down and powered on, grimly determined to make it to the end.

That is not to say, however, that there were no moments of lightheartedness. There was some antelope mimicry, complete with faux antlers and pronking behavior. There was applause and murmurs of appreciation at the clever and amusing speeches that had been written to recognize each of the important branches in the evolutionary tree. There was good-natured chuckling at the obstacles that Nature had thrown in our path (namely mud and pools of standing water, in which I nearly lost my lens cap). We also took the time to appreciate some unexpected artwork that we found along the way:

Two sides of the same monolith sculpture: male and female, sun and moon.
Two sides of the same monolith sculpture: male and female, sun and moon.

We picked up our last pilgrims fairly close to our final destination–the Cheshunt YHA. They represented our friends the bacteria, about whom one of the hikers had written a clever little ode that recognized the fact that even though some bacteria make us sick, many more keep us healthy and are responsible for a huge proportion of the genes that can be found within our bodies. His witty observations helped revive us and give us the energy we needed to walk the last mile or so to the refreshments and rest that were waiting for us at the hostel. Also aiding our progress was a small brass band making some very cheerful music to accompany our final steps.

the band
We were coming from the right-hand side of this picture and heading towards the left. Just before crossing over this bridge, I had the good luck of spotting a great crested grebe–my first-ever sighting of the species!

Everyone was obviously feeling a bit peckish by the time we arrived at the hostel. As soon as we entered the building, we flooded into the cafeteria in search of snacks and hot beverages. I only had eyes for the freshly baked donuts, which were amazing. I suspect that my enjoyment was partially aided by the fact that I was in an extreme sugar deficit, but I am also confident that those were superior treats that would have been delicious under any circumstances. And that is why I was forced to eat two.

As I sat consuming my sugar, I discovered why my rain coat, which I’d been wearing tied around my waist, had become so heavy throughout the day:

A little souvenir from the Trail

Once we’d had a chance to recharge, Sasha and I said our farewells for the evening and made our way back to our B&B. En route, we stumbled across one of the mailboxes that had been repainted  in the wake of the 2012 London Olympics:

mailbox 2

mailbox plaque

I’m not really sure how they chose which mailboxes to paint in honor of each athlete; Laura Trott isn’t from Cheshunt, but from Harlow, which is 11 miles away. But perhaps I’m being nitpicky. (At least it makes more sense than if they’d put her plaque on a mailbox in, say, York.) I felt pretty ridiculous photographing a mailbox, especially since I’d secretly rolled my eyes at a couple of mailbox spotters who were geeking out about some rare pre-Queen-Elizabeth mailbox that we passed during the 2012 Ancestor’s Trail. Ah, irony.

Upon reaching our B&B, I noted that I felt very much the same as I have previously when returning to my campsite after climbing Mount Kenya during the University of Exeter Kenya field course: weary, sore, very much looking forward to a shower, but also quite proud. While recuperating in the comfort of my fluffy bed, I used TripAdvisor to figure out where Sasha and I should go to dinner. We opted for the Coach and Horses, a gastropub with Spanish influences. They started us off with some fresh garlic bread bites, and I immediately knew that we’d chosen wisely.

bread bites
Garlic + butter + bread = happiness on a plate

Neither of our main courses photographed particularly well (I admit that they both kind of look like pet food), but they were both very tasty. I had the albondigas con espinacas, or spiced meatballs with spinach. Sasha opted for the steak stroganoff.

cait food
My meatballs…
Sasha food
…and Sasha’s stroganoff

Given the number of calories we’d burned during the day, it’s probably no surprise that we were both still hungry once our main courses were gone. The only solution to that problem was to order dessert–which came in the form of fruity ice-cream cheesecake. I’d never had a frozen cheesecake before, but I can confirm that it is delectable.

Our hard-earned (one might even say…just?) desserts

Once we’d licked our plates clean, we headed home for an early night. I, especially, needed my sleep, since I was due to give a lecture to the AT crowd the following morning. I was impressed by the number of folks who showed up despite the travails of the previous day and the fact that many of them had a long commute home. You know you’ve got an eager audience when they agree to show up at 9:30 AM on a weekend.

The first lecture of the morning was delivered by Ryan Walker, a herpetologist who talked about salamanders in recognition of the fact that this was designated the AT’s “Year of the Amphibian”. I was up next, discussing “The Sounds of Love“–aka birdsong. Judith Mank, of University College London, wrapped up the festivities with her discussion of sex determination. All three of us fielded some excellent questions, and the crowd was not only very attentive, but also quite tolerant when I had some technical difficulties. It was exactly the kind of audience that every speaker dreams of.

Of course, that wasn’t really surprising. During my first experience with the Ancestor’s Trail crowd, I had found my fellow pilgrims to be friendly, thoughtful, inquisitive, and insightful; the same was true this year. They are an interesting group of people to spend time with, and I’m glad to have had the opportunity to join them in both Quantock Hills and the Epping Forest. Even if Sasha and I don’t find ourselves signed up to give AT lectures in the near future, I hope we still have the chance to participate in the hike–though perhaps with more supportive shoes next time.

Where to eat in London: The Blues Kitchen

In the run-up to our recent trip to London, I was so focused on selecting a dinner venue that I completely forgot to pick a place for breakfast. Because I didn’t take my Good Food Guide along with me, I had to rely on the Internet to suggest some possibilities. Several looked intriguing, but were either too far away or no longer open (always a good thing to cross-check venues on multiple websites before heading out for a culinary adventure!). I was also constrained by my desire to find a place that would serve pancakes to suit Sasha’s taste, but also healthier fare to suit mine. After much research, I finally settled on The Blues Kitchen, which was only a five-minute walk from our hotel.

Blues Kitchen exterior_edit
It may not look like much from the outside…

As its name suggests, The Blues Kitchen is an establishment that focuses not only on food, but also on music; it is a bar and restaurant that hosts blues (obviously), soul, and rock acts in the evenings. Like Shrimpy’s, The Blues Kitchen serves primarily American-inspired fare–so, completely by accident, Sasha and I found ourselves preparing for our Christmas trip to the US, on which we would be embarking the following week.

Blues Kitchen Decor
…but it had an inviting interior.

The Blues Kitchen opened at 10 AM, by which point I was definitely ready for my breakfast/brunch. Given how overwhelmingly bustling the neighborhood had been the previous evening, I was sure that Sasha and I would have a hard time getting a seat at one of the relatively few restaurants open in Camden at that time of day–after all, that had certainly been our experience in Philadelphia last summer, and is also generally the case in Falmouth. Boy, was I wrong. We ended up being the restaurant’s only patrons for most of our visit; only towards the end were we joined by a whopping two other parties, for a grand total of 5 customers.

Cutest milk bottle ever!
Cutest milk bottle ever!

As per usual, we started out with tea, the milk for which was served in the cutest little milk bottle I’ve ever seen. I wanted to sneak away with it at the end of the meal, though I have no idea what I’d have done with it once I’d gotten it home. It’s the kind of thing I would have loved as a little girl, when I could have incorporated it into some sort of fantasy game with one of my American Girls dolls (I think it would have particularly suited Kirsten).

blueberry pancakes_edit
Sasha’s decadent breakfast

Sasha, as I had predicted, ordered the American-style buttermilk pancakes with blueberry topping; they even came topped with an American-sized dollop of whipped cream. I, on the other hand, had a breakfast at pretty much the opposite end of the health spectrum: the vegetarian plate. It came with both avocados and halloumi, which meant that I just couldn’t say no:

Veggie breakfast_edit
My healthy start

My food was delicious, and made me think that I should make this sort of thing for myself more often. My only complaint was that the greens weren’t as fresh as they could have been–they weren’t slimy or anything, but they were a bit wrinkly as though they had been left out on the counter overnight rather than stored in the refrigerator. Also, my meal was supposed to have come with toast, but none was brought to me and so I had to ask the waitress to bring me some on the side. However, neither of these is an earth-shattering complaint, and the overall quality of our food was impressive given that the place had been open until 3:30 AM the preceding evening; I’m sure it’s not easy to switch from club to fine dining in the space of only 6.5 hours.

We were both stuffed to the gills when we left, which is one of the reasons we decided to go for our calorie-burning, stomach-emptying walk along the canal. It’s a shame our breakfast left us without enough appetite to enjoy some of the delicacies at the Camden Lock Market. However, it’s also a real testament to The Blues Kitchen’s quality that our meal left us so sated, we were able to turn up our noses at all the tempting nibbles we encountered at the waterside vendors’ booths.

The Blues Kitchen can be found at 111-113 Camden High Street, London, NW1 7JN.

Where to eat in London: Shrimpy’s

Whenever I plan a trip, one of the first orders of business is selecting a restaurant (or, if I’m lucky, restaurants). I always consult my handy Good Food Guide, which has turned out to be immensely useful–and trustworthy. As you might imagine, quite a bit of the book is devoted to London-based eateries; Camden Town itself was also very well represented.

I quickly found two restaurants that I thought would cater (literally) to my love of fine dining and Sasha’s passion for Italian cuisine. Unfortunately, reservations were only available extremely early or extremely late (who in Britain is eating dinner at 10:30 PM??). I therefore decided to try one of the “second string” restaurants that the Good Food Guide does not recommend, per se, but lists as, basically, runners up. I’d never done this before, so I wasn’t sure quite how the quality would compare to the other types of places we’d gone. It turns out that I needn’t have worried.

outside shrimpys compilation

My choice was Shrimpy’s, an upscale “diner” (I use the word loosely) experience in a small fiberglass canal-side building that is kind of like a modern British version of the typical American aluminum-sided boxcar-style establishment. The “decor” (another word I use loosely) was also reminiscent of the US. The walls were mostly bare but occasionally decorated with what looked to be hand-drawn sketches of Baby Boom-era icons such as Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, and Cadillacs; the huge windowsill collection of cacti and succulents indicated that the restaurant’s cuisine was inspired not just by the US, but specifically by the food eaten in the US-Mexico border region.

Cities always look prettier at night--especially when lit up by elaborate laser displays
Cities always look prettier at night–especially when lit up by elaborate laser displays

Another interesting thing about the restaurant’s “ambience,” if that is the right word, was the laser show on display outside. That was a feature that I’d read about in the Good Food Guide, but what I didn’t realize until we showed up was that the display is not static; at Christmastime, at least, it becomes much more festive, with lasers being used to draw seasonal images such as Christmas trees, ornaments, and presents. That probably sounds kitschy, but actually it is very well done and ultimately quite captivating. This is especially true because all the visual maneuvers are accompanied by upbeat music, yielding a show that is both a visual and an aural treat.

The happy couple
The happy couple

Sasha and I began our evening by sampling two of Shrimpy’s’ (how does one make a possessive possessive?) “Refreshing Cocktails.” Sasha had the Shrimpy’s Fizz, which contains Cachaca, pineapple, sugar, lime juice, mint, and Cava. I had the Hibiscus Lemonade, which is a mixture of hibiscus cordial, lemon juice, and sugar. I can’t speak for Sasha, but my drink was delicious, and now I finally know what to do with all the dried hibiscus flowers I have in my cupboard.

If this doesn't make you hungry, nothing will.
If this doesn’t make you hungry, nothing will.

For my main course, I ordered the grilled sea bream with sweet corn salsa; Sasha got the skirt steak with chimichurri. We ordered two sides to share: guacamole and humita. This is a good time to mention that I have never looked up so many menu items as I did at Shrimpy’s. First I needed to Google “cordial,” since we were having a debate as to whether it normally refers to something alcoholic or virgin (I’m used to thinking of it as alcoholic, but in Britain it is often used to refer to concentrated juice; in the case of my cocktail, the latter definition was correct). Then we had to find out what a “pozole” is (a pre-Columbian Mexican stew), after which I had to remind myself what “chimichurri” meant (it’s a sauce that goes with meat, which I did know but always forget, since I so rarely eat steak). We also needed to find out about “humita,” which turned out to be a pre-Columbian South American dish made of corn and masa harina (corn dough) that is either boiled or steamed, often while wrapped in a corn husk.

The Shrimpy’s chefs prepare their humita in a non-traditional way, but it is still utterly delicious. It worked well for Sasha and me to share a bowl, but if I hadn’t had a main course, I could easily have eaten an entire bowl (or two) myself. I must find a recipe.

The rest of our food was delicious, as well. My bream was really tender and flavorful, and it was perfectly accompanied by both the corn and the guacamole. Sasha also liked his steak, though I think he would have preferred it to have been slightly less bloody.

As you can see from the prominent image in the above compilation, Sasha also ordered a dessert–a passion fruit, pineapple, and quince sundae, to be precise. This prompted us to look up quince, since neither of us was entirely sure what one looks like, or what group of fruit it belongs to (it is a pome, and kind of looks like a squat pear; I also needed to look up the pronunciation of “pome,” since Sasha and I were saying it differently).

Toasting the evening with my one alcoholic indulgence: port.
Toasting the evening with my one alcoholic indulgence: port.

Sasha suggested that we end the evening with a couple (in total–not per person!) glasses of port, and I was happy to oblige. I still don’t like alcohol in general, but I do enjoy a nice dram of port. Kudos to Shrimpy’s for being so generous with their portions.

My only complaint about the restaurant was the bathroom, which was uncomfortably cold because it was, basically, outside. I believe it is a public toilet that visitors to the Filling Station can use when they are touring around during the day; it is located in an unheated hallway, accessible from the exterior, outside the main area of the restaurant–and is therefore quite unpleasant for anyone who needs to park his/her rear on a pre-chilled toilet seat. One other potential drawback of the restaurant–though not an issue for us–is that people who make reservations via the website cannot influence whether they are seated at a table or at Shrimpy’s’ traditional diner-style counter. I actually kind of like the idea of sitting at the counter, but some people might find that off-putting.

Other than that, though, there’s not much to complain about (except maybe the fact that the place is a bit hard to find if you’ve never been there before–which is not the fault of the restaurant, of course). Sasha and I both really enjoyed our meals, which were educational, filling, and delicious; we also appreciated the friendliness of the wait staff.

Fountains in the plaza around the corner from Shrimpy's
Fountains in the plaza around the corner from Shrimpy’s

Because we were so stuffed, we decided to walk home rather than take the Tube–after all, it was only about a mile away along the picturesque canal. Just around the corner from Shrimpy’s, we encountered a second light show that had nothing to do with the one at the restaurant, but was almost as enchanting. We continued down to the water and followed the canal-side footpath nearly all the way back to our hotel. It was a quick and easy stroll, and a good way to burn through a few of the many tasty calories we had just consumed.

Shrimpy’s can be found (or not, depending on your sense of direction) at The King’s Cross Filling Station, Goods Way, N1C 4UR.