Thursday, January 19, 2012

Spaniards Inn and stargazing, 14th January

After our ill-fated but ultimately successful trip to Broadway Market we had little time before heading out to our nighttime activities. Between October and April, the observatory in Hampstead opens to the public to use their telescopes and look at the stars. I also wanted to go to the Spaniards Inn which wasn't too far away from the observatory and so thought to combine the two. We invited a couple we're friends with and I made reservations at the Spaniards for 7 pm.

The Spaniards Inn is a little bit of a trek to get to and we were running a little late. Luckily our friends got there a bit before us so we didn’t lose our reservation. I can only imagine this is quite a popular pub, with people eating there all day, because when we arrived, we were told that they were out of pork belly (I was considering having the pork belly salad), the smoked haddock and both burgers (Stephen was thinking of having the pork and chorizo burger). So our bad food luck was continuing. At least it gave me an excuse not to order something healthy, although none of us were impressed that they had run out of a good chunk of the menu so early on.

I opted for the ox cheek pie with red wine and kale colcannon (mash to the uninitiated). 

Stephen had the fish and chips. 
Not sure why my photos are sideways

Nick enjoying his pie
My friend Nick also had the pie, and Claire, the vegetarian among us had the vegetarian options – a fig, goat’s cheese, pecan and roast squash tart. After the meal she said it was the best vegetarian option she’d ever had, and it certainly looked impressive, coming with a tower of kale on the top and sitting on a red sauce. I was happy with my pie, though Stephen thought there was too much batter on his fish. All in all, the food is quite good. However, although it doesn’t say it on its website, the pub is part of a larger chain, run by the same people and you can get the exact same menu in any of them (the Alwyne Castle for instance, in Angel). 

Best veggie tart ever!
The reason I wanted to go to the Spaniards though, was to sit 
in a part of history. It is a very, very old pub (built late 1500s) and has a history of highwaymen (possibly including Dick Turpin – it is rumoured he was born there) frequenting it, and also being hung from a tree down the road. It has been mentioned in The Pickwick Papers, and Dracula, and Byron and Keats are meant to have been visitors, possibly even penning some of their works there.  It’s actually also just a nice pub to be in, all dark wood lending it a proper pub feel. If it weren’t so far away, I’d happily spend more time here. It’s a classic British pub.

After finishing off our bottle of wine and beers, we went back into town to go to the Observatory. If you have a smartphone and look up Hampstead observatory, you won’t find it, which I thought was a bit odd. Luckily, I knew roughly where it was from their own website, and on the way up, noticed a little sign pointing towards it. We found said sign, and followed it around. Typically for an English sign it pointed us toward a crossroads and then didn’t bother to tell you whether to turn left or right. Thank goodness for being able to check the observatory’s own website again for the exact location. On my smartphone. We turned down a small road, and there was a gate with some steps which seemed to have a few people around it, so we figured we were at our destination.

I was expecting something like Greenwich observatory – something large and impressive. It was almost the opposite, though they did share having a dome in common. Whereas Greenwich has a huge museum etc attached to it, the Hampstead one is literally just a dome, in a field. You would never know it was there unless you knew it was there. There were a few people also there to look at the stars so we got in the line and queued for about 5 minutes to look through the Cooke’s telescope that was pointing at Jupiter. Looking through, you could see two of its moons as well, and some knowledgeable chap was standing by spouting facts about Jupiter and answering any questions anyone had.

Outside, there were another two telescopes. One was also set up to look at Jupiter, but was a more modern telescope and hence afforded a sharper picture. We had a look through that one as well, just for the hell of it. And then we went over to the third telescope which was moved around to look at different things. We looked at Orion’s belt and then another cluster.

The people on hand were the sort of uber-geeks whose enthusiasm is infectious. It was also obvious that they all had a slightly different passion when it came to astronomy. One person clearly knew all about Jupiter, another was more into telescopes themselves – telling us about a telescope that adjusts automatically for the effects of the atmosphere (which moves all the time and can make for a hazy, wavy viewing). He said it was like looking at the stars from the Hubble Space Telescope, if you look through that one. Another pointed out Mars and the constellation Leo (which is mine) and then boasted about how he could see stars at magnitude 5 with his naked eye. He then negated this boast by pointing out the star’s location, and helping us all see it for ourselves once we strained our eyes hard enough.

It was an evening of pure, innocent enjoyment, reminding all of us of our youths when we first became fascinated with the sky and the stars in it. Apparently Mars will be close in a few months and I’d love to go back again when it is.

I don’t know how lucky we were in terms of business. There were definitely a few people there when we arrived and another 2 or 3 came along after us. We got there just before it closed at 10 (though when we left at 10:10 or so, they didn’t seem in a hurry to shut up shop) so perhaps we missed the rush. Or maybe just not many people go. Though, with the current BBC show Stargazing being produced in collaboration with Hampstead Observatory, that may be likely to change.


  1. I think one of the telescope was pointed in the direction of the Orion Nebula, which is south of Orion's Belt.

    I was reminded of the name by the Stargazing show this week. Very cool. Horizon was on afterwards, introducing synthetic biology, but I had to turn over half way through because Claire complained of too much science!

  2. How did you get to Spaniards Inn? It looks like it's in the middle of nowhere, but I want to go!

  3. Yeah, that was probably it, Nick.

    Jan- it does look isolated but its only about a fifteen minute walk from hampstead tube. Not a walk I'd do on my own in the dark though!


Please feel free to add your views, or maybe suggest somewhere I should put on my list!

View my food journey on Zomato!