Apr 20

Mat’s Mega 2560 Pro Breakout Board

Here’s a new breakout board I have designed and built. If you are interested in any of the following, then read on:

  • Wired ethernet for home automation. Sure the ESP32 or ESP8266 are great, but I need to power the device from a central location (yes, this breakout board can use Power over Ethernet) and would rather not have devices that depend on a wireless connection inside my walls.
  • a large amount of IO for a low price (48 pins, £5)
  • MQTT and cheap sensors
  • nice tidy wiring in the home

So I’ve never even used a breakout board before, but I felt compelled to make my own; here’s why.

Basically I wanted a way to get as many IO pins down a good number of CAT5/CAT6 cables as possible, for connecting up many PIRs, temperature sensors, individually addressable LED strips, on-off controls for devices, light sensors, etc., all connected directly to one location e.g. in a wall nearby.

So, the idea. The “Mega 2560 Pro” is a newish board I discovered recently, not an Arduino Mega as such, but a development board based on the same chip, with the same IO (54 pins), and recognised as an Arduino Mega in the Arduino IDE. The key difference is that it’s much smaller (38x55mm) and cheaper (under GBP 5). Of course, with that many pins at that size, it’s not breadboard compatible, hence my breakout board.

Fave new development board: the Mega 2560 Pro

I actually discovered this board after buying something that looks quite similar called the Mega 2560 Core. The Mega 2560 Core is great but doesn’t include the CH340 chip, thus needs connecting to your USB via an additional, separate FTDI adapter. Not a major hassle, but this “Mega 2560 Pro” is the same size and includes USB support via a micro USB connector: perfect.

Here’s the spec:

  • 48 of the 54 Mega pins broken out into RJ45* sockets for permanent wiring of sensors via CAT6 cable in the home
  • Each CAT6 cable also carries power, selectable between 3.3 or 5V (individually selectable for as much flexibility as possible)
  • PoE and ethernet connected
  • Power via a 5V buck converter, quickly replaceable if it ever dies. (Screwed into a terminal block.) This allows us to use things like old Dell laptop chargers running at 19.5V to power these things from a central location
  • Can connect USB whilst it’s powered, as I’ve included a Vin lift button that allows you to isolate the Mega from the input power
  • 18 pins are also exposed locally to pin headers AND terminal block connectors for desk tinkering (development) and semi-permanent installs respectively
  • Every single CAT cable core is labelled with corresponding Mega pin (e.g. white-green on connector 4 goes to pin 16 or whatever)

(* I think technically if not used for ethernet, RJ45 jacks are called 8P8C connectors.)

It has space for my favourite cheap ethernet board, the Funuino W5100 board (GBP 4 each) and provides a one-stop-shop for prototyping and permanent / semi-permanent installs.

The reason I chose not to break out every single pin is that a) I will always use the ethernet connection, so didn’t bother to break out the pins used by this, and b) I wanted to keep the size down and 8x RJ45 connectors seemed sensible.

For the same reasons, I chose to break out only 18 of the pins locally. After all, if you need to prototype using different / more pins, just use the full size Arduino Mega.

As well as the 18 onboard pins, we also have GND, +5, and +3.3V headers for direct power. Again both by pin header (e.g. for Dupont connectors) and terminal blocks.

RJ45 (8P8C): Each RJ45 takes 6 pins from the Arduino and adds in two pins for power to the remote device(s). The voltage is selectable by jumper: 3.3V or 5V. In reality of course you can’t run 5V over a long cable without introducing too much voltage drop, but this depends on the load and many sensors cope admirably at 5V over 10+ metres: great for ceiling / wall / door / window sensors.

Power: The breakout board provides options for a regulated 5V input OR 6-20V, again by jumper; the latter routing Vin to a little buck converter I seem to have bought lots of called the “Fulree” 5V / 2A switching power supply. It also has a microswitch (double throw latching push button) that allows you to “lift” the Vin to ensure the whole board is disconnected from it, making it easier to plug your USB cable into the Mega without removing the Mega from the breakout board.

Labelling: Finally I wanted the board to be fully labelled, to make it as easy to wire-up as possible. So the DIY PoE terminal blocks are labelled with the words “Blue” and “Brown” to help you remember which is GND and +V, and the pin assignment for each core of the CAT6 cable is labelled according to the colour of the core, assuming you wire your CAT6 to the more common T568B standard: white orange, orange, white green, blue, white blue, green, white brown, brown.

Without further ado, here is the board layout. As mentioned above I don’t have pics of the finished products, as I’m still waiting for them to be shipped from JLCPCB in China, but I’ll update when I do!

Aug 18

Self Build – Basement waterproofing with the Delta Cavity Drain Membrane system

Anna. Standard expression on building site.

Firstly – thanks to

  • Liam from Ardex. Great advice – stretching far beyond product advice. Bought my second mixer (Baron forced action) after a conversation with him!
  • Alba from Prime Construction, our Building Inspector. Yes, seriously. They have been amazing with us, not complaining when our 6 month project turned into a 3+ year one. Alba has been so helpful in providing assistance on the best ways to do things, and of course signing-off. It’s very important to us that we do things the right way, and Alba has stepped-in to so many “situations” and helped us when other parties have made life difficult for us
  • Graham from Stonehouse Property (basement waterproofing). We didn’t go with his quotation for waterproofing the basements, as we decided we could do this ourselves with a lot of care and research. But he came to our site and gave us a lot of friendly technical advice on which I’ve based a lot of our plans in the last year.
  • Ben at Newton Waterproofing. If we could do it all again, we’d go with Newton. But our builder left us with a lot of equipment from Delta, so we decided to stick with Delta to maintain consistency.
  • The tech team at Delta Membranes
  • Screed Giant – for product advice and help. Placing our first order with them tomorrow.

How are we doing this?

We are building a home ourselves. It’s not plain-sailing. Anna and I have almost killed each other about 6 times onsite so far. This week alone we have spilled blood on bits of metal sticking out of the ground twice. We laugh, cry, and fight. We spend entire evenings trying to place an order for the correct products. We spend our night-times researching the “correct” way to do things. We are not experienced. For example, I laid out underground drainage pipes yesterday for the first time in my life. I obsessed for so long about getting the correct falls for WC vs shower that it took me 3 hours to lay one section of pipe. It’s fun.

The basement, before the roof went on

What are we doing?

Our home build has turned into a self-build. It started with us hiring a basement company to dig a front and rear basement and complete demolitions and structural works inside two floors of our house, a five-storey townhouse in London. That was three years ago, and the basement company left the project in a bit of a state. Structurally it was signed-off as sound, but a lot of remedial works were necessary.

(When I say a lot, imagine having to dig up about 20 skips worth of concrete and start again, doing it yourself.)

The basement company we used was basically a glorified groundworker who did all our demolitions and sub-contracted various installations of steel, brickwork, and the topic of this post: the installation of a Delta Membrane waterproofing system.

This post is about how we ripped out the latter, and how we are re-installing it with a number of additions, now that our ground floor extension is watertight – more or less.

For readers who don’t know what a basement waterproofing system is, or how it works, here’s the general concept.

General basement waterproofing concepts

When you build a basement, your walls and floor are up against soil. Soil gets wet, and eventually comes through the walls. This water would ruin the internals of your basement unless you deal with it.

There are two general concepts: keep the water out, or let it in – and manage it. Although our basement is really dry because we didn’t hit the water table (we’ve had two years to test this – looking at the walls and sub-base inside it’s bone dry even after flash-floods) nevertheless one is required in the UK to install a “cavity drain membrane system”, i.e. the second way: manage the water, don’t fight it.

Water tables can change, underground streams can be redirected, or the environment can change in 15 years time – so this is a reliable way of waterproofing a basement.

Also in my limited experience of trying to keep water out of buildings – forget special paints, damp proof injection systems, and basically forget anything designed to help stop water coming in. Let it in, and deal with it!

Finally, when dealing with old brickwork in our existing house, previous occupiers have done terrible things to the brick, involving locking-in the moisture which causes damage over the years. This wasn’t an issue when the house was built, when open fires were the norm and triple-glazed argon-filled windows didn’t exist! We will be putting this right.

How the Cavity Drain System works

The modern waterproofing system works like this. Instead of “tanking” the walls – applying waterproof render and hoping to keep water out, instead we install the following:

  • Plastic egg-shell like sheeting on all walls and floor. Egg-shells facing towards walls and floor, allowing water to drain down the walls onto the concrete sub base. This is called the cavity drain membrane. It is fixed with special rubber seal plugs into the concrete walls to hold it up. These plugs have screw holes for later attaching battens for stud walls. The rubber seals stop water getting out of the holes that were drilled in the membrane; the water is dripping downwards and takes the path of least resistance. It’s a clever design.
  • A big hole in the ground filled with a massive plastic bucket to collect this ground water, with a pump that pumps the water out into your sewage system. This is called the sump and pump. A decent system has dual redundant pumps, backup batteries, etc.
  • Various monitoring and protection systems to ensure that you are alerted if the pumps fail.

There are two ways of collecting the water into the sump. Some installers simple allow it to trickle along the ground into the top of the sump (additionally you can add pipes to various points in the ground that also feed into the sump, e.g. for larger areas and to prevent excessive pooling) OR you can install a set of perimeter drainage channels around the room, that lead towards the sump. Water on the floor finds its way to the plastic drains and into the sump.


Delta MS20 – thick egg shells for the floor

Delta MS500 – thin egg shells for the walls – shown here with a plug

The benefit of the perimeter drains is that any debris over the years can be flushed out, and the channels can be inspected. Note, all of this is installed underneath your floor insulation and screed.

The ground membrane is more substantial in thickness and size of egg-shell than the walls, because it must resist any uplift due to water pooling, also it needs to be structurally capable of taking the weight of the flooring without collapsing.

Why are we – the homeowners – doing this?

As with all things, you can install it the “basic” way, or the “really good” way. Our builder didn’t do a proper job of clearing the rubble from the concrete sub-floor before installing the membrane. We found cigarette butts, loose rubble, and all sorts when we lifted the membrane. After our basement company finished, we took the decision to rip it all out and re-install.

Despite the fact our builder’s sub-contractor is registered with the company who makes the system they installed – Delta Membranes – it doesn’t change the fact that the job wasn’t done well and indeed the people before them didn’t prep the area properly.

We had another company come in to quote the work, and it was in excess of £30k.

Things we want to do differently [better]

After a lot of reading, discussions with professionals and experts in the field, and testing, we are in a position of great confidence that we can now re-install the waterproofing system to a very high standard, certainly higher than it was done by the basement company we had in to do the works:

  • Completely wash-down all surfaces before installing the membrane
  • Spray the concrete walls with a special lime-resist substance. Lime from new concrete clogs up passages. This doesn’t completely stop lime coming in, but it holds it off for a really good amount of time, e.g. 10 or 20 years.
  • Install the perimeter drains mentioned above
  • Fit more plugs (fixings) in the wall membranes per square metre than were fitted before. The plugs drill through the membrane into the concrete wall, each plug has a special rubber seal
  • Lap the membrane up under the soffit to ensure water coming through at the construction joins at the top is caught properly
  • Install a second layer of membrane up against the first (with different dimple size so one doesn’t fit into the other) – just for the first 500mm of wall at the bottom, in the utility room which will be warmer and more moist than other areas, in order to catch interstitial condensation from the moist air in the room
  • Completely level the floor with a waterproof bonded screed, so that water finds a relatively equal level across the area of the floor, and into the perimeter drains. Previously the builder had left the concrete sub-base with a lot of variation in level – the lowest point was about 70mm lower than the highest point! The membrane egg-shells for the floor are 40mm, so that level of variation was unacceptable to us.
  • Pour concrete around the sump (actually both sumps, see below) as well as a good concrete base for both sumps. Previously the sumps were surrounded with soil. They don’t have a habit of caving-in with the pressure of soil and they are built to withstand a lot of mass, but still – concrete around the whole lot is recommended.
  • Build my own alarm notification system, using the high level alarm floats that come with the pumps. The alarm system you buy is £200 for the most basic thing that beeps – with an arduino, cloud-based server, and battery backup system I plan to design and build my own notification system that will tell me about any problems if I’m sitting on a beach in the Bahamas*. I am a home automation nut, and am going to integrate this into my whole-home automation system based on openHAB and MQTT.
  • Do a better job of plumbing the discharge pipes. Previously, standard waste pipe was used, and the temporary fitting supplied with the sump was used instead of a high pressure fitting. Discharge pipes should be Class C or above – this refers to how strong they are in terms of withstanding high pressures of water. Believe me – I’ve tested it – and completely soaked myself (!) – the water coming out of these pumps has some serious pressure behind it!

* I have never been, nor probably ever will go to, the Bahamas.

What we’ve done so far

Here’s what it looked like after our builders left it:

After removing the MS20 from the floor – Anna looking deflated

We took the drastic decision to dig up the old sump out of the concrete base and re-install from scratch. We found a lot of wrongness in the way they were installed.

That’s the hole – yellow thing top right is the sump that came out of it

Here’s the sump after we took it out – looks a bit worse for wear

Importantly, we also decided we wanted to have a toilet, shower, and utility room in the basement (previously we didn’t plan for this), and it turns out you must install a separate sump for foul. The groundwater sump cannot be a sealed system, but the foul sump must be, so their function cannot be shared.

Cutting in the holes for new foul pump and soil pipe trenches

So to date we’ve done the following additional works ourselves:

  • dig out the sump installed by our builders
  • scabbled the whole floor to remove high points, to minimise variation in the level. We used a rotary scabbler / scarifier (difficult to get hold of). See below pic. That was a horrendous and painful job
  • dig a new hole for a foul sump
  • dig channels for foul drainage to various points in the room
  • install new underground drainage, discharge pipework, cable ducts to both sumps, and a vent duct for the foul

Sounds simple – but the above has, in total, been about 4 weeks of solid work with 3 labourers. Excluding the removal of membrane and sump, and excluding the Scabbling Marathon. (Scablathon?) Back-breaking work I tell you!

Floor planer / scarifier / scabbler

New foul sump installed ready to test

Grey pipes are high pressure 2 inch (Class C) and white pipes are for vent and cable ducts. The foul pump shown here has cable duct, vent, and 2″ discharge. The other two pipes come from the groundwater pump the other side of the room

Tomorrow we plan to back-fill the trenches and sump areas with concrete, then we’ll make a start on the bonded screed.

Bonded Screed

We have been researching bonded screeds now for over a year, including many discussions with the good people at Ardex – ardex.co.uk – who make an excellent product that can go as low as 20mm thick and as high as 50mm. Actually we’re advised we can take it slightly lower and a good bit higher than the published thicknesses with judicious mixing and application.

Thanks so much to Liam at Ardex who has helped us hugely and chatted on the phone to us a number of times. He told us early on that we should be using a forced-action mixer to mix this screed, not a normal cement mixer. The consistency needs to be extremely good for a bonded screed at 20mm.

After about 9 months of searching, eventually we found a second-hand Baron mixer on Ebay in mint condition for £900 – about half its retail price and never used. Super. Again – I had a really useful conversation with the manufacturer Baron to learn about their different products and settled on the M80. It has the same motor as the larger version, but is suitable for smaller jobs. Actually ours is a medium sized job, but we plan to do it in sections. Look at this beauty.

Thanks to Baron – www.baron-mixer.com for the technical advice, even though I told them at the start I was hoping to pick one up second hand, they were SO helpful over the phone.

Baron M80 mixer

It may be possible to do a normal sand / cement screed, but such a screed isn’t really properly waterproof. Ardex A38 is spec’d for e.g. swimming pools. Actually after another discussion with Ardex tech support (who are extremely helpful) we have settled on Ardex A29 which has a 90 minute working time (longer – good for people who have never screeded before!) and is a lot cheaper than the A38.

A29 for bonded screed

Before applying the A29, we need to make screeding rails (so as to be able to screed to a perfect level and flat) – that should take a couple of days of messing around with bits of wood and laser levels. The Ardex data sheet says we should make up a grouting slurry to allow bonding using two other products of theirs.

We are buying the Ardex from an excellent company called Screed Giant – https://www.screedgiant.co.uk/ – thanks for the tech support and really helpful customer service guys!

After that, we will put the membranes back on the wall – not an insignificant amount of work as well! Once that’s done – we have a waterproof basement. Hurrah!

Other details

I haven’t yet mentioned that our basement also has steels under the soffit. These don’t actually hold the concrete roof up. The roof was spec’d as a suspended concrete slab, but we had these spec’d by a structural engineer and fitted by a different steel company after our contractors left due to – ahem – issues with the suspended slab. So they are a “belt-and-braces” attempt at making the slab above a bit more beefy. They are certainly putting my mind at rest, even if they aren’t definitely required.

Cost of this little project

We plan to do this work to both rear and front basements. Also because the LG floor (lower ground) of the existing house is below ground level, I want to do the same to the internal house – a large space. It’s a brick-built house, but the same system works. We will drain the LG floor into the rear basement sump. The front basement has its own water sump.

I costed the work out just for the back basement and guess what – it’s around £11,000 including labourer time at 60-100 quid a day per bloke. (Plus all of our time personally.)

So yeh – by the time we’ve done all this work ourselves it will be around the same cost as the professional waterproofing company. That said, much of this cost is to fit a new foul sump and pump and to level the floor. None of which were included in that quote. So we are spending as much, but doing a lot more.

Feb 14

I refuse to buy backup software

So, I’m writing a powershell script that:

  • Uses volume shadow service to take a backup of a directory
  • Compresses the above backup using 7zip / whatever
  • Time/Datestamps the compressed backup and copies it off-server to a given location
  • Looks at the above location and deletes backup zips older than a given number of days (i.e. retention period), e.g. keep 30 days of backups
  • But wait, it won’t delete anything unless it knows that a given number of backups exist from the last x days (retention period). After all, if your backups had been failing for 30 days, it would be pretty dumb to delete everything over 30 days old. So the script allows you to set what you deem as a good total number of backups to exist within your retention period in order to delete everything outside of the retention period. Some contingency built in.
  • It connects to your authenticated SMTP server (e.g. Google Mail) to send you an HTML formatted report of exactly what it found in that backup location (filenames alongside their age), whether it detected that recent backups were indeed found, and therefore whether backups older than the retention period were tidied.
  • Obvs, it supports reading / writing to network shares.
  • It supports multiple backup sets per report, using a set of commands like this:

Backup-Tidy 8 6 28 “c:\dir-to-backup” “d:\dir-to-store-zips”
Backup-Tidy 4 2 7 “c:\another-dir-to-backup” “d:\another-dir-to-store-zips”

The arguments for Backup-Tidy:

Backup-Tidy 8 6 28 “c:\dir-to-backup” “d:\dir-to-store-zips” “ForReal”

read as follows: “If you find 8 files from the last 6 days, then remove all files over 28 days old”

  • The “ForReal” is a safety belt. Without this argument, the detailed report email is generated but the backups and deletions don’t get done.

And the pretty HTML report looks like this:

Mat’s Backup Tidy Report – 22/02/2014 04:00:36

\\internal.hazymat.co.uk\root\Backup\Mat’s Files [retention period = 28 days]

Recent backups were NOT found. We needed at least 8 zip files 6 days old or less; there are only 3.
We didn’t touch any files; it wasn’t safe to delete anything.

Name Size Age
backup-log-2014.02.19-193402.txt 8k 2d
images-2014.02.19-193402.zip 930m 2d
images-2014.02.18-193409.zip 870m 3d
images-2014.02.17-193355.zip 840m 4d
Total size: 2.6g


\\internal.hazymat.co.uk\root\Backup\Big Files [retention period = 7 days]

Recent backups found. We needed at least 5 zip files 7 days old or less; there are 7.
Old files were removed: jolly good.

Name Size Age
backup-log-2014.02.19-193402.txt 8k 0d
images-2014.02.21-193402.zip 930m 0d
images-2014.02.20-193409.zip 870m 1d
images-2014.02.19-193355.zip 840m 2d
images-2014.02.18-193402.zip 930m 3d
images-2014.02.17-193409.zip 870m 4d
images-2014.02.16-193355.zip 840m 5d
images-2014.02.15-193355.zip 840m 6d
Total size: 6.12g

Feb 14

One year today

I wanted to write an eloquent status update reflecting my thoughts, beliefs, and status one year on.

But I am so besieged with grief, and so incapacitated by regret that I cannot.

Last night I walked his last journey from Lilac Ward Tolworth Hospital to the tree. It broke me that I could walk back, get in my car and drive home again to a warm home with loved ones.

* Please see my previous post “one week today”

Jan 12

LrReview Test

This is looking VERY nice. I like the way I can set ordering at the point of creating the collection.

Dec 11

Qype: Chipotle in London

LondonEating & DrinkingRestaurantsMexican

Tucked away on a corner of Baker Street usually inhabited by (infested with?) large packs of spotty teenage tourists with matching yellow rucksacks of a Saturday morning, or suited office types of a weekday lunchtime, lies London’s newest addition to the fast-growing world of _quality fast food_.

As one who has always believed the phrase _”quality” fast food_ to be completely incongruous in itself, and therefore who usually shuns fast food (fast), Chipotle is, admittedly, a place that on any other day I might pass-by without giving it a thought. It’s unique to this country; sadly the idea of quality fast food has passed us poor Brits by, yet every time I visit the US – a deli in NYC or a burger joint in Portland, I am bowled-over by how decent the food is. On the other hand, your average UK sandwich shop or independent burger shop (Chicken Cottage, anyone? Subway? EW!) fill me with The Fear.

Enter: Chipotle.

By _”quality” fast food_, I mean that the ingredients are sourced by the restaurant directly, all food is created from scratch onsite and on the same day – even the tortilla chips – and more importantly, a great deal of care and love is pumped into all aspects of food creation.

Chipotle is an American-Mexican restaurant which I dearly hope will play a small part in changing the game with UK fast food. Even *I* can bring myself to use the R word (rather than calling it a “joint” or mere “outlet”), especially when I know my quick-grab lunch is the product of about 6 hours of preparation by real cooks.

It has a rather beautiful and quirky history; a chain with a soul, if you will. Despite its brief foray into some form of partnership with the proprietors of the Big Golden Arches (eeeevil), Chipotle has stayed true to its roots and sources its ingredients locally, where possible. Essentially that means: meats and vegetables from the UK. Of course there are exceptions: avocados are seasonal and they are mostly imported from far-off warm lands.

To give you a quick idea of the level of care and knowledge that goes into the food here, our guide Jacob talked about the difference in flavour of avocados from various different countries and at different times of the year. We were moving into the time of the year where the Hass avocados are sourced from Chilli, which meant they wouldn’t be perfect for another few weeks. Or what about the difference in flavour profile of guacamole depending on what kind of salt is used? Enough said, right? They know their stuff!

The proof was in the pudding, though. The pork burrito with black bean and mild chilli and guac was absolutely superb.

I’m all about a good burrito, it used to be difficult picking one up anywhere in London – especially to go – but it’s getting easier these days.

Don’t be fooled: although Chipotle serves your lunch in 3 minutes flat, this is some seriously brilliant food.

Check out my review of Chipotle – I am hazymat – on Qype

Apr 11

Qype: Franco Manca in London

LondonEating & DrinkingRestaurantsItalian & Pizza

Franco Manca gets my seal of pizzapproval!

I’m upping sticks and leaving my home of 7 years in Shepherd’s Bush for the far more chic, distinctly less scary, and most definitely more beautiful Chiswick. And I simply can’t want to get stuck-in to the many delights Chiswick has to offer for the foodie; the supper clubs, the posh local food markets, and not least the great looking restaurants.

Franco Manca was recommended to me by the owner of a lovely little coffee house place in Cambridge called Massaro’s (completely unrelated); they are really serious about the quality of the meats and breads they serve, and they said I would love Franco Manca. In fact they were visiting London a week previously, and detoured all the way to Chiswick just to eat here.

They also told me the story of how it got its name. The original restaurant in Brixton was opened on the site of a little Italian place called Franco’s. One day Franco went missing and nobody knew where he had gone.

After a while, the new owners took over the place, but weren’t sure what to call their restaurant. So after a bit of thought they simply called it Franco Manca, Italian for “Franco’s Missing”.

Franco Manca is a pizza restaurant which serves really well-priced tasty Naples-style pizza, with an emphasis on good quality ingredients.

We visited for the first time of many on Saturday night, and found the pizza to be brilliant. The restaurant was very busy with queues out of the door at around 7.30pm Saturday night, and I can see why. Although there was a queue, the front-of-house chap knew exactly what he was doing and didn’t leave anyone hanging, instead coming coming back to check numbers and tables every few minutes.

The crowd is quite young and unfortunately a little noisy at this time; maybe I’m getting old but the group next to us was so unbearably loud we had to move. One Glaswegian woman had the most unbelievably shrill voice. What is it with the unruly Brits?!

Anyway. Are you a fellow Chiswickian? Or are you seeking out London’s best pizza joints?

The restaurant was extremely busy when we went, and they did mess up our order a little. Luckily we were quite excited about the pizza and overlooked the mistake, especially as an apology was forthcoming immediately.

Aside from this I found the service to be swift and no-messing.

Superb pizza, thin with toasty flavoursome crusts. If you are looking for a quiet Saturday evening then perhaps give it a miss, otherwise if you are no stranger to a youngish loudish crowd and you love good pizza, Franco Manca is a must-visit.

Check out my review of Franco Manca – I am hazymat – on Qype

Jan 11

Qype: St Pancras International Station in London

LondonTransportationPublic TransportStations

Okay, I admit it. I’m an anorak.

I’m crazy about train stations, and when St Pancras International opened after its long-awaited refurbishment, I visited late night on a Sunday on an architectural pilgrimage with camera and tripod.

I was honoured as a photographer to have one of my photographs of St. Pancras printed onto a large poster and installed into a 2m high display on the concourse of the station itself and featured in the Metro last year for a Valentine’s promotion. (http://www.matsmithphotography.com/photolife-blog/mat-smith-photography-in-metro)

I had the most glorious time admiring its historic beauty, the gorgeous monument to timekeeping that is the iconic Dent clock commissioned as a replacement for the original as part of the Eurostar refurb, the magnificent statue “The Meeting Place” by British artist Paul Day, and the Betjeman statue by British sculptor Martin Jennings; I wasn’t the only one. At this time the station was filled with single old men wandering around gazing in awe with their cameras. It was a bizarre but special night for me.

Since then I have been back a number of times, not to travel, but just to enjoy.

The St Pancras Grand Brasserie, Oyster and Champagne Bar (Searcys at St Pancras) is a fabulous place to enjoy a glass of bubbles. If you sit along the concourse adjacent to platforms, the booths are designed like little train carriages, and when it’s cold you can even grab a complimentary blanket and turn-on the seat heaters using a button below the table. It’s one of my favourite places to drink Champagne.

The station also has a Carluccio’s if you are that way inclined, and the station ground floor concourse has a whole host of places to shop, offering everything from precious gifts, useful travel purchases, M&S Simply Food, restaurants and decent small cafés – something for every budget.

St. Pancras is a destination in itself, a wonderful large open space when you are feeling London-claustrophobia, a place where you can pretend that modern train travel is still romantic, and a useful drop-in for convenience shopping when in the area.

And if you are an architect geek like me, you will love the stunning refurbishment of this historic building.

Check out my review of St Pancras International Station – I am hazymat – on Qype

Dec 10

Qype: Sartori in London

LondonEating & DrinkingRestaurants

Sartori is a new Italian joint, opened October 2010, in the heart of the theatre district in London’s West End.

I love pizza.

By that, I mean I hate Pizza Sexpress, can’t stand Deep Bland Pizza, abhor Pizza Slut, can’t be arsed with Ask, and please don’t get me started on how Dodgy Domino’s has single-handedly bastardised the concept of pizza and turned it into the Divine Brown of the UK Pizza scene. (“You’re hungry, you say? And you have no soul? Here, use my Domino’s Calling Card! You can find them in most phone booths around town! It will feel great at the time and they will deliver straight to your door!”)

Truth is, Brits just don’t *get* pizza. The idea that there exists this unspoken hierarchy of quality that differentiates Ask from Pizza Express from Pizza Hut is absolutely bonkers. Fact is they are all lowest-common-denominator, hen-do-serving chain restaurants whose sole purpose is to shovel out food that is marginally above adequate according to the British palate (and we all know what that means), thus making the most profit possible.

It’s how Tesco and Starbucks operate, and the discerning foodie should shun them not because they are all corporate and evil like, but because they have forgotten what it means to do things that make you smile.

Sartori, this lovely cosy and sophisticated little restaurant in central London, is the perfect antidote to the picture I have painted above.

If I tell you that this restaurant transported their pizza oven piece-by-piece directly from Naples and reconstructed it in their basement (no expense spared: the whole thing cost a cool £18k), you might correctly assume that they also shipped-in chefs from Naples to operate the beast as well.

And if you know a thing or two about the average food ethic of a chef in Naples, and the commitment they have to the art of making pizza, you might start to understand that you are in for a rare treat.

Actually I first heard about this place when I was looking at reviews of my favourite new coffee house nearby, Notes Music and Coffee, who have probably the most expensive and sought-after espresso machine currently in the world. Sartori was noted in the same piece as having the Maserati of pizza ovens. I had to investigate. I had to see it for myself.

A quick look downstairs at this oven, and a chat with a waiter, confirms this is indeed the Maserati of pizza ovens. The waiter actually compared it to a Ferrari, but the point is that this restaurant is sufficiently geeky about the construction of a pizza to employ pizzaioli who know exactly what they are doing.

Their menu proudly states “please refrain from asking for a variation of toppings; our pizzaioli are experienced in the art of combining ingredients”… and my Pizza Napoletana was the evidence.

Each new mouthful tasted different to the last, each made me go ‘wow’, and without wishing to gush too much, each mouthful made me further resolve to tell all my friends about this place.

If pizza isn’t your thing, there are numerous other dishes from Naples to get excited about.

Although the aspirations are high, this is a humble restaurant. The service is smart and friendly, the decor is classy, the atmosphere is intimate, and the prices are astonishingly low given its location.

A great place for a date or a meal with good friends, and it won’t break the bank. If you fancy a coffee pilgrimage at the same time, visit Notes Music and Coffee just down the road. (Open late.)

Check out my review of Sartori – I am hazymat – on Qype

Dec 10

Qype: Barbican Foodhall at Barbican Centre in London

LondonShoppingFood & Drink

I love the Barbican Food Hall, despite the fact it’s overpriced, the staff are rushed, and the food is anything but exciting.

With a title like “Food Hall”, with its “Selfridges Food Hall” connotations, you would be forgiven for thinking it’s one of these multi-faceted, multi-tilled affairs with various different cuisine zones and the like.

Seriously, it is not. For example, £3.75 for a very basic but fresh tuna mayo sandwich on reasonably thin normal bread, in an unlabelled packet.

After its refurbishment this year, the place is a lot more sexy to look at, there’s a lot more choice of food, drinks, and cake, and they serve marginally better coffee. (Previously coffee was a serve-yourself affair with an automatic coffee machine, now it’s a barista and a couple of delicious looking espresso machines, they use Monmouth beans. But that doesn’t mean a thing if you don’t know how to clean a steam wand and prevent your milk from tasting rancid thus producing stuff that’s even worse than using an automatic… I digress.)

Yes it’s sexier. Much, much sexier. The interior is lovely, and whoever came up with the concept clearly understands the style of architecture in which it is situated (brutalism – not everyone’s cup of tea).

It’s for the above reason that I love it. I’m a self-confessed brutalism-maniac and this place utterly floats my boat.

As for floating my foodie boat, I’m sorry but at its heart, it’s still canteen food.

Check out my review of Barbican Foodhall at Barbican Centre – I am hazymat – on Qype