Sunday 2 July 2023

Hayfever - Airborne allergens under the microscope

 A day of sneezing and irritated eyes again, now that it has rained in Milton. Here is what I found in the air and put under the microscope - masses of pollen grains, fungal spores and even starch grains! The sample is from a comparable day last week, when I rinsed a roughly 30cm x 30cm (1 square foot) piece of fine netting that had been on the washing line for 18 hours!

The various types are shown with numbered examples on the following figures, using the labelling:

  1. Pollen grains from flowering plants stained red and can vary a lot in shape and size
  2. Pollen grains from grass - are stained red, plain ovals with a single pore, and can vary in size
  3. Fungal spores - generally brown, beige or grey, ranging from lage paddle shapes to small ovals
  4. Fragments of fungal hyphae - look like broken brown twigs
  5. Starch grains - variable sizes, transparent, circular to oval with a hint of a central marking

Air sample at 200x magnification showing pollen, fungal spores and fragments, and starch grains 01
From the first picture above you can get an idea of the abundance of pollen and fungal spores in 1/600 of the collected material. The spiky pink pollen comes from a plant in the daisy family.

For us hayfever sufferers, our problem is compounded by the fact that all these very small particles stick quite readily to our hair, faces and clothes. Our symptoms can be triggered if even if just a few become loose when we move indoors or go to bed, hence the advice to wash hair and change outer clothes frequently if you do suffer badly from hayfever. Thank heavens that many of our cars have pollen filters!

I calculated that overall my total sample from a small piece of netting contains about
  • 7,200 pollen grains
  • 42,000 fungal spores 
  • 600 starch grains
Hayfever is when our own immune system becomes sensitive to airborne dust, pollen, spores, hair, for example, treating them as a threat and trying to protect us.  Unfortunately, our eyes and noses are the areas most likely to be exposed and react. What's more, each one of us develops our own typical allerge to one or more of the many different particles in the air.

I can manage with taking hayfever tablets daily during the main hayfever season, and eyedrops when it is particularly bad on the eyes. I only need to avoid going out on particularly bad days. Many others suffer much more seriously and find their lives dramatically impaired. In those cases it is worth seeing if your doctor or health system offer both a service to identify your specific allergens and a possible corresponding desensitisation program. two useful lins in the UK are:
There is also another side to being able to capture and identify pollens and spores - in forensics, when trying to match a person or vehicle to a crime location. Here, the fact that pollen and spores are so pernicious and will be very specific to locations helps, as illustrated in a fantastc book by Patricial Wiltshire 'Traces' -

Airborne particles. I hadn't really realised how abundant they are! My sympathy if you are a hayfever sufferer.

For your interest, below are some more images from the airborne pollen sample.

Air sample at 200x magnification showing pollen, fungal spores and fragments, and starch grains 02

The caplet shaped pollens are from the same family as Cow Parsley.

Air sample at 400x magnification showing pollen, fungal spores and fragments, and starch grains 03

The largest pollen grain (1) is similar to Hazel pollen. The grass pollen (2, bottom) has a visible single pore.

Air sample at 400x magnification showing pollen, fungal spores and fragments, and starch grains 04

The large pollen grain (1) is very characteristic for pines, the two black circles within it are trapped air bubbles. The starch grain (5) is on the large side. Starch in airborne dust most likely comes from decayed plants and very small grains can come from some pollens. The fungal fragments (4) would also have come from dried decaying plants and soil.


Wednesday 22 March 2023

Reviving UK-DE trade - Some notes on a March 2023 Trade mission

Tower Bridge London at night

Executive Summary

Six German companies specialising in innovative building transformations, modernisations and restoration attended 2 days of talks and bilateral information exchanges in London on 20-21 March before continuing with site visits in the following days. Key messages from both UK and DE side were 1. Shared interests in working and collaboration between companies in the sector. 2. The difficulties in finding skilled craftspersons and apprentices. 3. Cross-border hurdles impacting on collaborations and the need to find suitable solutions to ameliorate them. 4. Deep frustration at the lack of political action in the UK  

The trade mission was a German BMWK Ministry ( event organised and enabled by Europartnerships ( It was held at both the German Embassy, London and the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising (IPA), both at Belgrave Square.

Day 1. Talks in a secure environment

Hearing that I was the sole person allowed to bring in a laptop for the day's event at the German Embassy, with special dispensation from the Chancellor, I was only mildly disappointed to find out that it was not the German Chancellor, but the almost equally eminent embassy's Chancellor. I am unable for obvious reasons to reveal the other stringent security restrictions and precautions we had to undergo before we could reach our meeting room, but we were in the hands of the extremely professional and courteous and friendly staff throughout. 

We were warmly greeted and had a good outline of the current situation re post Brexit trade and UK politics by the Deputy head of Economics Mariko Higuchi ( The directors of the six german companies were then provided with advice on a wide variety of relevant topics. These ranged from basic cultural differences, via the new tax issues arising through crossborder trade, to the impact of visas, BIM and onsite Health and Safety on doing business in the UK. Key message to emerge, life is simpler if you have partners in both countries.

Compliments to the speakers, Marc Lehnfeld (Director GTAI, Sven Riemann (Marketing AHK - a long standing and witty contributor at past events, Martin Werhahn (Tax Services AHK, and Robert Hunt (associate Konduit Ltd, who proved himself to be one of the rare breed of  0.5% of british in the UK who could definitely speak German.

Though retired, my role for Europartnerships over the years has been to come in as meeting's chair for the two days, to ensure the fair timing of talks takes us agreeably through to breaks and mealtimes, without bias and on time.

Six different personalilities, skills and businesses

We (the delegates) made our way to the Motel One, Tower Hill, afterwards to meet up at 4:30 to go through the six comapny presentations in a relaxed manner. This is a crucial and really helpful stage for me. It gives me a chance to get to know not only their businesses and objectives, but the different personalities, something cemented in The Dean Swift pub, close to Tower Bridge later that evening. It helps with supporting them on the following day.

I'll try to give some single line summaries of the six different companies and their services:
  • Felix Graf of Felix Graf GmbH: A family business with a a strong link with its community and employees, that has grown to specialise in the interior fittings for the hotel and catering industry.
  • Lars Krauss of Greengineers: Consultants and specialist planning services to provide tailored sustainable solutions that meet their client's needs.
  • Jörn Brennscheidt of Hokon. Making impossible stairways possible!
  • Thomas Schubert of Ingeneurbüro für Kirchenbau, Glocken und Denkmalpflege. Rebuilding and recovering churches, community buildings and creating welcoming communal places.
  • Christian Schulte of Mühlenhof Restaurierungen GmbH. Sympathetic and authentic restaurations of historic windows, doors, floors, panelling and furniture in collaboration with architects and art historians.
  • Peter Spor of Tischlerei Spor GmbH & Co KG. A traditional joinery and carpentry company whose expertise include dry wall construction and the repair and build of solid wooden floors.
Most of the companies already have international experience and are english speakers, with several having completed projects in the UK prior to Brexit.

Day 2. Presentations and key issues.

Day 2 was held at the Institue of Practitioners in Advertising (IPA, almost opposite to the German Embassy, on the other side of Belgrave Square, a long standing and friendly venue for Europartnerships.

Over 70 UK architects and other companies in the construction and restoration sector had expressed an interest and a substantial number filled the larger conference room upstairs at the IPA. This time it was the turn of Markus Knauf (Head of the Economics Department at the German Embassy and Mark Dodsworth, director of Europartnerships (  to welcome the guests, as well as thanking Petra Riemenschneider and team at Europartnerships for their herculean efforts in organising the event.

For once, technology was on our side as the first of the mornings talks, by Marie-Theres Sobik of Thyssen ( on "The vocational training system in Germany" was given remotely using Teams. A training system that had a century of experience behind it, contrasting with the mixed and changing approaches in the UK. Circumstances had prevented Marie-Theres from being able to attend and her physical presence was sorely missed by me and the Europartnerships team. Like Sven mentioned above, she had been a stalwart and bright, constructive presence at many previous events in the past. Afterwards, Michael Schienke of Vorbild Architecture ( and Sven Riemann (AHK reversed yesterday's role and enlightened the british audience on cultural differences across the channel, revealing that in Germany too, there was a diversity of regional prides, traditions and ways of doing things.

Our six german companies then had their turn in the spotlight. Gradually, the audience came alive with shared experiences and questions not only to the companies, but also about how to overcome some of the hurdles presented since Brexit. After all, the UK had fallen out of the list of top 10 trading partners with Germany. Here, the presentations given to us at the embassy proved invaluable; problems with taxation through the transfer of goods several times back and forth across the UK-EU borders could be overcome to some degree with professional assistance and sometimes even at a final null cost calculation. Building partnerships with one member in the EU and the other in the UK was a good route to take, each familiar with their own ideosyncratic bureaucracies, regulations and regional issues and helping solve the border transitions of goods and services.

What I understood was, that the greatest regret was the loss of access to the Erasmus program, with some UK delegates speaking of the way it had helped their careers. In turn, the German companies had young staff who would leap at the chance to gain experience in the UK. A representative from one of the UK bodies in the industry implored the German Embassy to seek more routes to collaboration in the training of up and coming craftspeople in the construction and in the restoration sectors. Apparently there were promising comments from the government - but at present little action.

We ended the day with a buffet lunch and many individual discussions between attendees and the german company representatives, followed by the longer one-to-ones from pre-arranged appointments.

My personal feeling at the end of the day was, that there were opportunities and an interest in longer term collaboration between the two countries in innovative building transformations, modernisation and restoration, despite the hurdles raised by Brexit. 

From the german companies' point of view, it was an insight into the opportunities that might exist, possible partners to contact when back home, as well as a better knowledge of the potential barriers. Ultimately, it would be their judgement whether it would be worth their time and investment in trying to enter the UK market.

Sunday 19 March 2023

Creamed Honey crystal microscopy using LOCA - Method

Crystals of creamed honey (sourece Honigmanufaktur Meerbusch). 40x objective, industrial microscope camera, transmitted light, crossed polarisation filters and quarter wave plate.

I returned from a family vsit to Germany with a small jar of creamed honey, made by Honigmanufaktur Meerbusch ( Coming to the bottom of the jar, of this very smooth, cream like honey, I looked for the best way to visualise and measure the honey crystals. Through experimentation, a simple method for producing a thin layer of honey crystals and mounting in LOCA  was developed. Samples were best observed between crossed polarisation filters with a quarter wave plate.


I tried several methods to get a thin layer of the sugar crystals.

  1. Taking a small drop on a slide, covering with a cover slip and pressing hard. Not very successful,
  2. Small drop of honey on a slide mixed with some oil then pressed with a cover slip. Partially successful, giving areas with some thinner layers. see figures 1 & 2
  3. Small drop of honey mixed with isopropanol - too viscous too smear.
  4. Making a thin streak of honey across the width of a slide and trying to spread it as you would a blood smear, pulling a thin film behind another angled slide. Honey too viscous to be spread.
  5. Making a thin streak and  using an angled other slide to smear it thinly. Unsuccessful - the smear was of a viscous thin layer solution wihout many crystals until the place where the dragging slide was pulled off, There a slip of thick crystals remained.
  6. The final approach was a modification of method 5. Making a thin streak and  using an angled other slide to smear it thinly at first and then reducing the pressure over a 2 cm stretch of the slide. SUCCESS! there was an area of the smear that was thick enough to leave crystals yet thin enough to have them at almost a single layer. A drop of LOCA was placed on the thin area, a cover slip added and pressed. The slide was set by exposure to a hand held UV torch for 60 seconds and then cleaned according to the method published by Gordon Brown, 2020, creating a permanent slide.
Slides were photographed using a Reichert Zetopan microscope witha 40x objective and a Chinese 5 megapixel objective camera and the software ToupView. Lighting techniques used were standard brightfield, use of crossed polarisation filters without and then with a quarter wave filter. A series of images at different focus through the sample were taken and combined in a focus stack using Picolay.


Method 2. The sample of honey mixed with sunflower oil had areas that were thin enough to see defined crystals. There were planar, needle and fragmentary types. However the sample was still fairly thick.

Figure 1. Creamed honey crystals. Method 2. Mixed with sunflower oil, 40x objective, between crossed polarisation filters. Field of view 250 µm.

Figure 2. Creamed honey crystals. Method 2. Mixed with sunflower oil, 40x objective, between crossed polarisation filters plus quarter wave plate. Field of view 250 µm.

Method 6. Sample spread as a smear of increasing thickness on slide and mounted in LOCA. More parts of the slide could be found where the layer of crystals was thin enough to resolve individual crystals.

The crystals in this cream honey are extrememly thin and show little contrast in transmitted light (figure 3). Greater contrast of the crystals against background is achieved using polarisation. Their thinness is also reflected in the fact that they appear in pale colourless shades between crossed polars (figure 4). The planar like crystals have 120 degree angles reflecting molecular sugar. There are also small needle like crystals. 

Whilst the contrast is less with the inclusion of a half wave plate (figure 5), it does reveal crystals missed under just crossed polars. making this the preferred method for photography.

The images reveal that most of the crystals are smaller than 20 µm in diameter. The result is consistent with the cream like nature of this honey.

Figure 3. Method 6, sample spread and mounted in LOCA. 40 x objective. Normal transmitted light. 

Figure 4.  Creamed honey crystals. Method 6, sample spread and mounted in LOCA. 40 x objective, between crossed polarisation filters.

Figure 5. Creamed honey crystals. Method 6, sample spread and mounted in LOCA. 40 x objective, between crossed polarisation filters plus quarter wave plate.


Honey is liquid in the beehive, where it is kept at about 35 degrees C by the bees themselves. When stored at home after purchasing, honey will begin to crystallise from the bottom of the jar upwards if the room temperture is cooler than 35 degrees C. The rate of crystallisation is dependent on the fructose/glucose ratio; more fructose, the slower crystalisation occurs. 

Particle size has an impact of the mouth feel of foods. Larger grains feel coarse and the food 'grainy', whilst particles smaller than 20 µm impart a creamy texture in chocolate, for example. 

Honey with coarse crystals can be liquified again by warming if desired.

On the other hand, a smooth, cream honey can be deliberately created. Liquid honey is seeded with 10% of its volume of existing cream honey or large honey crystals that have been blended into sufficiently small particles. The added crystals are stirred into the liquid honey and the mixture left to stand for a week or more by which time the honey becomes saturated with small crystals and is turned into a cream honey.

Useful references and links

Monday 13 March 2023

Feathers under the microscope

The unexpected finding for me personally, on identifying feathers under the microscope, was that it was the downy feathers or down parts of feathers that can be key to identification. 

A fellow microscopist and I in Milton had missed being able to attend an Iceni meeting in Norfolk a couple of weekends ago on the topic of feathers. So later in the day, we got together to have a go ourselves. In addition to some feathers we had, we were able to borrow some from my neighbours here in Hall End.

Selection of feathers

That doesn't mean that the flight feathers are uninteresting. A closer look at the rigid part of the pheasant feather reveals the hooking mechanism on the barbules. These are the fine filaments that create the interlocking between the regular rows of  barbs radiating from the main feather stem.

Pheasant feather at 40x, 100x and 400x magnification, showing hooks and notches on barbules

Downy barbs can not only be found on (surprise surprise) down, but also on the bases of other feathers on a bird. Looked at closely, the barbs have fine filamentous barbules with distinctive nodes that can be seen at higher magnification. Below are some of the examples that we discovered.

Pheasant down at 40x, 100x and 400x magnification

Macaw down at 40x, 100x and 400x magnification

Goldfinch down at 40x, 100x and 400x magnification

Possible swan down at 40x, 100x and 400x magnification

Unknown down, possily pigeon at 40x, 100x and 400x magnification

Just to add a bit of colour, I had a go at making a stitched image of a peacock's feather, using the software Image View (which is very like Toupe View). Normally I would take separate pictures and use Hugin to stitch them together. Image View allows you to do the stitching automatically by moving the sample in rows or columns. The second attampt sort of worked, as shown below.

Eye of a peacock feather scanned with Imave View at about 40 magnification, equivalent to about 8 images stitched together.

All in all, it was a very enjoyable exercise and occupied a Sunday afternoon plus a bit extra for picture editing.

Useful identification guides for feathers under the microscope:

Microscopy of Feathers: Carla J. Dove & Sandra L. Koch, 2011. A Practical Guide for Forensic Feather Identification.  THE MICROSCOPE • Vol 59:2, pp 51-71.

Tim G. Brom, 1986. Microscopic identification of feathers and feather fragments of Palearctic birds. Bijdragen tot de Dierkunde, 56 (2): 181-204

Monday 18 July 2022

A better gluten free bread loaf crumb using aquafaba foam


Wheat free bread loaf with a better crumb
Wheat free/gluten free bread loaf with a better crumb using aquafaba foam

Once an ardent bread baker, you can imagine my disappointment, nay, despair at having to bake wheat free bread. Crumbly, developing a grainy texture if left for any period of time. I therefore made it my objective to find a better solution. The solution first and my recipe second.

Solution: My elements for palatable gluten free bread are:

  1. Creating a stiff peaked aquafaba foam and folding it into the bread dough.
  2. Slicing and freezing a freshly baked loaf once it has cooled to room temperature. Take however many slices you need out of the freezer and heat them before using and eating.

Recipe for gluten free bread using aquafaba foam

Adapted from recipe on Doves Farm Freee White bread flour recipe.


Ingredients clockwise from top: Yeast in water with some sugar, olive oil, all other dry ingredients plus most of sugar, lemon juice, aquafaba

  • 300g Doves Farm Freee White Bread Flour blend: rice, tapioca, potato, thickener: xanthan gum
  • 75g Buckwheat flour
  • 75g Chickpea aqua faba at room temperature (you can use egg white from 2 eggs)
  • 5ml lemon juice
  • 27ml Olive oil
  • 36g Sugar
  • 6g Dried east: yeast, emulsifier sorbitan monostearate, vitamin C
  • 6g Salt
  • 0.75 tsp/1.5g Psyllium husk
  • 250ml Water


  • Mix a teaspoon of sugar, water and yeast and leave at least 5 mins to activate at no more than 33 degC
  • In new large bowl, add lemon juice to aqua faba and using hand mixer, mix until stiff peaks achieved

Aquafaba and lemon juice mixed to stiff peaks
  • Add flours, salt and Psyllium husk to a bowl
  • Add remaining bulk of sugar, yeast and water and mix
  • Add oil to flour mix and mix

Right: Dry ingredients mixed with oil and yeast in water

  • Add the aquafaba stiff foam to flour mix and fold under with a large spoon until completely even
Aquafaba foam added to mixed dough

Aquafaba foam folded evenly into dough with spoon
  • Preheat oven to 200 degC
  • Line a 2lb loaf tin with non stick paper
  • Pour and spoon the thick-batter like mix into the tin

Pour and spoon the thick batter mix into the lined bread tin
  • Cover gently and leave to rise till doubled in size

bread mix in tin at start of rise.

Mix covered with a sheet of paper

bread dough doubled in size
  • OPTIONAL: gently spray surface with milk
  • Bake at 200 degC till internal temperature over 90 degC, about 45 minutes

Check internal temperature over 90 degrees C

  • Remove from tin and allow to cool before slicing and freezing any bread not used immediately.

Loaf cooling on wire rack

A bit of science

Why whip the aquafaba?

We know that with normal wheat bread, it is the gluten that provides the structure that hold the bubbles created as the yeast ferments any natural sugars in the dough. The gluten forms long chains of gluten molecules.

Aquafaba (or egg white) contain proteins that can also be usedd to create a bubble structure by whipping them. 

During whipping, the natural structure of these proteins is broken open (denatured) and the protein molecules form chains that can coat air bubbles.

Room temperature and a bit of acidity from lemon juice or tatrate make the proteins easier to denature and foam during whipping.

Folding the foam into the dough mimics the effect of the gluten in wheat bread sufficiantly to hold the dough and the bubbles created during yeast fermentation.

Why check if the internal temperature is 90 degC or above after baking?

The bread dough contains a significant amount of water and during baking, only the crust loses sufficient water to be dry enough to brown. The interior of the loaf will only heat up to the boiling point of water at 100 degC unless you bake it to a charred crisp.

If the dough reaches a temperature of 90 degC or above, all the starch grains that make flour gritty will have been dissolved into the dough, making it smooth and all the proteins will have been completely denatured, fixing the bubbles in the bread permanently. 

Whilst you can check if the bread has baked by tapping it to see if it sounds hollow, I simply prefer the certaintly of knowing absolutely that the bread has been baked all the way through.

As the bread cools to room temperature, the dissolved starch will also create a jelly, just like a thick gravy that has been allowed to cool and set. The bread is easier to slice and ready to eat.

Why freeze gluten free bread and reheat slices to eat?

If you leave your gluten free bread out over time, it can acquire that irritating gritty texture. As the bread stands, water begins to migrate towards the crust and small starch crystals begin to form (see Many gluten free recipes have a higher water content than the equivalent gluten wheat based ones to combat this.

By slicing and freezing the bread you slow down this crystallisation dramatically.

By heating the slices, you then melt any gritty crystals that are present and recreate a better bread texture.

Blog Reset - from Business to Personal


I finally closed Milton Contact Ltd in March, leaving just a legacy website

I have retired and this blog will reflect my personal interest and activities, which range from microscopy to museum volunteering to getting to grips with gluten free cooking!

Friday 26 November 2021

GB-DE Rail sectors on track in London this week

Trains ready at Kings Cross (2020)

This time, a trip to London was quite an adventure, in this Covid era! I was off to Belgrave Square to spend two days chairing an event between a delegation of German companies in the rail sector, with a combined annual turnover of over a billion pounds, and GB representatives of key organisations, companies, and government departments. 

The event had been planned and implemented by Europartnerships, on behalf of the BMWi, the German Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy and the ministry's program "Mittelstand Global", which supports exporting German SMEs.

Day one, Hendrik, Stefan, Johann, Stuart, Robert, Yannik and Thomas, representing the seven participation companies (see links at bottom of article), were the audience to a range of presentations. Although their companies already had global business presences, including the GB, Covid and Brexit meant that it was important to get up to speed with the current situation vis a vis  GB-DE trade.

Some of the points that struck me personally follow.

Topics covered were:

  • The excellent support available by their own BMWi through export development initiatives and portal IXPOS. One of the reasons for the success of German businesses abroad is the integrated assistance provided to SMEs, from theri local regions upwards to the federal level.
  • Different distrubution channels and important cultural factors (how to understand us Brits), presented by the German Chamber of Commerce in the United Kingdom - AHK. (Do accept the invitation to go to the pub after meetings!). Perhaps the most worrying part of the presentation is that our (UK) importance for the German market (the 4th largest gloal economy), in terms of imports has rapidly declined down from 5th to 11th place and still sinking.
  • The UKs decline in trade with Germany was also repeated in figures shown by the GTAI (Germany Trade and Invest) and was coupled with uncertainty about the GB reorientation post brexit. That said, the UK was still the 5th largest economy, expected to have strong growth in the coming years, and therefore a major partner to seek out.
  • The Department for Transport gave us an update on Rail in the UK, showing that in terms of passenger miles, the UK was outperforming our neighbours - and that this was coupled with an exemplary safety record, including only 10 fatalities on the whole network in 2020-21. HS2 and the planned investment in the eastern parts of the North were in progress and a major organisatory change, in the formation of Great British Railways, was imminent.
  • The Department for International Trade gave a very positive presentation on the opportunities and support for companies based in the UK. This was complemented by a useful list of project opportunities and places to look out for forthcoming contracts, as well as contacts for our German delegates to get in touch with at the DIT.
  • With the UK being the birthplace of the rail sector, it is no surprise that one of the key membership organisations, the RIA (Rail Industry Association) has a 145 year history, a substantive membership of relevant companies in the sector, of which more than 60% are SMEs. As influencers of policy and public affairs, they also provide a comprehensive program of events and support, as well as encouraging innovation and providing trade missions overseas themselves.
  • I suppose we all anticipated an opportunity for a nap during the presentation on Tax law peculiarities in the UK, by the speaker from Blick Rothenberg. Instead, the consequences of Brexit had us gripped by their impact on the import and export of goods across the new border with Great Britain. Theoretically The EU–UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) allows for more than 99% of trade between us to go on without tariffs, if the goods are made more than 70% in the EU. Unfortunately, the sticking point for complex items is that the supplier has to do considerable checks to assess the percentage of non-EU items in multi component items or complex equipment and confirm it is below the 30% level to comply. More fundamentally, all your accompanying paperwork has to be in order, otherwise your goods get stuck in the Customs quagmire. Audience tip: if importing goods from EU to UK, get your UK recipient to sort out the paperwork and carriage. I was already aware of the risk of double taxation, by both the sender and recipient country from another as goods transferred across borders. This was another detailed presentation and emphasised the importance of getting the right advice to avoid pitfalls in trade.
  • The talk by Entreprenör covered the assistance in setting up a copany in the UK (much simpler than in Germany but with public transparancy re accounts and personell information held at Companies House. One of the new hazards to look out for was that an audit may be required based on the size of the worldwide group.
  • Day 1 ended with a very informative talk on Transport for London (TFL) and Cross Rail, which shone a light on the recovery after the initial covid Epidemic.

Sunday 1 August 2021

Millstone phallus comes to Godmanchester Museum


Godmanchester Millstone with Phallus held by Curator Kate Hadley
Godmanchester Millstone with Phallus held by Curator Kate Hadley (courtesy of Godmanchester Museum)

I left the preparations for the reinstated annual Hall End BBQ for a quick dash up the A14 for a very important date. Godmanchester Museum was celebrating its re-opening with a major event, the display of the new exhibit, part of a Roman millstone emblazoned with a phallus (Saturday 31st July 2021). This is a very rare item indeed - only four are known of amongst the tens of thousands of Roman millstone fragments found to date in Britain. 

My small involvement with this stone began with a phone call taken by my wife Jane, from the Godmanchester Museum's curator Kate Hadley, who wanted the stone photographed. 

"Kate called, saying that she was holding a p....s you might be interested in!" was the message.  How could I resist! Kate and I spent an afternoon in June trying to get the best lighting and positioning of the stone to reveal its true magnificence.

By the time I arrived, a crowd had already gathered for the Godmanchester Museum opening and  David Stokes, Chairman of the museum, began the proceedings at 2:30 pm.

David Stokes, Chairman of the Godmanchester Museum, opening proceedings
David Stokes, Chairman of the Godmanchester Museum, opening proceedings

Interested crowd at the opening of the Godmanchester Museum
Interested crowd at the opening of the Godmanchester Museum

He was followed by Claire Hardy, Director of the Norris Museum, who had generously brought along their rare example of another Roman millstone fragment with a phallus, from the Norris collection, (partner to another fragment held at the Norris showing engraved curves).

Claire Hardy, Director of the Norris Museum, and their phallus millstone
Claire Hardy, Director of the Norris Museum, and their phallus millstone

Godmanchester Mayor Councillor Clifford Thomas and Philip Saunders, Chairman of the Huntingdonshire Local History Society
Godmanchester Mayor Councillor Clifford Thomas and Philip Saunders, Chairman of the Huntingdonshire Local History Society

The Godmanchester millstone fragment had been found in a posthole at Offord Hill house, during the excavations prior to the new A14 build. Archaeologist Ruth Shaffrey, realised its significance when when was conducting a routine catalogueing of the finds. She had been researching Roman millstones and was a specialist in ancient worked stone. It was thanks to Quentin Carrol, Historic Environment Assistant Director and Archaeologist, Cambridgeshire County Council, that the remarkable millstone was made available to its nearest hometown museum.

Ruth Shaffrey, Archaeological Worked Stone Specialist, with the Godmanchester millstone phallus (courtesy of Godmanchester Museum)

It was great to hear from Ruth about the origins and possible significance of the millstone. This is what I recall from her talk.

During Roman times, millstones were made using stone excavated from the Millstone grit from the Peak District/Yorkshire. The Godmanchester and Norris millstones were of a medium size and probably animal driven, whilst larger ones could be water powered.

In a typical Roman bakery, the counter would be in the central part of the room, the millstone at one end of the room and the ovens at the other. Customers would therefore have quite likely seen the magnificent carved stones displayed in action. 

The millstone had obviously broken at some time and was later used as a quernstone for hand grinding of grain in its own right.  It was also used as a sharpening tool for blades. It finally ended up in a filled-in post hole, where it was finally discovered in the A14 dig.

Millstones with carvings upon them are rare and would most likely have been commissioned by a wealthy baker or merchant. Whilst the use of a phallus might seem unusual to the modern eye, it was a familiar emblem in Roman times and used both in domestic and other settings, including as jewellery and even being worn by children ( It is thought that it was a lucky symbol as well as the usual possible links to fertility that we would associate it with.

Much like anvils, millstones were themselves seen as important objects, imbued with symbolism, as they were closely linked to grain, harvests and the production of food. To have an object like a millstone, that is already highly symbolic, and then to have it engraved with another important symbol was therefore unusual, hence their rarity.

Ruth also revealed that our region was regarded as one of the granaries of Britain and that more millstones and fragments had been discovered here than in the rest of the UK.

After a walk around the exhibition afterwards and purchase of one of the magnificent postcards of the millstone, I left Ruth to enjoy her specially made Roman vegetarian meal. It had been prepared by local Godmanchester Roman cookery expert, Sosia Juncina. It was back to Milton for our own annual BBQ and street party!

Wednesday 26 May 2021

Lewis Woolnough - a life under the microscope (Obituary)

Memories by Chris Thomas. 06 May 2021

I always knew it was Lewis, as soon as I heard his “Hello Chris” on the phone. A quiet yet warm voice that shone with light of his positive yet reserved nature.

Of course I had met and occasionally chatted to him at  meetings of the Quekett Microscopical Club, but it was really when he approached me about re-issuing his book ‘Understanding and Using the Stereomicroscope’ that I came to know him better.

Lewis was above all an open, positive but self deprecating person. Yet in his quiet way, it soon became apparent that appeared ever so slightly unhappy with the way an old first version of his book had been produced and presented. For those of us who got to know Lewis well, this was so uncharacteristic of his usual unflappable outlook, that the small hints of dissatisfaction spoke volumes about his feelings on the matter. I might therefore have had some initial reservations on embarking on the project of producing the book in a way that he wanted.

Such fears were soon dispelled as I found that here was someone with a deep shared interest in helping and instructing others. What really struck a chord with me was his constructive and cooperative approach to transferring his knowledge to an audience starting out in microscopy. No didactic lecturing, here was a friend who would take you through right from the beginning to proficiency in using the stereomicroscope.

I really enjoyed debating certain points with him, as he or I would try to persuade the other to our viewpoint, each of us microscopy experts in our own right. There was a steely core of certainty about what his objectives were underlying that calm smiling exterior, combined with a flexibility of mind that allowed compromise where it would ultimately benefit the book. We worked well as a team and I looked forward to his company, despite our different personalities. 

We were able to combine his text and quirky black and white illustrations with many colour photos, include colour coded sections for easy reference and even introduce stereoscopic images. The result was the new first edition, published in 2010 by the Quekett Microscopical Club – which was recognised as a useful handbook, not only for novices but also those already familiar with stereomicroscopy. It is now out of print.

Milton Contact Ltd published the second edition of his book with added material in 2018.

The second edition of Understanding and Using the Stereomicroscope

Digital printing also allowed smaller print runs, in the hundreds rather than thousands. When a batch was close to running out, we simply ordered another small print run to tide him over. There are several retailers still selling the book, Brunel Microscopes and Northern Bee Books being examples. The Quekett also purchased copies use at special events and for the Arkwright Scholarship course on microscopy that it runs annually. Individuals also ordered copies directly from Lewis, with many copies going abroad.

Such was the feeling of success from the relationship that I was inspired to write and publish ‘Understanding and using the light microscope’ with Lewis’ assistance, input and co-authorship. We had great fun hiring a photographic studio for an afternoon, roping in my student daughter for age and gender balance. We produced nine instructional videos accompanying the book. Lewis was such an excellent teacher that we basically agreed a topic for each video, an outline of the content and then just let the camera roll as all three of us turned these into real life lessons on using the light microscope. We did have to do several takes on certain parts sometimes but it went remarkably smoothly, with great fun had all round. 

Other fond memories I have are of meeting Lewis and Janet in their home, having a lunch or a tea in the kitchen overlooking their large garden. Lewis and I would then ensconce ourselves in the study to pore over microscopes, samples and generally talk of things microscopical. At the end of the day, Lewis would always safely wave me out onto the road from his drive as a large hedge on the right obscured the view and I feared for my safety.

Whilst I could always find my way to Lewis, I invariably had trouble finding the route to the nearby Village Hall in Bradfield St George, where Lewis was involved in the organisation of the annual East of England Microscopy meeting in Autumn. I must have found at least three different routes to get there and exit over the years, seemingly finally coming to the venue almost by chance!

Lewis was also the turn to person when it came to meeting the relatives of other microscopists and helping them find good homes for their microscopes, slides and occasional hazardous stains and solvents!

Lewis was also there with constructive advice and support when I contemplated and finally joined the new Quekett Committee.  

From our occasional conversations this year, I learnt almost as an aside of Lewis’ illness, and hearing of his hospitalisation and passing away, I felt the loss of a decade’s long companion and like minded person in microscopy, as well as the an author.

But Lewis is still there within me, the shared memories, laughter, debates and interests. I’m pleased that I can tread in his footsteps by taking on the first part of the Quekett’s Arkwright Scholarship course, aiming to continue his aim of making microscopy education fun, interesting and interactive.

Monday 1 March 2021

The searchable Cambridge Open Studios 2019 guide

 A searchable version of the Cambridge Open Studios guide for 2019 is now available to view as an eBook on the internet archive, or to search directly on this page in the window below. (For a full leafable version, click on the link below the book)

Monday 8 February 2021

COVID-19 deaths per 100,000 population increase with freedom and level of democracy by February 2021


There appears to be a trend towards a greater number of deaths from COVID-19 per 100,000 population with increasing freedom and level of democracy. The results below were obtained by plotting COVID-19 deaths per 100,000 population against four different categories of freedom and democracy for 171 countries, where possible. 

The COVID-19 data used was published by Johns Hopkin University of Medicine at on the 5th February 2021.

Four indices of freedom or democracy for the same countries were obtained from the Wikipedia ‘ List of freedom indices’ available at They covered data gathered from 2018 to 2020 and were:

  1. Freedom in the World
  2. Index of Economic Freedom
  3. Press Freedom Index
  4. Democracy Index


All four indices appeared to show a positive correlation between COVID-19 deaths per 100,000 population and increasing freedom or democracy. Some of the differences appear to be significant.

The data is skewed and not normally distributed. Data can also cover quite a range from low to high values of COVID-19 deaths per 100,000 population for each freedom or democracy category within in each chart


The charts below show both a distribution of each countries value for a given freedom or democracy index as blue dots, and the data described in the form of boxplots.

Figure 1. Deaths per 100K population for countries identified as free, Partly free and Not free.

Figure 2. Deaths per 100K population for countries identified with Economic freedom, categories Free, Mostly free, Moderately free, Moderately unfree and Repressed.

Figure 3. Deaths per 100K population for countries identified with press Freedom categories Good, Satisfactory. Some problems, Difficult and Very serious.

Figure 4. Deaths per 100K population for countries identified withcategories of Democracy: Full deomocracy, Flawed democracy, Hybrid regime and Authoritarian regime.


The data for the box plots is summarised in the charts below. The red boxes in the tables of percentage differences between any two sets of data within an analysis suggest the data is significant.

Table 1. Data used for figure 1 on Freedom in the World

Table 2. Data used for figure 2 on Economic freedmom

Table 3. Data used for figure 3 on Press Freedom

Table 4. Data used for figure 4 on Democracy index

The full spreadsheets with all the raw data and calculation are available from the author on request.


I simply visualise the correlation between increase in COVID-19 deaths per 100,000 population with increases in freedom and democracy. It requires a more detailed analysis of the way different countries experienced and tackled their epidemics, to identify which factors might be responsible for these trends.

Areas to consider could include:

  • Acceptable balance of increase risk of deaths per 100,000 population against temporary maintenance or loss of freedoms
  • Ability to take action in the face of a growing epidemic.
  • Impact of differing political and economic viewpoints on speed of decision making process.
  • Local factors that impact on public willingness to accept decisions relating to the epidemic.

Chris Thomas, 08 February 2021