Learning London’s Lengthy Flat-hunt

IMG_7541 2As I peered over my Asian-style crispy chicken burger–the healthiest lunch I could find in the time ticking down to my afternoon workshop on supervising PhD students–I was reminded by my view of my extensive London-flat hunt.  I was enjoying the moment as well as the view and the new-found flavors. It’s not uncommon for burgers in London to include kimchi and I was developing fondness to the new taste. Like these Korean-infused breaded-chicken-fillet sandwiches, London flats have distinctive qualities all their own, I realized.

Flats in zone one and two seem darker, on average, than flats in other cities.

Hunting for a place to live in this massive and densely-occupied city has its own unique joys and challenges. I think it’s helpful to share pointers–I reviewed multiple YouTube videos during my three-month search. This blog explains some of what I learned and experienced during my search to help other roving scholars looking to settle here.

IMG_7544 2As I munched, I observed one of the apartment buildings I visited, across the leafy green Tavistock Square, over in the very far corner. The place was lovely. At the top of the building with a sweeping view to the north, it was served by multiple stairs, elevators, and even a porter. But it had just one room. One very expensive room, at that.

All the places I visited were expensive. Most cost above £1500 a month (that’s $2800), PLUS utilities and council tax. Such was the case for either a room in a shared flat or a studio apartment. In a shared-flat where you live with roommates, there’s a surcharge for having two people in one room. That seems fair enough, but the surcharge goes on top of the publish rate, often catching me by surprise. It can run £300, plus increased council tax (a per-head charge based on the estimated value of the property), and a larger (per-person) share of utilities.

IMG_7552Most surprising to me: (1) many flats had no living room since it had been converted to sleeping space in order to bring in more rent money, and (2) even very expensive flats had no views out. Sometimes the entire flat received no direct sunlight.

One room that had light and views came with five energetic dogs of all sizes but similar make and model. *Five.* Imagine five dogs in a small townhouse… and that townhouse had six sleeping rooms, so who knows how many roommates you’d end up tolerating in addition to the dogs?

I couldn’t imagine. I wouldn’t.

I had searched for months online and I visited London multiple times during my search. I found a number of online search platforms helpful:

UCL’s accommodation site is intended to help incoming staff, and accessing it requires a staff identification number. It was a good place to start, although I found its listings to be outdated. A majority were not available at the time I was searching. (They seem to be listed in perpetuity?) I believe this resource was developed before there were so many other options available for searching online. Nevertheless, I was grateful to have the resource as a point of comparison of what a traveling scholar could expect.

Sabbatical Homes is a great resource–especially for scholars needing short-term lets, long lead-times, and tailored dates. But the listings are very, very costly! We did view one Sabbatical Home that was in our price range, but it was underground. The hosts were super interesting and fun to talk with–an academic set–but the main window faced north (toward the garden wall) and was covered with a decorative iron grate. All the other windows were too small to crawl through. Plus, the furniture was depressingly old-fashioned. I just couldn’t get past that. I could have handled crawling out the end of the bed, since the mattress filled most of the room, because at least the mattress was not in the living room. Overall, we decided we had to find some light. Sun-filled homes on this site would cost at least twice what we would eventually pay.

I found Gun Tree to be too confusing–it’s not designed specifically for property searches and leaves many unknowns. The map locations are not precise and any transaction appeared to have a high level of risk involved. An AirBnB host of mine, who had used it to locate his own place, provided words of caution. If I need to move again when I’m more familiar with the city, Gum Tree might be more help.

I eventually viewed a number of flats in person. The ones I visited had been located using: (1) UCL’s staff accommodation website, (2) Sabbatical Homes, and (3) Spare Room.

I ultimately found our new place via Spare Room.

After uploading a profile about my partner and myself on Spare Room, offers actually flooded in. It appears many people want mates who they can count on to be courteous and pay the rent! Many are looking for older, established professionals with dual income. I’d had trouble early-on since I’d locate a possible flat and later realize the residents were all 20 and wanted young flatmates. You can input your age and other parameters into Spare Room to help with matching.

Spare Room’s matching may have entered the realm of creepy, however. I just today received this email message:

Hi Shannon,

Looking for the perfect flatshare? We’ve got the answer for you: science.

Yep, that’s right. We’ve dusted off our lab goggles, found a few test tubes and even got ourselves some lab coats – all to ensure you find flatmates you really click with.

According to Swiss science boffins at Karmagenes, your DNA influences as much as 60% of your personality traits. So we’re joining forces to create a DNA Flatmate Matchmaking Service – giving you the chance to reveal key insights into you personality that will tell you which characters you’d blend well with in a flatshare.

In other words: your DNA + saliva swab = new BFF.

Sound interesting? We’re giving kits away on Facebook – just head to the page and follow the instructions for your chance to win.

Find out more »

Good luck!

The SpareRoom Team
0161 768 1162

My trouble hasn’t been with roommates, thankfully! I read on-line, though, that various spots such as the nearby Shoreditch Library offer ideal get-aways from troublesome flat mates.

What was hard for me was being able to get a feel for any given advertised flat from its online profile. The actual spaces weren’t at all like the ads seemed.

But leasehold can also be stressful and complex. There’s high turn-over in residence in the London flat market. Young and/or single people seem to apartment-hop (move residence) quite often around London. It’s common for a person, for example my osteopath, to describe living 4-5 different places in as many year.

The market churns. Buildings get sold to the highest bidder, and apparently these situations — of sharing with many, many roommates and renting from the leasehold — are fraught with complications. Adam Smith’s invisible hand lands people out of home and, sometimes, on the street. There’s more non-drug-related homelessness evident here than in Dublin. Overall, though the social support system seems more caring here than in many other places. Doctor’s visits are free (though I had to pay an entry tax to the health system) and the mail gets delivered to my door–up four flights of stairs. Residents of public/social housing are far more diverse than in the States and much less deprecated. Taxes are higher but provide a greater range of housing possibilities, with varying levels of support.

Incidentally, when traveling to London to view apartments, I used AirBnB and Hotels.com. Of these, Hotels.com provided the best value for money. That surprised me as I am a lover of AirBnB. Aongus and I used AirBnB to get a feel for a variety of neighborhoods, which was good in many ways.

However, I have found that quality control related to AirBnB in London is not high enough. we ended up in a very bad situation one night, when I’d needed to re-book due to the host’s change of plans. I selected a cheap place that lacked ratings from past guests. Of the 60 or so places I’ve stayed on AirBnB, this was truly the worst. Apparently, the superintendent of a campus of council flats was renting rooms out between formal rentals. Most likely he was pocketing the money himself.

Come to think of it, the manager of an international student house I’d used with AirBnB, also here in London, was doing something quite similar, by forcing people to book through his personal friend in the Mediterranean rather than through the house directly.

In both cases, I should have known better. The room was cheaper than market rate. To avoid such problems, read the AirBnB reviews carefully and heed the ratings posted by prior users! Do not cut corners when reviewing rooms prior to booking. I only go with hosts who have earned four or more stars from at least ten people.

In searching for flatmates, one perspective host had us over for a night so we could gauge what the experience of living at his place would actually be like. That was great! The host was amazing–such a great connector and a get-it-done, can-do kind of guy who mentors dozens of young musicians and performers. But the room was also very, very expensive (ringing in at £1770/€2000/$2500 per month, youch!). The estimated commute for Aongus from that flat was over an hour. Moreover, the owner’s ex-wife was to conduct workshops from the flat rendering it off- limits several days a month, and the sound system on the TV was extremely loud. And so we continued our search.

IMG_7594Subsequently, we visited a beautiful red brick building at Old Street Station, but the flat received no direct light whatsoever. And we’d have had to be more tidy than we could imagine in order to suit our very refined 23 year-old lawyer host.

In retrospect, the north-facing studio at Tavistock Square presented the most viable alternative to what we found, despite charging NYC rates for a single room. The membership fee for the homeowners association was unknown and the association was in the process of setting new rules. But the place was very clean and provided multiple routes out, in case of fire. What a luxury!

Sitting here, eating my pickled-cabbage fillet-on-a-bun, I felt a sense of fondness for the studio at Tavistock.

Aongus and I did succeed in finding a comfortable and happy home. It has plenty of space to work and read and learn and cook. Nice light, with beautiful views day and night. Friendly hosts who come and go, but travel a lot. It’s a half hour commute for me using the tube–longer than most other places I visited but still far less than the average Londoner’s commute. We’re grateful for our hosts who let us flat-sit here and for the search features provided by Spare Room that helped us connect with them. We found a cozy place to call home.

Seems like filming crews are forever setting up to shoot in the surrounding area. The neighborhood’s timeless charm holds great appeal. In two months here, I’ve observed three multi-day shoots in just four-block leading from our place to the tube. I only learned the name of one of these, to become a BBC TV series here in the UK. Perhaps buying a TV is in order, to view their results?

Learning London: University College London

During a recent workshop for development of research skills, the facilitator warned that people from other universities might approach us to work as a collaborator simply because they want to associate with UCL and they might not have genuine interest in actually working with us as individuals.

Funny enough, I was too naïve to have joined UCL just for its reputation. I’m only now beginning to understand the prominence of this institution and understand its very long, egalitarian history. As noted on the university’s website, “UCL was founded in 1826 as a secular alternative to Oxford and Cambridge by prominent intellectuals such as James Mill and Henry Brougham. UCL was the first university to be established in London, and the first entirely secular university to admit students regardless of religion. It was also the first university to admit women on equal terms with men.”

UCL’s surrounding neighborhood, Bloomsbury, hasn’t been portrayed as a center of equality and social reform in the various books, webpages, and exhibits I’ve consulted, but I see roots here. Near UCL’s main/Bloomsbury campus you’ll find the Quaker Meeting House, a symbol of religious tolerance (it has a lovely restaurant underground that offers discounts to UCL staff, and it has a cafe at street level) . You’ll find that huguenots and other religious minorities arrived in this neighborhood as immigrants seeking freedom from oppression in their homelands. You’ll find a former residence of Charles Dickens, whose tales show a deep concern for improving the lives of the oppressed.

IMG_7554As for breaking my naïve on the reputation and standing of UCL: QS’s most recent “world university rankings” ranked this institution seventh… in the world! Up there with MIT, Oxford, Harvard, and Cambridge.

I’d applied to work here after meeting some folks from the  university’s Centre for Engineering Education (CEE) and traveling over from Dublin for the launch of the CEE. Back in the States, I had heard of the Bartlett, UCL’s world-famous school of architecture, but not of UCL itself.

I applied to work here because I wanted to learn from movers-and-shakers and highly-accomplished teacher/researchers like Nick Tyler, John Mitchell, and Emanuela Tilley.

As explained in a case study of Nick’s past work overhauling engineering education published by MIT, this institution encourages quick and decisive action. It behaves more like a business than a typical university, and implements changes swiftly. The results can be impressive, as demonstrated with the increase in grades and diversity of students at intake and at graduation among students in civil engineering at UCL following the implementation of major curricular changes. And, who wouldn’t want a chance to observe in action a Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (CBE), Nick’s current title? An article in The Sun describes the British ranking system.

Today, I am enjoying learning my way around UCL. The photos in today’s gallery were taken on and near campus, in my adventures seeking out workshop, library, and lunch locations.



Jerry Crilly’s final farewell

Jerry Crilly

Frank Cullen and Jerry Crilly in May 2013, at the exhibition of my urban reflection photographs organized by the Irish Fulbright Commission. Photos of Jerry are by my family member, Dave Chance. See a full set of photos from the 2013 event by clicking here.

You may recall my friends Jerry Crilly and Kevin Donleavy. Both have dedicated their lives to Irish music, Irish history, and the pursuit of social justice.

On my first visit to the Cobblestone pub in Smithfield (Dublin 7), I met Jerry. That was back in 2012, and he soon asked me to find his pal Kevin who had moved to Virginia. It wasn’t long before I located Kevin in Charlottesville. On my visit to Virginia for Christmas that year, I brought Kevin a vinyl record, sent by Jerry as a gift. You can read more about that in a blog I posted long ago. The record had a lovely cover and contained songs by Rakish Paddy, one of Jerry’s musical groups.

Jerry was also at my photographic exhibition and my American wake so there are many blogs on this site that include him. He was a dear, sweet man, who never failed to mention the importance of his partner Deirdre in his life.

Jerry’s health has been declining over the past few years. I haven’t gotten to see him much as he rarely traveled as far as the Cobblestone at night. I did make a trip down to the south of Dublin, to visit the Bottle Tower one night so I could hear a musical gig organized by Jerry. It was enjoyable, but as these trad sessions didn’t start until 9:30 PM and ran on school nights, they weren’t very accessible to me.

Jerry Crilly 2

Jerry Crilly in May 2013.

Sadly, Jerry’s health got the better of him, and he recently passed away. Kevin has kept me informed of events, and forwarded on these details sent by Jerry’s beloved partner, Deirdre.

Dear Kevin,

Jerry had a lovely send off today. Everything went smoothly. We had a folk mass in the church that was beautiful. Then in the crematorium we had Jerry singing “John of Dreams” from the Rakish Paddy cd as we entered followed by his great friend Pat Ludford from Cornwall sing “Fields of Athenry” & for the final curtain his dear friend Julie played on flute “The Jerry Crilly Jig” kindly written by yourself & she did it a great justice. I so wished you could have been there to hear  her play it was so lovely. Then we went back to the Ballinteer House for food & a fantastic session from musicians from all over. Eric Fleming who was in Jerrys group the Connolly Folk & Brendan Leeson the last member alive of the Rakish Paddy Group the list goes on & on. They also had a session in O’Donoghues singing a lot of Jerry’s songs that I was delighted to hear about. Hope you’re ok. Thanks for all your kind emails over the past weeks & for letting us use your wonderful tune dedicated to Jerry for his final farewell.
Kind regards, Deirdre 

As Kevin Donleavy noted: “It is a sign of the regard in which Jerry Crilly was held that so many musicians participated in his last rites, and the seisiun at famed O’Donoghue’s (yip, the pub in Dublin)  must have been phenomenal. What a send-off — friends at every turning remembering him !  Requiescat in pace, Jerry.”

We will miss you, and the sincerity and social conscious you brought us, Jerry. I will never forget the lessons of the bonsai tree or the family in the tenement. May you rest in peace and your spirit continue inspire the best in us all.

Learning London: Science Museum


The Mathematics gallery, designed by Zaha Hadid and partners.

London’s Science Museum is so interesting that we went two days in a row. We hadn’t had our fill after just one visit, so we woke up Sunday morning and said “Let’s go back!” Incidentally, entry is by donation, so you can give what you like.

In the photo gallery below, you’ll see the Science Museum’s spacious entry hall and some images on the display about space exploration. You’ll see images from other parts of the museum that cover technological developments over time (related to transportation, homes, and appliances).

There’s special exhibit on Mathematics that includes visualization of air flow around a small aircraft (a display designed by the late/great architect Zaha Hadid) and there are displays about bridge and tower design.

I’ve included a few images from the special exhibition on technology in India–feeding my fascination with step wells. We also visited the exhibit on “Superbugs” to better understand the evolution of bacteria resistant to antibiotics.

Learning London: Tower Bridge Museum


Defying gravity at Tower Bridge.

Tower Bridge is well worth a visit. A long visit at that!

Last weekend’s weather was dreary in London and we almost passed on the activity–a result of not knowing what we’d see inside and an entry fee of nearly 10 pounds sterling each. Missing this experience would have been quite a mistake!

Our visit to Tower Bridge and the museum that spans the overhead walkways and plunges into the engine rooms far below, lasted far longer than we’d expected.

Aongus and I explored had the surrounding area a bit first, after walking to Tower Bridge from Shoreditch. We’d found Dead Man’s Hole but had failed, for the time being, to locate the entrance to the “subway” that, once upon a time, facilitated walking by foot under the Thames from the north to the south bank.

The bridge lured us away from that pursuit.

We’d read about its gear system and, well frankly, at least one of us is a gear-head. Although we had expected see a steam engine, we had not expected to walk along the top of the bridge–the part that stay stationary when the drawbridge below is opened. But, happily, both sides of that walkway are part of the museum and open for exploring.

We spent a couple of hours studying the signs about bridge design and construction, this bridge’s history, and famous bridges from around the world (many of which I’ve visited). The mirror above the glass floor (of the walkway soaring high above the river and street) proved to be a delight. It’s a great source of entertainment and photo fun.

The museum also provides a short historic film, an animation of this bridge’s construction, and many alternative bridge designs that didn’t make the cut. There are informative plaques and drawings of the design that was ultimately constructed. There are also plaques and taped interviews with folks who built and operated the bridge.

The tour ended in the engine room on the south bank, where we learned about the giant steam engine that once powered lifts and lowerings of this formidable drawbridge.

We had hoped to visit the bascule chamber and witness the gigantic gears ourselves, even though we knew the drawbridge would not be opening that day. Unfortunately, the chamber isn’t open to the general public, so I’ll have to investigate how to get in with a group some day. It seems you can book in for a group to visit, but I’ll probably look for a group of engineers to join.

The photo gallery shows the surrounding area and parts of the museum itself.

Learning London–one month in!


Tower Bridge selfie in the mirror above to the bridge floor and Thames River, far below.

Learning the lay of the land in London—the best way to spend the cold, wet month of January. I’ve been in my new position as a Marie Curie Research Fellow at University College London’s Center for Engineering Education for one month.

In this time, I’ve also settled into a new apartment, where I’m flat-sitting for some friends. They travel quite a bit, so it all works fine.

I’ve been getting to know Shoreditch and its surrounding areas. Turns out, Shoreditch is one of London’s hippest addresses and my place is surrounded by local markets, many dozen vintage clothing stores, and Boundary Estate, the world’s first social housing community, which is architecturally stunning. I’ve joined Nuffield Gym and have been enjoying its pool and yoga classes. I got a wonderfully positive health screening when I joined and will soon meet with a personal trainer to get anti-aging tips!


One of the many vintage shops off Brick Lane, buzzing on Sunday afternoon. Surprises at every turn–here a photo booth at the back of the shop and selling vintage clothes by the kilo downstairs.

Mostly, though, I’ve focused on making headway with my fellowship work. In the four weeks I have been working at UCL, I have:

Completed UCL induction/orientation

  • Got my employment contract, work visa, and bank account set up and obtained my British Residency Permit
  • Completed including face-to-face and on-line training and earned certificates in (1) Safety, (2) Green Awareness, and (3) Green Champion
  • Updated my research profiles, including UCL Engineering, IRIS, and LinkedIn

Contributed to peer reviewed conferences

Provided leadership in evaluation

Made two research trips to Dublin

  • Conducted four research interviews, and successfully scheduled five more for February
  • Was invited to collaborate on a policy project with 6 civil service professionals in Dublin
  • Met with several dozen DIT colleagues about current and future projects
  • Transcribed two interviews
  • Was invited to present at DIT research event on March 2nd

UCL workshop on “Leading Collaborative Projects.”

Completed researcher development workshops at UCL


A slide from architect Ken Yeang’s lecture on eco-architecture, delivered at the Bartlett.

Attended lectures at the Bartlett School of Architecture

Scoped research funding programs

  • Attended an information session on opportunities to collaborate with UK-based researchers, hosted in Dublin by the Irish Research Council
  • Identified promising funding program for gender studies and downloaded guidance materials

Reviewed literature pertinent to my research projects

  • Three PhD dissertations using phenomenology
  • Seminal texts in epistemological development

Professor Nick Tyler (left) at PAMELA (Pedestrian Accessibility Movement Environment Laboratory) aiming to improve transport and access to transport for people with barriers to mobility.

Studied art and design

  • Met twice with Kindall Brantley, NYU grad student in sustainable urbanism
  • Attended transportation design class at PAMELA, UCL’s transportation research hub
  • Joined the Tate and visited three times
  • Studied the special exhibition on Modigliani
  • Studied the special exhibition on “Impressionists in London” at Tate Britain
  • Studied bridge design topics at Tower Bridge Exhibition
  • Studied transportation and product design topics in two visits to London’s Science Museum
  • Even learned a bit of history by watching The Post at the RichMix cinema near my home, with a new membership to help support local culture and arts.

Tower Bridge as see from below. The glass-floored walkway joins the two, tall middle tower (nearly visible to the left of this image).

Met with colleagues at UCL

I’ll say that of all this, the interviews I conducted in Dublin were probably the most fun. Two of the participants provided two-hour interviews that were chock full of insight. These are follow-up interviews with students I’ve previously interviewed. They are women studying engineering at DIT and hearing how their stories unfold from year to year is fascinating.


A reflection from the Liffey River in downtown Dublin, taken during one of my two January overnights to the city.

I’m working hard to get participants in Dublin scheduled for follow up interviews in February — before the final-year students get too busy with final exams and graduation.

Stay tuned for more work photos from the places I visited this past month.


UCL’s central library building.

Discovering Irish History on Arbor Hill

Hoping to learn a bit of Irish history today, Aongus and I hiked over to Dublin’s Collins Barracks after brunch. A former military station, Collins Barracks is now used as a museum with decorative arts, WWI and II memorabilia, and even a gun-running ship that was pulled up from the sea floor. It’s also where Aongus did his service in the Irish military once upon a time.

To our dismay (and that of five other groups of visitors who arrived at 1 PM) the museum at Collins Barracks opens only 2-5 pm on Sundays. We left disappointed and took the back way out of the Barracks, exiting at Arbor Hill Prison.

Finding the Arbor Hill cemetery, next to the prison, open, we decided to venture in. There, we discovered tomb stones of British soldier and their families who served as occupying forces during the 1800s.

We also found a memorial to the Irish who lost their lives in the 1916 uprising. The leaders of the Rising were executed in Kilmainham Gaol, across the Liffey river, and then buried in a mass grave here.

Following 1916 the Irish continued to struggle against colonial rule, and they gained independence from British in 1922. Later this memorial was built to memorialize their effort. The monument includes the text of the 1916 Proclamation, in Irish on the left and English on the right.

Today this memorial park was full of dogs, and dog lovers, from the adjacent Stoneybatter neighborhood. Upon exiting the cemetery on the northern side and into the neighborhood, we discovered a well-preserved WWII tank kept up by a citizen group and had a bit of fun.

But after a busy week filled with cold, wet weather, we’d had our fill of exploring. We turned to head for home.

We’d driven from work on Friday straight down to Bunclody for RoboSlam workshops and not returned to Dublin until late Saturday night. All this activity caught up with us on Sunday, but the comfort of a warm blanket and a hot tea helped us recuperate for the coming week.