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Dogs must be carried on the escalator.

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A special steam train at Farringdon station, to celebrate 150 years of the London Underground. Photo by diamond geezer/flickr.

Here in Britain, we have been celebrating a birthday. Not the birthday of a person, however, but the birthday of a railway. One hundred and fifty years ago, in January 1863, the first underground railway in the world carried its first passengers. It ran for 6 kilometres from Paddington in London to a place close to the City, which is the name we call London’s main business district.

The new railway was controversial and unpopular with many people. The men building the railway dug up the streets and knocked down houses and other buildings. They dug a deep trench and put the railway track at the bottom. Then they covered over the new railway and remade the surface of the street. Not surprisingly, the construction work caused chaos in London for many months.

Steam engines pulled the first underground trains. Although the tunnels had vents in the roof to let the smoke escape, they were still full of soot and steam. The railway company bravely said that the atmosphere was invigorating and particularly good for people with asthma. I think that it must have been very unpleasant. Nonetheless, from the very first day the railway was popular with people who needed to travel to their work in London. About 26,000 people used the railway every day in its first six months of operation.

More underground railway lines opened in the following years. The railway companies found new ways to build and operate them. Instead of digging huge trenches in the streets, they bored holes deep under the city. People called these deep underground lines “tubes” because the tunnels had a circular shape like tubes. Nowadays, we say “the Tube” to mean all of the London underground system. It was of course impossible to use steam engines on the deep Tube lines; they had electric trains instead. By the beginning of the 20th century, electricity had replaced steam on all the underground lines.

To celebrate the 150th birthday of the London Underground, one of the old steam engines came out of its retirement home in a museum to pull a special Underground train. The Post Office issued some new stamps to mark the anniversary. And Prince Charles, who is old but not quite as old as the London Underground, joined the celebrations by taking a trip on an Underground train earlier this week. This was apparently the first time in 27 years that he had travelled on the Tube. Our royal family live very different lives from ordinary people!

To finish this podcast, here is some Underground vocabulary for you to learn.

When you go into an Underground station, you will see signs that say things like “Bakerloo Line southbound”. “Southbound” means “traveling south” – and “northbound” means traveling north, and I am sure you can work out what “eastbound” and “westbound” mean.

After you have followed the signs and found the right platform, and the train has arrived, you will often hear an announcement telling passengers to “mind the gap”. To “mind” something means to be careful – the announcement means “be careful. There is a gap between the edge of the platform and the doors of the train. Take care not to fall down.”

When you arrive at your destination, you will probably step onto an escalator to carry you up to the surface. You will see signs saying “please stand on the right”. This is very important! It means “if you want to stand and let the escalator do the work, you must stand on the right hand side of the escalator. Then people who are in a hurry can walk or run up the left hand side of the escalator.” You may think that this makes no sense – these crazy British people drive on the left hand side of the road, but they want people to stand on the right hand side of the escalator? However, Londoners who are late for work get annoyed by tourists who stand on the left-hand side of escalators. So, don’t be a tourist, stand on the right like us natives!


Dogs must be carried on the escalator!

Finally, you will probably see a sign which says “Dogs must be carried on the escalator.” This will finally convince you that the British are mad. Do you really have to take a dog with you on the Underground so that you can carry it on the escalator? If you don’t have a dog, do you have to walk up the stairs instead? I will leave you to work out what the sign really means!


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Mid-life Crisis

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Will your mid-life crisis look like this?……….

Do you know what I mean when I say that someone is “middle-aged”? If you are “middle-aged” you are probably 40 years old or older. You have stopped being interested in pop music. You don’t go to night clubs any more. You have sold the motor-bike which you drove all around Europe a few years ago. You no longer share a flat with six of your student friends.

Instead, you are married, with children. You have bought a house in the suburbs. You lie awake at night worrying about the mortgage. You own a boring but practical car – a Ford Focus perhaps. The car is full of the children’s things. They have left sticky sweets on the seats and empty crisp packets on the floor. You now play golf instead of going to football matches. Worst of all, your hair is going grey, and you have started to put on weight. (To put on weight” is a polite way of saying that you are getting fat!) Welcome to middle age!

Now, please don’t confuse “middle age” with the expression “the Middle Ages”. “The Middle Ages” means the period of European history from roughly the 11th century to the 15th century. In those times most people died before they were 40, so they never became middle-aged. Or perhaps they became middle-aged earlier than people do today.


…or like this?

Some people, particularly men, reach middle age and become unhappy and dissatisfied with their lives. The years seem to go by more and more quickly. Life has become boring. Yes, you have a well-paid job, but it does not feel like an exciting or worthwhile job. You have too many responsibilities. You want to be young and free again.

If you feel like that when you are middle-aged, we say that you are suffering from a “mid-life crisis”.

So, our imaginary man with a mid-life crisis sells his Ford Focus and buys a sports car. He uses hair-dye to hide his grey hairs. He starts to wear the sort of clothes that teenagers wear, and he goes to clubs and dances Gangnam Style (If you don’t know what Gangnam Style is, you really are middle-aged!) He leaves his wife and children and moves in with his secretary. After a few weeks, his secretary is fed up with him. She chucks him out, and he moves back with his wife and children.

Or perhaps our mid-life crisis man deals with his mid-life crisis in a more constructive way. He finds a new job which pays less but which is more useful to society and which gives him more free time. He loses weight by jogging and going to the gym. He decides that grey hair is a good thing, because it make him look mature and interesting. He says to himself that “middle age” is all in the mind. If you have a young mind, you are still a young man.

Recently, scientists have discovered that it is not just people who suffer from a mid-life crisis. Apes such as chimpanzees and orang-utans are among our closest biological relatives, and they too tend to feel depressed and dissatisfied in their middle years. The scientists sent a questionnaire to people who look after chimpanzees and orang-utans in zoos. The questionnaires asked about how happy the apes seemed at different stages of their lives. Altogether, the scientists collected information on about 500 apes. They found that, very like humans, apes are happiest when they are young and when they are old, and less happy in their middle years.

So now you know that, if you see a chimpanzee driving a sports car, or dancing Gangnam Style, he is probably just having a mid-life crisis.


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The King under the Car Park

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King Richard III of England. Are the remains found under a car park in Leicester his?

In the city of Leicester, in central England, a group of archaeologists has been busy. They have been digging up a car park. Last week they announced that they had found a human skeleton. Of course, archaeologists often dig up human remains. Human bones can tell us interesting things about the past – what people ate, how tall they were, what diseases they suffered from, and how they died. The car park skeleton, however, is much more interesting. It is the skeleton of a man. He suffered from a deformed spine. He had a severe head injury, and part of an arrow was found in his back. The bones may be those of King Richard III of England.

Richard was born in 1452 and became king in 1483, after the death of his older brother Edward IV. The 15th century was a very troubled time in English history. There was almost constant civil war between powerful families who wanted to control the country. A few months after Edward’s death, his two sons – aged 12 and 9 – disappeared. Many people are convinced that Richard ordered their deaths so that neither of them could ever challenge his position as king.

Richard was king for only two years. In 1485, Henry Tudor led a rebellion against him. Richard’s army was defeated at the battle of Bosworth, and Richard himself was killed. (He was in fact the last English king to die in a battle. After him, English kings got other people to do the fighting and the dying for them!) His body was displayed in public for several days. Then it was taken and buried at Greyfriars Church in Leicester, which is quite close to the site of the battle. The victorious Henry Tudor became King Henry VII, and he and his children and grandchildren ruled England for the next 120 years.

Grefriars Church disappeared in about 1540, when the king seized all the monasteries in England and expelled the monks. Over the years, people forgot where Greyfriars Church had been. For a time there was a garden on the site; and later buildings; and then a car park in the busy centre of Leicester. No-one knew what had happened to the body of Richard III. Indeed, until recently, many historians believed that it had been dug up and thrown into a river at about the time that the monks left Greyfriars Church.

The archaeologists dug a number of trenches across the car park. They found the remains of the walls and the floor of Greyfriars Church. Then inside the church, they found the skeleton. They were very interested that the skeleton had a deformed spine, because we know that Richard had one shoulder higher than the other. They have carefully taken the skeleton from the ground, and have taken some samples of DNA from it. The next step is to compare this DNA with DNA from people who are descended from Richard III’s sister. (Richard himself had no children). These tests will take three months. So maybe early next year we will find out for certain whether we have found the body of a King of England under a car park.

There has been a lot of interest in this news because, even today, Richard III is a controversial figure. The traditional view is that he was an evil monster, who murdered his own young nephews. Shakespeare wrote a famous play about Richard III, which portrayed Richard in this way. Other people however say that Richard was a good king. He made it easier for ordinary people to get justice in the courts. He ordered that the laws of England (which had been written in French) should be translated into English so that everyone could understand them. There is even a society, the Richard III Society, which tries to convince people that Richard III was a good man. They of course have been particularly excited by the news of the skeleton in the car park.

For myself, I will now think about car parks in a completely different way. No longer will I just see tarmac with cars on top. I will wonder what secrets lie underneath the tarmac, and what new things about the past we can learn from them.


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School dinners

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This is one of the school meals which Martha Payne photographed for her blog. She had carrot soup, pasta with meat and vegetables and more carrot, and yoghurt.

Today we visit Scotland, to find out what a Scottish schoolgirl thinks of her school meals. And because the European Cup Football matches have reached an interesting stage, and poor old England have been knocked out by Italy, this might be a good time to learn a new football expression.

Martha Payne is 9 years old. She lives in a small community in Scotland called Lochgilphead. Like many British schoolchildren, Martha has a meal at school in the middle of the day. In English, we often call these meals “school dinners”. Everyone remembers the school dinners at their school – perhaps they loved their school dinners, or they hated them, or they remember funny things about them. At my school, way back in the 1950s, we sometimes got bilberry tart and custard for dessert. I remember that the bilberries made our tongues blue. We used to go around sticking our blue tongues out at each other.

Martha is interested in the food at her school. She is interested in how good it tastes, and how healthy it is, and whether it contains any hairs! A few months ago, she started to write a blog about her school dinners. She took her camera into school, to photograph her school dinner, and then she posted the picture in her blog and told us what she thought about the food. Most days, she thought the food was OK, and on some days she thought it was really good.

Children in other schools, and in other countries, started to read Martha’s blog. Some of them left comments to say what they thought about Martha’s school dinners. And some sent Martha pictures of their own school dinners, and Martha published these on her blog. Then Martha started to use her blog to raise money for a charity called Mary’s Meals, which provides school meals for children in poor communities in developing countries.

And at this point, the bureaucrats who run the education system in the part of Scotland where Martha lives became aware of her blog. And they did not like it. They did not want publicity about the food in their schools. Perhaps they were afraid that people would start to criticise their school dinners and say that they were unhealthy. They decided that Martha’s blog had to stop.

Martha’s headteacher told Martha the bad news, and Martha was sad and wrote a final blog post to say goodbye to her many readers.

At this point, we will make a little diversion to talk about football. In football, you try to kick the ball into the other team’s goal. It is a big mistake to kick the ball into your own goal. Of course, sometimes, by accident, footballers do put the ball into their own goal. When this happens, we call it an “own goal”. We can use this expression outside football as well. Imagine that you do something, and it goes spectacularly wrong. It has completely the opposite effect of what you intended. You hoped that it would make things better, but actually it makes things a lot worse. We call that an “own goal”.

Well, the bureaucrats who decided that Martha had to stop her blog did not want people talking about the school dinners in their schools. But you can imagine what actually happened. The newspapers, the radio and the television all carried stories about Martha’s blog. People wrote about it in Facebook, and sent tweets about it in Twitter. This was not at all what the bureaucrats wanted. Banning Martha’s blog was an “own goal”. A day later, after everyone had told them what idiots they were, they decided that – after all, and now they had thought about it a bit more – Martha could continue writing her blog about her school dinners, and taking pictures of them. You can find Martha’s blog at http://neverseconds.blogspot.co.uk. You could tell her about the meals in your school if you like, and contribute to Mary’s Meals to help provide meals for school children in poor communities throughout the world.

I like stories with a happy ending. Don’t you?


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Dull and Boring

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Dull, twinned with Boring

Do you know the English word “dull”? “Dull” is the opposite of “bright”. Often it means “uninteresting”. We can talk about dull weather, which means cloudy weather, probably some rain and certainly no sunshine. We can talk about a dull book or a dull lesson. And we can say that someone is dull – a dull person is probably not very intelligent, and has nothing interesting or lively or amusing to say. We have a saying in English that “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy”. Do you know someone who works all the time and never relaxes and never goes out to enjoy themselves?

And I am sure that you all know the word “boring”. It means unexciting and uninteresting. It is a favourite word of English teenagers. If their parents suggest something to them, like “Shall we all go to the cinema tonight?”, the teenager will probably reply “boring”, because when you are 15 years old, any activity involving your parents is boring.

There is a village in Scotland called Dull. It is very small, with only a single row of houses. There is a church, but it has not been used for several years. There is a school too, but it is closed. In the past, Dull was quite interesting. It was an early Christian settlement, and there was an abbey where the church now stands. But nothing interesting seems to have happened in Dull for several hundred years, and today Dull seems to be a very dull place indeed.

Elizabeth Leighton lives in Dull. However, she is obviously not a dull person, because recently she went for a cycling holiday in America. And while she was there she discovered a town called Boring. Boring is in Oregon, in the north-west of the United States. The north west of the United States is a bit like Scotland – lots of rain, and snow in the winter. Boring has about 12,000 inhabitants, which means that it is quite a bit bigger than Dull. But is it any more interesting? It has a timber mill, and a place where they train guide dogs for blind people. But the railway line closed years ago, and I guess that many of the inhabitants of Boring commute to work every day to the city of Portland, which is not far away.

Elizabeth Leighton had the great idea that Dull and Boring should become ‘twin communities’. There could be a sign outside Dull saying “Dull, twinned with Boring” and a sign outside Boring saying “Boring, twinned with Dull”. And people passing by would smile and think that, even if Boring is boring, and Dull is dull, people in the two communities at least have a sense of humour. The local authorities in Dull and Boring are now considering Elizabeth’s idea.

Now I don’t want to spoil a good story for you, but I have to point out that Dull is not called Dull because it is a dull place. The name Dull comes from the Scottish Gaelic language, and probably means “meadow”. And Boring is named after an old soldier from the American Civil War who was called William H Boring. After the war, he settled in Oregon, and lived there until he died in 1932. Because William Boring lived nearby, and was one of the leading citizens of the place, it was natural for the railway company, and later the US Post Office, to call the settlement “Boring” in his honour.


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