Taiga, Taiga, warm and light

Fleece: once upon a time it was the light, quick-drying new kid on the block which largely supplanted fibre pile and woolly jumpers. With the advent of ultralight down gear and quality synthetics like Primaloft it’s perhaps not quite the outdoor essential it once was…but it still has a part to play.

But there is fleece, and there is fleece. And what we use is fleece.

Clear?

OK, OK. The major difference between our Taiga fleece and the vast majority of fleeces that you’ll be used to is that it’s ‘warp knit’. That means the yarn zig-zags back and forth through the fabric like this:

The loops are secured by the zig-zagging yarn
Photo: Ryj/CC BY-SA 3.0

 

rather than following the simple line found in more common ‘weft knit’ fleece, like this:

The loops are more free to deform as the fabric moves

But so what?

Well, warp knit fleece is more robust: the fibres lock together to form a dense, abrasion resistant fabric that stands up to wind and wet far better than the more open structure of weft knit fleeces.

The point of fleece was originally to ape the effects of wool, but to be lighter and quicker drying. The most practical woolly jumper for outdoor use would be something like an old-fashioned fisherman’s sweater – like a Guernsey – as it’s warm and very dense (so it protects against quite a bit of weather before you need to wrestle on your oilskins) but most knitwear is softer and flimsier than that. And so it is with fleece: most fleece isn’t that dense and protective, but Taiga isn’t most fleece.

So that’s why we use it.

Somebody’s getting a Christmas present…

There were arty shots, silly shots, action shots. There were shots from remote peaks on the other side of the world, and shots from a couple of hours away. Close ups, long shots, and and, actually, more than one of folks enjoying celebratory pies. Oh, and one of our Office Manager’s mum, which unfortunately therefore we had to disqualify.

But it was this shot of a beaming Barry Payne in the Highlands which took the £50 voucher in our “Me & my PHD” photo competition: it’s very clearly him, it’s very clearly his PHD, and he’s very clearly very happy!

Barry Payne

Doesn’t need to be in the Himalayas or at the poles: if we’re helping you take delight in what you’re doing, then we’re delighted too!

So, what is his PHD? It’s the Mountain Marathon version of our Wafer Jacket (so a limited edition Wafer jacket made with water-resistant fabric, essentially), which we designed as a warm layer for athletes in damp cold. He wasn’t doing a marathon, but he was in the mountains in Scotland (where there’s quite a potential for damp cold), and told us “I used this jacket every day on my Highlands trip and I can honestly say it’s one of the best pieces of kit I’ve bought.

So, one or two of the runners up…

Ruben Nev: Poon Hill, Nepal

Ruben Nev

There was more than just a little umming and ahhing about this one.

It’s a lovely picture…but in the end, we thought it’s maybe not that obvious to the untrained eye that it involves PHD.

So, much as we liked it, it possibly doesn’t hit the nail on the “Me & my PHD” head as some of the others did; we had to pick just one winner, and we had to make the decision somehow!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Antony Crook: New York school run

Cook NYThis one came pretty close too, for entirely different reasons!

It could maybe have been a winner…and maybe there are those among us who’d like it to be…but maybe it’s not actually this person’s PHD kit? Is that horribly picky?!

Again though, we had to decide on just one.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Janet Harris: unexpected weather for August

Janet

This wasn’t ever going to be eligible as it’s Emma’s mum…but still, it’s nice to get a bit of feedback about our waterproofs.

And not that we openly endorse nepotism or anything…but if your daughter’s the Office Manager, you should be able to get an honourable mention!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sarah Mercer: “Me & my Pie-HD”, wild camping in the Lakes

Sarah MercerWhose wild camping experience isn’t enhanced by the addition of a pie?

The caption wasn’t Sarah’s…maybe if it had been, that could have swung it…

 

 

 

 

 

 

We had a great response, so a huge thanks to all of you who entered – whether you’re mentioned here or not – and congratulations once again to Barry.

Do we really make everything in the UK?

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This really is how we start making a sleeping bag. Fabric, with stitch lines hand-drawn in chalk, cut out with shears.

This may seem like a simple enough idea but, to be fair, it’s a pretty unusual one so we can see how it would be questioned. It is actually as simple as it sounds though: we make everything to order, here in the UK.

Recently, it was suggested that the reason for an order taking a few weeks to arrive was that it was coming from overseas. Again, that’s not an unreasonable thought to have: a great deal of manufacturing happens offshore nowadays, and it’s so easy to get next-day delivery that waiting a few weeks is not a normal experience. And although we say we make in the UK on the website, maybe that’s just for some of our really specialist gear?

Nope!

Every single thing is made in our workshop in Manchester. The reason for the wait is that the overwhelming majority of what you see on the website simply doesn’t yet exist when you order it: it’s bolts of cloth, pairs of shears, sewing machines, sacks of down.

So, why do we make everything here? We’re obviously not averse to the concept of a global economy: we make gear for conditions that are impossible to find in the UK so, without the wider world, much of our range would be pointless! And we buy materials from overseas: we use the best available, not just ‘the best that’s available nearby’. If there’s good fabric in Japan, we’ll go to Japan; if there’s good goose down in Poland, we’ll go to Poland.

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There are ways to machine-fill with down. But we don’t.

Well, manufacturing here makes a lot of sense, when you’re small and you make to order. We can see everything that’s happening. We can discuss little tweaks and amendments and try them out: we can have an idea in the morning and have a sample made by the afternoon. If we get a report from an expedition that a suit’s pocket fastening is fouled by an oxygen hose (for example), then the next one – not the next season’s version, the next one – can be altered.

Recently, we were looking over the prototype of the Slit Mitt in our Winter Sale, and there were half a dozen changes to make before it was ready for production…and that was no problem, because going to the workshop and making another one had a timescale counted in hours, not days, weeks or months. And that was a fleece mitten; imagine if you’ve got to tweak an expedition jacket! It’s very useful to be able to just crack on with it.

And then there are the skills. There are literally billions of possible combinations of features, given all the different customized options we offer, so we need to know the people who craft each item are able to adapt to every variation – none of them know exactly what they’ll be making till the order lands on their bench. Obviously those talents exist outside the UK too, but that doesn’t mean they should die out here: we feel there’s a value in preserving and using the very real skill base which still remains in the UK.

We started out here, our craft was honed and developed here, and although there’s potentially a financial advantage to mass manufacturing overseas, mass manufacturing is the opposite of what we do so really, it’s not an advantage to us! So, we see no reason to up sticks and start again elsewhere.

Everything’s made in our workshop in Manchester; when you do what we do, that’s really the only way to do it.

 

The whys and wherefores (and a how thrown in for good measure)

We had a query recently about the way we’d put together some of the bags in the Mountain Marathon Collection, and why we’d done it. We explained, and it occurred that the answer was rooted in our very PHD way of doing things – we know we’re a bit unusual – so it feels like as good a time as any to go through it.

Let’s have a bit of backstory then. The Mountain Marathon Collection consists of familiar designs from our range in not-quite-so-familiar trim – tweaked for the demands of multi-day stage racing in potentially rotten weather – and offered at a discount. The question was about some of this non-standard spec – the discount seemed to be accepted quite happily…

Rain is coming

Look at that sky. 35g extra for Ultrashell doesn’t seem so terrible now, eh?  Photo – Peer Lawther / CC BY 2.0

The clothing spec is simple enough to explain: the standard versions of the Wafer kit use really light fabric so they’re very packable, but the Mountain Marathon versions are a tiny bit more weighty (only about 35g more, to be fair) because they use Ultrashell (water resistant fabric). Adding a water resistant coating adds more weight to the fabric so it’s slightly at odds with the original Wafer concept, but if you’re racing on autumnal Pennine moorland, water resistant fabric is well worth having. So, yes, that’s simple enough.

The M.Degree° sleeping bags were the subject of the question though: specifically, why does the M.Degree° 400 use Ultrashell when the 200 and 300 use Hypershell? They’re both lightweight ripstop nylon with a water-resistant coating, but Hypershell is lighter. So why the difference?

Good question.

When we offer a discounted collection like this, we’re up against the fact that our very PHD way of doing things involves making everything to order, and that’s a pricey way to do things. We offer 16 different sizes of sleeping bag, for example, so we really can’t just make a load of stock and hope we’ll be able sell it all!

Snowhole.jpg

So, tell me again why you wanted the water resistant fabric…?

One of the things we can do though is streamline production by not offering the usual wide choice of fabrics. Ordinarily we have loads of options, and we get asked about all sorts of non-standard possibilities too. It’s not uncommon for us to be asked for slightly heftier fabrics for more demanding conditions and, at the warmest end of the Mountain Marathon Collection, the M.Degree° 400 may well end up being used for more than just cold-weather racing: a 570g -8°C bag will probably find itself in many an alpinist’s bag.

Essentially then, we have to second-guess what spec is likely to be the most useful, and go with that.

And that brings us round to the most fundamental part of what we’re about. Woven into the very fabric of PHD (even more than the water resistant treatment) is the idea of nattering to people about what they’re doing, so we can come up with ideas for kit that will work.

We’ve said this before and will doubtless say it again: we thrive on your stories! We depend on them, in fact.The more we know, the more we can make sure we’re putting together the best combinations of fabrics and features when we create these specialised collections.

So there you go. It’s not maybe not unusual for a range of bags to have a set set of specs (try saying that fast), but it is for our range. The majority of what we do revolves around offering loads of choice, so if we limit that, it’s fair to ask why. Do keep telling us your stories though: it won’t feel like we’re limiting choices if we put together precisely what you need!

Well suited to a life of adventure

Pancoe Suit Everest

Alex Pancoe: “Your suit did great. From the Lhotse face in hot temps to the summit.”
Photo – Roman Tschupp

We’ve been told a lot of stories recently about successes on Everest, with a very pleasing thread running through them about these adventurous folks using our Double Suit – as you’d imagine, when people contact us, they talk about the gear we make.

Is it OK if we just, um…?

Of course, if we tell these stories then it could seem rather like we’re blowing our own trumpet, and it’s probably very British of us to be so concerned about that…but, well, we are, so that’s the way it is. So before we commence tootling our merry tune, if it’s OK, we’ll take a minute to explain!

PHD has its deepest roots in Peter Hutchinson’s climbing shop, where he’d natter with people and make the gear they needed, then natter again when they came back. And broadly speaking, that’s still the way we do things – we love to chat about what you’re doing, and then all the info you give us can be fed back into product development. So obviously we’re excited when people show us their photos and tell us their stories, and we want to talk about it!

But it’s more than that. Peter had some innovative, visionary ideas and, unfortunately, he passed away last year. To hear these stories of his innovations being so successful is, for us, very heartening.

So, what have they said?

Well, for example, Roland Thomas was climbing Everest on behalf on DHL on the occasion of their half-centenary, raising funds for the Direct Relief medical charity, and had this to say about his double suit:

“Although with a wind chill factor the temperature was about minus 40°C, I confess to not feeling cold at any time during my 17 hour summit push. Even in the notorious queue back down the Hillary Step, I did not once feel cold. I give credit to my PHD Double Down Suit for this. Then on the descent to C4 it was a Godsend to be able to remove the down jacket and be way more comfortable than the majority of other climbers on the mountain. In fact, the one-piece base down layer was so effective that I only had to wear the outer down layer on summit day.”

Exactly!

That’s bang-on, and we couldn’t be happier. That’s why the suit was designed – to safely allow climbers to adjust their layering – but it was always possible that people would be reluctant to take a new approach to kit for such a serious mountain, so that’s a wonderful vindication of Peter’s vision. Of course we tested it extensively before making it available, so we knew it worked…but the idea is that everyone who uses the gear is part of the ongoing testing. Yes, it was Roland who actually climbed Everest, but it’s still great news for us!

Every one is different, because everyone is different

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Phei Sunn Sim

Making everything to order (another unusual approach that Peter took and that we’re continuing) meant we were able to offer the windsuits ordered by the team of Sherpas in yellow and red: DHL’s colours! That’s a pretty niche benefit though: the real advantage to being able customise is to make sure that the gear fits properly.

Singapore’s Phei Sunn Sim, who finds most gear too big, told us “Just wanted to say that I love my customised PHD gear…the Double Down Suit kept me very toasty on summit push! Thanks!” and rather closer to home (for us in the UK anyway), Rowena Lewthwaite, another lady of slight build, said “I absolutely loved your double suit on Everest and I would recommend it to all my climbing friends especially as it can be made to fit smaller people.”

Whatever you think we need to know

Strohfeldt Suit Everest

James Strohfeld, still not exactly ‘flaunting’ his inner suit…but then you don’t really flaunt when you’re that high up

Like we said, the info gets fed back into product development: we pay attention to whatever you want to point out. When James Strohfeldt climbed the North Ridge of Everest recently, his decades of mountaineering experience meant he was able to pay attention to numerous aspects of the suit’s design and how they interacted with climbing techniques, and give us really detailed feedback: ideas about the hood and the accessory loops, and suggestions about fabric. Some things may be personal issues, some may be general ideas that would work for everyone, but all of it gets stirred into the mix…

One thing that draws comment but won’t be changing, by the way, is the white inner suit: it’s there to reflect radiant heat, so it’s actually very important. To begin with it wasn’t exactly to James’s taste, but “By the end of the trip, I was positively flaunting it, I was so pleased with it. Great suit. I look forward to my next chance to use it.”

At the end of the day, all these stories are yours

So, of course we love to hear about how our gear’s doing, and of course we love to see Pete’s ideas working so well out there. But this only happens because you all put in the effort in the mountains – otherwise there’d be no stories to tell us. So, congratulations and huge thanks to James Strohfeldt, Phei Sunn Sim, Roland Thomas, Kirsty Watson, Rowena Lewthwaite, to Roman Tschupp and Alex Pancoe, to Daniel Wehrly and Thomas Becker, to Sophie Hilaire…and to many more of you who’ve taken our suits out into the world (but they’re the ones who’ve been in touch recently).

 

 

 

Big Lake, Small World

You know those ‘small world’ moments? When you get talking to a complete stranger, hundreds of miles from home, and it turns out they went to the same school as you? Or they used to go to your local pub? Or they worked in the same office as your sister?

Well.

Over the years, we’ve got to know loads of you – by nattering about where you’re heading (and chatting about how you got on once you’re back), by meeting you out in the mountains or at race events. So, for anyone looking for friends of PHD, cold and rugged places in the middle of nowhere would be a reasonable hunting ground to choose.

The middle of nowhere is still the middle of nowhere though (and we’re not exactly a massive outfit) so although that’s where PHD folks tend to end up, it’s still not all that likely that you’ll bump into someone we know!

It was quite a pleasing coincidence when we realised that – entirely independently – two of our friends were going to be crossing Lake Baikal at the same time. Michael Stevenson was going to be part of the Frozen Tracks team: he and his team-mate Scott Gilmour intended to break their own world record for an unsupported crossing of the frozen lake. Rosie Stancer was doing The Long Haul: a ‘double solo’ crossing of the lake with Mike Laird, to raise money for Veteran’s Aid. Mike had suggested they go together, but Rosie – veteran polar explorer and never one to shrink from a challenge – thought it would be more interesting for them to start at opposite ends and cross in the middle!

While Michael and Scott were going for the fastest crossing, Rosie and Mike were going to be the first to hit the most southerly, westerly, easterly and northerly points of Baikal in one expedition. And although it was one expedition, Mike would be moving in the opposite direction, making Rosie the first woman to cross the lake solo.

By most people’s reckoning, the metre-thick ice of the biggest lake in the world (in Siberia, surrounded by mountains) probably counts as the middle of nowhere. As mentioned above: prime PHD territory. For us to know two people from two different record attempts there at the same time though: still pretty unusual.

And then this happened:

Mike, Rosie & Scott

Funny who you bump into, isn’t ?

Yup, that’s Michael and Scott from Frozen Tracks with Rosie in the middle!

We haven’t caught up with Rosie or Michael properly yet, but then Rosie’s still not home and – true to form – Michael was on his way out to the mountains with Bolton Mountain Rescue when we got in touch! We know that neither trip went entirely to plan: Rosie was picked up from the ice by 4×4 after a storm, and unfortunately Michael had to pull out part way due to an infection in his foot (but Scott pushed ahead to claim the record).

We’ll tell you more about their stories, of course, but for now it’s simply nice to consider that although it’s a big world, it’s sometimes a very small one too.


Rosie Stancer has Polar Mitts and a Xero Jacket (now rather blacker than standard thanks to the smoky fuel she had to burn!)

Michael Stevenson also has Polar Mitts, as well as a Xero 1000 Sleeping Bag, Polar Socks and a Yukon Jacket. He hasn’t yet mentioned how sooty they are…

The view is well worth the climb

Jamie Mountain

Yes, it is a painting

A mountainscape can be awesome – truly awesome, in the traditional, literal sense. The perfectly captured light glinting off the savage majesty or peaceful beauty (or both) can really stir something deep within. And when that image is captured the old fashioned way – by hand, with a brush – it’s a tremendously enviable skill!

So we’re always happy (not to mention a little jealous) whenever Jamie Hageman’s in touch about what he’s been up to. Jamie’s a landscape artist, and to really get the essence of what he’s painting, he camps out in the mountains and sits with his brushes, immersed in his surroundings.

When he contacted us, he mentioned he’d just been camped out at about -10°C, tucked up inside his Hispar 500 on Sgurr a’ Mhaim’s “Devils’s Ridge”. Isn’t that a fantastic name?!

He’s also been using a Kappa Jacket for a number of years. It was made for the wet cold of the Scottish and Lakeland mountains; we had climbers and rescue teams in mind when we designed it, to be honest, but if it works for a painter, it works for a painter!

Recently, Jamie’s been featured in a film by Dave MacLeod – a climber renowned for some of the hardest and boldest ascents, so a chap who’s no stranger to a harsh mountain environment – which debuts at the Fort William Mountain Festival (20th – 24th February 2019). At the time of writing, it’s 22nd February and we’re not at the festival, so we haven’t seen it yet! We’re rather looking forward to it though.

If you’d like to see more of Jamie’s work – and it really is worth seeing – you should hopefully be able to track down the new film, and you can of course take a look at jamiehageman.com.

Come on and get down (most of the time)

 
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OK, fine, yes, this would be a problem
© Jay Gooby

A quick word, if we may, about something which has been mentioned a few times to us recently: should you eschew down bags in favour of synthetics for UK camping?

It sounds like a simple enough question. And in reality, it pretty much is. The answer is no.

You were probably expecting more than that, weren’t you?

OK then.

To start with, what’s behind the question? Why the concern? Well, down fails if it gets drenched – the fluffy clusters collapse and can’t trap warmth – and it takes ages to dry (and that drying takes effort). Decent synthetics – like the Primaloft we use in our Zeta series bags – are more resistant to water, continue to offer some insulation when wet, and can be dried out far more easily anyway. That all being what it is, you’ll see why some are wary of using down in such a reliably unreliable climate as ours. Even though it’s lighter, more packable and longer lasting than the best synthetics, if it’s wet it doesn’t work. And working is pretty important.

Why did we say no then? The key is in the ‘if’. Down fails ‘if’ you get it wet. So don’t get it wet!

Seriously, keeping your down safe and dry needn’t be something to worry about. Keeping it dry when stowed is simple enough with a waterproof liner in your rucksack, and keeping it dry when camped isn’t a problem as long as you’re in some sort of shelter. Sure, if your breath condenses onto the bag and soaks through to the down (or if condensation dripping from the tent does the same thing) it could compromise the insulation, but that’s precisely why we use coated water resistant Drishell and Ultrashell fabrics.

We know what it is to camp in the damp of the UK, so these fabrics are available on even the lightest of our minimalist Minim series bags. Our very earliest pre-PHD beginnings were when Peter Hutchinson camped out in the north of England in the 1950s, and wished he had the equipment to deal with it!

So, although you may have heard that you simply don’t use down bags for UK camping because of the wet, the reality is that the amount of wetness necessary to cause problems isn’t a feature of normal camping. Pitch your tent in a water course or floodplain and you’ll have an issue, but that’s not really the fault of the bag, now is it?

We sense a question approaching…

Why do we make synthetic bags at all?

Yep, thought so! It’s a fair point. We think of them as climbers’ bivouac bags: bags for situations where you might not be able to avoid the wet. Even if you’re wild camping in wild weather, you can find somewhere to park yourself then unfurl your sleeping bag once undercover. If you’re improvising camp on a belay ledge though, you get what you’re given as far as location is concerned, and you might spend the night in the teeth of a storm.

This specialist usage was what we created our Zeta bags for, and that’s why they have things like cowl covers, and twin front zips to create armholes – so you can sit up and cook while still in your bag – which aren’t really necessary in a more conventional camping setup!

Back to the question which kicked this off then: should you eschew down bags in favour of synthetics for UK camping?

You can use synthetic bags – it won’t do you any harm – but do you need to? No, no you don’t.

Put your back into it!

In January 2019, a rather remarkable thing happened. The Spine Race made the national news. Now, the Spine is a very challenging event – covering the 268 miles of the Pennine Way National Trail from Derbyshire to the Scottish Borders, in winter – and the physical and mental effort required to complete it is extremely impressive. But it happens every year, and, well, fell running tends not to make the news.

Jasmin, running, in the middle of nowhere, with a big smile. Pretty much what you can expect, really.

This year, however, it did. The course record was beaten – not with a few seconds or minutes being shaved off, but by 12 hours. That was made possible in part by simply not sleeping for any more than three hours during the whole event, which apparently lead to some pretty interesting hallucinations for the victor. That’s all very newsworthy of course, but what really caught the popular imagination was that while historically, the very fastest athlete over any given course tends to be a man, in this case the winner – who stopped periodically to express breastmilk – was very definitely a woman.

Moreover, she’s not a professional athlete, she’s a vet. In fact, she ran the Spine during a week off from writing up her PhD, which is due in in March. She also wrote to PHD (Ha! See what we did there?) to discuss how suitable her limited edition Minix bag would be for the Spine. We’re really very pleased that – having done the race – she told us “I do love your sleeping bags, perfect and toasty for someone who likes to be warm at night and travel fast by day!”

Much of this particular story has – as mentioned – been covered in the press, but this sort of thing really isn’t out of character for Jasmin. For example, she’s the current British Fell Running Champion, and holds the record for the Ramsay Round: a 58 mile route over 24 mountain summits (including Ben Nevis). Later this year, she and her husband Konrad will be competing in the PTL (300km in the Alps).

So, if you find her as inspiring as we do, you can find out what she’s up to on her blog, “Talking of fells,…

Peter Hutchinson: carrying on in his name.

In an old textile mill on the outskirts of Manchester, there’s a door which bears the name “Peter Hutchinson”. On 2nd November 2018, Peter Hutchinson passed away, but the door will continue to bear his name, and so will everything which comes out of the workshop behind it. He was the PH in PHD; the reason we do everything we do, the way we do it.

It all started because he was a climber, his mates were climbers, and back in the early ‘60s – when it wasn’t quite so unusual to make your own gear – he made gear for himself and his mates. It turned out to be really good gear and, for the next ten years, he worked alone, in a chicken shed, quietly making gear and quietly making a name for himself.

It became apparent that if he was going to supply everybody who wanted his gear, he was going to need a proper company with a proper factory, so in the ‘70s, he acquired the tools, the skills and the people needed for mass manufacture, and Mountain Equipment was born. The business expanded as successful businesses do, backed by investors with an eye for profit, which meant that manufacturing eventually moved offshore…which meant Peter was no longer nattering with climbers and making them what they needed. But that – for him – had always been the point. He missed doing what he’d been able to do in the chicken shed.

So he took the very unusual step of realising that success isn’t measured by the size of your business, it’s measured by how much you get to do the things you love doing. So he jumped ship.

Hands – quite literally – on: Peter inspecting the down in the workshop.

He started all over again, went back to innovating, to designing and making things directly for the climbers who needed them. And that was the birth of Peter Hutchinson Designs. For the next 20 years – the remainder of his life – he stuck to that ideal, and built a company around it. He was able to listen to – and work with – extraordinary climbers and adventurers, and that enabled the company to develop ground-breaking new equipment. In this way, growing organically, PHD has prospered: something Peter was justifiably very proud of.

In PHD, Peter created a family of specialists who share a love of his way of doing things, who between them have the knowledge and the skills to keep creating and developing exceptional mountaineering kit, tailored to the needs of those who are using it. Together, we continue to strive for his goals of innovation and quality, as Peter said “the best way we know how”.

In an old textile mill on the outskirts of Manchester, there’s a door which bears the name “Peter Hutchinson”. It will continue to bear his name because without him, nothing behind that door would be there. So actually, it’s worth correcting something we said at the top of the page. It was almost right, but a little too much in the past tense:

Peter Hutchinson is the PH in PHD.