In Search of Robin Hood, Nottinghamshire

29 10 2006

It had been a cold night inside the tent but I managed a few good hours of sleep in the early hours of the day. This would probably be the last camping trip until I resume the same at Easter next year. I camped at a pleasant and new campsite at New Hall Farm. The current owner of the farm is the fourth generation in a line of farmers cultivating the lands around here. There is a herd of cattle in a field nearby. He used to grow wheat in some of the fields but he has stopped that now. In the spirit of diversification, this year he and his wife have started this campsite. It is situated on a hill and overlooks much of the surrounding landscape. On a clear day, I am told, one can see Lincoln Cathedral. This morning I found the farmer mopping and cleaning the toilets. When I told him that I had been to the Workhouse yesterday, he jokingly said “I thought this was the workhouse”.

Yesterday on my way to Southwell, I did some walking along the Robin Hood Way. This is a long distance path that covers a great deal of Nottinghamshire, which in its turn used to be covered by the Sherwood Forest. Today I dedicated myself to walking this path in the hope of meeting Robin Hood.

Passing through some woods

Passing through some woods

As always, it happened that I was overambitious and overzealous in my attempt to cover a lot of ground in one day. The extra hour that the day afforded went off in an extra hour of sleep. As always, the planned route could not be adhered to strictly. I had to take some diversion in Blidworth Woods where some paths had been closed due to a weekend race. The plan to return to Nottingham by afternoon failed, which means that I have to make another trip to the city in the coming weekends. The time to cover the planned distance had been underestimated but there is no regret. If I have been slow it is only because the landscape was worth it.

Much of this path passes through open fields and farmland. It is hardly likely that Robin Hood would have used such terrain as his hiding place or such routes for escape. Of course, we are many centuries behind and the landscape has undoubtedly changed. I passed one of the highest points of the path where a sign proclaimed that the Robin Hood Way was opened in 1985. It runs for 105 miles from Nottingham Castle to Edwinstowe Church. Soon after, I passed a hill named after the hero but this is only a modern name that has no basis in the legend. I passed the village of Oxton without even stopping to see much of it. When I finally arrived at Blidworth, I knew that I wasn’t going to find Robin Hood in the 21st century. The trail had gone cold long ago.

Beware of Bull!

Beware of Bull!

In Blidworth, I began to first sense the modern presence of Robin Hood. The locals appear to patronise and embrace the hero and his exploits. Gates and fences are decorated with the arrow of Robin Hood. Roads are lined with decorative posts placed with arrow heads at the top. These posts serve no other purpose than claim an association with the hero. There are businesses that ride on the popularity of the local legend. One such is the Nottingham Property Services that has for its logo a portrait of Robin Hood in his boyish cap and taking aim with his bow and arrow.

Today’s walk has been annoying for one particular reason: cobwebs. For some reason, cobwebs are everywhere. Grass blades are linked by a carpeting network of cobwebs. Where paths are narrow, cobwebs easily span them. A few hours of walking are enough to be covered in strands of these silver strings. They are so strong that it’s difficult to brush them off. Worse still were those cases when I was walking on a tarmac road and yet found new webs across my face, on my arms and shoulders. Sometimes spiders themselves get on for a comfortable ride. Whatever be the situation they are spinning all the time.

Yet another point of interest on a country walk is the antics of pheasants. These harmless birds can sometimes give you the fright of your life. They are most comfortable on the ground. They have not developed the love for flight. If they see you at a distance they will run, not fly. Flight comes with great effort for them. More often, they hide in tall grass or bushes in the vain hope that you will not spot them. They do this even if you are staring right at them a few feet away. Suddenly, they go into panic mode and take flight. Their wings take great effort to get the heavy bodies in air. Their noisy call is full of alarm. It you had not spotted them, they will make you jump out of your skin.

The third item of note in today’s walk was the following sign:

NO
To Wind Turbines
In Eakring &
Blisthorpe

I would have thought it is a good thing to invest in renewable energy sources. But local people have local reasons for opposing something. They do not see the bigger picture. This is the case with most people. We are only concerned with what affects us directly, and what affects us now.

Through these parts passes bus route 33, named “Sherwood Arrow”, again inspired by Robin Hood. This is the bus I used yesterday and today. This evening I waited for this bus once more at Farnsfield. It was already dark by 5 pm. I had to wait an hour for the bus at 1807 hours. I still had to catch another bus from Nottingham to Luton later in the day. While waiting at Farnsfield bus stop I read this hand-written note pinned to the notice board:

I am trying to get a better
bus service for Farnsfield as
the current bus only runs every
hour – but doesn’t always turn up.
Please sign below if you agree -
we could do with a bus every 30 min.
– Mrs. R. Shaw 59 Alexander Rd F.Field
D. Keeton

Waiting for the bus

Waiting for the bus

Here is a strange situation. Although I am all for an increase in public investment and better bus services to villages, I couldn’t of course sign this note without a personal experience. But an experience is ill desired at this point. It is no fun being stranded in a village without accommodation on a cold night in November. In my opinion, Farnsfield is in a much better position than many other villages I have visited. One recent example is the village of Lawshall in Suffolk. Who takes public transport in the villages, anyway? Only the retired and elderly, children sometimes and occasionally tourists like me. Therefore I am not surprised that only one more person has signed this notice and it looks suspiciously in the same hand.

When I finally returned to Nottingham it was close to 7 pm. I spotted a pub named “Robin Hood”. The hero’s fame is not confined to the boundaries of the forest or his county. I have seen some months ago a pub of the same name in Tring in Hertfordshire. Thus my search of Robin Hood has been successful in a small way. I did not intend to find him and meet him in the woods. The real search lies in our understanding of the hero, the legacy of the legend and the reasons for his persistent presence so many centuries later.





The Hidden Treasures of Southwell, Nottinghamshire

28 10 2006
Pumpkins on sale for Halloween

Pumpkins on sale for Halloween

Southwell is a small town northeast of Nottingham. It has a few major roads connected by smaller ones. Buildings fill the spaces in between. There is the town centre without which no town is complete. The hallmark of a small town is that it has only small shops and no shopping centres. Such is the case with Southwell. It has some pubs and restaurants. Because I had to return before sunset to my campsite some 4 km away, I did not have the opportunity to sample food at Southwell, which looked very promising in both choice and ambience to satisfy my appetite.

In Tamil there is a saying that translates to this: “Live not in a town that has no temple”. This finds some relevance in England where I have found a church in every village and town. Today I passed two nearby villages, Farnsfield and Halam. Each had its church. Southwell has one too; but it is more than a church. It is one of the hidden treasures of Nottinghamshire. It is hidden because one hardly expects it in such a small town.

It is a parish church as well as the Cathedral of the Diocese of Southwell; but instead of being called a Cathedral, it is called a Minster. I don’t know the difference but its worth finding out. On the west front are two square towers capped by elegant spires. The towers very much reminded me of the restored ruins at Reculver in Kent. Then there is the tower at the crossing. The exterior gable of the north transept has a strong zigzag pattern. The corbels on the outside have carved faces with funny expressions and hairstyles.

Church wedding at the Minster

Church wedding at the Minster

The Minster is in a mix of styles. Following my visit to Peterborough only a week ago, I was confronted so soon by the simple curves and arches of Norman architecture which is predominant in the nave. The present wooden roof is from Victorian times. With its barrel vaulting, it is in harmony with the rest of the nave. The piers in the nave are as much as six feet in diameter. The arches of the triforium span an impressive width of fifteen feet. With such a large width, each arch is almost a complete semi-circle. Then when I stepped under the crossing the effect was greater. The four main arches at the crossing are all in Norman style, something I have not seen anywhere else.

Moving into the choir, I found the guaranteed grace of Early English architecture, which is also to be found in the adjacent Chapter House and the passage leading to it. In addition, the Chapter House represents a transition from Early English into Decorated Gothic. Here we find the famous “Leaves of Southwell”. These are exquisite carvings to be found on pillars, arches, capitals, tympanums, corbels and arcading. The leaves are varied – oak, vine, ivy, hawthorn, maple and more that I couldn’t identify. Better still are the carved animals, some real, some imaginary. Here in a true sense are the hidden treasures of Southwell. For example, on one of the capitals are two boars eating acorns but they hide so well under the oak leaves that unless one bends and looks at the capital from beneath they can be easily overlooked. On another capital are two hounds attacking a hare. We also have what looks like a dragon or a phoenix eating grapes. There are many depictions of “The Green Man”, from whose open mouth stalks and leaves sprout out in profusion. There are many more such interesting and humorous carvings and these occupied me for an hour in the Chapter House alone. The roof of this octagonal Chapter House is also worth studying. Sixteen ribs join at the central boss which is surrounded by eight smaller bosses at which two smaller ribs join along each main rib. Likewise, there is yet one more wider circle of eight bosses. These being closest to the walls provide the first circle of support to the arches, the roof and the turret above it.

The Chapter House of Southwell by itself is worth a visit for any ardent lover of cathedral architecture. While it is common to find a lot of interesting woodwork in choir stalls – canopies and misericords – it is rare to find the same in stone. The carvings in the Chapter House are not one or two but so many that the impact is greater. The grand vision of the architect and the master mason is seen as they had planned and executed. It is said that a lot of the inspiration for the designs came from the Sherwood Forest. It is also certain that imagination must have played a large part in this wonderful creation.

14th century door at the Minster

14th century door at the Minster

There are some smaller treasures at Southwell Minster:

  1. At the entrance into the nave is a fine 14th century door patterned beautifully. Six hundred years on, aging gracefully all the time, it continues to stand and serve. What a life for a dead tree!
  2. There stand what are called “Bread Pews” placed in the South Transept next to the door that leads into it. These pews would have been occupied by the poor and the pauper. They would have received their “daily bread” here. They would have kept away from the main congregation in the nave.
  3. In the North Transept is a tympanum that comes from the Anglo-Saxon period. This shows St Michael slaying the dragon. The carving has in its aspect a certain primitive appeal. The figures are stylistic, roughly defined and naturally worn-out with age. It has in its form and figure the signature of a devotee, not an artist. In this perspective, it has some similarity to the carvings of the Indus Valley Civilisation. Nothing else of that building exists but some Roman mosaic survives in the South Transept.
  4. Not all that is admirable must necessarily be old. It is true that time in its long journey hides history and creates secrets. It is true that time gives every article a patina of faded glory and the benefit of antiquity. But modern creations have their beauty too. One splendid example is a 1999 installation named “Stations of the Cross” by artist Jonathan Clarke. Here he traces the key events of Christ’s last journey bearing the cross. At each step the cross gets larger and heavier. Visitors are encouraged to touch and feel the human figures in metal; and in this way connect to the feelings and tortures of Christ himself. If religion and piety can inspire art, the reverse is just as possible.

I had to tear myself away from the Minster for the sole reason that there was yet one more treasure at Southwell that I could not afford to miss after having come so far from Luton. This is the Southwell Union Workhouse, as it was known in its heyday. Here I learnt a great deal about the beginnings of today’s modern welfare system. Here I climbed the narrow stairs, walked the old unfurnished rooms, crossed the empty exercise yards and touched the red brick walls.

Although the place is empty and silent, an excellent audio guide brings to life the everyday chores, sounds and conversations of the workhouse as it was in the 19th century. The National Trust has also done a sensible thing to leave much of the workhouse unfurnished so that we are able to appreciate the building in its originality. Better still are some rooms left intact with peeling plasters on their walls just as they were found in 1997 when the Trust acquired the property. In other rooms, we find the lower half covered in muted colours of paint while the upper half is in white distemper. Must restoration has been done and all of it gets my approval. The building as a whole is symmetric. One side was for men, the other was for women. Within each half, a stairway partitions the space into two separate sections. One section was occupied by able-bodied men while the other was reserved for the aged and the sick. Children had separate dormitories and met their parents only upon request. They received basic classroom education. Older boys and girls received vocational training as well.

Able-bodied men and women were put to hard work with constant supervision. The work was often meaningless. Although what they produced could be sold outside, profit was not the main object of a workhouse. Workhouses were meant to offer food, accommodation and care to paupers, for those who could not find work or could not work. At the same time, it was designed to impose a severe and demanding work routine to deter those given to idleness. When the New Poor Law came into force in 1834, it set out to strike this balance between humane support for the paupers and tough deterrent for the idle. The effect of this law was that hundreds of workhouses were setup across the country. Unions were formed across parishes. While previously each parish had operated independently, by forming such unions they reduced costs and managed their operations more efficiently. This workhouse at Southwell, started in 1824, was a pioneer in this regard. Anyone in need of assistance, even for a night, would never need to sleep out the night or go without food. The workhouse would always offer him something in return for work.

There was no luxury in the workhouse. Often conditions were appalling despite regular inspections. Stories are told of mistreatment in the hands of the Master or the Matron, the crowded and unhygienic conditions, or the little portions of tasteless food. Many of us will distinctly remember Dickens’ descriptions of Victorian workhouses. All in all, there were places of dread, places to be avoided, places to be used only as the last resort. Yet there was something humane about workhouses, to offer help to those in absolute need. Unlike almshouses which were supported by charities, workhouses were paid for by taxpayers. Taxpayers naturally took a harsh view of those who were able to work but did not. For this reason, the able-bodied were called the “idle and profligate” or the “undeserving” poor; the old and infirm were called the “blameless” or the “deserving” poor. However, the paupers were not to be blamed in most cases. There just wasn’t enough work for them as mechanisation took its toll on the agrarian workforce.

As Britain entered the 20th century, workhouses necessarily changed. Children were sent to special homes. Workhouses operated more like hospitals caring for the sick and aged. Others were cared for in their own homes. If required, temporary accommodation was provided in other ways. Work was no longer a part of workhouses. Many such workhouses eventually became hospitals under the National Health Service (NHS). The Welfare State came into being in 1948. It may not be old but it is built on much older institutions, some of which go back to Elizabethan times and the Old Poor Law of 1601. What we have today is not a perfect solution to the problems of the poor and the homeless. However, it has grown from the experiences and mistakes of the past, has adapted itself to the needs of our age, and still tries to deliver the best it can within existing social, political and economic frameworks.

On the whole, I enjoyed the visit to this workhouse. It has been informative and different, not like the more usual visit to a museum or a decorated country house. Upon leaving this place, I passed the village of Easthorpe which is no more than an extension of Southwell. Here they claim is the beginning of the Bramley apple. The following plaque says so:

THE BRAMLEY
APPLE TREE

was grown from a pip by a young lady,
Mary Anne Brailsford between 1809 & 1815.
It was thought it came from an apple grown on
a tree at the bottom of her garden (now No. 75).
One seedling produced very fine apples in 1837
when the new occupier was Mr. Matthew Bramley.
A local gardener, Henry Merryweather, later
obtained permission to take cuttings from
the tree and it was duly registered
as the Bramley Seedling.

This dispelled my hitherto belief that this apple had its beginnings in Bramley, a Hampshire town I have often passed by train from Reading to Basingstoke.

Southwell is a typical English town, perhaps only a village not long ago. It is in small places like these that one can find the essence of English culture and heritage, not of the present but of the past. There is much open country around Southwell. With its proximity to Newark-on-Trent, Lincoln, Mansfield and Nottingham, one can predict that this town will grow and in the process lose its humble beginnings. There was in the 19th century, at the height of the Industrial Revolution, a migration of people from country to town. Would we in future see a reverse migration, albeit in smaller numbers, not for work but for living?





Evensong at the Cathedral, Peterborough, Cambridgeshire

22 10 2006

By train, Peterborough is a little more than an hour from Cambridge. So I decided to make the best of this proximity. There is nothing unique about the town and its shopping malls. I had not come for that. The only reason someone like me would visit Peterborough is for its magnificent Cathedral.

Now I am almost mad at myself for not having fulfilled the main purpose to satisfaction. I reached Peterborough at noon. I decided to take a walk towards Flag Fen along the River Nene. Despite the rain, it was a pleasant and relaxing walk, although nothing remarkable. When I returned to town I decided to have my lunch. Then, I was just in time to catch the evensong at the Cathedral at half-past three. That lasted an hour. I had barely thirty minutes before the Cathedral closed at five.

The first mistake was that I had not checked the Cathedral opening times. The second is that I am still getting used to the culture of the place. It is unimaginable in India or in Singapore that a place would be as good as dead at five or that cathedrals would close so early in the day. I had expected to be in the Cathedral till six or seven, after the evensong. I had planned on taking the return train to Cambridge at half-seven. I wandered for an hour in the Cathedral precincts but since there was nothing else to do I left an hour earlier. At least Cambridge has a lot more life.

More importantly, I must admit, I have become too conscious of my travel expenses. Public transport costs have either gone up or travelling in these parts is a little more expensive than in the south and south-west where discounts such as the Network Railcard apply. When it comes to visiting cathedrals, I have been trying to avoid the entry fees where possible. The trick is to attend the evensong and thereby gain a free entry to the cathedral. Some may claim it is unethical and not being true to one’s own religious and moral values. True understanding of another religion is only possible by taking part in its proceedings. It cannot happen by being a passive observer. Faith and belief are of utmost importance. Where these are lacking towards a foreign religion, effort must be made to understand. Understanding may not change one’s beliefs but it will enable one to see things with the right perspectives. If one can understand Christianity by reading the Bible, a far better way is to attend services. Interpretations are made to simplify and elucidate. Relevance is brought out. Parables are explained within the context of the modern world in which we live. If anything, it is the lazy and undisciplined man’s substitute for a dedicated study of the Bible.

Today at evensong the pastor spoke of the Sabbath day, a day reserved for rest and reflection. By the time of Jesus the Sabbath day had degenerated into petty prohibitions. He narrated how Jesus had performed miracles even on this day and said that everyday is holy. In fact, Jesus himself rose from the dead on the day of the Sabbath. The pastor then led us in prayer. Personally, it was a nice way to begin the week, with plan, purpose and positivity. The choir at the Cathedral was not the usual one. It was composed of only old voices, both men and women. It wasn’t good but neither was it bad.

Where I live in Bedfordshire, I have not heard of any famous cathedral within the county. Truly, Cambridgeshire is blessed. Besides the wonder of King’s College Chapel, there are in Ely and Peterborough two of the finest cathedrals of the country, the best works of human art dedicated to the glory of God.

Arcading on the West Front of the Cathedral

Arcading on the West Front of the Cathedral

In summer this year they had commenced the 18-month restoration of the west front of the Cathedral. The most widely advertised beauty of the Cathedral lies in its three stupendous towering Early English arches of the west front. Unfortunately for me, two of them were covered in scaffolding. The beauty was lost on me. I could admire the details of the only arch that was still open to the rain. On the inside, however, the Cathedral is fresh, cheerful and well-maintained. The cream coloured stones lighten the mood a great deal. Most of it is in Norman style and definitely the best I have seen. The rounded arches are as austere as ancient. This style does not have the grace of Early English. The stout round pillars, sometimes fused together with sharper projections and slender supports, add to the seriousness. Ancient animalistic beliefs of the Anglo-Saxons must have carried on during the post-Conquest period and this is seen in the carved ornamentations, mouldings, incised or embossed patterns that are present primarily on the arches.

Outside, on the north side of the nave is a doorway that is deeply recessed by as many as five arches. The inner arches are patterned, each with a different motif. Each arch is supported by slender columns that end with a small cushion capital that is yet another characteristic of the Norman style. This doorway tells the passage of time. The stones are black and dull. One would have expected the patterns to have been obliterated over the many centuries. This has not happened because of the deep recess by which they are protected. It is the same recess that creates a strong and compelling perspective. It pulls the visitor to the door and if it had been open I would have walked in.

There are other beauties in this Cathedral. The wooden ceilings painted exquisitely with figures and patterns are worth a study not only for artistic merit but also for symbolism and deeper meanings. Unfortunately I had no time to do this and neither was there enough light. It was still early in the day but late enough at the doorstep of winter. Despite the huge windows with their clear glass and despite the adequate use of clerestories, it was as good as dark by five. The apse was a delight from the first glimpse. It has the same Perpendicular fan-vaulting that I found so grandly executed at King’s College Chapel. It spans four bay windows on the north and the south. The vaulting from these sections meet those that span the five bay windows at the east end of the apse. The ceiling at the apse is not as high as at King’s College Chapel. So there is no awe and wonder but there is instead an intimacy and an opportunity for closer study.





Reflections from Cambridge

21 10 2006

An Ancient Spirit

Policeman at Cambridge

Policeman at Cambridge

Since my last visit to Cambridge earlier this year, today I find myself once again thrown into happy reunion with the lively spirit of this university town. When I say “thrown”, I do not mean that the visit has been in any way unplanned or sudden. Rather, I allude to the strange familiarity by which I found myself walking the same lanes and admiring the same buildings. I took the same National Express bus from Luton. I had booked my bed at the same YHA on Tenison Road. I walked by the same streets and crossed the same traffic lights on my way to the YHA. The seasons had changed but my perspective hadn’t. The buildings vied for attention but the same ones succeeded in getting mine.

I guess each one of us looks at the world with a personal perspective, formed by nature and strengthened by habit. Even if the world changes we find comfort in looking at it in the same way. It is only when a person starts to look with a different perspective that learning begins and knowledge forms. Such may have well been the case with me this morning. Yet I find that every city has a spirit that draws the visitor towards discovering its hidden treasures; and this is not just “drawing to” the city but also “drawing through” the city.

Courtyard in Peterhouse College

Courtyard in Peterhouse College

Once I abandoned the familiar streets in search of new destinations, the city revealed to me beauties I had missed in my first visit. Five hours in the Fitzwilliam Museum was hard work but engaging just the same. Peterhouse College and Pembroke College had their individual highlights. The choir evensong and an organ recital that followed it at King’s College Chapel, completed the day that had its rewards for being long and an early riser.

The Fitzwilliam Museum

As at many other museums and galleries of the country, I find it difficult to give here a sample of the treasures of the Fitzwilliam Museum. Still more difficult is to write about them as part of my general travel notes. A mere listing would be inadequate and boring. A detailed explanation would take too much space and probably detract from the overall approach. By this I mean that I have tried to keep my notes as brief as possible, giving only essentials and avoiding discursive narrations. Here I try to honour all such considerations. At the same time, I take the blame for having left out a great many from my copious notes.

  1. As at the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford, I am once more in love with pottery. Every piece is a product of human art but there is in each of them a natural perfection. The perfection that is in the planetary motions is in a small way reflected in the curves and self-completing forms of a vase. What I call a vase is an over-simplification. We only have to look at the array of shapes and proportions in Greek pottery. Each has its purpose. Each has its name:

    lekythos, oinochoe, amphora, alabastron, hydria, skyphos, pyxis, pelike, kyathos, loutrophoros, aryballos, krater, chous, stamnos, kantharos

    For instance, a krater has a wide open mouth from which one could draw out liquids. A lekythos has a slender neck and narrow opening to dispense its contents in small quantities. Amphoras and hydria have two handles that aid in transporting them. Moreover, each one in beautifully decorated with everyday or mythological themes. In contrast are the Cypriot pottery of the Early Bronze Age (2500-2000 BC) in which human forms are rare. Here, lines, geometric patterns and stylized animal and plant forms are prominent. Bowls from Iran and Iraq are featured. Then we have the 17th century Staffordshire painted-earthenware in colours of mainly yellow, brown and black. Here the decorative scheme is embossed and surfaces are rarely smooth. Jugs, tankards, tea-pots, posit-pots, egg-stands are some of the items from this period. The blue-and-white Staffordshire pottery of the 18th century catered for a clientele inclined to Robert Adams’ design. The famous Chinese porcelains are plenty. So too are the Dutch Delftware and other European porcelains.

  2. There are two paintings of the same theme, “The Annunciation”, in which the Virgin Mary is directed to the path of her chosen purity by the Archangel Gabriel. As in most religious paintings, these contain much symbolism. The 15th century painting by Domenico Veneziano emphasizes the distance between the Virgin and the angel, thus reflecting the gravity of the message. This emphasis is also enhanced by our own transversal perspective of the scene. There is an enclosed garden beyond to which the Virgin has turned her back. Beyond the garden is a barred door, the Virgin’s denial of the common pursuits of man. Then, we come to a Flemish painting executed perhaps fifty years later. Here the atmosphere is much more relaxed but not casual. Flowers in this picture signify much – white lilies for purity, blue iris for the Queen of Heaven, and pinks for Incarnation.Such symbolism is present at many non-religious paintings as well. In some cases, they have been carried to a point of obsession as is evident in Salvator Rosa’s “Human Frailty”. Here the presence of a baby and an aged man are enough to establish the basic theme. This is further strengthened by images of transience – bubbles, butterfly, glass sphere, thistle (whose seeds are easily dispersed). All these combine to form a picture that is unnatural as the artist’s imagination. It is not a painting that one could appreciate easily. It is not a painting that can be considered beautiful. It exists solely to educate for an image has a stronger conviction than words, but only if one can read it.
  3. There is one intriguing painting to which the artist has probably not ascribed any name. The museum curator has given it a name that describes it almost completely – “Woman at a window with a copper bowl of apples and a cock pheasant”. There is symbolism in this too. Loss of innocence is signified by the empty birdcage and the apples. Shells of various shapes represent the male and female forms with obvious sexual innuendos. They all work together to suggest that the girl herself might be for sale.
  4. I have not been to Venice but a look at Canaletto’s views of the city puts one right in the middle of 18th century romantic beauty by the busy waterways and canals. The refined proportions and compelling perspectives, if the artist is as great as his renown, make this a beautiful city; and Canaletto has framed some of them so effectively. Credit should also go to the museum for displaying two views of “The Entrance of the Grand Canal”, both executed about the same period. One is by Canaletto and the other by Bernardo Bellotto. The effect is not spoilt by placing them next to each other but rather on two sides of a doorway. This way, one can appreciate them in isolation or compare them as desired.
  5. There is one particular room that traces the development of English portraiture through the centuries. I have not managed to grasp this fully but some facts becoming clearer. 16th century portraiture is stiff and formal. I remember paintings of Queen Elizabeth at the National Portrait Gallery in London. In the 17th century, Van Dyck revolutionized this with his flamboyant creations. His portraits of Charles I are memorable in this regard. His contemporary, Peter Lely was either influenced by Van Dyck or was simply catering to the growing demand of portraits in the “Van Dyck” style. In the 18th century Van Dyck’s legacy continued but painters started to exercise their own individual styles. In this group are Thomas Gainsborough and Joshua Reynolds. William Hogarth’s portraits are the most unique from this period, choosing to depict everyday scenes with a moral message, as a satire of contemporary life. So in his paintings we find portraits of society rather than any one particular person. I remember reading somewhere of his engraving of “Gin Lane”, created at a time when the gin craze was raging in London and beyond. I haven’t actually seen this engraving.
  6. For most part, paintings are the draw at any museum. They take centre stage and eclipse sculptures for most part. Perhaps this has more to do with the common man’s appreciation of colour than form. Picture frames are almost always ignored. So too are cabinets or commodes for which the attention is usurped by the precious articles they contain or support. Today there has been an exception to this general rule. There stands in one of the rooms a superb 19th century English side cabinet designed by Owen Jones. It is made of macassar ebony and exquisitely decorated with marquetry. Each type of wood has a distinct colour that has not faded with time. These colours are placed in a way that the contrast is appealing. The design, rather than being purely European, draws heavily on Middle-Eastern or Arabic art. Here we do not find birds, flowers, leaves, grapes, cherubs and angels. Rather, we find lines, curves, patterns and motifs that link and combine in harmony. I have not studied any piece of furniture so long and so intensely as I did today with this masterpiece.
  7. When it comes to sculptures, there is an evident difference between what we have in India and what is common in Britain. Here it is common to have busts and full-length sculptures of kings, queens, statesmen, famous personalities and aristocrats in general. Such a thing is unthinkable in India where only deities deserve such likeness in stone. The transience of human life cannot be conquered. Indians respect this. Perhaps, this is why when sculptures of Gandhi, Nehru or Vivekananda are created, they are revered as gods. They do not adorn the squares and parks for artistic merit. They are garlanded and worshipped. So which is better – to make gods of your fellow-men when they are gone or make a god of yourself?
  8. If there is but one moment to recall for the day it would be a moment in which everything happened without effort. Sometimes I feel I try too hard to appreciate a painting. If it’s in a museum it must be good, right? But there is one painting that had the greatest emotional impact. I didn’t make much of it at first, but suddenly as I was glancing away from it, I felt possibly the same emotions as the artist, who must have in his turn empathized with the characters in a stronger way. This is “The Pieta with the Virgin, Mary Magdalene and St John” by Luis de Morales. There is a greater sorrow in the expression of the Virgin than in her teardrops.

King’s College Chapel

I have already described the Chapel in an earlier account but that remained incomplete because I had to wait till today to see it on the inside. So I decided to join the evensong. For the first time in these two years of my stay in Britain, after visiting countless cathedrals, churches and chapels, after attending many services and evensongs, today I have seen people queuing for evensong! One wonders why so suddenly people have become pious and religious. It did not take long to make out that most were really there out of curiosity. The fame of King’s College Choir is widespread. Tradition has supported it, in particular, the annual Christmas Eve broadcast of “The Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols”.

Since it was quite a large audience, the choir was completely filled. The rest of us were seated in the nave. Although I had been ahead in the queue, I chose to sit in the nave. I simply wanted to relax and feel the choir music without taking part in the service. Most people in the nave left halfway. Those who were unfortunate enough to sit in the choir had to get through the entire programme which consisted of long periods of standing. They had not realized that praying is hard work. Praying is easy only for a person who has difficulties in life, whose prayer is genuine and the need imperative.

An evensong is not something about which one can say “I enjoyed it”. Such a response is purely of a mind that chooses to decide. An evensong is a divine opportunity. You can only say “I was touched by it”, a response of a soul that opens to receive. I have been touched in this manner at many such opportunities but not today. The mistake is solely mine. The sound did not carry well into the nave. The intervening pulpitum did much damage although the connecting door was open. Perhaps, the choir itself was lacking in training and practice. It was difficult to tell from where I sat. Perhaps, my body was too tired and so too my mind, after many busy hours in the museum. In any case, I was not touched. In consolation, this was followed immediately by an organ recital for which I moved into the choir. There were some fine pieces but nothing extraordinary.

I did not bother with tombs, effigies, misericords, sculptures, stained glass or paintings. I do not know if they even existed. If they did, they could not anyway be appreciated in the darkness. The wonder of the Chapel to me lay solely in its fan-vaulting. This stretched the entire length of the Chapel spanning twelve bay windows on either side. The nave does not have the imposing demeanour of Canterbury Cathedral. Neither does the choir have the same privileged exclusivity that is in Canterbury Cathedral. None of these comparisons matter here where the vaulting is without compare.

The very first look at the vaulting along the length of the nave revealed that there are no graceful arches. Such are to be found only in Early English architecture, in the nave of Salisbury or Wells. Without these, the perspective is wider and without a definitive point of convergence. If the perspective down the nave is less impressive, one has only to look up a little. From the corbels, arches spring and spread towards the ceiling. These arches are joined together throughout and at places reinforced by circular ribs. In this way, the arches rise as a tree spreads its branches with the leaves filling the spaces in between. In this way, the circular ribs spread out as perfect ripples on a still lake. Where these join with those of adjacent ripples, the effect is no different from what nature herself would dictate.

Wonder and awe comes from uniform repetition that spans the entire length of the Chapel. Line and curve, reaching out, joining, merging, dividing and creating repetitive patterns, are what make the vaulting special. The scale of the construction certainly goes a long way in creating an overwhelming feeling of awe. Because this is a chapel and not a cathedral, there are no side aisles, transepts, chapels, chantries or an apse. Except for the pulpitum that provides a functional separation, there is only one space. This is clearly seen in the vaulting which stretches without interruption from end to end.

On an architectural level, this kind of vaulting is more decorative than functional. The buttresses on the outside are the weight-bearing structures, not the arches inside. Fan-vaulting could also be seen as an evolution from tierceron vaulting that I had seen many months ago in the nave of Exeter Cathedral. In the latter, there is a major rib that is linked with minor ribs using small connecting ribs. Minor ribs terminate earlier and do not connect directly to the central line of the nave. In fan-vaulting at this Chapel, this form of tierceron vaulting is flattened. The connecting ribs are made continuous, circular and laid out in a concentric pattern. Bosses are completely removed because the ribs themselves do not serve their original function. There is also no distinction amongst ribs; all are alike.

Now that I have seen what others have praised, I can only agree: this Chapel is one of the wonders of Britain.

The Big Issue

I bought this week’s “The Big Issue”, which is a magazine run for the benefit of the homeless. This is not the first time I have purchased this magazine but today I have chosen to write about it. My understanding of Britain will remain incomplete if I ignore the present and the issues troubling the man on the street.

This is one of the few weekly magazines that are truly worth reading. Separate regional editions are published, each addressing local issues and needs of the homeless. It is not the kind of junk that appear in large numbers. There are many articles of interest. There are articles written by the homeless themselves. These make a compelling read, helping us see the world from their point of view.

These magazines are sold on the street by the homeless. By this we may easily equate homelessness to joblessness. It costs £1.40 but the vendor makes a profit of £0.80 with every issue. This scheme is run as a business but I am not sure if it is funded by the government in any way. I will not be surprised if it isn’t. As with many such organizations, donations form a large part of their income. Selling the magazine itself is a moderate source of income for the homeless. It is not a popular magazine, certainly not among the top sellers. As far as I can make out, those who buy it do so out of an inborn desire to help. In many cases, I have observed people paying more and let the vendor keep the change.

I have observed in all cases that these vendors are always friendly and polite. By appearance they are simple. They realize the basic needs for decent living and truly appreciate the little they have. Theirs is a simplicity forced by circumstance. Perhaps, it is this simplicity that enables them to see the world and themselves in the right perspective. There was in my mind an association of a stigma towards the vendors of “The Big Issue” but over many months this has been removed. There is nothing about them that’s second class or inferior. They are to be seen and treated as equals. They desire and deserve a home. While that is not easily possible, they live their days with love, smile and hope.

Many questions remain on my mind. Do these homeless individuals receive any assistance from the government? Are they part of the welfare system? On what basis do they prove to “The Big Issue” company that they are homeless? What is their long term future? What are the root causes of their homelessness – poverty, unemployment, lack of skill or education – and why are these not being addressed directly?





A Taste of India, London

15 10 2006

Deepavali or Diwali, literally a “row of lights”, is almost a national festival in India. Not many people in the UK know about it. It is not a public holiday. Celebrations where visible are only within communities from the Indian sub-continent. Yet there is a growing awareness across the wider public by virtue of the tolerance and multi-cultural atmosphere that always prevails in London.

In remembrance of a war hero

In remembrance of a war hero

This festival comes in a week’s time but today it was celebrated in the heart of London, at Trafalgar Square. Here where the tourists come in great numbers any time of the year, looking for a taste of typical English setting in Central London, today they must have been a good deal surprised. To see Indian culture take centre stage is not to be expected. But someone who knows London, who lives in London, will not find it surprising. This is the true spirit of London, to welcome all and to embrace all. As more and more immigrants come into Britain, this is a trend that is expected to continue and grow not only in London but also in many other big cities of the country.

Embracing other cultures means respecting. It does not, however, mean assimilating. This was quite apparent today at the gathering at Trafalgar Square. Most of them were Indians. Very few Britons were to be seen. I spoke to a 76 year old African who has been living in London for more than 40 years. There were some white Londoners in the crowd. There were some curious tourists. But it was only the Indians who lingered and stayed on till the end. I guess it is a mixture of pride and comfort: pride that comes from the richness of an ancient cultural heritage, comfort that comes from a shared sense of cultural identity. It is not often that they get this opportunity to celebrate and share this with all Londoners. Ultimately, there are so many Indians in this country that they find company within their community. Society and social interaction are defined amongst Indians alone. It does not matter very much if they do not integrate into British culture. What is British culture anyway these days – going to the pub, getting drunk, watching football, partying and finding humour in the silliest of things?

Earlier today I had decided to make this the theme for the day: to discover India from outside India, or rather to see India as Londoners would see it. I visited the Somerset House in the morning to catch a temporary exhibition of gems and jewellery from the Gem Palace of Jaipur.

Day in night in the London Underground

Day in night in the London Underground

These are creations only for the purse of the royal and the rich. Despite modern day methods and tools, here they continue to employ traditional processes in the making of jewellery. In many cases the diamonds are coarse and not all too finely polished; but they have in their look the feel and spirit of ancient India. Here is beauty as pure as man can make without the glamour. Here in these diamonds, amethysts, pearls and opals are the shapes of nature, like the rocks and boulders of South India shaped and smoothened without a sharp cut or line. Here every piece is richly enamelled and decorated on the behind as well, because they believed that the body sees what it wears. Here in their designs are the influences of Islamic motifs and Russian patterns. Designs are many and varied. The designer’s eye for detail and the artist’s expert craftsmanship could not be sufficiently admired only because my own eye for detail had failed me. Is this not always the case, that all we see of the world and beyond are within the limits of the observer?








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