Imperial War Museum, London

31 10 2004

There is only one thing mentioning of this weekend’s happenings. No, it’s not Halloween which is tonight; neither is it the fact that today has been a long day because of the cessation of daylight saving time. It is the visit to London’s Imperial War Museum.

Whatever be your stand on war, this museum is not to be ignored. It neither glorifies war nor condemns it. That’s for you to decide. It simply presents the facts in very interesting ways. It is a multi-sensory experience. See the might of German rockets or British Spitfires hanging from the ceiling. Walk through a Halifax fuselage. Smell the soil of the land or the stench of narrow trenches as you walk through one. Hear the movement of tanks, celebration of victory or the cries of separation.

The highlight of the visit was hearing true accounts from four war veterans, all from World War II. Three from the army had taken part in D-Day. The youngest one, now aged 82, had taken part in the Peenemunde air raid of August 1943. In his own words, if not for this raid, “the damage to Britain would have been infinitely worse”. The last veteran, Alan, was from the RAF. His Halifax had been shot down after being caught in a searchlight cone in Berlin. He had a free fall with his parachute but only for two seconds before hitting the high branches of a tree, about 80 feet from the ground. By the time he was on the ground German soldiers were ready to take him prisoner. He was also one of the men in the Great Escape. Those who had escaped and soon recaptured were handed over to the Gestapo and shot. Alan was spared just because he had been still in the queue. He knew every soldier who had been shot.

These men returned home to find a different world. Many never returned. All are unsung heroes but they do not want a song. All they want is peace for future generations. They have performed their duty well and continue to do so by educating the public against war and its lasting effects on individuals and families. To quote Churchill, “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few”.

War is not glory. It is bloodshed and death. The message of these veterans to future generations is to avoid war. It becomes inevitable only when you have to defend what is yours. Freedom is not to be taken for granted. One has to fight for it when there are no peaceful means of resolution. War is an ugly reality now and for the future. As Plato put it in the 5th century BC, “Only the dead have seen the end of war”.


Dartmoor National Park, Devon

24 10 2004

The longer one stays here the more does the spirit of the moor sink into one’s soul, its vastness, and also its grim charm. When you are once upon its bosom you have left all traces of modern England behind you, but on the other hand you are conscious everywhere of the homes and the work of prehistoric people… As you look at their grey stone huts against the scarred hillsides you leave your own age behind you, and if you were to see a skin-clad, hairy man crawl out from the low door, fitting a flint-tipped arrow on to the string of his bow, you would feel that his presence there was more natural than your own.

Perceptive readers will recognise the above passage from the most thrilling novel of Sherlock Holmes, “The Hound of the Baskervilles”. Arthur Conan Doyle was describing the setting of the novel, the Dartmoor National Park in Devon. (One would suppose that it was not a national park when the novel was written.) My experience of the same has been different but just as exciting.

As African elephants ponder in silence for hours before their long summer journey across the arid Savannahs, so did I looking across heather-filled slopes to the blank sheet of white fog that hung heavily on the Dartmoor hills. Beyond these slopes is a land exposed to the harshest forces of nature, uninhabited and shelterless, cold and grim, made all the more mysterious and dangerous by the blanketing fog. Nonetheless, to cross the moor under such conditions of bleak weather would be an experience of a lifetime that is not easily forgone.

Thus I start on a 7-hour trek from Ivybridge to Buckfastleigh under rain and gale. Every step is an act of balance and a couple of times I am blown off the path. Rain hits from behind and pierces the ground before me like a thousand arrows from an invading army. At times when walking against the wind, rain hits the face like a thousand needles. Every few steps the map and compass are checked since visibility is reduced to a mere 10 meters. After a while the map becomes useless as paths become indistinct, overgrown with grass or criss-crossed by cattle and sheep. Thus I begin to see the truth in J. Krishnamurthi’s famous words, “Truth is a pathless land”.

I lose the way but with the compass and landmarks find it again. The river Avon flows at a furious pace. The necessity to cross it has me waist-deep in water. River crossings are never easy. Still waters run deep. Narrow waters flow fast. The character of autumn is etched in every visible feature of the land. Cold October rain bathes the hills rich in colour. Evergreen pines rise straight and tall. In majestic stand they follow the contours of the hills. Wind or rain, wild ponies, sheep and cattle, maintain their monotonous task of grazing the green slopes. They find contentment in their ordinary lives. Their world is limited to the lush pastures that flourish between the deadly mires of the moor.

Every step takes me deeper into the heart of the moor and farther from civilization. Once within the folds of the enveloping fog I belong to a world of mystery and adventure. Who can tell what lies beyond? The fog is thick upon the moor. Clouds rush past at great speeds. Tussock grass and heather are bent with the force of the wind and in forced supplication kiss the ground. No trees or shrubs exist here. The skull and horns of a dead sheep lie along the path and fluffs of wool cling desperately to the grass. A cow moos somewhere and the sound assumes eerie tones. Is it in despair or in fear? All that matters is how one hears it.

Occasionally I cross abandoned tin mines. The stone circles, stone rows, remains of burial grounds and barrows are the only signs of ancient occupation. These are the settlements of our hardy ancestors from the Bronze Age (2000-550 BC) or perhaps even earlier. To touch one of these rocks is to connect with our ancient folks, long gone but who left behind their world for us. Our existence is an important dichotomy. We are insignificant in ourselves but at the same time represent the cumulative progress of the entire human race. Our ancestors have roamed these lands from the Palaeolithic times, about 250,000 years ago. The monuments they have left behind are simple yet mysterious. Is it that we have progressed that we fail to understand them?

Despite such weather there have been a few moments of such exceptional beauty that they have been rendered unforgettable. When the fog thins, just for a few moments, a sudden light filters from above and fills the scene with a subtle glow. Beyond the outer reaches of the moor the sky clears and the distant hills are crowned with patches of sunlight that make a perfect contrast to the character of the moor. The river Avon meanders between green hills patterned with circles and lines. Wild ponies, their manes freely blowing in the wind, complete the isolation of the moor. Dark clouds move dramatically in the distance and more rain is imminent.

Exeter and Plymouth, Devon

23 10 2004

Life is full of magical moments. A simple walk along the seafront in the dead of the night can be rewarding. The chilling wind blows with relentless fury and the white horses break into frenzied spray and foam as they dash against the worn-out but steady rocks. The revolving beacons of lighthouses are the only warnings against the danger lurking in the darkness of a cloudy night. The dark shapes of islands and distant lands loom out of the crested waters. Beyond these is the limitless horizon that leads to wonders of other lands and other seas. Beneath the waves are the secrets of the deep blue seas. Above the clouds are the wide expanses of a silent void connecting star to star. Here we are in our little space on earth taking a breath of life that is the essence of creation. Yes, one need not be on an isolated island with white sands, coral reefs and blue skies; life in its full glory is to be seen here in Plymouth and the stretches of the coasts of Devon.

It is at moments like these that one realises that life is a journey, not a destination; and by this virtue every moment defines a destination in itself.

Earlier today I was at Exeter, a good starting point to the exploration of Devon. A visit to the Royal Albert Memorial Museum was unplanned but it was time well utilised. A deeper appreciation of any place comes with an introduction and museums perform this function well. I have found this to be true in Malacca and Penang, as well as here.

Exeter is best remembered for its cathedral of flamboyant designs and sculpture, an excellent example of Decorated Gothic architecture. The numerous sculptures of kings, bishops, saints and angels that fill the west facade cannot be missed by any wandering tourist. We must be thankful that the puritans missed them. The interiors are a study of decorative cathedral art. Here the slender stone columns are clustered together. They rise to elaborate tierceron nave vaulting that anticipates the fan vaulting of the later Perpendicular style. Embellished corbels and cornerstones are unique to this cathedral in so far as my travels go. The complex and varied patterns of window tracery are filled with coloured stained-glass. The bishop’s throne and canopy (made of English oak) within the choir is the largest in Britain and represents the best of 14th century woodwork.

But discovering the Cathedral’s interiors came afterwards. I had to earn the right of a visit by patiently going through the rituals of a complete service. It was better to do this and far more worthwhile that wandering through the streets of town in a pouring rain. So for a good part of the afternoon I attended a special service. It was a ceremonial admission and licensing of readers to the Church of England. Readers perform many duties and chief of them are worship and preaching of the Word of God. It was a solemn ceremony presided over by the Bishop of the diocese under the august interiors of this 14th century building. The length of the ceremony and the silence that accompanied it only added to its seriousness. It was a relief and joy universally expressed when the Bishop led the audience in applause to welcome the new readers.

The hierarchy and control of the Church extend beyond these walls and into the lives of Christians everywhere. The various flavours of the religion don’t make things any easier. This is in contrast to the spiritual philosophy of the East where religion is subsidiary to the individual, where spirituality is largely a process of self-discovery. Christianity has flourished to the far ends of the world thanks to this system and the Papal authority but a religion that serves itself amounts to nothing. It should serve the spirit of the common man which is also the universal spirit of all creation.

The Colours of Autumn, Avon

16 10 2004

This is a weekend that will be remembered among other things as the perfect autumnal weekend. Autumn, a season of ripeness of fruit and richness of colour, was at its best display. It is the last lively breath of life before the bleakness of winter. It paints the best of art in nature, a culmination of birth, growth, flowering and fruitfulness. The efforts of spring and summer are not ends in themselves but find their full rewards in the splendours of autumn.

Autumn colours at Westonbirt Arboretum

Autumn colours at Westonbirt Arboretum

English autumn lasts from September to November. The best display of colours is provided at the Westonbirt Arboretum, some 20 miles from the beautiful city of Bath. Ironically, the best displays here are from Japanese maples (acer palmatum), since maple itself is not native to England. Among the most interesting of these is the ‘Katsura’, leaves that turn yellow with the shortening of days. As the chemicals start to break down they produce an unmistakably sweet aroma that becomes the powerful fragrance of surrounding groves. With over 18,000 trees planted over the decades, meticulously classified and named, the arboretum is an ideal place for any naturalist. I particularly took note of a large Indian Horse Chestnut tree. I am told that much of its timber is found in imported English furniture but I yet to ascertain this claim by my many visits to English country houses.

A slightly wet day at Westonbirt Arboretum

A slightly wet day at Westonbirt Arboretum

I continued the enjoyment of autumn at Dyrham Park, easily reached by a special bus service from Bath. I have visited a few old English houses but the entry here and the approach to the house have been the best. As the bus makes its way down the winding driveway, weaving around the hills, fallow deer look up with alert curiosity. The house suddenly emerges down the sloping valley and the colours of red, yellow, green and orange make a picturesque backdrop. A couple of cows start to cross the driveway and we wait patiently before we finally arrive at the house.

The interiors of the house are just as impressive. By now it is clear that most houses of this stature have a library of their own. English or Flemish tapestries keep out the cold drafts and at the same time decorate the room. Paintings record lineage, history and patronage. With each painting the artist’s fame is consolidated and enhanced. Wealth is displayed by imported porcelain, Delftware (tulip vases in particular) and custom-made wooden cabinets decorated meticulously with marquetry. The vast grounds are carefully landscaped to suit the fashion of the day. Important rooms are designed to have splendid views of the grounds. Rooms are linked by a straight line of doors, one leading to another, what is called an enfilade, a French architectural gimmick that seeks to create an illusion of greater space. At Dyrham Park there is a particularly interesting collection of wall tiles in the dairy. They say no two tiles are the same but this is to be doubted without a rigorous self-study.

Having not had enough of autumn, my ambulations continued at Bath, a city that somewhat reminded me of the capital of Luxembourg but falls short of it in both beauty and style. Still, Bath is a beautiful city. The Botanic Gardens is a pleasant place. The red squirrels here are too comfortable with humans and will not hesitate to nibble at your feet. Prior Park Landscape Gardens affords excellent views of the city. Gardening is an essential part of English landscapes. A stream running down the slope or a lake placidly formed in a valley, each has its place. A Palladian Bridge over the lake is symmetrical in structure but adds asymmetry and interest within the bigger landscape. Trees are planted in view of the changing seasons. Every walk through these gardens brings me closer to this unique art. Flourishing of English culture was not just in art, architecture, music, engineering or literature but also in landscape gardening.

Bath is a city of order, proportions and well-designed spaces. The buildings do not have an old haggard look but look sufficiently mature in age to be romantically worthy of preservation and admiration. They are placed together in close proximity but this does make the city looked congested. There is a certain elegance in its look of clean classical lines and facades. This is best seen in The Royal Crescent and The Circus. The Roman Bath is no doubt an important city item. It takes only a single visit to realise the extent of the Roman Empire, not just in military terms but in engineering, art, society, politics and governance. When the Empire withdrew from Britain in the 4th Century no one here had the technology to maintain the baths which quickly fell into disrepair. The baths here are dedicated to the goddess Sulis Minerva, a fusion of a Celtic goddess and a Roman goddess. Indeed the Romans were prudent enough to abide by their own golden rule – “When in Rome, do as the Romans”.

The ancient Roman Baths

The ancient Roman Baths

I learnt with great interest the function of the Roman Bath. It serves to clean the body as one would expect. Its social function was perhaps more important. It was a place to socialise in an idle way, converse with serious intent, make contacts, network with peers and officials, strike business deals and settle transactions. As such, the process of cleaning oneself had to be slow process that gave enough opportunities to socialise. Cleaning the body is by use of dry heat (hypocaust) circulating under the floor that is supported by stacked tiles. The dirt is scrapped off with a stirgil. A cold plunge concludes the ritual. Once clean, one may relax in the main bath, chat with friends, indulge in a game of dice with music and dance for background entertainment or simply have one’s armpit hair plucked for a fee!

Richmond and Covent Garden, London

9 10 2004

After many weeks of absence from London and for good reasons of enjoying the countryside, it was time for a change. Plans were loose. In general, London has so much to do and see that planning is secondary. A leisurely walk at East Ham included a South Indian breakfast that I had missed for so long.

17th century Stuart mansion

Ham House: 17th century Stuart mansion

In the afternoon I visited Ham House near Richmond. This 17th century house has many spectacular rooms with fine furniture, English tapestries and oil portraits. The Long Gallery will make an impression on the harshest critic. Fine portraits line the entire length of the gallery including one of King Charles I. There are many portraits in the house of the Duke and Duchess of Lauderdale, owners of the house. Dukedom is the highest status that an aristocrat can achieve and second only to royalty. It is interesting to note that this house is regarded as one of the most haunted ones in Britain.

In the evening I browsed for a couple of hours at the Harrods department store. Everything was a little expensive for my pocket but I went there out of curiosity. I didn’t need anything and justly I didn’t buy anything. However, the place is wonderful even for a visit. The decor is stunning and they on their own have the power to attract visitors. Even if the goods were to be found elsewhere for a cheaper price, the pleasure of buying something at Harrods is a delightful experience. It is exactly this sort of experience and the joy of shopping at Harrods that attracts locals and tourists alike. And there is nothing better for tourists than to take home to their families something world-renowned and truly English.

What better way to end the day than head to an authentic English pub at Covent Garden, “Lamb and Flag”. It is a pity that they sell only drinks. Pub is a place for couples, colleagues or friends. It is a place to relax in the company of men and women. It is hardly a place for a lone drinker unless one has sorrows to drown. I was there more to sense the ambience than to enjoy my glass of wine. A pub is not a place for a quiet drink. The constant babble of voices and the mixed sound of noises is the background in which one socialises. Conversations are animated not because of any particular subject matter. It is in the ambience of a pub to become animated. All conversations are made a few decibels louder than usual. The television played on with the show of a football match. I couldn’t go into the inner rooms. They were too crowded. I sat down at the bar, watched the football match without even knowing who played or for what. If I were to visit another pub in this country it would be with company.

Salisbury, Wiltshire

3 10 2004

02-03 October 2004

Man proposes and God disposes. The plan was to visit the house and gardens of Stourhead followed by an easy walk towards Longleat. As the train pulled into historic Salisbury, the tall spire of the Cathedral came into view. To say that it is beautiful is to say little. All my plans went for a toss. I alighted at Salisbury and made my way straight to the Cathedral.

I have said this before in other contexts and I say it again – beauty in simplicity. No fancy friezes decorate the spire. At the west facade, straight vertical columns yield to the grace of simple arches. Images of saints and bishops invite the visitor for a closer look and into the 13th century building. If the exterior created heightened expectations, the interior far surpassed them. Black Purbeck stone piers, the stones often embedded with fossilised remains from the Jurassic period, extend along the length of the nave. These are equalled by the attractive clerestory and triforium that stretch our vision from the west end all the way to the blue stained-glass windows of the Trinity Chapel at the east end. I am told that this is one of the privileges of this Cathedral, to be able to see from one end to the other without a chancel screen blocking such a view.

There is harmony everywhere. Harmony too is a definition of beauty. Here is the perfect example of the characteristic cathedral architecture of England found nowhere else in the world, aptly called “Early English Gothic”.

The old mechanical clock of Salisbury Cathedral

The old mechanical clock of Salisbury Cathedral

A guided tour of the cathedral brought greater understanding and a deeper appreciation. The 20th century stained-glass at the Trinity Chapel is not abstract art but a powerful dedication to Christ and the Holy Trinity. Symbols associated with these are revealed to the eye only by a closer study. The stained-glass is a brilliant blue like that of Chartres in France. Since I have not seen the latter I must take it in good faith. The Purbeck stones are commonly called “Purbeck marbles” because when polished they acquire a marble-like appearance. The mechanical clock of 1386 is driven by gravity. It has no face but simply strikes the bell on the hour. The scissor arches at the crossing were built much later to support the weight of the spire. One of the copies of the Magna Carta is exhibited in the Chapter House. One must remember that for the early 13th century a copy was not a mass produced print as cheap as we make them today. Every copy was hand-made, a meticulous execution of the original and just as precious. The copy at Salisbury is not just among the greatest in establishing civil rights but also a piece of art in its own right. About 4000 words packed on a single piece of sheep skin with flowing curvaceous strokes of medieval Latin finely scribed in a uniform hand is European calligraphy at its best.

Next was an unplanned visit to the nearby Mompesson House. The collection of glass drinking cups and ceramic art is impressive. The library contains many great and renowned works of English literature. It also contained a copy of R.K. Narayan’s “An Astrologer’s Day”. It is a small house but gives the impression of being larger due to the use of false doors that create the illusion of an enfilade.

The spire of Salisbury Cathedral from the courtyard of Mompesson House

The spire of Salisbury Cathedral from the courtyard of Mompesson House

Eventually I did get to my original destination after missing many connecting buses, forcing me to walk from Gillingham to Stourhead. Nevertheless it was a walk immensely enjoyable, crossing farmlands and manors along the border of Wiltshire and Dorset. The countryside could be seen stretching towards the far horizons without interruption. Exploring Stourhead itself was a fiasco. I arrived at the time of sunset and all that I could manage was a short walk around the grounds owned by the National Trust. The best parts remained unseen. In compensation was a memorable sunset. The varied shades of autumn were bathed in a golden sunset. The sheep grazed the hills in perfect nonchalance. A quiet breeze ruffled the tops of pines. Birds in their little nests twittered to a well-deserved rest.

The rest I had for the night was an experience of a kind. I missed the last bus. There were no vacancies in the nearby village of Zeals. I had no guide books to help me out in my search. Enquiries at the local pub failed to produce any success. Without my sleeping bag it was a night without sleep. To make matters worse it started to rain. The road out of Zeals had no street lights but with the aid of my torch I made my way. Thankfully I found proper shelter from the constant rain. The cold concrete floor under highway A303 became my bed for the night.

Have you ever felt the chillness of a cold autumn night? Have you ever walked the ways of a homeless? Have you put yourself in his shoes for just one night? It is in times like this that one appreciates all things of comfort that are given little thought and taken much for granted.

Behind every cloud is a silver lining. Every dark night has to give way to the rising sun. The coldest hours of the night are just before dawn. Then is not hope put in its rightful place even in the direst of situations? The first rays of the sun are matched by the cheerful songs of birds. Miles of rolling hills still clothed in a thin morning mist wake up to the glow of dawn. Dappled cows graze in the distance. Squirrels start their lively acts, foraging for food. An ordered formation of geese floats across as smoothly as the clouds. All I have to do is to breathe-in the fresh morning air and all good things around me.