Tramping in the Cotswolds, Gloucestershire

29 08 2005

27-29 August 2005

Moreton-in-Marsh, Chipping Campden, Broadway, Stanton

For three days I have lived my life as a tramp. I have had no chance to make proper notes because I have been constantly on the move. I have travelled on foot from one village to another. I have passed beautiful valleys and hills. I have crossed numerous farms. I have had wordless dialogues with cattle, sheep and horses. I have camped on private farmland overnight, risking the wrath of the farmer. I have used the public toilets for relief. Where I have lost my way the adventure has been greater.

I am making these notes a few days after my return. I hardly remember what I saw where. Yet some images are so vivid that they are not forgotten so soon.

I started at Moreton-in-Marsh, a sensible starting point because this is one of the few Cotswold towns connected by rail. Unfortunately I was late to arrive. Only last week I spoke of my own discipline. To be without exception is an unlikely exception. It had been a long week at work and I decided to get an extra hour of sleep on Saturday morning. The result was that I had to endure long waits at Reading and Oxford to get to Moreton-in-Marsh where I had missed all suitable buses to Broadway. So a quick change of plan was necessary.

From my brief look, Moreton-in-Marsh didn’t look all that interesting. It was therefore sensible to leave it quickly. A bus to Chipping Campden was available and I took it. So for the second time within a span of just one week, I found myself at this pretty town with its narrow lanes, packed row of stone buildings and the familiar Market Hall. There are no harsh colours at Chipping Campden. Every tone is harmoniously arranged within the overall mood. The doors are painted red, blue or black but these do not distract the eye. The town stands as the timeless beauty of a black & white photograph. Here I commenced my tramp for the weekend.

The Cotswold Way leads my way. From Chipping Campden the path climbs steadily towards Dover’s Hill. Looking back along this path the view of the town just left behind is splendid. Chipping Campden is pleasantly situated in a quiet valley surrounded by hills all around. The late summer colours of green and golden brown are predominant. To this rather uniform scene there is one tree that stands out, balances the picture and heightens the mood: the tall Lombardy Poplars. They break the horizontal lines and curves by their vertical clumps. They add interest to the hills the way a church tower adds interest to a village or town.

From Dover’s Hill, the Cotswold Way continues an easy stretch to Broadway Hill and its folly tower before descending to the town of Broadway. The view from the Tower is different, unlike the picture of Chipping Campden seen earlier. Here we are on relatively higher ground. The town of Broadway merges well into the landscape. The details of the town are lost. The magic of the poplars remain unseen. Here the bigger picture takes over. Details are flattened. Hills far and near are seen in one sweeping view. So are woods, farms, clouds, peaks and valleys. So to discover Broadway one must descend to its quiet lanes.

Broadway, which actually lies within the erstwhile Worcestershire, has many beautiful buildings but they’re so only so if you see them that way. Otherwise, they are old, crumbling and uncomfortable living spaces. The romance of these buildings is better sensed away from the town centre with its noisy display of shops, restaurants, tourists and traffic. The east end of the main street is far quieter and I am glad that this was my first impression of Broadway. The main street that cuts through town is broader than in Chipping Campden. Therefore it lacks the cosy intimacy the latter presents. The street is lined with shady trees but these disturb the continuous view of the buildings. Here again Chipping Campden succeeds.

The St Michael and All Angels Broadway Parish Church was uninteresting. The old 12th century of St Eadburgha, about a mile outside Broadway, was a worthwhile stop. It had many items of attention: a simple font, a wheeled bier, an old round alms box with three locks, circular Norman pillars and six bell clappers. Each clapper was about 3 feet long. One can imagine how much bigger the bells must have been. Even a church as this, quite removed from any populous town, was open to a passing visitor like me. Only some years ago an old parish chest and some wood-carvings had been stolen from here. Yet the doors are open and always welcoming.

From here I continued south to Snowshill Manor House and Garden. It was positively a waste of time. The garden was nothing when I have seen Hidcote. The house was crammed with items of a bizarre collection that could not be named, categorised or arranged by theme, culture or age. It was close to a junkyard calling itself a museum in some sense. If all these items could be cleared to some dungeon, or even burned, I am sure the manor house could be converted to pleasant living quarters. There might have been real gems worthy of preservation but none were tastefully displayed. The dark and sombre atmosphere that I now recognise as a typical National Trust interior does much to dampen one’s mood.

So I was glad to continue my tramp in the final hours before sunset. Sunset in the Cotswolds is a splendid experience. When the warm stones get warmer with the setting sun there is that radiance and glow which cannot be found anywhere else. One wishes to stand and watch the stones change their shades in slow degrees as the last adieu of the day’s light. In such twilight hours, yet another Cotswold village lay in my path, Stanton. At sunset it was favourably displayed, without the crowds of Broadway. Further south I passed Stanway with its impressive gateway to Stanway House. The origin of villages and their names begs a question – has the village grown out of the manor house or has the house inherited the name of the village that’s much older? The reality is that manor houses are quite an establishment in themselves. It is most probable that an entire village of supporting needs has evolved to serve the manor and its farm.

What followed was a steep uphill path from Wood Stanway to Lower Coscombe. The reward was a breathtaking sunset. Nothing so beautiful was ever seen. The distant curves of the Malvern Hills darkened against a complete red sky. Not a cloud was in sight. They would have made it even better. The countryside glowed in full brilliance before disappearing for the night. It was time to head to the edge of some woods nearby and camp for the night. I was soon interrupted by a farm worker. This was after all a private land. But he was kind enough to let me camp, provided I left the farm early next morning before the farmer made his rounds. I cannot thank him enough. He was one of those not afraid to break rules when they relate as individuals rather than as guardians of an inflexible system. Yet I felt it was wrong. A small misdeed, when pierces the armour of conscience, may more easily lead to greater transgressions.

Ford, Condicote, Stow-on-the-Wold

The next morning with the first rays of the sun, I cooked and had my breakfast, packed my belongings and left the farm by half past six. It would be a long day of happy adventures. To start with I had to cross to the next enclosure by a kissing-gate. On both sides of the gate stood adult horses that made me feel diminutive but not vulnerable. These animals must be used to walkers. They are well behaved. I could stand next to them, pat them on the face and listen to their rude snorts without feeling threatened. When I moved the gate they understood my purpose and moved out of my way. Young horses on the other hand lack this maturity. Their curiosity is greater, their familiarity less. I was followed by three or four such horses later this day at a farm near Lower Slaughter. Running is not an option. One has to be calm and collected, ignore them altogether. They’ll saunter behind for a while and eventually lose interest. They soon realise that there is neither danger nor excitement from a passing stranger.

As I reached the top of the next hill, I rested on a bench that had these words:

In memory of
Pinky Dickins
who lived here for 26 years
with her family and her horses.

Strange indeed, but I suppose I’ll never understand this sentiment until I breed horses of my own.

I passed Stumps Cross, Upper Coscombe and then a prehistoric landscape of strip lynchets. I remember seeing similar marks of the land at Glastonbury Tor. Some of these are not very different from the barrows or burial mounds seen elsewhere in England. These are small ridges or terraces formed in the process of prehistoric farming along the hillsides. Leaving the lynchets I took a wrong turn somewhere and wandered a good deal in orchards of apple and pear before finding my way at Little Farmcote. A proposed visit to Hailes Abbey had to be sacrificed. So here I took leave of the Cotswold Way and started on the Gloucestershire Way.

My first stop was at the village of Ford where I filled my water bottle at The Plough Inn. A signboard said “Hot food served all day”. It was 10 am and I was told that the kitchen opens only at noon. Thus, in a country pub, the day starts only at noon and dallies into the late hours of the night. I continued from Ford along a training racecourse. What followed were some of the best country scenes of Gloucestershire: fields wide open to the sky, the warm and still character of stubble fields, surrounding hills and woods covering their slopes. Stubble fields are all that remain after a harvest. They cast no shadow. They harbour no life of deer, hare or bird. The wild flowers have disappeared too with the harvest. They breeze blows but no waves of corn dance in these barren fields. Yet life is a cycle, an interplay of birth and death. Here in these stubble fields grass and flowers will once more grow. Crops will once more flourish. Life will repeat its birth and growth.

At Condicote, I sat in the church for a few peaceful moments. I am unable to recall what is it that I saw here or in the village for that matter. I am yet to see a dirty or an ugly village in the Cotswolds.

From here the Gloucestershire Way winds southeast and mostly uphill. It was a tough walk but well worth the views. At the summit is the town of Stow-on-the-Wold that looks across the surrounding areas. With such a prospect it is not hard to imagine why Moreton-in-Marsh has not prospered equally. Sure, the rail must have brought trade and development to Moreton-in-Marsh but at the loss of that Cotswold charm that we find so well preserved in Stow-on-the-Wold.

The atmosphere in the town centre is much the same as in Broadway. I stopped at Stow-on-the-Wold for a few hours. To start with, I had a proper lunch. Then I lingered a little longer in the pub watching the Ashes on television. For the last few days soccer has apparently taken a backseat. All attention is on the Ashes. Given the school holiday period, crowds are leaving disappointed from already packed stadiums. As for life at the office, project managers and engineers alike have live scoreboards on their desktops.

A few of weekends ago I was in a village of not more than ten houses and a pub. I was having lunch at the pub on a Sunday afternoon watching the Ashes on the TV. There was not much excitement. You can’t expect much in a village whose main occupation is farming. But all that’s changed now after England’s win at the second test.

I am not particularly interested in cricket but I am interested in the culture that invented it and still loves it with an undiminished spirit. Here cricket no longer has the intensity and popularity that is in soccer. But cricket retains its reputation as a gentleman’s game. It’s not surprising because here in England tradition is everything. Like the difference between pop concerts and classical concerts. It is game of leisure pursuit with moments of excitement. It is an opportunity for a whole day out for the summer, a picnic with a spectacle. It’s probably the only other sport besides horse-racing where a large part of the audience turns up in full aristocratic glamour.

An example is a Sunday cricket match at a field near my house. It is a whole day affair even if there is no audience, even if it is a practice match by amateurs from a local club. On Saturday some grass is cleared and a temporary pitch is made. One guy takes measurements, draws the creases, the inner circle and the boundary with powered white chalk. The next day all players turn up in crisp white attire. Then they hope it doesn’t rain!

Leaving the pub, I visited a local art exhibition. I had the opportunity to have a chat with one of the artists. Next, I attended the Sunday evening service at the local parish church dedicated to St Edward. The exterior of the church was not particularly impressive but the bays of the nave immediately appealed to me. They were in my favourite style, Early English. The service itself was attended by not more than a dozen that included the church volunteers. Such is the dwindling influence of the Church in our lives. This is not necessarily a bad thing if people have learnt to seek their higher self without the aid of the Church. Lamentably, all evidence suggests otherwise.

At the service we prayed for the Diocese of Karnataka Central which is twinned with this parish. One of the members of the church even spoke to me in Tamil. He was born in Madras (now called Chennai) while his dad had been posted to Tamil Nadu. His dad was Irish and had learnt Telugu while in India. We have to begin to see this world as one unit, not as disjoint entities fighting for power and supremacy. At the grassroots, this is how many things operate, be it in the form of missionary activities, volunteering, village education, child sponsorship, and so many more. On a political level we continue to be divided.

The second important lesson that came from the service stems from the often repeated phrase which I quote here:

As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.

We are only visitors to a world that will prevail beyond our little lives for all eternity.

Even at the end of a whole day of discoveries, the Cotswolds do not fail to surprise. This time it is to witness first hand the work of well-trained sheep dogs driving a flock of about 200 sheep from one pen to another. They obey every command of the farmer. No sheep is allowed to stray. There is much chaos and confusion that spring out of fear. If a terrified sheep runs the wrong way the dogs are upon it in a flash, grab it by its woolly coat and bring it to the ground with a scuffle. The farmer has to intervene with commands “let go” or “lie down, dogs”. The very presence of the dogs is enough to scare the sheep so much so that some start scrambling on top of others. I could say “penned like sheep” instead of saying “packed like sardines”.

By now the sun was dipping hastily. I left Stow-on-the-Wold towards Lower Slaughter. This walking path is part of four designated ways: Gloucestershire Way, Monarch’s Way, Macmillan Way and Heart of England Way. This network of public rights of way, regional and national trails, give ample opportunity to discover every inch of the country at my own pace. It is impressive that all these paths have been formed, mapped, named and maintained for the benefit of the public. Historically, the most interesting of these four paths, is the Monarch’s Way that traces the approximate route taken by Charles II after his defeat at the Battle of Worcester in 1651.

After an hour’s walk and darkness closing in quickly, it was time to find a suitable place to camp. Here lies the joy of tramping, in its uncertainty, in its freedom of care and concern, in its comfort in the most basic of what nature can provide. No strings attached.

Lower Slaughter, Bourton-on-the-Water, Northleach, Hampnett

It was a quiet night even with a sizeable herd of cattle just across the hedge in the next field. I awoke as before, with the sun and at the crow of a cock. My first village for the day was Lower Slaughter. At this early hour it was perfect in every aspect. It was like stepping into a fairy tale with lovely buildings, a quiet river, a watermill and an impressive manor house (now a hotel) which could be seen through the framings of verdurous trees. So early in the day there was none in sight. The village had not yet woken up to its own beauty; but on waking, will it find that beauty?

So by the time I reached Bourton-on-the-Water, the day had moved on quickly and this town was waking up to it. The charm of Bourton-on-the-Water is in the River Windrush which flows through it. Arching bridges span the narrow width of the river and their reflections add to the eye-pleasing highlights of town. As for the buildings it was now clear that they are all the same in the Cotswolds. Seeing one is seeing them all. The difference lies in the overall layout, the juxtapositions, the views across the junction where roads meet and the added interests created by specific village features.

I had a grand plan for the day: visit Northleach, Hampnett, Lodge Park and Cirencester. I waited for the bus that never came. The timetable said “Monday to Saturday” and mentioned no exceptions. Is not a Bank Holiday a Monday? Apparently not, and I was stranded at Bourton-on-the-Water without public transport. Fortunately there was a bus in the evening to take me back to Moreton-in-Marsh where I could catch the return train. As for the day, I had to once again take to the hills and leave the roads behind.

So I walked to Northleach and Hampnett by Monarch’s Way and returned to Bourton-on-the-Water by Macmillan Way. The walk was not in vain. From Bourton-on-the-Water the path climbed steeply. The exhilarating climb was in itself a reward. This was further crowned by a splendid view of the Cotswolds. All that I had seen in pictures was here stretched before my eyes, an unending beauty of farmland, rolling hills dotted with sheep and straw rolls. As I continued towards Northleach the chores of harvest were to be observed first-hand: collecting grains of wheat; then packing the straw that’s left behind; then putting the grains through sieves; then packing them into white sacks that bulge with the bounty of nature. All these are done mechanically by only a couple of workers. Machines have made their lives so much easier. We may lament that the spirit of cooperation and country lifestyle are no longer with us, but all is not lost. Human spirit and collaboration of human efforts are today to be found in cities, behind office walls, concrete corridors and closed doors. They are extinct on these farms but they continue in other places in other forms. There’s one thing for certain about such a walk as this: I will no longer sit down for dinner as if it is my god-given right; I will no longer leave the table without picking my plate clean.

Arriving at Northleach at 1 pm, I stopped for a quick lunch at a local restaurant. By now I resembled a tramp in every sense and it was impossible to walk into the restaurant without making heads turn. The boast of Northleach lies in its magnificent church of St Peter and St Paul. It is a spacious church that has much light. One reason is the lack of pews in the nave. To me, the sole captivating feature was the collection of memorial brasses on the floor. The artistry and keen execution of detail invite a close study. In all cases, the feet are rested on sheep and woolsacks, a tribute to the source of wealth in the Cotswolds. One brass plate of John Forley dates as early as 1458.

The last notable village of the day was Hampnett renowned for its old church. The Norman chancel with its low ceiling is so different from the imposing cathedrals of the land. While cathedrals rise loftily in praise of the forces above, at Hampnett spiritual discovery is a matter of introspection, a questioning and searching from within. Stylized decorations fill every possible space in this church: on the chancel walls, the arches, the vaulting ribs, the spandrels and the ceiling. Together they build on a feeling that point inwards, not outwards. The narrow windows too do not open the view but only let in the light. The decoration came as a relief against the plain Cotswold stone, so common that it had ceased to interest. No inch has been spared. Motifs of flowers, stars, geometric patterns and medieval art surround the four angels that demurely adorn the ceiling. Yet in this old church these decorations are fairly recent. Some people have not liked them. The decoration in the nave have been either stripped or plastered over. Others were spared the trouble when the community ran out of resources. I feel the removal of decoration from the nave is a good thing. With their presence it would have been distracting. The current balance of a plain nave and a decorated chancel agrees well with the disposition of my own nature and I like the church for it.

Yet another 10 km of walk back to Bourton-on-the-Water was not an inviting prospect but it had to be done. Thankfully the return route was far easier on the feet. The villages of Turkdean and Cold Aston were passed without even a pause. I made it back to Bourton-on-the-Water in good time to catch the bus.

At Moreton-in-Marsh I had dinner at a Bangladeshi restaurant. The cuisine is really Indian but the place is run by Bangladeshis. When I asked the waiter why this was so common, he informed that when Indians left the restaurant business to control the more lucrative supply chain, the spice trade, the Bangladeshis moved in to fill the void. It is an arrangement that benefits both. The credibility of his interpretation remains doubtful. I had samosas, vegetable daal balti, rice and chappati. It was part of my exploration of Britain, for in India there’s no preparation that’s called a balti.

Thus my tramping in the Cotswolds came to an end. The essence of travelling is to be on the move. It is to come and to go as a silent observer. If anything is changed it is only the traveller’s experience, an understanding of birth, living and death. A couple of days at Stratford-upon-Avon, I had become familiar with the buildings, the streets and the shops. A couple of hours in each village of the Cotswolds, the same sense of familiarity creeps in. For the traveller there is no joy in settling down in one place. The road is open and welcoming. There is no return. Travelling is progressive. There is no idleness. This is no idle pursuit. Where will I sleep tonight? Where will I be tomorrow? Who will I meet? What will I see and what will I learn?


In Shakespeare’s Country, Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire

21 08 2005

20-21 August 2005

I have discovered that one of the prerequisites to taking public transport is discipline. The train from Farnborough North to Reading on a Saturday morning is at 6.32 am. If I miss it I have to wait one long hour for the next one. Even if I sit out the hour the connecting bus or train might require another long wait. It takes me close to half an hour to walk to Farnborough North station. This means that I have to wake up at 5 am or earlier. This means I have to get organised the night before and get to bed early. This means I have to gather information and plan my itinerary carefully.

Where such a discipline is lacking, patience becomes a necessity. However, thus far discipline has not been a problem for me. I have rarely missed a train or a bus. In reward, they in their turn have been on time. The convenience and dependability of public transport in this country have made it a joy to use them. Discipline comes naturally to a person who is in pursuit of the thing he loves passionately. To me, this is travel.

This has been one of those weekends when nothing works out according to plan. Diversions have been many and purposeful. I have not been hesitant to make changes, to spend more time in places worthwhile while altogether sacrificing others. The idea that every point of interest in a region must be visited is losing its force. It is far better to see in earnest and fulfilment a few places, capture their essence, history and mood. While mood is a state of mind, its shapes, shades and colours are so diverse that a particular mood is held within memory in close association to a place. Often I have found it necessary to pause in silence to absorb this, let it mature to a sweet remembrance before I can move on in my journey. It is therefore without regret that I have missed much of my planned walking along the Stour Valley and failed to visit Charlecote Park. The places that had pleasantly detained me are described in the rest of these notes.

The first surprise of the weekend was the lovely village of Chipping Campden, my first taste of the Cotswold villages. This is one of the villages that have prospered thanks to the wool trade. It is said in the Cotswolds that wealth grew on the backs of sheep. Such opportunity is long gone but the beautiful villages are still around, gaining a greater allure with the passing of time. Old is gold and this is most apt here than anywhere else. Neat, narrow lanes are lined on either side with yellow sandstone houses and cottages. These warm and glow under a mid-day sun. The roofs are sometimes reed thatched but more commonly of stone slabs. The buildings here assume a character of proud permanence. They appear stout and hardy. Perhaps a thousand years from now they will still be here. The parish church wasn’t very exciting but I liked the avenue of lime trees leading to the south porch, six trees on each side. They were planted in 1770 to signify the Twelve Apostles.

The single most captivating building is the derelict Market Hall built in 1627. It is no more than 60 feet by 25 feet. The aging roof, some blackened pillars and worn-out cobbled stones of the floor remain. In this lies its magic. The stones on the floor by their smoothness indicate the paths most often taken. The skeleton roof is an open textbook for architectural study. The sloping timber beams and crossbeams are not nailed but joined by pegs and holes. Short arches further strengthen the structure and only in this case nails have been used. Upon closer inspection, it is clear that this is not the bare remains of a proper building. The Market Hall was built this way, without walls, windows or doors. It was meant to be an open hall for trading. It is now worn-out but otherwise it is essentially the same as when it was built. So does one still hear the farmers trying to sell their corn or the butcher claiming the freshness of his produce? Perhaps yes, if we close our eyes and allow ourselves to drift back in time.

An hour’s walk from here took me to the next delight of this pleasant summer’s day. It is sad but what has been my favourite English garden since my visit to Sissinghurst has lost that position to this jewel of the Cotswolds. At Hidcote Manor Garden, gardening has reached near perfection. Here we see man’s moulding of nature for his own pleasure and appreciation. Here we see the best representation of nature by the art of man. The varieties are many. The paths are endless. The overall layout and design is harmonious. The “garden-rooms”, defined by neatly clipped hedges of yew, box or holly, are interlinked by numerous paths. These paths are inconspicuous and hide so well that it is a surprise to discover them.

Each garden room has a unique mood. While some bloom in rich reds, others glow in whites. While Mrs Winthrop’s Garden mixes yellows and blues, the famous Pillar Garden blends purple-red fuchsias against the gracious spreads of blue agapanthus. I call them gracious for their long slender stems grow as much as six feet from the root and suddenly burst open at their tips to showy flower heads.

But the magic of Hidcote lies more in the overall design than in the colours of each individual garden. The notion of open skies and wide spaces is destroyed. Every garden defines a private space, a space for quiet reflection. Space controlled in this way is not claustrophobic but contemplative. Yet the need for an open space is not ignored. It is given adequate consideration. The Red Borders invites the viewer to a distant view of the Vale of Evesham. The Long Walk kindles curiosity to discover what’s beyond the gates. Rather than destroying the overall scheme, these work to create a balance. But open spaces come only as a temporary relief because the focus of Hidcote is always the quiet spaces and their shades. I found a nice spot for a rest and soon I was accosted by someone: “You have found a shady spot”. To this I replied “Well, there are lots of shades around”.

Some comparisons must be made with other gardens I have seen so far. The Long Walk here is enclosed on both sides with yew hedges. The Long Walk at Polesden Lacey is flanked on one side by trees and underplanting, and on the other by yew hedges. But at Polesden Lacey the view is open to the hills and the woods beyond, which demand constant attention of the walker. The Long Walk at Windsor is open on both sides. The focus there is the castle at one end of the walk and the equestrian statue at the other end. The open views on both sides entertain the walker but the eye always returns to these two foci. I have enjoyed all the three walks because each one is well planned, executed with a clear purpose and fulfilled adequately.

The least interesting gardens at Hidcote were the stream gardens. There was no eye-catching pattern or scheme, only thick chaotic growths with few flowers. Where Hidcote fails, Trengwainton Garden succeeds. Perhaps, here is a case where too much has been attempted. Here is where nature has grown wild and claimed back here territories. Where ambitious attempts fail, simplicity must necessarily succeed.

Stratford-upon-Avon was my base for the weekend. I had pitched my tent early on Saturday at a campsite adjacent to the racecourse. The first thing that I noted here is the aptness of many road names. In general, every town in this country has a High Street. It is beyond me to see how this name’s been derived. They are not exactly situated on high ground. They are not really the mark of class distinctions if such should apply to an entire street. What is common among all High Street streets is the busy movement of people, a plethora of shops and their goods competing for attention with high price tags; and there is the general illusion that happiness comes in acquiring things, in the selfishness of possession and a high lifestyle.

Stratford-upon-Avon is no exception. It has a High Street of its own but my interest lies elsewhere. There is the Shipston Road. There is the Evesham Road. There is the Birmingham Road. There is the Warwick Road. How appropriate and meaningful! The destinations are clear by each of these roads. These roads do not carry a name of human invention. These roads have not been named purposefully. Rather, they have acquired a name by the purpose which they serve. Such too is the fame of great people. Such too is the lesson for the common man – not to seek fame but let fame find him.

Now I must begin the description of the country that gives these notes its title. It is impossible to visit Stratford-upon-Avon and not get a taste of Shakespeare. On the contrary, if this town is thriving today it is only because of him. Tourists flock by the thousands. The atmosphere is full of bustle. There is liveliness in the parks, in the streets and along the River Avon. A visit to any one of the many buildings associated with Shakespeare becomes obligatory. There is a lot to choose from – his birth, his life, his death or his works. Here is an example where one man can change the future of a town and its community.

So I began my taste of Shakespeare by purchasing a bottle of “Shakespeare’s tipple” at the Saturday Farmer’s Market (which has a catch phrase “local produce for local people”). To be exact this drink that I bought was a sweet mix of English Cox apples and crushed blackcurrants grown at the nearby Snitterfield Fruit Farm. It was delicious, better than any drink I have tasted from supermarket shelves.

A walk around town brought associations with Shakespeare at almost every street and corner. The garden at the New Place has sculptures of scenes or characters from his plays. These are by an American, Greg Wyatt. Likewise are sculptures by Lord Ronald Gower that were unveiled in 1888 after 12 years in the making. Shakespeare’s characters have acquired a fame that’s larger than life. His plays have acquired a familiarity that’s more real than life itself. Such dedication is a tribute to an inspiration that could come only from Shakespeare. But what exactly is this inspiration and its source? There is no better way to find out than to catch one of this plays.

So I found myself at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre for “Twelfth Night”, a comedy performed by an eclectic cast of the Royal Shakespeare Company. The opening scenes were boring but the momentum and interest grew after the intermission. It was then I found it funny. I did laugh. The play might have been a roaring success in Shakespeare’s own time but “twins and mistaken identities” is an overused theme. It is a theme that holds little interest to me. It is a theme overexploited in countless Indian movies. Shakespeare’s modes of expression too are outdated for our age. Unless one has read his plays, not as a leisurely pursuit but as a determined study, it is difficult to catch his wit. As for humour it is never timeless. Notwithstanding the director’s ingenious interpretation to modern contexts it was still difficult to laugh at yellow stockings, cross gartered. We are living in an age when tattered jeans and rainbow coloured hairstyles are accepted without provoking either laughter or condemnation. (I once met a guy in Singapore walking on the streets with a bright green iguana on his shoulder!) The treatment of Malvolio was too sinister. Even the final scene did not relieve this tragic undercurrent. The poetry in Shakespeare cannot be overlooked but this too was lost when the cast spoke without meter. Music is an important element of this play. In this regard it complemented well the varying moods of the play. The dark room scene (Act IV, Scene 2) was well presented. On the whole it is doubtful if watching a play gives greater satisfaction than reading one, if theatre still has relevance in today’s world of cinema.

The next morning I was at Anne Hathaway’s cottage. It was an enjoyable visit but its association with Shakespeare had little to interest. The interest lay in its intrinsic beauty in a lovely country setting. On the first floor is an Elizabethan bed with a rush mattress threaded onto a wooden frame. They say this might be the bed on which Anne Hathaway was born. So what? On the ground floor is a wooden settle upon which Shakespeare is supposed to have courted Anne. Who cares about such trivialities? They say the open hearth fireplace has been restored to its former “glory”. I do not fathom what glory can there be in a fireplace. It makes but ash and soot. Senseless romanticism of the past will cripple our future and progress. But such sentiments are the fodder for the passive tourist to Britain.

To me, the tour of the cottage had the only advantage of being a lesson in English etymology. Here are some examples:

  1. The top of a table was not joined to the legs. It was called a “board” at which meals were eaten. From this we get the expressions “bed & board” and “boarding house”.
  2. Baking bread involved covering the open oven gap with a wet slab of elm wood. This was of course a temporary cover and coined the expression “stop-gap”.
  3. Bread was sliced horizontally to separate the well-baked portion at the top from the over-baked or charred portion at the bottom. The important members of the household got the top slices. This gave rise to the term “upper crust”.
  4. People in those days bathed only once a year. In compensation they used to change their underclothes more than once in a day. In later times the entire household would use one tub of water for baths, starting from the head of the family. The baby would be the last to bathe. Thus we tend to say “throw the baby out with the water”.
  5. It was mandatory for a house as this to have hot food at any time, for a resident, a visitor or a farm worker. Pottage was a mix of vegetables, meat and cereals. It was constantly heated over the fire in a large pot. It could contain stuff as old as a week or more. One was never sure what one would get. So it was a matter of luck: “pot-luck”.
  6. Threshed straw covered the stone floor to keep out the cold. This set the step level from the doorway to the room. This evolved to what we now call “threshold”.

At this point it would be appropriate to mention other terms that I have discovered during my tour of Britain. In Salisbury Cathedral I learnt the term “weak go to the wall”. Indeed there are narrow projections along the wall where one could sit without appearing to do so. In most of my walks in the country I have observed cattle identified by tags (generally yellow in colour) which are threaded through one of their ears. To say “ear-marked” makes a lot more sense to me now when I have seen a representation as vivid as this. In Cornwall, I heard of “hue and cry”. When the sea changes colour, the cry would go out upon sighting this moving shoal of pilchards.

The only redeeming feature of Anne Hathaway’s cottage that does credit to her famous husband was the garden next to it. It is appropriately called “The Shakespeare Tree Garden”. Here I finally felt Shakespeare’s presence although in a different time. Some trees were easily recognizable by their fruits: plums, pears, apples, mulberries and blackberries. Others by themselves were all new to me. I would never have been able to name them if not for the labels or plaques that contained quotations from Shakespeare. Here I witnessed the aspen leaves tremble. Here I stood under the sweet shade of a cypress. Here, as the wind blew, the threatening twigs of birch shook. Here I admired the straight and slender hazel twigs. Here I saw the briars put on leaves as well as thorns. Here I looked up to the lofty cedar. Here the plane spread its shade. Here I understood why the beech was broad or the hawthorn sharp. Here I wished to sleep under a yew or taste a breath-sweetening sweet-briar (eglantine). Here I found the source of Shakespeare’s inspiration, the unwritten book of nature that he read, and then wrote for all of us to read. Yes, inspiration from Shakespeare is better sought in his works than in his wife’s cottage, in his birthplace or at his tombstone. I enjoyed the garden simply because it kindled in me a greater desire, perhaps even an urgency, to read his plays. Of his sonnets and other poems, I have already read them.

The final visit of the day was to the Holy Trinity church where lies Shakespeare’s gravestone in the chancel along with a sculpted bust that was erected a few years later. The present bust is probably not the original one. It looks different from some pictures of it that I have seen. It must be a more recent restored bust. A sign marked this day as the 13th Sunday after Trinity. Just like Indians have a Hindu calendar of their own, Christians too have one. Important events are given due emphasis and other days of the year are quoted in reference to them.

The church has all the signs of a tourist attraction and none of prayer and quietude. There was an intrusive shop at the end of the north aisle near the entrance. Entry to the chancel was ticketed with a small fee. People came to look at the grave and left without prayer. Photocopies of church registers showing Shakespeare’s baptism and burial destroyed any holy air that remained.

The churchyard on its own was a beautiful sight. Tall trees cast their shadows long. Rich sunlight streamed through their branches and leaves. The gravestones lay scattered neatly in their prescribed places. The grass about the graves gleamed under the afternoon sun. At that point it was clear that Christianity sought emphasis in death, not in life. It was about hell or heaven, and not about life on earth. It was about sin, punishment and fear, not about the intrinsic goodness of man. I think I have spoken too harshly and too soon. I haven’t read the Bible.

A Little of Everything, Warwick

13 08 2005

This has definitely not been my usual day out. Except for one splendid moment, the day has disappointed as a whole. The walk through Warwickshire countryside revealed nothing spectacular. The wet weather did a good job in dampening the land but not my mood. In such weather walking in itself is a pursuit: walking not to explore or admire but walking for the sole pleasure of walking.

Warwick is a premier tourist destination and the attraction is no doubt the castle with its imposing battlements rising above the River Avon. Add to this the proximity of Stratford-upon-Avon, a place of “literary pilgrimage”, Warwickshire is a great destination for a glimpse of England outside London. It is perhaps not the first choice which could be a morning at the Stonehenge followed by a visit to Salisbury Cathedral. Under such a context it is hardly imaginable or even permissible to let someone visit Warwick and not visit the castle.

There are, as we know, always exceptions. Some exceptions are notable, others deplorable. Some by the daring, some by fools. I like to think I am of the former category. The simple fact is that Warwick Castle is a tourist trap. At nearly £17 per adult it has a high opportunity cost. Twice that amount will get me a year’s membership with The National Trust giving access to hundreds of properties. Canterbury Cathedral cost me a reasonable £7. Glastonbury Abbey, although in a ruinous state, shows me what remains in a fascinating way. It was probably £4. Warwick Castle will show me what they want visitors to see, not wild remains but restored remains. Let me not forget to mention Windsor Castle. Still a living castle, together with a return train ticket, it cost only £15. So Warwick Castle remained unseen without any regret. The joy of Windsor is greater in St George’s Chapel than in the castle. Of castles, Corfe Castle still holds the most fascination.

A visit to the Collegiate Church of St Mary did much to make the trip worthwhile. In one glance it was clear that this is more than a church. It has the stature of a cathedral but being part of the Diocese of Coventry it must give up such a claim to the cathedral there. It is an interesting point that Coventry is not in Warwickshire. It appears that dioceses can embrace many neighbouring counties into their fold.

The pride of this church is the Beauchamp Chapel with a gilded bronze effigy of Richard Beauchamp. The effigy lies on a tomb of Purbeck marble carved in relief with mourners all around the base. A superb alabaster effigy of Ambrose Dudley deserves much admiration. There is always an overwhelming atmosphere in these medieval places of worship. There is so much art and expert execution. There are numerous items of admiration, study and reflection. Every corner contains worthy details. Every pillar stands for divine inspiration. Every arch reaches to a higher world. Every effigy and epitaph highlights the conquest of death. Every piece of glass reflects the colour of human life, the progress of man and the hand of God. Thus it is often that I hardly know what to look at in a church or cathedral. The eyes are furtive, the mind too restless to focus in patience. My thoughts become mangled in a flood of images, lines and curves. My feelings get caught in this confusion till it becomes impossible to tell what I feel or why. The only thing that remains is an overwhelming awe.

Following destruction by the fire of 1694, the church has been rebuilt resulting in some unique patterns of window tracery and ribbed arches that fly and leap freely within the choir. I do not know what is old and what is new. They all mingle effortlessly under the gaze of the divine.

My awe is for the art and the artist. One lives, the other dies unknown. My awe is not for the Earls in their passive effigies. It is rather silly to be staring at the ceiling all these years. I would rather see the Earls in their proper contexts in life, not in death. I would like to see Richard Beauchamp capturing a castle or Robert Dudley riding into battle. In any case, I can never come to terms with seeing the dead in a place of worship. It is also a conscience pricking effort to walk on gravestones that are often unavoidable.

So much for Warwick. Things were better outside. I had once more chosen to discover England by her winding waterways. (I would have said Britain instead of England but I am unable to forge in my mind any identity of the former. Wales has been different and I am sure Scotland is far more unique right down to the accent. I can personify England and see the romance in her. Of Britain, any description as yet is an “it”.) This time I walked along the Grand Union Canal, an amalgamation of canals that had been previously managed separately. But why is it grand? In England, for some reason names are grand, though those thus named, may not have any sort of grandeur in them. What’s so royal about the Royal Mail? What’s so great about Great Britain?

How can a canal be grand? In India, the word “canal” has an unfavourable association and justly so because it carries the filth, wastes and even sewers of the cities. For Indians, a canal is little more than a civilised ditch, full of refuse and stench. So imagine what it means to an Indian when he hears of a “Grand Union Canal”! There is some truth in this view even in England. The waters are stagnant and murky. Their courses are forced, artificial and stifled by numerous locks. The free course of a river with its sparkling flow cannot be matched.

Walking west from Warwick along this canal, the fields on either side were not any different from what was seen along Oxford Canal some weeks ago. The towpath was easy. The walk was unhurried. The views were missing as the weather stayed wet most of the day.

At late summer, when fields are golden brown and trees are leafy green, the contrast is sharp and noticeable. One is the colour of man, the other is that of nature. It is a beautiful contrast full of harmony. Harmony indeed is an aspect of beauty. It is strangely significant that this contrast hasn’t been captured by any artist, at least to my limited exposure to art.

One of the pleasures of the season is to taste the bounties of nature in her own orchards. It is a sweet sensation to taste ripe blackberries from their brambles that decorate much of the countryside. What remains is an aftertaste that calls for more. What remains is a reddish stain on the fingers; but there is no stigma in this stain for it is the gift of nature given with generosity.

I will conclude with the moment alluded to at the start of the day’s notes. These are the Hatton Locks, a series of 21 locks, from bottom lock 26 to top lock 46, that raise the canal from the Avon Valley to higher country. The top locks are on a steep incline spread across a short distance of no more than half a mile. The line of sight is uninterrupted on this stretch so that I was immediately struck by this graphical picture of beams and posts, lines and intersections, blacks and whites merging and dividing, formed by as many as perhaps fifteen visible locks climbing out of the valley. A towpath signboard says someone called it “The Stairway to Heaven”. I wouldn’t give it such a flattering epithet. In contrast to the Oxford Canal, the locks here are wider so that sometimes two boats can squeeze together to save time. A woman I met on the towpath said it usually takes her about three hours to pass these locks. This canal also has an overflow section at each lock which is necessary at this steepness. Since we have had considerable amount of rain this week, the usefulness of the overflow sections was well-displayed when the locks were filled.

These locks have no complex machinery and no electronics. With simplicity, precision is easy. With precision, the end results are long-lasting.

In this manner, I occupied myself for an entire day in and around Warwick. The day had in it a little disappointment perhaps but also much to see, admire and reflect. It was a combination of both the outdoors and the indoors. I witnessed man’s artistic achievements as well as his engineering feats. I witnessed his complete devotion to a higher force as well as his great confidence reposed in human abilities. As for me, I was physically tired but at the same time much invigorated in spirit. In short, the day delivered a little of everything.

At the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

6 08 2005

I begin my note-taking early on in the day. The day begins with a leisurely breakfast at “Brothers” in Oxford’s Covered Market. The meal isn’t exactly worth the money but it is easy to see that here one pays for the ambience as well. The interior decor is pleasing to the eye and relaxing to the mind. The beautiful wall murals of 1997 by Emma Brown John are collectively an expression of the love of coffee drinking. As for the meal, it is pannini with a melting filling of goat’s cheese, roasted red pepper and pesto. The goat’s cheese doesn’t go down well with my palate perhaps because it’s the first time I have tasted it. The chocolate fudge cake, however, more than makes up for it. Thus the pace for the day is set. The slow hours will be reserved for idle ways. This weekend at least, there will be no long walking.

I was wrong. At the end of the day, my feet wore more than just boots: the ache and pain of hours of standing and walking. I had intended to visit the Ashmolean Museum for no more than a couple of hours but it turned out to be a superb collection, a treasure trove, a knowledge bank of art and archaeology. In response, I was in the museum for a good six hours that included an hour’s guided tour. Something as small as an Egyptian amulet, captured my attention for many minutes. I missed much but I took my time in appreciating each one that caught my eye and kindled my curiosity.

It is impossible to leave such a diverse collection of antique artefacts without feeling something; not as a visitor who comes, sees and goes, but as someone who is affected at an emotional level; not as a tourist who takes pictures with his digital camera, looks at the pictures taken and hurries along without even looking at the exhibit; but as one who gazes into these objects of antiquity and becomes themselves for a moment; not as an art lover partial to a certain school or form, but as an impartial admirer of all that moves the human spirit. It is not my intention to detail the numerous objects that interested me but simply record some thoughts that are as fresh in my mind now as when they occurred.

The Naquada Culture

The Naquada Culture flourished in the Nile Valley from 3850-3250 BC. It amazes me that something this old should still be available for our education and admiration. Of greater amaze is the level of advancement of a civilization that we often imagine as primitive. What is it they lacked? They had tools to hunt. They had necklaces, bracelets and amulets. They had mastered pottery. They had a society with its hierarchy, rules and practices. They had beliefs and rituals. They had the inspiration of a higher being and the notion of life after death. They were intelligent in their own way and strove for better lives with an inquiring mind. On what basis can we then claim that they were primitive and we are civilised? These are only relative concepts, responses that come from time-shifted perspectives. Times have changed and necessarily the ways of life. We can explain a lot more of nature in precise and scientific ways. We are more knowledgeable but are we more intelligent, more civilised and more human? We owe as much to them as to ourselves; and future generations will owe as much to us.

Digging Up the Graves

It is with mixed feeling that I view the exhibits of ancient Egypt and Nubia. If not for the determined efforts of archaeologists, collectors, museums and benefactors these may have been lost, certainly not exposed to the world. If not for them our past would have remained a mystery, a conjecture and a puzzle. However, many of these exhibits have been dug up from burial grounds, tombs of kings and queens, reliquaries of those who once lived. If Christian gravestones say “Rest in Peace”, their needs could have been less different. I remember the news of Darley Oaks Farm in Staffordshire last autumn. The family had been targeted by Animal Rights activists leading to the desecration of one of their family graves. It caused an outrage for the family and the community.

It is easy to claim that many graves had been already pilfered and would have been lost if not for the archaeologists. Does this make the archaeologist any less a desecrator? To argue that sculptures would have eroded in situ is just as weak. Shall we then transport the Shore Temples of Mahabalipuram to the protected air of a museum? Shall we dismantle the facade of Exeter Cathedral and assemble the same in a museum? Perhaps this will happen when an alien civilisation replaces our own. Bleak prospect but highly probable because history repeats itself. Erosion, oblivion and death are the stamps of time. Nothing material exists forever. Preservation is a transient state.

The Messiah Violin

There stands in one of the rooms, in a glass encasing, the “Messiah” violin. This was made in 1716 in Cremona by the famous Antonio Stradivari. The authenticity of this instrument has been verified by a technique called dendrochronology. This uses the rings of tree trunks and their spacing (among others) to estimate the age of the wood. The fame of this instrument is (perhaps I should say “was”) its unmatched quality of sound that resounds with a greater renown on account of its maker. This is no doubt a prized possession of the museum but what use is this piece of wood? An instrument is meant to be played and listened. Otherwise, it is as dead as the tree from which it was made.

Where does it all begin?

It was exciting to see a good collection of Indian artefacts, some as far back as the 1st century AD. The classical head sculpture of Lord Shiva in red sandstone is from the Gandhara period, about 5th century AD. The guide explained that the style is probably influenced by the classical forms of the Greeks and the Romans. No matter how much we understand, ancient history will still keep many secrets. Who is to say, who influenced whom? Then there is an exquisite stone sculpture of the sacred bull, Nandi. The Mughal paintings are yet another lively aspect of this gallery. They are vibrant, colourful, detailed and narrative. Mughal paintings appear to lack perspective, that element of painting that is so boldly displayed in Uccello’s “The Hunt in the Forest” which also belongs to the Ashmolean Museum. There are no points of convergence, no relative representation of objects. All objects are thrown together in welded juxtaposition. Yet the third dimension is visible because our mind sees familiar scenes of a familiar world. We see the same object from different angles at the same place and at once. In essence, these paintings could be considered the beginnings of Cubism that we find so well developed in the hands of Kandinsky and Picasso.

The Celtic Coin

I did not get a chance to study the respectable collection of rare coins. I did notice a Celtic gold coin bearing the image of a horse that is so strikingly similar to the Uffington White Horse. I am told that the horse on the hillside is inspired by the motif often found on coins from that period. Similar coins from Continental Celtic are said to be among the first to be inspired by the free spirit and energy of an unbridled horse.

On Pottery

Without reference to particular exhibits, I must admit to being awed by the variety that is in pottery, so beautifully displayed at the Ashmolean. For once I felt pottery to be an elevated art form. For once I desired to create such perfect forms to lend expression to my own inner moods. The perfection lies in the circle, its seamless uniformity and its self-completing flow. There is so much in life; and so little time.