Winkworth Arboretum, Godalming, Surrey

30 10 2005

There are two complementary ways of enjoying the colours of autumn. One is from the outside, the other’s from the inside. One is of studious observation, the other is of intimate experience. One paints a broad perspective, the other underlines the minute details. One is primarily visual, the other’s a delightful mix of all the senses. If in one we find a harmonious blend of colours seen on the slopes of a hillside, in the other we become part of it feeling the kiss of fresh air that rustles the leaves of changing hues. If one is a picture of a thousand words, the other’s a motion picture of a million sentences. In one we find the reflective nature of creation in all brilliance while in the other we sense the serene translucence of the same when the late afternoon sun filters through the canopy. One is choreographed to a silent music while the other dances on a bed of fallen leaves to a music that plays within the heart.

At Winkworth Arboretum I have enjoyed all of the above. Since I had the whole day unplanned, I could afford to walk the numerous terraced paths more than once. Not one perspective did I miss. The view of the hillside from the meadow across the lake is surely the best. The yellows and reds are noticeable highlights to which the eye always returns. But too much of these will distract rather than attract. This is where the many shades of green provide a harmonious backdrop in balancing the picture. This picture is what makes this arboretum a little bit better than Westonbirt Arboretum. The latter does not have such slopes of juxtaposed autumn colours that mix and fill the visitor’s view.

Here nature aided by man leads to greater appreciation of her inherent beauty. A look at the surrounding landscapes is enough to point that the trees in the arboretum that give it such colours are not native to England. Nature stands on her own but could be enhanced in her display. The classical temples or monuments of Stourhead could enhance some of the views but even without them there are surprises at every turn. The variety and dynamism of nature is at the heart of this magic.

Within this arboretum is an area of wetland that has a boarded walkway. The walkway looks to be made of wood but the texture gives it away. It is made from recycled plastic and blends really well with the natural landscape. An advanced society in which the level of consumer waste is high, responsibility must grow in reducing the impact on nature. The culture of recycling and waste reduction is growing. At every level this is taken seriously although only some practice it consciously. The good thing is that the systems are in place, being reviewed and refined where and when so required. At the end of the day, attitudes of the individual should change to reap long term benefits. But in a free market economy where everything is driven by profits, business viability and sustenance, can or will anyone genuinely care about the environment? Perhaps, we need more “green” laws in place.

As far as my research could make out there are no public buses to Winkworth on a Sunday. Thus a walk from Godalming became part of the day’s excursion. Godalming is a town larger than I had expected. I do not know the history of this town but the presence of The River Wey and Godalming Navigation System must have surely played a significant part in its growth.

The walk from Godalming to Winkworth on a Sunday morning is a treat indeed. It is a union with nature in isolation. The paths are wooded, strewn with leaves, nuts and fruits that signify the characteristic richness of the season. Where the public bridleways cross narrow roads, the quiet isolation is preserved because there is almost no traffic. In this isolation, when one does meet another walker, a greeting is always made. No matter how much one loves nature and desires her cherished company, the company of men and women will always be necessary. A person who cannot live in society can never live as a recluse. A person who can live in recluse can live in society. Such a person can only be an enlightened being.


Osterley, Greater London

29 10 2005

Recently I have felt a surfeit of manor houses and country establishments. I have visited so many of these notable properties. In each, there has been something interesting, different or unique. However, the excitement that the Vyne (my first such visit) had generated has long disappeared. The result is that when I was in Gwynedd few weeks ago, I was little interested in visiting Plas Newydd, Beaumaris Castle or Penrhyn Castle, although all these were close to Bangor and easily reachable by public transport. But now the season is coming to an end and most of these properties will shut until Easter next year. So one last visit for was year was undertaken today.

At Osterley Park, the most captivating feature is the plasterworks on walls and ceilings. I have never seen anything so uniform and elegant. There are rooms that are so simple and informal that they make comfortable living spaces even by today’s standards. There are others that are too sumptuous, over-decorated and packed with so many images that there is no open space for visual relief. Such rooms might have appealed a few centuries ago or may have been built for the sole purpose of vain display.

Where it succeeds, praise must go to Robert Adams who fashioned almost all of the design, created in the 1760s and well preserved by the National Trust. This design encompasses almost every aspect of the house and its furniture – walls, ceilings, floor tiles, carpets, cornices, pilasters, staircases, chimney pieces, grates, glass frames, door frames, table frames, vases, oil lamps, statues, pedestals, lodges, greenhouses, bridges…

Classicism and symbolism are frequent. Such symbolism is rife in the library. With its low lighting and images high above eye-level it was difficult even to study them let alone interpret them in the right context. With assistance, some such symbols could be understood – lyre for music, palette for painting, bust for sculpture and dividers for architecture. In another room I was informed that the head of a ram is a symbol of wealth. Let us note that poverty, on the other hand, needs no such symbol: in itself lies the poignant symbol.

The Eating Room overflows with grapes ripening along the long curves of the vine while wine jugs fulfil the blessings of Ceres, the goddess of plenty. Elsewhere, there is a celebration of Bacchus who taught man how to cultivate the vine. The intoxication of wine has far-reaching effects indeed; and a taste that revolves around it will never be in moderation. Neither my father’s household nor my grandfather’s has consumed a bottle of wine. While drinking is a cultural phenomenon in the west it is a rarity in South Indian homes. The majority in one culture welcomes it because it has become a necessity. The majority in the other rejects it because it is not yet intoxicated. In this treatment of wine one begins to understand the difference of cultures.

Stourhead, Wiltshire

15 10 2005

Success comes to those who persevere with a determination born of earlier failures. A year ago my visit to Stourhead though well-planned was poorly executed. This year I am here once more. This time I visited the house and walked the beautiful gardens. But it has not been a smooth journey and history threatened to repeat itself.

After breakfast at Gillingham, I arrived by bus to the small town of Mere at ten. The weather was good and the prospect of a good walk was tempting. This is not easily resisted just after a lazy weekend in London. It was not long before I took in the splendid views from Long Hill, Castle Hill, White Sheet Hill and Long Knoll. From Long Knoll, the scene was bathed in a slanting sun through a still mist. It was almost an artwork of whitening greys stretching to the far horizon.

In this walk there was too a bit of fun. From an enclosure of young bulls, two bold and venturing ones climbed over a low broken fence. This generated considerable interest in the herd and caught the attention of a farmhand. Meanwhile I had to change my route to avoid the two loose bulls. The grass is green and lovely. The hills are lovely. There is comfort and safety. Yet freedom is something everyone wants.

At Long Knoll, it was already 2 pm and Alfred’s Tower looked an impossible distance. One must get priorities right. So I sacrificed this folly tower and headed for Stourhead. The house had much to interest, yet little. It was overwhelming. It was difficult to fix the attention. There were too many paintings. The Saloon had lost its original Palladian proportions and was too crowded with furniture. The Pope’s Cabinet here was too elaborate. It has too many colours, no uniformity and no mood. It occupied too much space with little function. The Chippendale furniture were the only admirable items in the house. The views of the garden from different parts of the house were splendid. This house is no longer a comfortable living space. If anything, it exists simply to enjoy the garden.

It is now time to describe the wonders of this earthly paradise. The first taste was obtained from the library with the fountain in the foreground, steps leading up to Mercury who looked towards the Obelisk in the distance. Who has seen paradise? What is paradise? The evolution of the notion of paradise from antiquity to the present has reached its culmination in Stourhead. Here we find a cultured representation of all that paradise can be. A garden of classical temples set within wooded landscapes is the sort of earthly paradise painters have idealised. At Stourhead this had been transformed to a physical reality.

The sweeping vistas, the balanced views and the breathtaking perspectives are all to be found. The Temple of Apollo is often seen from different parts of the garden. The reflections in the lake add to the effects. The woods give temporary glimpses of the monuments. The grotto is a world apart and offers the best view of the lake and the Temple of Apollo. The Pantheon hides for long before surprising the visitor almost unexpectedly. The Palladian Bridge of five arches is an important element that balances perfectly the Pantheon in the distance. The greatest aspect that adds much to the beauty of the landscape is the well-thought arrangement of plants and trees, many of which are now mature and clothe the hillsides in their various autumnal shades. Without trees, the views would be too open like those of Stowe, though the latter has its own highlights. The paths are many. Some are along the lake. Some climb to higher slopes. At each step there is always something interesting to see and admire. In this aspect it is similar to Bath’s Prior Park Landscape Gardens.

To learn more I purchased a guidebook of the garden. The cashier at the till thanked me five times in a span of less than a minute. The British are over-polite and over-courteous. It almost irritates me. I even wonder if it is sincere enough. If this is what they give they’ll surely expect the same in return. It is not in my habit to imitate even out of necessity. There remains a greater risk of being labelled as ungrateful and uncultured.

Finally, without having fully satisfied my appetite for the gardens I left towards Mere. The sun was setting at Stourhead while the moon rose above White Sheet Hill. I reached the bus stop at Mere at 18.38. The last bus scheduled to depart at 18.40 had already left. This was no time to be furious. It was time to drink a mouthful of water and start a 8 km walk to Gillingham. A short walk across a farmland made it clear that it was going to be impossible to find my way by moonlight and a weak torchlight. So I opted for a longer route by country roads with light traffic. Thus I ended up walking along cycle route 25 for the third time. Last year I had walked it at mid-day and early morning. Today it was done in darkness.

Return journeys, especially those late at night, are always difficult with long waiting times. This is made worse by half-drunken youths uttering obscenities with rude gestures. Racist comments are common too as what I heard today of me: “He’s not white; one of those fuckers from another country”. Thus, this has been another day that’s a reflection of life, an experience of good and bad, fun and adventure, leisure and hurry, the beautiful and the ugly.

The Natural History Museum, London

9 10 2005

I am visiting the capital after nearly two months. Returning to my earlier notes, I find that there is no record of my visit to London on the 14th of August. Surely then, there must have been nothing interesting about that day. However, I do remember it as a day of unforgiving heat.

London today is a different picture. The coolness of autumn is pleasant. The tourists of summer are long gone. As such, there is more space and more oxygen. The vibrancy of the city is not just a show of the summer. It is ever-present and I had all the leisure to observe it. In fact, I have been more than an observer. I have been part of the changing scenes. Where there are many observers they are inevitably as much observed as observing. We are mortals after all.

I’ve been in the UK for more than a year. I have not had a decent conversation in Tamil in this period. I have not seen a single Hindi movie. I have not heard any new songs from the subcontinent. I have not tasted an idli or a dosa. My ears have not heard one sweet note of the sitar or the deep vibrations of the mridangam. All this may appear expressed symptoms of cultural nostalgia but I am not longing for them. I rarely even think of their absence. To discover another culture one must forego one’s own, at least for a period. To see without prejudice one must first assume a neutral position. To find all that one really is, one must lose oneself.

It is a great opportunity that we are living in an age of globalisation. Cultural distinctions blur, mingle and evolve. This is truer in London than elsewhere. An African sits next to an Asian in the Underground. An American converses with a Londoner. A Chinese woman kisses her European husband. Such influences are common in London. Such influences are common at the level of the individual but not at the level of society. Collectively, the need to preserve one’s roots exists. This need operates within each ethnic group and in turn influences the members of the group. The isolated individual may be daring but not the group as a whole. Perhaps, the individual is daring simply because he or she sees the endurance of the safety net and support that the group provides.

My observation indicates that the English are highly tolerant and welcoming. Everyone is welcome in London. Everyone is allowed to keep his views without becoming English. The root identity is so strong that even second generation Indians will see themselves as Asians rather than English. So, today I spent considerable time walking around East Ham and Manor Park. This is part of a once glorious British Empire that has been colonised by Asians, not brutally or forcefully but in a quiet insidious way. The truth is that the British have deserted this area of their own free will moving to what they see as better neighbourhoods. Very few fair-skinned British are to be seen here. Despite all the interactions and influences London holds, as a community, we remain ourselves. London is segregated and is likely to stay that way.

In East Ham I had my lunch of sambar vadai and a South Indian vegetarian meal. Then I had a long overdue haircut. Firstly, it is cheap here at a mere £4. Secondly, I have not attempted to give my head to the scissors and hands of a white person, the way Gandhiji had done in South Africa. I must try it one day for the unique experience it promises. I am not a racist. I don’t consider the British as superior because of skin colour or their recent material achievements. Nonetheless, impressions made in childhood are not easily erased. Deep within, at a subconscious level, there is a tacit acknowledgement of difference, an unequal perception. It is not for me to judge the perceptions of another race but I can judge my own. Racism if any, appears to come from us Indians and we must rise above the inferiority complex that we unduly feel.

Leaving East Ham, I travelled to the other end of London. I got off the train at South Kensington and walked to a building that I had seen before countless times but never entered it. Here is a building that suits perfectly in design, form and colour, the treasures that it houses. Here is architecture perfected in one of its beliefs, that a building must look the purpose it serves. This imposing building of Victorian era looks as much excavated as the objects is contains.

The Natural History Museum is a hit with children. The dinosaurs are a draw. So are many stuffed animals, fishes, snakes, molluscs and countless other wonders of the natural world. The dinosaurs didn’t thrill me. Most are not original. They are casts of the original. Yet their sheer size is powerful enough to make one think and wonder. The Diplodocus stretches it spiny length and almost fills the gallery. Wherever one looks, at the neighbouring exhibits, the reflection of the Diplodocus is always present on the glass panes. But dinosaurs are a known phenomenon. They might have excited the curiosity of the public in the early 20th century but not anymore. We have seen them before in movies. We know their names. We know their characteristics.

What thrilled me more was what was until then in the realm of the unknown, at least for me. This is the ancient ancestor of the armadillo, the Glyptodon, with its almost comical form, an impenetrable armour of fused bones and an age that brings the antiquity of Rome within a blink of the eye. We imagine alien life forms in outer space but all such have probably come and gone on our own planet. What variety and what magnificent age! The remains of skeletons are equally matched by casts made from natural moulds such as the specimen from Australia of the ancestor of the crocodile. This “crocodile” existed about 235 million years ago, its body embedded in mud that hardened over time to ironstone. This natural mould was used to make this wonderful cast. What about a tree trunk that under favourable conditions did not rot but petrified to stone? What about a fish trapped in a pearl-oyster and permanently preserved under a coat of mother-of-pearl?

Then we have the magnificent Walter Caro collection of shells. A set of hundred unique shells are displayed from this collection and each one deserves study and admiration. Cones, cowries, conches, volutes, augers and nerites in so many colours and patterns are a minute sample of the unmatched treasures of the oceans.

Among reptiles of our own day, I’ve seen a snake like never before: stripped of everything but the beautiful skeleton of pure white bones. Here I was informed that so much can be gained by counting the number of hooves on a mammal’s foot. Here I found out why a warthog can’t be the size of an elephant because its thin legs are not designed to support such heavy weights. Nature’s design is perfect. Nothing is out of place. Nothing is meaningless. Nothing is redundant.

There was one emotional moment too when an elderly man was surprised to find stuffed Chi-Chi and recalled seeing this celebrity panda at the London Zoo back in September 1958.

Finally, during my trip to Snowdonia I commented on the sure-footedness of sheep. Now I know why. Their hooves have rubbery grips. They act as shock absorbers. They are able to divide and grasp into crevices. Their dew-claws act as effective brakes.

It is injustice to see this museum in a few hours. I am yet to see many galleries here. In London, it is difficult to strike off a museum from the list of places to visit.