Farewell to Farnborough, Hampshire

26 02 2006

After a year and half in Hampshire I am having to leave this beautiful place. For work purposes, I am having to relocate to Luton, Bedfordshire where my current client is based. As a rule I never write about business related travels but these shape my understanding of the country just as much as my usual travels. Therefore I have to write a few words on them.

Before taking up this new project at Luton I worked for a few weeks at Maidenhead, a sizeable town located between London and Reading. The town centre has good ambience for shopping, eating and meeting friends. Commuting every weekday from Farnborough to Maidenhead and back was a taxing routine. Since it was on company expenses the daily journey was somewhat relieved by taking taxis from the train station.

In Maidenhead, I noticed that there are two types of private transport that one could use – taxis and private hires. Of these, private hires are slightly more expensive. (But in Luton I found them to be cheaper.) They do not have meters in them and they charge a fixed price which could be negotiated for long distances. Private hires are not allowed to wait at train stations to pick up customers. Rather, they pick up customers by prior arrangement. It is easier to get license to run a private hire than a taxi. I am told that there exists a quote of a fixed number of licenses for taxis. In Maidenhead, both taxis and private hires are seen in plenty but never when you need them. Most of these are run by Pakistanis and to a lesser extent by Indians. Upon quizzing one taxi driver, I found that this community is hard-working and willing to work late hours. These may well be the reasons for an almost monopoly that they hold in this trade.

I have been working in Luton for more than a month, commuting Mondays and Fridays, and staying at a B&B while in Luton. Luton is yet another one of many ugly looking English towns with a progressive past that somehow failed to keep pace with the times and has since degenerated into its present pathetic state. The blame must go to the people who have failed in education, people who live without goal or ambition and live off social security. The problem is one of prolonged peace and security without challenge, competition or personal ambition. I remember reading a book titled “Crap Towns”. It listed 100 such towns in the country. Looking at Luton, it is easy to conclude that it must have deserved a mention in that book. Luton town centre is an eye-sore. The buildings are not just old but have a gloomy feel in their appearances. The pavements and walkways are strewn with chewing gums blackened by age. There are only a few restaurants with a welcoming grace. By six in the evening, all life is gone. The streets and squares are deserted except for the smoke-filled pubs. For driving, a complex set of one-way rules are in place and I hear they are confusing. Luton is not particularly great for walking either. It is thickly built on hills. Streets criss-cross often in some sort of a Roman grid-style town planning. Not all have traffic lights for pedestrians making it a dangerous thing to cross roads at corners.

One evening when I was walking through town I came to the cenotaph dedicated to soldiers who had died in the Great War. Here I found a small group of five people reading names of British soldiers who had died in Iraq. The previous night the 100th soldier had died. It was their way of appreciating the sacrifice of the sons of the land. In greater measure, it was their way of showing an opposition to the war, a war being fought with an unjustified cause. Here they braved the cold of winter and attempted in a small way to bring back their sons from a foreign land. I joined this group for the rest of the evening and even read out the names of 25 soldiers who had died.

It was not long before I discovered Bury Park, an easy walking distance from Luton town centre. This place has been colonised by the Pakistani community and offers virtually everything that a decent household may need. There are shops that sell fresh fruits and vegetables. Here we find the normal sundry items of Asian origin that have a market among those who have yet to change their habits to a British way of life and consumerism. In all likelihood they never will and these shops will survive for decades to come. There are barbers to give a basic haircut for only £4. There are many cheap restaurants, not at all to my liking but certainly please the local population. There is a library that has done well to cater for the needs of this community. There are video rentals or those that sell DVDs of Hindi movies. There is more than one mosque. Best of all, most of these are open late into the night. One can walk for minutes without meeting a proper British person (there are no British pubs in this place). One can easily forget that one is in Britain.

But such segregation is actually a problem. It does not bring about integration of immigrants within the larger communal fabric of public life. They remain isolated, in an enclave that foments resentments and accentuates differences. It is therefore a breeding ground for trouble. It has now been established that the London bombers of last July hailed from Luton, perhaps right in the heart of Bury Park.

Strangely, I have rarely felt at home in the presence of immigrant Asians in this country. The worst experiences of being at the receiving end of racism have been from these communities, in particular at restaurants. One such poignant experience has been at an Indian restaurant at Luton. The restaurant had two sections. One was cosier, better furnished and well lit. The other was next to the entrance, cramped and obviously meant to be used when it got crowded. On this particular evening the place was next to empty but I was shown the cheaper section. The table had been set for four. The waiter came without a word or greeting. He pushed the three extra sets to the side of table. He plainly showed his displeasure when I pointed out the stacked up mess he had left behind and asked him to remove them. The food was excellent and worth the patience I had exercised but I certainly won’t go there again. Such experiences are common in Indian restaurants meant for the British. They care little for an Indian clientele. True Indian food and impeccable service is to be found at Chennai Restaurant in East Ham. Likewise for Sri Lankan food Jaffna House in Tooting Broadway is highly recommended. I mention these two in particular only because I frequent them when I am in London. There are many more such restaurants all over London and perhaps in other parts of the country.

Farnborough has little Asian presence. Yet I liked it for what it is. The shops suited my needs. The library was excellent and I made good use of it for all my travels. Farnborough town centre isn’t a great deal. The problem is that there is no visible street lined with shops. Rather, the life of the town centre is tucked away in a square surrounded by concrete buildings. Someone driving through Farnborough will not notice it. As such it lacks the liveliness that we find in Fleet.

I am hardly sentimental about leaving this place. Farnborough has been long stay in a much longer journey.


In Search of Churchill, Blenheim, Oxfordshire

18 02 2006

The single most unique experience of the day happened at Oxford, en route of my return from Blenheim to Farnborough. I have to describe this while the taste still lingers on the tongue and the flavoured burps still relive every morsel I ate with relish.

Blenheim is right next to Woodstock, what may be called a quintessential Oxfordshire village. I had considered having dinner at Woodstock where there were many promising restaurants and pubs. Each one of them was pricey and beyond my sense of comfort or luxury. The thoughts I had favoured at Abbotsbury only two weeks ago had gained yet another dimension. So I decided to get to Oxford for dinner. At the end of a long day I was strolling along the streets of Oxford looking for a decent place to sit down for a nice meal, a place that was quiet and relaxing, where I could avoid the noisy student crowds, where I could avoid the thick smokes of dirty pubs. Being Saturday night, it was not an easy job by any means. Every place was crowded and clamorous. The pubs were laden with the smell of alcohol. Even non-smoking areas where filled with cigarette smoke. The magic of Oxford that’s in the buildings was easily lost in this modern context. Such excitement and entertainment of the world is perhaps a good thing in the company of friends but it was hardly the sort of ambience I desired for a quiet dinner.

I was at the point of giving up when I chanced upon a Malaysian restaurant tucked to the side of St Michael’s Street. Its very name, Makan La as it was called, brought fond memories of Singapore even before I had ordered my food. Thus I ended up having a plate of excellent vegetarian mee goreng (fried noodles) to the sound of Hindi film songs. There has never been a better meal since I arrived in the UK. Back in December 1990 when I had for the first time left India and arrived in Singapore, mee goreng had been the first local dish I had tried. Since then I had eaten it countless times sometimes all too often to the point of surfeited boredom. But today it was a sweet pleasure to taste it once more, in a nostalgic way, at SGD 18 a plate when it could be had for as low as SGD 2 a plate in Singapore. I have never had the same feelings for Indian food. Although I have always claimed that I like India better than Singapore and perhaps one day return to India for good, today’s experience has been a revelation of the sub-conscious. This certainly is food for thought.

Getting to Blenheim is not difficult. To its right is the village of Woodstock which is well-connected to Oxford by frequent buses. To its left is Hanborough train station. However I chose to alight at Oxford and walk 15 km to Blenheim along Oxford Canal passing Kidlington. I left the canal at Shipton-on-Cherwell for Woodstock. Back in September 2004 when I visited the Vyne in Hampshire I had taken the train to Basingstoke and then a bus to the property. This was before I had discovered that there is such a thing, an institution if you will, called Ordnance Survey. Since then my travels in the country have been shaped by OS maps and there has been no looking back. The best way to see any place is on foot. It gives one time to discover what may be missed in a hurry. It gives one time to reflect on what one sees. It gives every opportunity to respond actively in a personal way and at a comfortable pace.

From the start, the walk was different. A heavy fog limited visibility. The only view was a few meters of the towpath ahead of me. It was eerie to hear trains whizzing past close by but completely hidden by the fog. Somehow fog puts you into a private space. Once in a while you may suddenly meet someone walking their dog or jogging along but mostly you are alone. Given that views were limited my comments on the landscape is limited as well. From what I could see, most of the land around here is arable. Given the season, the fields being harvested and bare, it was difficult to tell what they produced. The canal itself was silent and showed no activity. Many boats were docked but none plied the empty routes. The locks remained unused. This is not the canal I remember from last summer when I had walked it north of Banbury. Moreover, for a mile or two out of Oxford the canal and its towpath are not pleasing sights.

It was no doubt a good walk but it left me only a few hours at the palace and the many acres of surrounding parkland. I must have been in a particularly good mood because I paid an outrageous entry fee of £14 for the palace, the park and the gardens. The palace I had come to see did not exist for a long time because it hid behind the fog. The landscape gardens of Capability Brown were nowhere to be seen. Admiring a landscape garden needs clear weather. The gardens, as one would expect, were a pitiful sight in winter. The Rose Garden had not one hint of colour. Winter gardens are rare to find. Finally, I had no time to visit the Pleasure Gardens and the Secret Garden. The fog did disperse late afternoon and gave some stunning views across the park. I am convinced that Blenheim is a lovely place to visit but one requires an entire day to make it worthwhile.

I returned to Oxford by bus route 20 operated by Stagecoach. On the bus a notice announced that some journeys that used to operate via the villages of Wootten and Glympton no longer call at those villages since December 2005. This is following Oxfordshire County Council’s decision to withdraw the subsidy for these services. When operators do not see profits on certain routes, councils provide necessary subsidies for the benefit of a few who need the service. When councils operate on tight budgets and do not find new ways of income, the easy solution is to cut back on expenses. The end consumer suffers. Council subsidies are very much a necessity for local bus networks. When most people drive, bus operators are unlikely to offer services that are both profitable and well-priced. The common commuter on these buses is a pensioner who pays a discounted price. The occasional tourist bears the full price. Still, I have found the prices reasonable and never a burden.

There are many fine things in the palace. One may take pleasure in the porcelain displays – Chinese, French (Sevres) or German (Meissen). One may be awed by the marble bust of Alexander the Great. One may admire the furniture that once belonged to the palace at Versailles. One may read John Churchill’s letter to his duchess written on a piece of scrap paper to inform his victory at Blenheim (a distortion of Blindheim where the battle actually took place). One may immerse oneself in the history of the place, the generosity of Queen Anne and the nation. One may relive the Battle of Blenheim so vividly represented in the numerous Flemish tapestries. Each tapestry is a masterpiece, a historic record richly woven of silk and threads coloured with vegetable dyes, a creation of designers, weavers and artists. One may view this as a pursuit of self-glorification but at least the 1st Duke of Marlborough provided the weavers employment for ten long years. One may study the paintings on the walls, the painted walls or the painted ceilings. The stucco work on many ceilings is admirable. One may praise the craftsmanship of the artists of our age. The Blenheim Bureau that celebrates the millennium and the porcelain vase that celebrates the 300th anniversary of the palace in 2005 are both creations of our generation, as ingenious and skilful as their ancestors. One may be surprised at the proportions of the Long Library with a beautiful organ at one end. One may even be amused to note the dent on one of the organ pipes, suffered when someone tried to play cricket in this room. One may look at many things but I will remember the palace for other reasons.

The first of them is a set of watercolours by John Piper. I am getting good at recognizing his work and I like it all the more for that reason. His colours are vibrant as ever but not flashy. His compositions are refined as ever but not mundane. Yet another artist I could recognise paints eyes and facial expressions in a consistent manner. This is Sir Peter Lily whose portrait of Winston and Arabella, children of Sir Winston Churchill (not the Churchill of the 20th century), hangs in the palace. While on this theme of paintings, I will add that only today I learned that Sir Winston Churchill (this is our Churchill of the Battle of Britain, the man with a cigar!) was not only a statesman, writer and orator but also a painter. Many of his paintings have been printed by Hallmark as greeting cards. Secondly, I made a curious observation in the chapel. It has a splendid monument dedicated to the 1st Duke and his family. War, victory and glory make a consistent theme and to this effect are reliefs of implements of battle – axe, shield, spear, quiver with arrows, sword, body armour, helmet, banner, drum, horn, trumpet… I found it interesting that with arrows and quiver there was no representation of a bow. Thinking about it, I have never seen a bow anywhere in classical sculpture. If it exists at all, it is under-represented. The best thing to happen at the palace was an inspirational visit to the exhibition titled “Churchill’s Destiny – The story of two great war leaders”. Sir John Churchill’s victory at Blenheim in 1704 effectively ended Louis XIV’s ambitions in the War of Spanish Succession. Sir Winston Churchill’s rise to power from relative obscurity and his defiant resistance to the Germans was a source of inspiration not just to the British but to the Allied Forces as a whole. It is also interesting to note that Churchill had been posted to Bangalore in September 1896 but his lifestyle there proved too relaxing for his ambitious mind. He then contrived to be part of the Boer War in 1899. In both war leaders, we find examples of ordinary men rising to the highest honours possible, not in days or years but decades. Good things take time.

Chichester, West Sussex

12 02 2006

Eastbourne, Chesil Beach and Chichester – the theme of my travels for the past few weeks is clear. It is an exploration of the southern coastline of England with easy walks and enjoyable views. The mountains of the north are best left alone during these short days of winter. Although we are still in the worst of winter the signs of spring are beginning to appear. Gorse flowers in bright yellow bulbs are already putting on a show. Daffodils have still time to wait but their shoots are seen breaking through the ground in thick clusters. Other flowers in tiny buds are waiting to explode. The days are getting longer. Everyone is more cheerful in anticipation that things can get only better.

The day started with an anti-clockwise circuit of Thorney Island. Shaped almost like Sri Lanka, it juts into Chichester Harbour. Even on a miserable day as today, with dull black skies and ceaseless rain, the beauty of the harbour can be discerned. It is not exceptional; it is not breathtaking; but it is beauty all the same. Since the English are easily pleased, the great wonders of the world can wait. For them, Chichester Harbour is more than they deserve or need. This harbour has more than enough to be an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Yachts were in plenty both at Emsworth and Southbourne, the start and the end of my walk. In summer they surely would be out on the placid warm waters of the harbour, their sails taking a breath of fresh air, their keels cutting effortlessly the sparkling waves while birds took to clear blue skies. This is the image of the harbour locals cherish giving them enough cause to make this their home. They will wait the rest of the year for the fulfilment of this image.

Most of Thorney Island is owned by the Ministry of Defence. Access is restricted but is possible to gain it by registering oneself via the intercom. The walk was eventless and thankfully so. To get lost and wander inland could get one arrested. I got the strange feeling of being watched every step of the way, satellite images beaming my progress in real-time. Even to stop to view the harbour would arouse suspicions. So quickly the mind heightens fear in such a state that even the sound of a flock of ducks approaching towards me made me start. I thought a pack of guard dogs had been let loose to make much of the little flesh I had. But there are more things unreal here, livestock being one of them. I didn’t spot any but there were signs that read “Close the gate – cattle grazing” or “Livestock at risk”. One wonders what modern military force breeds and uses cattle for defence. Any livestock at the vanguard of defence are certainly at risk.

Upon leaving the island I passed the village of Prinsted, a place so small that most Britons would not have heard of it. The truth about travelling is not to see what is worth seeing but to discover what is worth seeing. Each farm or cottage is a perfect picture. The names of many of are as thrilling as their looks:

Three Bees, Seawinds, Seaway, Tideway, The Olives, Walnut Tree Farm, Apple Tree Cottage, The Old House, The Thatch, Black Fox Cottage, Three Greens, Four Acres

It is important to note that these names are all inspired by nature; but there was one that stood out – St Bruno. If houses were to be given names in India, the situation would be just the reverse. Show an Indian the picture of a bird or a flower: he won’t be able to name it; but show him the picture of a deity, he will not only name it but describe family history, relationships and divine powers.

Once I left the village towards Southbourne the beauty in these names was quickly lost. All I could find were numbers on doors – 184, 188, 192… The road on which they stood was just as uninteresting. It was called “Main Road”.

I arrived at Chichester with the single intent of visiting its Cathedral. With the exception of Salisbury, I liked both the Cathedral and its spire. The cathedral spire is elegant, the exterior in a good state of preservation although the Gothic beauty is somewhat robbed by modern contraptions. The gargoyles would have been admirable but for the metal pipes leaping out of their open mouths. The interior is surprisingly plain. The ceilings are bare and unadorned. There are no notable carvings or funerary sculptures. So by first impressions I wasn’t praising any of it. When the mind is prejudiced by habit, it takes greater effort to see beauty in a new form. This Cathedral represents the spirit of a newer age within walls of an older age. It is the transformation of an ancient setting with the identity of a modern generation, a common faith providing the link between the two. Old oak wooden doors don’t welcome us with life-stretching creaks. Instead there are glass doors that swing noiselessly. There are no wooden pews in the nave. Instead we find modern chairs with cushioned seats. The pulpitum too bears very much the look of our age. There are no elaborate reredos at the high altar. Instead we find an abstract painted representation of the Holy Trinity, executed in rich colours by John Piper. Other parts of the Cathedral show this patronization of artists and their art. Some effigies provide food for curious study including the pair that inspired “An Arundel Tomb”, a famous poem by Philip Larkin. The cloisters have little appeal and bear too much the mark of restoration.

To top it all up, the choral evensong was almost divine. One felt angels singing each note of praise. One heard purest joy in every voice. One sensed the innocence in every boy’s heart. Once in a while a voice rose above the chorus bringing with it an ecstasy that was contagious. Mostly, it was the effect of hearing many individual voices joined together in harmony that held one spellbound. The echoes and polyphones of one lead to another in a seamless transition. In their combined human efforts one heard the divine spirit. It was a spirit that manifests only where there is devotion; and how beautiful that I too should sense some of it this afternoon!

Abbotsbury, Dorset

4 02 2006

Engineering works. It is the characteristic signature of South West Trains on weekends. Trains are sometimes replaced with buses. Changes to published schedules are common. Delays are more usual than ever, and weekend travellers like me are inevitably affected. I have a good practice of checking the itinerary online on Friday evenings but this weekend I have relied too much on the published timetable. The train usually departs from Farnborough towards Basingstoke at 0633 but today I had the surprise of seeing it pull away from the station as I was walking towards it. The train had been rescheduled to depart ten minutes earlier. The ensuing wait of an hour was a test of patience. An hour of opportunity, an hour of splendid walking on the hills or the unique Dorset coast had been needlessly exchanged for a long wait on an empty platform on a cold morning. I have only myself to blame for assuming too much, for expecting constancy in a world of change. Where safety is paramount track maintenance cannot be taken lightly. High speed trains require this maintenance to be regular. If trains evolve so should the tracks that support them. An analogy is easily found in telecommunications where applications and transmission technologies need to evolve in tandem. One’s nothing without the other.

Despite this initial setback the day has turned out well after all. Instead of commencing my walk at Weymouth, I started at Upwey, few miles north of Weymouth. Instead of taking the coastal path I took the inland route to the village of Abbotsbury. Instead of racing against a speedy sun, I relaxed on Chesil Beach in the dying light of day. Instead of walking back to Weymouth I caught the bus X53 which plies between Exeter and Weymouth. Rightly so, they call this bus Jurassic Coast Express. This part of Dorset coast is a treasure for those keen in natural history.

The pleasures of walking are numerous. In Britain, these are easily found and savoured. One need not travel far or take great pains. Today’s walk was such an experience. The green hills lay in wavy folds on both sides of an easy trail along a ridge. They stretched to the far horizons not as a wilderness but as a landscape formed by nature and sculpted by man. Iron Age barrows were visible. The sheep dotted the farther greens. Nearer, ewes with newborn lambs, kept a watchful eye as I crossed their ways. Woodsmoke from farm houses rose up in curls. The smell of manure was strangely romantic to the city dweller that I am. The mooing of cows was a vibrant conversation that I little understood. Power transmission towers stood rigidly, festooned by wires with a murmur of electrons. They are now an integral part of the landscape and inherit the beauty that surrounds them. They have no power to spoil the picture. With every step there appeared a new picture, with every picture an appreciation of the great beauty of this little land. After those three hours of walking I was once more at peace within and with the world, ready to face another long week at the office.

En route, I passed a folly tower, not unlike the tower at Broadway but less interesting. It was built in 1844-5 to honour Rear Admiral Sir Thomas Masterman Hardy who captained HMS Victory at the Battle of Trafalgar. Hardy Monument, as it is called, is easily mistaken to be a monument to the English poet and novelist, Thomas Hardy who lived not far from here at Dorchester. At least, I had carried this false impression until I read the dedicatory words at the monument. Moreover, in Abbotsbury I met a shopkeeper who held the same false impression. With far-reaching views from the monument, it was easy to see the stretch of Chesil Beach in the distance even on a cloudy day as this.

Chesil Beach, thrown up by the sea some 6000 years ago, is a beach of pebbles richly pattered and coloured. For some reason, there is gradation in the weathering by the waves so that some pebbles are smaller, smoother and rounder than others. When the pebbles are wet, they acquire a crystal sheen. It is well worth a visit, not just on account of the pebbles but the water bodies that define this unique beach. On one side lies the English Channel; on the other is a water body which they call “the Fleet”. Here we find a rare stretch of beach of many miles extending all the way to the Isle of Portland. On one side we have the restless waves; on the other, a cool calmness. It is not hard to guess which of these two is favoured by the birds. As for the sea, fishing is a popular activity. As for me, I just slept on the beach to the sound of the waves.

Abbotsbury is a village about a mile from the beach. A much better way to approach it is from the hills to the north. The remains of a castle on a nearby hill make a prominent addition to an ideal picture of quaint village resting peacefully among the hills. The streets are narrow and lined with beautiful cottages, inns, pubs and shops. I entered a quintessential English shop, the Village Butcher, which also sells some baked items. I bought a cheese & onion pie on recommendation. I took two bites of cold tasteless cheese. The rest went into the bin. The proprietor of the Bakehouse Tearoom (where I had some Dorset ginger biscuits baked by the Moores family since 1860) informed me that most of the village is owned by some lady who lives in Yeovil. Her manor house is on the rental market at £3000 per month. I don’t know how much of this is true but the purport of travel notes in varied. The local perception of truth is as important as truth itself. I have recorded plainly what I have heard.

Despite the peace and beauty that decks this little Dorset village there is little to persuade me to stay here for long. The energy and vibrancy of the cities is missing not because it is small or old but because there was no one around. No children played. The families, if any, stayed indoors. It was even doubtful if people lived in some of these houses. Anyone who crossed my path was like me, a passing traveller or a day-tripper. This village, it appears as some others, is a beautiful smile without a face. It is pretty to see but one cannot sense its lifestyle or spirit. Who knows what lies behind these stone walls – all things modern cloaked in an old garb? One even wonders if the people who live here are locals at all. With the growing fashion for all things old under the pretentious banner of “antique”, it is likely that many of these villages are no longer affordable to the common man, the farmers of the country and all those who work on the farms. For example, the Ilchester Arms Hotel has room tariffs that start at a minimum of £79 a night. One can find cheaper accommodation even in London. Perhaps, it is a question of supply and demand but it is certain that it would be naive to expect cheap stays in English villages.