On the Hertfordshire Way

26 03 2006

Almost the entire day I have been on the Hertfordshire Way which has for its logo the face of a stag with horns. This is only appropriate because the county itself takes its name from the “hart”. I walked along the River Lea from Harpenden to Wheathampstead, then turned south to St Albans. After having lunch at St Albans and spending considerable time in its ancient cathedral I returned to Harpenden westwards and northwards via Redbourn.

The day had started after a night of rain. The freshness that comes with sunshine after rain was felt. Most of the morning was bright and warm. At about noon the clouds gathered. The wind picked up and kept its presence for a couple of hours. For the rest of the day, it rained. Thus, all elements of typical British weather have been justly represented today.

What a beautiful country is Hertfordshire! This is not a county of livestock and grazing. Most of the land is arable. Woods are scattered and plenty. Rolling hills and pleasant walks along the valleys are the highlights. On the Hertfordshire Way these hills are seen from various perspectives. Often one sees them in the distance. Often one feels the gentle dips and rises of the land while walking. Sometimes the graceful curves of the hills are in immediate proximity, one curve hiding behind another, one curve inviting to discover another. The most striking aspect of the day was the ceaseless calls of birds. The whole countryside was singing.

There is something undeniably and irresistibly enticing about a path that stretches, rolls and winds on the hills. The path is clear. Obstacles are few, opportunities plenty and ripe. Standing at the start of such a path the urge is immediate. The path has formed itself with a purpose. I have arrived here only to discover the same purpose. The path vanishes beyond the horizon of open hills with few trees. There where the views are still unseen and unknown, perhaps lies my destination or the start of a new journey.

Just outside Wheathampstead is an impressive ditch about 10 meters deep and much wider, filled with trees and plants. This was once the primitive defence of early Britons against the invading Romans. A plaque at the north end of this ditch reads:

IN 54 B.C.

Thus I walked the path of Julius Caesar but in peace, not in war. The question remains if Julius Caesar himself did in fact come this far. Locals, proud of their place and anxious to fame, are quick to claim the benefit of any doubt associated with their uncertain history.

St Albans is an ancient town that takes its name after the first Christian martyr of Britain. There is something significant in this name. Many great cathedrals of this land take their names from the town. Such is the case with Exeter, Wells, Salisbury, Canterbury, Worcester, to name a few. These towns may have carried that name in association with the surrounding landscape, such as a river, a hill or a plain. It is the pursuit of historians to figure out how these names came to be, whether it is the landscape that gave the town its name or vice versa. For St Albans there is no doubt of such a history. The town and the cathedral both take their name from the saint.

The Hertfordshire Way cuts right across St Albans. Here the path acquires a new interest. It is a natural and peaceful enclave winding its way through an urban labyrinth. Most of this is a thin strip of woodland, what they call a “wick”. One memorable joy here was witness a robin and a blackbird drinking from a pool four feet from me, aware but unmindful of my presence. On such small things do great joys depend.

There are three things striking about the Cathedral. First is its unique stonework of flint, mortar and brick. Much of this has been salvaged material from Verulamium, a Roman town lying west of St Albans. Second is the length of the nave. They claim it is the longest in the country. I have heard a similar claim about Winchester. No matter who is right the magnificence of both cathedrals will survive as truth. Third is the impressive west facade that reminds one of the Natural History Museum in London. Both are products of Victorian architecture. On the inside still more surprises await. The paintings on the pillars of the nave have lost their colour but not their theme, meaning and significance. The nave is a mix of Norman, Early English and Decorated Gothic styles. In 1323 five arches on the south side of the nave collapsed. Faced with a choice, they opted for the latest style of architecture, the Decorated Gothic that now faces the Norman style on the north side. I wonder, if the same pillars were to collapse today (God forbid they should), what would be our decision – the Norman style to bring back the original symmetry or the Decorated Gothic by which many do remember that part of the nave. It may well be a concrete structure on the inside but disguised on the outside to resemble one of these styles. It certainly will not be made of flint stones and mortar finished with an application of plaster strengthened with horse hair. Yes, one can still see horse hair on some of the Norman pillars. The watching chamber that overlooks the shrine of St Albans was used to watch over visitors and keep order in the shrine. It has carved reliefs of everyday scenes of life. From the 20th century we have the stained-glass on the west window, a memorial to the martyrs of the Great War. The Rose Window in the north transept was installed in 1989 and reaffirms the suitability of modern Christian art in an ancient setting. The painted wooden ceilings tell their own stories. In London there is a pub called “Lamb and Flag”. I have seen it in other places as well. Today I understand the significance of this emblem which is clearly seen on one of the painted ceilings. It signifies St John the Baptist. So it is that Christian images that have been widely known to the common people have been used by country pubs and wayside inns of the past.

All these I learnt not by my limited intelligence but by the patience and knowledge of one of the cathedral volunteers. He offered a guided tour exclusively for me. This is the greatness of humble folks who work in the service of God. They work without expectation of reward. They serve with dedication and interest. With every act they confirm the glory of God without seeking self-glorification.


Hampstead, Greater London

19 03 2006

Hampstead, like Greenwich, is a beautiful suburb of London. Those who live in Hampstead will certainly understand it better than I could ever hope to describe after a short visit of a day. But the privilege that a visitor enjoys is unique and unmatched. He looks at a place with a different and fresh perspective. His eyes see a new scene in every direction. Every passing word, every signboard, every shop window or every everyday activity becomes a piece of interest for information and interpretation. Such a perspective leads to descriptions, associations, comparisons and conclusions. These may or may not translate to an understanding of the lifestyle or the culture of the place. If they do, the depth and breadth of such an understanding is necessarily the outcome of the visitor’s curiosity and intelligence. Such an understanding is also influenced by his prejudices, and may or may not correspond to reality.

But one does not travel just for the sake of seeing a place or even discovering it. It has become cliché to say “How far will you go before you discover yourself?” Indeed one could even ask if one could ever travel far enough to make this discovery. The subtle truth is also a simple one. One must begin to view the world with the eyes of the traveller. To travel in the usual sense of the word is not required. One must see that human life of a few decades is in itself a small part of a longer journey.

Hampstead imbibes part of the character that is of London. Yet it has a quite charm of its own. It does not have the busy crowds of London but it is busy enough to be lively and interesting. It is certainly not the deserted rundown towns that we find in much of the country. It is a town in the just sense with all amenities and yet close to nature. The heath at its doorstep gives Hampstead the openness of the countryside. The green hills, the far-reaching views towards London, the fresh air, the numerous walks on the heath, are all to be savoured. It is almost unbelievable to discover the heath as it is, so close to London.

Today the Heath was a place of constant activity. The day was sunny and folks made the most of it. Some flew kites. Some took to the paths. Some lay on the lawns reading a book or absorbing the sunshine. The bathing ponds were empty but summer would see greater activity. Some admired the first crocuses and daffodils of the season. Some fed the ducks.

I came to Hampstead after being inspired by the paintings of John Constable at Tate Britain. Heath, by definition, consists of plants and shrubs, heather and grass. It was therefore a surprise to find dense woodland, especially in West Heath and Sandy Heath. The smooth hills with their open views are beautiful but I prefer the closeness and intimacy of woodland shades. I walked a great deal. Walking in West Heath and Sandy Heath was almost a magical experience. The extensive network of paths kept me interested for considerable time. I would have walked the same paths more than once without realizing it. There is no single defining perspective or landmark here. Once within the woodland all individuality merges into a singular uniformity that is the characteristic of this place.

Just as walking the heath is a source of pleasure and relaxation, so is not walking. By this I mean that one must often stop and pause. One must listen silently to the voice of the heath.

Hampstead Heath in early spring

Hampstead Heath in early spring

I can imagine what luxurious green foliage would decorate this woodland in summer but today, in early spring, it is no less beautiful. The bare branches accentuate the shape and curves of each tree. Placed together they appear to dance to a natural harmony that takes decades in the making. Dry leaves cover almost the entire area. There was not a single stream today. We haven’t had rain for a few days now and being high ground, the heath is rather well-drained. At this time of the year the heath can appear a deserted place without life. Indeed there is much life here, the most noticeable being birds. I am no expert in identifying birds either by sight or sound but this hardly bothers me. Spontaneous joy is in no way reduced by an ignorance of names that men give to the wonders of nature.

Hampstead is such a pleasant place to live that many eminent persons of good society have made it their chosen home, at least for a short period if not lifelong. John Constable, Karl Marx, John Keats, Robert Louis Stevenson, H.G. Wells, Edward Elgar, Sigmund Freud, Piet Mondrian, George Orwell, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, Ian Fleming are some from a long list. Here is an interesting trivia: “2 Willow Road” is a modernist house build by Erno Goldfinger in the 1930s. Ian Fleming hated this house or its creator so much that he named James Bond’s villain after him.

A garden at Hampstead

A garden at Hampstead

On one edge of the Heath is Fenton House, a 17th century house. A short visit to it was unremarkable. Among the many rooms, one is named “the Porcelain Room”. Another is named “the Blue Porcelain Room”. I have great regard for our ancestors. They have contributed immensely to society in all disciplines of human activity. But I can never understand this foolish urge to collect things on a grand scale. Somewhere they lost touch of their basic needs and succumbed to the fashions of the day. Somehow they believed that immortality could be achieved in some sense by what they collected. Somehow people today believe that such stuff need to be preserved at such a considerable cost when the money could be better spent elsewhere. The Blue Porcelain Room was also Lady Binning’s bedroom. It’s a wonderful room and beautifully restored; but what a waste that no one uses it. Sometimes I feel that the whole of Britain is a museum, a country trapped in its own past because it has no future. Future is promising only if there is an effort to realise it. Until that happens, Britain will hold tenaciously to its decadent past, ignore the present and lose its future. If this remains the case, then Britain should be treated only as a museum and no more. Learn what you can from its rich history and move on. The student will not forever stay in the school. The world awaits.

I have kept the best for the last. I started the day by visiting an exhibition of paintings by a Swedish artist Hilma af Klint (1862-1944) at the Camden Arts Centre. She has claimed that her paintings are not the product of a thoughtful process. Rather they have been given to her by higher spiritual masters who guided her to execute them in the astral plane. Indeed some of her paintings contain the very words “mental plane”, “astral plane” and “ether plane”. Her paintings are in some form abstract art in the modern sense but they seem to contain a far deeper meaning. They are characterised by plain colours, flowing lines and intersecting curves, overlapping circles, geometric patterns of cubes, triangles or ovals, some executed with mathematical precision. There are paintings of colours alone such as one would see in a dream. There are figures as a simple as a child would draw. There is the theme of male and female and their union. These paintings cannot be understood by seeing alone. They cannot be understood by comparative analysis with other abstract artists of our age. One has to meditate on these paintings to realise the vision of the artist.

Of all the groups of paintings in the gallery the one that captured my attention the most was a series of eight watercolours titled “the Tree of Knowledge”, 1913-1916. Not long ago I read a book by the Dalai Lama about death and dying. In this book he talks about the process of dying in great detail. He explains the various steps and the significance of each. The lotus flower is a recurring image. The serpent rising from the base of the spine through the spiritual centres of the body is an important event. In yoga it is known as awakening of the kundalini. White drops and red drops merging and separating are also part of this process. All these images are found in the series “the Tree of Knowledge”. What westerners see as the tree is in fact the serpent. Drops of white and pink correspond closely to what the Dalai Lama describes. There is certainly something deep in these pictures. Some spiritualists preach by practice. Some spread the message by the printed word. Hilma af Klint has done it in pictures. It is the privilege of the world to be able to study them and understand the truth. As the artist herself said, “Life is an illusion if a person does not serve the truth”.

The Diversity of London

11 03 2006

Of London it has been famously remarked in the past that when a man is tired of London he is tired of life. This is certainly not an unqualified truth but there is some truth in it. London in many ways is an epitome of life. It is place of activity. Every occupation, trade, business or pursuit is represented. Every form of leisure and entertainment is to be found. Every corner of the globe and the various cultures of farther lands have in some way found a niche, a niche of survival, co-existence and to a lesser extent integration. Each building tells a story, from the crumbling Roman walls to the modern glass facades towering to the sky. To one who visits London or lives in it, these aspects of this great city are clearly visible. The life of a city is not in its buildings or their history. It comes from the people and their active presence – the crowded streets, the busy shops, the repetitive rush of the Underground, the faces one sees in hundreds on the escalators, the constant movement of individuals, many private lives mingling effortlessly to make this scene of public life.

But there is a life in London that is more subtle and less visible. Rather, it is the source of everything we see. This is the ceaseless activity of the human mind. Without this everything else will falter and fall. To understand this one needs to only observe what the average commuter reads in the London Underground. Reading is far more common than talking in the Underground. There is the businessman who reads the Financial Times. There is the student who studies Maslow’s theories of motivation. There is the ardent fan who reads the sports page of a tabloid. There is the middle-aged man who reads the wasteful gossip magazine. There is the woman who reads the suave fashion magazine. There is the couple who read the programme notes of the evening’s musical. There is the tourist who religious studies the Underground map. There is the common man reading the latest of novels or solving the day’s sudoku. There is me reading the scene, the facial expressions, the fashion of the day, the opening and closing of doors, the movement of people in and out of the carriage, the expectations on the platform…

Discovering London means being involved and becoming a part of the scene. It takes little effort to do this. The city absorbs you almost as soon as you are within its folds. It is the variety that’s lets you do this easily. No one cares who you are or where you come from. Here you are a Londoner and that’s all that matters. There’s the teenager who has his lips pierced. There’s the Indian woman in a sari. There’s the African man with a hair-style as unique as his continent. There’s the Chinese who brings the plate to his mouth instead of the food alone. There’s the Englishman sitting in the park with a pipe in his mouth. There’s the musician with a guitar filling the silences of the Underground passageways. There’s the homeless in the street gripping a tattered sleeping bag in the biting cold. There’s the gang of drunken youths cursing those who defeated their team at a league match.

Ironically, being a Londoner means being in London. It is the place with its rich history that falls like a shadow on those who pass through it. A Londoner has no clear identity of his own. If there is any identity at all, it must be found in an Englishman. An Indian lives as an Indian, a Chinese as a Chinese, a Nigerian as a Nigerian, a Spaniard as a Spaniard, a French as a French, a Brazilian as a Brazilian. When in London, they behave as Londoners. It is an act they put on in vindication of the adage: “When in Rome do as the Romans do”. Shakespeare’s Globe sets a stage but there is a bigger stage.

Everyone comes to London with a purpose. However, it must be a pleasure to travel with no greater purpose than to observe what is visible. This requires suspension of higher ambitions, to resist the temptation to infer what is invisible or to decipher meanings that hide under the surface. Someday I intend to do this. I shall have no plan to visit a museum, a gallery, a park or a manor house. I shall walk the streets with blank curiosity. I shall walk in and out of public buildings. I shall ride the buses without any chosen destination. I shall browse the shops for everything they have on offer without buying anything. I shall traverse the length and breadth of the city by the Underground, station to station, line to line. I shall observe and record, rejecting nothing, accepting everything as they are presented. I shall neither praise nor condemn. These then will form the basis of my personal interpretation of London. But for today my travels have taken the usual form.

My favourite museum in the world is the Musee D’Orsay in Paris. After visiting countless museums in Britain, today I can claim that I have found a fitting match, what can be claimed to be my favourite museum in Britain. This is Tate Britain. My first visit had been too short and afforded only a glance. Today I have spent more than six hours walking from room to room and held completely spellbound from painting to painting. Such had been my interest that I skipped lunch until reminded in the evening by a headache. Yet for all the time spent, I managed to cover only half the collection on display.

“What”s in a painting?” we may ask. Try a blank canvas. Countless possibilities exist, some real, some products of artistic fantasy. Countless themes exist – historical, religious, allegorical, scientific, domestic, personal, literary, abstract, and many more. Countless media exist – pen, pencil, charcoal, oil, ink, watercolour, paper, canvas, wood, and so on. It is thus the job of the artist to transfer to the canvas a visual representation of what he sees in his mind. It is his job to represent in his own brush strokes and style what he sees of the world around him. It is his inspiration to see the face of a model in a personal way. It is his ingenuity to represent a fact in a memorable way. It is his fortune to give drama and feeling to a scene that we have only heard of or read in the past. It is his privilege to hold a mirror to the face of the world. There is meaning in every line and curve, colour and shade. There is reason for every perspective and composition. If we have not found them perhaps we have not searched enough.

The importance of a simple line is seen in the drawings of John Flaxman and William Blake. The richness of oil is not for them. Theirs is an expression in pen, pencil, ink and watercolour. Bold outlines, subtle shades, simple colours and above all, ample imagination make their works special. The aesthetic and spiritual appeal of Gothic art is their inspiration. Homer and classical mythologies are not their interest. Their interest lies in Biblical themes, the parables, the spiritual journeys of Dante and Virgil.

It will be a difficult task to describe the beauties of the numerous paintings at Tate Britain. So leaving descriptions alone I merely list those I have enjoyed the most – “The Death of Major Peirson” by John Singleton Copley, “The Great Day of his Wrath” by John Martin, “An Iron Forge” by Joseph Wright, “Heads of Six of Hogarth’s Servants” by William Hogarth, “Hadleigh Castle” by John Constable, “The Blind Fiddler” by Sir David Wilkie, “Ophelia” and “The Order of Release 1746” by John Everett Millais, “The Lady of Shalott” by John William Waterhouse, “Hope” by George Frederic Watts, “The Last Load” by John Linnell, “Waiting for the Verdict” and “The Acquittal” by Abraham Solomon, “Past and Present” by Augustus Leopold Egg.

To end the day, I attended an evening concert at the church of St Martin-in-the-Fields. There were many brilliant pieces but the main one was “Four Seasons” by Vivaldi. This is my second attempt to understand this composition. It is a difficult task. There are so many movements with so many variations that it is impossible to say for sure when a season arrives or when it departs. The moods are so interwoven that one wonders if there is a hint of winter in every summer, a touch of spring in every winter or the ripeness of autumn in every spring. What is clear is that the composition in parts and in whole is expressive. The sombre, coffin-bearing image of winter comes before our eyes but winter is more than just sorrow. It is quietness. It is hope. It is softness. It is a pause before the activity that is to come. The regeneration of spring comes in all its flowing colours. It is light and jubilant. It is born of harshness, nurtured with patience and hence sweeter. There is the dance of the daffodils, the “unpetalling” of cherry blossoms, the fresh breeze mingling with the mirthful songs of birds and the pulsating energy that precedes the exuberance of summer. Summer takes time in coming but it comes all the same in slow measured steps. Summer witnesses the pinnacle of growth. It explodes on the scene with limitless energy but there is in it an underlying harmony that comes from controlled growth. The majestic conclusion of all such energies is found in autumn. Then as fulfilment is attained and no further joys remain untasted, winter comes to claim its rightful place.

Now winter is well out of the way and spring has made a quiet entrance. The world is waiting for summer. As I see it, the whole magic lies neither in the enjoyment of spring nor in the anticipation of summer. It lies in the change of seasons, the way in which each season make a presence of its own but gives way to another when the time comes.

Dunstable Downs, Bedfordshire

5 03 2006

“Downs” is a word I had never heard of before coming to the UK. Downs, commons, copses and coppice woods are all unique to this country in their own ways. At least, I had not seen any of them elsewhere. Each of these forms part of the fingerprint of Britain. As such, these words can be discovered with real meaning only by travelling through Britain. There are of course a lot more words that have a stronger local flavour – tor, beck, dale, scar, crag…

Today I was denied the discovery of Dunstable Downs in the usual way I prefer to discover the countryside. The Arriva Bus Route 60 from Luton brought me right up to the top of the chalky downs. The views were beautiful all around but the pleasure of a more beautiful walk was lost. So when I stepped out of the bus, the Downs suddenly discovered me before I could accomplish the reverse.

Dry bark of a dead tree

Dry bark of a dead tree

A good part of today’s walk was by the Icknield Way, passing Whipsnade, Studham and Dagnall, to the moderate summits of Ivinghoe Hills. The weather was ideal for walking. Better still, there blew a good wind for flying kites, toy planes and real gliders. The enthusiasts who had gathered on the hills made use of the favourable conditions, not the least because it was the first proper weekend to leave winter behind and welcome spring with a new breath. The views across the plains were clear on this bright sunny day but the expanse was without highlights. As such it did not capture my attention for long, much less my appreciation. The only eye-catching icon on the Downs was the modern chalk drawing of a lion. This I could only guess to be an advertising gimmick of Whipsnade Wildlife Animal Park.

The only notable aspect of the day, as often in my travels, came unexpectedly at the Whipsnade Tree Cathedral. I went with a completely different picture in mind – an ancient tree contorted or knotted by untamed elements of nature, a surviving relic of the past that somehow evoked images of choir stalls of a cathedral. Such is usually the case in some underground caves with fantastic limestone formations. This Tree Cathedral is not an accidental creation of nature named by the fancies of the human mind. Rather, it is a planned design of man but essentially the work of nature. Trees and bushes have been planted in a carefully planned layout that resembles very much the design of any cathedral. The crucifix design is obvious with lime trees creating a wonderful perspective along the length of the nave and horse chestnuts along the transepts. An Atlantic Cedar forms the focus of the Lady Chapel. Conifers grow in neat clusters within the Christmas Chapel. The cloisters to the north provide shaded walks for quiet reflection. There exists a dew-pond that could signify the baptismal font. Hedges of laurels neatly partition many of these spaces as walls would in a common cathedral. The best part of the cathedral is the Chancel, a semi-circular arrangement of ten young birches neatly brought together by well-clipped yew hedges. As always, simplicity does a great deal to please the eye, relax the mind and give room for reflection.

Here the pillars are living tree trunks. Here the roof is either the sky or the arching branches and their foliage. Here the stained-glass windows are redundant. The cathedral is open to the natural world and the glories of creation. Here there is no gift shop or a machine to dispense souvenir coins. Here music is made by birds, leaves and the breeze. Neither the organ nor the organist is required. Perhaps we may infer that when with nature the presence of the divine is always with us and cathedral as a place of worship is no longer necessary. Best of all, the Tree Cathedral is a celebration of life for here we find no crypt, no epitaphs, gravestones or effigies.