Bhaktivedanta Manor, Hertfordshire

25 03 2007

On Friday I invited two of my colleagues to join me on my wanderings in Essex. One of them was not interested in visiting the church at Waltham Abbey. Though I tried to convince him to undertake a new experience he did not welcome it. Another factor that put both my colleagues off was the plan to leave Luton at seven in the morning. It seemed an unearthly hour to their weekend routines. One of them complained of being too busy with other things. Another preferred the lazy comfort of a weekend at home.

So I did my walk alone in Essex as planned but one of them agreed to join me today on an afternoon visit to Bhaktivedanta Manor, the principal ISKCON temple in the UK. We left at half past one. We took a slow train to Radlett and walked through town towards Aldenham. We passed many beautiful houses, each with its own garden, driveway and garage. The richness of Hertfordshire was evident in that short walk of a quarter of an hour.

Our main purpose had been to partake of the prasadam, food blessed by the grace of the Lord. Although we had arrived late there was still much left. We had a satisfying meal. We then walked in the gardens surrounding this mock-Tudor manor house. The temple and garden were completely isolated from the world outside. Plants and trees shut out the roads, the traffic, a neighbouring pub and the houses beyond. There was peace everywhere. The garden afforded some pleasant walks. Except for a few formal beds, most of the garden was informal and free in a natural way. Devotees had a hand in only maintaining what nature had provided. There was no enforced landscaping or colourful display of flowers. Perhaps if I were to come again in summer my view would be different. We noted the conservatories housing the revered tulsi plant (Indian basil). We turned to view the goshaala, a place for cows that supply milk for the temple. This is where the idyllic peace was temporarily broken. We had to pass through a packed car park with cars moving in and out, kicking up dust and crunching down gravel.

Any place or building can be a temple if we wish it to be so. A manor house, completely English in style and form, resembles nothing at all to an Indian temple. This does not prevent these devotees from using is as a Hindu temple. We made a brief visit to the prayer hall which was packed on this occasion of Ramleela. Some devotees chanted the Maha Mantra. Others sat silently. Some closed their eyes in meditation. A few, like the two of us, looked here and there, distracted and purposeless. The overall mood was peaceful. The rhythmic repetition of the mantra brings about peace and calm. This repetition may seem ordered but the emotions and moods that go with the words are spontaneous.

The place was busy with visitors. Most devotees were Gujaratis. The priests kept busy with their daily chores: chanting, singing, serving, cleaning, interacting and educating. In a lively and active place like this there was little motivation to examine the architecture.


Wanderings in Essex

24 03 2007

Epping Town

I had two objectives for the day: to walk parts of Epping Forest and to visit the Abbey Church at Waltham Abbey. But life is not easy as we want it to be. Before even taking a single step in the forest, many miles of journey had to be undertaken. I had to pass through London, change to the Underground before finally reaching Epping two hours after leaving Luton. The Central line of the Underground terminates at Epping. Although Epping is quite a long way from Central London, it must be considered as a suburb of London. Epping Forest is one of the green spaces managed by the Corporation of London. A sign board at the start of one of the forest paths makes this clear.

I stopped at Epping for breakfast which was typically English. I had nothing more than slices of toasted bread, baked beans and scrambled egg. Epping is not a sleepy town in a remote inland location where if there is any real business it exists only for tourists. Epping provides for the needs of a considerable population. It may be that those who live in Epping work in London but all the necessary common services can be obtained in Epping itself. To start with, Epping has as many as five hair saloons and as many as four charity shops. Then I proceeded to make a list of different services on the main street: cafes, modern and traditional in the English sense; restaurants, Italian, Indian, Chinese, Thai among others; Indian take-away; chocolatiers; a fish-and-chips shop; kebab, pizza, burger and fried chicken shops; bakeries; a butchery; pubs; hotels; dry cleaners; travel agents; estate agents; a Royal Mail office; bookmakers; a sports injury clinic; pharmacies; opticians; a dental surgery; a podiatrist and chiropodist; funeral directors and monumental masons; newsagents; showrooms for furniture, interiors, ceramics and tiles; bookshops; a party shop for fancy dress and disco hire; photographers; a bicycle shop; an Anglican church; a Methodist church; a Quaker meeting house; independent financial advisors; florists; mobile phone shops; banks and cash machines; shops selling crafts, gifts, knitting yarn and greeting cards; a shop selling carpets and rugs; a shop for nail care; another for shoe repairs. Further up the road, I found a car showroom and a petrol kiosk.

So here in Epping I found a snapshot of an English town and the needs of our times. Epping stands apart from the forest. Epping is not as closely associated with its forest as Hampstead is with its heath. Had Constable painted more of this forest than of Hampstead Heath, my view would have been different. Here lies one of the pitfalls of travel in general. Much of what we expect to find or see is shaped by the expressions of artists and writers. This expectation is not a problem in itself. The greater problem is that we seek happiness and joy in finding exactly what others have expressed. This is the “been-there-done-that” travel syndrome. If we don’t find it, we are disappointed. In the process we fail to notice other things, perhaps better things that could enhance our personal experience of each visit. If we remain with certain preconceived expectations we remain disappointed.

Epping Forest

I had no illusions about what I would find in the forest. I did not expect a dense growth of leafy abundance. This is the usual picture we find in all guidebooks, brochures and websites. So early in the year, I found exactly what I had expected: bare branches trying to come out of the chill of winter, ground covered with dried leaves and fruit kernels, dead tree trunks passing through the final rites of slow decay, still ponds hiding quietly amongst woodland shades, moss-covered slopes and well-trodden paths. This beautiful spectacle was nothing new to me. This was the form in which I had admired Hampstead Heath.

I passed an Iron Age land feature called the Ambresbury Banks. This is a circular ditch and earthbank from about 500 BC. Surrounded by woodland and with no open views to the world outside, this is a special place. A few minutes of walking on these banks we may begin to feel an ancient aura, of primitive tribes and bloody battles.

Epping Forest is definitely not enchanting. It does not have the special appeal of Sherwood Forest. It does not have the isolation of Guisborough Forest. It does not have the towering beauty of pines neatly laid out as in Redesdale Forest. Yet it is a forest that provides great accessibility for all to enjoy. Londoners make good use of it. They ought to because they pay for its maintenance.

Waltham Abbey

Of all haughty advertisements and expressions of self-praise, Waltham Abbey takes the cake. There is a board near the Abbey Church describing this place as “an attractive market town”. Let us consider what is so attractive about this town. To walk to this town from Epping Forest, I had to cross two busy and noisy motorways. Then I had to pass through high-rise residential blocks decaying with age. Unsightly by appearance and badly maintained, they reflected perhaps the nature of the social classes that lived in them. None of the buildings in town were attractive. The museum had a meagre collection that had little interest. Except for the Abbey Church the town had nothing of importance.

Once an Augustinian Abbey, its beginnings can be traced to a remarkable legend and a man’s dream in Somerset. Before the Dissolution the main building and its extensions had occupied a much greater area. The nave alone is said to have been three times as long. What stands today continues to exhibit its earlier magnificence. The lightness of the stone by colour has a pleasing effect. When combined with the strength and bulk of circular Norman pillars and semi-circular arches of the nave arcading, the effect is enhanced. One pillar contains a zigzag pattern etched around it. Another contains etching of parallel lines that spiral upwards along its circumference. These details add greater interest although I prefer the dimly lit plain Norman interior of Malvern’s Priory.

The painted ceiling is just that, a flat covering without any vaulting. Signs of the zodiac are depicted colourfully along with common seasonal activities. The churchwardens justify this seemingly inappropriate collection of images by making association that are not in anyway obvious. For instance, the sign Gemini with its twins speaks of Christ’s duality, both human and divine. The sign Aquarius signifies baptism. Even if such associations and derived meanings make sense, the origins of the zodiac in classical mythology cannot be easily overlooked.

Another interesting aspect in this church are the circular chain marks on one of the Norman pillars. Important books had been made accessible to the reading public. They had to be chained to the pillars. If the soiling of books are a testimony their considerable use and usefulness, these marks in stone are a permanent testimony even without the books.

In this abbey church there is a space reserved for children. This place is colourfully furnished and decorated. Paper, pencils and crayons are available. Picture books with parables or something similar in a modern context form a small library. Notice boards contain drawings, thoughts and artwork by kids. Christianity, religion and good moral behaviour are introduced to children by such means that appeal to them. This church is not alone in doing things this way. I have seen it in Sherborne Abbey last week. I have seen it in the parish church at Charminster. This practice can be found in most parish churches of the country. I do not recall finding such a space in cathedrals but I may have just failed to notice.

On January 3rd 2003, this church was subjected to an axe attack in which monuments were destroyed. The reredos suffered great damage. Some windows were broken. Much of this damage has been painstakingly restored. A special service was held on January 3rd 2004. This is modern history on an ancient church.

Outside, where once the abbey’s longer nave had extended into the present open lawns, there lies a tombstone with these words:


King Harold, as history tells us, is the king who fell in battle against the famous William the Conqueror. It was his defeat that brought the “Norman yoke” to Britain. Behind is a small stone that bears the following:


OBIIT 1066

All this is just fanciful thought. The key phrase in the above inscriptions is this – “is said to have been”. There is no certainty. If he is really buried here they should have been at least one record to prove it. When something as great as the Domesday Book was produced in about the same period, it is unlikely that an important detail as this is left untold. Perhaps the intention was to keep this a secret from the conquerors. If this is really his burial place, his bones should have been excavated. The truth is harder to unravel with the passage of time. Meanwhile the legend acquires greater renown.

The Pull of London

At Waltham Abbey we are within breathing distance of London. The pulsating life of London is felt not just in its suburbs but even beyond. Although Waltham Abbey is not a part of Greater London, the continuous traffic that moves in and out of London passes by this town. Every London suburb has perhaps something unique but they are bound to borrow and share, at least in part, the spirit of London. Even if they do not willingly borrow, they do not have a choice: London’s free spirit is lent and enforced. Waltham Abbey may not be a lively and exciting place, but it is highly likely that its residents feel alive and excited by being close to London and visiting it often. In fact, Waltham Abbey is dreary and dull. A little away from the town centre, I found the gross effects of industrialisation.

So close to London anyone would feel its pull. The suburbs, like iron filings, crowd around London’s magnetic centre. The suburbs, like electrons, complete the atom with its central nucleus. The suburbs of “H”, dependent yet separate, link with the perfect ring of a benzene molecule. The tracks and their trains, like gleaming filaments, join the spider’s complex web. The roads and their traffic, like arteries of blood, come alive with each beat of the heart. And with the passing of every minute and hour, this organism grows as a benign malignant virus.

I took a train from Enfield Lock to Manor Park where to my surprise I found the end of Epping Forest, announced once more by a board from the Corporation of London. After dinner, which was a proper South Indian meal, I took the District Line at East Ham with a vague idea of alighting at West Ham. West Ham came and went. I sat in the Tube without purpose and without destination. Later, I thought I will get off at Embankment and change to the Northern Line for Tottenham Court Road. This too did not happen. I sat mesmerised by the soothing motion of the train amidst the regularity of stations, platforms, announcements, beeps and closing of doors. This act of moving many feet beneath ground level was not something I had thought about before. This was like getting under the skin of London itself which nonetheless retained its calm unperturbed soul and maintained its frenzy bodily existence. Nothing could shake London. It had seen and supported every civilisation that had come to be born, grown and lived in it. It had even let every civilisation define and redefine it in many ways. It had accepted them all without question because it knew deep inside, even below these interconnecting lines of the Underground, that it belonged to Nature alone and its identity was immutable.

I sat station after station watching people get in and get out, listening to the few conversations that were made or observing the little behaviours of men and women from different lands. Here in London’s Underground are the journeys of many, performed in many complex ways but meeting very briefly. I do not know where another is going but for a few moments we share this space and breathe this air. If we were to look into each other’s eyes, time may stand still but for only one moment. The next moment catches up and we move on in our journeys. When finally the train pulls up at the last station, it waits for a new journey to begin.

Discovering Dorset – Part 2

18 03 2007

17-18 March 2007

Part1 | Part2

An Ancient Landscape

It’s been many months since I visited any part of South West England. On the way to Sherborne, I passed Salisbury. From the train I noted the more than beautiful spire of its Cathedral. I was tempted once more to alight here for an hour before continuing on my longer journey. This time however, my better sense of judgement prevailed. Every journey has its distractions. Every traveller must keep his goal in sight. While my goal for the weekend is just Sherborne, the greater goal is to cover as much of Britain as time would allow. Life is too short to visit the same place twice.

In Salisbury one feels transported to an ancient landscape. The aura of the Stonehenge, its Avenue and the surrounding Iron Age barrows is felt. This sort of a feeling is not immediate or automatic. It happens only to someone already familiar with the landscape. I have been to the Stonehenge. I have seen the evening sun set behind the stones about the time of winter solstice. I have walked much of the surrounding landscape and imagined the spirit of those primitive humans still alive in the grass, the hedges and the trees. In Wiltshire, one travels far and yet remains near.

Next I passed Warminster. To the south lay lovely hills some which I had walked while on a visit to Stourhead. From here the train curved up to the town of Westbury. On approach, I spotted on the hillside to the east, the Westbury White Horse. This is a chalk figure scoured on a grassy hillside. It stands on a fairly steep hill. It could be seen clearly from the train. There is a world of difference between this figure and the one at Uffington. This horse stands in a static pose. If it is art, it is plain and ordinary. It has neither movement nor energy. The horse has no desire to move. It has been tamed into total submission. It is no better than the chalk lion at Whipsnade in Bedfordshire.

On Saturday night I camped at a campsite named Giant’s Head. This is located along the ridge of a hill. It was windy all through the night. There was in the same site a group of thirteen students training for the Duke of Edinburgh award. One of them commented that last year they came fourth. On Sunday morning it was a short walk from here to Giant’s Hill. On this hill is a chalk figure of a naked man with an erect penis, wielding a knobbed club with his right hand and awkwardly holding out his left hand into the empty air. Different theories exist. Experts are not even certain of the date of this chalk figure. The problem with this figure is that it could not be appreciated easily. A little after leaving the campsite I came across signs pointing to “Giant’s Hill” or “Cerne Giant”. Upon reaching this hill, without losing my way, I could see nothing of the giant. I could faintly see lines of chalk on the slope but nothing of the giant and his mighty stance. Worse still, I could not walk up this hill. I was stopped by a National Trust signboard:


Giant's Inn

The Giant's Inn

So I turned back and walked to the viewpoint on A352. Here I could see the giant but even this supposedly best view was not clear enough from ground level. It appears that the best views can only be from the air. This is evident in all photographs and sketches of the giant. From A352, I could see the shape of the giant and his awkward pose but I could not see his face clearly. I could see the chalky lines of his rib cage but I could not see his eyebrows, his lips, his wide open eyes or his nipples. It was only by the pictures in the village (including the sign at the Giant’s Inn, a free house) that I was able to gather the full extent of this white giant who hides artfully in short green grass. The fault is with the hill. It is not sufficiently steep to present the giant in the best possible way. Perhaps the hills on the other side of the valley would afford a better view. My view of the giant remained flattened or even foreshortened as is the case in some medieval paintings.

My trip came to an end on Sunday evening at Dorchester. In this city is an ancient turf-covered circular ditch and embankment called the Maumbury Rings. For simplicity, its history can be broken into three periods:

  1. Late Neolithic Period (2500 BC). It was created as a ground for burials and rituals. The ditch was deep and at places vertical shafts had been dug. The shafts had been filled with different deposits. Some had been left empty. We cannot see any of these details but we know they existed. This knowledge alone is sufficient to fire our imaginations and ponder at these ancient mysteries and civilisations long gone.
  2. Roman Occupation (1st century). In the time of the Romans, this was used as an amphitheatre. By necessity, they made changes to the structure.
  3. Seventeenth Century. It was used as an artillery fort by the Parliamentarians during the English Civil War. It is understandable that they too remodelled the structure to suit their purposes.
The outer embankment of Maumbury Rings

The outer embankment of Maumbury Rings

My weekend discovery of this ancient landscape ended at the Maumbury Rings. Due to lack of time, it is with regret that I could not visit Maiden Castle situated just a couple of kilometres from Dorchester. This name is a misnomer for it is no different from the Maumbury Rings in structure although it is of a much bigger scale. On my OS map, I could see the immense scale of this fortress of ditch and embankment built in three tiers. However, I have read a lot about Maiden Castle and I am impressed; but this is a poor substitute for the real experience of being there.

Walking in the Cerne Valley

I had a clear idea that I would walk from Cerne Abbas to Dorchester on Sunday. There is no public transport on Sunday. I knew I would walk along river Cerne, following its course to the town of Charminster where it loses itself into river Frome. However, I had no idea that this valley would be so beautiful and that a well-signed path pointed the way for the avid walker. As the Test Valley of Hampshire, the Cerne Valley is Dorset’s best-kept secret.

The beauty of this path on a chalky soil was that it was easy. There were very few climbs and even these were never steep. The path afforded views if the hills on both sides, their green slopes, their neat hedgerows, the manicured lines tumbling down their sloping fields. On a bright cold day as today, the river sparkled while the grassy fields were wet with dew even at noon. Sheep grazed in peace. Ewes and their little lambs, leery of visitors, kept their distance. Horses and cattle minded their business. Daffodils were plenty but even dandelions appeared ahead of their season.

Cerne Abbas is a beautiful village. The river Cerne contributes to this beauty and so does the hills around it. The mystic shadow of the giant and his spirit, ancient and wise as we must suppose, lingers. Opposite the parish church is a timber-framed building called the Pitchmarket. Farmers would pitch their corn sacks here on market days. Buyers would inspect them before completing the transaction. Much of an old abbey that once flourished in this village is gone. What survives is under private ownership. An entrance tower from abbey survives with its two-storeyed oriel window. Associated with this abbey is a well below which is the source of a spring. Water rises from under the rocks and this is seen in the little ripples that disturb the stillness of the pool. A stream then flows out swiftly into pond. In fact, water runs into the street where it is channelled to drains on either side. This reminded me of Daniel Defoe’s description of Salisbury which would be a nuisance if it were true today. Of this well are legends and superstitions. I record two of the latter:

  1. If you pick a laurel leaf, dip it in the water and press it to the eyes, it will cure soreness of the eyes.
  2. The well is also known as a wishing well. Girls were recommended to go there and pray to St Catherine for a husband, turning round three times as they did so.

At Cerne Abbas, there is a board that asks the question, “Who cares for the Cerne Valley?” It then proceeds to list the following, each one fulfilling a distinct role:

  • DEFRA: Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
  • Dorset Countryside Ranger Service
  • The National Trust
  • West Dorset District Council

Then when I entered the parish church in Cerne Abbas, I found a notice pinned to the door. It mentioned that the church was being preserved by Dorset Historic Churches Trust. Later on the walk I visited the small All Saints church at Nether Cerne. This is no longer used for worship but it continues to be preserved by the Churches Conservation Trust. A pamphlet in the church claims that this trust maintains over 300 historic churches. I found that I have not visited even a single one from that list. The All Saints church at Nether Cerne had been the first. This capacity amongst people to organize themselves for a worthy cause is truly commendable. Trusts as these are non-profit organisations. Their funding comes from donations and membership fees. Their drive comes from their passion to preserve their heritage, the environment or a cultural legacy that defines who they are, where they come from and what they believe in.

Images from the Cerne Valley

Images from the Cerne Valley

The church at Nether Cerne is smaller than chapels in most cathedrals. Even houses in the country are often bigger. On the inside, it is peaceful as expected. The church at Charminster is a more interesting one. I stopped here for more than an hour on account of which a visit to Maiden Castle had to be dropped. The importance of this church is in the name of the town which means “minster church on the river Cerne”. The word “cerne” itself comes from Celtic which means a “winding stream”. A Minster church had the primarily role of spreading the gospel. Minsters as this, or the one at Southwell, would have been important in the pre-Norman period during which there were still many who believed in pagan worship or Celtic forms of Christianity.

In many ways, this church resembles the transition from Norman to Perpendicular style that I found at Sherborne Abbey. Rounded arches have been reshaped to pointed arches with wide panels. The Norman cushioned capitals with scallop ornamentation are worth a study. So are the spurs at column bases which are ringed with chevron ornamentation. In the clerestory we find Perpendicular windows alternating with older Norman windows that are no more than narrow embrasures as in St Aldhelm’s Chapel (which is also in Dorset and not very far from here).


Today has been a cold and windy day. Still, the Sunday afternoon sun was bright and glared into my eyes as I made my way towards Dorchester. I adjusted the brim of my sports cap trying to shade my eyes from the glare of a largely cloudless sky. As I plodded along with my tent, sleeping bag and other camping necessities, I passed a local pub named “The Sun Inn”. At that moment I felt I was living the first scene of Thomas Hardy’s “The Mayor of Casterbridge”.

It is not strange that I have nothing much to write about Dorchester. When I arrived on late Sunday afternoon, all the shops were closed. The Dorset County Museum was not open. I noted the statue of a poet named William Barnes who had written verses in a local dialect. While Robert Burns achieved success by writing in local Scottish dialect, William Barnes remains unknown to the world at large. I walked in town through its streets and traffic. I walked by the river Frome. I walked passed vendors selling flowers for Mother’s Day. I walked by the Maumbury Rings. I had read somewhere about the fame and antiquity of Dorchester Abbey but all my search in town proved to be in vain. Only later in the week, as I was making these notes, did I realise that the abbey I had been looking for was many miles north in Oxfordshire. Oxfordshire has a Dorchester of its own!

Part1 | Part2

Discovering Dorset – Part 1

18 03 2007

17-18 March 2007

Part1 | Part2

First Impressions of Sherborne

If you mention of Dorset to any Englishman, he will immediately comment on its beautiful beaches, cliffs and coves. This is the enduring image of Dorset. Having already seen much of this Jurassic Coast, I wanted to discover inland Dorset. What better place to start than Sherborne? If you pick up any tourist guidebook for England, it will tell you without doubt that Sherborne is one of the loveliest English villages and just as certainly the loveliest village in Dorset. So it had to be visited for completeness of my travels. When every guidebook speaks so highly of a place, a visit becomes obligatory. After a long and difficult working week, I was looking forward to this lovely Dorset village.

I slept for only four hours on Friday night, so that I could take an early train to Dorchester where I would change for a bus to Sherborne. The train leaving Luton got cancelled due to a technical failure. Technical failures are all too common, so common that they have come to be accepted as a normal way of operating a railway network. We must wonder if all the inefficiencies and inadequacies of rail services make use of this convenient public apology: this general, obscure and here-to-stay technical failure. On this particular occasion, on a Saturday morning at 4 am, we are not told what caused this failure. Perhaps, the driver overslept. We will never know. I arrived at London Waterloo five minutes after the train to Dorchester had already departed. An hour of unplanned wait was not a good start for a reasonably well-planned trip. South West Trains staff at Waterloo did not want to compensate me for the lost time, this delay and its impact on all my plans. It was convenient for them to blame it on First Capital Connect. The train network was privatised in 1994. The government is no longer accountable in a direct way, the way it still is in India. Private train companies control only parts of the network. If accidents do occur, Railtrack becomes an easy scapegoat for everyone else. Nonetheless, I managed to change my ticket to Yeovil Junction. This enabled me to leave Waterloo by an earlier train. This journey had its delays too, as the route was longer that usual due to weekend engineering works near Sherborne. From Yeovil Junction, I walked to Sherborne by easy paths and country roads. Finally when I reached Sherborne, tired and hungry, it was past noon. It had taken me eight hours to get to this town.

It is easy to describe how lovely Sherborne turned out to be by first impressions. Rows and rows of council flats and houses greeted me. Owners let their barking dogs loose and did not apologise for it. Guys with long hair or shaved heads hid their eyes behind dark glasses and apparently stared at me for no reason. None of these council houses maintained a proper garden although each one had ample garden space. The few gardens that I passed by had been done distastefully. Profusion of flowers, colours, plants and pixies is not gardening. So much for Sherborne. One of the best advices for a traveller is this: be prepared to be disappointed.

The Wonder of Sherborne

As I got closer to the town centre, Sherborne began to live up to its reputation. Still there was nothing really compelling until I entered Finger Lane, a small lane that lead to some stunning stone buildings. The Sherborne School is private but I was able to admire its facade from the outside. It has clean lines and a neat array of plain gables. The windows are rectangular but they are partitioned by narrow lights that end in pointed arches with little cuspings in them. From the school, I turned left and as a result I completely missed the Abbey Church.

Saturday market at Sherborne from the Conduit House

Saturday market at Sherborne from the Conduit House

Soon I came to the market square where a small Saturday market was active but selling nothing useful. The fact is the main street is close by with a wide variety of shops to suit the needs of locals and visitors. The Saturday market therefore has less prominence than what I have seen in other market towns. Nevertheless, the market square is small and compact. Its centrepiece that does much to retain the feel of an ancient market town is the Conduit House. This is a small hexagonal structure that today opens out on all six sides. It used to be a washroom for monks of the Abbey but after the Dissolution it was moved to its present position. I stood in this structure for a few minutes watching the movement of people framed within its 16th century silhouetted lines and arches. I felt I had travelled back in time but the world of 21st century had come with me.

I had my lunch at Cross Keys, a local pub within the market square. Later in the day I purchased a piece of bread pudding at a local shop named “Oxfords”. As a discerning traveller I have been consciously trying to sample local produce rather than buying standard stuff from Tescos, Sainsbury’s and the like. This is all the more important in the 21st century when globalisation and branding has meant that the same shops are present everywhere selling the same stuff. A traveller must never rest in his or her own comfort zone. A complete experience can come only with a little bit of adventure and daring. It can come only when the traveller willingly explores the unknown, visits the obscure or samples the unmentioned. A traveller may note what others before him have already seen but he seeks a whole new experience, an experience that at every step hesitates to tread the footsteps of others.

When I had sampled enough of the life of the market square, I wandered just a few steps to suddenly discover the Abbey Church. This is a stunning building in Perpendicular style. Perpendicular windows are to be found at two levels. The choir and the nave rise higher than the aisles. The choir is linked to crocketed pinnacles of the aisles by flying buttresses. For some reason, the nave lacks similar buttresses although it is of the same height as the choir. The tracery in these windows is magnificent. For example, the West window is distinctly divided into three parts by two mullions that rise from the base of the windows right to the arching top. Within each part, transoms divide them into three further parts. Within each of these sub-sections, we find three thin lights with elegant cuspings. The top part of the window is taken up by elaborate tracery of fine details. The exterior of the Abbey Church is pleasing from the start mainly because all windows reflect this uniformity of design. Though the windows at ground level are a little different with slight variations, characteristics of Perpendicular architecture underlines what’s common to all of them.

For some strange reason, the number three keeps cropping up at other parts of the facade. Shields carved in stone can be found beneath one of the windows of a chapel in the south. One shield contains three horses heads bridled and couped at neck. Another shield has three battleaxes. Next to it is one with three lions lashing their tails. On the far right is a shield with three birds. I learnt the meanings of some of these inside the church at the Horsey Tomb and the Leweston Tomb.

The interior can be described in a simple way. A family with two little girls entered the church while I was seated in the pews in the nave. The girls looked at the nave vaulting. In an instant they were held spellbound and I could see it in their expressions. There was unmitigated wonder in their eyes and nothing more complete on their lips than a single word: “Wow!” The nave vaulting is a combination of fan-vaulting and lierne vaulting. The latter comes about because the “fans” do not touch each other at the central line of the nave, as is the case in King’s College Chapel.

With a little study and a great deal of help from available guidebooks, I finally began to see that the once glorious abbey had in fact been in the Norman style. It was only later that much of it was refaced to the Perpendicular style. The Norman style continues to have a strong presence in the Crossing as well as the East Window. In fact, this detail from the East Window may be easily missed because the window tracery is Perpendicular and so is much of the choir. Likewise, the piers and the bays of the nave have been refaced from their original style. This has been done by converting the rounded arches to the pointed form. Thick Norman arches have been transformed into wide panels. This is not Transitional Norman style (as in parts of Worcester Cathedral) but resembles it a good deal. Another indication of this transformation can be seen in the nave vaulting shafts that do not rise from the piers below them. In fact, they terminate at the base of the clerestory on carved corbels. The clerestory in its entirety is a newer construction in Perpendicular style and this is primarily what we see on the outside. Yet another clever disguise can be found on wall arcading within the Horsey Tomb. Here the intersecting Norman arcading has been retained but at points where the arches meet, a pointed finish has been enforced so that it begins to fall in line with the newer architecture seen elsewhere in the building.

The church has many other notable features. The lierne vaulting in the North Transept is superb. The church has its share of sculptures in the Horsey Tomb, the Leweston Tomb and the Digby Memorial. The reredos in Caen stone is a fine modern addition. The ambulatory that leads to the Lady Chapel has its own fine vaulting that continues to the aisles on either side. The Dorsetshire Regiment has its Colours displayed in the church. The following words were framed in bands of red, yellow and green:


A moth-eaten rag
On a worm-eaten pole,
It doesn’t seem much
To stir a man’s soul.
‘Tis the deeds that were done
Neath the moth-eaten rag
When the pole was a Staff
And the rag was a Flag.

For argument’s sake, let us assume that all the beautiful parts of Sherborne are destroyed by some great catastrophe. Let us assume too that the Abbey Church I have described thus far is erased to the ground: the nave, the aisles, the chapels, the tower, the tombs, the elegant and well-proportioned windows are all gone without a trace. Yet Sherborne would be worth the trouble of a long journey for it has one of the architectural wonders of Britain. This wonder seeks to belittle even the great Cathedrals of the land. This is the Choir with its spectacular vaulting. I am convinced that there can be nothing equal to it in all of the British Isles.

The choir vaulting at Sherborne Abbey

The choir vaulting at Sherborne Abbey

The choir vaulting is from the mid-fifteenth century. If the nave vaulting is deemed superb, the choir vaulting is vastly superior. It has in it a certain loftiness that is not in the nave. There is fluidity in its design. The piers rise boldly. The vaulting takes over from the piers naturally and spread out their “fans”. The fans themselves exhibit a natural movement as if there could be no better way for them to exist, like a fountain of water springing up and flowing in nature’s ways. It is also unique that the vaulting rises from the piers only at the last possible moment. This contributes to the loftiness and enhanced vertical perspective. The result is that the central rib from each fan joins its counterpart in a semi-circular arch to match the Norman form of the East Window.

Unlike the usual architecture of having a level of blind arcading followed by the clerestory, each window occupies its entire bay. This privilege is granted only because the choir is not bounded by tall aisles on either side. Above the ground level arcade is a level of blind decorated panels. These form the base of windows which reach right to the top of the ceiling. The result is that transverse ribs from these windows run flat across the choir vaulting.

The fans are joined together by a complex arrangement of ribs and bosses that form the intervening lierne vaulting. This lierne vaulting is as good as the one at Norwich Cathedral, perhaps even better because it is contained in a smaller space and complemented by the fans. The vaulting as a whole is colourfully decorated with shields, fruits, flowers, leaves, crosses, stars and other motifs. The spaces created within the fans and by the lierne vaulting are embellished with cuspings. These decorations add richness and glory. The extra interest in the choir comes from the decorated stone panels of the piers. These panels follow the line and curve of their piers all the way to the pointed arch of their window.

Part1 | Part2

From Whitby to Scarborough, North Yorkshire

4 03 2007

3-4 March 2007

Beach huts at Whitby

Beach huts at Whitby

I am glad that I have come to Whitby. It’s a beautiful coastal town situated on slopes that drop down to a quiet harbour. On one side is the North Sea. On the other side are gentle green slopes that lead towards the North York Moors by the beautiful Eskdale. I passed through Eskdale this morning by a slow train from Middlesbrough. At Whitby, buildings old and new pack the slopes densely. If they were living creatures, they would have difficulty breathing in such congested air and claustrophobic setting. On the contrary, as a visitor I did not feel that the town was congested or crowded. The main reason is the harbour that provides an expanse of open space. Being next to the sea, the air in town is always refreshing. When the wind blows, the taste and smell of the sea is upon us. The image of the sea is immediately recalled and we at once feel that the sea with its openness belongs to us. The sea becomes a part of the town. No matter how many more buildings rise and jostle for space, Whitby will still be salubrious and inhabitable as ever, thanks to the sea. All rivers may drain into the sea; the sun and the rain may borrow and return from the sea; but the sea will neither drain nor disappear. Its openness will always remain with Whitby.

With this constant presence of the sea and a beautiful broad beach which extends all the way to the village of Sandsend, Whitby requires no fancy gardens, parks or playgrounds. Nature has provided a fine sandy beach reposed to an unending dance and music of the waves. A twice-daily drama is played out on this beach as the tides roll in and roll out. In this regard, Whitby is fortunate to have two different views of the same place. At low tide, the quiet calm of the sea is felt. At high tide, the roar and thunder come right up the cliffs that delimit the town. These bare cliffs with their unspoken record of geological history stand as witnesses to an ever-changing landscape. If the sea should remain forever, it is by no means certain that Whitby will.

Unlike the great cities of the world, the streets here are narrow and neat. Many of these streets have little or no traffic, so that I wonder if they have been pedestrianized. Since these are built on slopes, some of them cobbled, there is a period atmosphere. The streets strive to welcome what is new while maintaining what is old. This is seen in the many speciality shops that line the streets: antique bookshops, antique clock and watch shops, furniture shops, butcheries, fish shops, art galleries… The reason these shops are interesting is because none of them sell the usual branded goods that are so commonly found in the shopping malls of big cities. The names in these streets are just as intriguing: Old Smuggler, Loggerheads Yard, New Way Ghaut (ghaut being a Hindi word for quay).

By being narrow, the streets create a feeling of cosiness and comfort. We do not feel lost or insignificant. We do not get carried along in some mad rush by teeming crowds as in London. We can be ourselves. We can take our own time to explore as we wish. From the gaps between buildings we can see the ruins of the Abbey on the cliffs across the harbour. This view of the Abbey is seen from many parts of town, so that we feel that even in its ruins, the Abbey is a blessing. The Abbey is forever a part of the town just as the sea.

Whitby Abbey from the graveyard of St Mary's Parish Church

Whitby Abbey from the graveyard of St Mary's Parish Church

The Abbey had seen many glorious days. As recorded by Bede, it was the venue for the famous synod of 664 AD. Today it draws visitors from far and near. Its long-lost greatness and importance is seen in its windowless Early English arches that are prominent at the east end and the north transept. Norman arches along the nave’s triforium and Perpendicular arches elsewhere are also present. The North Transept when seen from a distance is quite a sight. We can admire the bare bones, the essential elements of its architecture without being distracted by little details and decorations. Early English arches rise in three tiers, three arches in each tier. The gable at the top is set with a rose window of ten petals. Pinnacles top the piers on either side of this gable. Finials on these pinnacles are broken or eroded into oblivion. Window traceries elsewhere remain in bits and pieces. They attempt completion but remain unfulfilled in their purpose. And all this time, the sea breeze eats away steadily all that stands in its path.

Next to the Abbey is the 12th century St Mary’s Parish Church surrounded by a substantial graveyard. The church is in a spectacular setting, right on the cliffs, overlooking the town, the harbour, the breakwaters and piers that lead up to the sea, and the beach further along the coast. The epitaphs on tombstones in the graveyard are much obliterated. Exposure to the sea, its wind and salty spray has sculpted the face of tombstones into coarse-grained groves. In some cases, the tombstones have snapped into two and the earth is seen to devour the fallen stones. Life of a tombstone begins with the birth of death; but even tombstones have to succumb to death.

The church itself has the usual nave and transepts but it is not quite in the unusual layout. Leaving notable little details aside, there are four aspects of this church that stood out for me:

  1. The north transept has been extended in the 19th century from its original design so that today it is very much part of the nave. Even the nave as it is today is not of the usual proportions. With its integration to the north transept it is more of a square. Such developments have come about with the expansion of the parish.
  2. The church has a spectacular pulpit that rises in three decks. The parish clerk would have occupied the bottom deck, the priest the middle deck, and the sermon delivered from the top deck. There are also some air pipes attached to the pulpit to direct sound to someone hard of hearing!
  3. The pews in this church are not open to the floor or the congregation as a whole. The pews are boxed. In other words, wooden partitions define and separate the boxed pews. Within each of these boxed pews, perhaps five individuals can be seated. Generally, each partition would have been reserved for a particular family. There are also some boxed pews reserved “for strangers only”, by which is meant visiting priests or common folks. The church caretaker added that boxed pews had a purpose: people were meant to pray, not look around.
  4. Such boxed pews extend to the mezzanine above and this is where the church takes on a different look-and-feel altogether. My sentiments were similar to what I have described in my visit to Lincoln Cathedral. In particular, the Cholmley Pew looks down at the altar in the chancel. This symbolism could not matter if those who assembled here prayed with a sincere heart.

On a bright and sunny day as today, Whitby was popular place for a day out. People arrived from all the neighbouring towns and villages. The car parks were full. When the tide came in, the beach was lost. The quayside and piers became packed. What do people eat at Whitby? It is no difficult guess. Fish and chips. Packed in bright blue and white paper boxes. The air was full of the smell of fried fish and oil-dipped chips. Then I spotted that essential addition to any ancient port, a typical seaman with a face hardened and weather-beaten on the high seas, complete with a white beard and smoking pipe. Whitby’s long association with the sea yields unexpected finds for the visitor, such as a 1988 plaque that reads:

Two Whitby built ships, the Fishburn and the Golden Grove,
were amongst the eleven vessels known as the First Fleet
which reached Botany Bay in 1788 to found the
first settlement in Australia

Whitby is still an active fishing port. Fish arrive early every morning except on Sundays. Thus it happened that my wish to observe and record some fishing activity remained unfulfilled. One of the famous shops in town is “The Whitby Catch”. The shop has won many awards. Its strength is in selling a wide variety of seafood. Ninety percent of its produce comes from local waters. The produce is unloaded at the quay barely a hundred meters from the shop and goes directly on sale. This is as fresh as it gets. Smoking of salmon and kippers is done locally by a man who has been doing it for years. The shop is closed only four days in a year: Christmas Day, Boxing Day, New Year’s Day (because they run out of stock) and Regatta Monday (a day of massive funfair held in mid-August). I was informed that three boats would be coming in on Monday at 7.30 am but I have not been fortunate to observe them. I leave Whitby tomorrow morning. I have to be back in office on Monday.

I continue these notes on Sunday night at York while waiting for my return bus to Luton. It has been quite a walk today from Whitby to Scarborough. I found out yesterday that there are in fact two walking paths from Whitby to Scarborough. One is the inland path along a disused railway track. The other is the National Trail, the Cleveland Way that keeps to the winding coastline and for most part stays on the cliff-tops. I took to the coastal path. The day started as bright and sunny as yesterday but rain was predicted from noon onwards. I have done many coastal walks in Cornwall, Dorset, Kent or the Isle of Wight. In all my walks the weather had been superb. For once I wished for rain to add some diversity to my travels, to add a new experience to my coastal explorations.

Rain it did. The wind on top of these cliffs was a lot worse. For five hours I had to battle against these twin elements of untamed nature. The wind often threatened to blow me off the cliff, the path being no more than three feet from the cliff’s edge. The wind sometimes blew from the sea in unexpected directions. While every step was hard work, every step had in it excitement and exhilaration. The feel of the wind, the roar of the sea, the crash of the waves against the stoical cliffs, the pelleting of the rain against my face were all memorable elements of this superb walk. The great forces of nature take little effort to make human endeavours insignificant. It is the same nature that brings out man’s fighting spirit. We cannot possibly compete against nature but we may yet learn to survive.

From the start, the coastline was spectacular. From the top of the cliffs I obtained a high perspective looking down to the shore, the tide and the sea beyond. The weather did little to remove the sweeping beauty of the coastline. The curves of the shoreline and contours of the cliff faces work together in creating beautiful views. I saw the coast stretching for miles till the reach of a headland beyond which there was some mystery. Then when I reached such a headland, the picture unravelled with every step and more miles of the coastline was laid out before me. In this manner, I pursued this walk cliff after cliff, ness after ness and slope after slope. If at times the beach was sandy, at other parts it was covered with pebbles or rocks. In some places rocky slabs (called nabs) led down from the cliffs to be washed by the tide to a smooth texture. If the weather created a bleak colourless landscape, gorse flowers on cliff-tops added colour while the foaming waves below added contrast.

The walk was not all on top of the cliffs. Sometimes the path descended to a gap in the cliffs through which a stream flowed to join the sea at a secluded beach. Sometimes the path led to rocky outcrops facing the sea and sheltered by a cliff wall. It would have been a great spot to pitch a tent for a night. Then when I climbed up another slope from such seclusion, I had no idea what to expect until reaching the top a new view opened up and the coastline stretched to greater distances. Then there was the constant sound of the waves. When the path was in full view of the sea, the sound was close and strong. When the path was separated from the cliff’s edge by gorse, trees or hedges, the sound was muffled. In either case, each one could listen to this sound in different ways. Is it a roar or a lullaby? Is it hypnotizing or distracting? Is it meditative or irritating?

Little cottages, houses and gardens in Robin Hood's Bay

Little cottages, houses and gardens in Robin Hood's Bay

En route, I passed the town of Robin Hood’s Bay. This is beautifully situated just like Whitby, only much smaller. The houses are stacked up at close quarters on the cliffs. There is possibly only one main road that descends steeply down to the bay. Even better than Whitby, are its little lanes and passages, winding between buildings. Since these buildings are all standing on slopes, it becomes rare to see on the outside a full wall. I saw a wall half-buried in the ground. I noted many windows at the level of my boots. I noted roofs not very much higher than my shoulder. Simply put, this is a delightful place to explore, full of cosy cottages, cobbled passages, slopes and turns. One would think people here live simply with bare essentials. In this age of tourism, anything as good as this, is expensive. Restaurants were expensive. B&Bs were as much as £50 a night. There could be some local farmers and fishermen but this place is primarily a tourist destination. For those who want to live here, acquiring a property would be an expensive affair.

There are other interesting features on this path. In one grassy field there is a wooden post with footholds. Some ropes are attached to its top. This is called a rocket-post. It was used by coastguards to practice the rescue of shipwrecked sailors. Rockets were fired towards the ships and they carried an endless rope by which the crew could pull themselves to shore. There are some concrete defensive structures elsewhere on these cliffs used during war times. In another field I noted some innocuous farm buildings which were in fact used during World War II as radar transmitting stations. An information board claims that radar was invented by the British just before the war.

Care for a cup of tea?

Care for a cup of tea?

In mathematics, there is a concept called self-similarity. In self-similar systems, the part and the whole are similar. Fractals which are often present in nature are self-similar. Coastlines too are self-similar. There is nothing drastically different from the shape of a coastline in St Ives from that at Whitby. There is no great difference between what we have in Kent to what we have in these parts of Yorkshire. If on a small scale a particular beach curves gracefully, so does the coast on a larger scale. If one beach is separated from another by defined headlands (called ness), a similar pattern can be seen when we consider an aggregation of beaches within the longer coastline. I have not done any deep analysis, but today’s walk has enabled me to appreciate the possible truth about the self-similarity of coastlines.

All through the day I saw people walking with company, never alone. Even those fated to be without human company were not alone: they brought their dogs out for a walk. Everyone is afraid to be alone. People want to converse, exchange ideas, be heard and acknowledged. There is joy in such common ways of human life and interaction. However, my journeys are mostly done by myself. I take note of the company that surrounds me but only occasionally participate in it. There is no joy in solitude, only something greater.