In Retrospection

31 08 2007

How far does a man travel and to what purpose? How long shall be the road? How long the journey and to what end? And when the end’s in sight would it be recognized without doubt? With such an end, would the traveller look back with fond memories and nostalgia? Or would he leave it all behind, having found something more worthwhile to pursue?

If I were to be asked “What’s next?”, I could probably name a hundred places in Britain that I have not yet visited. Among these are castles, cathedrals, country houses and estates, parks, gardens and museums. Then there are villages with significant bits of ancient history or cities rampant with images of twenty-first century culture. Then there are landscapes of the coast, of rolling green hills, of isolated crags and peaks. With each of these there is a new experience waiting to happen. Above all, there is the sheer joy in leaving home, work and chores, travelling towards fresh perspectives and looking at the world as if it was made just yesterday.

What is it that I have missed? Had I visited Newmarket on a race day I would have sampled a little of the British public in its finest clothes, genteel culture and refined etiquettes. Perhaps, I would have also seen something of bizarre tastes, a distinct class divide and snobbery. Had I attended a Premier League match, I might have witnessed, if not become a part of, the mad passion towards football. Had I visited Chatsworth House or Castle Howard, I might have seen or learnt something not found in Windsor Castle or Waddesdon Manor. I had hoped to visit Portsmouth someday to learn more of British naval heritage. Despite the stunning views from Ben Nevis, perhaps there is something more exciting in the climb to Scafell Pike. It is likely that I have missed something by not visiting Hereford Cathedral, Gloucester Cathedral, Rochester Cathedral, Lichfield Cathedral, Durham Cathedral, Melrose Abbey, Rosslyn Chapel or Dunfermline Abbey. I had hoped to visit the Highland Games or the Shetland Folk Festival this summer. Culross in Fife would have certainly shown me something of a typical Scottish burgh. The Paps of Jura or Orkney’s ruins at Skara Brae will remain only as images gathered from forgotten sources. Quite often I planned on visiting Claremont Landscape Garden, Nymans Garden or Leonardslee Gardens. None of these ever happened.

There is no end to the diversity and beauty of the world in which we live. If it had been meant for us to visit every single place in this beautiful, God would have given us longer lives. However, our lives are long enough to learn what we can and find our bearing in a world filled with possibilities. Someday we may be thus inspired to reach out for a higher purpose before it is too late. This higher purpose is hidden. It is higher only in the sense of being the true purpose for which each of us exists. It is higher only in the Hindu sense of swadharma. It is revealed only with a conscious and dedicated searching. In part, this searching happens only when we are dissatisfied with everyday joys and mortal beauties.

I had not come to Britain to search for a higher purpose. The objective was to learn about Britain. The association between India and Britain is long and inseparable. The greatness of Britain, though not current, will remain for ever. The novels of Jane Austen and Charles Dickens gave me a glimpse of British society. The words of Shakespeare, Keats or Milton, though rarely topographical, are better understood by living in a culture and environment in which they were formed. The adventures of Sherlock Holmes surely motivated at least a walk along Baker Street and later an adventure in Dartmoor. The names on the board game of Monopoly likewise prompted a visit to Fleet Street, the Strand, Trafalgar Square, Oxford Street or Mayfair. The wonder of the Stonehenge is known the world over. So too is the fame of the Big Ben.

With this limited knowledge of Britain I had started my travels. I have learnt a great deal more and in many unexpected ways. The landscape has led me from one wonder to wonder. Such wonders exist only so long as you see and feel them. You are touched. Your mind is receptive. Your soul opens up. Of art and architecture, terms I had never even heard of before are now fully understood: trompe l’oeil, cassone, scagliola, capriccio, Palladian, Chippendale, misericords. I have never really enjoyed history in school but travel has ignited in me a passion for history. We are what we are only because of those who have come before us. It is important to understand this journey of mankind so that every generation builds on it. Bus routes “AD 122” along Hadrian’s Wall, “1066” that connects Hastings to nearby towns or the “Jurassic Coast Express” between Weymouth and Exeter have given me easy ways to remember dates and events. Again it is cultural and social history that gives us a clue why the train station at Edinburgh, the bus station at Leicester or Newcastle are named Haymarket. If I have glimpsed what it means to be English, British, Welsh or Scottish, I have also come across local pride: the Yorkshire man, the Cestrian, the Salopian, the Cumbrian and the Cornish.

My travels have been different. It is not the planned itineraries of Daniel Defoe in which he takes us through a journey, place to place. It is not the searches of modern H.V. Morton driving around the countryside in his little car. It is not an exercise similar to Bill Bryson’s. By necessity, my travels are a collection weekend trips. Availability of public transport, consideration of cost, availability of OS maps in libraries or availability of accommodation have all had a hand in planning the next weekend visit. Occasionally, knowledge of weekend weather played a part so that I could head for sunnier destinations. Such weekend travel is generally a good thing. It gave a balance between work and play. This balance helped me sustain my enthusiasm for travel for all these three years. All travel would have quickly become boring.

In these travels I have been to places popular with tourists. I have visited what others have written about. I have seen some landscapes first seen in paintings. I have visited little and unknown villages as fancy took me. I have followed public rights of way marked on OS maps, thus making firsthand impressions of the countryside. There are plenty of books titled “Hidden Places of…” The unfortunate thing is that once published, they are no longer hidden. I like to think that I have visited places other travellers have overlooked. I have been an explorer of culture and natural landscapes. Along the way, I have collected facts but more interestingly I tried to make connections and associations that kept me engaged and involved in my travels. The intent was to derive something that could make me a better person.

There are some things about Britain that are always at the brunt of popular jokes – that trains are always late; that the weather is always dull and grey; that British food is always boring; that post offices always have long queues. I have experienced all these enough to be able to refute or corroborate as deserving. Travelling by public transport is convenient if a trip is well-planned and executed with discipline. Thanks to the wet climate, the country is fresh, green and beautiful. The sky may look dull but the beauty of the land more than makes up for it. Food in Britain is diverse and from all parts of the globe. When living in Britain, part of the joy is to sample fresh produce of the land – crisp green hearts of romaine from Norfolk, crunchy carrots from Fife or autumn’s vine ripe tomatoes at Sainburys. I loved Lancashire Eccles when I first tasted them at Broadway. I have enjoyed every single dessert sold at Waitrose. At evening tea, my favourite has been all types of oat biscuits.

In such travels, one of the general faults of notetaking is to make comparisons. There is greater merit in seeing beauty in everything, however minute it may be. Each object must be appreciated for what it is. When comparisons are made, some of that beauty is lost. Comparisons are good for analysis. Why do we like one place better than the other? Why is one more famous than another? Comparisons that help us answer these questions must be done objectively. It’s a difficult task. When I was at Lincoln Cathedral, I declared that I liked it better than Salisbury Cathedral. It was easy to feel this way when I was staring up at the West Front of Lincoln Cathedral while Salisbury was only an impression recalled from memory. Did I like the White Cliffs of Dover better than Beachy Head? Can I truly claim that Lavenham is better than Sandwich? The place most recently visited has an obvious advantage. Nonetheless, the passage of time has its own effect in making a visit more charming and memorable. We look back at it with a certain charm. In fading memory, the details are blurred and the impression that remains is how we felt. Perhaps this is why Salisbury Cathedral has remained my favourite.

The second difficulty is that not all that is said of a place can be taken at face value. Everything has commercial value in the world of tourism. Sometimes facts are twisted or misrepresented. Sometimes a half-truth is presented to self-advantage. One example is Lewis Carroll’s inspiration for the White Rabbit. A misericord in Ripon Cathedral claims this proudly. The association of Lewis Carroll with Whitby is extended to claim a similar influence. St Mary’s Church of Beverley is yet another claimant. It is likely that Lewis Carroll never wrote about his source of inspiration. All these are only conjectures. Who is to be believed? It matters only if one is attempting a biography of Lewis Carroll.

There are certain journeys and moments that will remain forever in my memories. These are memories with which I shall look back fondly on my travels. These are memories that will once in a while lift me up when I am down and dejected. Memories are made on earth and lived in heaven. What can I say of the sublime moment when mesmerized at evensong as I sat listening to the choristers at Magdalen College Chapel? What can I say of one afternoon in late spring when the sun shone brilliantly as I sped in the train along the North Downs, once in a while looking down to read Keats’ Endymion? What can I say of the perfect isolation of four days at Ribblehead, surrounded by peaks and completely cut-off from civilization? What can I say of the view of Wasdale as I sat conversing with the cliffs that surround Sty Head? What can I say of British summer which in its perfection is found in Cornwall? What can I say of my first taste of Kenyan cuisine or Yorkshire Pudding? What can I say of my first sight of Gainsborough’s “The Honourable Mrs Graham” at the National Gallery of Scotland?

In the past few weeks I have been lazy to travel and lethargic of action. I had this initial idea to see as much as possible. Having seen so much and still unsatisfied, I have begun to search for a higher purpose. More importantly, I have begun to believe in a higher purpose. With landscapes so beautiful, the single most realization is their transience. Rather, it is our transience; that we should leave all this beauty someday, almost suddenly. Beauty to me was a source of joy. It still is but I see it floating on an undercurrent of pain and death. When even the most beautiful things on earth can give pain, what is the worth of life and living? What are we to look forward to in the coming days and years? There ought to be a higher purpose and a greater meaning to our lives.

So here I am at the end of the road, sick of travelling but not because it is worthless. There is something more worthwhile.

Category Places Visited
Abbeys & Priories Abbey of Bury St Edmunds; Dominican Friary (Arundel); Dominican Friary (Beverley); Fountains Abbey+; Glastonbury Abbey; Great Malvern Priory; Guisborough Priory; Lacock Abbey+; Much Wenlock Priory; Paisley Abbey; Sherborne Abbey; Shrewsbury Abbey; Sweetheart Abbey; Waltham Abbey;
Accommodation bothy (Carnmore, Meanach, Shenavall); hotels (Bardon Mill, London, Shanklin); open camping without tent or sleeping bag (A303 at Zeals, Basingstoke, Bath, Dunure Castle, Isle of Wight, Lincolnshire Wolds, Taddington); tenting (Brecon, Cerne Abbas, Charltons, Cotswolds, Devizes, Edingley, Kelynack, Lamorna, Lawshall, Madron, Nant Peris, Seatoller, Stonecrouch, Stratford-upon-Avon); B&Bs (Farnborough, Fleet, Great Yarmouth, Hethpool, Leeds, Leicester, Looe, Luton, Reading, Ripon, Uswayford, Whitby); hostels and bunkhouses (All Stretton, Bellever, Bellingham, Beverley, Byrness, Cambridge, Canterbury, Chester, Coalport, Coverack, Croft, Edinburgh, Edwinstowe, Falmouth, Glasgow, Glasgow, Glastonbury, Glen Nevis, Golant, Inchree, Keswick, Kinlochewe, Lizard Point, Lochranza, Malham, Malham, Malvern Wells, Marthrown of Mabie, Newcastle, Patterdale, Plymouth, Ribblehead, Torridon, Wanlockhead, Wilderhope Manor);
Antiquities Ambresbury Banks; Avebury stone circles+ (Wilshire); Castlerigg Stone Circle++ (Dorset); Grimspound (Dartmoor); Hurlers (Bodmin Moor); Iron Age barrows (Isle of Wight); Long Man of Wilmington (East Sussex); Machrie Moor standing stones (Isle of Arran); Maumbury Rings; Men-An-Tol (Cornwall); Merry Maidens stone circle (Cornwall); New King Barrows (Wiltshire); Nine Maidens stone circle (Cornwall); Normanton Barrows (Wiltshire); Sanctuary (Wiltshire); Silbury Hill (Wiltshire); stone circles/rows (Dartmoor); Stonehenge (Wiltshire); Stonehenge Historic Landscape+; strip lynchets (Cotswolds, Glastonbury Tor, Wiltshire); Trethevy Quoit (Bodmin Moor); Uffington Castle (Oxfordshire); Uffington White Horse (Oxfordshire); Wayland’s Smithy (Oxfordshire); West Kennett Long Barrow (Wiltshire); Westbury White Horse (Wiltshire); (Cumbria); Cerne Giant
Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty Chichester Harbour; Chilterns; Cornwall; Cotswolds; Dorset; Isle of Wight; Kent Downs; Lincolnshire Wolds; Malvern Hills; North Wessex Downs; Shropshire Hills; South Devon; Surrey Hills; Sussex Downs;
Castles & Palaces Bellingham Castle; Blenheim Palace; Bodiam Castle+; Bothwell Castle; Brodick Castle*; Carisbrooke Castle; Corfe Castle+; Culzean Castle*; Drumlanrig Castle; Dunure Castle; Hampton Court Palace; Hurst Castle; Inverlochy Castle; Norwich Castle; Nottingham Castle; Odiham Castle; Palace of Holyroodhouse; Pendennis Castle; Penrith Castle; Scotney Castle+; Sissinghurst Castle+; Uffington Castle; Warwick Castle; Windsor Castle; Yarmouth Castle;
Cathedrals & Minsters Beverley Minster; Canterbury Cathedral; Chester Cathedral; Chichester Cathedral; Coventry Cathedral; Ely Cathedral; Exeter Cathedral; Leicester Cathedral; Lincoln Cathedral; Norwich Cathedral; Peterborough Cathedral; Ripon Cathedral; Salisbury Cathedral; Southwell Minster; St Albans Cathedral; St Columba’s Cathedral (Oban); St Giles Cathedral (Edinburgh); St Paul’s (London); Truro Cathedral; Wells Cathedral; Winchester Cathedral; Worcester Cathedral; York Minster;
Churches & Chapels Abbey Church of Sherborne; Abbey Church of the Holy Cross (Shrewsbury Abbey); All Saints Church (Burton Dassett); All Saints Church (Goulceby); All Saints Church (Little Stretton); All Saints Church (Nether Cerne); Cathedral Church of St James (Bury St Edmunds); Chapel of St Aldhelm (St Aldhelm’s Head); Church of St Eadburgha (Broadway); Church of St Michael-le-Belfrey (York); Church of St Peter and St Paul (Lavenham); Church of St Peter and St Paul (Northleach); Collegiate Church of St Mary (Warwick); Corpus Christi at Covent Garden (London); Holy Trinity Church (Coventry); Holy Trinity Church (Guildford); Holy Trinity Church (Much Wenlock); Holy Trinity Church (Skipton); Holy Trinity Church (Stratford-upon-Avon); Magdalen College Chapel (Oxford); Parish Church (Burgh-on-Bain); Parish Church (Chipping Campden); Parish Church (Condicote); Parish Church of St Cuthbert (Wells); Parish Church of St Edward (Stow-on-the-Wold); Parish Church of St Hydroc (Lanydrock); Parish Church of St John the Baptist (Glastonbury); Parish Church of St Michael and All Angels (Broadway); Parish Church of St Oswald (Ashbourne); Parish Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary (Southwell); Priory Church of St Mary and St Michael (Great Malvern); St Andrew’s Church (Norwich); St Andrew’s Church (Penrith); St George’s Chapel (Windsor); St George’s Church (Hampnett); St Martin-in-the-Fields Church (London); St Mary the Virgin (Charminster); St Mary’s Church (Cerne Abbas); St Mary’s Church (Edwinstowe); St Mary’s Church (Studley); St Mary’s Parish Church (Whitby); St Michael the Archangel (Halam); St Michael’s Church (Basingstoke); St Nicholas Church (Stanningfield); St Peter Mancroft (Norwich); Waltham Abbey Church;
Coasts & Coastlines Ayr Beach; beaches on Isle of Arran and Isle of Mull; Beachy Head; Birling Gap+; Brighton Beach; Cape Cornwall+; Chesil Beach; Cleveland Way from Whitby to Scarborough; Eastbourne to Seven Sisters Country Park; Great Yarmouth Beach; Herne Bay to Reculver; Kynance Cove+; Lizard Point+; Sandwich to Dover; Studland Beach and Nature Reserve+; SWC path from Marazion to Pendeen; SWC path from Poole to Chapman’s Pool; Tennyson Down+ (Isle of Wight); The Lizard+; White Cliffs of Dover+;
Houses & Estates Attingham Park+; Basildon Park+; Brodick Castle, Garden and Country Park*; Clandon Park+; Cliveden+; Culzean Castle and Country Park*; Dyrham Park+; Fenton House+; Ham House+; Hughenden Manor+; Ickworth House, Park and Gardens+; Ightham Mote+; Knole+; Lanhydrock+; Little Moreton Hall+; Mompesson House+; Mottisfont Abbey Garden, House and Estate+; Osterley Park and House+; Petworth House and Park+; Polesden Lacey+; Pollok House*; Snowshill Manor+; St Michael’s Mount+; The Vyne+; Treasurer’s House, York+; Waddesdon Manor+; Wilderhope Manor+;
Hills, Mountains & Peaks Arthur’s Seat (Edinburgh); Ashley Down (Hampshire); Bardon Hill (Leicestershire); Bath Skyline+; Beacon Hill (Hampshire); Beacon Hill (Leicestershire); Ben Nevis; Blists Hill; Bodbury Hill (Shropshire); Box Hill+ (Surrey); Brecon Beacons; Burton Hills; Calton Hill (Edinburgh); Cheviot Hills; Coombe Hill+ (Wendover); Dunstable Downs+; Elidir Fawr (Snowdonia); Friar’s Crag+ (Cumbria); Glastonbury Tor+; Goatfell*; Grisdale Brow; Hay Stacks; Helvellyn; Honister Crag; Ingleborough; Long Knoll (Wiltshire); Long Mynd+ (Shropshire); Lowther Hills; Lydford Gorge+; Mt Snowdon; Pen-y-Fan+; Pole Bank (Shropshire); Roseberry Topping+; Salisbury Crags (Edinburgh); Seven Sisters+; Skiddaw; St Giles’ Hill (Winchester); Sty Head; Tennyson Down+; The Cheviot; The Saddle (Isle of Arran); Torridon*; Wenlock Edge+; West Wycombe Hill+; Whernside; White Horse Hill+ (Uffington); White Side (Cumbria); Windy Gayle;
Islands Brownsea Island+; Isle of Arran; Isle of Mull; Isle of Purbeck; Isle of Wight; St Michael’s Mount+; Thorney Island;
Moors Blea Moor (Yorkshire); Bodmin Moor; Dartmoor; Machrie Moor (Isle of Arran); North York Moors;
Museums & Galleries Ashmolean Museum (Oxford); British Museum (London); City Museum (Winchester); Coalport China Museum; Coventry Transport Museum; Fitzwilliam Museum (Cambridge); galleries at Knole; Geffrye Museum (London); Glasgow Science Centre; Hull Maritime Museum; Imperial War Museum (London); Jackfield Tile Museum (Shropshire); Jewry Wall Museum (Leicester); Long Gallery (Ham House); Museum of the History of Science (Oxford); National Gallery (London); National Gallery of Scotland (Edinburgh); National Maritime Museum (Greenwich); National Portrait Gallery (London); Natural History Museum (London); North Gallery (Petworth); Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery; Nottingham Castle Museum and Art Gallery; Picture Corridor (Polesden Lacey); Picture Gallery (Attingham Park); Pollock’s Toy Museum (London); Robert Burns Birthplace Museum (Alloway); Royal Albert Memorial Museum (Exeter); Royal Armouries Museum (Leeds); Royal Observatory (Greenwich); Royal Scottish Academy (Edinburgh); Rural Life Museum (Glastonbury); St Ives Museum; Tate Britain (London); Tate Modern (London); The Burrell Collection (Glasgow); The Queen’s Gallery (Palace of Holyroodhouse); The Queen’s House (Greenwich); The Queen’s Royal Surrey Regiment Museum (Clandon Park); University Museum of Natural History (Oxford); Victoria and Albert Museum (London); Wilberforce House Museum (Hull);
National Nature Reserves Beinn Eighe; Derbyshire Dales; Ingleborough; The Lizard+; Ulverscroft+; Wicken Fen+;
National Parks Brecon Beacons; Dartmoor; Lake District; New Forest; North York Moors; Northumberland; Peak District; Snowdonia; Yorkshire Dales;
National Trails Cleveland Way; Cotswold Way; Hadrian’s Wall Path; North Downs Way; Pennine Way; South Downs Way; South West Coast Path; Thames Path; The Ridgeway;
Parks & Gardens Bodnant Garden+; Botanic Gardens (Bath); Botanic Gardens (Glasgow); Botanic Gardens (Oxford); Bradgate Country Park; Burton Dassett Hills Country Park; Clumber Park+; Deer Park (Stowe); Green Park; Hackwood Park; Hampton Court Palace; Hidcote Manor Garden+; Holyrood Park; Hyde Park; Inverewe Garden*; Knightshayes Court+; Prior Park Landscape Garden+; Reculver Country Park; Scotney Castle Garden and Estate+; Seven Sisters Country Park+; Sissinghurst Castle Garden+; St James Park; Stourhead+; Stowe Landscape Gardens+; Studley Royal Water Garden+; Trelissick Garden+; Trengwainton Garden+; Windsor Great Park; Winkworth Arboretum+;
Public Buildings & Spaces Bath Assembly Rooms+; Bhaktivedanta Manor (Radlett); Borrowdale+; Buttermere+; Carding Mill Valley+; Christ’s College (Cambridge); Clare College (Cambridge), Queen’s College (Cambridge); Dovedale+; Downing College (Cambridge); Emmanuel College (Cambridge); Glasgow School of Art; Guildhall (Leicester); Guildhall (Much Wenlock); Guildhall of Corpus Christi+ (Lavenham); Hardy Monument+ (Dorset); Hospital of the Blessed Trinity (Guildford); Jain Centre (Leicester); Levant Mine and Beam Engine+; Lizard Wireless Station+; Magdalen College (Oxford); Malham Tarn Estate+; Pembroke College (Cambridge); Peterhouse College (Cambridge); Quarry Bank Mill+ (Cheshire); Sri Swaminarayan Mandir (London); St John’s College (Cambridge); The Royal Pavilion (Brighton); The Southwell Workhouse+; Ullswater+; Whipsnade Tree Cathedral+;
Public Events an annual festal evensong of the Knights Templar (Bury St Edmunds); BBC Proms 2005 (film screenings at the Royal Geographical Society, operas and orchestras at the Royal Albert Hall); Christmas carol concert (Royal Concert Hall at Glasgow, Sheldonian Theatre at Oxford); church musical (Glastonbury); Eucharist service (Exeter Cathedral, St Andrew’s Church at Penrith); evensong at cathedrals and minsters (Bury St Edmunds, Canterbury, Chichester, Exeter, Lincoln, Peterborough, Wells, York); evensong at chapels (King’s College Chapel at Cambridge, Magdalen College Chapel at Oxford); exhibition from the Jem Palace of Jaipur (London); exhibition of the Society of Floral Painters (Mottisfont Abbey); Indian Ocean’s concert (London); London Mela 2004; musical concert at Canterbury Cathedral; musical concert at the University Church of St Mary (Oxford); musical concerts at St Martin-in-the-Fields Church (Baroque, Mozart, Vivaldi’s Four Seasons); New Year parade 2005 (London); open house at Worcester Cathedral; organ music (Warwick’s Collegiate Church of St Mary); other church services (various venues); Playboy Exposed: an exhibition (London); Schweppes Photographic Portrait Award Exhibition 2005 (National Portrait Gallery); Sunday morning service at a parish church (Winchester); ‘Twelfth Night’ by the Royal Shakespeare Company (Stratford-upon-Avon); VE-Day celebrations (Polesden Lacey); watchnight service (Ripon Cathedral);
Rivers, Canals & Locks Basingstoke Canal; Boveney Lock; Caen Hill Locks; Caledonian Canal; Coventry Canal; Enterkin Burn; Grand Union Canal; Hatton Locks; Kennet and Avon Canal; Oxford Canal; River Arun; River Avon; River Bain; River Bollin; River Cam; River Cerne; River Cherwell; River Clyde; River Cuckmere; River Derwent; River Doon; River Dove; River Fosse; River Fowey; River Frome; River Great Ouse; River Hull; River Humber; River Itchen; River Lea; River Lee and Enfield Locks; River Lyd; River Nene; River Ness; River Nevis; River Nith; River Rede; River Ribble; River Severn; River Soar; River Stour; River Test; River Thames; River Trent; River Tweed; River Usk; River Usway; River Wey; River Windrush; River Witham; River Wye;
Roman Ruins amphitheatre and wall (Chester); baths (Bath); Column and wall (York); Hadrian’s Wall+; Housesteads Fort+; Jewry Wall & baths (Leicester); mosaics (Leicester’s Jewry Wall Museum, Southwell Minster); Verulamium; wall (Canterbury); wall frescoes (Leicester’s Jewry Wall Museum);
Scottish Long Distance Paths Southern Upland Way; West Highland Way;
Towers & Bridges Ashness Bridge (Cumbria); Bridge of Sighs (Cambridge); Bridge of Sighs (Oxford); Broadway Tower; Clapper Bridge of Postbridge (Dartmoor); Clifford’s Tower (York); Humber Bridge; Ironbridge; many bridges on River Thames; Palladian Bridge (Prior Park Landscape Gardens); Palladian Bridge (Stourhead); Palladian Bridge (Stowe Landscape Gardens); Ribblehead Viaduct; Smeaton’s Tower (Plymouth); St Michael’s Tower (Glastonbury Tor); Timeball Tower (Deal); Tower Bridge (London); Twin towers of St Mary’s Church (Reculver);
Towns & Cities (England) Abergavenny; Aldershot; All Stretton; Amesbury; Arundel; Ashbourne; Aylesbury; Banbury; Basildon; Basingstoke; Baslow; Bath; Bellingham; Betws-y-coed; Beverley; Birmingham; Biscathorpe; Bourton-on-the-Water; Brecon; Brighton; Broadway; Brokenhurst; Bury St Edmunds; Caistor; Cambridge; Canterbury; Carlisle; Charminster; Chester; Chesterfield; Chichester; Chipping Campden; Church Stretton; Coalport; Crewe; Deal; Derby; Devizes; Donnington-on-Bain; Dorchester (Dorset); Dorking; Dover; Dunstable; Eastbourne; Ely (Cambridgeshire); Epping; Eton; Exeter; Falmouth; Farnborough; Fleet; Fowey; Gillingham (Dorset); Glastonbury; Godalming; Great Malvern; Great Yarmouth; Guildford; Harpenden; Harrogate; Herne Bay; High Wycombe; Hitchin; Horncastle; Ironbridge; Keswick; Kingston-upon-Hull; Leeds; Leicester; Leighton Buzzard; Lincoln; Little Stretton; London; Looe; Lostwithiel; Loughborough; Luton; Lymington; Maindenhead; Marazion; Market Rasen; Middlesbrough; Moreton-in-Marsh; Moretonhampstead; Much Wenlock; Newcastle; Northleach; Northleach; Norwich; Nottingham; Pangbourne; Penrith; Penzance; Peterborough; Plymouth; Polperro; Poole; Pullborough; Radlett; Reading; Redruth; Ripon; Romsey; Salisbury; Sandwich; Scarborough; Sevenoaks; Shalford; Shanklin; Sheffield; Sherborne; Shrewsbury; Skegness; Skipton; Slough; Southbourne; Southwell; St Albans; St Ives (Cornwall); Staplehurst; Stoke-on-Trent; Stow-on-the-Wold; Stratford-upon-Avon; Swanage; Telford; Truro; Upwey; Wadhurst; Waltham Abbey; Wareham; Warwick; Wells; Wendover; Weymouth; Wheathampstead; Whitby; Wilmslow; Winchester; Winchfield; Windsor; Woking; Wooler; Worcester; Yarmouth; Yeovil; York;
Towns & Cities (Scotland) Alloway; Ardrossan; Ayr; Brodick; Dumfries; Dunure; Edinburgh; Fort William; Glasgow; Inverness; Kinlochewe; Lochranza; Lockerbie; Oban; Paisley; Poolewe; Sanquhar; Torridon; Wanlockhead;
Towns & Cities (Wales) Abergavenny; Bangor; Betws-y-coed; Llanberis;
Villages Abbotsbury; Alfriston; Ascott; Avebury+; Avon Dassett; Baggrave; Buckfastleigh; Buckingham; Burgh-le-Marsh; Burgh-on-Bain; Burton Dassett; Bushby; Byrness; Cadgwith; Calbourne (Isle of Wight); Candlesby; Capel Curig; Cerne Abbas; Cold Aston; Cold Newton; Condicote; Coverack; Craignure; Croft; Easthorpe; Edingley; Farnsfield; Fenny Compton; Ford; Goulceby; Greywell; Groby; Guisborough; Gunby; Halam; Hampnett; Hanwell; Hemingby; Herne Bay; Hethpool; Houghton-on-the-Hill; Hungarton; Ingarsby; Ivybridge; Keyham; King’s Somborne; Lacock+; Lavenham; Lawshall; Litlington; Lizard Village; Lochbuie; Lower Coscombe; Lower Slaughter; Lowesby; Malham; Mentmore; Mere; Nant Peris; Nether Cerne; Nettleton; Newton Linford; Normanby-le-Wold; Northend; Orby; Partney; Pen Y Pass; Petworth; Polperro; Porthcurno+; Prinsted; Reculver; Redbourn; Risby; Robin Hood’s Bay; Rosthwaite; Scremby; Seathwaite; Seatoller; Shipton-on-Cherwell; Shotteswell; Skendleby; St Margaret’s-at-Cliffe; Stanningfield; Stanton; Stowe; Tal-y-Cafn; Tealby; Turkdean; Waddesdon; Walesby; Warmington; West Wycombe+; Wilmington; Wood Stanway; Woodhouse Eaves; Woodstock; Zeals;
Woods & Forests Auchensell Wood; Bedgebury Forest; Bellever Forest; Blidworth Woods (Nottinghamshire); Brighstone Forest; Burnham Beeches; Charnwood Forest; Dundonnell Forest; Epping Forest; Fisherfield Forest; Friston Forest; Guisborough Forest; Hampstead Heath; Hareshaw Linn (Northumberland); Kinlochewe Forest; Letterewe Forest; Mabie Forest; Mamore Forest; Redesdale Forest; Sherwood Forest (Nottinghamshire); Strathnashellag Forest; Swithland Wood;
* National Trust for Scotland
+ National Trust
† YHA
‡ SYHA
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Reminiscing about London

28 08 2007
The Thames and the London Eye

The Thames and the London Eye

Except for the few days in August three years ago, I never lived in London. London was at best a day’s trip. More often, it remained a junction en route to longer journeys. Every time I passed through London, I was passing through something I could touch in a familiar way and still experience something new. The Houses of Parliament, the Tower Bridge, St Paul’s Cathedral, the London Eye, the Gherkin, the slow-moving Thames… were all part of a landscape instantly recognizable. Despite this, there was a strong sense that there was a lot more about this familiarity that I didn’t know, can never know. With each iconic building, I felt in touch with the past and the present. It was never possible to look at a building as merely a structure of stone, brick and cement. I was looking at history. I was looking at the grand remains of culture and civilization. London made me feel alive. Why, even a dead man would feel alive in this city!

One could never see enough of London. I have at best got a glimpse of this great city. But seeing is not living. To live is to merge completely with the scene, to become a part of it as an actor and not just an observer. This, however, is not something a traveller does. A traveller is no more than an observer. I have always been such a traveller. However, I do wish that I had done more than travel through London.

While most of my observations of London were as a weekend traveller, there have been a handful of occasions when business brought me to the city. On such occasions, I was as any other Londoner or a worker of the city. I was part of the morning rush of busy streets and crowded trains. I was part of the ever-moving crowd. I gave life to the city just as the city gave it back to me tenfold. In a limited sense, I built the city just as it built me.

In the evenings, London is intense with activity. As soon as one gets out of the Underground, free evening papers are handed out to you. The news of the world seems to converge on London. Londoners appear to be the first to read them hot from the press. As the sun sets unseen behind a grey clouded sky, this life of London moves out to the suburbs. London sleeps.

Westminster and its famous clock tower

Westminster and its famous clock tower

On one of my business visits to the city, I visited my usual haunt at East Ham in the evening. I was at the Indian restaurant having my dinner. In the background there played some familiar Tamil songs I had not heard for ages. It was a pleasant evening. As I was looking out of the window, snow flakes starting falling slowly, lifted and blown by the soft cold breeze. It was one of those rare moments when everything was perfect, when you could watch the world go by without feeling left behind. It was a moment in which peace touched everything. It is a moment I will never forget. It was the first time I had seen snow. The snow fall had continued till the next morning. A white coat of snow, some melted into sleet, had covered the once green fields. The roads had been washed with dewy freshness. The bare branches of trees had held patches of whiteness. The railway tracks had succumbed too to the romance of the first fall of snow that winter.

It is really difficult to say where London starts and where it ends. One has to think of London as a city that has outgrown its boundaries of the past. A city of this size can never maintain a single centre. It has a way of evolving into centres of multiple cultures and identities, like Bricklane of Bengalis, Southall of Punjabis or East Ham of Sri Lankan Tamils. One may see this as a cultural specialization of neighbourhoods, as birds of a feather that flock together. They are all bound by an historic past and an economic present. London is beautiful because it is a single tapestry woven of different threads, old and new. Suburbs have come to define London as aptly noted by Aldous Huxley:

All urbanization, pushed beyond a certain point, automatically becomes suburbanization… Every great city is just a collection of suburbs. Its inhabitants… do not live in their city; they merely inhabit it.

There is brief dialogue in the movie Galdiator about greatness:

“What is greatness?”
After a calculated pause, comes the reply, “It’s an idea”.

As it was for Rome, so it has been for London. I think it continues to be that way for London.





A Railway Heritage, Swindon, Wiltshire

25 08 2007

It is interesting that we are often enamoured by all things old and neglect the novel beauty of the modern world. We see the charm of medieval abbeys but fail to see the same in towering structures of steel and glass. We tread history as we follow an ancient Roman road but feel less excited as we drive speedily on the M1. We are thrilled to cross a stream by a clapper bridge but not quite so on a modern suspension bridge. Yet all things are beautiful. It is only because we are so used to living in the modern world many things of beauty go unnoticed.

I have passed through London Paddington station countless times but not once have I looked up to admire the magnificence of British engineering. I have done just that this morning. This giant framework of iron and steel that forms the start and end of rail journeys to the West Country is an impressive one. The central iron beams arch gracefully across four track lines and three platforms. Thus they span a considerable width and tower high at the same time. They do this effortlessly, almost suspended in mid-air as it were. The white painted pillars that support these arches are slender by ancient architectural norms. There are no bulky buttresses. Thin girders link one pillar to the next and form the base of iron ribs that fly upwards. Their flight is more controlled that their counterparts of Gothic cathedrals. The vaulting, made of these arching beams, is a superb perspective that ends in a semi-circular window at the far end.

We may compare this central space to the nave of the cathedral. Two smaller roofs on either side may be compared to the vaulting of the aisles. Where these join at an opening, we may see something of a transept or a crossing. The arching beams may be compared to stone ribs. The window decoration may be compared to Decorated Gothic window tracery. London Paddington station is nowhere similar to a Gothic cathedral. But for someone used to appreciating the latter, an imposed similarity may help in appreciating the former.

If all this is just engineering, art is to be found in greater measure. This is most obvious in the far window. It is pure poetry, as sublime as the Bishop’s Eye of Lincoln’s Cathedral. It is modern window tracery executed to great effect. Details are numerous. The design is arabesque. There are no images or colours. Clean lines and elegant curves stand out against clear glass. Curves move with freedom and grace without loss of refinement. Some curves execute broad open arches while others find beauty in small closed circles or whorls. Curves mirror each other in movement to form shapes of hearts or stylized floral motifs. Curves meet. Curves intersect. Curves depart. Just like the railway journeys that we make.

My journey for this Saturday was to Swindon. At 0745 hours, I boarded my train. The train was operated by First Great Western and was named “Isambard Kingdom Brunel”, after the renowned engineer of Victorian era. As the Chief Engineer for the Great Western Railway, it was Brunel who built bridges, tunnels and railway lines. It was also Brunel who dared to lay the tracks along Devon’s coastline, the same stunning coastline that I had passed many months ago on my way to Penzance. In the age of Victorian industrialization, these achievements, together with the social changes they triggered, were the inspiration for many. Claude Monet found his inspiration in Gare St Lazare. My favourite railway oil painting is Lionel Walden’s “The Cardiff Docks” (1894). In this single image he has captured the dark romance of the railways – the clean bold lines of iron tracks; the dark background of buildings, locomotives and chimneys; the diffusion of light in the rising steam; an industrial landscape created by man but devoid of man’s presence. Just as their predecessors had found inspiration in the countryside, these artists found theirs in the everyday world. They embraced realism. Today, we can find our inspiration in electronic display boards, railway cafes, crisscrossing power lines, the modern interiors of terminal stations and above all, the busy human traffic of the rush hour.

Today has been an unusual Saturday for me in that I had not intended to make much of Swindon. I had no plan to walk in Swindon. The plan was to visit a friend who lives in Swindon. Temptation comes to everyone and a true traveller succumbs to it easily. Thus it happened that I arrived in Swindon and decided to take a walk for an hour before calling on my friend.

The history of Swindon is irreversibly linked with the history of British railways. The famous London to Bristol line completed by Brunel in 1841 passed through Swindon. Swindon was also the junction for the Cheltenham and Gloucester branch. Like Crewe, Swindon grew up as a railway town. It was not just a junction for switching engines and train tracks. It was also a place of manufacture of rails and steam locomotives. Although it started with the broad gauge as pioneered by Brunel, this was eventually replaced by the standard gauge of George Stephenson.

The town has two distinct parts, the old and the new. The old town bears clear evidence of the changes the railways brought to Swindon. Here are walls that once enclosed a large complex of offices and workshops. In these workshops, mighty machines were once built and maintained. Here the lanes and yards look up to glass lanterns hanging from decorative iron brackets. Here the air sighs with the memories of innovations that once made Swindon a happening place. Here are living quarters built for the railway staff. Here are railway tracks still in operation while a tunnel connects the old living quarters to the older workshops. In some of these offices, decisions were made. They changed the way people commuted. The era of stagecoach travel was gone forever. If travel as a pursuit of leisure became popular in Victorian times, it was largely due to the success of the railways. For the transportation of goods, canals took a similar beating.

Today, some of these buildings function as modern offices. Some archive historic records. Some are used as museum spaces to display a railway heritage that rightly belongs to Swindon, and of which it is proud. There is romance in using an old factory space to house museum exhibits that are in context. Collectively, these buildings as they stand today represent a simple fact: that all glorious achievements are transient and their permanence lies only in their evolution to something greater and newer, but just as transient. Swindon may have had its day but it has nonetheless given the world much. Its positive effect is still with us. It’s quite an achievement for a town that was once a small settlement in an area of swines.

Architecturally, the most poignant scene for me was the sight of bare walls of stone and brick enclosing an open space that’s today a car park. The tall glassless and frameless windows on these walls speak of good times long gone. Their look is forlorn. They watch the modern world with bewilderment. They have a purpose but they do not realize it. All their active lives they have known only noise, industry, steam and locomotive power. The walls are buttressed by an array of massive iron rods reaching up to the walls like the flexible legs of a water-strider. This image of something new supporting the old is a powerful one. Without such efforts in conservation, it is doubtful if the walls would stand at all.

Across the tracks, the Railway Village displayed more pleasing architectural perspectives. The buildings are all in the same style. Take for example a row of houses on Exeter Street. Every doorway is accompanied by a pair of windows on either side, one on the ground floor and a larger one on the first floor. The window and door frames are in white against the stone walls which are brown. The roof slopes down with its covering of grey tiles black with age. The chimney stacks are of red-brick and the four pipes that complete them are cream coloured. A two feet wall separates a small front garden from the road. A four feet neatly clipped yew hedge stands within this wall. This neat stretch of yew hedges add to the privacy of the residents. These colour schemes I have described are repeated on the entire stretch along this road. This repetition and uniformity make it pleasing to the eye. The doors of these houses are coloured differently for a touch of individuality. Similar interesting perspectives exist in the narrow back lanes between two rows of houses.

While I was studying this architecture and attempting to make a sketch, I was accosted by one of the residents by the name of George. I replied that I was interested in this harmonious architecture. He invited me to his house on Bathampton Street. Even a tourist who comes and leaves in haste will not fail to notice that many of the doorways lead to two doors! In other words, the doorway leads into a triangular space in which two doors are placed at right angles to each other and pushed inwards from the doorway. I learnt that this alteration was done in the 1970s when the local council took over the properties. A false wall was built to divide each apartment into two units. Each of these units today is big enough for only one person or a couple at best. In some cases, the whole apartment is occupied by a larger family but they now have two doors leading into their house. I learnt that in the 1850s a Scotsman used to live in one of these with his family of nineteen members!

Entering George’s unit, I found that on the ground floor is a living room that leads into a kitchen. One the first floor is a bathroom and a bedroom. George complained that he can hear his neighbour going to the toilet. When he heard that I was going to write an article on Swindon, he replied “Tell them about the squalor in which we live”. On the contrary, my impression of this neighbourhood was not quite as acerbic. The streets were neat and well-kept. If there was squalor, it was only inside George’s apartment. I guessed that he had no real job and he lived on pensions. He had come to Swindon in the 1960s as part of the army and had stayed here ever since. By his own admission, he did nothing more than drink. His breath confirmed that.

Though this historic village is neat and looks respectable, it is not a good place to live. The obvious sign of this is the presence of three pubs within this compact residential locality. We do not require a great deal of imagination to guess the atmosphere at night. It is not difficult to guess the social status or the means of the people who live here. One of these pubs in named “The Cricketers”, subtitled “the original railway village pub”. In the more glorious days of the railways, the railway staff used to play cricket in an open field nearby. Today this is Faringdon Park.

The last notable building of this village I studied was a dilapidated one that bears the following words:

G.W.R.
MECHANICS’ INSTITUITION.
1855. ENLARGED. 1892.

George informed me that this was purchased by an Indian for a pound! This building has many interesting architectural features – gables, windows peeping out of roofs, little turrets, oriel windows, Tudor-framed windows. One feature that struck me was a mechanical pulley supported on an extended iron bracket. The rope or chain was missing from the pulley. The pulley had stopped serving its purpose but it retained the building’s context with a poignant gesture. It did this more powerfully than what those few words could do.

As I left this village, my thoughts went back the early beginnings of the railways. Ever since (1803) Richard Trevethick made the first steam locomotive from the evolved steam engines of James Watt, there has been no looking back. In 1825, the first public passenger railway operated from Stockton to Darlington. In 1853, an equivalent achievement was made in India from Bombay to Thane. If Indian Railways is quite an impressive institution today, with millions of passengers and many thousands of kilometres of track, Swindon has been an important contributing factor.