The English diaries

Poem at Hyde Park
 

Under the blue beyond

I gaze at milky straits
Carving secret passages,
When the clouds forget to look.
The rhythmic whooshes of the pastoral wind
They sing to me of stories
Hidden deep within the folds of the foliage.
I gaze and gaze
At what seems to be endless verdant paradise
In every direction it stretches
And in every direction it pleases.
Unshaped and uncropped,
The shrubberies are free to peer
At whatever bird or bee catches their fancy.
Jottings aboard a cruise down the Thames

All touristy places are the same. Crawling with people, sounds, colours and smells. In London, there was no jostling. There wasn’t much of impatience either. There were some suspicious glances – not too many. But just enough so I never forgot I was a tourist.
The cruise – it moved at so leisurely a pace – it almost seemed to be still. I’d look up to see that the view had changed merely five degrees to the right. And then, it would pick up pace.
The stately figures of the city watched us circling by, like dour Britishmen of yore, I imagined. People whooshed past in motorboats and ‘ribcrafts’, reminding me of the plethora of boating options available at Udaipur’s lakes.
Reminiscing in Bombay
Yesterday, I saw a sculpture at Horniman Circlethat reminded me of the ones I had seen in the museums of Paris. Sometimes, I think Mumbai contains glimpses of the whole world in it. But this post is about my three-day trip to London (which was followed by Paris) and neighbouring areas, which is why I called it the English diaries.
London was my first real trip abroad (barring one to visit my dad in Dar es salaam when I was twelve). Londonwas also my first holiday alone. And London was my first step into the magical continent of Europe. I had heard so much about this member of the golden triad (London, Paris, New York) and yet, I was unprepared for the turrets, castles and brick buildings that transported me to the sets of a fairytale or a Harry Potter novel. I was also amazed at how sparklingly clean the city was – as though unlived in. Londonwas disciplined, crisp and visually perfect. No, it wasn’t as jolly or spirited or friendly as Paris. But it had character. London – she was a stately queen where Pariswas the friendly commoner. And yet, Londononly touched my heart in bits. It wasn’t the London Eye or the Tower of London that charmed me. No, in fact the spots that weren’t on touristy itineraries – those were the ones that convinced me the city had some soul. I must mention five places in London that stood out from the rest, for me:
Tate Modern gallery (and the walk along that stretch of the Thames)


I saw some really stunning modern art – videos, images and installations. But the most interesting sight I saw was a young man directing a little child across a long, empty space, while he took photographs of her. He had an assistant with him and it looked like a photography project. I had mixed feelings as I saw the little girl scamper across the ground, giggling. She seemed to love the guy – perhaps she was his daughter. In that case, was it right for him to use her for professional purposes? I didn’t know why I had that odd feeling of disquiet. But I was simultaneously fascinated. And like me, so were many others. In fact, some took photographs of the whole scene. A photograph of the process of photography. It seemed apt that such a thing should happen at Tate Modern.

Shakespeare’s Globe theatre

 

I missed Julius Caeser by just an hour. So I had to make do with the theatre tour and exhibition. But it turned out to be just brilliant. Not just Shakespeare – the exhibition took me on a journey of the whole city through the ages. I saw Londonin black and white. I saw Londonbefore it was shrouded in the aura of being one of the busiest cities in the world. And I think I might have loved that Londonmore.
Southwark

 

Southwark, the locality on the opposite side of the road from Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, does not feature on too many travel guides to London. But those little cobblestoned streets and walls, that pretty vintage pub The Anchor, the facade of Southwark Cathedral, the ruins of Winchester Palace, the exhibition of the mighty ship of Sir Francis Drake and finally, the quaint Borough Market, fragrant with the aroma of freshly baked bread – all of it charmed me completely and it was perhaps one of the best walks I had in the city. Later, I found out that Southwark is one of the oldest parts of London and I’m glad I stumbled upon this hidden treasure.
Hyde Park

 

I went to Hyde Park many times – sometimes to rest my tired toes after a busy day of traipsing around the city and sometimes because it was only a fifteen minute walk from my hotel (Chrysos at Norfolk Square). I’d heard so much about this place but I couldn’t see it all simply because of its sheer expanse! Nevertheless, I was awed by the size of parks and gardens in London. They occupied such a sizeable chunk of the map and such green standards are something all cities should emulate.
Marble Arch (and the lifesaver Tesco supermarket)

 

Marble Arch bus-stop was the one that always came to my rescue. Although still a healthy 15-20 minute walk from my hotel, I always had this sense of comfort and relief when I got off here and faced that familiar sculpture of a horse’s head, looking as though it was suspended mid-air. Marble Arch is London’s Arc de Triomphe and adjoins Hyde Park. It’s common to see cyclists zipping past on lanes dedicated for them and giving tourists like me a complex with their admirably flat abs and ripping pectorals. Marble Arch is where I clicked my first photograph of a streetside musician and then beat an ignominious retreat when he insisted on being paid (I was broke in London!).
My tryst with royalty

 

I had more than my fill of English royalty at the Buckingham Palace (where I also made it to the change of the guards) and Windsor Castle (part of my out-of-London day tour). It would be tough to say which one made a greater impression on me but I think I’d vote in favour of Buckingham Palace – perhaps because I visited there first but I also found it more elegant, luxurious and slightly homelier than Windsor Castle. I also found the gardens with their little ponds, woods and swimming ducks really delightful.
The famed English countryside
On my day-long tour of the countryside (places at least two to three hours away from London), I had Windsor Castle, Stonehenge ruins and the Roman-Georgian town of Bath on my itinerary. I had high expectations from Stonehenge but owing to the crowds and the fact that we were only allowed to observe those lofty stone tributes to the Sun God from afar, I was far from satisfied. The gorgeous town of Bath with its well-preserved hot springs and Georgian architecture seemed straight from an era where ideals like nobility and dignity had their requisite place in the lives of men and women. A couple of ladies dressed like the ancient Romans posed for my picture, like all the tourists milling about and peering into the depths of the olive-green pool. 

I think I would liken my London experience to the taste of the spring water I had at Bath – somewhat pleasant and somewhat strange, but with a lingering aftertaste that didn’t exactly make me nostalgic – but it certainly made me smile. The memory seems borrowed – as though it wasn’t me who actually lived it all. But when I shut my eyes and transport myself back to that crisp, chilly evening street at Norfolk Square or the magical bylanes of Southwark or my journey from the airport to the hotel, driven by an enterprising Sardar who somewhat allayed my trepidation, I can almost believe that it all happened. And it happened to me.

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