Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Battersea Park and Return Home to America

Sunday, July 2, 2017
Battersea Park and Return Home
            My last half-day in London dawned bright and unusually sunny and warm. After eating the odds and ends in our fridge (granola bars, yogurt and fruit with coffee), we spent quite a long while chatting with our landlady Jane whom we had barely met during our time in her home. She is a deeply interesting, very well-traveled person who has lived at length in the Middle East (Syria); but we had our packing and other concerns to deal with. With all my shopping stashed away and all my packing done, we got down to the business of calling for a mini cab to take me to Heathrow airport today and to take Shahnaz there tomorrow morning for her flight to Bombay. With that done, we set out for what we thought would be a bus ride.

Exploring Battersea Park:
    Instead, with the sun shining so beautifully down upon us, we decided to go out and explore Battersea Park as we were just three minutes from one of its gates. It turned out to be one of our best ideas. We passed through the blooming rose garden and arrived at the lovely lake (which was used as a setting for the rowing episode in my favorite TV series of all time, As Time Goes By). How thrilled I was to have reached one more location from this series which I have been looking out for, through the years. There are rowing boats and paddle boats available for hire but we were not in an energetic mood. Instead we plopped down at the lovely café that fronts the lake and enjoyed the sun on our backs as we people-watched.
            When we had sun tanned ourselves for over half a very lazy hour, we got up and went off in search of the Pagoda which is one of the many architectural features of this lovely park. About a twenty minute walk later, along shady walking paths lined with spectacular plane trees, we arrived at the Pagoda where we took many pictures. The gilded Buddha sits serenely inside overlooking the placid Thames that flows alongside. The Victorian red brick buildings of Chelsea across the river looked grand in the bright sunlight as barges and other river craft sailed slowly past. There were tons of dogs with their walkers, many joggers and loads of exercisers enjoying the glories of a perfect English summer’s day. How lucky we were to have enjoyed such splendid weather on our last day in London!
            Soon, however, as all good things must come to an end, we set out for home, once again enjoying the shady pathways of the Park. We stopped briefly off at Little Waitrose so that Shahnaz could pick up some lunch and then we set off again homewards. Once at home, I lunched on the leftovers of my Curry Laksa from my doggie bag and a last chocolate eclair that I had saved. This meant that I was full when I reached Heathrow and did not need to look for food.
In less than half an hour, my cabbie turned up and helped me haul my suitcase into his cab as we were in a basement apartment and climbing the stairs to get to the top with heavy baggage required some manipulation.
            After saying goodbye to Jane and Shahnaz, I entered the cab and began my last ride through the city. It was a very speedy ride indeed as we did not hit traffic anywhere. Such a far cry from my arrival in the city, just two weeks ago, when every road was clogged with traffic and I took almost two hours to get to Holborn from Heathrow.
            Once at Heathrow, I was practically the first person to check in, got my window seat, checked in my bag and took my backpack on wheels with me to explore the Duty Free shops. I bought my share of alcohol, tried on makeup, sniffed at a range of perfumes and browsed through Harrods. With yet another hour to spare, I sat down to finish off the minutes for which I had pre-paid on my UK phone and called a bunch of friends who had entertained or met with me during my stay. Then, when boarding was announced, I left my seat and set off for the gate.
             I had a most pleasant flight with a window seat that had the adjoining two seats left empty. This allowed me to stretch out and start blogging and when I felt my eyelids droop, to have a long good sleep for about two and a half hours. Before I knew it, it was time to touch down at Kennedy airport. I had ordered a shuttle service to take me back to Connecticut and it appeared on schedule. An hour and a half later, I was home in Southport, jetlagged and ready to drop straight into bed.
            As always, it had been a brilliant two weeks in one of my favorite countries in the world. Although I have become accustomed to solo travel, it was a special treat to have Shahnaz for company on this occasion and to be able to share with her some of the wonderful places I explored for the first time and others that I can live in without a second thought. Travel is enriching, it is edifying, it is entertaining. And we had the best two weeks anyone can imagine with so much crammed into so little time.
            Thanks for armchair-traveling with me and for being such a faithful follower of my blog. It is your company that motivates me to write it and to share with you some of the fondest vignettes of my global travel.              

            Until the travel bug next bites me…cheerio.

Retail Therapy in Swinging London, Lunch at Zizzi and Dinner at Hare and Tortoise

Saturday July 1, 2017
Retail Therapy in Swinging London and Lunch with a Friend:
            We saved our last complete day in the UK for a spot of retail therapy. In actual fact, our itinerary had indicated that we were to travel to Sussex to see the homes of the Stevens sisters who became Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell in Lewes. However, to have stuck to that plan of action would have meant no time at all to grab the few items on our shopping lists. Airline regulations now make it well-night impossible for us to do the kind of shopping we did in the years gone by. Both Shahnaz and I were concerned about being overweight and about being unable to haul our suitcases on our own. Hence, we stuck to basics.
It was my idea to shop on the King’s Road in Chelsea which is much less crowded and has a far more snazzy clientele than Oxford Street. But I was also trying to squeeze in a lunch appointment with a family friend named Bande Hasan and since he is more familiar with eateries on Oxford Street rather than in Chelsea, that was where we ended up heading. We made the appointment to meet for lunch at 1.00 pm at Zizzi and with that plan in mind, did much of our packing (to determine how much space and weight allowance we had for our goodies) and set out at about 11.00 am for a bout of retail therapy.  We took the bus from Battersea to Oxford Circus and, as systematically as possible, began our shopping.
            As most shoppers know, the month of July sees the entire commercial side of the UK get into Sale Mode. This does not happen in the US; but in the UK, this is a bi-annual affair (the other big sale occurs in the month of December). Every single store in the country had sections devoted to cut prices and it was at Clarks where we attempted to buy shoes, that we began. I found the shops I wanted in no time at all and after converting US sizes to British ones, I paid for a new pair of black patent leather work shoes and was off. I left Shahnaz still shopping for shoes and left.
            This time I hurried off to Liberty of London to take a look at the fragrance counter where Byredo has a range with which I am not familiar. The helpful sales personnel there introduced me to their new lines and plied me with a ton of samples—an unexpected bonus. I left Liberty and rushed off to Boots where I bought my supply of nail polish and face creams for the next year. Then, without further ado, I crossed the street and went to Selfridges where I acquired some more perfume samples!
There was only time left to get to the main entrance to meet my friend and Llew’s former colleague, Mr. Hasan, with whom I then walked to the back of Selfridges to Zizzi, the Italian chain that offers really delectable food. I settled for their King Prawn Linguine (which my companion also ordered) studded with chilli flakes, chilli oil and zucchini. It was wonderful. For desert, I had the Chocolate and Pistachio Sundae which consisted of dark chocolate and pistachio gelato served in a conical coupe with shaved white chocolate and chocolate sauce. You had to have tasted it to know how really superb it was! Our lunch was a brilliant chance to chat about this and that, to catch up with family news on both sides and to talk about coming plans for the summer and the rest of the year. It is always a pleasure to see my friend and spend time with him and I do value our friendship.
After lunch, I walked with my friend to the Waitrose on Edgeware Road where I bought the vast selection of packeted soups that I usually carry with me back to the US. I got my free coffee (which is always a thrill), picked up my free issue of their July Food magazine and then laden with all my shopping, I tried to reach Shahnaz by phone. We met again at the Marks and Spencer flagship store where I spent a great deal of time trying on trousers to finally find a pair in black that I needed. Shahnaz, meanwhile, was across the street in Primark and it was there that I met her. We ended up picking up a few items of clothing to take back as gifts. I was really weighed down by this point and ready to get home, but Shahnaz was still shopping until almost 8.00 pm. Eventually, we took a bus from Marble Arch and got back to Battersea.

Dinner at Hare and Tortoise at Russel Square:
            I never leave the UK, if I can help it, without having one meal at the Hare and Tortoise—and that one meal is always the very same thing: I have the Curry Laksa.  This Singaporean-Malaysian Soup comes with chicken, shrimp and other goodies in a curried coconut milk soup swimming thickly with rice noodles. It is truly a meal in a gigantic bowl—in fact, two meals, as I have never managed to eat my entire portion and have always asked for a doggie bag. Shahnaz chose to have the Seafood Ramen which was full of fish and shell fish in a fish broth. While at the meal, we entered into a conversation with the lady at the next table who happened to be of Indian Punjabi origin and was thrilled to meet Indian women from India who could speak volubly about Indian affairs. We shared a bottle of Japanese beer and kept conversation flowing as this was our last night together. I would be leaving the next afternoon and we were sorry to reach the end of our travels together.

            When we were done with dinner, we took the Tube from Russel Square to Victoria where we connected to a bus and reached home in time to get ready for bed. We were both very glad that we had devoted an entire day to shopping as it ended up taking much longer than we expected. 
             Until tomorrow, cheerio.                  

The Dreaming Spires of Oxford

Friday, June 30, 2017:
Off to Check out Oxford’s Dreaming Spires:
            In a past life, well over thirty years ago, Shahnaz used to be a stewardess with Air-India. Her travels have taken her around the world many times and Oxford had been on her agenda—in the hoary past. Not remembering anything of the city, she was delighted to have me for a guide in one of my favorite cities in the whole world—my sometime home, the seat of much of my intellectual activity.
            We had booked tickets by Megabus from London and, awaking again at the crack of dawn, we boarded one at 7. 30 am from London Victoria to arrive on The High at about 9.00 am. From this time on, our exploration would begin. We resolved to stop for a rest every one hour—and often we did (but not necessarily after each hour).  
Here is the walking tour route through which I took her:

1.     From High Street into Queens Lane, passing by St. Edmund Hall College and New College. This affords the first glimpses of what Mathew Arnold so memorably called “the dreaming spires” of Oxford.
2.     Detour into Turf Tavern Alleyway to see the home of Jane Burden, Muse to the Pre-Raphaelites and wife of artist William Morris.
3.     A peep into the Turf Tavern, well associated with the fictional Inspector Morse, a creation of the novelist Colin Dexter, and Bill Clinton (both of whom downed countless pints here).
4.     Under the Bridge of Sighs that joins two parts of Hereford College to bring us out on Catte Street.
5.     A glimpse of the Indian Institute with its Indian motifs on the walls—cows, lions, an elephant.
6.     Walk down Holywell Lane to see Holywell House where music recitals are often held. Also the site of the pilot episode in the TV series Lewis which was a spin off from Inspector Morse.
7.     A return to Catte Street and a walk down Parks Road to get to Rhodes House to see the base of all Rhodes Scholars in Oxford in a building with a spectacular rotunda designed by Herbert Baker (who, together with Edwin Lutyens), designed the city of New Delhi.
8.     A visit to the Natural History Museum to see Charles Ludwig Dodgson (Lewis Carol) memorabilia in the special vitrine dedicated to the extinct Dodo bird. We also saw the dinosaur skeletons and wonderful stone sculpted scientists like Darwin and Linneaus.
9.     A visit to the Pitt Rivers Collection in the back of the Museum to see thousands of items collected by Oxford naturalist Pitt Rivers—the Shrunken Heads are the biggest attraction and we saw them (they also feature in an episode of Lewis). We also saw the New Zealand knife that featured in an episode of Inspector Morse (“The Daughters of Cain”). On the advice of a guide, we actually took the elevator to the second floor (a first time for me) for wonderful views of the collection from on high. This enabled us to admire the brilliant architecture of Victorian designers—a feature with which we are familiar as Crawford Market in Bombay looks very similar to this building (as does Empress Market in Karachi). Upstairs, we took in the endless collection of just one man that includes everything you could possibly imagine from terracotta pots of native American Indians to Canadian totem poles, from pointed spears and arrowheads to shell-studded dolls and other toys. It is truly a stupendous collection.
10.  Crossing the street, we entered Keble College—sadly it was not open to visitors at this hour, but we did get a peep into its sunken Quad and had the opportunity to admire its red brick façade which is different from the Gothic exterior of other Oxbridge colleges.
11.  Brisk walk brought us back to The Broad (Broad Street) where we took a much-needed rest in the cafeteria of the new Weston Library. I had a milky Americano and Shanaz had a cappuccino as we rested our feet and took in the grand interiors of Oxford’s newest library and main administrative building. When we felt more relaxed, we nipped into the gallery next door to see a special exhibition called ‘Which Jane Austen?’--a special show to commemorate the author’s second death centenary which falls this year. We saw first editions of her books, much of her correspondence with family members and friends, her portable writing desk and a lot of other wonderful memorabilia. In the adjoining theater, we watched a short film entitled “Jane Austen and the BBC” which showed us clips from many of the BBC versions of Austen’s novels from the 1950s onwards.
12.  Back on The Broad, we entered Blackwell’s, Oxford’s famed bookstore, to see the underground Norrington Rooms—the only underground bookstore in the world.
13.  Quick entry into The White Horse Tavern—also a frequent drinking hole of Inspector Morse and Lewis.
14.  Across The Broad, we entered the Museum of Science to see its biggest attraction—the blackboard used by Albert Einstein when he gave an invited lecture at Oxford. The theory he presented there is still on the board in his own handwriting!
15.  Stroll through Clarendon Court to arrive at the Sheldonian Theater, Christopher Wren’s cupola-ed masterpiece in Oxford. Its horse-shoe shaped amphitheater is used for graduation ceremonies and concert recitals.
16.  Entry into Bodleian Square to see the main building of the Bodleian Library. We went through the main entrance but did not pay the fee to see the Divinity School whose carved pendant stone ceiling and fan vaulting are two of Oxford’s highlights. Instead we nipped into the library’s shop to buy a few souvenirs. We took in the tall main wall of the quadrangle with its classical columns that rise in tiers to present a sculpture of James I in whose time the library was built (with inherited money from his wife by Thomas Bodley—which we had learned on our walking tour of Totnes!).
17.  Through to Radcliff Square where we took in the splendor of one of Oxford’s most sensational buildings—the Radcliff Camera (or Rad Cam as it is known colloquially). Built by James Gibbs in the mid 1700s in neo-classical style, I have had the immense privilege of carrying out research in his member-only reading rooms with their magnificent interior ornamentation. We also took in the twin spires of lovely All Souls College—the scholar’s college--for it only admits scholars who already have a doctorate!
18.  Visit to the Parish Church of St. Mary the Virgin which fronts the High Street. Took in the beautiful choir area with its painting of Madonna and Child by Simon Vouet and its chancel sculptures.  Saw the pillar at which three of Oxford’s martyrs, Cranmer, Latimer and Ridley, were tried as heathens.
19.  As it was almost 1.00 pm and we had a lunch appointment with my friends Susan and Tony, we hurried off to meet them. We crossed The Broad and arrived at the spot where the three martyrs were actually burned at the stake in the reign of Bloody Mary Tudor, first-born daughter of Henry VIII. Also saw the Martyrs Memorial at St. Giles and then crossed the street towards The Randolf Hotel to hurry towards the Eagle and Child pub (once a haunt of the Inklings—C.S. Lewis of Narnia fame and J.R.R. Tolkien of Hobbit fame). The place was much too tiny and too crowded for us to enjoy lunch there.  After a lovely reunion with my friends (in whose home in Grandpont I have often stayed), we walked towards Little Clarendon Street to Carlucci’s—for a taste of authentic Italian cuisine.
20.  Lunch at Carlucci’s gave us a chance to catch up with my friends and to rest our weary feet. I had the two-course set lunch which came with liver pate, onion marmalade and toast points and the linguine with beef ragu for my second course. Other members of our party had risotto verde, spinach and goat cheese ravioli and spaghetti vongole with cappuccinos to follow.  It made for a very nice mid-exploration rest as we chatted nineteen to the dozen. What a great thing it is to be able to see my friends at each of these venues and to be able to spend quality time with them even when my schedule is so tight.  
21.  After lunch, I escorted Shahnaz to the Ashmolean Museum (one of the world’s greatest museums) to take its self-guided highlights tour—entitled 10 Highlights in an Hour. As I had visited the Ashmolean only six months ago, I thought I could make better use of my time, but I did not want Shahnaz to miss its brilliant offerings. We decided to meet 90 minutes later at a café on The Broad by the very spot of the martyr’s execution. Shahnaz loved the tour, saw most of the highlights and then some, while I raced off to the Oxfam shop to look for vintage treasures and then to the shoe section in Marks and Spencer on George Street as we had left almost no time for any kind of shopping in our crowded itinerary and I needed to find a pair of wide-toed black shoes (which I always buy from Marks). Sadly, I did not find anything I liked.
22.  Ninety minutes later at the appointed spot, Shahnaz and I reunited. It was time to take her into one of the colleges which opens to visitors between 2 and 5 pm daily. Into Turl Street we went as I took her, naturally, into Exeter College that I know best from my own student and teaching days there. We entered through the Porter’s Lodge and saw the lovely Quad as we made our way into the chapel that was designed by George Gilbert Scott (who also designed the Library at the University of Bombay that I have also used). The library connection I share in both India and Oxford with this architect is a very special matter of interest to me. We took in the gorgeous Byzantine altar with its gold mosaics, the tapestry by Edward Burne-Jones, one of the college’s Pre-Raphaelite alumni, entitled The Adoration of the Magi for which Jane Burden (whose home we had seen in Turf Tavern passage) had posed. We also took in the beautifully painted organ and the Irish Celtic floor tiles around the altar. The stained glass windows, however, are a highlight of the chapel for they are based on the royaume style of Sainte-Chapelle in Paris and feature tiny pieces of glass held together by lead through which the sun shines with jeweled colors. In fact, the outside of the chapel also features the distinctive spire that is also inspired by Paris’ Sainte-Chapelle.
23.  Off to the Margary Quadrangle we went so that I could point out to Shahnaz the room I had occupied in Oxford We also took in the underground lecture rooms in which, in recent years, I have taught at the college’s summer school (which I had once attended as a student myself). We also nipped into the Junior Common Room which led to the Fellows’ Garden at the back. Crossing the Fellows’ Garden (on what appeared to be Open House Day), we climbed steps leading to the ramparts and walls of the college. Perched up here, one receives some of the best views of Radcliffe Square from a height. We rested again, took a few pictures, and then continued with our tour as there was still so much to see.  Poor Shahnaz would have begun to feel seriously fatigued by this point but she wished to press on to take everything in.
24.  We returned to Turl Street and made a detour into the Covered Market so that she could see the stalls and shops, some of which date from a few hundred years. There are butchers, bakers and candle-stick makers in these precincts and it is always a pleasure to get a glimpse into the vendors’ wares.
25.  Back on The High, we walked towards Carfax to see the confluence of the four main crossroads that have stood on this site from ancient times: Cornmarket Street (its name says everything), High Street, George Street and St. Aldgate’s.
26.  Walking down St. Aldgates, we nipped into Oxford’s Town Hall where Shahnaz learned a bit about the Town Versus Gown controversy that has long persisted in these parts. Although it is normally closed to visitors and can be seen only on an official conducted tour that occurs just once a month, the guard permitted us to climb the steps and enter the spectacular Main Assembly Room with its incredibly detailed and very lavish interior decoration that consists of rich plaster work on ceiling and walls with the added attraction of embossed cherubs that jut out in the most appealing way.
27.  Leaving the Town Hall, we walked down St. Aldgates and made a detour down Bear Lane so that I could take Shahnaz to a pub called The Bear which has a distinctive collections of thousands of ties in glass cases on its ceiling and walls. There was a time when the publican would take a tie from patrons in lieu of money for a drink. Thus, he amassed a vast collection, each of which is lovingly labelled and dated! Needless to say, it is no longer possible to pay for a drink in that fashion! Probably the fact that there is no more room anywhere to display the ties accounts for the discontinuation of the practice! 
28.  We then entered the precincts of Christ Church College which was built by Cardinal Wolsey and then taken over by Henry VIII—it boasts the largest Quad in Oxford and unfinished cloisters. Since Evensong would begin in half an hour, we decided to attend it. So off we walked to Christ Church’s Perennial Gardens which offers a lovey backdrop for clicking pictures. We had no time or energy to walk across the Meadows towards the river, but we did cross the street to inspect Alice’s Shop (which was closed) as Lewis Carol was a mathematics don at Christ Church and his novel Alice in Wonderland was motivated by a cruise down the river Thames to which he had treated 10-year old Alice Liddel, daughter of the Dean of Christ Church.
29.  We re-entered Christ Church and made our way towards its Cathedral to attend Evensong which began at 6.00 pm. It was the second Evensong service we would attend on this trip (having attended also at Exeter Cathedral). This one was far better as it included child choristers who brought a decidedly angelic sound to the singing. We left at 6.30 as we had a coach back to London at 7. 15 and did not want to be late.
30.  We nipped into M&S to pick up some food that we could eat on the coach back to London. We arrived at our bus stop on The High at 7.05 and were actually able to catch the earlier coach to arrive in London at about 8.45 pm.

Of course, it was a whirlwind tour. But I have to say that Shahnaz loved every second of it—for so she told me! There was simply no way she could have squeezed so much into her day had it not been for her willing spirit. By the time we arrived at Marble Arch, we had rested a great deal. We had also spied en route the darkened skeleton of the Grenfell Tower building that had succumbed to a very tragic fire only a couple of weeks ago.

From Marble Arch, we jumped into a bus that took us directly to Battersea where we dressed for bed and gratefully sank down to sleep.  
Until tomorrow, Cheerio.