Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Our Highland Fling--Travels in Scotland and Northern England

More Medieval Wonders in Yorkshire
Wednesday, August 27, 2008, Yorkshire, England

We awoke on our 14th wedding anniversary in Alan Bowyer’s B&B to partake of the last full English breakfast of the heart-clogging kind. Tomorrow, we will awake in our flat in High Holborn and will eat sensibly again. I took a turn around his lovely cottage garden—extremely overgrown but quite lush and wonderful, complete with algae-ridden pond, statuary, an old-fashioned hand-swung pump, etc.—and then we loaded our baggage and were off.

Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal Gardens:
We had decided yesterday to skip the visit to Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire which was on our itinerary (since we had seen the palatial Castle Howard yesterday) and to spend the morning touring a place that Lonely Planet said should be a Must-Do on any Northern itinerary. Since I do not think that I will return to York again in a hurry, I did believe that we should take in Fountains Abbey and the adjoining Studley Royal Gardens. Llew agreed and we were on our way, driving around once again to Ripon from where it was a ten minute ride into the Dales that seemed in the midst of nowhere. The place opened at 10 am and we were there a few minutes earlier which gave me a chance to become a member of the Royal Oak Foundation, a membership valid for a year that gives me free entry to all the National Trust properties anywhere in the world. This cost me £46 and since the entry to the place was £7 each and the attendant let Llew in for free, we were able to save £14 right away. I know that I shall easily recover my membership in no time at all during the next year. Then, giving ourselves only one and a half hour to tour the premises, we made straight for the ruins of the Fountains Abbey itself, a superbly serene set of buildings in a state of complete ruin that dates from the 1100s.

Built by the Cistercian monks and set in a sea of emerald green grass, an exhibit gave us a quick idea of the history of the place. It was very heartbreaking to see the manner in which the abbey was destroyed by King Henry VIII during his Dissolution of the monastries in 1538.This was after the abbey had become an extremely profitable venture for the monks who made their money selling their sheep fleeces to merchants in Italy and France. Walking through the ruins was a rather sobering experience and we did wish we had more time to take it all in. The immensity and vastness of the whole complex is so astounding and you simply cannot understand how it could have been so deliberately destroyed.

Joining the abbey are the gardens that were build in the 18th century by Lord Aislabie who acquired the property and set about creating the water gardens which are meant to complement the abbey. Together, the abbey ruins and the water gardens create a tranquil, almost spiritual space of contemplation. We walked through the first of the artificial lakes but did not have the chance to take in the gardens in their entirely as it is literally a walk of a couple of miles to see it all. Despite the paucity of time, we were grateful that we had the opportunity to take in these sights. Then, we got hopelessly lost trying to find our way back to the parking lot. The map misled us into believing that we could take a short cut and then before we knew it we had left the premises altogether and were out in the fields walking for at least a mile just when we were running late and wanted to get back into our car and on the road to London as soon as possible. I guess this is Murphy’s Law—if something has to go wrong, it will.

Anyway, Llew did a splendid driving job and we were back in London in record time, munching sandwiches in the car on our way in and then following the National Express buses back to the Victoria Coach Station where we were able to return our car before 5. 30 and then took a cab back to our flat as we had so much baggage that we could never have managed in a bus or on the Tube.

Back at our building, we met Arben our concierge, and he introduced himself to us and seemed to be a very nice guy. We just stashed our stuff indoors and then rushed off to buy a phone (a landline for my flat) and some detergent washing powder so we could do our laundry and then we were picking up a take-away meal from Sainsburys and were upstairs, relaxing on our anniversary after being exhausted by all we had to do today! A glass of wine each had to suffice to mark our anniversary!

In Herriott’s Fictional World of Darrowby
Tuesday, August 26, 2008, Yorkshire Dales, England

Awaking near Thirsk in the village of Sinderby at Glen Free Holmes B&B, we had a full English breakfast served by Alan Bowyer and drove off to Ripon again to find some presents for Chriselle and Chris. I was able to find the little Souvenir dish commemorating the Queen’s Golden Jubilee which I decided to use as a tea bag holder when using my new tea set. Also found some lovely 100% lambswool scarves by James Pringle in the Edinburgh Wool Store and was thrilled at the prices we received (just £12 for 2—we bought 4 to give as gifts).

The World of James Herriott at Thirsk:
Then, we headed off to Thirsk to visit The World of James Herriott, an interactive museum that is based in the real-life home of the famous vet who was born James Alfred Wight, was known in real-life as Alf and took the pen name James Herriott because he liked a Scottish footballer by that name.

Well, from the minute we entered the village of Thirsk, I felt completely at home, as if I belonged to its world of the 1930s. We paid £5 each to enter the place which allowed us to tour the interior of the house and to use an audio tape that cost us an extra £2. Narrated in the voice of Jim Wright (the son of James Herriott), the tour took us through the various rooms in their house as it was lived in from the years 1950-1957 when the kids were little. The same house was used as a surgery, however, right up to the year 1997 which was when his son Jim Wight who also became a vet moved to larger premises. The place is decorated to look like a museum belonging to the 1950s—the decade in which I was born and for some reason I feel so much at home in that atmosphere. Then, we went through the garden (which is also so well described in the books and TV shows)—the beloved garden of Skeldale House where the family worked hard and where the kids spent so much time. (I realized later that the name Skeldale came from the valley of the River Skel which is where Fountains Abbey is located and, no doubt, the Wight’s home took its name from that location). I took a picture in the car, the Austin Severn, in which the vets scoured the Yorkshire countryside in the early days as they paid house calls to their horse, cow and sheep patients. The 10 minute film, narrated by Christopher Timothy who played Herriott in the series, was excellent and took us through the entire life of the author in a nut shell. Then, upstairs, we saw a reproduction of the wonderful TV sets that were so easily recognizable to fans of the series All Creatures Great and Small. The entire visit was so worthwhile and to be walking through the rooms in the company of fans who are equally besotted by the enthralling work of Herriott was itself an experience.

Outside, I took some pictures by the main door and also of the building. In a few paces of a quick walk, one comes to the main Market Square of Thirsk where many stores carry Herriott memorabilia and are named after the characters (Jim and Rosie’s Bric-A-Brac and Furniture Store; The Darrowby Inn—a pub, where later in the evening, Llew and I had a local beer.) It is the place where a weekly farmer’s market is still held exactly as it was on Mondays in Herriott’s day. It really was a fun excursion and I am glad that Llew seemed to enjoy it as much as I did.

Castle Howard: Brideshead Revisted!
Then, we were driving along quiet country roads towards Malton to visit Castle Howard, one of the most splendid buildings in all of England and highly popularized in the TV series Brideshead Revisited which used it as a location in the 1980s and then again a few months ago for the release of a new version of the film. Conceived as a grand country home by the 8th earl of Carlisle who requested his friend John Vanbrugh, the playwright of the Comedy of Manners School, to design a new home for him, this is one of the most spectacular English coutnry estates and one I have long wanted to visit.

Vanbrugh drew up plans for a grand domed home (the only private home in England that sports a dome with a 'lantern' on the top of the cupola) and asked his friend Nicholas Hawksmoor to work the final plans for him. They collaborated to create this confection of grand rooms filled to the rafters with all kind of accoutrements and furnishings. A tour of the house in which very well trained guides told us about the history and the decoration of the rooms was quite fantastic and left us awed at the wealth of the nobility in previous eras.

We also toured the lovely rose garden, a walled garden with dozen of roses (most of which, alas, were past their prime) and also a great potager which had an abundance of fresh green vegetables that are sold in the plant shop on the premises. Certainly a visit to Castle Howard is memorable and takes more than half a day if one wants to do it thoroughly and at leisure. We were fortunate in that we got a chance to see a special exhibit on the filming of the new version of Brideshead Revisited (comin g soon to a theater near you) which took place earlier this year and I seized the opportunity to pose by the bed draped in green velvet hangings in which Lord Marchmain dies in the film.

The Medieval City of York:
Then, Llew and I were headed, once again, in our car, for the medieval city of York, hoping to catch some daylight hours and a glimpse of the renowned York Minster, one of the best Gothic cathedrals in the world. Parking our car in the public parking lot, we headed straight for the Minster or church that dominates the city’s skyline. There, since a service was just beginning, we had a chance to take in only a peep of some of the main interior features such as the astounding choir screen decorated with all the kings of England unto the time the church was built and the magnificence of the medieval stained glass windows.

Then, we sauntered out into the streets intending to return to the church when the service was complete. York is truly a tangle of narrow, cobbled medieval lanes lined on both sides by antiquated buildings that formed stores on the ground floor and homes on the first. They have such an abundance of character that it is hard to believe that we are in the 21st century when one strolls through these streets. Everywhere, there is some charming item to catch the eye. I have never seen a town such as this one anywhere—Oxford and Cambridge are medieval towns but their buildings are immense educational ones built on the model of the abbeys and cloisters of the Middle Ages. This town is composed of streets such as would have been populated by the common people and the entire atmosphere is extremely evocative of this use. We sat on a bench and munched on Cornish pasties as we were starving by this time.

Our random rambling brought us back to the main entrance of the Minster where the service had ended and we were able to enter without paying the hefty entry fees as it was the very end of the day. How stupendous is this work of art! Inside in the conical chapel is a very unusual Chapter House, a meeting room for the prelates of the church. We saw the little niches in which they sat to discuss affairs of the church. The ceiling is beautifully decorated in the Mannerist style. The Rose window featured the white rose and the red rose of the houses of Lancaster and York which were finally reunited after the 100 year war by the marriage of two of its members. There was so much to see, so much to dazzle the eye, it was hard for us to focus on any one thing. We were so glad we got to see this grand edifice of Christian worship.

We did not leave York without walking upon its fantastic medieval walls that encircle the old city and provide fascinating glimpses into its Roman past--for York, was, of course, one of the seats of Roman adminstration in ancient times and fiercely retains vestiges of its classical civilization.

Then, we were out on the streets again, getting into our car and driving back to Thirsk where we resolved to get ourselves something to eat. I loved Thirsk even in the fading light of the evening and after all the crowds had left the market place. We settled down to beers at The Darrowby Inn (named, of course, for Herriott’s books in which the town of Thirsk is fictionalized as Darrowby), then picked up sandwiches at Somerfield supermarket just before it was about to close. Because I was unable to tear myself away, we took one more stroll around the Herriott home and were on our way, driving back to Sinderby where we went to bed completely exhausted.

In The Footsteps of The Da Vinci Code
Monday, August 25, 2008, Yorkshire Dales, England

We left Scotland this morning after having had a memorable time there. Kathleen’s Carneil Farm B&B offered our last full Scottish breakfast which included kippers which are smoked herrings--superb! The drive which skirted Edinburgh after we crossed the Firth of Forth took us into velvet-smooth green dales on a very drizzly morning under overcast skies.

Rosslyn Chapel--Dan Brown's Gift to the World.
Our destination was Roslin Chapel made popular in recent times as the final setting for Dan Brown’s book The Da Vinci Code. Though it has been a while since Llew and I read the book and watched the movie, I did remember many of the last parts of the plot that are shot in this chapel and decided that it was worth visiting. I had also read that the carvings inside are exquisite.

Getting there was no picnic what with the rain and the slick roads and the heavy traffic on the motorways. This was contrasted by a quiet one-lane country road that actually got us to the spot where we found the car park filled with tour coaches. It is a bank holiday in Great Britain and many people are out for the weekend. We paid the £7 entrance fee and found the place under heavy fortification with a large metal canopy concealing the roof.

The history of the chapel goes back to the 1400s when it was constructed by William St. Clair. Over the years it has come to be associated with the Knights Templar and the secrets of the Holy Grail and the preservation of various precious items from the history of the Church including the scrolls from the Temple of Solomon. This sort of rumor gave rise to Dan Brown’s purely fictitious novel and has brought all the modern-day pilgrims seeking answers to the puzzles raised by his plot.

The carving is indeed exquisite, done in sandstone and featuring scenes from the Bible, the Seven Deadly Sins, the Seven Corporal Works of Mercy and two interesting pillars, one a square version, the other a rounded one with skeins encircling it. The former was said to have been carved by the Master mason, the other by his apprentice; but since the latter’s was better, the jealous master killed the apprentice. In many ways, the carvings inside the chapel reminded us of the sandstone temples we have seen in India in which the walls appear lace-like because the intricacy of the carvings is so closely wrought. Not surprisingly, Dorothy Wordsworth is supposed to have commented that the inside of the chapel reminded her of Brussels lace.

We went down to the crypt which also featured in the film only to find it empty and certainly not concealing the sarcophagus of Mary Magdalen! We had a superb half-hour lecture by a very good guide indeed and she filled us in on the history as well as the architecture of the chapel. We also climbed up the scaffolding that led us to the same height as the roof and the flying buttresses of the chapel—all being protected while the chapel is undergoing restoration—and found a very interesting perspective on the carvings from that height. We spent over an hour in that hallowed space and thought the visit was completely worthwhile. It is little wonder that when the book first came out, the chapel received 179,000 visitors in one day while today some 1000 visitors still come through each day.

Walking Upon Emperor Hadrian's Wall:
The next stop on our tour was Carlisle, just south of the English border, where we went in search of the remains of Roman Emperor Hadrian’sWall that was build in AD 220 with the idea of demarcating the extent of the Roman Empire. When it was completed, it ran across the width of the island from the Solway Firth in the west to the River Tyne in the east (close to today’s Newcastle). Today, it is a UNESCO protected monument and is far from complete. But where it is intact, it is deeply evocative of that interesting era of British history under the Romans and, inevitably, it took me back to my visit to Pompeii in March.

We took a very narrow foot path that led us under a railway bridge and across a small river to the old milecastle marking of the wall and then on to Birdoswold where we saw the remains of a Roman fort and much larger and longer remains of the wall. Indeed, this too was something I had wanted to visit for a very long time and I was so glad that I came face to face with this gigantic enterprise that is reminiscent of the Great Wall of China about which we have been hearing so much since the Olympics ended only a couple of days ago.

Arrival in the Yorkshire Dales:
We bought ourselves a sandwich lunch and then began the long drive eastwards towards Newcastle (running parallel to the Wall on many occasions) and southwards towards the Yorkshire Dales where we would be spending the night. We tried to find the village of Thirsk made famous by James Herriot’s books and indeed when we were there, we drew a blank as we didn’t have a good address for the B&B at which I had made a booking. Well, it turned out that Glen Free Holme was not in Thirsk at all but in a nearby village called Sinderby. It also has turned out to be rather tired looking farmhouse without an attached bath though our room is quite spacious and comfortable and has a washbasin in it. There is a labrador called Sam in the house and two very docile horses outside in the stable! All this truly makes me feel as if I am in a James Herriott story even though there is little resemblance to the landscape described by him in his books in the area in which we are staying. Tomorrow, we shall go in search of the James Herriott Museum and find out how authentic the setting of his home is to the TV series that made him a household name.

Then , since it was still rather early and there was so much good daylight outside that we did not want to waste, Llew and I settled into our B&B and then drove out to the neighboring town of Ripon which is called the “Cathedral Town of the Dales”. And how delightful it turned out to be! The cathedral truly does dominate the town but leading out from it is a maze of narrow winding cobbled roads that are lined with old-fashioned stores that were just very appealing as we browsed around them. Of course, apart from the restaurants, everything else was closed but we enjoyed our stroll, nonetheless, and thought that Ripon was indeed a very sweet little town and an unexpected find in this quiet place of natural beauty. I am looking forward to exploring the James Herriot Museum tomorrow and especially Castle Howard of which I have read so much and in which the BBC TV version of Brideshead Revisited, one of my famous novels of all time, was shot.

Close Encounters of the Royal Kind
Sunday, August 24, 2008, Royal Deeside, Scotland

Today was quite quite extraordinary—certainly the most memorable part of our Highland Fling! We awoke in Ballater, the quaint Victorian village of the prettiest kind, at our Schoolhouse B&B where we had a lighter than usual breakfast and set out to see Balmoral Castle and, hopefully, catch a glimpse of the Queen en route to church.

Balmoral Castle:
Since we were a little early, we started off by taking our hostess Kathleen’s advice and going in search of Knock Gallery, just a mile outside Crathie, the village in which Balmoral Castle is located. The reason for the detour to Knock was to see Balmoral Castle from the only point in the entire village of Crathie in which it is visible—in the distance but there, nevertheless, a fairy-tale castle with its Scottish standard flying high and proud to pronounce the fact that the Queen was in residence there. Climbing the hill to Knock, we were rewarded with that glimpse indeed, the only one that would be permitted us on this trip. But if our disappointment needed to be consoled at not being allowed to enter Balmoral or to tour the grounds, it certainly was—over and above our fondest expectations.

Stalking Royals in their Favorite Stomping Grounds:
Returning to Crathie where police and security men were already present and crowds had already started to gather in time for the 11. 30 am service, we parked our car in the car park and climbed the low hill towards Crathie Kirk (Church). Though Kathleen had told me to expect no more than “a dozen, maybe two dozen” folk, the Lonach Games had drawn a sizeable crowd to the region and not being able to enter Balmoral, they were all outside the church, like us, hoping to catch a glimpse of royalty.

So we joined the throngs, finding ourselves a prized spot at the very top of the driveway that sloped gently upwards just behind the chain barricade that was being manned by security men in plainclothes. They were the epitome of politeness and indeed “very relaxed” (as Kathleen told me it would be) as they urged people to stay behind the barricade and put their cameras away. Not having anything better to do, we got into conversation with Carole from Northumberland and her husband who were as excited as I was to see the royal family. The excitement of all the observers was infectious and I felt my excitement mounting too as I waited patiently on what was a truly spectacular day in the Highlands. The sun was out and shone golden upon the conifer covered mountains and the air was crisp and cool and somehow deliciously pure.

Then, at a few minutes before 11. 25, a car pulled up and to my enormous delight, I recognized Camilla wearing a wide brimmed beige hat and a beige outfit. She was smiling warmly. I peaked further into the car expecting to see Prince Charles somewhere and was surprised to find that he was actually driving the car himself. In the back sat a slim and tall women whom I later realized was Sophie Rhyes-Jones, wife of Prince Edward. Prince Charles and Camilla passed by rather quickly in something of a flash but they were easily discernible. Llew thought that it was all over but just then a policewoman came and stood alongside us and excused herself for standing in our pathway. Carole told her that since she was tiny she would be obliged if she would move and she did move aside.

Then, in a few seconds, a lovely long burgundy Rolls Royce came along and all of us knew at once that the Queen would be in that car. The car climbed the hill much slower, driver by a chauffeur and for a long while before it got right in front of us, I saw Prince Edward sitting in the passenger seat and smiling away for all he was worth. In my delight, I began to wave frantically, just so thrilled to be actually seeing these folks whose pictures we have all seen forever. “That’s Prince Edward,” I said for Llew’s benefit so that he would not miss the sight of this lesser royal.

Then, just when it seemed as if my joy would know no bounds, the car stopped, unbelievably, for just a couple of seconds, right in front of us so that I found myself looking directly at the Queen not even two feet in front of me. Resplendent in bright pink silk with a lovely formal pink hat, she wore a double strand of pearls around her neck and large pearl ear-rings. Her hand was raised as she waved—the famous royal wave, that has been satirized in comedy shows for as long as I can remember--and she was smiling brightly and widely and taking in the enthusiasm of the crowds. For all those who have talked about the aloofness of the Queen, her inability to connect with common folk, her remoteness and everything else, all I can say is that for those couple of minutes, she seemed anything but friendly and approachable and truly kind. Seated right besides her was her husband, the Duke of Edinburgh, his head stooped slightly to allow him to be seen by the crowds and his hand also raised in a friendly wave. To say that I could not believe my eyes would be an understatement. I was filled with the utmost delight and a true sense of having just witnessed something that I could write home about. Truly it had been worth standing there outside the church and the half hour that we spent waiting patiently there was more than rewarded.

Braemar--Location of the famous Highland Games:
Since no one was allowed about the premises as long as the royal family was inside the church, we got back into our car and drove about 15 minutes to the neighboring village of Braemar, home of the famous Highland Gamers which are scheduled for next weekend. If I thought Ballater was pretty, this village was picture-perfect. Astride the River Dee that bubbled furiously beneath me on the stone bridge that spanned it and built around a number of stone hotels, town halls and a church, this was truly a tourist’s dream. Llew and I strolled around, charmed by every corner before we got back into our car and returned to Crathie.

Visit to Crathie Kirk:
The service was over by this time, the royal family had returned to their secret abode at Balmoral and the congregation was making its way down the hill towards their cars in the parking lot. That gave Llew and me the chance to visit the interior of the church and to pray there for a few minutes before we walked around the pews, saw the one used by the Royal Family right at the front and bought a few postcards by which to remember our recent experience. We saw marble busts of Queen Victoria and Georges V and VI and lovely stained glass windows. I made my way to the Royal Pew which was covered, by this time, with a rich purple slipcover and found, to my astonishment, the printed copies of the service that had been used, not half an hour previously, by members of the Royal Family. Since they just lay there and would certainly have been discarded, I picked one up for my scrapbook, thrilled to know that it had just been used by royalty!

Visit to the Grave of John Brown--Protagonist of the film 'Her Majesty Mrs Brown':
The church itself is very tiny, almost cozy, rather dark inside and heavily beamed. Kathleen had also told me about the old graveyard right across the road from Crathie church in which lies buried John Brown, Queen Victoria’s faithful and dedicated groomsman. Her relationship with him following the death of Prince Albert had led to speculation about a possible clandestine relationship between them. Some even allege that they were secretly married though there is no historical evidence to support this conjecture. This became the subject of the excellent film Her Majesty Mrs. Brown in which Dame Judy Dench played Queen Victoria rather superbly.

Of course, Llew and I had to go out in search of his grave and of the prominent gravestone erected in his memory by a grateful Victoria who called him her good and faithful servant. None of this information is available in any of the guidebooks I was carrying with me and were it not for information disclosed by a local, I would have missed this incredibly interesting gem of history that was located not even a few yards from where we had stood in a church in which Queen Victoria had herself once worshipped.

On the Scotch Whisky Trail:
Then, we were on the road again leaded to the Lochnagar Whisky Distillery where we thought we’d take a tour as we had missed the malt whiskey trail earlier on. Unfortunately, the next tour was a good half hour later and since the tour itself took an hour and we were running short of time, we drove on as intended to take in the last bits of the Royal Deeside Tour.

Purple Mountains Majesty:
This, in fact, turned out to be the most unforgettable part of the tour as we passed by gently rolling glens and hills that were entirely covered with heather. The heather was so thick and so profuse that entire mountains in the Cairngorms National Park were covered with them. The heather, the mountains, the river Dee following us along our trail and the heavily wooded slopes combined to create sights that can never be captured by camera. As we wound our way towards Glamis Castle, our next stop, they enchanted us.

Glamis Castle--Supposed Site of Macbeth's Murder of Duncan:
Glamis Castle (pronounced 'Ghlams'), long associated with Shakespeare’s Macbeth (again, like Cawdor Castle inaccurately) was amazing and unexpectedly fabulous. We drove along the endless driveway past twin rows of trees that lined both sides and saw the castle slowly come into view. We decided to actually stop there and take a tour both of the interior and the exterior and we were so glad we did.

A lovely guided tour costing £8 per head gave us the services of a superb guide who took us through one room after the other all of which were stacked with the most breathtaking interiors—bedrooms, living rooms, libraries and a private chapel, all filled with furnishings of the most notable kind. Glamis Castle is closely associated with Elizabeth Bowes-Lyons, the late Queen Mother who was born here and spent her life here until her marriage to the present Queen’s father, born Albert, later George VI. Here is tons of memorabilia associated with her life as a girl including her mother's bed, the piano that the Queen Mother played as a young lady, her carriage in which she received rides around the castle, etc. The present owners, the Duke and Countess of Strathmore and Kinghorne, who still inhabit the castle look after it very well indeed and there are so many stories about the ghosts that haunt the environs including the one of Lady Jane Grey who was declared a witch and killed. There was so very much to see and admire about the interiors and we thoroughly enjoyed every second of the tour.

Off to a Round of Golf (hahahha) at St. Andrew's:
Then, we were on the road again, this time headed to St. Andrew’s, home of golf. We reached there about 5. 30 and decided to go out in search of an early dinner. The town is just beautiful, made up of medieval buildings that form the core of the oldest university in Scotland (build in the early 1400s). These converge beautifully in commercial areas where the shops doing modern business still seem rather ancient.

We found a traditional Scottish Angus steak dinner in a bar and enjoyed our meal very much. Then, we headed south towards Dunfermline in search of the Carneil Farm B&B in Carnoch where we were going to spend our last night in Scotland. We got there about 8. 30 pm and gratefully made our way up to the room we had occupied a week ago, just thrilled to have had such a spectacular day.

Stalking Royalty by Deeside
Saturday, August 23, 2008, Aberdeen and Royal Deeside, Scotland

As always happens when Llew and I are on holiday, we lose track completely of dates and days. When Ray informed us at Eilidh B&B in Inverness that breakfast would be served at 9am because it was the weekend, we realized that it was Saturday and that we have been on the road for 8 whole days! Unbelievable.

After showering, we sat down to one of Ray’s enormous full Scottish breakfasts, then left his home soon after. Headed for Aberdeen, we decided to stop en route to see some of the more interesting sites on the 106 mile journey.

Cawdor Castle--Setting of Shakespeare's 'Macbeth':
Our first stop was Cawdor Castle, popularized by Shakespeare’s Macbeth but bearing little or no historical accuracy with the real events that led to the grizzly happenings of the play. Paying £4 each to tour the grounds and the gardens (we chose to pass on the interiors for want of time), we spent about an hour just taking in the magnificence of it all.

The castle has been beautifully refurbished to keep up with the huge tourist interest in it but the full rate (almost £8) seemed a little too pricey. However, for the half price we paid, we got to see the stone exterior which was very impressive indeed, we crossed the grass-filled moat to the entrance and I even had a peep into the interior which was furnished rather opulently in typical English-country style.

Cawdor has a spacious maze and we had a peak at that as well before we made our way into the spectacular gardens that were just full of autumnal blooms and I saw my very first blooming thistle for the first time in Scotland. Lavender was everywhere as were Asiatic lilies and rows and rows of a dropping white flower that I couldn’t recognize. We took so many pictures with the castle in the background and I found it hard to believe that I was actually in the venue of which I had read when I was in my teens—Cawdor Castle. I actually saw a bubble hole and a cauldron at the very entrance to the castle that was reminiscent of the first lines of the play--Macbeth.

Double Double, Toil and Trouble
Fire Burn and Cauldron Bubble.

Over to Elgin:
Our drive took us further on to the seaside town of Nairn past a very small and very appealing country road—almost a bike pathway--before we caught the main roadway again and headed to the medieval town of Elgin which has a 13th century Town Center with cobbled streets and old stone cottages—just very beautiful. It also has a 13th century ruined cathedral which made some lovely pictures. We had a fantastically sunny day which was such a relief after all the clouds and drizzles we’ve passed through in the past week. But then my guidebook informed me that Elgin is the sunniest town in the entire UK and is known for its bright blue skies!

Well, just as we were about to leave the cathedral precincts, I spied a sign that announced Johnstons of Elgin Visitor Showroom and I told Llew that I wanted to visit it. This is because I am familiar with their products and love them dearly having used a 100% lambswool throw made by them which I bought over 10 years ago. Since we are decorating our new media room, it made sense for me to consider purchasing another throw for the new space. How delighted I was to explore the environs of this century-old showroom in the very place where the local sheep provide the wool that makes those luxurious items. Of course, we did find a throw that would suit the colors of our room and for a very affordable price –just £30 for a lambswool throw in a very bold plaid—in keeping with the plaid designs of Scotland--a very fitting souvenir indeed of a country that is filled with sheep at every turn!

Homeless in Aberdeen!
Back on the road, we drove through very gentle glens towards Aberdeen. There were very charming villages along the way, some no more than a single street with a few old stone cottages along the road, others complete with churches and greens and bridges. When we did arrive in Aberdeen, we tried to find ourselves accommodation for the night as this was the only place in which I did not succeed in finding accommodation in advance. Well, everything in Aberdeen was chocobloc and we could find nothing. We did walk the length of two streets for about an hour trying to find something but drew a blank. Finally, I suggested to Llew that we should start driving along the Royal Deeside (i.e. along the banks of the River Dee) and that we should keep our eyes open for any possibilities of B&Bs along the way.

The Royal Deeside Tour:
Of course, we followed the Royal Deeside Driving Tour as given in the DK Eyewitness Book and came upon Drum Castle, now managed by the National Trust of Scotland, a fine medieval building that was associated with Robert The Bruce and his standard bearer to whom he gifted the castle. Back on the road again after taking a couple of pictures, we stopped a little later at Crathes Castle, this one less visible from the car park than was Drum. Another round and another picture later, we arrived at Ballater, a town that lies about 15 minutes from Balmoral Castle which is the residence of the royal family in Scotland. This town, made famous by Queen Victoria, who used it as a railway base for her many trips to Balmoral which she so loved, is full of shops that proudly display their royal warrants on their store fronts as so many of them supply provisions to the royal family. Since it was close to 5 pm and we were nowhere near the Castle, I suggested to Llew that we stop to find accommodation. It was at that time I discovered that the Tourist Office right next to the red and yellow picture-perfect Old Royal Station would be able to find us accommodation. I raced there and was relieved to find that despite the fact that every town along the River Dee was packed to the gills with tourists who had arrived to witness the Highland Games that are being played at nearby Lonach, there was actually a place available in the town in a B&B called the Schoolhouse run by Kathleen and Allan Low. It was so pricey at £75 for the en suite room but we had no choice and we took it. Kathleen then suggested we have dinner at the Old Station Restaurant and after we stashed our stuff in our room (very plain for the price), we went out for a long stroll to explore the lovely little village that had probably not changed at all since Queen Victoria visited these parts and crossed the stone bridge over the River Dee from where we received lovely perspectives of the place.

The ladies in the Tourist Office also informed us that Balmoral Castle and Grounds were closed as the Queen was in residence there with her family enjoying the August holidays. We were disappointed but then they also informed us that if we went at 11. 00 am tomorrow to the Castle, we would be able to see the Queen leaving the Castle at 11.30 to go to Church. I asked if we could also attend service in the church and they told me that we could do one or the other—attend the service by getting to the church by 10. 30 or stand behind the police barricade to catch a glimpse of the Queen at 11. am. We decided to do the latter and soon headed to dinner.

Dinner at the restaurant was very good value for money indeed—I had the Scottish salmon with a tomato sauce and creamy mash and Llew had a burger made with rumpsteak and lamb that was gigantic. I also had cider while Llew had red wine. Neither of us had room for dessert. After another quick stroll (it had suddenly turned chilly), we got back to the B&B and had a chat with Allan who runs a volunteer education service in India and Sri Lanka where he was born and sat by a warm fire for a few minutes. Then it was time to return to our room to relax and write this diary.

Investigating the Inner Hebrides
Friday, August 22, 2008, The Isle of Skye and Inverness, Scotland
Great weather today made our exploration of the Inner Hebrides quite unforgettable. We awoke to a spectacular view of Ben Nevis from the bedroom window of our Quaich Cottage B&B and couldn’t resist taking pictures of the cloud-enshrouded peak. After showering quickly, we went downstairs to the dining room for our full Scottish breakfast that included two venison sausages which both Llew and I found very delicious.

Well prepared for the exploration that lay ahead, we returned to the town of Fort William to a charity shop where I had spied a full Queen Elizabeth Golden Jubilee Commemorative china tea set for £20, a truly unbelievable price, and decided to purchase it, only to discover that it had been further reduced to £10! With this detour, we lost about 20 minutes of travel time but we soon hit the road to Loch Ness and drove northwards, passing by the famous Caledonian Canal where it began at the little village of Banavie. The drive was just delightful. The area is simply chocful of lakes, all of which reflect the green vegetation of the mountain slopes. It was very reminiscent of the Canadian Rockies and Llew and I swore we could well have been there.

In Search of Nessie--the Loch Ness Monster:

Before long, we spied the southernmost shores of the famous Loch Ness (above left) and joined hordes of tourists in attempts to spy the infamous Nessie, as the Loch Ness monster is known. The road towards Invermorriston curved sharply making driving both strenuous and rather slow. En route, we passed by the famous Uruquart Castle whose ramparts jut out into the lake. Lack of time did not allow us to explore the castle in its entirety, but we did stop to take pictures on the shore. There was nary a ripple on the lake’s surface—so any hopes of catching a glimpse of the elusive Nessie died immediately!

Off to the Isle of Skye:
Back on the road, headed towards the Kyle of Localsh and the Skye Bridge that would take us towards the islands of the Inner Hebrides, we stopped our car to give a ride to a hitchhiker named Joseph who happened to be an Irishman who had missed his bus to the Isle of Skye and was very grateful for the lift.

Chatting with him along the way took us past the famous Five Sisters of Kintail (gentle mountain slopes clad in green) and eventually the banks of Loch Duich on which the most photographed castle in Scotland (after Edinburgh’s)—Eileen Donan (pronounced ‘Doonin’) Castle offered wonderful photo opportunities of which we made the most.

Then, we were racing towards the Isle of Skye desperate to make our 1. 30 lunch reservation at the famed Three Chimneys Restaurant at Dunvegan about which we had read in The New York Times, three weeks ago. A quick call to them (thanks to my cell phone) made it clear that we would be unable to reach the restaurant in time and that they were unable to keep their kitchen open for us. Unable to keep our disappointment at bay, we decided to stop at the largest town on the Isle of Skye called Portree to eat ourselves a consolation lunch at a nearby bistro.

Lunch at Picture-Perfect Portree:
Skye is truly spectacular and reminded us very often of the western shores of Ireland around Connemara and Achill Island. The landscape changes dramatically presenting the motorist with the stark steeply rising mountain faces of the Cuillin Hills that are draped in a very light green but completely lack the presence of trees. Apart from flocks of sheep and brown cows that graze placidly along the slopes, there is no sign of any life. On the winding narrow roads that lead ever northwards to the more remote stretches of the island, there is barely any traffic. This is the point in Scotland when the lochs meet the ocean and the land and seascapes working in collusion are just stupendous. When we did reach Portree after dropping Joseph off at the crossroad, we arrived at a small bistro called The Bistro on the Main where we enjoyed a very good lunch indeed—glasses of Isle of Skye beer (“made with porridge oats!”) and prawn sandwiches for Llew and Fish and Chips (superbly fried haddock) for me.

Replete with our meal, we browsed around the stores and bought a few souvenirs before getting into the car again to undertake a loop around the northern reaches of the Isle of Skye where the natural scenery is most noted. Here we were rewarded by frequent glimpses of the ocean punctuated by landscapes that looked more like moonscapes. We also saw a few of the famous Highland breed of golden cattle that sport a very shaggy mane and long curving horns. They passed right by our car doors allowing us to take a few good pictures.

Having seen some of the most interesting parts of Skye, we made our way back towards Invermorriston passing by the Five Sisters of Kintail once again and admiring their rugged faces. Then, we were headed northwards towards Inverness where we hoped to find our Eilidh Bed and Breakfast before it got too dark. No reason to fear. Back on the shores of Loch Lomond a slight drizzle began but our car ate up the miles bravely and brought us into the town where we very easily found our abode for the night. Settling in our room, we took the suggestion of Ray, the owner of the house, that we take a walk towards the center of the city and the banks of the River Ness.

Indeed, Nessie makes her presence felt all around this area and the Ness Bridge that spans the river dividing the city in half offered wonderful floodlit views of the Castle of Inverness and the lovely old stone clad buildings that lined the banks of the river—buildings that turned out to be the Palace Hotel and Columba Hotel. Crossing the bridge, we arrived in the Town Center and wound our way through attractive shops that sold woolen items, postcards and a variety of souvenirs including Scotch whiskey. This corridor of Scotland, along the banks of the river Spey, is noted for its distilleries, and no doubt, we shall pass by and visit a couple of distilleries tomorrow. Indeed, we loved Inverness—it had the old-fashioned ambience of Edinburgh without the frenzy of the crowds and the dignity of Glasgow without its chaos. Our walk took us deeper into town and as darkness fell over the city, the golden orbs of the lamps that lined the River Ness’ banks, were reflected in the waters flowing softly downstream. The city was atmospheric in the extreme and both Llew and I fell in love with it immediately.

Then, twenty minutes later, we were back at our B&B, eating a sandwich and sundae dinner but not before we helped ourselves to a wee dram of Scotch whiskey which our host Ray told us represented a traditional Scottish welcome! It was warming indeed and reminded us of the brandy that our Mothers gave us when we were kids plagued by colds! A spot of TV later, news round-ups followed by some glimpses of the Highlights of the Beijing Olympics which are on right now, took us off to sleep.

Highland Fling
Thursday, August 21, 2008, Fort William, Scotland

The spectacular day we had today more than made up for the disappointments of Glasgow. The Victorian House Hotel in Glasgow offered a fantastic full Scottish breakfast and Llew and I ate well, fuelling up for the long day that lay ahead.

On the Bonnie Bonnie Banks of Loch Lomond:

We found our way out of the city of Glasgow fairly easily and arrived on the shores of Loch Lomond within an hour. Making our way towards the western shores for the prettiest village in southern Scotland called Luss, we passed by a few tourist buses and many holiday makers. At Luss, Loch Lomond’s “bonnie, bonnie banks” (above left) allowed us to touch the water that softly lapped the shore as kids fed ducks. This is the lake with which every kid is familiar—especially those who have gone through music lessons. Which one of us who learned to play the piano did not play the Scottish song made famous the world over by a Scottish soldier dying far away from home? I had to pinch myself to believe that I was actually on the banks of this celebrated lake.We found the temperature of the water rather chilly and for a souvenir I picked up a small pebble of slate which was the main export of this little village. It had the cutest little cottages all lined up in neat rows, their front facades thick with colorful climbing roses and the famous slate roofs sloping down low and crowned with their chimney pots.

Loch Katrine and Loch Achray:
Then, we took a detour towards the western side of the lake driving into Queen Elizabeth Forest Park in the Trossachs which reminded me of the film The Queen and I had to wonder whether the unforgettable scene with the stag in the film was shot in these environs. Certainly the landscape was as spectacular and isolated as shown in the film. Passing by tiny little villages, we stopped a couple of times to browse through their stores and to pick up our little stock of souvenirs. At Lake Katrine, famous for the novel The Lady of the Lake by Sir Walter Scott and the opera of the same name by Lammermoor, we saw the steamship The Walter Scott that has plied these waters since the late 1800s. Throughout the area, there are lakes that glisten softly in the weak sunshine. On our way out, we passed by the imposing Tigh Mor, a castle-like
building on the banks of Loch Achray, which was for me at least, reminiscent of the setting of the manor in Monarch of the Glen. We were fortunate that though clouds hung low on the mountain tops, there wasn’t much rain, not until we reached Fort William about 4 pm, which afforded Llew perfect driving conditions in the Highlands. The driving was slow and for about ten miles we were on a one-lane bicycle path that needed us to allow oncoming cars to pass in special “passing places” created along the route. The sense of remoteness was complete as we were engulfed it seemed, up to our elbows, in green pastureland and towering peaks. The villages were cute to the point of quaintness and I enjoyed these bits of the drive best of all though they couldn’t have been very easy on Llew.

Glen Coe and the Glen Finnan Viaduct:
The most spectacular part of our travels today was around the area of Glen Coe where the mountain faces of the Cairngorms rose up sharply right in front of our car. We saw the famous Glen Finnan Viaduct, which is deeply evocative of the Victorian Age when it was created—a very old arched bridge that spans two mountain slopes on which steam trains still run today and become useful props for films such as the very recent Miss Potter.

The Three Sisters, three magnificent mountains, were clearly evident close to Glen Coe right off the winding road and then we were arriving in Fort William on the banks of Lock Leven when the drizzle began. This entire area is so full of lakes that every time you round a curve in the Highlands, you pass by another picturesque body of water. Since it had started raining by the time we arrived at the tiny town of Fort William, we spent some time browsing through the souvenir stores, got ourselves a take-out tea consisting of scones and hot chocolate (which we ate at Subway and which filled us up so much that we could barely think of dinner) and spent about half an hour in the local library checking our email.

Getting back in our car, we thought we’d try to find our B&B before darkness fell. This lay about four miles north of Fort William in the little village of Bannavie and in a short time, we were at Quaich Cottage B&B run by Ian and Val McDonald who were extraordinarily friendly and offered us a cup of tea upon our arrival. We spent more than two hours chatting with them in their living room that offered a dazzling view of Ben Nevis, (above left) the UK's tallest peak then shrouded in clouds. We met another French couple Isabel and Bruno, fellow-travelers in Scotland, who were staying at the same place. Then, we got back to our room, I wrote this diary and we decided to have a very late sandwich dinner before calling it a night.

Great Disappointments in Glasgow
Wednesday, August 20, 2008, Glasgow, Scotland

Glasgow was truly a washout—in very sense of the word. For one thing, it poured all day and I mean all day. The distance between Edinburgh and Glasgow can be covered in less than an hour but we took a while, once in the city, to find our B&B—The Victorian House—on Renfrew Street where we were placed high up on the third floor in a tall building that lacked a lift! I have made a mental note, in the future, to only book B&Bs and hotels that can guarantee placing us on the lowest floor.

Pollock Park and the Burrell Collection:
Since it was so wet, it made sense to go out to Pollock Park in search of the famed Burrell Collection and after taking the local train there and walking through terrible weather, we arrived at the famous park only to find that the place was closed as a result of “industrial action”. It turned out to be a strike of the Council workers that brought all civic services to a standstill.

With disappointment, we returned to Glasgow to find overflowing dustbins everywhere (a result of the strike) and people who were most disinclined to help tourists. Our next attempt was to find Kelvingrove Park where we hoped to see the Glasgow Art School and, of course, that was closed too, making it impossible for us to take in the work of Charles Rennie Mackintosh which heralded the arrival of Art Nouveau in Scotland. Fortunately, I ran into a man called Peter at this point, who volunteered to drive us in his car to the Hunterian Gallery at the University of Glasgow—a set of imposing red brick buildings set in a sea of green. It took Peter a while to find the place but when we did, we were treated to the largest collection of James McNeil Whistler’s works outside Europe. Overall, it was a small collection and we saw it all rather quickly.

Afternoon Tea at the Historic Willow Tea Rooms:
Back on the underground again (which they call the Subway in this city), we arrived again at St. Enoch Station, where we walked quickly up Sauchiehall Street to the famous Willow Tea Rooms designed and created by Mackintosh at the turn of the 20th century. His work, characterized by grids, straight lines, checks, etc (reminiscent of Frank Lloyd Wright’s in the USA) is a contrast to the work produced by someone like Alfons Mucha in Prague whose curlicues and curvy motifs characterize Art Deco. In the tearooms which he created for Kate Cranston, Mackintosh’s work can be seen in the décor, the printed aprons worn by the waitresses, the china, etc. Llew and I had a pot of the Willow House’s special house blend and a scone each—easily the fluffiest scone I have ever eaten in my entire life--it melted like a cloud in my mouth when spread with clotted cream—and a slice of Chocolate Fudge Cake which we split.

By this point, we were ready to get back to the hotel to relax for a bit. Llew went out in search of an adaptor for my computer and I took a short nap. Much later, when Llew returned without it, we went out to buy ourselves a sandwich for dinner as we were still full from our lovely tea. A little walk later, we found our adaptor and I was able to return to our room (after climbing three floors and exactly 66 steps) where I was finally able to continue typing this journal. A little TV later, we settled down to sleep.

Overall, I really do feel I ought to return to Glasgow again because we saw nothing. And oh yes, the rain did not let up at all. I can only hope we will run into better weather tomorrow.

Ancient History in Edinburgh
Tuesday, August 19, 2008, Edinburgh, Scotland

Awoke at 6m and tried to fill in this journal but ran out of juice in about 40 minutes and had to stop as my plug did not match any at the B&B. We showered in a very tiny but very cute bathroom and went down to an enormous breakfast that included haggis (very peppery, very strongly flavored sausage made with minced offal and stuffed into a sheep’s stomach!) and porridge (very unusual texture and served with honey—lovely!) and Highland oatcakes—tasteless biscuits, like dry toast that we ate with Dundee marmalade. We also ate scrambled eggs and pork sausages, bacon, mushrooms and tomatoes and brown toast with preserves and cheese spread and decaff coffee—on top of pineapple juice! This, as you can imagine, kept me going till 5 in the evening.

Across the Firth of Forth:
We decided to leave our car at a ferry car park near the Forth Bride and took a public bus to get into Edinburgh which we reached in about a half hour after getting to the ferry park via rural country roads and tiny villages. I slept on the bus, and when I awoke, I was in the capital city of Scotland at St. Andrew’s Square where the bus station was located.

Festival Time in Edinburgh:
Edinburgh was simply crawling with tourists and culture-vultures as the famous annual summer Edinburgh Festival was on as was the Fringe. We paused for a while at the Scott Monument to listen to a few bagpipers play for the tourists.

The Heights of Edinburgh Castle:

A quick stroll through Princes Gardens took us towards the Castle which is one of the most important tourist sights. There a steady climb took us to the Ticket Booth where for £12 we had a guided tour that included the Honors of Scotland, i.e. the Crown Jewels, the oldest in Europe—a crown, a scepter and a sword lie on a satin coverlet enclosed in a glass case right besides the notorious Stone of Scone which was returned to Scotland in 1996—I had last seen it under the famous throne in Westminster Abbey 22 years ago. We also saw the two memorials to fallen Scottish soldiers from the American War of Independence onwards as well as the magnificent Great Hall, its walls covered with arms and armor, where so many royal banquets were held—rather similar to the many castles we have seen all over Eastern Europe (below left).

We also visited St. Margaret’s Chapel, one of the oldest buildings in Edinburgh and the smallest—able to seat only 25 people—and admired its exquisite stained glass windows!

Then, we found ourselves passing through the main courtyard of the Castle where the stands were all set for the famous Military Tattoo (for which, unfortunately, we were unable to obtain tickets as they were sold out months ago) and found ourselves walking along the famous Royal Mile which is lined with souvenir stores, shops selling superb Scottish woolen products and restaurants--not to mention places where you can buy a kilt (as I had done 22 years ago).
We saw some stupendous old churches along the way including the Church of St. Giles. Everywhere, there were performers galore giving street shows and dressed in costume—part of the many festivals going on simultaneously including the famous Fringe.

Scotland's Colorful History at Holyrood House:

About twenty minutes later, at the end of the Royal Mile, we arrived at the famous Palace of Holyrood House which is still used as a royal residence by the Queen during her visits to Scotland. I took a picture with Llew on the same bench on which I had posed 22 years ago with Hyun-Sook Jeong from Oxford (above left). Paying £8, we were given audio guides as part of our tickets that allowed us to guide ourselves through the splendid palace which was rather similar in style to the Wren-designed courtyard at Hampton Court Palace. Then, we were walking through the superbly decorated rooms still used by the Queen to host royal banquets.

Eventually, we entered the most ancient part of the palace including the area associated with the ill-fated life of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots. What was most evocative was seeing her own bed chamber and the adjoining tiny dining room where she was at a meal with her ladies when three men broke in and, in her presence, stabbed her Italian secretary Rizzio 59 times. Her own husband, Robert Darnley is said to have been behind this murder being maddened by jealousy and suspecting his wife of having an affair with Rizzio—Darnley himself was killed a year later. We were actually shown the spot at which Rizzio fell as the Queen screamed in terror. Also very interesting was the Long Portrait Gallery with 89 portraits of all of Scotland’s kings who ruled the country since the time of the Egyptian pharaohs. Then, with the light fading, it was time for us to get back to our B&B by a reverse journey on the public bus—but not after eating a lousy Italian dinner at a restaurant called Montrane where I had the first bad lasagne of my life (and Llew’s prawn sandwich was pathetic).

Despite my doubts that we’d find our way back to Carnoch to our Carneil Farm B&B, we did get back rather easily and settled down for the night.

Our Travels Begin
Dunfermline, Scotland, August 18, 2008

We awoke to a typically grey London Monday morning. Rain during the night had washed the streets leaving them clean and gleaming. We downed the last of the milk in the fridge, showered and left the flat making sure all lights were out, gas turned off and windows locked. I left a long To-Do List for Yvonne at NYU for I had found the time to take an inventory of the apartment on awaking and to point out all the minor things that needed attention in our absence.

Picking up almond croissants for breakfast from Sainsburys, we caught the No. 8 bus right across the street from my flat and headed off for Victoria Coach Station—an area I know so well from all my travels—a real see-London-as-you-go route that took us through the heart of the city but crawled all the way, thanks to traffic, congestion and construction on every major road.

Eventually getting to our destination, we walked to Semley Place (not seen on our map) but not before a black cab driver tried to trick me into believing that the street was in the opposite direction from which we were headed—my first experience of the nastiness in a Londoner, for I had made it very clear to him as I asked for directions that it was adjacent to the Coach Station and yet he tried packing me off to the Railway station! Fortunately, Llew found a map somewhere at a bus-stop that confirmed both the location of Semley Place as well as the fact that I was almost tricked into dragging my duffel bag unnecessarily through wet streets on a wild good chase!

The actual renting of our car did not take any time at all (though Llew had made an error at the time he booked it by reserving it for Aug 17 instead of 18). It is a brand new Vauxhall Astra in royal blue with 977 miles on the meter. Though both of us were very nervous about finding our way out of London in rush hour traffic, in fact, it was a breeze (thanks to the many trips I have taken along that same route to Stanstead airport and to Oxford).

In the Yorkshire Dales:
In less than an hour, we were on the M1 headed for Scotland but it was our intention to stop en route at the edge of the Yorkshire Dales in Haworth to see the second most famous literary destination in all the UK after Shakespeare’s Stratford—the home of the Brontes. Almost as soon as we left the environs of London behind, the landscape enchanted us. Neat suburban housing gave way to open farmland and another hour later, we were in the Derbyshire Dales, the little Astra eating up the miles. Llew, as usual, was a pro behind the wheel, far more comfortable, of course, on the motorway than the little country lanes which were as narrow as those in Toyland.

Hebden Bridge and Heptonstall--Yorkshire's Pretty Villages:
At about 1.30pm, we arrived at the village of Hebden Bridge about which I had read in Sheila Pickles book entitled The Essence of English Life. The tiny village of Heptonstall was where she had grown up in the 1950s and having remembered those names, I urged Llew to stop there for lunch.

Charming Hebden Bridge was swarming with tourists and there was much to photograph—a stone bridge (above left) over a bubbling stream filled with ducks and delighted toddlers feeding them crumbs, a village square surrounded by stone buildings full of pubs (The White Swan), a restaurant (Shoulder of Mutton) and a Tea Room. We picked up Chicken Tikka Sandwiches that were as gigantic as the ones we get in America—only we do not get Chicken Tikka sandwiches in America!--and explored the village as we munched, stopping only to take pictures.

A few minutes later, we headed up a steep hill towards Heptonstall, that is perched on a sharp ridge and offers stunning views of the Dales in all their emerald glory. The homes here are 500 years old, made of the darkened black and brown stone of this region—seen everywhere in the walls that snake all over the fields forming barriers between each landholding. Cobbled streets led us towards a picturesque old church in whose churchyard lies buried the American poet Sylvia Plath who was married to the English poet Ted Hughes (later Britain’s Poet Laureate) who hailed from these parts. Because it was almost 3 pm and Llew, understandably, did not want to drive in the dark, we did not actually stop at her much-visited gravesite but contented ourselves with a view of the church from a distance. Everywhere in Yorkshire, there are black stone walls that snake around the dales and the farms and the fields bringing a deeply rural ambience to the space. James Herriott’s TV series bring these into sharp focus and it was great to actually see them in person.

Haworth--Home of the Brontes:

Then, we were on the road again, heading towards Haworth (pronounced ‘Howith’), which lies just north of the village but along a remote and deeply isolated moor whose barrenness gave truth to the myths that the sensibility of the Brontes’ was negatively affected by the wide loneliness of their environment which led, in turn, to the moroseness of their plots. In the house (above left), we trooped through the rather tiny rooms actually inhabited by the family members from 1820-1861 and where they wrote their best-known novels. The house is full of memorabilia from the lives of the family and their dogs, Flossy and Keeper. There are many paintings by Branwell Bronte, their brother, a drug-addict, including the famous one that hangs in the National Portrait Gallery in London. Next, we visited the Haworth Parish Church where their father, Patrick, served as pastor for many years—a small cute church with a graveyard attached with really old gravestones. The entire space was so steeped in Victoriana that we were transported to another era. I almost felt as if I was walking into the plot of a Victorian film.

Then, we walked along Haworth Main Steet (above left), which slopes down steeply and offers excellent views of the moors. Of the many shops that line the street, the Rose and Co. Apothecary had a very authentic atmosphere and was the place from where Branwell obtained his supplies of opium. By then , it was about 5-5.30 pm and Llew wanted to get back on the road again before it got too dark.

So, we started up north again in the rain which started rather hard. Fortunately, we were warm and cozy in the car and the scenery kept us enthralled. We passed over the edge of the Yorkshire Moors and entered the Lake District rather close to Kendal from where we bifurcated and entered Scotland, passing through the evocative town of Gretna Green known for the many marriages that took place at the blacksmith’s shop following the many scandalous elopements of he era.

By then, darkness had fallen and we were around Lockerbie, site of the infamous Pan Am disaster. We called Kathleen at our B&B for directions. She led us through unmarked country roads which gave us several hairy moments as Llew battled fading light and then pitch darkness, very narrow roads many of which were under construction and driving rain. In the midst of those rather stressful conditions, we reached the village of Carnoch and found Carneil Farm B&B, a real working farm house where we finally met Kathleen who registered us, took our order for a full Scottish breakfast and showed us to our room on the first floor—a very cozy, very charming room beautifully decorated. We fell asleep resolving to get back to our homes wherever these may be early enough and without having to battle such bad driving conditions. Both of us have realized that our eye sight is not what it used to be and we need to work around our limitations.

The Exploration Continues
London, August 17, 2008

Llew found it hard to believe it was almost 9 am when I woke him today, so soundly had he slept through the night. The groceries we’d picked up at Sainsbury’s, the previous day, stood us in good stead for we breakfasted at home (using my pop-up toaster for the first time) on toasted multi-grain bread with strawberry jam and freshly brewed coffee.

Then, our showers done, we walked briskly along Victoria Embankment, once again, in time to attend the 11. 15 am service at Westminster Abbey (above left). Only those visitors who intended to stay for the entire service were permitted inside as sightseeing was temporarily suspended. Attending Sunday services is a great way to see London’s most monumental churches for free. I had last been to Westminster Abbey 22 years ago and was delighted to be in that hallowed Gothic place of worship once again, Indeed, as luck would have it, Llew and I were led by the ushers to Poet’s Corner itself where the benign bust of John Dryden looked down upon us as we listened to the choir sing in Latin and the deacon preach a very thought-provoking sermon on Multiculturalism in the United Kingdom. I thought it interesting that I who had come to explore the impact of Anglo-Indian immigration on Great Britain and of Great Britain on the Anglo-Indians was treated to a sermon which concluded with the line, “In my opinion, multiculturalism need not be a threat but a positive virtue”.

Then, the hour long service ended and I was so pleased to have listened to a Sunday service in the midst of some of the most amazing workmanship in the form of carvings and gilded wooden pews and arches. Nothing was more delightful to me that discovering the memorials to Shakespeare and to the more contemporary of British writers and poets. On the way out, we spied the memorial to Issac Newton that Dan Brown has so popularized in his novel The Da Vinci Code. There was the giant orb—the planet Earth—that plays such a big role in his mystery. I also spied the memorial to Lord Thomas Babbington Macaulay (also in Poet’s Corner) about whose 'Minute' I spend so much time discussing in my South Asian Studies class. It was deeply stirring for me to see all these reminders of the intellectual activity in which I have been steeped for so many years and it made me realize, once again, why I love London so much.

Then, Llew and I were filing out of the Abbey with the other members of the congregation and since the day was so perfect, after a short browse in the gift store, we decided to take a walk through the Royal Parks, our steps leading us through St. James Park and Green Park, passing Buckingham Palace en route through Constitution Hill on to Marble Arch and No. 1 London, or Apsley House, former home of the Duke of Wellington and on to Hyde Park. We sat on a bench at about 1. 30, our walking having rendered us hungry, to munch on the ham and cheese sandwiches I had fixed for our picnic lunch.

Then, when we had rested sufficiently (Llew even stretched out on the bench for forty winks!), we walked towards Speaker’s Corner, where we spent a good half hour listening to a bunch of passionate men and women espouse their beliefs, most of which, surprisingly, had to do with religion rather than politics. But for one young man who spoke about the human rights abuses in Zimbabwe, most of the others spoke either in favor of Christianity or Judaism or Islam, each haranguing and arguing with the other to the extent that the exchange became heatedly personal.

When we’d had enough of this raucous banter, we walked off, and made our way along Oxford Street and the thick of the shoppers. Llew and I then nipped into Marks and Spenser to buy a few essentials for my home (a wooden chopping board, some wine glasses, a sauté pan) before we took Regent Street towards Piccadilly Circus. This offered us the opportunity to check our email in the Apple store at the corner for free—an amenity with which I was familiar from a previous visit to the same place! There, by the statue of Eros, we rested our legs for a while, then began the walk up Shaftesbury Avenue and Leicester Square with colorful signs proclaiming that we were in Chinatown and arriving at High Holburn. We decided to get some dinner but by 6. 45 pm the supermarkets had closed (it being a Sunday) and we had little choice but to go to McDonald’s for a Big Mac and a Fillet o’Fish Burger respectively. Back home, we ate our dinner while watching the Olympics on TV, packed our bags and got ready for our departure for Scotland where we will be heading tomorrow.

Holburn—Heart of Legal London
August 16, 2008, London

A few steps from my building lies the entrance to Chancery Lane, immortalized by Charles Dickens in his novel Bleak House. Llew and I discovered this upon awaking to a sunny Saturday morning and streets outside that were devoid of any human signs. It had been a fitful night for me and falling asleep only in the wee hours of the morning, we awoke at the lazy hour of half past nine—or “half nine” as I must get accustomed to saying.

After our first showers in our new bathroom, we set out to find Paul’s, the French patisserie that was recommended by Yvonne Hunkin, my Woman Friday at NYU—London who recommended the place for our first breakfast in our new home city. She could not have suggested anything better—the almond croissant and the pain au chocolate that we munched as we set out to explore the neighborhood sure did the trick.

Because we are such enthusiastic walkers, we followed High Holburn towards Bloomsbury in the hope of discovering the exact distance of the NYU campus from my flat. Everywhere, we found ourselves exclaiming at the accessibility of the shops, supermarkets, restaurants, Tube stations and bus-stops. Nothing was very far away at all. Our rambles took us past the stately Neo-Classical façade of the British Museum and the neat squares of Russel Square and Bedford Square.
We found NYU in London (left) soon enough at 6 Bedford Square and after we took a few pictures to immortalize my first visit to my new work environs, we made our way back home to begin unpacking and settling down.

After lunch, we began our exploration of London taking Fetter Lane to Fleet Street. Every street corner was deserted as the legal community enjoyed the weekend—no doubt this place will be buzzing during the week when British solicitors and barristers rush about their frenzied lives. Once on Fleet Street, we made our way along the Strand towards Aldwych passing Somerset House where the central square swarmed with happy kids douzing themselves in the spouting fountains and having a blast. We decided to see the Courthault Collection on another day and made our way out.

Noticing a crowd on a street at the right, we followed our ears towards the commotion and arrived at Covent Garden where we have never seen so many people in one place at one time. Watching a rather entertaining busker who did everything from jumping through hoops to juggling with deadly knives, we got our fill of tourist energy, then continued walking towards Trafalgar Square where Llew was delighted to watch Michael Phelps winning his seventh gold medal of the Beijing Olympics on a gigantic screen set up for the patriotic pleasure of passers-bys (see below).

Then, because we wanted to attend Sunday service, the next day, at the oldest church in the city—Westminster Abbey--we walked along there to find our the service timings. Of course, that meant that we were in Parliament Square gazing upon the gilded face of Big Ben still dodging the crowds. Indeed every tourist in the world seemed to be in London, so crowded were the tourist venues.

Deciding to make our way back home, we walked for the very first time along the Victoria Embankment (above left) on a lovely evening taking in the sights of the London Eye and Cleopatra’s Needle before we climbed the access stairs to Waterloo Bridge, made our way through Kingsway and Drury Lane (Oh yes, I know the Muffin Man who lives there!) and arrived at the Hare Krishna complex where we listened to a few bhajans, then walked out to pick up dinner (canneloni and Moussaka from Sainsburys) which we heated in our oven on our way home. Over glasses of Cabernet and roasted almonds, we chilled out and when our meal was heated sat back to enjoy it with Wall’s Chocolate Feast ice-cream for dessert. It was about 11pm when I finally hit the sack and slept clear through the night awaking only at 8. 45 am.

Airborne at Last
August 15, 2008, New York

Our departure from Kennedy airport on Indian Independence Day and Llew’s late Dad’s birthday went off, as is said, without a hitch. We took off on schedule at 8.3 0 am hoisting ourselves into cloudy skies that obscured our view of the North Atlantic coastline for most of the flight. I busied myself reading London: A Short History by A.N. Wilson, a thoughtful and much appreciated birthday gift from our English friends William and Caroline Symington of Westport, Connecticut. Before we had quite flown over the island of Nantucket, I was deeply absorbed in the account, marveling at the manner in which the author has chosen to retell the story of London through its most renowned monuments. And before we had quite crossed the Atlantic, I knew so much about the little ‘village’ of Holburn in which my flat would be located. More about its fascinating history later.

Breakfast consumed, some more reading undertaken, a longish nap and then the map on the overhead projector indicated that the possibility of spying land beneath us was imminent as we skimmed the southern coast of Ireland. Though Llew had the window by that point, at his suggestion, I moved two rows ahead to an empty window seat and feasted my eyes on the glorious sight below. How delighted I was to discover that we would be approaching Heathrow airport through a route I had never before taken—not southwards from Scotland through the backbone of England but eastwards through Cornwall and Devon. There before me, easily spotted through almost cloudless twilight skies were the notorious beaches of Daphne du Maurier’s most famous novels and the craggy coastline of Bournemouth. As almost every one of you knows, I thrill in the perspectives of our planet offered by heights of 20,000 feet above mean sea level. It is as novel a view of the world as one could ever hope to achieve. Just as I was hugging to myself the knowledge of how privileged I felt to see Southwest England from this angle, we were flying right above the Isle of Wight with the port city of Portsmouth clearly visible beneath us. Indeed so clear were our views that The Needles, that white natural phenomenon composed of three rocks that jut out into the Atlantic at the extreme east end of The Isle, reposed silently below us lapped by foamy waves.

Just when I thought there was no way I could have a more exciting landing into Heathrow, the aircraft began to make a sharp turn northwards exposing the green patchwork blanket of Surrey below. Then, we saw it—the M25, that notoriously traffic-choked Ring Road that encircles the environs of Greater London making its serpentine way around the city. I was so excited I could barely stay belted in my seat. Then, there it was—the Thames, and I knew that if we were really lucky, we would fly right above my favorite city in the whole world.

And I couldn’t have been more correct for there on our right was the white Millennium Dome—the 02—its funny needles jutting out into the sky. Then, Tower Bridge came into view and the Tower spread-eagled on the opposite bank. As my eyes followed those unmistakable landmarks from the air, I recognized them all and pointed them out to Llew—that giant ferris wheel, the London Eye on the south bank, Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament, the neat quadrangle of Buckingham Palace with the statue of Queen Victoria in the circle in front of it, and the broad expanse of Hyde Park with the Serpentine snaking its way through its center. In the distance, I could see the area I would inhabit for the next one year—the legal district of London, Holborn.

Then, just when I thought we could not have been more fortunate in having made so memorable an approach into the city, we were touching down at Heathrow. Immigration took a good 45 minutes, the queue moving agonizingly slowly. All went well at the counter as the Immigration Officer, a South Asian, joked with Llew and assured him that since he was returning to the States in two weeks leaving me to work in London, he was about to be dumped! Then, we were picking up our four bulging suitcases plus four pieces of hand baggage from the conveyor belt and making our way to the Terminal only to find that the driver from Addison Lee & Co who was supposed to pick us up took another passenger by mistake discovering his error only after he left the airport precincts. Fortunately, another driver from the same company was around and acted as our substitute—Mahen proved to be a good guide to the city as he pointed items of interest and within an hour was dropping us off at my flat. By then it was 10. 45 pm local London time.

Hauling our baggage out of the taxi, we were heartened to note that the entrance to Chancery Lane Tube station was just six steps from the lobby of our building (left). With the keys easily opening the security doors downstairs, we made our way to the elevators (I guess I better get used to calling them lifts) and then to the third floor, liking the look of the building’s entrance immediately. The elevator arrived on the third floor and at that point my mind shut down. I had memorized my new address and made a huge error in my flat number. Trying the keys to a neighboring flat, both Llew and I were in a state of despair before we realized that my allotted flat was quite possibly another one. It was a next door neighbor called Milan who solved the mystery by informing us that the previous occupant of the flat next door to his had recently moved. He tried my keys in the keyholes of that flat and, presto, to our enormous relief, the door swung open and we were entering the place that will be my abode for the next one year.

To say that we love the place would be an understatement. It is a darling flat in a new building. A one-bedroom space, you enter via a sizable lobby. It includes a spacious fully-fitted bathroom with a roomy hall cupboard and a superb kitchen that is attached to the living room. The entire apartment is fitted with furniture in a warm shade of maple so there is conformity of design throughout. A comfy leather sofabed in the living room pulls out into a double bed. On unpacking at my leisure later the next afternoon, I discovered that there is ample storage particularly in the very roomy closet in the bedroom which has a double bed fitted with a down comforter and a duvet and two fluffy pillows. All appliances in the kitchen are stainless steel and brand new, though I could have done with more storage in it. There is a dishwasher and washer-dryer, an electric kitchen range with four burners and an oven, a microwave oven and a toaster, a blender and a juicer. The sink includes a compactor—something I have never had before. In other words, the flat affords every desirable amenity and I feel truly fortunate to live here.

Having done a quick survey, Llew and I sipped a glass of Cabernet (that we had purchased duty free at Heathrow) to celebrate our safe arrival and my incredible opportunity in London and we then called it a night, noticing quite contentedly that though we were located in the heart of central London, we could not hear a sound from the streets, thanks to what the British call “double glazing” .

We looked forward to waking the next morning in our new home and to discovering the neighborhood at our leisure.

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