Saturday, April 11, 2009

Waltzing through Windsor, Meeting the Holleys and Dinner with Bande Hassan

Holy Saturday, April 11, 2009

On another very quiet holiday morning in Holborn, Llew and I decided to leave for Windsor. We had awoken about 7 am but by the time we showered and had breakfast (muesli and hot cross buns), it was about 9 am that we hopped on to the Tube to get to Paddington for our connection on London mainline trains to Windsor. We purchased our tickets (off-peak day return was 8. 50 pounds each) and caught the 9. 51 to Windsor which required a change at Slough--this reminded me, of course, of David Brent in the BBC's version of the TV show The Office, where Slough is the constant butt of bad jokes (being out there in the boonies!).

At about 10. 20, we found ourselves at the imposing walls of Windsor Castle at the end of an extremely long line that completely ruined my high spirits. I was tempted to suggest to Llew that we abandon our plans to visit the Castle as I had made a 1.00 pm appointment to meet with Marion and Henry Holley, an Anglo-Indian couple who live in nearby Maidenhead, with the idea of interviewing them for my study. I thought that it would take us no less than an hour to get into the Castle and if we arrived there at 11. 30, we'd have only an hour and a half to see everything. While I was mulling over these thoughts, the line moved along briskly and, to my enormous surprise, we were able to actually get inside within 15 minutes--not too bad at all!

In fact, we were just in time for the Changing of the Guard ceremony that took place at 11 am and as we stood on the hill in front of St. George's Chapel, we took in the pomp and pageantry from a fairly good vantage point that offered fine photo opportunities. I noticed that the guards are back in their red coats and busbees and I was pleased that I had caught them in their grey Kremlin-like winter overcoats in the midst of winter when I had stood outside Buckingham Cathedral to watch the ceremony in February.

Llew and I did not not wait for it to end as there was so much to see in the Castle. Equipped with our audio guides, we entered the ancient Chapel, one of the most important Anglican places of worship in the land. The towering nave propped up by its impressive fan vaulting is one of my favorite elements of high Gothic architecture and I was enthralled. The magnificent stained glass window that features a plethora of medieval characters was also quite stirring indeed. I loved the beautiful marble sculpture of Princess Christina who had died at 21 after giving birth to a still born child. It was her death that changed the line of British succession to the throne and made Queen Victoria one of England's most celebrated monarchs. The sculpture is plaintively moving and I wished so much I could have taken its picture.

The rest of the chapel was equally interesting, filled as it is by monuments honoring so many of England's best-known kings and queens. I particularly paused by the tombstones of King George VI and the late Queen Mother (parents of the current Queen Elizabeth II) and the one to Henry VIII in the choir of the church where the beautiful wood carvings of the stalls and the banners of the Knights of the Order of the Garter of St. George were all rather fascinating. Unfortunately, we had to hurry through everything as we did not have much time and I began to feel as if it was essential to give the castle a whole day of reflective perusal. Crowds jostling around everywhere and the endless queues made the experiences rather disturbing for me, even unpleasant, and I guess I have become accustomed to having places of tourist interest deserted as I visited so many of them during the quieter off-season winter months when I could really take in every facet thoughtfully. Besides, since I was visiting Windsor Castle after 22 years, I had forgotten almost everything I saw and Llew cannot even remember when he last visited Windsor!

Exploring the State Apartments:
Next, we were hurrying out of the Chapel and towards the State Apartments where a long line had formed to see the Queen's Doll's House. We decided to pass on that treat and moved instead into the line that took us straight into the fabulous state apartments, many of which have been completely refurbished since 1992 when Windsor Castle was engulfed by the most horrific flames following a fire that had caused the Queen to remark on the fact that 1992 was the "annus horribilus" of her reign--it was also the year during which the divorce of Prince Andrew and Fergie, Duchess of York, had been finalized and when Charles and Diana had announced their final split.

Among the many memorable gems we saw inside the apartments were some of my favorite porcelain services--such as the Danish Flora Danica pattern. But it was the Rockingham china that most took my fancy--the work is so exquisite, portraying, as it does, so much flora from the colonies that then formed part of the British empire--such as sugar canes and pineapples. The work was so costly that the factory finally went bankrupt and closed down--a great loss indeed to British porcelain manufacture!

Next, we were climbing the stately staircase lined with arms and armor and arriving at all the booty that was looted by British officials following the defeat of so many global sovereign heads of state--such as the gilded tiger of Tipu Sultan of Mysore with its crystal teeth. I have to wonder how the British public does not feel a wee bit troubled about the fact that its finest treasures have been obtained arbitrarily from other parts of the world and I have to wonder whether or not they feel slight twinges of guilt that might motivate them to urge their present-day politicians to return these pieces to the countries from whence they came. After all, when you come to think of it, when we were in Rome, we had discovered that Napoleon who had looted many of Europe's best museums (including the treasures of the Vatican collection) was made to return them after his defeat at the hands of Wellesley at the Battle of Waterloo. But then, I guess, we'd be stirring up the Elgin Marbles hornet's nest all over again.

Our tour through the apartments took us to rooms that were impeccably decorated and fabulously furnished with the most beautiful masterpieces of world art. In particular, however, I enjoyed examining the many royal portraits commissioned by aristocracy from the Dutch painter Hans Holbein who made his home in the English court for decades and left us some of the most recognizable faces of the era. I found his portrayal of Easter morning entitled Noli Me Tangere deeply moving indeed, especially since we will be celebrating Easter tomorrow--somehow it seemed significant that we would have the chance to peruse this unusual Holbein so closely. It portrays Mary Magdalen on the third morning of Christ's death arriving at the tomb to find the tombstone rolled away and filled with angels. Upon turning around, she sees a man whom she mistakes for a gardener; but on looking at him more closely, it occurs to her that he might be the risen Jesus. She attempts to go forward to touch him when he says to her, "Noli Me Tangere" which in Hebrew means, "Do not Touch me".

I was extremely moved by this painting and it has remained crystallized in my memory. Also very significant for the art lover and historian in me were the self-portraits by Rembrandt made during various stages in his life (two of them are placed almost side by side on one wall in the gallery). By the time we arrived at the ceremonial Banqueting Hall, I realized that I would need at least another two visits to Windsor Castle to do the place justice and it was then that I suggested to Llew that we get our tickets registered at the exit upon departure. It was close to 1.00 pm by that stage and we needed to leave to meet the Holleys.

Upon relinquishing our audio guides, we did register our tickets and have decided that we will return again when Llew comes back to England in late July or early August to take me back to the States at the end of my stint here in London.

Lunch with the Holleys--finally!
Then, we were out on the main street by the benches where the Holleys--Henry and Marian--had suggested we meet. The softness of an English drizzle was ever present as we arrived at Fifty One, a bistro off the High Street where we settled down for a meal and a natter. Henry Holley is an Anglo-Indian who has been extremely helpful to me ever since I arrived in the UK at the start of my research project. Not only has he been in regular correspondence with me, but he has helped some of my students create their ethnographic profiles last semester while they were taking my sophomore seminar on Anglo-Indians. He is a regular reader of my blog and sends me helpful hints of what to see and do in the course of my travels in the British Isles and I have always found him to be eager to help. So, it was with great pleasure that we finally met and I was so pleased that Llewellyn also had the opportunity to meet them.

The two of us decided to share a large pizza that was rather delicious indeed and soon I had my tape recorder on to make sure I received the correct information from this lovely couple who emigrated to the UK in the 1960s when they were both teenagers. As an former RAF man, Henry Holley was posted in various parts of the world and I found that both he and his wife exhibited the kind of cultural open mindedness that is characteristic of people whose global travels have exposed them to a wide variety of human experience. Certainly my chat with them was interesting and enlightening and not without frequent moments of humor. Llew and I were very grateful for their hospitality for when the bill arrived, Henry insisted on treating us to lunch.

Later that afternoon, we sauntered around the interesting shops of Windsor High Street in their company (they had already started to feel like old buddies!) entering Lakeland, a wonderful kitchen equipment store (my kind of store!) where they made a few purchases and we were able to leave with tiny samples of very strong espresso made in a fancy hi-tech coffee machine whose abilities were demonstrated within. Then, we bade them goodbye, promising to keep in touch, and Llew and I were left to our own resources to tour the town.

Exploring Windsor:
Windsor is a delightful English village complete with towering castle ramparts, a Thames-side location, picturesque bridges and multitudes of graceful white swans. As we walked towards the river, we saw another giant Ferris wheel on its banks (similar to the London Eye) and a bridge that transported us to the opposite bank where Eton College, one of England's oldest and most prestigious public (which in England means private!) schools is located. We paused at several enticing antiques stores en route but prices were so inflated that I could buy nothing that took my fancy. Instead, we pressed on towards the lovely Tudor architecture that forms the main buildings of the school. Though the place had closed for the day to visitors (it was just after 5 pm when we arrived there), I was able to get some marvelous pictures of the architecture I adore in the red brick lined buildings, the theater with its dome (so reminiscent of the Radcliff Camera in Oxford) and the quads. Cherry trees were everywhere bursting into bloom making the most enchanting backdrops for the pictures in which I frequently posed poor Llew in order to bring human interest to my compositions!

Italian Dinner with Bande Hassan:
Then, after a quick visit to Waitrose to buy the Stilton cheese with ginger that Llew also has taken fondly to, we made our way to the train station for our return journey to London. We arrived there at exactly 7 pm and connected to the Tube to meet with our friend Bande Hasan outside his bank--Habibsons where he is the CEO--at Portman Square just off Oxford Street. Once there, we threw our things into the trunk of his grey Mercedes and drove off to Zizzi, an Italian restaurant nearby where we spent a wonderful evening chatting companionably over bruschetta starters and pasta dishes that were both delicious and substantial. We ended our meal with desserts that were outstanding--Torta Zizzi was filled with almond paste and fruit--like plums and figs (superb) and Torta Ciocolato that had a crisp hazelnut base and a chocolate mousse filing. Served with vanilla ice-cream drizzled over with chocolate sauce, it was truly a chocoholic's dream and Llew and I who shared one of them were in Chocolate Heaven!

Soon, we were being dropped back to the Tube and were home in less than fifteen minutes, ready to call a halt to a day that had been superbly filled with several forms of fascinating art and marvelous human contacts.

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