Battersea Park ad Return Home to America

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Battersea Park and Return Home

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

Exploring Battersea Park:

Instead, with the sun shining so beautifully down upon us, we decided to go out and explore Battersea Park as we were just three minutes from one of its gates. It turned out to be one of our best ideas. We passed through the blooming rose garden and arrived at the lovely lake (which was used as a setting for the rowing episode in my favorite TV series of all time, As Time Goes By). How thrilled I was to have reached one more location from this series which I have been looking out for, through the years. There are rowing boats and paddle boats available for hire but we were not in an energetic mood. Instead we plopped down at the lovely café that fronts the lake and enjoyed the sun on our backs as we people-watched.

When we had sun tanned ourselves for over half a very lazy hour, we got up and went off in search of the Pagoda which is one of the many architectural features of this lovely park. About a twenty minute walk later, along shady walking paths lined with spectacular plane trees, we arrived at the Pagoda where we took many pictures. The gilded Buddha sits serenely inside overlooking the placid Thames that flows alongside. The Victorian red brick buildings of Chelsea across the river looked grand in the bright sunlight as barges and other river craft sailed slowly past. There were tons of dogs with their walkers, many joggers and loads of exercisers enjoying the glories of a perfect English summer’s day. How lucky we were to have enjoyed such splendid weather on our last day in London!

Soon, however, as all good things must come to an end, we set out for home, once again enjoying the shady pathways of the Park. We stopped briefly off at Little Waitrose so that Shahnaz could pick up some lunch and then we set off again homewards. Once at home, I lunched on the leftovers of my Curry Laksa from my doggie bag and a last chocolate eclair that I had saved. This meant that I was full when I reached Heathrow and did not need to look for food.

In less than half an hour, my cabbie turned up and helped me haul my suitcase into his cab as we were in a basement apartment and climbing the stairs to get to the top with heavy baggage required some manipulation.

After saying goodbye to Jane and Shahnaz, I entered the cab and began my last ride through the city. It was a very speedy ride indeed as we did not hit traffic anywhere. Such a far cry from my arrival in the city, just two weeks ago, when every road was clogged with traffic and I took almost two hours to get to Holborn from Heathrow.

Once at Heathrow, I was practically the first person to check in, got my window seat, checked in my bag and took my backpack on wheels with me to explore the Duty Free shops. I bought my share of alcohol, tried on makeup, sniffed at a range of perfumes and browsed through Harrods. With yet another hour to spare, I sat down to finish off the minutes for which I had pre-paid on my UK phone and called a bunch of friends who had entertained or met with me during my stay. Then, when boarding was announced, I left my seat and set off for the gate.

I had a most pleasant flight with a window seat that had the adjoining two seats left empty. This allowed me to stretch out and start blogging and when I felt my eyelids droop, to have a long good sleep for about two and a half hours. Before I knew it, it was time to touch down at Kennedy airport. I had ordered a shuttle service to take me back to Connecticut and it appeared on schedule. An hour and a half later, I was home in Southport, jetlagged and ready to drop straight into bed.

As always, it had been a brilliant two weeks in one of my favorite countries in the world. Although I have become accustomed to solo travel, it was a special treat to have Shahnaz for company on this occasion and to be able to share with her some of the wonderful places I explored for the first time and others that I can live in without a second thought. Travel is enriching, it is edifying, it is entertaining. And we had the best two weeks anyone can imagine with so much crammed into so little time.

Thanks for armchair-traveling with me and for being such a faithful follower of my blog. It is your company that motivates me to write it and to share with you some of the fondest vignettes of my global travel.

Until the travel bug next bites me…cheerio.

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

Saturday July 1, 2017

Retail Therapy in Swinging London and Lunch with a Friend:

            We saved our last complete day in the UK for a spot of retail therapy. In actual fact, our itinerary had indicated that we were to travel to Sussex to see the homes of the Stevens sisters who became Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell in Lewes. However, to have stuck to that plan of action would have meant no time at all to grab the few items on our shopping lists. Airline regulations now make it well-night impossible for us to do the kind of shopping we did in the years gone by. Both Shahnaz and I were concerned about being overweight and about being unable to haul our suitcases on our own. Hence, we stuck to basics.

It was my idea to shop on the King’s Road in Chelsea which is much less crowded and has a far more snazzy clientele than Oxford Street. But I was also trying to squeeze in a lunch appointment with a family friend named Bande Hasan and since he is more familiar with eateries on Oxford Street rather than in Chelsea, that was where we ended up heading. We made the appointment to meet for lunch at 1.00 pm at Zizzi and with that plan in mind, did much of our packing (to determine how much space and weight allowance we had for our goodies) and set out at about 11.00 am for a bout of retail therapy.  We took the bus from Battersea to Oxford Circus and, as systematically as possible, began our shopping.

As most shoppers know, the month of July sees the entire commercial side of the UK get into Sale Mode. This does not happen in the US; but in the UK, this is a bi-annual affair (the other big sale occurs in the month of December). Every single store in the country had sections devoted to cut prices and it was at Clarks where we attempted to buy shoes, that we began. I found the shops I wanted in no time at all and after converting US sizes to British ones, I paid for a new pair of black patent leather work shoes and was off. I left Shahnaz still shopping for shoes and left.

This time I hurried off to Liberty of London to take a look at the fragrance counter where Byredo has a range with which I am not familiar. The helpful sales personnel there introduced me to their new lines and plied me with a ton of samples—an unexpected bonus. I left Liberty and rushed off to Boots where I bought my supply of nail polish and face creams for the next year. Then, without further ado, I crossed the street and went to Selfridges where I acquired some more perfume samples!

There was only time left to get to the main entrance to meet my friend and Llew’s former colleague, Mr. Hasan, with whom I then walked to the back of Selfridges to Zizzi, the Italian chain that offers really delectable food. I settled for their King Prawn Linguine (which my companion also ordered) studded with chilli flakes, chilli oil and zucchini. It was wonderful. For desert, I had the Chocolate and Pistachio Sundae which consisted of dark chocolate and pistachio gelato served in a conical coupe with shaved white chocolate and chocolate sauce. You had to have tasted it to know how really superb it was! Our lunch was a brilliant chance to chat about this and that, to catch up with family news on both sides and to talk about coming plans for the summer and the rest of the year. It is always a pleasure to see my friend and spend time with him and I do value our friendship.

After lunch, I walked with my friend to the Waitrose on Edgeware Road where I bought the vast selection of packeted soups that I usually carry with me back to the US. I got my free coffee (which is always a thrill), picked up my free issue of their July Food magazine and then laden with all my shopping, I tried to reach Shahnaz by phone. We met again at the Marks and Spencer flagship store where I spent a great deal of time trying on trousers to finally find a pair in black that I needed. Shahnaz, meanwhile, was across the street in Primark and it was there that I met her. We ended up picking up a few items of clothing to take back as gifts. I was really weighed down by this point and ready to get home, but Shahnaz was still shopping until almost 8.00 pm. Eventually, we took a bus from Marble Arch and got back to Battersea.


Dinner at Hare and Tortoise at Russel Square:

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

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

Until tomorrow, Cheerio.

The Dreaming Spires of Oxford

Friday, June 30, 2017:

Off to Check out Oxford’s Dreaming Spires:

            In a past life, well over thirty years ago, Shahnaz used to be a stewardess with Air-India. Her travels have taken her around the world many times and Oxford had been on her agenda—in the hoary past. Not remembering anything of the city, she was delighted to have me for a guide in one of my favorite cities in the whole world—my sometime home, the seat of much of my intellectual activity.

We had booked tickets by Megabus from London and, awaking again at the crack of dawn, we boarded one at 7. 30 am from London Victoria to arrive on The High at about 9.00 am. From this time on, our exploration would begin. We resolved to stop for a rest every one hour—and often we did (but not necessarily after each hour).

Here is the walking tour route through which I took her:

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

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

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

Until tomorrow, Cheerio.

Meeting London Friends–Old and New, Harrods Sale Shopping, Borough Market and East End Street Art Tour

Thursday, June 29, 207:

London—Doing This and That and Meeting Old Friends at Every Turn.

            Another dawn saw us rise to greet another dry day. A quick call during breakfast with my old friend from Bombay, Firdaus, who also happens to be visiting London at this time, meant that our morning plans were sorted. But first things first.  We had shopping to do and Harrods was the pace to go! Yes, Harrods! Not that we can afford their astronomical prices in normal times. But during their sales, I have managed to pick up really great bargains and I wished to try my luck. My usual buys from Harrods in the past have been candles, soaps and body lotions—and this time too, I hoped to get a few lucky goodies.


Sale Shopping at Harrods:

            We took a bus to Knightsbridge from right outside our digs and sailed away into the store almost as soon as it opened. A few inquiries led us to the departments where I had hoped to find the items I had in mind. But I drew a blank.  There was nothing I could find this time. However, I was delighted to show Shahnaz the tourist attractions that the store affords: the memorial to Dodi Al-Fayed and Diana in the basement which comprise life-sized sculptures of the two of them, portrait pictures and a diamond ring that some believe was an engagement ring (although most people doubt the veracity of this claim). I also marched Shahnaz through the appetizing Food Halls where I go, not so much to buy, as to ogle at the displays and to marvel at the ceramic vignettes and Victorian tiles on the wall. The 19th century décor in these rooms never fails to thrill me and Shahnaz was equally enthralled.

Of course, you cannot get to Harrods Food Halls and not buy something to eat. I chose the most scrumptious-looking almond croissant that was gigantic in size and thickly sprinkled with flaked toasted almonds and icing sugar. Shahnaz got a more Oriental meal consisting of spring rolls. I had my treat wrapped carefully and hoped to find a nice place where I could sit down and really enjoy it as almond croissants are one of my very favorite things in the world to eat.

Tube to South Bank to meet Firdaus:

            With little time to spare, we hurried off to meet our friend Firdaus at Vinopolis on the South Bank of the Thames as that was where he intended to be this morning. We got off far too early and ended up taking a bus to get to the Thames bank from where we walked briskly past the National Theater, the Tate Gallery, the Globe Theater, etc.

Borough Market, George Inn and Lunching on Roast Hog Sandwiches:

Eventually, we met up with Firdaus at the ruins of Winchester Cathedral which was once occupied by the horribly corrupt bishops of Winchester. Firdaus and I had a fond reunion—we go back more than thirty years to our first stint in Oxford. He happened to be with a friend named Kamal, a lovely Parsi lady also visiting from Bombay. It was not long before we wound our way to Borough Market which none of them had seen and, before you know it, we were scouring the stalls and being tempted by the many tasters laid out for our sampling pleasure. From sweet nectarines and white peaches to jams and preserves, from cheese to olive oil, from smoked mackerel pate to olives, from sourdough bread to brownies–we were simply plied with every treat and goodie you could imagine. As we were both carrying lunch, I did not intend to buy any at the market. But Shahnaz was as tempted by the offerings as were Firdaus and Kamal who decided to buy the roast hog sandwiches that were served in ciabatta bread with rocket and apple sauce. Before that, we had taken a slight detour to the George Inn so that I could show Shahnaz the last of the old galleried coaching inns in London (now managed by the National Trust)—which is still a fine hostelry. But they chose to eat at Borough Market—so we turned back.

It turns out that Kamal is a very small eater. She merely took two bites of her sandwich and passed the whole thing to me. And thus it turned out that I left my almond croissant untouched and feasted on her lunch instead! And quite good it was too! The market was buzzing. The recent London Bridge shooting which had led to the closure of the market seems to have happened far in the past—so quickly has the area bounced back. Shahnaz was simply delighted that I brought her to this place and simply could not get over the variety of eats and the generosity of the vendors. Overall, we had a lovely reunion. It was such a pleasure to see Firdaus again and to meet Kamal.  I suggested that they should not miss a visit to adjoining Southwark Cathedral, the oldest church in the city. And I was glad to see them take my advice as we parted company.

Tube to Aldgate East to Whitechapel Gallery for East End Street Art Tour:

            Shahnaz and I then hurried off to the Borough Tube station to catch a train that would take us to Aldgate East in the East End of London for the next item on our agenda: another Free guided tour of the Street Art and Graffiti of the East End. Our meeting point was outside Whitechapel Gallery on Whitechapel Road and we were astonished to find a huge crowd of young people surrounding our guide who happened to be from Vancouver, Canada, and had a distinct Canadian accent.

The tour wound its way through the East End taking in all the street art that has flourished in this area ever since the king pin of street artists Banksy made the area his base. On this tour too, I learned a lot about the artists and their intentions. This tour was more up my alley than the alternative music tour we had taken yesterday. We learned about paste-ups and other forms of protest for basically that is what street art is all about. By the end of it, I have to admit that I found I could not relate to any of it and did not find it appealing at all. In fact, I cannot tell the difference between street art and graffiti and for the most part, I think of these efforts as defacement of public property and a very ugly, unaesthetic use of space! The most striking items I found were those of the black women done by an artist called Drelph. And that was it.

By the time the tour which lasted almost two hours had wound its way into Brick Lane and the mosque there, Shahnaz and I were drooping with fatigue. It was time for us to pull out of it, for sure.

Dark Sugars on Brick Lane for hot chocolate and truffles:

            It took no arm-twisting at all to get us into a coffee shop we passed called Dark Sugars where the aroma of chocolate wafting out of the place was much too enticing. And so it as that we armed ourselves with Hazelnut Praline Hot Chocolate and free sample orange caramel truffles that were being distributed at the cashier and sank down to enjoy our treat. Finally I had the chance to sink my teeth into my almond croissant—I had waited ages to enjoy it and I have to say that it tasted like manna from heaven. Fortified well with our sustenance, we found our way back to the Tube station.

Short Detours in the East End—Spitalfields Market and Christ Church, Spitalfields:

Attempting to make our way back to the Tube station, we made a few detours as I wanted to introduce Shahnaz to Spitalfields Market, one of the most colorful in the city. She loved its antiquity as well as its interesting wares—vintage jewelry, vintage silverware. But there was no time to waste as we had to return home quickly to change and get ready for our dinner appointment. En route, we also stopped to admire the handiwork of architect Nicholas Hawksmoor at Christ Church, Spitalfields. As the best-known pupil of Sir Christopher Wren, Hawksmoor has built some fine London churches but this one with its towering Doric pillars that support an arched portico is a particular favorite of mine. Needless to say, Shahnaz loved it too.

Dinner with Cynthia and Aidan

            Our day ended in Chelsea with my friend Cynthia who had invited the two of us over to her place for dinner. Sadly, her husband Bishop Michael had another engagement, but we were very pleased to find their son, Aidan, at home. He joined us for dinner and conversation before nipping off for a walk with a friend.

It is always a great joy to see Cynthia whom I refer to as my ‘sister’ in London.  She had cooked us a lovely meal: rice with chicken curry, steamed broccoli and carrots and garlic naan For desert, we had fresh strawberries with vanilla ice-cream. Such a tasty meal—made more special by the affection with which Cynthia cooked our meal and the warmth of her hospitality.

We did not stay long at Cynthia’s as we’d had a very long day. We found a bus really quickly that took us directly back to our lodgings from Chelsea and it was there that we bedded down very quickly for the night.

Until tomorrow, cheerio.

Hiya Again, London! Lunch at Indian YMCA, Walking Tour of Camden, Tea and Dinner with Friends

Wednesday, June 28, 2017:

Hello Again, London! Lunch at Indian YMCA, Walking Tour of Camden, Tea and Dinner with Friends.

            We woke up in London’s South Bank neighborhood of Battersea and made ourselves familiar with our new surroundings—booked through Air B&B. The basement room we occupied was tiny and with the bed pulled out, there was barely place for the two of us to squeeze around. And if the room was small, the en suite bathroom was minuscule. I swear we were expected to wash in a basin no larger than a soup bowl. We did not have use of any other room in the house and within one hour, we wondered how we could possibly spend the next five nights there! The solution lay in using the place only to crash at night. During the day, we would stay out, as much as possible, as our room made both of us feel claustrophobic.  That said, we soon realized that the place was brilliantly located. Although it was not served by a Tube station, there were three bus lines literally right outside our doorstep. One took us to Victoria from where we could change to the Tube lines, another took us to Oxford Street via Knightbridge and the third? Well, we barely used it at all. We decided to put up with the claustrophobia since you could not beat the place from the point of view of its location (or its price).

Right after showering and eating granola bars for breakfast (we had replenished our supply in Westward Ho!), we set out for NYU so that we could pick up our cases which had been stashed there and bring them back with us to Battersea.  This chore took up most of the morning as I also had the chance to say hello to a few of my former London colleagues like Phillipa who was not around last week and to say goodbye to those I would not be seeing again. Reversing our bus journey, we arrived at Battersea with our cases, dumped them in our room and since we were starving, decided to get out again immediately in search of lunch.

Lunch at the Indian YMCA:

Eating at the Indian YMCA was also something I had long meant to do. Many Indians based in London had told me about the excellent Indian food available at very reasonable prices in this little-known enclave and I had long wanted to try the food out for myself. Now, regular readers of this blog know that Indian cuisine is not my favorite (is it sacrilegious for me, an Indian, to admit this?) and when I am traveling, I try out every cuisine except Indian as I get enough of that at home! However, this place had received such good reviews from Indians that I felt I could not go wrong. Although Shahnaz was rather skeptical and not really keen to try it out, she obliged me and we went out in search of the spot in Fitzrovia.

It is my understanding that the Indian YMCA is so-called because it is a branch of the ones that are run in India.  Also, I believe that Gandhi’s stay in London in the late-19th century had something to do with the setting up of this place. Apparently, being vegetarian, he had a very hard time trying to find food he could consume in London as a young impoverished law student (this is well documented in his autobiography, The Story of My Experiments With Truth). It appears that he and a few other elite Indian vegetarian students got together to try to establish reasonably-priced accommodation for Indian students in London that would also provide vegetarian meals. Apparently this place was the result. I am not sure how much of this story is correct, but it adds a bit of valuable history to the place.

When we did find it, we were directed at the Reception to the adjoining vast dining room where large numbers of people were already elbow-deep in their lunches. I say ‘elbow-deep’ as a few of them were eating with their fingers in genuine Indian style.  More power to them.  We soon found out that the food was laid out at a counter in small white ceramic bowls—there was chicken curry, fish (cod) curry and lamb curry. Patrons could choose whatever they wanted. There were also bowls of mixed vegetable, raita, pickle and mango chutney. Rice was dished out by a chef standing behind the counter. Chapattis were laid out on separate plates. I declined the rice and opted for the chapattis instead—two was one too many for me but once I had picked up the plate, I was loath to ask for one of them to be removed. It was a decision I would soon regret as I was told to pay one pound for each chapatti which I thought was absolute highway robbery. Shahnaz chose the fish curry, I took lamb. When we went to the cashier, we found that we had ended up paying almost 10 pounds for a meal that consisted of two chapattis, a small bowl of lamb curry (or fish), a small bowl of mixed vegetables and a bowl of raita. For the same money, I would have eaten far more and in a much more sophisticated place in London. The meal was tasty—I will not deny that. But it was hugely overpriced and so thought both of us! Well, at least I ticked one more item off my To-Do List. You can be assured I will not be recommending this place to anyone anytime soon.

We finished our meal, used the facilities and rushed off to the next item on our agenda for the day—a Walking Tour of Camden given by Free Tours on Foot, a company that I found when scouring the internet for Free Things to do in London.

Taking a Guided Walking Tour of Camden—A Musical Journey:

Camden is not a part of London that I know too well—I thought a guided tour with a well-informed guide would be the way to discover it. I had hoped it would tell us the history of the Camden Lock and the surrounding areas of Regent’s Canal and Primrose Hill. I had signed up for it and had received instructions to meet our guide outside Chalk Farm Tube station at 2.00 pm—and that was where we headed.

It was not long before we met our guide—a pleasant, personable young man with loads of energy and enthusiasm. There were about six other people on our tour—a very manageable crowd. It was not long before we discovered that our guide was a musician and knew a great deal about the alternative music scene. This was not my cup of tea but I am always game to learn something new. The tour wound its way through the maze of streets that comprise what was once a basic working-class neighborhood filled with factories and warehouses. Today, the area has been well gentrified and is filled with avant garde clubs, wine bars, music halls, etc. It is the in place to be for young musicians looking for their break. The biggest musical luminary associated with the area is the late Amy Winehouse who made the place her stomping ground and broke into the music scene from the clubs she frequented. The tour took in many details of her life, showed us tributes to her by street artists as well as a large sculpture in Camden Market.  In fact, there was a lot of street art included on this tour—a somewhat unexpected twist. Since neither Shahnaz nor I were familiar with any of the artists the guide mentioned, it was not very interesting for us. There was also very little on the history of the area which was a disappointment for me. Overall, we learned a lot about the music scene; but ask me one question about anything we learned and I will have to tell you that I can recall nothing–none of it was my cup of tea, really. We finished off the tour at the Camden Lock itself when the guide passed around a hat. You could put in whatever you thought the tour was worth. We made our contribution and then hurried off to our next appointment.

Tea with Barbara in Holborn:

My former Holborn neighbors Tim and Barbara have moved to York (a matter that still breaks my heart) but, to my good luck, Barbara informed me that they happened to be around in London while I was there. Although Tim was busy with business clients, Barbara welcomed me to their flat which is on the market and has yet to sell. It was terrific to return to my former digs which was the flat next door to theirs—it always feels like a homecoming to me. And to our enormous surprise and delight, Barbara had tea ready and waiting for us—in her best china too. There were also assorted cupcakes! Yess!!!

What a lovely evening we ended up having as we chatted nineteen to the dozen and caught up on everything in their lives and mine. This was not something I had hoped to do—see Barbara again—or to return to my former building. But having had a chance to spend some time with her, I jumped at it. And how lovely it was! Naturally, I hope they will find a buyer for their flat soon…but for the moment, it was simply grand to see her in her flat with all the living room furniture still intact—as if they had never moved at all!

Dinner at L’Antipasto with Roz and Christie:

            And finally, our evening came to an end with dinner in Battersea with some more of my closest friends in London. Shahnaz and I had enough time to get home to our digs also in Battersea and change into something a bit more dressy before we took the bus in the direction of Tooting and got off at Letchmere for our dinner date with my friend Roz. I did not expect to find her partner Christie there too—I had assumed he would be in India where he works for most of the year. L’Antipasto is a favorite Italian restaurant of ours and Roz and I have often eaten there. Nothing I have chosen from the small menu has ever been anything other than fabulous.

So there we were—at 7.30 pm hoping to be greeted by our friend Antonio, who, unfortunately, was off today. However, this did not stop us from having an uproarious reunion and exchanging gifts.  Next, we were sipping red wine that Christie had ordered and surveying the menu.  Shahnaz and I decided to share a starter—avocado and prawns in a marie rose sauce (not sure this is entirely Italian, but it was delicious) and to share two mains: veal scallopini in a lemony wine sauce with mushrooms and grilled king prawns with garlic and herbs served with a risotto on the side. Needless to say, our dishes were simply splendid and made for an absolutely delicious meal that was kept interesting by our non-stop scintillating conversation. Although I love London with a passion, I am realizing more than ever that it is the people I know and love there who make any trips to the capital more worthwhile for me.

It was not long before we jumped on a bus that got us back home to our digs in Battersea, just a few stops away, in under ten minutes. Needless to say, we did nothing more than change into our PJs, brush and floss our teeth and tumble straight on to our pull-out bed once we arrived home.

Until tomorrow, cheerio

Devon’s Best? Ferry Cruise on the River Dat, Exploring Totnes and Dartmouth & Exeter’s Underground Passages

Tuesday, June 27, 2017:

Saving the Best of Devon for the Last–Totnes and Dartmouth and Return to London:

            Although we did not intend to do so, you might say we managed to save the best of Devon’s treats for last. The weather too held out magnificently and we were rewarded by clear, bright days–and although there was no sun for much of the day, overcast skies kept us cool as cucumbers. Today was devoted to exploring two of Devon’s best towns—each has a completely different ambience and character and we were hard-pressed to decide, at the end of the day, which one we preferred.

We had a lot of ground to cover today and still return to Exeter in time to take our 5.00 pm coach to London. Shahnaz voiced concerns about going so far away for, after taking a look at the map of Exeter, she was afraid we’d never be able to squeeze both locations into a single day and still make our evening’s coach. I managed to persuade her to have faith in me for I felt sure we could do it, if we left early enough. Hence, having packed our bags last night, we set our alarms for 5.30 am and left our hotel at 6.00 am for the walk to the bus station to take the bus to Totnes that was leaving at 6. 30 am. Luckily, Shahnaz is also a morning person and I did not hear any complaints about having to wake up at the crack of dawn—in fact, she said that she enjoyed the early morning hours when the world was less harried and complicated.

There was daylight all around us as the sun rises early in the summer in the UK. We saw a bus come along that took us directly to the bus station—we jumped into it and were at the bus station, pronto! Our Stagecoach bus came along at 6. 25am, we bought ourselves day tickets again (for 5 pounds each) and off we went on the upper deck to enjoy the Devon countryside that was just about waking up to a new day. We arrived at Newton Abbot at exactly 7.00 am and connected to another bus that took us to Totnes, five minutes later.

Exploring Totnes:

We arrived in Totnes by 7.30 am—while most business establishments were still closed. Life began to stir quietly and slowly as dog walkers got on with their daily routine. We used the facilities at a 700-year old hostelry and then asking questions of early morning walkers, we found our way to the ferry pier as it was our intention to take a cruise on a boat from Totnes to Dartmouth on the River Dart. We discovered that the only ferry for the day went out at 10.00 am and that the return boat from Dartmouth to Totnes left at 5.00 pm—the latter would make us too late for our coach to London, so we decided to do the cruise in one direction only (for 12 pounds per head—the return ticket is 14 pounds per head).

With about two hours to spare, we set out on foot to discover Totnes—and a more Elizabethan city it would be hard to find in the UK (well, maybe Stratford on Avon!) However, Totnes has more listed (heritage) buildings than any other town in the UK. And indeed as we discovered on our self-guided walking tour from the ancient stones of Totnes Bridge that spans the River Dart to the very top of the hill on which the town is perched, each building is enthralling and completely different from the next.

Totnes was a thriving medieval business town and a very important center for wool commerce in the Middle Ages. As merchants made money, they built mansions in Tudor style that cling to the main street that runs like a life-giving artery through the center of town. Using a pamphlet (that we had received from the Tourist Office at Exeter) as our guide, we took a self-guided tour through the inns that were once medieval hostelries, through open squares where weekly markets have been held for the past seven hundred years, through the church yard filled with aged gravestones and to the castle which is a landmark of the town.

One building in particular caught my attention and held it firmly. It is the Tudor mansion of a certain Nicholas Ball (whose initials NB are well represented on the front façade), a wealthy merchant in the 1500s. When he died, his widow inherited his vast fortune. She married Thomas Bodley (yes, the Thomas Bodley of Oxford’s Bodleian Library) and using her money, he founded the famous library in the world’s greatest university. Just imagine! All the world knows Thomas Bodley and no one even knows the name of the widow whose fortune enabled him to create such a stupendous center of learning.

The gorgeous brick Parish Church of St. Mary the Virgin was closed when we reached it (but it would be opened by the time we made our way downhill). We skimmed past it and entered the yard of the medieval guildhall which is still the center of the town’s administration. Greek Doric pillars hold up the old structure with its slate roof and its tiny leaded windows. It was closed at that hour but we received a good idea of its importance in former times as well as now. Having taken a few pictures there, we walked under the atmospheric East Gate Arch (which was destroyed by a devastating fire a few years ago and completely rebuilt) with its lovely clock face, and continued our gentle climb up the hill. Passing by The Butterwalk, a covered arcade of shops that is a peculiar medieval architectural feature, we arrived at a market square, where, once a week on Tuesdays, a colorful open-air market is held. Salespeople don Elizabethan clothing and sell their wares! Shahnaz found a complete set of silver plated fish knives and forks with cream Bakelite handles from a dealer who sold it to her complete in its box for 20 pounds! She was delighted with her buy as she packed it well and we continued on our walk. At the very top of the hill, we found coffee shops just opening for the day. Our rambles had made us hungry and the nectarines on which we had snacked at the market square did not quite cut it We needed something more sustaining before we boarded the ferry for Dartmouth—so we were pleased to find a coffee shop just opening for business. I bought a coffee and a pain au chocolat while Shahnaz bought a pea and mint soup that was quite filling. Indeed, our exploration of Totnes had left us completely enchanted. It is a beautiful little town that wears its age with dignity and prestige. Its residents seem very conscious of its vast history and want to retain it with pride. This is evident in the loving care that they lavish on their historic buildings and the graciousness with which they treat visitors.

On our way downhill, we found the Church open and nipped in for a visit. Like all ancient Christian places of worship in the UK, it has its striking features. A soaring nave that ends in a timbered ceiling decorated with carved stone ‘bosses’, a carved stone rood screen that separates the choir from the congregation, wooden choir stalls, mortuary monuments of the rich and famous of their respective eras, an ornate baptismal font with a wooden crown-like cover. We took it all in as we traversed the interior spaces with their quietness and their pious atmosphere. We were very glad indeed that we had the chance to visit it.

Then we were making our way back past the square that contains an obelisque to remember a local explorer who went off to explore Australia but perished there. Across Totnes Bridge we walked to arrive at the ferry pier at about 9. 45 am just in time to purchase our tickets and board our ferry—the Dart Explorer—that was waiting for us in the dock. As we climbed the top deck to take our seats, we were surrounded by elderly pensioners equipped with cameras and binoculars and their morning cuppas.

Ferry Cruise on the River Dart:

Our ferry cruise on the River Dart from Totnes to Dartmouth could well be the highlight of our travels. Nothing can quite describe the atmosphere of the region—its peaceful serenity, the vivid shades of green that cling to its banks that gently rise and dip with every curve in the river, the softness of the air under overcast skies, the gentle ripples made on the water as birds skimmed its surface at the start of a new day. It was incredibly tranquil that morning as only the soft chugging of the boat’s motor broke the silence. There was also a very good commentary from the pilot who navigated the bends in the river with expertise. He told us about the role of the river in the economy of the region, its use as a roadway as well as a source of leisure. He pointed out bird life on the banks, cute cottages perched on the downs, some no more than wooden fishing shacks. He drew our attention to a salmon village comprising three shacks and three local families. He showed us the homes of wealthy magnates who had famous architects like John Nash design mansions for them. The highlight of these mansions was Greenaways, a house that had belonged to the writer Agatha Christie who wrote her novel Dead Man’s Folly in its interior and made it the very setting of her plot. Greenaways is managed today by the National Trust and regular tours of the mansion can be taken from Dartmouth. Sadly, we did not have the time for it, but I enjoyed clicking pictures of the villa as we sailed past. We also passed by picturesque villages like Dittysham that dot the river and offer wonderful photo ops. River craft of every size and hue dotted the blue waves and added to the loveliness of the area.

It was not long before our truly delightful cruise came to a quiet end. The town of Dartmouth came into view with its Royal Maritime College seated high on its cliffs. This was the training ground for both Prince Andrew (son of the Queen) and Prince Harry (her grandson) who were trained here. It is a grand building, very impressive in its size and architectural beauty. We continued gliding our way to what is known as the Dartmouth Pontoon and simply marveled at the glorious Elizabethan buildings that lined the dock for they were built in grand Tudor style and sported the exposed black beams, small leaded windows and white-washed facades that make this style distinctive. When I exclaimed, “My goodness! What a charming town!”, one of my fellow-cruisers smiled and said, “And what an expensive one too! Everything here is costly.” Indeed, arrival by boat is the best way to enter Dartmouth and we were very glad we chose this unusual mode of transport.

Exploring Dartmouth:

Dartmouth grew around the harbor that dominates all commercial life in the town. As soon as we disembarked, we walked around the Boat Basin to the shops. We gave ourselves about two hours in the town but we also wanted to make sure we feasted on the much-touted fish and chips that chef Mitch Tonks of The Rockfish Grill had put on the gastronomic map. Hence we had to hurry through our shopping for souvenirs and our browsing through the many art galleries and shops that crowd the pretty streets. I wished to find the book shop that was once owned by the real Christopher Robin whom A.A. Milne had made famous in his Winnie the Pooh stories. But alas, the bookstore has closed down and another establishment had taken its place. We did also walk in The Butterwalk, a similar row of arcaded shops that we had found in Totnes, and then, without losing any further time, we made our way for our long-awaited lunch.

Fish and Chips at The Rockfish Grill:

Mitch Tonks uses beer to lighten the batter he uses to coat his fish (cod or haddock). Large slabs of it were presented to us together with crisp chips, tartar sauce and ketchup. Everything was served piping hot, straight from the fire as fried fish and chips ought to be, plus the service was wonderful.  Sadly, we had to hurry through the treat that both of us thought was quite outstanding indeed. And then it was time to race back to our bus to get the one that would take us back to Exeter in time.

Heading Back to Exeter:

We were lucky to find a bus that took us directly from Dartmouth to Exeter. Once again, we gave ourselves up to the sheer pleasure of enjoying the English countryside from the top decker of a bus—I have seen much of Cornwall and Dorset in like manner and it remains one of the high points of my travels.

Tour of the Underground Passages of Exeter:

Lonely Planet says that we should not miss a tour of the Underground Passages in Exeter. Since we arrived in Exeter while there was still time to get to our B&B and pick up our backpacks, we decided to check out a tour and see what it would offer. Luckily for us, they are offered every hour and we got one at 3. 30 pm. Since it lasted till 4.30, we would have enough time to check out and catch our bus at 6.00 pm.

The tour of the Underground Passages starts with a short film that explains its history. We missed the beginning of it as we arrived late. However, I gathered that the passages were designed in the 1400s to bring clean drinking water from natural springs outside the walled city, through lead pipes into the heart of Exeter. The pipes sometimes leaked and repairs to buried pipes could only be carried out by digging them up. These are the only underground passages in the entire country that are open to visitors and a visit is certainly an unusual experience.

When the film ended, we were given hard hats (mine stank horribly of body odor and left me feeling deeply disgusted by the end of it) and led into the passages themselves by the tour guide who explained why and how they were created. Most of the passages are so narrow that only one person can pass through at a time. They are lined with stone that is plentifully quarried in the region. The lead pipes that were used to transport water for centuries were then covered with plaster. Few people have any idea when they are walking through the streets of Exeter that these passages exist below them and that they can actually be traversed. As far as I can tell, the passages are no longer in use although they were used as recently as World War II as bomb shelters.

So there you have it—we managed to get in the interesting tour of the underground passages as well and all of this made for a very fine visit indeed.

We had enough time to make our way to Melbury House from where we picked up our backpacks, checked out, thanked our hosts Graham and Leon for their great hospitality and walked by a short cut to the bus station. Our National Express coach to London arrived on time and whisked us off in a constant drizzle to the capital. How fortunate we felt that we had experienced no rain whatsoever on our travels! Also, luckily, by the time we arrived in London, it had stopped raining although the city was still very wet indeed.

Looking for our Next B&B in Battersea:

Once at London’s Victoria, it was a simple matter of finding the bus stop that would take us to Battersea where we had made Air B&B bookings. Having arrived in London at 10.20 pm, I hoped we would not have to wait too long for a bus. A 44 did come along in just ten minutes and within half an hour, we were on Queenstown Road and ringing the bell of a home owned by a lady name Jane who showed us to our room in the basement of her house. She stayed around for about half an hour explaining all the rules of the house to us and as soon as she left, we crashed on the pull-out sofa which became a double bed.

Devon had been a brilliant experience overall but we were ready to unwind and relax once again in London.

Until tomorrow, cheerio.

Devon’s Northern Coastline: Bideford, Westward Ho! and Clovelly

Monday, June 26, 2017

The North Devon Coastline: Barnstaple, Bideford, Westward Ho! And Clovelly:

            We devoted this day to exploring the North Devon coastline and since it was a week day and we had the luxury of choosing from a number of trains, we had a longer lie-lin. Breakfast was granola with yogurt and coffee in the kitchen in our studio at Melbury House before we got dressed and left. We walked briskly to Exeter Central Station having discovered a simpler, shorter, way to get there from our hotel. Our train arrived at the appointed hour ( 8. 25 am) and off we went. It was the Tarka Line—a picturesque route that traverses the interior of the county of Devon past varied shades of green in field, farm and pasture, before it dropped us off at the end of the line at Barnstaple.

On the Bus to Clovelly:

From right outside Barnstaple station, there is a bus stop that whisks visitors off to the most visited parts of the North Devon coast.  In our case, we were headed to Clovelly (pronounced Clo-velly). It has been years since I have wanted to visit this place based entirely on pictures of it that I have seen of its steeped main street that dips sharply down to the sea. So getting there was, in a way, a dream come true for me. The issue is that Clovelly lies so far away from the beaten tourist track that it is not the sort of place one can reach at random.  Hence, it was very much a part of my plan for a visit to Devon.

Another very scenic bus route took us to Clovelly via the town of Bideford which is a junction of sorts for a lot of destinations on the northern Devon coast. Once at Bideford, we discovered that we had a wait of about a half hour before we got into a connecting bus to Clovelly—it was a good opportunity for us to see a bit of this town and we did just that as we went in search of its Panier Marketplace—only to discover that this Victorian Covered Market was closed. Still, the opportunity to walk in these quaint towns and get a feel of small-town Devonshire life was priceless.

Off to Clovelly:

We did eventually get into the bus that took us to Clovelly which we reached at a little past noon—by which time we were both starving. The interesting thing about Clovelly is that the entire village is owned by a single family and they extract a toll off every visitor. This entry fee is used for maintenance of one of the world’s most unique villages. You pay the 7.50 pounds entry fee at the Visitors Center (where the bus drops you off) and enter a vast space filled with restrooms, a restaurant, shops selling postcards, magnets and the like. We acquired a map after paying our fee and then headed straight to the café where Shahnaz ordered a burger while I chose a steak and onion pasty—they do not call them Cornish pasties in Devon! But they are essentially the same things. I also had a decaff coffee.  My pasty and Shahnaz’s bacon cheeseburger (of which she ate only half leaving the rest to me) were both filling and fueled us for the ordeal that lay ahead.

Discovering Clovelly:

Clovelly consists entirely of a single street—it is sharply cobbled and placed on a steep incline. Lined on both sides by the most picturesque little cottages with riots of summer flowers like fuschias, petunias, impatiens (bizzie-lizzies) and verbena tumbling out of window boxes and baskets, the town is as pretty as a postcard. Everyone’s camera works overtime trying to capture the quaint and unusual beauty of the hamlet that profits enormously from its location which overlooks the crystal-clear waters of the azure sea.

Two attractions that most visitors inspect are the home of Charles Kingsley, who is the best known literary figure in the area, and the Fisherman’s Cottage.  Kingsley who was born in the region, made Clovelly his home in the late 1890s as he wrote two of his most famous works: Westward Ho! which is named for the town close-by which is the setting of his novel and The Water Babies. We were able to visit the tiny home in which he had lived and written his literary works—they are so tiny that they feel like doll’s houses. We also saw the home of a typical 19th century fisherman for fishing was the main stay of the local economy. Maintained in period style, these places retain a great deal of character. All the way to the bottom, there are colorful shops filled with colorful people but there are no chain stores, high street shops, fast food places of anything of the kind. This made me feel as if I was walking in the pages of history for nothing seems to have changed in this place for at least a century.

Getting down to the sea is no mean feat and I have to say that my open sandals (because it was so hot) were not the most ideal footwear for such activity. Shahnaz, with her hunter boots, was in a far better situation. Still, I managed as we kept pausing after every few steps to take pictures. All the while, we inched closer to sea level. It took us a good hour to finally see the beach where most people rewarded themselves for getting to the end by guzzling cold beer in The Red Lion restaurant at the bottom. Had we not stuffed ourselves fully at the café at the Visitor Center, no doubt, we too would have enjoyed a drink there.

Getting Back Up the Hill To the Bus:

Shahnaz, who by this time, had been stressing about climbing back up the hill, was most relieved to discover that there was a Land Rover service that for 3.50 pounds took folks back up to the Visitors Center in under ten minutes—saving us the sweat equity involved in doing the hike back up—which would have taken us no less than two hours!  In fact, we did see people making the brave (panting) trek upwards, some with dogs who were so tired that they refused to budge from the cobbles!  Suffice it to say that the Land Rover service is a huge boon and quite indispensable for the elderly and the infirm. We were certainly grateful for the service and as we planned the next leg of our sightseeing, we sat at the Visitors Center and waited for the bus.

Off to Westward Ho!                

The town of Westward Ho! has the distinction of being the only place in the world that officially has an exclamation mark at the end of it. Westward Ho! is also the name of the novel that Kingsley gave the world. The area is filled with Kingsley memorabilia from a large sculpture that overlooks the port at Bideford to his home at Clovelly. Sadly, the town of Westward Ho! was a major disappointment to us for there was really nothing much to see or do there. The bus dropped us off at the main street from where it was only a short walk to the beach front—once again, I was struck by the vast expanse of flat, wide beach (one of the great natural treasures of the British coastline).

Shahnaz busied herself with collecting flat stones on which she intended to paint. I sat facing the sea and drinking in the scent as I thought of Kingsley’s novel. I took in the salt tang in the air and the sight of people wading out in the far distance for the tide was out. After a while when strolling around a pretty street with ice-cream colored houses was accomplished, we got back to the bus stop and looked for a bus that would take us back home on the return journey. But just before we hopped into it, I got myself a scoop of Hockings ice-cream which is supposedly one of the finest in the area.

Luckily, the bus took us directly to Barnstaple which made it easy for us to walk straight to the train station and wait out the ten minutes that it took for us to catch the Tarka Line train back to our home base in Exeter. We arrived there about 7.00 pm and since there was still so much daylight left, decided to go into further exploration of Exeter.

But where?

Dinner by the Dockside:

Having asked the friendly railway personnel who were hanging out at Exeter station whether we ought to see the Dockside or the Underground Passages (with limited time at our disposal), they suggested we get to the Dockside. This rather ‘happening’ part of Exeter is a frequent hangout for late evenings. Getting there involved the use of our sketchy map and a very long walk; but it did provide us with the opportunity to see varied parts of Exeter as we inched forward with every step.

We did reach the Dockside about 45 minutes later, past the Cathedral and Close that looked glorious in the setting rays of the evening’s sun. By the time we were at the Dockside on the banks of the River Exe that gives the city its name, we spied a pretty bridge that spanned the water. Three or four restaurants are clustered together at this spot and since dusk was falling slowly, most seemed to enjoy their sundowner pints—for all these eateries are also pubs. We decided to inspect the menu of all three places and then make a choice for dinner. Eventually we chose a place called On The Waterfront—which, as its name implies, faced the water. Once again, the presence of seagulls intimidated Shahnaz—so, reluctantly, we moved inside to a booth which was not nearly as atmospheric as actually sitting by the quay and watching twilight fall.

Drink and food orders needed to be placed at the bar—we got ourselves draft lagers and settled our feet down for a long rest as our food was prepared: Thai curry fishcakes with a peanut and cucumber relish was part of the elegant Tapas menu and a large Salade Nicoise which came with wonderful grilled tuna, anchovies, eggs, tomatoes, green beans and potatoes. They made for a very filling summer’s dinner and as all the food was very tasty, we dined well. So, although we went entirely by instinct, we ended up having a most satisfying meal indeed.

Getting Back to our Hotel:

Darkness had well and truly fallen over Exeter by the time we got up to leave.  Shahnaz felt daunted at the thought of walking back to our hotel—a walk of at least 45 minutes, on a day when we had put our leg and feet muscles through many challenges on those Clovelly cobbles! So, she was absolutely delighted to see a bus stop and suggested we sit down and wait for a bus that would take us towards our hotel.  As luck would have it, a bus came along within five minutes—one that was going very close to our hotel.  It was truly God-sent! Within ten minutes, we were dropped off at the Duke of York pub from where it was only a few blocks to Melbury House.

It had been an exhausting day but a deeply fulfilling one as we saw such unusual sights in the heart of the English countryside. At the end of each day, Shahnaz and I never failed to marvel at how much we had accomplished, how much ground we had covered and how deeply blessed we were to have the opportunity to traverse these little-known parts of the world.

Until tomorrow, cheerio.

The English Riviera: Torquay, Paignton, Brigham and Babbacombe

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Exploring the English Riviera—Torquay, Paington, Brixham and Babbacombe:

            With the English sun promising to shine down benevolently over Devonshire, it made sense for us to haul ourselves off to the nicest part of the county—what is referred to as the ‘English Riviera’ on the South Devon coast. This comprises the three seaside towns of Torquay (the best-known of the three), Paington and Brixham which are dotted around the perfect bay known as Torbay.

Only since it was Sunday, we had very limited rail service. This urged us on to the bus station where we hoped to find more frequent buses to get us to Torquay. We started our day at Melbury House with granola bars crumbled up in flavored yogurt with coffee and apples before setting off on foot for the bus station—about a fifteen minute walk away. When we reached there, we discovered that the earliest Stagecoach bus would leave for Torquay only at 10.05 am.  This left us a long while to sit and chat companionably with fellow passengers who provided us with a lot of suggestions for places to go to and things to see. It was amazing how friendly the English were to us and how pleased we were to get into conversation with them as we whiled time away.

When our Stagecoach Hop 2 bus arrived, the driver advised us to buy a Day Ticket which would allow us unlimited use of the buses for the entire day—at 8 pounds this was a steal.  Delighted, we climbed up to the top deck and then gave ourselves up to the sheer delight of taking in charming little villages that time forgot, sleepy villagers in sleepier hamlets enjoying a Sunday’s lie-in, pastures filled with farm animals, tea rooms advertising Devonshire cream teas and highways whose hedgerows were filled with blackberry bushes thick with pink blossom and promises of juicy fruit to come. Even had we no particular destination in mind, just these bus drives would have made our travel to and in Devon seem fully worthwhile. We trundled lazily along until we arrived at the town of Teignmouth (pronounced Tinemuth), where a fellow-traveler called Sally advised us to alight and take a connecting bus which would arrive earlier at Torquay. It seemed like a good plan—so we took her advice. At Teignmouth, we bought ourselves ice-cream from Jane’s Ice-Creams (salted caramel and chocolate) that were divine and, five minutes later, were in another bus that took us off to Torquay.

Torquay, Gem of the English Riviera:

Torquay is known for two famous residents: the real-life Dame Agatha Christie who holidayed every summer in its environs and the fictional Basil Fawlty of Fawlty Towers fame played by the inimitable John Cleese. Torquay is also known for its chi-chi summer residents who bring a seasonable whiff of urbanity to this lovely sea-side resort with its ultra-broad beach, its cliff-perched manors, its restaurants and souvenir stores. It might be a far cry from Nice or Monte Carlo, but Torquay does have its own share of sophisticated charm that I found completely enchanting.

We began by exploring its lovely maze of narrow streets that were absolutely filled with elderly visitors. In fact, in much of Devon, we saw large groups of older travelers—obviously ‘pensioners’, they are enjoying the thrills of their seaside towns before the schools close for the summer and sea resorts become mobbed by families who will fill every niche and crevice of Dorset, Devon and Cornwall with colorful beach gear (as I had seen in Dorset last year). Using our map, we set off for lunch and using a recommendation from Lonely Planet, we arrived at Pier Pont, a sea-front eatery where we ordered a quinoa salad with beetroot, oranges, rocket (arugula) and goat cheese as well as a Baked Potato with British beef brisket. We also enjoyed a bottle of beer that we shared. Our lunch was absolutely scrumptious although it was spoiled for Shahnaz by the presence of hovering seagulls who were horribly vicious and greedy and who swooped down on leftovers on diners’ plates. Our vantage point on one of the outside tables provided us with sweeping views of the beach all the way to the little colorful beach huts that are such a regular feature of the British beach resort. We clicked a few pictures and then walked along the waterfront to the nearest bus stop to get on to a bus that would take us to Brixham as we had received a suggestion to go there next.

On the Bus to Brixham:

The bus ride to Brixham saw Shahnaz soundly asleep as I took in the splendor of the Devonshire coastline. The sea was incredibly clear and as the waves melted on to the shore their colors were reminiscent of Hawai’i with streaks of aquamarine, jade, and even mauve. The jagged coastline was filled with interesting natural features such as terracotta red rock formations that created gateways in the sea (similar to Durdle Door in Dorset). Chic mansions hugged the coast which is clearly the playground of the wealthy.

Everywhere we went on the Riviera, we saw the flotsam and jetsam of the British beach holiday: plastic spades and pails, blow up toys, eateries featuring fish and chips, ice-cream kiosks, stalls selling cotton candy and the inevitable cream tea focusing on scones.

When we arrived, about an hour later, at Brixham, we found that we had to climb a hill to get to the harbor.  The next bus back in the direction of Paington and Torquay was about an hour later—this left us an hour to explore the utterly gorgeous harbor town that seemed to be built in tiers. Each building was painted in a pretty pastel shade—blue, pink, lemon. They seemed to sink gradually down to the sea as we climbed the crest of the hill past souvenir stores.

When we arrived at the harbor, we found a huge replica of The Golden Hind, the ship in which Sir Francis Drake sailed around the world in the late 1500s. Indeed, the harbor itself was simply buzzing with Sunday evening crowds—people of every age from octogenarians to infants in prams were out and about enjoying the benign summer sun. We drank it all in, quite fascinated by the beauty of the landscape and the energy of the visitors. In another week or two, these places will be overwhelmed by the crush of humanity…but for the moment, they are just perfectly stocked with happy people who are far from harassed.

At this point, I noticed The Rockfish Grill, a well-reputed chain of restaurants run by well-reputed chef Mitch Tonks whose fish and chips have been declared ‘Best in the UK’ for the Year 2017.  Naturally, we could not leave Devon without partaking of his offerings. But I was also aware that his flagship eatery is in Dartmouth—which we’d be visiting on our last day. I, therefore, told Shahnaz to hold out on tucking into this seaside treat until we got there (much to her disappointment as she said later that she could have eaten fish and chips at least five times on this trip).

I also noticed that the Brixham branch of the chain was offering Salcombe Devon crab cocktail—a delicacy that is a must-try in these parts and one that is advertised everywhere. I suggested we get that instead. Shahnaz was game and next thing we knew, we were at the takeaway counter at The Rockfish Grill being presented with little cups filled with finely cut lettuce and cucumber in a light thousand island dressing with mounds of dressed crab meat clustered on the top.  We clutched our treats close to us as we hurried off to the bus stop to catch our bus. While on the bus, we thoroughly enjoyed our crab cocktails that were sweet and juicy and incredibly flavorful.  How happy we were that we had ticked off one more gastronomic treat that Devon could offer as we sampled its specialties. Next stop? Babbacombe, where at the Angel Tea Room (one of the best-known in the area), we would enjoy a Devonshire Cream Tea!!! I simply could not wait.

Enjoying a Devonshire Cream Tea at Babbacombe:

Sometimes it pays to be greedy! Had I not insisted we get to the Angel Tea Room for a cream tea, Shahnaz and I would never have laid eyes on the gorgeous Devonshire coastline at Babbacombe which is truly breathtaking. As it turned out, we got a bus in Torquay that took us to Babbacombe where we were let off on the high street and directed to the road that would take us to The Downs where the famed tea room is located. So, getting there was no problem at all. It was the return to Exeter that would prove far more problematic as the evening wore on and Sunday bus services became skeletal.

But, for the moment, we were focused on Tea! With scones! And lashings of Devonshire clotted cream! And strawberry jam! And a cake or two thrown in for good measure! So after we crossed the high street and took the side street to get to The Downs, which are high cliffs that offer astounding views of the coast, we were thrilled to find ourselves right outside the Angel Tea Room! At this point, we were torn between my need to tuck immediately into one of the creamy treats and Shahnaz’s desire to sit on one of the benches and gaze out at the glory of the coast line from a cliff-top garden filled with wild flowers. I postponed the pleasure of my tea and settled down to enjoy the stunning scenery with her. We paused to take pictures and to marvel at the fact that had we not decided to have a cream tea in one of the places most touted on the internet, we would have missed the grand spectacle on this portion of the Devonshire coast.

About fifteen minutes later, we were seated in the pretty flower-filled courtyard of the eatery and being presented with menus that were basically unnecessary as I knew exactly what we were going to eat—scones, of course, with the works! I also ordered a slice of fruit cake—because that was all they really had left. The other cakes had gone and the place was taking last orders in twenty minutes—we had just arrived on time. Any later and we’d have been turned away. It did not bear thinking about! And, of course, we had tea. Decaff Roiboos for me and Shahnaz as we shared a pot.  Service was wonderful, the scones with cream and jam were luxuriantly sinful but it was the view that stole the show as we sat facing the softly setting sun of a perfect day as it disappeared over the horizon.

Getting Back to Exeter:

Getting back to Exeter proved to be far more challenging than we had imagined as all manner of life seems to come to a standstill on a Sunday evening after 5.00 pm.  Still, after some harried moments, we found a bus that took us safely back to Exeter after a ride that took a little over an hour.

It had been an amazing introduction to the English Riviera and we could see why crowds flock there for a little bit of R&R.

Until tomorrow, cheerio.

Devon, Here We Come! Exciting Exeter.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Devon, Here We Come!

Departure for Exeter, Devon:

            The nice thing about traveling with Shahnaz is that I realized that she too is a morning person. It does not bother us to have to awake and get cracking before dawn has broken. Giving ourselves half an hour to get ready, we arose to the alarm, washed, dressed and checked out of our hotel. Indeed, we were very sorry to leave our serviced apartments at Citadines as we had thoroughly enjoyed our five nights there and had made the very best of our super Central location.

We hopped into the Tube, made our way to Victoria and took a bus to the coach station in time to catch our National Express coach to Devon that left at 7.30 am. We had arrived by 7.00 am and I fervently hoped to pick up his inimitable Cronuts from the bakery of Dominique Ansel on Elizabeth Street. But it appeared that the place opened only at 8.00 am. So, much to our disappointment, we got morning pastries and coffee at Café Nero and awaited the arrival of our coach—which came bang on schedule and picked us up.

On the Coach to Devon:

The horrible heat of the past week had left and become only a hazy memory. Temperatures were very comfortable indeed as we made our way on the coach to Devon. If only we were spared rain, we’d have the most wonderful time, we were sure.

All the way on the journey, I had the company of Gavin, an Australian from Brisbane, who had arrived in Scandinavia for a conference and made a slight detour to see English friends in Taunton in Devon whom he had not seen for almost twenty years since he had last lived there. He kept up a steady and very interesting stream of conversation, shared his snacks with me (crisp, unsalted nuts) and bore with me as I took a much-needed nap. The miles flew past as we passed by dozens of caravans (or campers, as they are known in the UK)—for it is clearly the vehicle of choice for a southwestern coastal holiday. The green downs kept us company as did flocks of sheep, cows and horses in the passing fields.  We made one stop at Taunton and were next put down at Exeter, the largest city in Devon and most important urban center in the region.

Melbury House Air B&B:

When we arrived at the coach station in Exeter at 12. 30, I called Graham, the man who ran the Air B&B in which we had made a booking. He gave us instructions by foot to his place and in about a half hour, we were on his doorstep.  His Melbury House B&B turned out to be a Victorian guest house that he had bought and refurbished to convert into an Air B&B. It carried the tired air of an old dowager who has seen better days. The furniture was dated in the grand old lounge filled with velvet upholstery, dozens of oil landscapes in gilded and carved wooden frames and loads of Buddhas. Yes, Graham and his partner Leon had traveled extensively in the Far East and had shipped back gigantic Buddhas that were sprinkled on every landing from where they smiled in golden splendor.  Our room on the second floor was a very modern studio, complete with an en suite bathroom and a kitchenette where every new appliance made for great convenience.  Once we were handed over our keys, we sized up our room, then left our backpacks behind and set out to discover the city.

Discovering Exeter Cathedral and Close:

The city of Exeter is best known for its thousand-year old Cathedral that has stood on this site and seen history grow around it.  A straight walk down the High Street past every enticing big name store brings the visitor to the ‘Close’, the vast green around which medieval cathedrals sprang up. As with all grand edifices built in the Gothic style during the Middle Ages, the building took over a century to build. Painstaking craftsmanship is evident in the carving of the stone facades which usually feature sculptures of the saints.

By the time we arrived at the Close, we had picked up coffee and sandwiches and we sipped and munched while overlooking the grand façade of the cathedral.  A big fun fare was in progress and families were out in full force to enjoy the amusements. A group of kids were demonstrating their karate moves, another lot were enjoying a bouncy castle, cakes were offered at a Bring and Buy sale that included a chocolate fountain, arts and crafts stalls attracted buyers. We got fully into the spirit of the event and on getting up to explore the inside of the Cathedral, found out that Evensong was about to start in half an hour.

Naturally, we decided to attend the service. With half an hour left to while away, we walked along the ancient city walls—that date from Roman times—to the Tourist Information Center in order to pick up maps and other aids for our travels in Devon. We found the assistant very helpful indeed and armed with a load of printed material, we returned to the Close.

It was time for the fun fare to end and for the stalls to close down. Free cakes were offered to passing visitors and I was pleased to be presented with a lemon drizzle cupcake. Not too long afterwards, we were inside the Cathedral and taking our place at the choir stalls. As we had about fifteen minutes to spare, I circumnavigated the Cathedral to closely examine its ancient carvings, its magnificent timbered ceiling or nave with its brilliant bosses, its intricately carved wooden choir stalls that looked like fine lace and its miseracordia that I pointed out to Shahnaz. The varied chapels were filled with funerary monuments. Very soon, the congregation swelled and by the time Evensong service began, there was a sizeable number of people in the church. There were no child choristers but the adult choir did a very competent job indeed. It made for a wonderful service that we both enjoyed.

The tenor of life in the UK after 5.00 pm is always very interesting to behold. Life seems to come to a sudden standstill as shops down their shutters and salespeople go home. With only restaurants and pubs open, streets wear a suddenly haggard look. Shahnaz and I decided to go out in search of Exeter Central station to enable us to purchase tickets for our intended excursion to the North Devon coast tomorrow. When we arrived at the station, we were informed that it made no difference in ticket prices whether we purchased them in advance or at the time of travel Deciding, therefore, to wait and see how the weather shaped up, we got a hold of Great Eastern Railway timetables to enable us to plan our travels in Devon.

Using our map, we then found our way by a much shorter route to Melbury House where we sank into the bed in our room with much gratitude as we were quite tired from our exploration. We were glad to find a tea kettle in our kitchen and we used it to make ourselves some coffee which we sipped as we ate cheese scones with Stilton cheese, ox tongue sandwiches, fresh raspberries, and pistachio and almond cookies. Yes, it was a strange meal indeed but it was an improvisation of whatever we had picked up, between the two of us, at supermarkets we’d visited.

With the TV on, we watched some game shows and relaxed before calling it an early night.

Until tomorrow, cheerio.

Last Day of Colloquium, Albee at the West End and Long Walk in Whitehall and Westminster

Friday, June 23, 2017

Meeting my Former Concierge Arben:

I did not wish to leave our accommodation in Holborn without saying hello to Arben, the concierge at the former building in Holborn that I had occupied, a few years ago. And so, on my way to the colloquium, I set out just a little early in order to walk to 7 High Holborn. I was delighted to meet him and spend about ten minutes chatting with him and finding out about his family’s successes. Then walking quickly towards Bloomsbury, I arrived at our campus at NYU.

Last Day of Colloquium

            The last day of our Colloquium at NYU dawned in what seemed like a heartbeat. The final panel was as absorbing as the others had been—plus we had a fine summing-up of the day’s many lessons and the things we would take back to our teaching practice. By the time it ended, my head was simply swimming with ideas that I would like to experiment with and include in my own pedagogy. Plus, I had made friends with some really fascinating colleagues whose research interests were a real eye-opener. All of us felt that it had been a very successful conference indeed and we were far richer for having attended it.

Lunch at Pisq in Fitzrovia:

Although many of our colleagues had already started making their steps home-ward, quite a large contingent of us were present for the farewell luncheon that was held at a Peruvian restaurant called Pisq. Now I had never eaten Peruvian food before and did not know what to expect. But being a foodie and always ready for a new gastronomic experience, I looked forward to the meal.

We were offered a few choices from a set three-course meal that was very impressive indeed. I started with the Sea Bass Seviche which was my first time trying seviche. I found it absolutely delicious—soaked in lime juice that had ‘cooked’ the fish to a tender consistency, it was terrific. My ‘main’ was actually two choices—as my colleague Afrodesia and I decided to split two of them: I opted for the Steak Tips and she had the Pork Belly—hers turned out to be better than mine, but they were both palatable (if not outstanding). For dessert, I opted for the Chocolate Mousse served with Matcha ice-cream (the mousse was glorious, the ice-cream was the blandest, most tasteless kind I have had—it was not even sweet enough for my palate). Still, as meals go, it was a treat to share it with my colleagues who were all filled with the sense of recent accomplishment at having made presentations that were so well-received.

Off to the Royal Theater Haymarket:

I did not waste much time after lunch, but walked with Brendan to my office at NYU to meet Quentin from the IT Helpdesk who was helping me send a grant application online. As soon as I managed to get the task done, I left our Bloomsbury campus and took the bus to Piccadilly where I was scheduled to meet Shahnaz who had spent the entire day at the National Gallery taking Highlights Tours, attending shorter gallery lectures and even learning to sketch. Best of all, she had managed once again to get us day tickets to see The Goat or Who is Sylvia by Edward Albee at the Theater Royal Haymarket which she had reached at 10.00 am.

A Drink Before Dinner:

I was much too stuffed with our three-course lunch to even contemplate dinner but Shahnaz was starving (not having taken a break for lunch during her day at the British Museum) and when I spied a “Two Drinks for the Price of One” deal at the Kitchen Market, a restaurant at Haymarket, I suggested we go there for sundowners before the show. How annoying it was to find out that we could not have one drink each for the price of one—we had to each have two drinks and pay for just one!!! The cocktails we chose are far from memorable but Shahnaz did tuck into a Chicken Cesar Salad (which I also nibbled) before we rushed off to see the play.

Damien Lewis, Sophie Okenedo and Jason Hughes in The Goat or Who is Sylvia?

All I knew about this play is that Albee wrote it and Damien (Brody of Homeland fame) Lewis was in it. That was enough for me to feel determined to see it. And at five pounds (yes, five pounds because apparently our seats offered ‘restricted’ views), we were in the theater and seeing what I think is probably the best drama I have ever seen! Seriously! The play itself is perfection in terms of construction, writing and wit. As might be guessed, it is about a middle-aged architect with a very successful marriage and a teenaged son who falls in love with a goat! The consequences of his infatuation threaten to tear his marriage and life apart until the awful and quite unexpected denouement.

The performances were simply unbelievable. Lewis, of course, stole the show…but he was ably matched by his co-star Okenedo (who, I believe I have seen in Selma). Jason Hughes whose performances as Sergeant Ben in Midsomer Murders was also excellent (although he has put on heaps of weight and I had difficultly even placing him). The young chap who played Lewis’ son was amazing for his age and shows all the makings of a future star. Truly, we could not believe that we were enjoying such stupendous theater for the cost of a cup of coffee in Starbucks! It more than made up for our previous night’s disappointment over Annie.

A Walk Along Whitehall and Westminster:

Flushed with the joy of seeing a really superb piece of work, and finding that it was still very bright when we emerged from the theater, Shahnaz and I decided to take a very long walk—we arrived at Trafalgar Square (its fountains and Edward Landseer’s lions beautifully illuminated), turned down Whitehall and stopped to take pictures at the Cenotaph. Across the street, we admired the lovely military and memorial sculptures along Whitehall before we arrived at Charles Barry’s beautiful buildings that comprise London’s Houses of Parliament where we took many pictures with Big Ben in the background. Not content with reaching the banks of the Thames, we walked along the Embankment past Westminster Pier and took more pictures with the London Eye and the Royal Festival Hall in the background. Past Charing Cross we strolled until we arrived at the Theater District. We entered Covent Garden which wore a strangely deserted look and jumped into the Tube for one station as Shahnaz was so pooped, she could barely take another step. She is learning rapidly exactly what it means to take a trip with me! No doubt, when she gets home, she will need a vacation from her vacation.

It was about midnight when we arrived in our room at the hotel—thrilled with the last night of the first lap of our travels. We would be leaving early the next morning for Devon—so we showered super quickly, got our things all packed up and ready, set our alarm for 5.30 am to leave our hotel at 6.00 am to catch the 7.30 am coach to Devon.

Until tomorrow, cheerio.