My dear friend Richa Bansal reacts to my reminiscence of the Fallen Leaves in Berlin with her own memories of an unforgettably beautiful summer sojourn in 2010.
It takes a minute and I am transported back to the moment and the turn, where I wished time stood still, and I did not have to return. I stopped, stood, felt, heard, and cherished the stillness. And still do.
Called the Coffin route, in ironic contrast to its aching beauty, the downhill walk between two of William Wordsworth’s houses—Dove Cottage (in Grasmere) and Rydal Mount (in Ambleside)—remains my favourite travel memory and instant call to solitude. Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that I was an English literature undergrad, where I both studied and savoured the Romantic poets.
The Coffin route was suggested by the coach driver of the guided tour (on Day 2) in the Lake District in England where I had escaped on my 31st birthday to beat the woes of completing the first year of the dreaded thirties (feels strange when I look back now, give me the thirties any day! J).
On my birthday (Day 1), on a windy, rainy, and sunny day in July, I walked for nine hours in the rolling hills, with a walking group led by the quiet, old but energetic (who puffed on cigar to recharge himself as we kept walking) guide Mark, his dog Sky, and a lovely bunch of people I met for the first time.
Stopping by Angle Tarn for lunch, climbing to the top of Place Fell, we headed back to Windermere (where I was also staying) by late evening, exhausted but satisfied. It was my birthday—Mark offered to buy me a cider, and I bought him dinner. And that’s how I turned 31.
On the second day, while taking the touristy guided tour, and completing the circuit in a rushed manner, as I complained to the coach driver that I wanted to spend more time outside the coach than inside, and wanted to explore something offbeat, he suggested the Coffin route.
This idyllic walk connects Dove Cottage (home to William Wordsworth from 1799 to 1808) in the village of Grasmere down to Rydal Mount in Ambleside (home to William Wordsworth from 1813 to his death in 1850). In olden times, it was the route up which the dead from Rydal were taken to the St. Oswald’s Church in Grasmere, where Wordsworth is also buried.
I decided that on my third and last day, I would do it alone—start by exploring the village of Grasmere in the morning, walk down Coffin route to Rydal Mount in Ambleside post lunch, catch the bus back to Windermere, and be in time to collect my luggage and board the train back to Cambridge. I even had the bus numbers, timings, and rough location of the bus stop jotted down. It was all figured out, and I was pleased with my plan. Little did I know…
Rightly enough I started the day by heading to Grasmere (catching the bus from Windermere, which arrived as per schedule), walked around the charming village, which Wordsworth called home, visited the church and the tomb of the poet, stopped by the famous Grasmere Gingerbread Shop (where the Grasmere gingerbread was invented in 1854), and had delicious creamy risotto for lunch, before walking over to Dove Cottage. A quick tour of the Cottage had to suffice, there was no time for the detailed guided tour (made a mental note for the next time), as I left to take the Coffin route back. The part I had been most looking forward to.
When I walked out of Dove Cottage, it had started pouring (but then it was July in the Lakes), but I was not deterred. Dressed in waterproofs, armed with an umbrella, I began what I was told would be a maximum two-hour walk. As I walked down the road with trees lining both sides and meeting at the top, making a green burrow, with the sunlight filtering in gently, and a mystical feeling in the quietness that surrounded me (not a soul in sight), I could see why the place gave birth to some of the best Romantic poetry.
For the uninitiated but interested, unlike the popular consumption of the word, Romantics were moved by the sense of wonder, most often found in the sublime beauty of nature, and specifically in the case of Wordsworth, starting the creed of Pantheism (where nature becomes divine). Romanticism grew in part as a reaction to Enlightenment or the age of reason and rationalization.
Walking down the Coffin route, I passed the Moss Tarn, where a placard read Wordsworth use to ice skate in winters, a bubbling stream, small waterfalls, and yes, daffodils. And it was somewhere between all of these that the turn came—where surrounded by the hills, the dripping luminescent greenery, and the sound of raindrops, I experienced stillness, a few moments of absolute joy, a space I still visit in my mind.
I also came across a lovely Irish couple who took the only photographs of me down this road before walking on. Suddenly I realized it was almost two hours and I was nowhere near a bus-stop in Ambleside next to Rydal Mount as planned. I saw a stretch of road a short distance away, and trudged there, only to discover I had taken a wrong turn (it had felt too sharp downhill at a point) and was way ahead of Ambleside. I started walking towards Ambleside, only to reach the bus-stop much later, to discover that there was no bus for more than 30 minutes. There was no way I could make the train back to Cambridge, and I was panicking.
And as I looked around hapless, I ran into the same Irish couple whom I met on the Coffin route, and upon hearing of my predicament, the man went to the hotel, brought his car, and the couple drove me down to Windermere, helped me pick my luggage and dropped me to the train station just in time. All the way scolding me lovingly for being too adventurous on my own! I was in such a rush I forgot to even ask their full names, simply mumbling a hurried thank you and rushing to my train.
When I got back, I searched all hotels in Ambleside, and called up a few (where I thought an elderly Irish couple were likely to stay) till I found out where they were staying. I found their address in Ireland, and sent them a post card expressing my gratitude with the photographs they had taken.
My enduring memory of the trip to the Lakes will not only be defined by the jaw dropping beauty of the Coffin route (in particular, although the Lakes as a whole are stunning) but also by the touching kindness of that wonderful Irish couple. And I ascribe it again to the milieu, for beauty without brings out the beauty within, just as much as it does the other way round.
The desire to go to Bath was wholly inspired by my one time fascination for Georgette Heyer’s Regency period romances, where the women often went to Bath to “take the waters” while their younger companions spent lots of time in the Pump Room trying to meet eligible bachelors to get married to!
On the sunny day we drove in to Bath, however, my brain was processing information that our Evan Evans tour company guide Reese was furnishing us regarding the remarkable planning history of the city. The origins of the city of Bath go back to Roman times, though mesolithic activity in the area has also been documented. The Romans were fascinated by the natural spring that Bath is famous for and built an elaborate temple complex dedicated to the Goddess Sulis Minerva. For Nupur and me, visiting the site of this ancient temple was particularly relevant. Many of my friends would know that we co-owned an entrepreneurial venture called Minerva research and Media Services for about 6 years, eventually closing it down in 2011 to move on to other things. The ancient spa is now a beautiful museum that took us right back to the time of the gladiators and Roman priests. It was great fun imagining the fun that Romans probably had as they frolicked nude in those enormous subterranean bathing chambers that they built! An orgy as a prayer? Wouldn’t put it past those guys!
Bath went on to become a prominent English city in the medieval times but degenerated badly through the 14th and 15th centuries. In 1725, however, English architect John Wood drew up an ambitious restoration plan for his home town, aiming to take it back to its former glory. Owing to opposition, he built extensively outside the city walls using the distinctive and beautiful warm golden stone quarried from Combe Down and Bathampton Down mines not far from Bath. Wood also introduced speculative building in the city, leasing the land from landowners and plotting and subdividing it as per his vision. As an architect and urban planer, I found it interesting to see how one man’s vision transformed the city making it the centre piece of Georgian England and helping the city get the UNESCO World Heritage status in 1987 not just for its Roman Bath but also for this unified, planned layout that Wood created. John Wood’s work was carried on by his son.
Bath continues to be exclusive, a sort of playground for the rich and an image of a red Ferrari parked in an impossibly small parking space is stuck in my head! Walking in Bath, we felt like we need a lot more time to take in its beauty. The city is littered with beautiful buildings, impossibly uniform facades and, in the summer, delightful ice cream shops! A friend mentioned its worthwhile checking into a spa at Bath and “taking the waters”. Hmm, not a bad idea if we could get half the fun out of it that the Romans seemed to have done!
We swung by Salisbury on our way from Stonehenge to Bath. Walking towards the cathedral, built in the 13th century, I immediately recalled Ken Follet’s ‘Pillars of the Earth’, one of the most enjoyable books I have read about the construction of the first Gothic cathedral in England, set in a fictitious place called Kingsbridge. The author admits himself in an interview that the fictional cathedral he recreates in his book resembled Salisbury closely.
Gothic construction was a new technology in those times and the ability to create tall soaring structure that appeared light instead of the squat, heavy stone buildings they were used to certainly changed the experience of visiting the church drastically. Though I’m sure the Gothic cathedrals in Amiens and Lyon are more impressive, I really liked Salisbury, with its faux cloister and Catholic-turned-Church of England interiors.
But what was really fun about visiting the cathedral was ‘meeting’ the Magna Carta or The Great Charter, which is a document signed way back in 1215. Though the barons who protested the tyranny of King John did so to protect their own property and rights, two tenets from the document became the founding principles for democracy and common law in England, and consequently the world over.
Consider these two tenets, keeping in mind the context of feudalism at the time they were written:
39. No freemen shall be taken or imprisoned or disseised or exiled or in any way destroyed, nor will we go upon him nor send upon him, except by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land.
40. To no one will we sell, to no one will we refuse or delay, right or justice.
For the first time, the king was no longer above the law. For the first time, the common man was entitled to justice. For the first time, the King (or Queen, as I remember Alice in Wonderland) could not scream “Off with his head!” and expect someone to carry that order out. It really hit me as I stared at the best preserved copy of the Magna Carta, that many before us have fought hard for the rights we take for granted today!
And yet, so many continue to be unaware of their rights and in many countries, oppressive dictators continue to deny people basic rights and freedoms. That history not only is cyclical but also that different geographies experience their own cycles of oppression and freedom, making the world a hard place to understand.
I focused on the Magna Carta’s simplicity and directness and willed myself to absorb the meaning of those words. Not just in terms of being a citizen of my country but also in how I judge myself and those around me.
I’ve wanted to visit Stonehenge since the year 2000. Back then, I was pursuing a Masters in Urban Planning at Texas A&M University and taking a course in historic preservation. Professor David Woodcock encouraged me to pursue my interest in cultural landscapes, and with his help (he leveraged his contacts at English Heritage and got them to send me every piece of research they had in their possession!) I wrote a great term paper on Stonehenge.
The mysticism of this circle of stones has stayed with me ever since. It’s the kind of place that evokes in me an unnamed indescribable fascination for history. I wonder how humans in those long bygone days conceived the world around them, how they built their social fabric and how they sowed the seeds for the complexities of existence that we take for granted today.
Stonehenge is a neolithic site created from enormous stones over different period of time probably to understand or pay obeisance to the elements of nature, namely the movement of the sun across the sky around the year. It is part of a larger landscape of monuments scattered around this area, dating from 4000 BC to about 1600 BC. Many of these, and more are being excavated and interpreted even now, seem to be ritual gathering places, burial grounds and they reiterate how important birth and death, religion and rituals must have been to ancient humans. No one knows how they transported these gigantic stones from far away to the site, and its hard to imagine the complete monument today when you see only a ruin from which stones have been taken away or that has degenerated with time.
It is, however, possible to feel the primal energy when you stand there next to Stonehenge. A sense of mystery and strength, of peace even, a dedication to the powers that be! This time, I had only an hour to see it, but it would be fun to return one day to this World Heritage Site and walk the entire landscape that includes Stonehenge, Avebury and surrounding areas.
The reconstruction of neolithic homes near the Visitor Centre really added value to the visit for me, as one could better imagine what life was like back then, bringing Stonehenge back from a monument of mystery to one that was used for specific purposes by real people!
Also, a mention must be made of how well the site and visitor flow is managed. I was surprised to know that the entire 6500 acres of the World Heritage Site is owned and managed by English Heritage or the National Trust and that even the land around is owned by the armed forces and other government agencies so that the disturbances to the site and the experiences are minimal! It is possible to walk for miles through fields and woods to explore important prehistoric sites.
There’s a lot of fascinating info about Stonehenge online, if you want to read more….