The mysticism of the past: Visiting Stonehenge
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….
Southwark through a local’s eye: A walk along the Thames in #London
I’ve anticipated this London trip for so long and yet have had little time to plan an itinerary. A work trip for the most part, I knew my touristic experiences would need to be squeezed in. I’ve opted to live with a friend, someone I’ve known since college and so, by default, I’ve been let into her little world. I let her lead me through her neighbourhood on my first day in what locals consider “the greatest and most beautiful capital city in the world”!
We started our stroll with a visit to her local square. Kids kicked a football around, a few stalls were selling trinkets and toys. The residential neighbourhoods we walked past were still and sleepy. A dog barked at us, a baby gurgles, the locals stood out in the sun in bunches, satiated with pints of beer and lazy lunches.
My friend lives in the London Borough of Southwark, south of the Thames and close to the London Bridge. And our walk took us river-ward. An area with Roman origins, the riverfront we walked onto is rich with wharfs and restored warehouses. On a surprisingly sunny yet balmy Saturday afternoon, the place had a zippy, young feel to it. Families out with their children, friends catching a drink at the pubs and restaurants that lined the Thames, that sort of thing.
The sun lit up the Thames and the famous landmarks that were spotted out to me dazzled and shone. The Tower Bridge, of course, the City Hall designed by Norman Foster and, as my friend put it, a miniature of the Bundestag Dome we saw in Berlin, and the HMS Belfast right there in the centre of the river. We walked across and around the Tower of London where, along with the swarms of tourists, the sea of ceramic poppies greeted us, a recently installed commemoration of the World War I in its centenary year.
A surprising detour through the upmarket St Katherine Docks where the Queen’s gilded boat rests and where I was amused to see The Dickens Inn, rebuilt in the style of a 17th century timber-framed building and apparently inaugurated by the famous writer’s grandson. That the author spent a part of his life in this part of London is well-known but it was had to reconcile the images of Dickensian London in my head with the extensively redeveloped swank sights before me!
And thus, after being introduced to this delightful part of London, I dragged my jet-lagged self back at last night, happily tired and looking forward to more good times here!
Do the new cities being proposed for the UK spell an opportunity to rethink city design?
I’ve been following UK’s housing crisis with a lot of interest. Without knowing a lot about the history and political context of the housing industry in that country, it amazes me to read the stories coming out about homelessness, huge shortage of units and now, the idea of building new ‘garden cities’ to solve the problems (read about it here). With housing production at an all-time low and the industry being declared incapable of meeting demand, prominent people have been advocating for changes in the planning norms to allow a slew of new cities to be built in what former BBC Chairman Michael Lyons (who has been given the task of drafting a plan for more homes by the Labour party) calls post-war spirit (read here)!
Of course it is logical and of course, greenfield developments have the power to jump start the economy and of course, this means an opportunity for a new kind of thinking about cities. With all the analysis and knowledge, all the criticism out there (some days my head spins with the number of media articles analyzing cities) about what has gone wrong with the cities we have built over the last couple of centuries in the Global North and the Global South, I’m looking forward excitedly to what will be proposed as the model for these new urban entities.
I hope they will not be boring replicas of what we already have. I look forward to at least some space for a new architectural language. More public spaces, more walkable and cycle-able networks, a lower carbon footprint, an exploration of cutting edge research on high-density, sustainable urbanism. There is a long wishlist out there. I know all of it cannot be achieved, but some of it certainly can and it would be fitting for the UK to show the way ahead in doing so.