Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Bridge of the five arches..

The air wears the colours of autumn. I take a small diversion to walk to the beat of the crunch of crisp autumn leaves. Am pleased with the effect. We are thankful for the sun, Days like these a rarity in Autumn. Our mission to walk London has seen us discover many hidden treasures.  We follow the jagged course of this merry river , Cray - A tributary of Darent. Am still amazed at how close his beautiful walk into the heart of Footscray meadows is  from where we stay. The trail is busy with amblers.

We first catch sight of Cray but she soon meanders off and we need to walk around a bit to actually catch up with her, Her waters thick with floes of autumn leaves.  There is still a lot of green. But we can see the yellows and golds pushing through. Before long it will be winter.
Autumn never ceases to amaze me. I come from a country of two seasons - Summer and Winter , or rather Summer and mild summer :). The vegetation back home heavily deciduous, our trees let their leaves go every summer.  The festive colours of Autumn always holds me in a trance.

First sights of River Cray..
We don't think the river is very deep from where we stand. I tentatively touch the water. Its cold as expected. Just ahead a dog jumps in , in pursuit of a stick thrown by the owner. He doesn't seem to mind the cold and paddles back eager to resume the game.

Walking along..
Sun Kissed, and Autumn ravished the path stretches invitingly ahead to the accompaniment of a gentle breeze. Its beautiful. We walk into this rolling woodland, our pace gently and unhurried.

The path stretches ahead..

Markers of Autumn..

Walking along..

The Footscray meadows have long since been designated  as a nature reserve.  If I had known I would have got some bread along.  Slowly we see others of the more striking plumage, native to the habitat here- Swans, Coots, Gulls, Mallards and Moorhens.

We first discern black shapes. They are not blackbirds we decide. They seem too big and their beaks too bright. We later discover they are Moorhen. We cautiously approach as not to scare them away. They oblige and we get the pictures we are looking for.

A swan preens itself..

Not too far a swan preens itself , resplendent in the sun, the whites of its feathers bright and its beak beautiful in its orange, every movement full of grace. I know better from previous episodes along the Thames that these are birds not to be messed with and content myself with the pictures I get..

A swan sails gracefully past..

A mooorhen...
As we walk down the bridge of the five arches emerges into view, charming and quaint, sitting on the river fussed about by trees and birds and people along the banks.

The renovated structure of the Bridge of five arches..
First built in 1781, this structure was renovated later to what it stands today. We stand on the bridge and survey the flowing river. Do still waters really run deep? The river doesn't seem to give any aura of deception rather it seems plain faced and honest and content with the way things are going..
The Lake

The Local flora and fauna..

The bridge of the five arches..

A different view..
The view is beautiful. As always bridges seem to capture the drama of life. Rather they become a backdrop against which things are played out- people strolling, families happy in the moment, picknicking on the grass, owners with their dogs and dogs with their owners.
We watch as one sunny black lab looses sight of the stick that has been thrown into the water, trashes about wild and happy in the cold waters, refusing to give up chase. And so his owner in an attempt to get him out throws another one in. Very easily pleased he clambers out, with the trophy in his mouth, proud of himself and seeking approval from his master standing a little away from the bank.
I have to find that stick..

Dog days..
The bridge seems to divide the river in half, one lower than the other, Its waters cascading through the arches.
View of the waters from on top..

The waters cascade through the bridge...
Time flies when you are having a good time. We realize we have been standing here a while. Its a  gorgeous day, the sun still high. Under the cool shade of a neighboring tree we can feel the constant chill that seems to be hovering around London, banished only by the presence of a yellow sun. It wont last long we know.  Visions of a busy week momentarily surface and we remind ourselves that we can't linger on any longer and we walk back turning every now and then to catch sight of the bridge of five arches.

Monday, October 24, 2011

A walk to remember..

We have just had dinner. And no Sat is perfect without a walk. We hit the streets. We couldn't have chosen a better time or place. Summer ravished London, teeming with people, pubs overflowing at every turn, and the sun in no hurry to set. Its close to eight , but theres no way you can tell. Everybody wants to get that little extra bit if sunshine, store it away in memory, toast to its warmth, and revel in the little blessing sent by the weather gods. For who knows how these things might turn. Tomorrow it might go back to being grey, for such is London.

The  canal we pass on our way to London Fields
 London can surprise. There's a secret tucked away in every corner. Just because the locals know about it doesn't mean its not secret. Where else will you stop at a bridge and discover a beautiful canal, lined with pretty, colourful boats, sitting by themselves not bothered by who must pass. We explore. The setting is beautiful. The evening is crisp with a slightly mellow sun, the air is warm and the mood happy. We even jump onto one of the boats to take quick pictures only to be told off! :( They did let us take pictures though. As I watch am wishing I have my paints with me. My mind is on a mission to capture every detail, very aware of its own limitations . Cause memory is fickle!
London fields
I so love this city. Where else in the world can you find a green space in the middle of a sprawling metropolis. Where else can you find the old meeting the new the way it does here, not patronizingly but with all the knowledge that the world might pass over into different ways and its not entirely anyone else's doing. Where else can you find history, culture and heritage preserved in the most charming ways. Where else can you find something for every mood..
A game in progress..
A cricket match is in progress. The air smells of barbecues that are still going strong punctuated by the cheerful voices of scores of picnickers (don't know if this really is a word),and happy laughter . We saunter on , contented with how beautiful this day has turned out to be. And we wish for more of summer and more days like this

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Oxford, one weekend..

It was one of those rare weekends that had slipped through the sieve plan-less. So what does the forecast say I wonder . Sunny!
Everybody else has plans. London seems to be on an exodus to the coasts and other bright places spilling with the sun! This is going to be the last bank holiday for a long time yet. So we head out...
Its amazing how last minute plans work like a charm. Oxford is not too far off. Perfect for a one day excursion. So we catch the bus from Victoria in the morning and drive into this perfect university town...

First sights..
First sights, and am in love. The architecture is exquisite. Every building standing tall with its head in the sky. Clouds of impending grey hover around the horizon and the teasing sun seems to effortlessly slip through careless cracks in the canopy. We walk along Queen's street. The town comes alive as the sun is out. At the very end is Bonn Square, pretty and quaint. Named after the German city of Bonn, on the square stands Carfax tower. Am immediately drawn to the clock piece that adorns its face. Two tin soldiers stand attentive , as the keepers of time.
View from Carfax tower..
Inside the square we walk up a flight of circular stairs and from on top  we see Oxford spread out in front of us. In a distance is the circular grey dome of the Radcliffe camera, built in 1737 by James Gibbs and which houses the Radcliffe science library. We would around the library later in the day and stand amazing by the perfect symmetry. I read much later that the camera finds reference in popular culture and was refereed to by TRR Tolkein  as resembling Suron's temple to Mugroth and Numenor in the Lord of the Rings.  There are other buildings dotting the skyline , each distinct and beautiful , markers of the landscape here.
A different perspective..
The clock face..
After a quarter of an hour we find ourself walking through the many lanes, past Radcliffe camera and then we stop in front of something it seems we;ve seen before at another place , another time!
The Bridge of Sighs,  so named cause it resembles its more famous cousin in Venice and is a skyway over New college lane.  Its hard to spot the similarity unless told so minus the gondolas and the water and Venetien colour.
The bridge of sighs..
Turning into a narrow alley, we find ourselves in one of the oldest pubs here. The Turf Tavern , an education in intoxication reads the sign and we follow. Its a beautifully quaint place with exquisite chalk drawings on the outside. All that walking has made us hungry and we lunch here before heading out again
The Turf Tavern, one of the oldest pubs in Oxford...
The exquisite chalk drawing..
We walk down the street and ask for directions. Its still the season for punting and we would like to try our hand. We hire boats at the Magdalen River Boat House. We could punt by ourselves, looks simple enough. But we are not so sure and ask for a chauffeur.
Let the Punting begin..
We are on River Charwall, a tributary of the Thames.  It has the same green serene waters that we saw in Redding. Once built for angling , a punt is nothing more than a small flat bottomed boat, propelled by a long pole by pushing it against the river bed. We ask for a quick lesson. And we are told theres nothing much to learn. The pole doubles up as a rudder and S tries his hand.
That look of concentration..
We go past the beautiful Botanic gardens and Christ college meadows. The river gets busy. The setting is beautiful and was the inspiration for Lewis Carrol's Through the Looking Glass. We pass the Magdelene college tower.
The very beautiful bridge..
Watching scores of rowers punt..
The market square..
Happy after all the sun and punt, we take the road across and take a walk inside one of the oxford colleges. Its so incredibly pretty. Its spring everywhere and everything is green and young and full of life. We sit here a while. The sun is setting and it gets a little chilly.
A piece of history, walking inside one of the university campuses..

We decide to head back safe in the knowledge that Oxford is only an hour away..! I would never have known

 Meena Venkataraman

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Watching a champion play..

Did we know then? That we were watching a champion play? No ..We didn't!
It was a beautiful summers day and we were at Wimbeldon, my first time here... It was exciting!.. It was strawberries and cream on a warm afternoon, it was sipping on wine from plastic cups, it was green and purple , it was the light drizzle and the overhanging optimisim of resume of play, it was the cheering heard right outside as we queued to get in, it was watching the scoreboards on center court as we sat in ours... it was the GRASS! And then we watched Kvitova play. It was the second of the three matches we watched that day, and all we thought was great serve!..
Its amazing how loyalties are forged in the space of an afternoon. Two weeks later I found myself cheering with all the enthusiasm of a seasoned fan as I watched her play Sharapova in the final!... .. We really had no idea that we had watched a champion play!

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Canoeing the Thames one short-lived beautiful Summer...

The forecast says rain. We sit discussing the bleak prediction, just arrived and seated on our train seats. Reading is a good hour away. We get aquatinted. Of the five people am going to spend the next two days with I know only one :). Everyone is lovely. I finish my coffee and settle back in my seat. The scenery outside is beautiful. Am a little nervous. Most in this group have some sort of rowing experience. Actually thats an understatement. Two were rowing as part of teams in Oxford and one owns a boat. Am hoping am not the one who is going to slow the rest down :). The plan is to paddle along a section of the Thames starting at Reading, camp overnight and paddle back.

Collecting out canoes..
We get to Reading. The boat hire is a short drive away. We get off and get to see our canoes. Canadian Canoes are much more stable and much bigger than regular canoes. We decide to go 3 to one boat and 2 to the other. The river is beautiful, wonderfully green but in stark contrast to the spring colours all around. Its sunny, a little cold just to remind us that we are in a part of the world where the sun holds little sway..

As we watch couple of geese swim past. The gooslings look adorable. They swim close in the little after waves created by their mum and dad.
We are off..
Bouancy aids on, we load our bags onto the boats.  I sling my camera around my neck. We are ready to leave. We gently paddle along. The boat moves. I am amazed, only because I half expected it would require something more drastic. As we progress the others explain the mechanics of good rowing. I enjoy the lesson.
We keep rowing. This scenic stretch of the Thames is breathtakingly beautiful.  We watch owners walk their dogs. Unlike the dogs I've seen these ones don't seem too scared about the water. They jump in and frolic about, splashing , gently wagging their tails. Its a happy sight to watch. The owners don't seem to concerned either. Am enjoying the relaxed pace of river life as I let my thoughts wander. Dogs are so similar to people. The ones I knew back home were always scared of the water totally at odds with the ones here who seem to welcome it. Am guessing like human beings they are probably natural swimmers , but those that don't really swim loose the ability to take to the water . Here in the west most people know to swim and have been doing so since they were kids. As opposed to most of us from a country like India made even more complex by cultural and social norms. Very strangely my grandmother back home is a natural swimmer, having lived by the river as a child, it was in its waters in the town of Tirunelveli  that she grew up.
I love the water, and I know to swim..yaaaay!
Our passage along these waters is marked by locks. We get to our first one. Locks were first built during the middle-ages to regulate the flow of water into water mills. They number about 45 and the one we are at is closed at the moment. We wait out turn.  The gates gently open and we row into the lock. They close behind us. We hold on to the chains on the sides. The water level gently decreases. Once the level is on par with the stretch of river on the other side we stop moving down. The gates on the other side open and we row out. Its beautiful and terribly exciting.
The first Lock..

We wait our turn for the gates to open..

We are in.. The water level gently decreases..

And we oar ourselves out..
We paddle on.  All the activity and fresh air makes us hungry. We stop and picnic on the river before continuing upwards,
We paddle along..
Along the Thames are other boats. I assume they belong to come of the people who live in the houses along the banks. Some of these places even seem to have some sort of boat park (if there was such a word) attached.
The willows weep with their hair about their faces.s.. Virginia Wolfe..
As always am drawn to the sight of the weeping willows sitting along the banks.  Birds abound. Am thinking of Virginia Wolfe and what she said about these beautiful willows, sweeping with their hair about their faces..
A gosling sails past..
More birds float effortlessly past : Canadian Geese, Swans, Mallards,  an odd Cormorant here and there.. Dogs run along the banks. All our conversation now centers around the river and its waters. A friend speaks of her experience of getting in the way of a territorial swan when she was out rowing in Oxford. Swans are known to charge people, the full length of their wings spread out.. They can easily break an arm, she says. As if to affirm what she says two swans fly past. They are powerful birds in the air. Having seen them, I don't doubt what she says.  A little later we would swim a little close to one of them by accident. The swan tries to move closer to the bank. But on the other side there are two beautiful labradors who in their usual friendly way edge closer to the waters wagging their tails. The swan put its wings up slightly and hissed (am not joking) . It wasn't a pretty sight.  Alarmed we desperately tried to get away from the aggressive bird. This time we were rather lucky I should say! But it was a lesson about the river and its other beautiful people..
More dogs...
We reach our second lock and we are in for a treat. Some people are so great at organization , that they manage to pull of the incredible even when all we have is a little boat...
And so we are treated to cream teas!.. Well I did not really know what a cream tea was before we moved here and in my imagination I imagined tea with a big blob of cream on it.. (Yuck!). It was not quite what I had imagined. A cream tea is a divine creation, A scone with jam and some clotted cream on it... Totally delicious! After all that rowing we definitely need the sugar.
We break...
We paddle on. Whats most amazing is seeing birds nest. We row past a coot sitting on its little home, an elevated mound of twigs and leaves right by the river banks. Its an amazing sight.
A well concealed nest..
We see more birds. Theres not a cloud in sight. We couldn't have been more lucky. We are hoping the weather lasts. The sun it truly out for us

Finally we get to the point where we are about to break for lunch, the beautiful town of Henley upon Thames. We meet family . The spread is amazing. At a distance we can see the fiver arched bridge, the most famous structure standing on this stretch of the river.

Henley is historic. Located strategically upon the Thames its port supplied London with timber and grain. The 17th and 18th centure marked a period of wealth and prosperity and Henley found itself becoming a thriving business hub.

A mallard with her little duckling..
From where we picnic we can see the famous bridge of five arches and the church of St Mary in the background. We dont have enough time to visit the bustling market square.
The church of St Mary in the background...
Henley plays host to the annual Royal Regatta which sees some of the world's finest rowers compete on these waters.
Rowing past the five arched bridge..
Lunch done we set off once again and for the first time I see a black swan. Its a beautiful bird, the black plumage in striking contrast to its red bills.  They are supposedly found in Australia and were once found in New Zealand. Unfortunately driven to extinction in the later, they were reintroduced. They do find mention in cultural references and are featured on the flag of Western Australia.
A black swan..
The river is full of life. Birds and broods swim by, and attentive parents don't take lightly to boats in their way. Some of the little ones are so cute. They seem to stay close and are rather well behaved for kids of their age..
The river is full of life..
We paddle along a rather busy section of the river. The waters get swifter. We struggle to keep control. Theres a bit when we actually find ourselves at the very center where the current is strongest and we struggle to get back to the sides which are safer. We start counting down to synchronize rowing and it works. We are at Hurley Lock, our campsite for the night - Phew!.. we survived!
Our Campsite..
Dinner is a fleeting affair. We are glad to call it a day. :)
More ducklings..
The next morning , am desperate for some hot tea. Unfortunately the pubs are not open this early.  Outside everyone else is up and about. We watch a few ducklings from close quarters. They are beautiful. Am sure they are going to be beautiful birds!
A church by the river..
We leave Hurley and paddle on. There are more interesting sights along the river. What I like best is that inspite of all the houses I see along the banks the river has still retained its character. In facts life has integrated itself beautifully with the running waters
Feeding swans..
The second day sees a smaller stretch covered. We are almost there. Its near afternoon.

Nearly there..
Back in Reading, we celebrate with champagne and coke and toast the bride to be! Its a lovely sunny day and we stretch out sore legs and sore arms and relax a bit. Our boats are to be left here in the park and will be collected later by the company.

Its been a wonderful two days and am in love with the Thames. Its a beautiful river brimming with history and bursting with character. I really do hope I get to see more towns and cities along her banks.

Meena Venkataraman


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