Nov 11, 2005

Day 3 : Conqueror’s spoils

My sprain had gone completely by this time and I woke up to a colder and gray day, with just the pleasant fatigue from the previous days walking. I had eaten pots of CC’s dal the previous day and had as usual had a fitful sleep.

Deciding to save the walk for later and caught a cab to the tower bridge first. Walked the length of the bridge, taking in the ambiance admiring the few modern buildings visible on the banks, including the (colorfully nicknamed) swiss re building. SR waved from near the beginning of the bridge and took pictures of me. Pedestrians stopped with an indulgent smile on their face. What day was it? Must be Thursday or Friday going by the smiles.

There were hardly any tourists near the tower of London. The tower is more than a thousand years old, atleast some parts of it. It boasts of royal prisoners and beheadings. The chapel at the white tower, with it’s simple and elegant carvings, the piers and the arches above, was quite enchanting. It had a certain brooding quality about it. Most of all I was impressed with the reconstructions. How much of research must have gone into putting together what seemed like a simple fireplace in King Edward’s room. There were information panels about the constructions methods from various centuries. For a moment I could almost see a maid cleaning the room hurriedly before the King arrived. The huge iron chandelier and the beautiful shape and ceiling of that chamber in the Wakefield tower is still fresh in my mind. The steps were invariably narrow, low and winding. Was it a manner of defense? I was walking in the open, looking up at the towers and mentally comparing the architecture from south India, trying to remember buildings from the period of Rajendra Chola or Vijayanagar, when AS pointed with excitement the way to see the crown jewels.

There was a brief show on the gunpowder plot, (Guy Fawkes day was around the corner) which I watched for a few minutes, intrigued by the way they were drawing parallels and finishing it with how terrorism was always abominable. Then I moved around watching scepters and crowns and assorted jewels in glass cubes. This was the koh-i-nur? I would rather India gets monetary equivalent than this back. Nowhere did it say that it was only a model, which I was sure it was, nevertheless, it sat very ordinarily atop the crown and I doubted the original looked any better.

London eye was the next in the list, SR led the way to a recreation ferry. Twenty minutes later, I found myself on a riverboat cruise on the Thames. Gray clouds hung low, breeze blew cold. I sat on a chair, rubbing my hands, watching the umpteen bridges across Thames and the buildings along the bank. I had somehow had this quite silly idea that there were only a few bridges. And here I was crossing so many – London Bridge, Waterloo, Westminster, Millennium Bridge… There were so many stately buildings and a few statues along the way. London is a vibrant modern city but the history and heritage seeps through. It was so easy to imagine how it would have been a few hundred years ago for example. After a while, when it started drizzling, I went below to see SR and AS enjoying coffee by the bay windows. I got myself a hot chocolate, leaned near a door, trying to get myself a bit warmer.

What can I say about the London eye except that its a giant wheel. The best part of course is that it moves slowly so you get to see various landmarks. I shelled out four pounds to get a map that pointed out buildings. Higher perspective is always spectacular, one doesn’t feel dwarfed.

Planning the trip outside London was mine but inside it was whatever AS and SS had in mind. I proposed British museum but was again voted down in favor of Hyde Park. With St.James Park in my mind, I agreed with some enthusiasm, got down at Marble Arch and walked into Hyde Park. John Nash designed this monument, I read. I wasnt familiar with John Nash and I had heard the name a few times already. I made a mental note to look him up.

SS was most interested in seeing the Speakers’ corner. As we entered a busload of Japanese tourists arrived and one enthusiastic young woman bounded up to uniformed gentleman and asked where the speakers corner was. “This is it”, he replied. The look on her face was priceless. The stress is on the speaker not the corner, I smiled to myself. SS shrugged and moved on.
We walked the length of Hyde Park towards the other end after spending a few minutes by the lake. SR and SS went for a long walk, laughing and jogging. AS was cold, I was terrified of dogs, so we declined to join and sat near a cafe. Hyde Park was disappointing in some ways. Perhaps because I had imagined it with more trees.

Next stop was Piccadilly – named after a frilly collar – circus. I got out of the tube station and walked up the stairs to the statue of Eros looming up. I was suddenly in the middle of a busy, crowded area full of locals, tourists, billboards and electronic displays. After two days, it was the first time I felt like being in a major metropolis. I walked a bit window shopping and drinking in the ambiance. A delicious soup in Eats, eaten lazily was the highpoint of the evening until then.

British museum at last. I was lucky again since it was open for extended hours that day. Though by now I had seen many impressive buildings, I couldnt stop being awed by the front elevation of the museum. Clearly it was an ocean and I wasnt even going to get a chance to wet my feet given my short visit.

The Brits have been everywhere. I came again and again across captions, which implied the object was brought to the UK by someone many years ago, as opposed to being bought. Wherever you are from, you’d find something to fascinate you. I wandered to the Indian section (a 12th century Nataraja!), paused in the African collection, gazed at the wonderful collections of the Islamic section and came upon the Rosetta stone, key to the Egyptian scripts. How much research this stone must have spawned. ‘Universal Translator’, I murmured, scanning the black stone. Someone decides to make an announcement in all three important languages, decides to put it in stone not just papyrus, the stone somehow survives despite being broken and many centuries later the French soldiers who find it realize it is something to be preserved. I wondered how many more such stone inscriptions are hidden.

I felt a bit drained and overwhelmed after walking about for a couple of hours and realized I was wandering rather aimlessly and had arrived back at the staircase to the handsome man, all set to throw his discus. I sat down on a chair near the cafe, my mind strangely blank. A clear case of information overload. A little while later, I spotted AS in the gift shop and SR a little away talking animatedly to a gray haired lady. I stood up deciding to call it a day.

Before retiring for the night, we decided that we should stick to our original plan of starting on the road trip the next day. Despite the enjoyment I was more than ready to leave London. I went to bed – all the places I visited an incoherent jumble in my dreams.

November 11, 2005