International Writers Magazine:UK
Henley is the fairer
cousin of Marlow. The shops are chic, the women elegant, the river wide
and sinuous, the tea rooms expensive, the accents straight out of Yes
Minister. Get on the mobile to the friend who is always showing off his
handy-cam. Let him take a few clever shots of the stone bridge and cobbled
streets avoiding the cars and street signs; the weeping willows lowering
their tresses into the Thames; the men in their coat tails and women in
their dainty hats from the wedding party at the church - throw these together
with a bit of Mozart or Bach and lo, you have a BBC costume drama for
9 'o' clock next Sunday.
one of those weekends when you wake up with memories of angry surf
lashing the shingle and gulls clacking and careening beside the
cliffs. I was going to walk at Bournemouth, but halfway to Maidenhead
station, my feet were dragging. I couldn't bear the agony of changing
three trains - at Reading, Basingstoke and Southampton. I came back
cursing the Maidenhead trains. A Google search brought up Henley
on Thames, only 6 miles away, as a good candidate for a walk.
The footpath to Shiplake skirts the river for a couple of miles and then
strikes inland, past the rambling gardens of country houses. In one of
these, there is a complete model railway line, signaling systems and stone
bridges. The pastime of some eccentric millionaire. Shiplake itself is
just another leafy, pleasantly boring suburb with a quiet railway station.
Here, in a deserted avenue of chestnuts and oaks, the sun came out abruptly,
engulfing the bowers and browning leaves in flame. The solemn silence
was punctuated by the warbling of an unseen minstrel, his sonorous notes
swelling and echoing as in a cathedral. Reverently, I stood wondering
what grand design had brought me there.
The footpath skirts the river for a while and then continues over a footbridge
which spans the lock at odd angles; at a certain point, you are looking
directly over a boisterous cascade of icy cold water. A gaggle of no less
boisterous lads was prodding the water with fishing lines. One was triumphantly
displaying his catch. Another one, brandishing his fish-hook, said, "Hi",
with an expression that demanded a return greeting.
"Hi," I countered in a tone intended to strike the right balance
between meekness and belligerence; a non-committal Hi, which should, under
close scrutiny, reveal a hidden menace and allay any thoughts of mischief.
These kids are unnerving - Arnold Schwarzenegger might have quaked in
his leather boots. My barbed Hi seemed to have its intended effect; as
I glanced back, there was no sign of any interest that my arrival might
That evening, I did some serious thinking. Henley was fine, but I had
at most 4 weeks of bachelorhood left, so I had to make the most of it.
On the AONB (Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty) map of Britain, the
green areas indicate the AONBs. The nearest coastal AONB was the Chichester
Harbour. Although the site describes the landscape in gushing terms, it
is slightly less informative on how a South Indian man, early thirties,
temporarily single, in a Peugeot 206 got there. I keyed in Chichester
into Alamelu's input box and I got a wide selection of streets. "Harbour
Way" sounded promising - what could it be but the way to Chichester
Harbour resplendent in the autumn sun?
I duly set course for "Harbour Way" and Alamelu, my satnav,
assured me that provided I listened, I would be there by 12:00. Alamelu
takes a while to get ready, but once she starts up, she nags until you
get there. You have to bear in mind, though, that when she says "turn
left", she is referring to the next major left, not the one you may
be just about to pass. At one point, I turned off abruptly, only to end
up in front of a golf course. The only other occasion she let me down
was when I got stuck on the M25 and she went off to sleep. When I hit
the M4, she suddenly woke up and frantically belted out directions.
The road-works on the A3 were frustrating and I was looking for a place
to stop. I had been climbing steadily for a while and on my right was
a deep, wooded valley. As I lowered the window, the fresh, clear air brought
with it a scent of pines. The National Trust Cafe came up on the right
and I turned into the car park. Through a gap in the trees, I could see
a footpath plunging down the valley, where mist gathers on frosty October
mornings. Hence the name Devil' Punch Bowl.
Sunlight dripped into the mossy wood and spilled on the carpet of pine
needles. The slight indisposition that I had felt in the morning evaporated
like a wisp of mist. After a brisk trot down the valley and back up to
the cafe, I tucked into a toasted and generously buttered tea cake.
Every few minutes during the drive towards Chichester, I wanted to stop.
The rain-washed road wound through picture-perfect meadows full of meditative
cows and velvet green valleys, stone houses with window-boxed filled with
dahlias, church spires peeping through maples. I was nearly at my destination,
but I was yet to see a sea gull. The road signs told me I was in Chidham
and Alamelu announced Harbour Way was coming up on the left. I was on
a single track road leading to a marsh, where a pair of geese sleepily
watched the car. Some wretched ex-mariner had named his little private
road "Harbour Way", so there I was, in the middle of nowhere,
clueless as to the whereabouts of Chichester Harbour.
If it hadn't been for
my walk at the Devil's Punch Bowl, I would have been extremely annoyed,
but as it was, I merely brushed aside this minor setback to my plans.
Returning to the car, I checked under the seats to make sure the Devil
hadn't managed to sneak in, urging me on more fool's errands. I then sweet-talked
a sulking Alamelu into giving me the directions to Bognor Regis, which
was only 10 minutes away. Within half an hour, I was on the shingle beach,
munching a Subway sandwich, lingering at the entrance to Gypsy Lee's palmistry
hut, wondering what the future held in store. I did not linger long, in
case she asked me in and charged me £10 for the privilege.
I drove away, Alamelu urged me to execute a three-point-turn. Telling
her to shut up, I drove towards Chichester. Chichester has a cathedral
and the remains of a Roman palace, amongst other attractions, but
as a sales girl in a bookshop kindly informed me, Chichester harbour
is not really in Chichester. She did not know where Chichester harbour
was, or why it had got that name. In her opinion, the man who named
it Chichester harbour was batty. It had to be a man, hadn't it?
Like any town centre in Britain, Bognor Regis on a Sunday afternoon is
a cheerless place. The town clock had a despondent look. Shops closed,
the sales staff made calls on mobiles, the footfalls of the shoppers echoed
in the empty side-streets as they hastened towards their cars. The town
centre was bracing itself for its evening visitors - the skateboarding
gymnasts, the Turner-prize hopefuls practicing their graffiti, the yobs
flaunting their gold chains and beer cans. So, under the able guidance
of Alamelu, I turned the steed home.
It was only 4:30 and as I drove on listening to Rashid Khan mourning in
Madhuwanti, my restlessness grew. Half an hour later, I saw the signs
to Petworth Park and braked sharply, drawing a load of expletives from
the driver behind. A few minutes in Petworth Park would have sufficed
to smooth his ruffled feathers, but sadly he drove away. Turner has painted
many pictures of these gentle rolling hills, where herds of tame deer
graze and look curiously at walkers.
On the M25, I was dreaming of a simple, hot sambar, yoghurt and rice,
so I made straight for Chander's shop. It was only 7:15. I selected from
the shelves lemon, lentil soup, leeks and courgettes, each carefully chosen
to reduce cooking time. Within 15 minutes, sambar was bubbling away at
one of the stoves and vegetable pulav on the other. To the horror of purists,
instead of boiling dal, I emptied the lentil soup into the pan along with
the leeks and courgettes, garnished it with mint instead of coriander,
substituted lemon for tamarind. Exactly as I wanted it - tangy, hot, sublime!
Finally, I propped up my feet, lazily picking out peach slices from a
can of syrup, dreaming of the next bachelor weekend.
© Rama Varma. October 2007
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