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The International Writers Magazine:UK Tours

Bachelor Weekends
Rama Vama

It was 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.
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.

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 have generated.

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.
As 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?
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.

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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