Sunday, December 25, 2011

Country Cousin in London: Part II

I stayed at Harrow-on-the-Hill. This place is almost like a mini-India, with Indians or those of Indian origin abounding in all hues, shapes and sizes. It is quite a bustling area during the day, with a busy mall, plenty of bakeries, cafes, restaurants dotting the place.

However, it is difficult to identify it as the same place in the evenings, after dark. And I do mean that literally. On my first day, I returned from office at around 8.30 pm – early by my standards in India. Guess what I found. The place was almost shut down, with only a few eateries open and I was told that even those would close in a while. Seriously, you gotta be kidding me. And the roads were practically deserted. The short walk to my hotel felt like an eternity. I was kind of freaked out by how there was almost no one out and I constantly felt apprehensive, as if someone would leap out of the shadows and mug me. Call me paranoid if you will but in a new city if you are walking down an area at barely 8.30 in the evening and find it deserted, I think you are entitled to feel a little uncomfortable. I had initially thought that maybe it was a winter phenomenon but I was told later by a friend who was there in summer that it was not.

So, you would understand if I felt wary of returning to the area after dark by myself. So, even when I went out for sightseeing, I tried to be back by six-ish . Maybe if I make the next trip in summer, it wouldn’t be as bad.

Anyway, back to all my doings in the city.  Sunday was my last day in London. I was taking the 10 o’clock flight next morning to return home.

Going by my previous day’s experience I knew that I would have plenty of walking to do today also and it would be unrealistic to think that I could cover too many places. So, I had to plan. I could either do the Museum circuit or try the National Gallery and Trafalgar Square or do some shopping at Oxford Street. Well, I decided in favour of starting the day at National Gallery.

It was another blisteringly cold day but I thought I was well covered. There was only one small hitch. The gloves. Well, you see, I was wearing these woollen gloves, which were great for protection from cold but made my fingers thick, clumsy and unfamiliar. Result: I could either take photographs or I could keep my hands warm.

This was not so much of a problem at the National Gallery. You are not allowed to take snaps. Problem solved.

National Gallery, London
The entry to the Gallery is free, though visitors are encouraged to voluntary donate any amount they want to the museum. I thought it was a very nice system and wondered why we could not try something similar back home. The Da Vinci section, however, required tickets and only a pre-decided number of visitors were allowed in a single day. Unfortunately for me, the tickets were sold out for the day. Regardless, I was fascinated by all the art that I did see. The Biblical theme was predominant with Christ, Mary, the Apostles and Parables portrayed in so many different moods. Bold colours, vibrant strokes somehow made even the most austere of moments seem pagan.

And then there were some which were unabashed in their sensuality. Delilah betraying Samson or Venus seducing Mars. There were moments of quiet contemplation too. A perplexed gaze looking out of a window or visions in dreams. Stern, family portraits of royalty and nobility – the kings and princes, the ladies and their corpulent husbands, noble children trussed up and made to sit still for the paintings. They were all there. I wanted to sit and stare at some of them for hours but time was a luxury that I didn’t have.

Plus, my feet were killing me again. But there was no help, I had not even gone out to the Square yet.

So, I walked down first to the Gallery shop and bought postcards of beautiful paintings, sternly lectured myself against buying something totally beautiful and extravagant like a deck of playing cards with Van Gogh’s Sunflowers printed on their back. I still think about them.

Christmas Tree at Trafalgar Square
Countdown to the Olympics
I walked out to the Trafalgar Square and found that the sun which had peeked in the morning had gone AWOL again. Yet, that didn’t quite dim my excitement. Here I was. At Trafalgar Square. There was a huge Christmas tree, which was a gift from Norway to Britain. A clock showing the countdown to London Olympics. Families with squealing kids enjoying a Sunday outside. Tourists too. Like me. I wanted to sit here and soak in the atmosphere. This famous place. And here I was.

Trafalgar Square
You could also take the Jubilee walkway from this point. It was a pathway designed to commemorate the Queen’s silver jubilee in year 1977. I started to walk along it but I couldn’t keep up. The cold and the fatigue were catching up with me fast and I still wanted to visit Oxford Street.

I alighted at Oxford Circus and stepped out into an almost enchanted place. There were lovely Christmas decorations all over the place. The streets were bustling with revelry and shoppers. I got hailed by a random someone who claimed to work in a fashion house and complimented my coat. Well, thank you very much. That is all I could say even as it all felt quite surreal.

I roamed around the streets, walked into a few shops. Looked at some very quirky and colourful merchandise. Animal shaped clothes pegs and dish holders. Collapsible dresses and rings the size of two fingers.

There were lights stringed across the roads. Santa and sleigh cut-outs smiling merrily at you. All it needed was white snowflakes drifting slowly to the ground to turn the enchanting into magical.

When I boarded my flight next day, I felt happy to be returning but I also left a wish behind. To come back again. Do all that I could not do this time. And somehow I had this feeling that I would be back. Amen.


  1. Of course you'll be back!

    I love London. Absolutely adore it. But this everything-shuts-down-by-6pm syndrome is not characteristic of London alone. It's true all over UK and Australia as well. Can't tell you how frustrating it is. And we crib about the lack of customer service in India! At least shops, cafes & restaurants are open till 9-10pm, so you can at least buy stuff after office hours.

    Harrow gets deserted after dark but it's pretty safe I've heard.

  2. @ Scarlett: I am sure it is pretty safe too but you know how it is. New and unfamiliar place et al. :-)