Thursday, May 28, 2015

You say you’ve seen England? I say not!

I had the great opportunity of living in London for eight years. My residence was right in the centre of London, near Oxford Street – the world famous shopping district. 

I used to love observing tourists and travellers from my apartment window, especially the filthy rich people coming from across the world in their private chauffeured limousines, and the lovely women in mink coats getting off to shop at Selfridges or John Lewis, especially during Christmas.

When I first arrived in London, I expected people around me to be hoity-toity, but I found the English to be very down to earth. The English are known for having a stiff upper lip; they always try to spare other people’s feelings and sometimes their conversation borders on vague ambiguity. When you hear your bosses say something like,

“I might…perhaps… would like to… have a word with you… call me… when you can spare some time”, it means that he is mighty cross with you and it is time to put your defences up.

I started feeling at home in a matter of days. This post is not about London per se. It is about my experiences in and around London. This is by no means a routine travel blog either. England has a lot to offer in terms of nature, food, entertainment and so on.


England is to be seen for its countryside rather than its main city, London. London and its outskirts are well-knit by a systematic public transport and it is easy to get out of the main city without owning a vehicle of your own.

If you are a nature-buff like me, then you should be glad to know that there is no dearth of walking or cycling routes.

There are quite a few paths and ways one can take up, such as The Windsor Walk, which starts from the Windsor village and leads to King George V’s statue. UK’s shortest street, Queen Charlotte’s street, is located in Windsor village.

Photo: Supriya Arcot

There is an Italian-style villa in Regent’s Park, also called the Little Italy of London. The lake there runs a mini gondola service.

Photo: Supriya Arcot

The Cumbria Way, which is inside the lake district and the peak district, offer the most scenic routes for walking, cycling and camping holidays. They were among the first of my walking routes. Out of the 70 miles of the Cumbria Way, I managed to cover nearly 40 miles over a weekend.

Photo: Supriya Arcot

The scenery is so lovely that you will not feel any fatigue when, at the end of the day, you have walked for 15 or more miles with a heavy knapsack on your back. I think it is because of the cooler climate as compared to that of the subcontinent.

Apart from that, many good books are available in the local libraries, illustrating walks and cycling maps catering to all types for the entire family; for instance, easier routes for senior citizens or a strenuous terrain for adults. They also have walking paths inside the city covering ancient and important monuments. The walking guide is only too happy to impart extra knowledge.

In each village there are houses catering to bed and breakfast. They charge a menial amount to deliver your luggage to your next destination. When you finish your walk, which can range from five miles to 50 miles in a day, at the end of your walk, your luggage is already at your new B-and-B (bed and breakfast) in the next village.

Self-catering cottages are also popular, but I would advise you to taste the local cuisine. Mashed potatoes and boiled cabbage, also known as bubble and squeak, is a popular English breakfast and it remains so even after the appearance of McDonalds at every nook and corner.

The pubs in these villages shut down quite early. If you arrive late at your destination village, be warned (and go prepared) as many B-and-Bs do not cater for dinner. But if you are lucky enough, and late enough, you might be invited to dine with some warm English hosts.

During our walks and stays at the B-and-Bs, we met quite a few individuals who could trace their ancestry back to the subcontinent. Old, faded black and white photographs of their grandparents adorned their living rooms. They were full of tales they heard through their ayahs and cooks, in places like Shimla or Ooty. You could spend innumerable evenings chatting with your hosts about the common places you both have visited in the subcontinent.

Many tourists are liberal with their tips and tricks they have managed to learn over time. A tip I got from one such host was to tie some spices such as, cardamom, cinnamon sticks and aniseeds in a thin muslin cloth and keep it along with your duvets and thick covers when you put your winter clothes away. Since the clothes remain inside our wardrobe for over six months till the next winter season, these spices will naturally repel insects and worms and the thick coats and duvets remain fresh.

It is common to see women zealously guarding their family recipes of apricot chutney or fig curry which has been handed down over generations. It is a privilege to be shown decade’s old recipe books by your host, all yellowed and dog-eared, as it makes one feel like you are privy to some secret documents.

The village road in Cotswold

Chancing upon cottages which date back to the 12th century is very common. Needless to say, they are renovated every few years, but still maintain their original design with high ceilings, wooden beams and thatched roofs.

Photo: Supriya Arcot

Cottages with blue plaques attached to their front doors signify their historic importance. One day, we were clicking pictures of a roadside picturesque cottage, and while doing so we were told that this was where the wet nurse of King Edward spent her childhood before the well-endowed young woman was whisked off to London on ‘Royal Duty’. Suddenly the humble cottage gained significance in our eyes.

Many village stores can be seen promoting local produce such as honey, lavender and the likes. I must say after using honey wax, it is the best moisturiser.

Photo: Supriya Arcot

A final word of caution for the would-be walkers, cyclists, campers, and star-gazers in this region, before I move on to the next subject, you are better off taking something to munch on and drink. You will not see a restaurant or a vending machine for hours and miles ahead.

So if you are fatigued, hungry and thirsty, then your co-walkers or co-cyclists are your only hope. The walking manuals can be deceptive. Sometimes you get to read simple and motivating lines such as,

“Keep walking straight till you reach the next farm”.

And the straight walk turns out to be five miles.

Another attraction in this region is the sheep breeding farm in Cotswold. Our guide told us that there are 55 sheep for every single adult in that region. Its wool is used for more high-end luxurious products. I did manage to buy a small hand knitted money purse for a number of pounds going well into three digits.

Photo: Supriya Arcot

An ostrich farm

Photo: Supriya Arcot

One gets to see many animal and bird-breeding farms on the way. Chancing upon a pony or ostrich farm is all too common.

I saw my first llama while doing the Chiltern’s walk which is close by to London. I thought it was a very tall sheep until the host explained the species to us. Many farms cater to educational classes and you can see a group of children staying for a week in a pony farm trying to learn to ride ponies, which is if and when they get time from giggling or clicking pictures.

Photo: Supriya Arcot


England, like most developed or developing countries, is a very tolerant country. It has imbibed words, cuisines and fashions from various cultures into its mainstream over a period of years. Like most things about England, which do not give you a culture shock when you first arrive from the subcontinent, has a familiar ring and you take to it immediately.

Curry is the national dish of England. Need more be said on this issue? The supermarkets are flooded with brands offering the one-and-only ‘authentic’ curry paste.

The typical English breakfast is super delicious and consists of boiled, scrambled, poached or fried eggs, depending on how calorie conscious you are and toast, mushrooms, tomatoes, beans  and potatoes with fresh orange juice on the side.

The English like their coffee black. I like filtered coffee with fresh ground beans with a bit of boiled milk and plenty of sugar. The restaurants, pubs, B-and-Bs are very accommodating if you ask them to give you boiled milk in place of milk sachets to add to your coffee.

Many pubs offer traditional Sunday roast lunches. You can walk into any English restaurant and they are sure to have at least one vegetarian option, if you avoid eating meat.

England is one of the very few countries of Europe which can prove to be a vegetarian’s delight. In central London alone, I can point out 50 vegetarian eateries in walking distance and I do not mean just cuisine from the subcontinent.

The end of Oxford Street houses the ISCKON temple on Soho Street. Free lunch is given daily to the devotees inside the temple premises, though once in a while they do go out in the streets and offer food to passers-by.

The English countryside is filled with Indian restaurants and you are always just a short walk or drive away from a good restaurant; however, for ‘authentic’ Indian or Pakistani restaurants, you have to go to big cities and at the same time, Central London plays host to a diverse range of restaurants, especially on Edgware road.

Edgware road, which is at the other end of Oxford Street, is a must if you are addicted to pita hummus and falafel. There are scores of joints which offer different types of pita and hummus. The vegetarian platters of the Greek restaurants are totally different in taste and texture from the Lebanese ones.

The Turkish restaurant, Gallipoli, offers a totally out-of-the-world ‘assiette vegetarian’ cuisine. It is just a few minutes’ walk from the tube station, Angel. The ambience is cosy and it is a popular destination for quite dinners.

The Souk Bazar is not to be missed either; it is a Moroccan restaurant near Covent Garden and offers the most delicious couscous accompanied with red lentils which have not been husked.

There is no dearth of Indian, Sri Lankan, Pakistani, and Bangladeshi restaurants. My favourite till today is Raavi Kebab, which is a five-minute walk from the Euston station. It is a tiny restaurant on Drummond Street and it is very easy to miss if you are not familiar with the place. Friends swear by their tandoori items. But I would choose the naan (flat bread) and paneer (cheese) any day.

Wembley and Southall are all too well-known, so I am not covering them.

London houses the first ever Indian restaurant built there; Veeraswamy, which is nearly a 100 years old. I have heard their chicken madras is the most sought after dish. The word ‘madras’ simply means spicy. A table for two there costs around £300, inclusive of wine.

Rasa, Tayyab and Malabar are just some of the authentic restaurants about town. It is common practice for some families to get together and call a star chef to their homes to teach their specialty, such as tandoori chicken or madras chicken. Whether the women manage to cook what they have learnt is a totally different thing.

Cinnamon is their favourite spice I must say. Cinnamon tea is the last course of any traditional or festive meal. Cinnamon buns are also common during high tea time.

Powdered cinnamon, ready to be sprinkled on anything, is a perpetual fixture on their dining tables. Ever since I learnt that it cuts through fat and grime inside your intestines, it has become my favourite spice.

Places of interest

You will never get tired of just taking a walk around London Town. There are numerous lanes which tell you century-old stories. It is a thrill to chance upon Baker’s Street, James Street, and Marylebone in person. Many of these names have a familiar ring to it as we have already read about them in our school textbooks.

I am not covering the all too familiar palaces or museums because of aforementioned reasons; it is not a routine travel blog.

No wonder Samuel Johnson aptly exclaimed,

“When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford”.

from The Express Tribune Blog

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