We talk a lot about the weather here in the UK. We never cease to be amazed at what shouldn’t really surprise us at all, as our weather is nothing if not unpredictable. But this year, we have been spoiled. Last winter outstayed its welcome, the last snow falling at Easter, but summer – when it arrived – was long and glorious. An exceptionally mild and bright autumn followed, dry and unseasonably warm. A recent visit to London was on one such day.
Inspired by an episode of Gardener’s World which featured two Indian inspired gardens, I had planned to visit both locations. Like the weather, even best-laid plans don’t always turn out as expected.
Shri Swaminarayan Mandir in Neasden, north London is a very beautiful Hindu temple. At the time of its completion in 1995 it was the largest outside of India. Incredibly, the Bulgarian stone and Italian marble of which the temple is constructed were first shipped to India to be hand-carved and engraved by traditional craftsmen before being shipped to the temple site.
Photography inside the building is prohibited. Visitors must leave all personal belongings except purses, wallets and mobile phones inside their vehicles or inside the security cabin in front of the temple. Eagle-eyed security people watch for attempts at phone photography, which is fair enough. The interior is exquisite; the expanses of marble and the detail in the carved stone pillars brilliant. I happened upon three worshippers, friendly old men who spoke with great pride about their Mandir, telling us that it had been paid for by the community. Despite the beauty of the place and the welcome offered by these gentlemen, I found the watchfulness of the security presence rather oppressive. Nevertheless. it was certainly worth the visit and I got a few photographs of the outside once I had retrieved my belongings. No garden shots, sadly.
Back in central London, I decided to visit one of my favourite shops in the Soho area, and this seemed like a good time to stop for lunch. I thought I would probably grab a sandwich and find somewhere to sit outside rather than waste an hour of my day in a restaurant. Waiting to cross a side street, I was attracted by the sound of gentle drumming and chanting but couldn’t make out where it was coming from. Deciding to find out, I soon came across the familiar sight of orange-robed Hare Krishna devotees seated outside a small RadhaKrishna temple.
I was delighted to see that the temple incorporated a ‘karma free’ cafe offering simple vegetarian fayre. Forget the sandwich; the plan had changed.
There may be no such thing as a free lunch, but a karma free lunch is another thing entirely. I ordered a plate of poppadoms with spicy dips and a small green salad accompanied by a glass of fresh apple juice, all for the amazing price of £3.50. Govinda’s was very crowded and I had to share a table with some other people, something I wasn’t entirely comfortable with, but it was all part of the experience. I ate quickly, as even more people were waiting to be seated.
A security man paced back and forth constantly, more than I thought was necessary or polite. On my way out, I asked him why his presence was called for in what seemed a nice place full of peaceful diners. His answer was ambiguous but he told me they often had “trouble”.
I decided to walk for a while as I had time and it was a lovely day. I wandered down Whitehall in the direction of Big Ben and the Thames.
The second garden I wanted to visit was a newly opened creation at the Aga Khan Centre which is not far from Kings Cross Station. Monty Don had been given a sneak preview during the summer but the Arabesque symmetry garden had only opened to the public in late September. I was so happy that the day had turned out sunny, as I suspected that an exotic garden would probably require a certain quality of light.
It took me a while to find Aga Khan, an odd looking building which incorporated ancient Moorish designs into its very modern facade.
In I went, and out I came again, just moments later. Needless to say, I had looked at the website before planning my visit, but clearly I had missed the part which told readers that visits could only be made on Thursday afternoons by prior online booking. They were already booked up for the next three months.
The sun might have been shining on me, but Fate was behind a cloud, or so it seemed. I still had a couple of hours before my train so I decided on a walk around the Kings Cross area. This proved to be a revelation and worthy compensation for my earlier disappointment.
Hundreds of people had come out to enjoy the warm autumn day, sitting along the towpath of the Regent’s canal or picnicking on the grass, or even perusing the floating book store where I picked up a battered anthology.
Things often have a way of working out not as expected, but better. One thing doesn’t work out but something else turns up instead; something which might not have been discovered if the plan had….. gone to plan. 🙂