Heysham- a village in bloom

Like a lot of people, I would love to live by the sea. Fortunately, I do live within easy distance of the coast and my favourite north-west seaside destinations, where I can appreciate the stunning views, peaceful shores, and where I can envy those who do actually reside there.

One such place is the village of Heysham in Lancashire, just a few miles outside the historic city of Lancaster and a pleasant walk down the coastal path from better-known Morecambe. Not all of Heysham is gorgeous – it is also the site of a huge power station – but its grassy cliff tops, rock pools and quiet promenade are, for me, unrivalled in the region.

The addition of the ancient ruins of St Patrick’s Chapel with its mysterious Viking barrow graves, plus the Anglo-Saxon Church of St Peter on the cliff edge, put Heysham at the top of my fantasy seaside homes list. My posts about St Patrick’s Chapel and St Peter’s Church tell more: St Patrick’s Chapel and barrow graves St Peter’s Church

Heysham is also a village in bloom, where private residents and the small community as a whole seem to be on the same green page. Many of the houses are hundreds of years old.

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The house below was formerly St Peter’s rectory but is now a private home.
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A sign outside this cottage invites passers-by to help themselves to windfall apples
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The houses below are both 17th century, like many other properties close by

On Main Street is a quirky community display with an abundance of flowers and peculiar objects which, no doubt, are significant to the village.

Recessed in a wall close by is St Patrick’s Well, named after the ancient chapel whose ruins stand on the cliff just a five minute walk away. Originally a Holy Well, it was later used by the rectory for utilitarian purposes but became contaminated and was filled with rubble in the early 1800s. Some restoration work took place about a hundred years later but it was further restored in 2002 and turned into a feature. The water is now pumped through artificially.
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The Glebe Garden is accessed from the grave yard and is a lovely example of community effort.

A path winds around the lush space where benches, each one dedicated to the memory of somebody who loved spending time here, have been placed for quiet contemplation and pleasure. Perhaps the old man modelled as peering through the shrubbery once did so in life.


There are also modern properties in the village, some of them luxurious; most of them charming. An annual Viking festival is held in July, and it looks like one Norseman just doesn’t want the party to end.

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A potential problem for those lucky enough to live in the village is being spoilt for choice between the cafes, a tea room and the pub, all of which offer delicious fresh food. It’s a problem I wouldn’t mind having though …. 🙂

Medieval Shrewsbury

 

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Being ideally situated on the border of England and Wales, Shrewsbury has been an important political and commercial centre for a thousand years and more. English monarch, King Edward IV and his wife, Elizabeth Woodville, at one time resided here, the birthplace of their unfortunate son, Richard of Shrewsbury, one of the two princes presumed murdered in the Tower of London. The royal connection continues with Henry VII, the first Tudor king, lodging in Shrewsbury before the Battle of Bosworth where he defeated the reputed killer of the princes, King Richard III.

The river Severn links the city to the Irish Sea via the West Country and the Bristol Channel, a key route for trade during the industrial revolution and even earlier.  Many English locations are as old and historic as Shropshire’s county town, but not all have such a wealth of buildings as well preserved and still in everyday use.

On Saturday, I visited Shrewsbury for the first time. After a relaxing river sail between the Welsh and English bridges, our coach party was told where we were to reconvene at 16:45, leaving four hours to explore. Unusually for me, I had no plan for the afternoon and had just decided to wander and get a flavour of the city. I damaged my knee ligament a few weeks ago, and though I’d been walking crutch-free for over a week, I didn’t want to push my luck. I was also still feeling queasy after a terrible coach journey.

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The King’s Head pub shows the victorious Henry VII. The background is the same pale blue as the city’s coat of arms.

From the river we entered the city centre, passing the King’s Head pub, its sign depicting an image of  King Henry VII and the date 1483, referencing the Battle of Bosworth. The current building dates from that time, just one of many timber-framed buildings from the 15th and 16th centuries. Georgian and Victorian  buildings are slotted in between, with lots of passageways to explore. It isn’t a big place but the free city map was very useful in making sense of all the nooks and crannies.

 

 

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We looked around the new market hall which seemed to be thriving, full of stalls selling the usual wares and a couple of small but very popular eateries, one Thai and the other serving what looked like French/Mediterranean dishes. It was lovely to see a town market doing well in an age where many, including the one in my own town, are virtually dead.

A short walk away was the old market hall, or what remained of it. The British Legion was having some sort of gathering there, and the collection of military vehicles parked in front spoiled the opportunity for photographs, but I captured the most interesting features of the front facade.

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The three leopard heads or ‘loggerheads’ on the city’s coat of arms
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Interesting that this spelling variation of ‘removed’ was still in use after 1791.

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We stopped for a sandwich and another look at the map to decide our next steps. A very useful feature which I hadn’t seen on any other city maps was the little signs indicating both moderate and steep inclines. Having a better idea of the gradients informed my choice to not walk down a particularly steep lane and across the river to Shrewsbury Abbey, the setting of Ellis Peters’ tales of medieval monk and sleuth, Cadfael. With my knee still unstable I could not have attempted the challenging walk back up again. A longer, flatter return walk along the river bank could have been an option, but we didn’t have enough time on this occasion.

Another religious building attracted our attention: the oldest church in the city, dedicated to St Mary the Virgin. As we walked up the gentle brew over the cobbled stones we both commented on the number of runners that had passed by, seemingly taking part in an event. All were consulting the free city maps and seemed to be in a rush and in pursuit of something elusive.

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I observed one runner who had stopped outside the Three Fishes pub. His vest displayed the name of his orienteering club in Cornwall….. so that was it! After consulting his compass, off he ran again to find his next clue. A cryptic set of numbers and letters had been written by hand on one of the pub’s very old doors.

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St Mary the Virgin is the oldest church in Shrewsbury, so although I’m not particularly interested in churches on the whole, I thought it might be worth a look. The doors are always a clue to what’s inside.

 

I wasn’t disappointed. The entrance is the oldest part, and dates back to Norman times. A small section of the red stone wall was crumbling slightly and it was wonderful to touch brickwork almost a thousand years old.

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Some ancient tomb stones were propped up against the wall.

 

Inside were some stunning examples of German stained-glass, depicting, amongst biblical scenes, some splendid ducks and a Masonic- type symbol which I have seen in other church windows elsewhere in the country.

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A particularly interesting feature was a quite striking wall which had originally been external before the church was extended. I liked the way the light still filtered through from the new windows beyond.

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The rich and opulent colours of the beautiful altar below were mesmerising and quite exotic looking.

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St Mary’s, Shrewsbury, is one of the most interesting and attractive churches I have visited and was an excellent consolation for missing out on the Abbey.

 

With an an hour or so left before assembling at the coach pick up point, we ambled along more old paths; marvelled at the misshapen wood panelling on the still sturdy shops; reflected on the leaded windows, no two exactly the same, and decided we would definitely return to explore further – by train next time!

A short sail on the Severn

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Yesterday, I visited Shrewsbury for the first time. I had been looking forward to experiencing the olde world charms of this quaint Shropshire city on the Anglo/Welsh border. I was less sure about my choice of conveyance: a good old British coach excursion. I suffer from travel sickness, but it affects me only on some terrains and modes of transport. Coaches and winding country lanes are a very, very bad combination indeed. Having been advised (wrongly!) that the journey would be via motorways and straight A roads, I decided to chance it.

Fast forward from leaving the M6 south of Warrington and along many, many miles of rural Cheshire’s scenic but convoluted lanes; fast forward through the inevitable, fortunately not witnessed by fellow passengers, and  I finally arrived in sunny Shropshire, still green around the gills .

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The travel company had arranged for our first views of Shrewsbury to be from the vantage point of the upper deck of Sabrina, a small pleasure craft offering short sails along the river Severn, which separates England and Wales. Sabrina is named after the Celtic river goddess, a name also bestowed in ancient times to the Severn itself. The source of the river is near the town of Llanidloes, mid-Wales. It loops through Shrewsbury, continues into the west country, and eventually on into the Bristol Channel. The Severn is the longest river in the UK – five miles longer than the Thames.

The short wait at Victoria Quay near to the Welsh Bridge provided me with a bit more time to recover in pleasant surroundings from the hellish coach ride. 

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Rod, our friendly Scottish skipper, told us about some of the points of interest as we sailed first towards the English Bridge. The tree-lined river banks were lush and green on both sides. Interestingly, exactly three hundred Lime trees are sited on the bank. In accordance with a local regulation, if one has to be cut down another must be planted to replace it. Kingfishers frequent this section of the river but unfortunately none appeared for us. The view was lovely, nonetheless.

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We passed Pengwern Boat Club, Pengwern being an ancient name for the county of Shropshire, dating back to the time when it was a Roman settlement. A small herd of Old English long-horn cows grazed happily as people walked by. The reminders of the border position of this city are all around. According to Rod, the cattle are recruited every year to munch on the lush grass and keep it in check.

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People strolled along the bank or sat on the grass, reading or just passing time. An adjacent park appeared to be very popular; through the trees I glimpsed dog walkers, and excited children scurrying up climbing frames. Charles Darwin, a local boy, had spent a lot of his time there ( perhaps pondering the origins of the flora and fauna?) and a garden area has been named after him. Another famous former resident is the font of all gardening knowledge, Percy Thrower. Rod pointed out his former house, which could just be spotted inside the park, but I wasn’t able to get a photo. Percy served as Superintendent of Parks in Shrewsbury before he became well-known.

We arrived at the English Bridge, originally a Norman construction, but rebuilt in 1768 to allow larger boats to pass beneath as Shrewsbury became a more important industrial link between England and Ireland via the port of Bristol.

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Here, Rod swung the boat around, and we retraced our route.

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The Kingsland Bridge is privately owned, and originally a toll charge was due from all who crossed it. Nowadays, it’s free to walk across on foot, but drivers must still pay 20p. I spotted the city coat of arms: three sinister-looking leopard heads on a blue background. These are locally known as loggerheads, as in the turtles, though the reason for this is not clear.

We sailed beneath a gorgeous example of early 20th iron work. The Porthill suspension footbridge was built in 1922 at a cost of just over £2000. Its refurbishment a few years ago cost over half a million pounds.

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Sabrina arrived back at Victoria Quay and the Welsh Bridge. Originally named St George’s Bridge, it was built between 1793 and 1795 on the site of other river crossings dating back as far as the 12th century. I wasn’t able to get a good shot of the bridge from my viewpoint, so below is one from the internet, which also captures Sabrina at her mooring.

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We crossed the bridge into the centre of the city, ready to experience its medieval charms.

 

Exploring Castle Hill, Lancaster

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I spent yesterday afternoon in Lancaster, one of the most historic locations in the north of England. It’s a small city which has held onto its medieval character, and though it has the usual high street names within its town centre arcades, it has avoided the towering presences of high rises and industry. The only towers in Lancaster belong to the churches and the Castle.

Lancaster Castle sits on a hill overlooking the city, a key strategic position of power. Almost 2000 years ago, the Romans settled their first garrison in a perfect spot to keep an eye on the Scots and Picts to the north, and to have access to the river Lune and from there to the sea.

The current grade 1 listed building dates back a thousand years to the Normans, though the structure has been changed many times over the centuries. Until  2011 Lancaster Castle was still in use as a prison. The notice remains in place near to the ancient door, and barbed wire is still intact on the ramparts.

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English monarchs, entitled as Dukes of Lancaster, have owned the Castle since 1265.

The Castle offers fascinating guided tours; a chance to visit the damp dark cellars where the dingy cell walls display the centuries-old scrawlings of prisoners awaiting their fates. Amongst those imprisoned and later executed in turbulent and intolerant times were the Lancashire witches and 15 Catholic priests. Many ordinary Lancastrians were also tried at Lancaster. There were over 200 executions at the site known as hanging hill close to the Ashton Memorial at Williamson Park. You can read about my visit there if you click here  . A Castle tour wasn’t on yesterday’s agenda for me, but based on previous experiences I can recommend it.

Despite the blue sky and the bright sun it was windy and quite nippy on the hill so I was glad to head for the warmth of the Priory Church which is just behind the Castle. I admired the swaying congregations of spring flowers in the Church grounds.

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If I were a betting woman, I would have wagered that if there was just one day in the week when a church would be open, it would be Sunday. Not so. Incredibly, the doors to the splendid ancient building were bolted shut. I was disappointed not to see some of my favourite misericords, and to gain some temporary respite from the chill. I grumbled for a few minutes with another thwarted visitor before taking a turn around the grounds.

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On a bright day you can see the sea from the wall.
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Looking down from the Priory grounds beyond the Georgian houses and over the city, with the Cathedral spire and the Ashton Memorial in the distance.

I noticed a sign pointing to the remains of the Roman bath house and decided the follow the path alongside the burial ground.

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You can see the posts which would have supported the bath house floor, kept warm by under-floor heating. This is believed to be what remains of the the last of three Roman settlements in Lancaster.

From the ruins, I headed back up the east side of the hill and back to the Castle grounds to seek out my next destination.

 

 

On the way I passed the former premises of Gillow & Co, cabinet makers, founded in 1727 by Robert Gillow who had started out as an apprentice joiner. Some fine examples of Gillow workmanship were on display where I was headed next.

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Lancaster Judges’ Lodgings is the city’s oldest town house. It was originally home to Thomas Covell, Castle Keeper and notorious witch-hunter. From 1776 it was used as a residence for judges attending the assize courts at Lancaster three times each year as part of their circuit of the northern counties. It continued to provide accommodation for the judiciary until as recently as 1975. In the 18th and 19th centuries it was usual for two judges to be in residence along with their families and even their servants.

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The building is now a museum with the first two floors reconstructed authentically. Below, we see His Honour getting ready to leave for work at the Castle Court.

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Some of the furniture in this room was produced by Gillow & Co.

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This is a very small museum and there was a member of staff in almost every room available to answer questions if visitors were to approach them, though there was little in the way of information displays.

The building’s top floor houses the Museum of Childhood, rather incongruously, I thought. Not staffed, and very different in tone and content to the two lower floors, it felt as though there had been a left-over space that ought to be made use of. To my mind, it would have been ideal for exhibits relating to some of the cases that the judges would have tried, and for information about the assize courts system, trial and punishment throughout the ages.

Instead, there were several showcases of toys from the Victorian era up to the 1980s including some of the most sinister dolls imaginable. The lighting was poor throughout, so the photos are not the best.

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Humpty Dumpty – not like the jolly character in my Ladybird book

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The teddy looks desperate to be rescued.

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Some of this bizarre collection of curiosities and horrors on the judges’ top floor looks more like the stuff of childhood nightmares, but I’ll leave that judgement to you.

 

Bickershaw: a plant-potted history

At the weekend, inspired by the arrival of spring, I visited Bickershaw Hall Nurseries, a small garden centre just outside Wigan.  This friendly family-run business also sells seasonal plants, fruit and vegetables at the town market, so as I was passing by I decided to have a look around.

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Despite the record-breaking warmth of the past week, it is still February after all, and the big greenhouse looked almost bare apart from a few splashes of colour. This time next month it will be fragrant with herbs and bursting with botanical brightness.

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Whilst perusing  the perennials I chatted with the owner who told me her family had established the business nearly 50 years ago on land which had been bought much earlier following the demolition of Bickershaw Hall in the 1940s. Built in the 17th century, the Hall fell into disrepair, made uninhabitable by coal mining subsidence. The only remains are this house which had been servants’ quarters and the cattle shelter which you can see below, now both used by the Nurseries.

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Our conversation turned to another local history connection. In 1972, the land where Bickershaw Hall had once stood had gone to seed. Bizarrely, a consortium of Manchester business people and others from the music industry selected the site to host a massive music festival. One of the organisers was a certain Jeremy Beadle, and the headline band was The Grateful Dead. Other illustrious artists included The Kinks and Bryan Ferry, and the list went on… It was to be a spectacular event and the crowds arrived from all over the country.

Of course, by today’s standards the special effects look unsophisticated. A high-diver who descends gracelessly into a burning paddling-pool even seems comedic.

Unfortunately, severe rain made the event a washout, and the field looked like a scene from Glastonbury but without the associated coolness. The Grateful Dead were not feeling very grateful as this short clip shows.

The festival-goers, bless them, still seemed in good spirits despite their tents having sunk into the mire. This would have been an unprecedented occasion for them, and they would probably have just enjoyed being part of it.  I like the interview with a local shop keeper who describes the weird and wonderful foodstuffs he has stocked for the pleasure of the Bohemian showbiz types including yogurt, something he’d previously ‘heard of’ but ‘never seen’. Well it was only 1972! 🙂

My curiosity roused, I asked for directions to the festival site. A short walk led me to a path off the main road with woodland to the left.

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A couple of cars passed me from the direction I was heading, making me feel less wary about venturing alone  into what seemed quite a secluded place. I smiled to myself, picturing the hoards of party people ambling this way in the summer of ‘72.

The path opened out into a car park at what I could now see was a fishery: artificially created ponds stocked with fish for paid-up anglers to spend whole days trying to catch. One pond looked quite tranquil with nobody around.

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Whilst others took on a more sinister appearance. I hope that was a just scarecrow….

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I followed a path to the right in the direction of a familiar looking field, but not before passing the remains of a burnt tree stump, strangely decorated.

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Then there it was…. the venue!

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Try as I might, I wasn’t feeling that vibe. The festival spirit had been washed away in that July deluge.

Bickershaw Festival has achieved a quiet cult status; the 40th anniversary reunion held in 2012 (a much, much smaller affair) was even covered by the BBC. Needless to say, Bryan Ferry and the Kinks were unavailable on that occasion.

 

 

 

 

 

Out on the tiles

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Readers of some of my other posts may know that I am very fond of ceramics, in particular the high-glazed pottery tiles synonymous with the Victorian arts and crafts movement. I love the lustrous decadence of the rich intense colours from the period, and  the opulent crackle of the glaze.

Some of the best examples can be found beneath our feet gracing the ticket halls and the platforms of subterranean train stations or even the humble relics of gentlemen’s public conveniences. I have been known to visit places ( not men’s toilets!)  just for the tiles, whilst on other occasions I have made unexpected discoveries, sometimes in unlikely places. Here are three of my favourites in the city of Manchester.

1. The Principal Hotel ( formerly the Palace Hotel). This grade 2 listed building on The corner of Whitworth Street and Oxford Street was built between 1891 and 1895 by the architect Alfred Waterhouse for the Refuge Assurance Company, a very successful insurance business. The outside of the building is nothing extraordinary….

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…but the inside is glorious!

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I love the glamour and the sense of the exotic conjured by the pillars and foliage. The design is of glazed brick and Burmantofts faience, a decorative style of architectural terracotta and glazed pottery which used warm cream, buff, rich orange and rusty tones. The Burmantofts company emerged in Leeds in the late 1850s with Waterhouse being one of their patrons.

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An overseas-based friend and I meet in Manchester once a year when she visits family in the city. Our venue of choice is almost always the Palace where for a couple of hours we can escape the Manchester rain and the hustle and bustle of the world outside and marvel at the sparkling chandeliers’ reflections on the glossy surfaces of the walls around us as we indulge in afternoon tea.

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2. Peveril of the Peak. This iconic Manchester public house has stood near the Bridgewater Hall since the 1820s and is named after the novel of the same title written by Sir Walter Scott (better known as the author of Ivanhoe) in 1823, but set in the 17th century.

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Peveril is brilliant. It’s actually nothing special inside, but wonderfully incongruous in its modern and muted surroundings this Victorian pottery pub is also grade II listed. Some of the outer tiles were added in the 1920s but have remained unaltered since – happily for those of us who like its style.

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3. J&J Shaw Ltd. This is my favourite doorway in Manchester.

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J & J Shaw established the furniture warehouse in 1924. This place is a hidden gem, tucked away close to Oxford Road train station.  I love the colours and the detail and can never resist tracing the shapes of the smooth leaves and fruits when I pass by. Its gorgeous art-deco entrance hints at the possibility of stylish furnishings that customers might have perused once they had stepped through the pottery portal. How exciting! They don’t make doors like they used to, do they?

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On destiny, karma and changing plans

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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.

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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.

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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.

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I was delighted to see that the temple incorporated a ‘karma free’ cafe offering simple vegetarian fayre. Forget the sandwich; the plan had changed.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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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.

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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.

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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. 🙂