Hiking at the Ounasvaara hill, Rovaniemi, Finland

Ramya SriramTravel Writing, WritingLeave a Comment

An account of walking the winter trail at the Ounasvaara hill in spring. No skiing or sledding or tobogganing or fatbiking: just two pairs of feet on ice. 

Crunch, crunch. The snow was thick, the ice brittle. I was familiar with the sound of dry autumn leaves underfoot but this was new. The frost was granular and crisp, like it had just come out from a freezer. The ice glistened under the Finnish spring sun, looking almost edible. Pine and spruce trees in surrounded us, reaching up to skies of pale blue. 

My partner K and I were walking on the Ounasvaraa winter trail in Rovaniemi, Lapland. We’d chosen to do it in spring, a startlingly quiet time in an otherwise busy and touristy town.

Ounasvaara is a hill (“fell”) just a couple of kilometres away from the town centre, across the Kemijoki river. The river is something of a moving, transforming living being in itself. The previous day it had been resplendent blue, sparkling under the sun. Ice had accumulated on its banks: it looked like someone had run a blower down the middle, pushing the ice to the sides. But today the sky was overcast. At -2°C,  the river had frozen in layers, in swirly patterns and thick sheets. As we walked over the bridge, I noticed that in some places, the patterns on the ice looked like an ikat weave. I could see now why there were about 40 different words to describe ice/snow in Finnish: you need new ways to express what you see around you. And for me, who had grown up with no exposure to snow or its language, I felt suddenly like I needed a new vocabulary. But strangely enough, I could talk about the landscape in analogies of Indian sweets: snow the colour of fresh rasgulla; thin, fragile, translucent ice that looked like petha; and fresh, loose powder-snow that reminded me of white kalakand

The road to the Ounasvaara hill adopts a wide mud path that runs alongside the main road and upwards towards the hill. There are multiple entry points: we chose the one we saw first. There were a few dozen steps that went to the top, after which you continue walking into the forest. The slopes were covered in patches of snow, but clear around the base of the pine trees (read why that is).  I realized my shoes were far from appropriate for this kind of hike. I placed my feet gingerly one after another, not trusting the ice or my shoes. My partner strode up like it was child’s play (“I’m from the Himalayas,” he likes to announce proudly on all our hikes, though in reality he spent only a couple of his childhood years there.) 

Note the lack of snow around the base of the trees

We seemed to be the only ones here. We walked in silence. The snow seemed untouched, but after a while I noticed large footprints of someone’s snow shoes. I placed my foot in one of the moulds: the ice was surprisingly firm. It was strange: to be in some sort of winter wonderland, but with the sun in our eyes and enough warmth in our jackets. A loud chiff chaff appeared out of nowhere and sat on the ground, wagging its tail vigorously: I often wonder if these birds aspire to be wagtails.

I sat down on a moss-covered rock. I closed my eyes and listened. A fieldfare sang loudly, the cars whooshed past on the highway, a branch creaked occasionally. But there seemed to be a lot more conversation going on than what one could hear. Surely, in the silence of snowfall and the stillness of the trees, there was some exchange that I wasn’t privy to. I am convinced that trees speak with each other. Here, in a land where there are about ten trees for every person, there must be an ongoing dialogue.  

We walked on to find the ski route, which was a covered in several feet of ice and easier to walk on. The observation tower wasn’t too far away. I was happy here, as I always am while walking. I bobbed my head along, humming to Bryan Adams’ Thought I’d died and gone to heaven. K shushed me crossly and walked ahead. I’ll be two steps behind, I crooned in my best Deff Leppard voice. 

Snow, snow everywhere

The observation deck sat in a little clearing, which also houses a shelter and a campfire site. The wooden shed had logs in it to make a fire. I climbed the steep stairs to the top of the tower and was greeted with a 360 degree view. I could see over the tops of the trees all the way across the river to the town of Rovaniemi on the other side. The city was Lego-themed, with wooden painted houses neatly packed together. Smoke rose from a chimney, making it look like something out of a fairy tale. The river wound itself around the town like a long snakey mirror.  

That morning, I’d spoken to K about our plan for the day. He likes travel being open and unplanned, while I like to know what I’m doing when. He’d said we would walk around Ounasvaara and see where the day took us, and I had agreed, but I was secretly anxious to do the full route as it was marked on the map. “You’d consider this a successful trip only if you got to the top of the hill, right?” he’d commented. I wanted to protest but I realized that it was true. If we hadn’t gone to the very summit, I’d have a nagging feeling that my mission was incomplete. Maybe it was FOMO or a misplaced sense of victory that I derived from getting somewhere. But this trip was all about me learning to calm down and enjoy exploring without worrying about chasing a goal. So, the first time we walked in Ounasvaara, we just ambled about and turned back after we saw the view from the observation tower.  Two days later, we walked the full trail without really planning to, and I found that it was a lot more enjoyable. 

The Ounasvaara observation tower 

View of Rovaniemi from the Ounasvaara observation deck 

A blue sign featuring a hiker and a snowflake pointed us in the direction of the winter trail. We were walking uphill but the slope was so gentle it was almost like a stroll. In some places, water had accumulated in puddles, and thin ice had formed on it. I heard an excited child’s voice and looked up to see a little girl walking with an elderly couple, presumably her grandparents. She held a twig in one hand and was tapping the ice in the puddles and squealing with excitement when it broke into pieces. What a fun way to spend the day. 

Wooden stairs were placed in some places, leading up to the rocky plateau of the hill. When we reached the summit (“huippu”), the weather changed: the wind was strong and chilly. I tightened the straps of my jacket’s sleeves and pulled my hat over my ears. This must be a really busy place during the winter months, when there’s a chair lift that takes you up to the top of the hill. It felt good to have it to ourselves. 

The Ounasvaara winter trail: waymarked route for hikers 

View from the summit

The snow melting: I love how clear the water in places without the icy film – look for the reflection of the tree 

We resumed the walk, this time downhill, past the Royal Reindeer hotel. The couple we’d met before were now sitting on a rock, while the little girl was off exploring. It was sunny again now, and the ice in the puddles had melted, the snow turned into small rivulets. We walked past a snow-covered football ground, which was altogether surreal on its own. As we got back on the main road I realized that it didn’t really matter to me whether we’d made it to the top or not. Yes, the view was beautiful, but there was nothing of much value that it offered to me: no golden pot of wisdom, no unravelling of life’s secret. There was no validation in it: no prize or praise or prestige. All I had wanted was a beautiful walk, which was achievable whether I’d walked around the bottom of the hill, got halfway up there, or took whichever path looked inviting. Maybe “getting there” wasn’t always the only way to experience victory. 

Perhaps it really was better to keep things fluid, continuous and open to change, than be weighed down by the anxious scramble to reach the final destination. I voiced this to K and vowed that I would embrace a new and improved me, but he looked disbelieving. Ah, time will tell. 

There is nothing particularly spectacular that I can point out about the Ounasvaara hike. There were no breathtaking views of gorges and lakes, no dazzling and dancing Northern Lights above us, no sightings of wild animals. But like a lot of things in Finland, there was simplicity. A reinforcement of the message that you really don’t need very much to feel recharged and refreshed or, simply, alive. There was breathing: a filling of lungs with snow and sky and spruce and silence. The Ounasvaara hill is not just a place for hiking and skiing. It’s a place for us to walk among the trees and listen to what they’re saying. Maybe even talk to them. But just not too loudly. 


The excitement was palpable

Snowflake streetlight!

Ounasvaara football ground

Just to give you an idea of the number of trees… 

 

Waterbeach, Cambridgeshire: A walk to do on a whim

Ramya SriramTravel Writing, WritingLeave a Comment

Meeting waterbirds, fishermen and happy dogs on a walk by the River Cam in Waterbeach

The Cambridge railway station is one of those where you can see the train on the platform just by peeping inside. I was walking past it one day when I looked inside and saw a train on the platform. I had a sudden urge to get on it. So I did. 

I bought a ticket to Waterbeach… because why wouldn’t you want to visit a place called Waterbeach? It was only a few minutes away, and I’d heard that there was a nice riverside walk there. If nothing else, I could probably just enjoy the autumn colours. 

The train ride was not very eventful, but all I cared about was that I was on it. When I got off at Waterbeach, I was surprised at how quiet it was. I got off the train and walked towards the direction of The Bridge, which my phone recommended as a good local pub. When I reached the level crossing, I was suddenly unsure of when to cross. I found a lady marooned at the crossing who seemed to have the same problem. She asked me with a sheepish smile, “Excuse me, but do you know if it’s safe to cross here?” I said there was only one way to find out. “It’s been a while since I was in the countryside,” she said, looking a bit embarrassed. We walked together across the tracks and she heaved a sigh of relief when we got to the other side. “We survived,” I declared to her, enjoying this drama. “Oh dear,” she replied, frowning at her map. “I’ve got to go the other way. I’ve got to do this all over again.” 

I left her to her battles and marched off towards the river. The Bridge’s car park was full and it looked a bit posh so I decided to save it for another time. I walked past the intriguingly named Cow Wood on a path covered with golden field maple leaves. I didn’t see a single cow. The path, running alongside the river, is a cycle route that takes you all the way past Horningsea and Milton Country Park to Cambridge town centre. Fishermen sat patiently, their hooks in the water. Smoke rose from a blue boat that sat in the shade of the prettiest auburn trees.  

I revelled in the sudden, sharp quiet, as I walked. Goldfinches chirped merrily — sunshine laughter! Coots let out the occasional croak. A huge black bird flew above me: a cormorant! The water of the River Cam, as in many places, was a stunning deep blue, and mirrored the trees and clouds.  

I walked past a couple who were busy pointing at what I think was a bird far away in the field. “At the edge of the treeline” I heard one of them say. I peered between the trees to see what they were looking at but couldn’t spot anything. A buzzard? A marsh harrier? I couldn’t tell. It did make me more alert though, and I kept an eye out for any rare bird that I might spot. 

Of course, that paid off. Almost immediately after: I caught a glimpse of a shiny blue fluttering across the water. My heart beat quickly, was that a kingfisher? I tiptoed (one must always tiptoe when one spots a bird) across the leaves towards the edge of the river and waited. And yes, there it was, sitting on a branch, its bright orange breast standing out against the dull yellow leaves. I watched it for a while, and suddenly it dipped into the water and out again, showing off those brilliant blue-green wings. It hid inside a bush, presumably enjoying a nice juicy fish. I waited for a while but it didn’t make another appearance.

I walked on, encouraged by this beautiful encounter. I met two very excited dogs and their very calm owners. I saw for a while on a bench, enjoying this moment that universe had gifted to me. It was a good time to be alive, to be able to get on a train on a whim, and sit by the river waiting to spot kingfishers. It’s a nice planet we’ve got, filled with trees and birds and dogs and things. I think moments like these only come when you’re alone, filling you with energy that you need to cope with being around other people. 

After a while I decided to turn back and trace my way back to the station to make it in time for the 3 pm train. The sun was setting now, the leaves of the trees bronzing in the winter afternoon light. On my way back, a couple walked past me and I heard them stop. I turned to see what had happened and there it was again: our kingfisher, sitting on a branch close the water. We all grinned at each other. “I saw him the other day,” said the man. “He’s been visiting often.” The lady said she hoped to see him fly: “I love his shiny feathers.” 

The three of us stood for a while, at the edge of the river, watching the kingfisher sitting on the branch of a tree. Isn’t it amazing how a shared experience can connect strangers? Imagine the three of us standing near a river in anticipation of watching a bird fly. And sure enough, the kingfisher suddenly turned his head, and flew across the river to a new spot.  All our faces lit up and we chorused, “Beautiful!” 

Grinning broadly, I continued to walk, breaking into a bit of a jog when I realized that waiting for this kingfisher might mean that I’d miss my train. On the way I spotted a tree with four large.. wait, were those… vultures?! I slowed down. Ah no, they were just cormorants. Several of them sat on a leafless tree. A plane flew above us and all the birds turned in unison to look at it. It was a funny sight, birds perched on top of a tree staring at an aircraft flying overhead. 

I reached the station and unthinkingly went back to the platform I got off at. A train to Ely passed us by. I had to take the King’s Cross train, but the train arrived and went past me, stopping ahead of the road crossing. I realized then that the platform extended on the other side! I walked over to Platform 3 and settled into a chair, pleased that I was the only one on the platform. I seem to find myself alone on railway platforms a lot. After a while the sound of neighing filled the air, and I realized I was close to a field where horses were grazing. Starlings gathered for their evening chat, and the electricity wires shone a metallic golden. 

After I got home, I went on to the Waterbeach Facebook community and was surprised to find active discussions about the kingfisher’s sightings. If I ever wanted to live in a quiet village, this seemed like a good option. But for now, occasional walks in the village seemed promising. What else would it have on offer? Bitterns? Weasels? Water voles? Fen tigers? There was only one way to find out. 

 

St Ives Island, Cornwall: Burnout therapy with a view

Ramya SriramTravel Writing, Writing2 Comments

A bit of a ramble around St Ives Island, Cornwall

My biggest moments of epiphany have been on hilltops: I seem to have a tendency to become wiser with increasing altitude. And St Ives Head was no exception, even though it was just a small hill. I was in a Cornwall with a mission to slow down, after having quit my job a few weeks ago. All I wanted to do was to sit by the sea and watch the waves. 

The sky was heavy with clouds as I made my way to the Island. I walked through narrow streets lined by whitewashed cottages with blue doors and angry gulls squawking from their rooftops. The gulls I’ve seen in coastal England are always angrily squawking about something, quite a contrast to the relatively docile gulls of my riverside Cambridge neighbourhood. 

As I approached St Ives Head, I realized that the hill was much prettier than it looked from afar, as it overlooks Porthgwidden beach on one side and Porthmeor on the other.  A lone paddleboarder (some kind of running theme here, also seen on my walk from St Ives to Lelant) was silhouetted by the sunlight filtering through the dark clouds. I walked up the grassy slopes to a white cottage perched on the edge of the hill: the National Coastguard Watch. All around, the sky and sea danced in ripples of grey and white. It was early morning still, and the mist was just lifting.  

Paddle-boarder, Porthgwidden

Perched on top of the hill was St Nicholas Chapel, a stone monumet that looked like it had withstood a gale or two. I found a bench just below the wall of the chapel on the other side of the hill, overlooking Porthmeor beach. The sea stretched far into the horizon, a line so faint that you could barely tell the distinction between water and sky. I could see all the way up to Man’s Head and Clodgy Point, where the waves crashed dramatically against the rocks, white foamy spray and all that. I scanned the rocks below me with my binoculars hoping to catch sight of puffins or perhaps even skuas, that I’d seen before in this area (in Cape Cornwall). But I only saw a pair of cormorants. 

Porthmeor beach is a surfer’s paradise. Amateur surfers in black wetsuits dotted the waters, balancing themselves on boards of yellow, green and blue. I watched one person keenly – perhaps he stood out the most because of his bald and shiny head. He paddled out into the sea with his hands, lying on his board. He then sat up on his knees, waiting in anticipation as a huge wave came towards him. Unfortunately, by the time the huge wave reached him, it had reduced considerably to just a ripple. But he rode the little wave undeterred and paddled out again. 

Surfers at Porthmeor beach 

As the sun rose higher in the sky, I noticed how it dictated the colours of the the landscape. Streaks of brown and grey and green appeared in what had been a fairly uniform turquoise sea just minutes ago. I realized that sea and sky never follow the rules that are taught to landscape artists. If I painted what I was saw, it would look completely unreal, and an art teacher might say something like, “The colours don’t look right,” or “It’s not really coming together.” We’re taught to believe that nature has order and symmetry and follows some basic protocol. But more often than not, nature is completely random. Even something simple like the colours of a sunset are rarely consistent. 

I wondered if it was nature’s way of rebelling. Maybe the light just wanted to trick us today, burdened by the weight of putting on a consistent as-expected performance. And wouldn’t I know all about it?! Ah, the pressure to deliver. On the days you want the sun to be out the most, it hides behind the clouds. Well. If the sun could go on strike, so could I. 

Porthmeor shades of blue. Note the difference in colours from the previous photo, taken just over an hour before! 


At the foot of the hill, I noticed how the waters swirled around the rocks furiously and ceaselessly, dissolving into white spidery patterns. It seemed like the fury of the ocean broke here, in the few metres close to the shore, whereas the farther, deeper waters heaved gently as one. I had once been the big wave, I thought to myself, heaving with energy and zeal, but when I reached the goal, I was exhausted and falling to pieces, crashing and burning.  

After staring at the water for hours, I realized that sitting here, observing the rise and fall of the waves was a luxury in itself. Time is available in plenty but afforded by very few. 

It is strange how much of nature we can see but can’t touch or hold or keep. The waters came together and dissolved, created shapes and broke form repeatedly. Maybe that’s why the sea is so fascinating: it is ever-changing. It’s not going to look the same the next minute. And because we see it happen in front of our eyes, it’s easy to accept. It’s so much harder to accept change within ourselves, especially when we seem largely constant every day, trapped in clumsy bodies that, unlike water, don’t allow us to flow into whatever space will contain us. We’re awkward beings, with all of our thoughts and emotions crammed into a physical entity with finite limitations. No wonder we burn out. We can only hold so much. 


St Nicholas Chapel

Feeling cold having sat in one place for so long, I got up to stretch my legs and started walking around the church. I peeped inside the closed window to see a small room with a desk, that displayed a notebook, a pen and a bottle of hand sanitizer. Simple. I heard voices and looked up to see a lady in a red dress leaning against the chapel wall, posing for a photographer. She was laughing, her gold earrings shining. A man in a suit walked towards her, followed by a man in a clerical collar. A young boy in a bow-tie walked with them, holding a bouquet of flowers. That’s when it struck me–a wedding was going to take place here today! What a beautiful setting. I decided to give them their privacy and went back to my spot on the bench. 

I was just in time to see the bald surfer standing on his board, arms spread out, riding a wave like he’d been surfing all his life. I almost felt his delight as he soared to the shore, and celebrated his triumph by padding out once more. The tide had picked up, the waves were stronger, all his practice was paying off. It was his time to shine.

The clouds had gone from being thick and billowy to thin wisps of white, the kind you see when poaching an egg. As it got warmer it seemed like all the species of gulls were out. It’s astonishing: the variety of gulls. What I’d previously called “seagulls” I now knew as black-headed gulls, European herring gulls, common gulls, black-backed gulls. More cormorants gathered on the rocks. Some of them spread their wings out in the “Batman” pose: something I’d noticed on a trip to India recently. It was incredible to see the same behaviour in birds that were thousands of miles apart. 

I was interrupted by the chirping of a starling that sat a few feet away from me. I noticed its iridescence in the sunlight. Isn’t it amazing what sunlight does to the colour of bird feathers?  Starlings, magpies, ravens, all of them glisten in the sun. Just a few minutes ago, the bird was an unassuming black, but now it was had flecks of luminous green and purple and gold.  I wondered if we all needed someone to shine a light on us to be able to glow. 


I think what I really love about Cornwall is that it offers the big picture alongside the detail. You stop to look at wild primroses in the grass but you also stop to look at the unending blue all around. The expansive views seem to free up space in my own mind. At the peak of burnout, I noticed that I was constantly losing myself in the detail and forgetting the larger purpose. It helped to look up. 

I could now hear music coming from the organ in the church: the wedding ceremony had begun. On a bench at the foot of the hill, by the coastal path, a boy and girl sat wrapped in each others arms. It was one of those moments when everything seemed to be in perfect synchrony. They were a tiny speck in my 360 degree view, but the fullness of their emotion was almost palpable. As I started walking down the path, I couldn’t help wondering if I was a tiny spot—if I was even detectable—in someone else’s panoramic view.


 

 Three-cornered garlic, with a view of Porthmeor on an early spring morning 

A barely-visible horizon

 

St Ives to Lelant Walk: South West Coast Path, Cornwall

Ramya SriramTravel Writing, WritingLeave a Comment

Turquoise waters, wildflower-lined paths and open skies. Running alongside the St Ives Bay Line railway track, the route from St Ives to Lelant winds its way around Carbis Bay and Porthkidney Sands, offering spectacular views and uplifting wind-in-hair moments. 

It was early April, and I’d just quit my job after a prolonged burnout. I was in St Ives on my own, walking the South West Coast Path along the Cornish coast. Walking had become a bit of a mind-cleansing ritual for me: I was learning to slow down and step back, even as I moved forward.  

It was a cloudy day (but with “sunny intervals”, the Met Office had promised). I made my way to the railway station, where the walk starts. Porthminster beach was empty, the sky was overcast, but the sea was still a light blue-green. As I followed the acorn “Coast Path” sign, it didn’t take long to leave St Ives behind, which formed as a picture-perfect postcard every time I looked back. 

The paved path was fringed with tall bunches of cow parsley and fresh snowdrops. To my left, I had a view of Porthminster beach, through leafless trees growing beside the train line. Memorial benches appeared at regular intervals, featuring poetic inscriptions. I have never passed by a bench without stopping to read the inscription and wondering what the person might have been like, what kind of life they had, and how lucky they were to continue to connect with the world. One verse I particularly liked was: 

Don’t you worry my dears,
because all the worry in the world
won’t make it right.” 

The path gained ascent as I approached Carbis Bay. I was feeling quite triumphant: this walk was really as easy as I had read it was. Carbis Bay is full of fancy resorts, many of which feature hot tubs and swimming pools. Out in the waters of the bay, a lone paddleboarder rowed himself out into the ocean. A tiny black figure in an ocean of blue.

Carbis Bay

It was threatening to rain any minute, and my phone battery was almost drained. But I was still quite upbeat. My feet were on soft ground now, as the path wound itself around the cliffs lining the bay. This offered a panoramic view with St Ives Head to my left, and the Godrevy lighthouse to the right. 

At the edge of a cliff, I stopped for a few minutes to observe the seascape. The water was silky, the waves like spools of white fabric being rolled up gently. A column of luminescent blue appeared in the middle of the water, reflecting an opening in the sky. I looked at it for a long time: the larger the patch grew in the sky, the larger the patch in the water grew. The brighter the sun, the bluer the patch. It was something that would be dismissed as unnatural in a painting, but yet here it was, in reality. 

Interesting rectangular shapes made by the waves

On the beach, the tide had formed furrows in the sand, leaving neat, rectangular patches. Gulls soared above quietly. I came across another memorial bench, which quoted C.S. Lewis:

“Her absence is like the sky, 
spread over everything.”  

I wondered if I would one day be as lucky as to be that immortal.

The sky became darker and thick with cloud. I walked on. My phone had died a few minutes ago and my power bank refused to work. After a few minutes I met a lady who was walking in the opposite direction with her young son. She pointed at her trousers and shoes, which were caked in mud and said, “I have to warn you darling, it’s awful from here on.” She was right. It was here onwards that the road got really tricky. I was wearing trainers that were completely unsuitable for any kind of wet ground. I had also not realized that the path, now much narrower, involved some steep-ish gradients. Steps cut into the path were covered in squishy, slippery wet mud from the previous day’s rain. I put one foot in and skid, just about recovering my balance on time. I held on to the branches of the trees where I could, moving unsteadily for what seemed like miles. It was probably only for a few hundred meters. A group of four men and women were walking towards me, also looking very unprepared. They stopped in front of a large and deep puddle of muck, with me on the other side. I reached out my hand to one of the women. She gratefully took it. I helped the others cross as well, while holding on to branch of the tree. 

It started to rain then, in big heavy drops. As the group walked on, one of them turned back and said, “Are you sure you’re going to be OK?” I nodded. “I hope you at least have a phone,” he replied. This made me suddenly doubt my confidence. There was absolutely nothing to fear: I just had to follow the path all the way through. I didn’t need a phone or a map: there was just one road. But someone being worried about you makes you a little worried for yourself. I tried to focus on the view of Porthkidney Sands up ahead: it was a beach so full of sand that it seemed like a mini-desert. I hobbled along like a penguin, learning to place my feet at angles in the mud to avoid slipping. 

I crossed several hikers on the way, all of them wearing inappropriate shoes, grumbling about the mud and rain, doing the penguin dance. White and yellow primroses sprung up on the sides of the path and raindrops rolled off delicate white allium flowers. I stepped aside to let a family of four through. The youngest boy had a huge smile on his face as he held up his hand to show me what he was carrying: a snail almost as big as his palm. 

Three-cornered garlic


Porthkidney sands

After what seemed like ages, I seemed to be on firmer ground. I was relieved: the worst was over! The path now ran along the top of sand dunes. Marram grass grew in long, spiky bunches, swaying in the breeze. I took off my jacket and sat on the grass, looking at the darkening sky over the horizon. In spite of the light mist, I could still see the Godrevy rocks clearly. There was a way down to the beach from here: may be nice to take a dip in warmer weather. The silence was interrupted by strange, loud tapping noises. I saw a group of birds sitting on the gorse bushes. Black heads, white collars, red breasts. Stonechats! It mesmerizes me how in the moments you think you are truly alone, a bird or two will turn up. 

I heard a hoot and realized I was close to the railway track. I watched the train go towards St Ives and waved excitedly though I couldn’t really tell if anyone was waving back, I also hooked my phone up to my power bank, which had now decided to work. As I resumed walking, now sweaty with the growing humidity, I could see the St Uny’s Church in the distance. Yes, I was getting closer! The path curved away from the coast into Lelant, taking me through the West Cornwall Golf Club. There were warning signs everywhere about watching out for golf balls coming your way. I found them very amusing: surely there was really nothing I could do if a golf ball was going to come out of nowhere and whack me on the head. It seemed like a terrible way to die or lose an eye. I walked hurriedly with my hands to the side of my head (really), wondering if this was going to be the disastrous ending to my trip. Ah, good old anxiety. It had been quiet for a few hours but wanted to remind me of its presence now. 

Thankfully I made it safely to the church yard, where I sat down on a bench under a tree. Blackbirds chirped all around me: their song so familiar to me now, so welcome. Goldfinches twittered in the trees. Bluebells lined the hedges. Opposite the church a “Living Churchyard” sported a colourful display of native wildflowers. 

Walking through the streets of Lelant I came across a photographer on the road, aiming his camera at a robin sitting on the gate of a garden. I stopped quietly, waiting for him to complete the shoot. He clicked a few times, and then walked towards me smiling. Wordlessly, he showed me the photo. A close up of the robin’s furry head, against a blurred green background. You could literally count every feather! It was his way of saying thanks. “It’s lovely!” I gushed. He smiled like he’d just won a prize.  

I made my way to Lelant station, which comprised a single platform overlooking a marshy area full of gulls and ducks. I thought I was the only one on the platform, but after a while, I noticed a man siting in a corner dusting his boots, which were covered in mud. “I see you’ve come the same way as me,” I said, grinning. We chatted for some time, and he left to continue his walk up to Lelant Saltings and onto Hayle. 

The train arrived shortly, and I waved frantically at the driver to stop but she didn’t. If you come across this advice online about waving to train drivers and decide to follow it, like me, you’re only going to look foolish. The next train stopped though, as scheduled. From my window seat, I saw a group of four people walking on the dunes, waving at me, and I waved back to them, hoping they could see me. 

At St Ives station, I got off and treated myself to a blueberry ice cream (which came with the standard Cornish warning, “Watch out for the gulls.”). I complimented the shop lady on her glittery star-shaped earrings. I leaned against a wall (apparently this helps prevent the birds from stealing your food) and ate my ice-cream.

I’d made it. Ramya of the wobbly knees and unsteady feet had just stumbled her way through the five miles from St Ives to Lelant. Someone who’s always had trouble with balance had held her hand out and helped five people cross a muddy path. I’d got drenched in the rain, I’d shivered in the cold, and – the biggest achievement of all – I’d managed to avoid being killed by a golf ball. Ha!  

“They’re from Etsy,” a voice said suddenly, and I jumped. I looked up to see the shop lady with the starry earrings smiling at me. “E-T-S-Y,” she spelled it out. “Look it up! And do you know what? It cost just four quid! You can find the most wonderful things on the Internet.” 

I thanked her and watched her bounce back to the shop, dress flowing, earrings glittering, saying “Mind the gulls” cheerily to a young boy as she handed him an ice-cream. A happy moment. I walked back up to the Malakoff bus stop. The mud on my shoes had dried up now and was falling off in clumps. I sat on a bench, took off my shoes and thwacked them on the ground. Yes. Goodbye burnout. Goodbye job stress. Good riddance to you, you muddy lump of All Bad Things. The sky was blue. Porthminster beach dazzled under the sun. I had a lot more walking to do.


Little blue tornado on the St Ives to Lelant walk

St Ives Bay Line: train crossing Lelant

Lelant railway station

Of owls, kites, and pelicans: Birding in Lalbagh, Bangalore

Ramya SriramTravel Writing, WritingLeave a Comment

Making the idea of “escape” accessible on a morning walk in Lal Bagh Botanical Garden, Bangalore.

I woke up one December morning in Bangalore with a huge grin on my face. What a wonderful day it was to be alive. I was finally going to see a Spotted Owlet! 

It isn’t often that I wake up with the mission of spotting a specific bird, but I had never seen an owl in the wild before, and was intrigued when Harsha (of Gundmi fame) declared that he could change this. A keen birder, he said he knew exactly where to look, and I was impressed with his confidence. We were going to go to Lal Bagh Botanical Garden, a 240-acre park in the middle of urban Bangalore. 

We reached the park when the sun was just rising. We climbed the “Lalbagh Rock”, a hillock made of grey-black, stratified gneiss rock. (I later learned that it was 3,000 million years old!). We sat on the cool stone, watching pigeons bathe in the growing light. I’ve always had a soft spot for sunrises, but what I like best is how slowly and gently dawn breaks. You can’t urge it to hurry up. The sun will rise at its own pace. 

We scrambled down the rock and joined the other walkers who marched briskly on the muddy path. They all looked very serious about getting their morning exercise in. We walked past impressive statues carved from the wood of fallen trees: an eagle made from a 200-year old “Nilgiri tree”, and a crocodile that looked all too real from afar. The damaged trees were carved by local artists after they fell in a 2017 storm.

We approached a small group of trees and Harsha suddenly paused. “Look up,” he announced. Ah, two words that always assure magic. 

And sure enough, sitting on the branch of a leafy ficus tree was a spotted owlet, eyes closed. It sat absolutely still, looking like a small cuddly bear. As I stared at it, its white eyelids opened slowly, just a little bit. It evaluated us through two narrow slits, decided we were unworthy of its attention, and went back its Vipassana-like meditative state. A few passers-by came to see what we were looking at, but didn’t look surprised at all to find the owl: it was a regular sight for many. They did a “namaste” sign, bowed their heads and continued on their determined stride. 

The breeze gently ruffled Little Goobe’s* brown-and-white feathers and rustled the leaves of the tree, but our owl was content, unbothered.  

A flurry of pigeons. Sunrise at Lal Bagh Botanical Garden, Bangalore © Ramya Sriram
Spotted owlet through the eyes of the binoculars. © Harsha [Check out his project Wild Gundmi]
Spot Little Goobe! © Ramya Sriram

After a while, the owl decided that this was enough of a morning adventure and took off unexpectedly, flying into a hole in the trunk of the tree. From there, it peered out again, eyes half-closed. I smiled, remembering a story my father-in-law had told me. In the Uttarakhand village he grew up in, a spotted owlet would sit on a wire overlooking the village’s main street. At night, when someone walked past, it would make loud noises. This often alerted other people in the village of someone’s  presence, like a warning sign or an alarm. He recalled the bird as being called khaskoodar. Little kids would get scared when they heard the bird’s call, but the elder would say, “Hush, don’t worry, it’s not an ullu (owl). It’s only a khaskoodar!” Harsha showed me three more owlets, and I waited for them to call out but no luck. 

We continued our walk, taking the path up to the large lake, watching parakeets feed on the ground along the way. When we reached the small bridge over the water, Harsha pointed excitedly: “Darter!” The large white bird dove and came up with a fish in its mouth, which it swallowed whole, the lump moving slowly down its slender neck, like a snake swallowing a frog. For a minute, I felt like I was watching this scene on TV. All around us, men and women continued to jog and walk in their shorts and white socks, many oblivious to the action happening around them.  

Above us, a Brahminy kite soared, its wings silhouetted in gold against the late morning sun. The Brahminy kite is one of my favourite birds. I find it so incredibly majestic, and I love the rust colour of its wings. It swooped down to the lake, flying close to the waters, but didn’t find what it was looking for. Its white snowy head pushed through the air like the nose of a plane and it took off back into the sky. It’s a common bird in Bangalore, and one that I think is highly underrated. It’s escapes the notice of many, as it flies over human heads buried in phones. I assume that life is less interesting for those who never look up 🙂

I’d thankfully brought my binoculars on that day because what we were about to see was stunning. A group of about 25 cormorants landed in the water suddenly. For a few minutes frenzied diving and splashing followed: black heads ducking underwater and emerging triumphant, with fish in their mouths.

In contrast to the noise and activity happening in the middle of the lake, there was a quiet stealthy hunt going on along the edge. A pond heron walked by the lake on its tall, thin legs, taking careful and quiet steps. Snap! It dipped its head into the water to catch an insect. It looked almost comical, as its neck moved back and forth with each step, like the Walk like an Egyptian move. “Hey, look!” Harsha exclaimed. I followed his gaze to find a reptilian head popping out of the water. Water snake! 

On an island in the lake, the cormorants now dried off in the sun after all their hard work. They spread their wings out like superheroes, a pose that I call “The Batman”. A grey heron in breeding plumage stood still next to them, white chest hair blowing softly in the wind. Red wattled lapwings stood in a row. I waited for them to make their characteristic, loud, “did he do it” call, but they were surprisingly quiet. Two little grebes sailed past us. I’d always thought birding was hard work, but this seemed incredibly easy.

Ever since I discovered birds, I have a new repository of bird-associated memories. The lapwings reminded me of the first time I saw them: in Udupi, flying out in a group from behind a large rocky hill near the sea. I’d seen grebes back in the UK, on a summer walk in the Spade Oak lake. I knew I’d remember this walk the next time I’d see cormorants or spotted owlets.

But one of my biggest surprises lay right ahead. We had almost finished our circular tour now, when I saw large white birds sitting on a little strip of land in the water. Ah, egrets. But wait, one of them looked different. A pelican?! I’d never seen one before! (I had to credit my instant recognition of the bird to Finding Nemo.) Through my binoculars, I could see the details of its eye: red, with a startlingly black bead in the centre. And next to the pelican stood a painted stork. I was elated: I didn’t have to go to Kokkare Bellur to see one! On the muddy bank of the river, I saw something purple moving. A grey-headed swamphen paced up and down, looking angry about something.

We took a bit of a detour on our way to the exit, stopping to take a look at the famous silk cotton tree. As I stood and looked at it, I suddenly felt like this was it. Moments like these seemed to contain everything I sought in the universe. “In spring, it’s full of white flowers,” Harsha said. I could only imagine how pretty it must be then. 

We walked past the garden, where I was greeted by spider lilies that grew up to my height, and the fiery flowers of the Malabar chestnut tree. I paused under a gulmohar tree and looked up, wondering if I’d find another owl. But I was amused at what I saw. On a bare branch, a large black bird sat on top of another. Black kites mating!

I always find it heartening to catch sight of two animals mating: it feels like a confirmation that all’s right with the world. It formed the perfect happy ending to our little journey. 

While I was thrilled to have seen spotted owlets and pelicans, darters and herons, the sight that stayed with me the most was that of the Brahminy kite soaring over the lake. I realized I didn’t have to stray too far to find something special. The walk around Lalbagh reinforced once again that to find something extraordinary, you just have to keep your eyes and ears open. I always equate “escaping” to physically moving as far away from my current situation as possible, but after Lalbagh, my “escape” has become a lot more accessible. With a little help from my friends, it’s getting easier.

https://youtu.be/Zc95HilfC_Q
https://youtu.be/ON15uvfvWuY

*Kannada word for owl

Khushkhati: The Urdu and Arabic calligraphers of Hyderabad

Ramya SriramTravel Writing, WritingLeave a Comment

A version of this article was published in Mint.

If there’s one thing that was common to all the rulers of the princely state of Hyderabad, it’s that they were all patrons of beauty in all forms—architecture, literature, furniture, jewellery, clothes. Glimpses of their legacy is seen in the shopping areas of Old City, which is full of bazaars dedicated to beautiful items — glistening bangles, radiant pearls, laced burqas, delicate perfumery and intricately carved brassware. So, of course, there’s a bazaar dedicated to beauty in script as well. 

Chatta Bazaar is a street that, besides featuring numerous printing presses, is known for its Urdu and Arabic calligraphers. One popular theory about the origin of its name is that it’s a mutilation of chaptha – printing – bazaar. I find myself there on a weekday morning, when shops have just started to open. The street is narrow and lined with colourful, neatly organized shops, all of which have windows filled with decorative cards. I start enquiring about calligraphers in the shops, only to be told that the market has long been dominated by computerized fonts and modern printing techniques. I visit about fifteen shops until, finally, someone directs me to a board that says “Welcome Printers”. I cross the busy road to find a small, blue kiosk tucked away inside a kaman. An elderly man in a white kurta is settling down, having just opened the shop. I spot a set of calligraphy pens on his desk.

IMG_4813.JPG

“So you’re here to take my interview?” he says, after I introduce myself. I nod. “What’s your name?” he asks, pulling out a long sheet of white paper. He draws light pencil lines on it using a ruler. Opening his little bottle of Camlin Waterproof black ink, he dips the nib of a pen and writes, with an unwavering hand, “Allah”. “Always write the name of God before starting to write,” he tells me. He goes on to write my name in Arabic and Urdu as I watch in fascination.  “It takes ten years to perfect an art like this,” he says. I suddenly remember the calligraphy lessons I’d taken a few years ago, where I was asked to practise drawing one line about two hundred times. 

IMG_4799.JPG
“Allah”, followed by by name “Ramya” in Urdu and Arabic

Mohammed Abid Khaleel, who learnt the art of calligraphy from his father, has been a professional calligrapher for about forty years. He wrote for the Siasat, a Hyderabad-based Urdu daily, for over ten years, after which he set up his own calligraphy service.

Is he handing down the art to his kids too? I ask.  He tells me that his five daughters are married and his two sons are engineers. 

What about materials? Are they easily available? These pens are hardly available in the market anymore, he says. “I’ve been using the same pens for 30 years!”

Mr Khaleel gets about 2-4 orders a day. He makes wall posters, flyers, wedding cards and visiting cards. He painstakingly pens invitees’ names onto envelopes. For bulk printing, his writing is scanned and then printed. “I work about 12 hours a day,” he says. I ask him about the future of calligraphy: “It lies in the hands of the Government. The Government does little to promote or support this art.”

I stop next at the highly recommended Nayeem Commercial Artist and Qattath. I walk up an unrailed staircase to two large airy shops which belong to Mr Mohammed Nayeem Saberi.  He welcomes me and asks his attendant to bring me the ‘photo book’. I open it, and to my surprise, find a photo of him with Ms Sheila Dixit. Mr Saberi has just returned after having participated in the Siasat Islamic Calligraphy and Art Exhibition in New Delhi. 


I take a look around his shop, the walls of which are covered with ornate frames of colourful calligraphy. I wonder if everything is digitally treated, as the ink is in gradient shades rather than solid. I am just about to voice my question, when he suddenly announces “How do you like my hand-written multicolour calligraphy?” I stare at him in disbelief. He brings out a flat piece of wood and asks me to examine it. “Bamboo,” he says. Mr Saberi has developed a unique style of art in which he’s used the broad tips of wooden rulers as calligraphy nibs.  Different colours are then added to the surface of the tip–one end is dipped in say, blue, the other end in red, and the in betweens are filled with dots of yellow and green. This chunk of wood is then held carefully over the surface, taking over the role of the ‘kalam’. As the tip moves over the paper, it leaves different shades of colour that blend into one another. Mr Saberi uses acrylic or oil paints and art paper. 

 

“There’s no electricity here and it’s so hot. You’ve come from so far,” he says, unexpectedly picking up a large poster and beginning to fan me vigorously with it. “No no,” I protest, taken aback, “I’m alright. Here, let me fan you.” 

“Guess my age!” Mr Saberi asks me, his eyes twinkling. “I’m 84! Such an old man. I’m 84 – par mera haath bilkul jawan hai!” (But my hands is still young!).

Mr Saberi was also invited to the Purani Haveli, the erstwhile residence of the Nizam, to take up custom calligraphy work, which was used as a base for embroidery designs. His work has been exhibited in various countries including Hyderabad, Bangalore, Delhi, Mecca, Jeddah and Kuwait. 

Mr Saberi has been painting since he was ten years old. During his college days, he learnt Urdu, Arabic and English calligraphy under the guidance of three different teachers respectively. Mr Saberi is an architect who worked in the Public Works Department for 40 years. “My pension is inadequate, so this is a good, additional source of income.”  Mr Saberi takes up custom work from all over the world, especially from people from the Gulf, to write the verses of the Quran in his unique style. He holds calligraphy workshops for both the young and old at the Siasat office, during their 40-day summer camp. 

Are there more calligraphers tucked away in the busy bylanes of Chatta Bazaar? Quite possibly. From what I understand, they are few and scattered. I drop in at the Hyderabad Cards Centre, which stocks cards from Delhi, Bombay, Chennai and Ahmedabad. “All the cards are printed nowadays,” Mr Saifuddin, one of the store partners, tells me. “Calligraphy is an art that’s fading away. Though, even today, there are maybe more than a hundred people who can write in calligraphy, most of them practise it as a hobby. Since the artists are underpaid, especially with computers taking over the market, parents discourage their children from taking it up as a full-time profession. To master the art, one has to put in many years of practice. The art is also dependent on factors such as age, because one cannot write with a shaky hand. There are very few artists left today who can write with satisfactory ‘sharpness’ in writing.”

Though there are computer fonts taking over the Urdu/Arabic printing industry, they cannot match the beauty of hand-written work, where each artist possesses a characteristic style and adds a personal touch to it. I hope that these artists are provided with a platform which will help protect and promote their work. The word for calligraphy in Urdu is khushkhati, literally meaning “happy writing”. With its graceful curves and lettering dotted with diamonds, this art surely delivers visual pleasure. And something that brings happiness is usually something worth preserving. 

IMG_4813.JPG

Mr Khaleel’s shop 

 

IMG_4810.JPG

Mr Khaleel’s writing instruments

IMG_4802.JPG

Original writing 

IMG_4803.JPG

Digitally enhanced and printed copy

IMG_4817.JPG

The unique calligraphy nibs of Mr Saberi

IMG_4824.JPG

The multicoloured calligraphy of Mr Saberi

IMG_4816.JPG

Mr Saberi at work 

Window seat view: Taking a train through the Scottish Highlands

Ramya SriramTravel Writing, Writing1 Comment

Loch Trieg Bothy

Recounting the experience of travelling by train through the Scottish Highlands. An artist’s dream!

Five and a half hours on a train through rugged mountains, thick pine forest and uninhabited moors. The West Highland Railway Line seemed to promise a much-needed mental and physical detour. So tempting was this train ride from Glasgow to Mallaig, that I booked a return journey on the same route for the very next day. It seemed reasonable to want to experience the journey both ways. A full eleven hours!

I convinced my long-suffering partner to come along with me, thrilled when he grunted out an affirmative. At Glasgow Queen Street, the train, in dark blue and yellow livery, awaited us. I was satisfied to find that the inside of the train was worn and rustic, a sign that the vehicle had accomplished some rough and long journeys. A few backpackers and hikers sat here and there, leaving plenty of seats empty. We sat by one of the enormous windows and prepared to drink in the views. 

It didn’t take long to leave the buildings and telegraph poles of Glasgow city behind. For the first half of the journey, Glasgow’s seagulls seemed to follow us, gliding above River Clyde. We went past the Singer railway station, which was built over a hundred years ago to serve the sewing machine factory there.

Shortly after Dumbarton station, we went through a tunnel, that opened into a gorgeous view of steep mountains easing into blue waters. Very much like falling through a rabbit hole! To my left, I saw pine trees silhouetted in black against the saturated sky. On the other side, Gare Loch glistened beneath brown mountains, whose peaks were half-hidden by the clouds. 

This was a theatrical experience. It was May, and the snow was melting in large streaks of liquid white, leaking down the slopes like a vanilla ice-cream cone on a hot day. We travelled beside several lochs big and small: Loch Long featured translucent ripples on which the sunshine danced; Loch Lomond’s undisturbed waters offered an opaque, clear mirror. It took a while for the eye to get adjusted to this unusual colour palette of greys and greens and browns: the Highland’s own Oil Colour Collection.  

The snow melting into Loch Lomond

We went past Arrochar and Tarbet, continuing upwards to Ardlui. Crianlarich, a small village with a bright green Londis clearly visible from the train, was where the train split into two. Some coaches went to Oban via Lower Tyndrum, and some went to Fort William and Mallaig via Upper Tyndrum. Strangely enough, Tyndrum is one the smallest villages in the UK that is served by two stations. (According to the 2011 censes, less than 200 people lived there!) Before we reached Upper Tyndrum, the land, which had so far been sparse, suddenly seemed to sprout a green mass of thick vegetation on either side. As we moved on, the single-ridge mountain of Beinn Bhreac-liath stood towering over the land like an imposing plateau, the snow on top spilling over like a tablecloth.

Between Upper Tyndrum and the Bridge of Orchy lies the famous horseshoe curve, which loops around three mountains (the railway engineers didn’t have the money to build a viaduct that would go across the valley). It was quite thrilling to be able to see the tracks wind themselves around the foot of the massive hills. The Bridge of Orchy station was quiet and unassuming but, to my surprise, some of my co-passengers got off here. I then learned that the old station building now serves as a bunkhouse for hikers and walkers in the area. I made a mental note to go back and stay there one day!

As we started to approach Rannoch Moor, I spotted a group of wild deer running across the plain. It’s a sight that will stay with me forever, these animals bounding with wild abandon across a land that is likely to stay inaccessible and untouched for some time to come. 

Rannoch Moor
The peculiar landscape of Rannoch

Rannoch Moor is a startlingly barren and boggy piece of land. Little rivulets break up the land mass, and light sparkles in the water-filled cracks. I spotted two mallards, their brilliant green heads an almost absurd contrast to the rest of the landscape. Clumps of pine huddled together, as though seeking safety in numbers in this desolate landscape. The snow at the top of the peaks was such a bright white that it almost hurt the eyes: giant swish-swashes of bold brush. 

We head to Corrour, Britain’s highest railway station and one of the remotest parts of the country. Earthy tones here: swathes of burnt umber, sienna and beige cover the canvas. For a little relief, the blue of Lake Ossian peaked out from behind thick conifers. For miles around, there didn’t seem to be a soul. 

We now seemed to be at a height, overlooking the valley below us. Beside Loch Trieg, a muddy path lead to a grey building. The painter’s afterthought, perhaps: of course there had to be a lake-side house with a winding road.  What an incongruity, this man-made construction, in the otherwise natural, naked setting.

Loch Trieg

The bit from Corrour to Tulloch was possibly my favourite part of the journey. Loch Treig hugged the shoreline. As we worked our way towards Roy Brige and Spean Bridge, comforting shades of green started to reappear, easy on the eyes after the almost Gothic theme of Rannoch moor. The land grew fertile. Waterfalls cascaded over the mountainsides. Carpets of grassy meadows covered the valleys. River Spean looked like a great spot for white water rafting, its waters gushing over rocks. We reached Fort William, where many hikers got off the train. While serving as an entry point for several treks, this town is also the starting point of the hike to Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in the UK.

In Loch Eilt, I spotted a small islet sporting a group of trees. Even from so far away, I could clearly see the branches of the tall, handsome Scots pines bearing their broccoli-like tufts. Hmmm… a dry brush here perhaps, the paint thick.

Suddenly, there was a lot of frenzied activity. Everyone brought out their cameras and crowded at the windows on the left. Clearly something big was coming up! The train slowed down considerably as we approached the Glennfinnan viaduct, of Harry Potter fame. You could see the engine make its slow turn around the viaduct, over the tall, graceful arches. It was a sight worth seeing, but marred by everyone at the window with mobile phones and cameras. Trees in different stages of leaf-burst in the foreground introduced a lake (Loch Shiel), nestled in between rugged, lilac-blue mountains. To the left lay a patch of football ground in velvet green, beside a meadow that looked ready to produce  wildflowers. Look, some brighter colours to add to our Highland Railways Artist Palette.

Glenfinnan viaduct
The view from Glenfinnan

A group of hikers in the valley stopped to look at us. My eyes zoomed in to find a kid wearing a blue jacket waving: I enthusiastically waved back from behind the window. The train stopped for a bit to allow everyone to capture Insta-worthy photos, while I frantically tried to embed the image onto my brain. 

The journey onwards visually softened, as the mountains became fewer and smaller. Browns became blues, and the sea and sky seemed to merge in places, the horizon invisible. At Arisaig, the view was forgiving and welcoming: a wide, calm sea. It was almost like the topography grew tired of the ups and downs and wanted something level, peaceful. Yachts dotted the waters, and the silvery beaches of Morar shone. The sea took on more and more colour as we got closer to our final stop. Mallaig was as picturesque as it had sounded: a charming little fishing village with a sky full of gulls. The train came to a halt. It was now time to bring out the Scottish Seaside Watercolour Set.

The fishing village of Mallaig

More pictures

Corrour station
The horseshoe curve with the Auch viaduct below
The very impressive Beinn Bhreac-liath
The train approaches at Mallaig station
Inside the train

 

Excellent collection of railway books at the second-hand bookshop in Mallaig

If you’re interested in exploring the Highlands, Walk Highlands is a great place for resources.

Also read: Train journey of a lifetime: 42 hours on the Konkan Railway

Living in Cherry Hinton: Cambridge’s pocket of peace

Ramya SriramPersonal Essays, Travel Writing, Writing13 Comments

A year of living in the lovely neighbourhood of Cherry Hinton, Cambridge: finding calm in the chaos.

I was standing by the railway crossing on the High Street, admiring the row of cherry trees that lined the street. In full bloom, they made for a postcard-worthy picture: pink and white flowers against a clear blue sky. Walking on the other side of the footpath was a lady in a summery dress, equally enamoured by the sight. We stood two metres apart and talked about how lucky we were to be greeted by a sight like this against the dreary backdrop of a global pandemic. 

During the COVID-19 lockdown, I had the chance to explore the neighbourhood of Cherry Hinton during the permitted once-a-day exercise. Thankfully, there were plenty of open spaces to escape to. The vast grounds of the Cherry Hinton Hall Park offered a meditative space during those unsettling months, when the cases rose in the UK and flights to my home country (India) were suspended. I found solace in the consistency and regularity of nature’s ways: spring came and went, as did summer, the leaves fell in autumn. I know now that the trees have been faithful friends, the duck pond a quiet absorber of my worries.

We were well into the third week of lockdown when I realized that the situation wasn’t going to let up anytime soon and I had to figure out ways to keep myself sane. And getting out for a walk was one of them. When the news got worse, my walks got longer. It was early March when the first lockdown was announced, the beginning of spring. It was comforting to see little signs of new life appear everywhere: snowdrops in a neighbour’s garden, specks of green re-appearing on bare branches. Gardens burst into colour, bringing out their best displays of hyacinths, daffodils, bluebells and tulips. This was not a bad neighbourhood to be confined in at all. As the number of people on the streets decreased, online communities grew: the Cherry Hinton Residents Association and the Community News group in particular did a great job of keeping everyone connected. 

Cherry trees on the High Street in spring

 

Cherry trees on the High Street in autumn

Summer came with the arrival of seven swan babies in the park. This news was collectively celebrated in the neighbourhood: people of all ages went to look at the grey-brown cygnets. Those of us who could, went to check on them regularly: we felt a sense of great responsibility for them. Pictures and updates were shared on the Facebook community groups so that everyone was in the loop. We echoed exclamations of dismay when two of the babies disappeared (possibly caught by foxes on Snakey Path).


Proud new parents

As the lockdown dragged on, months passed in a blur. Watching the trees in the park helped me mark the passage of time. It’s incredible what a tree can tell you about the seasons. My particular favourite was (and is) the horse chestnut tree. I love its dramatic display in spring and its equally grand colours in autumn. It was also on this tree that I spotted my first ever Great Spotted Woodpecker, something that went into my book of Remarkable Events During The Lockdown. The Cherry Hinton Tree Trail helped me tell a beech from a birch and also took me to trees I wouldn’t have found otherwise: the paperbark maple, the Japanese pagoda. In autumn, I watched the sweet gum tree turn a deep, rich red, and the Persian ironwood a dull golden. About a month before Christmas, bunches of mistletoe started appearing on the Rowan tree. The trees simply went on with their lives, lockdown or no lockdown. It reinforced a sense of normalcy when everything else seemed absurd.   

The Persian ironwood tree in Cherry Hinton Hall Park
Mistletoe growing on a Rowan tree in the park

As an amateur birder, I discovered that the Chalk Pits (and the surrounding woods) were teeming with birdlife. A kestrel one day, a sparrowhawk the next. I went early morning one day with my binoculars and was pleased to meet a fellow birder who was squinting up at the trees just like I was. The Chalk Pits make for a great day out especially during the summer, when the white chalk seems to reflect the sun, taking on a strange kind of luminosity. It’s also a place to look out for rare plants. 

In the winter, a walk along the (in)famous Snakey Path grew to be something of a ritual: this winding road by Cherry Hinton Brook offers plenty of opportunities to watch wildlife at close quarters. I don’t know if it’s just me but the birds on this path seem to be less shy. Robins, jays, all kinds of finches and tits: they seem to be a little more fearless on this path and are curious to get to know you. Imagine my delight when I recently saw a little egret land with a splash into the waters right in front of me! In winter, I met a muntjac deer, that stared at me with its big dark eyes from across the brook, the way only deer can. Snakey Path produces the soundtrack of a horror movie on December mornings: the wind whooshes through the trees, the branches creak, and the sounds of woodpeckers drumming seem to come from all directions: you’d almost think that they were ventriloquists.

Early morning robin on Snakey Path

Another reason that I like Cherry Hinton (and Cambridgeshire) is for its vast sky, that curves like a hemisphere over the flat fenlands. Whether you’re looking out from your kitchen window or are walking near the airport grounds, there’s something always going on above you. During the pandemic it was impossible to go a few days without looking up and being mellowed by the sight: smoky messages of hope scribbled by skywriters, rare Marshall aircraft, a stunning sunrise or sunset, double rainbows. From my backyard, I saw the Starlink satellites appear, one by one, into the Earth’s orbit, another time I saw the Perseid meteor shower.

Much-needed sign over Addenbrooke’s Hospital during COVID-19 times. Also got the pilot in frame!
Winter sunrise

I’ve spent over a year here now, and it’s been a year of exploring a relationship with this neighbourhood. Michelle Bullivant’s blog has been a great source of information, and the Cherry Hinton Memories group is full of interesting stories about the village’s history. I’ve enjoyed reading about local legends like Gogmagog and I’ve seen residents’ memories of the recently-demolished Green Hut come to life. If you walk a little further away from the heart of Cherry Hinton, there are longer routes waiting for wayfarers: such as the Roman Road and Fleam Dyke. But you don’t have to particularly walk very far: even a short amble around the High Street is rewarding. Whether it’s a huge open space like the Cherry Hinton Hall Park or a smaller green space like the Church End ground, it’s incredible that we have these spaces to sustain and nourish us, especially during trying times. I’m glad to have got to know some of the secrets this little part of the world holds. And I can’t wait for spring to come again, when I can smell the sweet, powerful scent of hyacinths from someone’s garden while waiting for Citi 1 at the bus stop.

St Mary’s Islands, Mangalore, Karnataka: India’s piece of Madagascar

Ramya SriramTravel Writing, WritingLeave a Comment

St Mary’s Islands in Mangalore, Karnataka, is home to massive basaltic rocks that formed millions of years ago, when Madagascar split from India.

It’s a blazing hot February afternoon. The summer sky is a clear, gemstone blue, and the sun is white, blinding. A gentle sea-breeze soothes my heat-flushed cheeks. I am at the coastal town of Malpe in Karnataka, about to take the 30-minute ferry to St Mary’s Islands. With me is Harsha, close friend and proud local, who’s been to the island several times and is excited to show me around. The poster at the ferry ticket office displays pictures of dolphins leaping out of the waters and I’m enormously excited at the chance of spotting them. We climb onto the boat along with about fifty other people. 

The wind is strong, and I stand at the bow of the boat, clutching at my billowing kurta. Brahminy kites soar above us, their white heads silhouetted against the burning sun. I stare down in anticipation at the waters, waiting for the aforementioned dolphins to emerge. But instead, I feel a vibration from the bottom of the boat: a loud Bollywood song. I’d forgotten that the Rs 300 ticket had also promised on-board entertainment. Surely this would only scare away any potential sightings of animals and birds? I look around annoyed, but nobody else seems to mind. Twenty minutes into the ride, I notice a large group of seagulls above a rocky outcrop. The tips of the rocks were splashed with white: “from decades of bird droppings”, Harsha supplies helpfully. A distant brown line in the horizon grows bigger and bigger and puts forth coconut trees as it approaches. Blobs of rocks appear scattered all around the island. 

The ferry is too big to moor directly so we get ourselves into a smaller boat which takes us closer to the shore. We wade through the waters barefoot, slippers in hand, towards the jaunty “Welcome to St Mary’s Island” sign.  

From the outside, the islands look like any tropical getaway you might have seen in a magazine: turquoise blue sea, white sandy beaches and wind-swept palms. However, what makes them unique are the enormous structures that fringe it — columnar rocks rising up to 15 feet in height. These rocks were formed by the volcanic activity that took place when Madagascar broke off from India, a rift that occurred 88 million years ago. Today, this group of islands is separated from their cousins by 3,000 miles of sea. Though not immediately obvious, the islands are split into four smaller ones: Coconut Island, Daryabahadurgarh Island, North Island and South Island. Vasco Da Gama is said to have landed here first, Harsha says. I secretly hoped that it was cooler weather when he did. 

St Mary’s Islands, Mangalore, Karnataka: A link to Madagascar | © Ramya Sriram

We walk towards the northern point of the island, where the huge basaltic columns spring from the Arabian Sea like giant, disproportionate Kit-Kat bars. On these bars perch selfie-taking vacationers. I look down at the sand only to find that it isn’t sand at all, but sea shells! Miles and miles of sea-shells dot the coast, sparkling like grains of rice and millet under the sun. Most of them are fragmented and broken. I scrape the ground with my foot to see if it would reveal a layer of sand below, but I just find more and more seashells. I climb one of the rocks (more slippery than I had imagined). From here, I look at the irregular and peculiar rows of rocks jutting out from the island, and it reminds me of a Cambodian temple:an Angkor Wat rising form the sea. 

Columnar rocks of lava jutting out of the sea | © Sri Harsha Maiya

Towards the west of the island, the grey-brown rocks are closely packed together in hexagonal shapes. Layers of rocks are stacked on top of each other, giving rise to a multi-level platform. The face of the rocks join together to form a mosaic pattern, that of a honeycomb or an ant’s eye. At the bottom of the plateau, the rocks are covered in hundreds of barnacles. As we walk to the next level, I see little rock pools in hollows and dents where the tide reaches. Crabs lay sprawled out in the sun in the pools. I find a good spot to sit, while Harsha climbs all the way to the top level of this pyramid-like structure. I watch him shrink until he becomes a tiny toy person on top of a gigantic structure. “Felt like Pride Rock,” he says when he returns. 

Billions of blistering brown barnacles | © Sri Harsha Maiya
Viewpoint | © Ramya Sriram
Rock pools | © Ramya Sriram

We sit on the sands and observe the waves moving in and out, frothing and swirling around the hardened, ancient lava. I think about how at some point these rocks had also been in liquid form and how impenetrable they seemed now. The colours of the waves change as they approach the land: from deep green to pale, translucent blue, from shadow-grey to pearly white. I notice that a rock-platform in front of us is in the shape of a Komodo dragon, its hexagonal pattern not entirely unlike the texture of lizard skin. I imagine it heaving itself up and taking big clumsy steps. The unforgiving sun is making me hallucinate. 

We walk around the island, stopping at places where the rocks make corridors, tunnels, controlling how much of the sea can come into the land. A sandpiper makes its way in a clear straight line, picking at insects and molluscs, oblivious to us. As we approach a pebble beach, we stumble on a strange sight. Interspersed among the smooth, round grey stones lie large white structures. Bones! Harsha picks up a long curved bone and brandishes it like a sword. We later find out that it is a turtle rib bone. A cuttlebone, broken in half,  lies in a corner. A few steps ahead: a perfectly shaped wishbone! Various joints surround us: it’s hard to tell what they might belong to. As if on guard, a black kite circles us overhead. Did it think we were potential thieves? Was there more to discover, was this its loot? We return the bones to where we found them and move on. 

Turtle bone found on the beach | © Ramya Sriram

I had noticed that overnight stays were prohibited on this uninhabited island and felt a twinge of curiosity. What would it be like to spend the night here, among bones and hungry birds of prey? What was this place like after sunset, during high tide? I will never find out. 

We hear the last call for the boat taking us back to Malpe. As we walk back, I’m pleased to see that the “No Plastic” boards on the island seem to be working. A young boy sits on the shore, tipping the last few drops of coconut water into his mouth directly from the coconut: no sign of straws on this strip of land. A little egret, its yellow feet against the black rock, surveys the beach for a snack. Would it be a crab, an insect or fish? On this island, it seemed to be spoilt for choice. 


Read also: Gundmi: Of paddy fields and barefoot simplicity

Check out Harsha’s amazing wildlife project: Wild Gundmi

A walk to Eel Tarn, Eskdale, Lake District

Ramya SriramTravel Writing, WritingLeave a Comment

Eel Tarn, a glacial lake on top of a hill in Lake District’s Eskdale, is as beautiful as they say it is.

The village of Boot in Eskdale is a hub for hikers and mountain-walkers, providing a gateway to some of Lake District’s most spectacular fells. But an injured foot meant that I could not take on a long hike. While planning our visit, my partner Kshitij and I made note of Eel Tarn on the map, which was only a mile away from Boot. If we didn’t end up walking the fells, we said, we would sit by the shores of this lake and eat crisps. It sounded like an excellent idea.

After spending half a day walking in the Eskdale valley, we tucked into a good lunch at the Brookhouse Inn. On the way back, I saw a sign that said it was a mile to Eel Tarn. I decided to follow the sign while Kshitij said that he would join me later. For some reason it had completely slipped my mind that a tarn meant a “mountain lake”, I kept imagining a Wastwater-like lake in the valley.

The path was gently sloping upwards but was very mucky in parts from the previous day’s rains. I realized I was gaining considerable height after a while, and I assumed that I would have to climb down this hill on the other side to get to the lake. I startled a couple of sheep along the way, who looked annoyed at having their peaceful afternoon disturbed. Looking back I could see Gill Force snaking its way down through the large brown mountains. The light of the sun made the grassy meadow below shine. I love this about the Lake District: green squares of farm full of grazing sheep, like white billiard balls on a pool table.

Looking at Eskdale en route Eel Tarn

The walk got steeper, and as I climbed, I kept looking back at the view, which only got better. At some point, I encountered a morose sheep sitting on the path, which started baa-ing loudly at me. It just sat there, refusing to move. I even said hello to it, hoping that it would politely give way, but it looked pretty threatening (as threatening as sheep can look). I considered baa-ing back even louder in an effort to establish authority, but decided a squabble with a sheep was unnecessary. I walked around it and it followed me for a while, which made me feel like I had won.

I then came across a small stream that bubbled down into the valley. It was most unpleasant to walk on the slush in inappropriate shoes. I had given my hiking boots to Kshitij as I’d assumed I didn’t need them just to walk a mile to a ground-level lake. The mud was very loose and I kept slipping. Large fern fronds, red and brown, arched towards me. After twenty minutes of walking, I saw no sign of any lake in the valley below, and I was quite sure that I was lost.

I was grateful when I saw a couple sitting by the old peat hut about halfway up the hill. I asked them if they knew where Eel Tarn was and they looked quite blank and said that they were lost and were trying to find their way back to Woolpack Inn. I gave them directions and the lady said, “Good luck, love,” which I clearly needed.

It started to drizzle now, and I was started to doubt my navigation skills. As I walked on, my foot got stuck in the mud. I yanked my leg, and my foot obliged, leaving my shoe firmly fixed in the ground. I retrieved mud-covered shoe, and realized that my socks were soaking wet and my toes were as cold as ice. If you’re looking to do this walk, please wear sensible hiking boots. I stumbled on to the top of the hill, and was perplexed to find no sign of any lake. I settled down on a rock, thinking I might as well relax till the rain stopped. I looked at everything around me: the green-brown fells, the sunlit valley (in spite of the rain), the sheep. And for a moment the world went quiet: the sheep stopped baa-ing, the rain cleared up, the grasshoppers stopped chirping. It was a window for recalibration, for peace. I realized I didn’t mind not making it to the tarn: the walk in itself had been fun so far.

 

Taking a minute to recalibrate

I wondered if Kshitij was on his way with aforementioned crisps and possibly a bar of chocolate which I now felt I deserved. So imagine my delight when I stood up and saw a small figure with a backpack making its way up the hill. Oi! I yelled and waved frantically. In another few mitnues we were reconciled like long-lost lovers, and I found renewed hope. After some exploring, we managed to find this lake.

Eel Tarn is everything you read about online (“picturesque”, “idyllic”, “artists’ paradise”) and much more. Once I got over the initial surprise of it being at the very top of the hill, I realized it was much larger than I had expected it to be. The waters were steel grey, surrounded by rust-coloured grass and hills. Though it looked very inviting, I decided to wait for warmer weather to swim in it. We sat on the rocky outcrop beside the tarn, watching the landscape in awe, the crisps and chocolate completely forgotten.

 

Eel Tarn: a glacial bowl of water on top of the hill
Beautiful colours!

We reluctantly left, making our way down the hill through the steeper route that leads almost directly to the Woolpack Inn. From Eel Tarn you can walk further to Stony Tarn and the more intriguing Burnmoor Tarn, and there’s even a route to Wast Water, but that’s for next time.

I’ve always climbed hills for spectacular view of the valleys, I’ve rarely climbed a hill expecting to see something at its summit. I used to think think that large glacial pools were only found in mountains like the Himalayas or the Alps. I’ve always associated the Lake District with views of lakes nestled in valleys, surrounded by mountains. But now I know there are deep-blue glacial pools sitting on top of these mountains too. Tarns of Lakeland, here I come.

For more info see Woolpack Inn’s directions here.

Also read: Blea Tarn, Little Langdale: A Lake District gem

Blea Tarn, Little Langdale: A Lake District gem

Ramya SriramTravel Writing, WritingLeave a Comment

Blea Tarn in Little Langdale is probably one of the most spectacular lakes I’ve ever seen. It’s a place that’s hard to describe without using one too many adjectives. The tarn is not the easiest to get to: though it was only an hour away from Ambleside, where my partner and I were staying, the drive was fairly tricky, uphill and narrow in parts. There are variety of walks in the area (see National Trust) but we only did the short walk around the lake, which was beautiful in itself.

Keeping up the tradition of always being the first to arrive at any National Trust car park, we got there to find the car park empty, even though it was late morning by the time we arrived. From the car park, the lake looks like a giant, shallow puddle, flanked by trees. It’s only when you get closer that you realize the tarn is quite huge, and is supposed to be 7 m deep. (For reference, the deepest tarn in the Lake District, Blea Water, is 61 m deep.)

The valley of Blea Tarn connects Little Langdale to Great Langdale: in the centre of the frame I could see the famous Langdale Pikes. It was fairly chilly for March. The thing that stood out for me was the deep sapphire blue of the waters: it was dark, yet strangely iridescent. The group of pine trees that stood beside the lake seem huddled together for warmth, thick and lush. A gravelly path led to the woods, through a fence. It was incredibly quiet and serene, except for the tit-tit of a robin.

 

A quiet spot

From the woods we got closer to the lake, which rippled with the waves of the wind. Some parts of it were curiously undisturbed and still, so there were patches of smooth mirror-surfaces. While it was tempting to settle down there and let the creative juices flow, I found myself too overwhelmed to be able to think of anything. Though Blea Tarn looks very postcard-y and tame in pictures, there’s something about the place that can only be felt: a sort of overwhelming calm. No wonder then than it won a place in Wordsworth’s heart, who referred to it as “a liquid pool that glittered in the sun” in The Solitary.

The sun plays a massive role in defining the colour of the landscape here, as it rose higher in the sky we watched the shadows move across the lake and the fells, parts of it completely blacked out at times.

The sun being selective at Blea Tarn

A small stream, Bleamoss Beck, runs out of the tarn. The footbridge over it provides a nice meditative spot: I hoped to see a rare bird or two, but even the birds seemed to be hiding that morning.

Bleamoss Beck

We didn’t climb Lingmoor Fell or Pike o’ Blisco as we were short of time but it’s definitely something I want to go back for one day. We were very lucky to have had the tarn to ourselves that morning and experience it without a hurried agenda or a summit to achieve. Even with a prominent place on the map, a National Trust car park and plenty of Google reviews, Blea Tarn still feels like a special, personal secret.

 

Piddington Circular Walk, Oxfordshire

Ramya SriramTravel Writing, WritingLeave a Comment

The Piddington circular walk is a varied but easy walk in rural Oxfordshire. The 6-mile route takes you through vast grazing lands, dotted with placid sheep and somewhat suspicious cows. The path follows the slope up Muswell Hill, one of the highest points in the Cherwell District, which overlooks the gentle, rolling slopes of the valley. 

My partner and I were recommended this walk by our landlady, who was born and bred in the area. She recounted it as one of the loveliest walks from her childhood: her seal of approval encouraged us!

The walk starts at the Piddington village hall. The August sun had helped put forth a stunning display of garden colours in the village: pink hollyhocks, giant sunflowers, delicate bursts of allium. We spent the first few minutes walking on the village street, past the old pub, St Nicholas Church and then went through a gate that opened into a narrow path. The route was waymarked by little yellow signs by the gates. I expected the ground to be slushy in places after the previous night’s rain but it was surprisingly firm. For the next half hour or so, it was a steady and gentle climb towards the top of Muswell Hill. I noticed that clovers sprung up in some parts and I looked curiously if I could spot four-leaved ones. No luck! Sedges grew in plenty, adding brown and red shades to the otherwise dry grass. I spotted many wildflowers of blue and white as we walked up the field.

A large white horse, with a face that looked like it was chiselled out of limestone, looked curiously at us from behind a fence as we walked along. I almost expected it to take off into the air, Pegasus-like. Ahead of us a large group of big, bulky cows grazed. I walked nervously near the fence, ready to run for my life if they decided to chase us. All was well however, they seemed to be happy to keep a distance. 

At the top of the hill, we sat under a large sycamore tree, which seemed to be placed there only for that purpose. A chimney smoked in the valley below, a cloud of white rising gently and disappearing into the ones above. At this point we could see Manor House, a part of the building that was built in the 17th century. It was getting cloudier and darker though it was only just past noon. With it threatening to rain, we reluctantly decided to move on. A few metres ahead I noticed fox scat! Just a few weeks ago, we had driven up to Muswell Hill en route Brill (B4011) at dusk, and while we stood there taking in the view, I had seen my first fox ever. I wondered vaguely if it was actually the same fox’s poop I was looking at. 

The route downhill took us through yet another enormous field with about a gazillion sheep grazing. I love sheep, such nice fellows. They looked like white cotton balls under the darkening sky. We then walk through Piddington Wood, my favourite part of the walk. I prefer walking under tree canopies so much more than open sky: I love watching the shapes of the leaves silhouetted against the light. Several different varieties of trees made up this wood–I could tell oak and silver birch. We walked through another gate by a massive oak tree (a likely candidate for Enid Blyton’s Magic Faraway Tree) and walked by a field of the deepest green. On the way back we spotted a thatch-roof cottage, “Old Inn Cottage”, which my trusty Council Brochure said was built for the masons who built the church.

Cotton wool sheep under a darkening sky

 

The Magic Faraway Tree has been found

The rest of the walk is fairly straightforward, and takes you back to the village hall. The Piddington circular is well worth reserving for a day-long ramble in the countryside. Though the walk is fairly gentle, there are enough attractions along the way for it to be called interesting.

Check out the Council guide here.

Read also: Bourne End to Little Marlow Walk: A day out in the Chilterns

Bourneend to Little Marlow Walk: A day out in the Chilterns

Ramya SriramTravel Writing, WritingLeave a Comment

The Bourne End to Little Marlow walk takes you through the peaceful Spade Oak reserve and stunning Thames valley views. It’s a quintessential Chilterns walk, one that I’ve gone back to over the years.

I was introduced to the concept of circular walks a few years ago when I moved to England. One of the walks that I’ve grown particularly fond of over time is the Little Marlow walk, a fairly easy walk which is fun most times of the year (except on really hot days). The Spade Oak Reserve promises sightings of interesting birds: I saw my first black swans and my first Great Crested Grebe there. And this was before I became a keen birder! Even though the walk only 3 miles long, it’s worth it.  

My partner and I lived in Bicester then, an unassuming town in Oxfordshire. Bourne End was an hour’s drive away: when we reached the station car park, we were pleased to find it empty. The route starts off on a narrow muddy path which takes you to the riverside.  

The first stretch of the walk is along the Upper Thames way and takes you past the marina. There are some pretty and funky-looking houses either side of the river, which made us quite envious (“When we’re old and rich….”). The river was full, brimming with diamonds of sunlight. White sailboats glided past, against the backdrop of still-wintry trees.

The route opened out into a large meadow: a dog’s dream. A cocker spaniel, wet ears and all, bounded across the grass like it was experiencing freedom for the first time. A border collie jumped into the river to fetch a ball and shook itself vigorously below a weeping willow. A row of geese patiently stood in line to enter the water. (A year later, the geese were still there, seems to be a place they know as home.) Ducks, coots, swans: they all seemed quite happy here.

As we walked along the hedge towards the railway line, we spotted a few cows grazing in the distance. I hurried, still nervous from my recent experience of being chased by a group of angry, protective cow-parents. Once we crossed the railway line, we found ourselves on a muddy path that wound itself round a beautiful lake that mirrored the sky. Flanked by reeds, The Spade Oak lake is home to a variety of water wildlife. Previously a site of sand and gravel excavation, the gravel here was used to build an extension of the M40, which ironically is the motorway we took to get there. The Buckinghamshire Bird Club volunteers in the area, aiming to develop the area as a safe breeding ground for birds. Going by what I saw, it looked like they were doing a great job. In the distance, there was an island on which hundreds and hundreds of Canada geese were gathered. We stood for a walk close to the margins of the lake, hoping to spot some rare birds. While only a few mallards showed up initially, a pair of curious black swans came up to us eventually. (Three summers later I went into raptures when I spotted my first Great Crested Grebe here. No mating dance, but it seems like a great place to catch one.)

The Little Marlow walk: A good chance to see Black Swans
Great-crested Grebe
Canada geese flying over Spade Oak lake

The path (which leads further up to Little Marlow) eventually reaches a paved road on which we walked for a short while before turning back into a field. The hard tar is a bit of a shock to the feet after walking on mud for a long time. We were only too happy to stop at the Spade Oak pub to tuck into pizza and chips, and possibly the best Aperol Spritz I’ve had.  

This is a good walk to do in early spring and early summer. We tried to do the walk in peak summer: but it was incredibly hot and weirdly smelly, though the ice-cream truck at the beginning of the walk provided some relief. I suspect it must be a beautiful walk to do in winter, especially if it’s snowing.

My favourite part of the entire walk is strangely just the initial stretch by the river, which is nothing spectacular in itself, but if you catch it on a day when the light shines at just the right angle, it seems like a place worth skipping the Sunday lie-in for.


Get more information on the Chilterns AONB website here.

Read also: An Illustrated Keswick Walk: Walla Crag to Ashness Bridge

A walk in the neighbourhood: Cherry Hinton, Cambridge

Ramya SriramTravel Writing, WritingLeave a Comment

One of the things I love most about muggy, overcast days is that all the colours of the earth below seem richer in contrast to the grey skies. The grass looks greener, the daffodils brighter. As I lock the door of my house to step out for a walk, I notice that the pillbugs that are usually near the rose bush are absent today. One of those rainy, curl-up-in-bed days for them perhaps. 

Outside on the high street, cars whoosh past me in the evening rush. I like patterns: I take the same route almost every day in between work, a little circular walk of my own. Semi-detached houses line the street, each with its own carefully-maintained garden. Red roses climb on a trellis outside a house, alongside white ones. As a faithful lover of bold tiger lilies, I’ve recently found a new appreciation for more conservative roses. Especially white roses tinged with pale pink, like wispy clouds in a fading sunset sky. 

I walk away from the high street onto a smaller street, where the noise of the traffic fades away and the song of a blackbird takes over. Perched on top of an antenna, it creates a tune of squiggly loops and lilting trills, like water bubbling over rocks in a stream. Bees feast on lavender plants that grow alongside the footpath, and large, white flowers of bindweed emerge from an overgrown patch. Parasols of elderflowers sprout from a large bush in front of me, each individual flower like a mini-sparkler that I’ve held as a kid. Blueberries grow robustly in a garden, and I see more roses by another lawn, some heavier flowers bending over. Across the street, I spot a vertical wall of green hedge, studded with little shiny yellow jewels – St John’s Wort. I go closer to examine them, such exquisite little things! I start to question my loyalty to my flower favourites. 

 

Elderflower sparklers

Joining the blackbird’s chorus is now a wood pigeon which stares unblinking at me from the branch of a grey birch, its 5-syllable song appearing to say, “Go hoooome now, go home!”  I contemplate walking further down to the park, where I have a favourite horse chestnut tree (I saw my first woodpecker there). But it looks like it’s going to rain any minute, and I decide to follow the pigeon’s advice. 

On my way back, I realize that the cherry trees that line the street are barely noticeable now, and blend into the landscape. Just a few weeks ago, they were in full bloom, grabbing the attention of anyone with a camera or smartphone and sending everyone into raptures. It’s almost as if they’ve stepped back to make way for the other flora to have their moments of glory. 

Between the grills of a house, I see lilac poppies, their petals looking like they were created from watercolour. Tiny red and pink trumpet-shaped flowers dot another garden. I don’t know what they are, but they seem to promise the discovery of new words and a new shade to add to my colour palette. 

I’m almost home now, the cars are still whizzing past, and the pedestrian signal is loudly beeping. As I open the gate, I notice that in the far corner of our hedge, a rose has bloomed quietly, soft white and pristine.

 

Gundmi: Of paddy fields and barefoot simplicity

Ramya SriramTravel Writing, Writing4 Comments

My right leg was starting to hurt as I balanced all my weight on it mid-step, trying to not make a sound. We were standing on the bund of a paddy field, and had just spotted a kingfisher enjoy the afternoon sun. It bobbed up and down, as the branch it sat on swayed gently in the breeze. Below it, an emerald pool glistened, holding the promise of three square meals a day. To my right, corn-yellow fields stretched up to the horizon, where a row of coconut trees touched the sky.

With an eye out for snakes in the grass, I followed Harsha, who was leading the way, barefoot. He had grown up in this village, with its red-wattled lapwings, ubiquitous crickets and rich, fertile soil. Groundnut plantations flourished in between just-harvested paddy fields. H pulled out a leafy legume, with a bunch of about 20 groundnuts attached to its roots. Beaming, I munched on the freshly picked nuts as we walked on.

“Back then,” Harsha told me, as he pointed to a gigantic banyan tree ahead of us, “All the village kids used to pick a favourite spot and study on this tree. This tree is old and wise. It had read chemistry, math, English, Kannada…it knows everything from kindergarten to BCom!” At the foot of the tree was a small concrete structure, with a flat rock inside — a temple of the local god Bobbarya. A deposit of a lone one-rupee coin lay in front of a flat rock that symbolized the god. Harsha heaved himself easily up the tree, using its thick, knotted vines. He settled into an old favourite spot for a few minutes, contemplating the ways of the world — or so I assumed. He looked upset as he descended: “I’ve disturbed many spiders’ homes.”

Harsha climbing up the old banyan tree

Further down in the fields, we picked some bean pods and split them open. “Oh! Moong daal,” I announced happily, as I popped some in my mouth. We watched a black drongo perform its mid-air acrobatics and secure a satisfactory lunch. The path led to the village pond (where prawns were harvested), and the village ‘river’ — formed by the backwaters of the Arabian sea. The waves put up a display of dancing diamonds as they reflected the sun. Brahminy kites soared above the waters, and a green bee-eater rested on a wire. We settled down on the mud by the banks, waiting for a sighting of one of two things that Harsha anticipated: an otter, or a pied kingfisher. Minutes went by and sure enough, a pied kingfisher magically appeared, settling on a pole in the pond. Before I could contemplate on its unusual colours, a Brahminy kite swooped down low overhead, right above me. I was thrilled! It flapped its great big rust-coloured wings, rising up into the sky till it became a tiny silhouette.

I mentally zoomed out of the picture I was in, until Gundmi became a small speck in this gigantic world. I suddenly felt immensely grateful to be a part of such a pretty speck.

“Welcome to Gundmi!”

Four egrets have a meeting

Back in Harsha’s 70-year old house, small things fascinated me. Kittens pawed at a snake-gourd, perplexed about why it just wouldn’t play with them. I sat on the cool red oxide floor, leaning against a wooden pillar. From there, I could see an orange-and-grey Rufus treepie drink water out of the bird bath, cackling away loudly. A group of babblers hung around, waiting for their turn. The house itself, with its platformed structure, held a considerable amount of its original construction. The doors were carved in wood, with low roofs — “Watch your head,” Harsha supplied helpfully, every time.

While Harsha and his mom went outside for a bit, I gathered the courage to go explore the floor upstairs. I’d been told that nobody went there anymore, and that mysterious noises came from the roof (a group of civets visited on some nights). I climbed up the dusty steps, hoping I’d find a civet waiting for me once I got up there. But what I saw was a large room, with big windows, and a roof that might have been home to plenty of creatures big and small — I wasn’t brave enough to find out. As I turned and walked down the stairs, I heard an enormous crash, and suddenly I was convinced that Manjulika (Chandramukhi) was going to come and get me. I hurriedly stumbled down the stairs and locked the door behind me. I turned around to find that the kittens had bumped into a chair and had knocked it over. We were all equally startled.

Outside the house, a deep well supplied water for irrigation, and another provided drinking water. A gobar gas plant bubbled away (it made me want to giggle, looking at bubbling cowdung). A pile of grass and other organic waste sat next to it (“a perfect spot for snakes,” Harsha declared. I backed away immediately.). I could see shapes of frogs in the well. All around the house grew coconut trees, pineapples, jackfruit, snake gourd, and palm trees. You could look anywhere and find a vegetable in the making, or an six-legged creature inspecting you. It was impossible to think of the house as just a house. It was part of a larger living, breathing entity.

Harsha’s beautiful house

 

A ripe pineapple, one of the many unexpected surprises

I digested all of these sights with some frothy filter coffee served in a steel tumbler. Harsha’s mom makes possibly the best coffee in the world. She spoke animatedly about her groundnut plantations, which she’d been tending to for years. She had recently been to Dubai — her first trip abroad and her first time on a plane. I asked her if she would like to live there. She looked puzzled and stated what was to her the most obvious reason not to live in Dubai: “But you can’t grow anything there.”

As flocks of birds started to fly homewards, Harsha and I went outside to watch the sunset. Over the years I’ve seen many sunrises and sunsets — over mountains, seas, rivers and cities. A Gundmi sunset, however, is unlike any other, and has to be witnessed from the vantage point of the fields outside Harsha’s house. The setting was this: behind us was patches of newly sprouted plants — brinjal, spinach, ridge gourd, amaranthus. In front of us, rows of fields led to a bunch of coconut and palm trees that formed a sort of fence around the village, their leaves forming a dark contrast to a reddening sky. As the sky’s colours deepened, the sun, a fiery golden ball, started to lower itself among the trees. It lost some of its fierceness as its light faded into a soft glow. I told Harsha that the whole process reminded me of babies trying to go to sleep… they keep trying to stay awake but then there’s this moment of surrender. The moment when the baby accepts that the day is over and it’s goodbye to the world for some time. I enthusiastically launched myself into this analogy. Harsha stared and me and said he had no clue what I was talking about.

A Gundmi sunset

If you asked anybody living in the village, they’d tell you that life in Gundmi was slow, predictable. But maybe, for the village’s non-human inhabitants, this was a fast-paced life, as they went about fighting competitors and pursued for themselves and their families a modest meal. To me, the village was full of surprises. I’d seen my first mongoose that morning, I had watched crows chase a kite that was carrying a mouse. I had seen stars in the night sky that I didn’t know existed.

Though largely, life remained the same, sweet, sharp thrills lay in finding a leaf that had grown overnight, or in finding a grasshopper caught in a spider’s web. This village had almost everything you might expect to see in a nature documentary — cobras eating frogs, birds performing clownish antics to attract females, predatory birds sneaking up on unsuspecting prey. I could not tire of watching majestic open-billed storks fly from one coconut tree to another. Nor could I get tired of hearing different bird, animal and insect calls, interspersed with the sound of someone’s motorbike or the local temple’s percussion. Even different trees made characteristic noises, making sure their voices were heard. I could never tire of the feeling of mud beneath my feet, or the smell of fresh, wet earth. But perhaps the reason I fell in love with Gundmi so much was because it gave me the freedom to do what I liked best: walk endlessly and thoughtlessly on an unfamiliar path.

Early summer fields

Check out Harsha’s project, “Wild Gundmi“, that documents the wildlife in the area: birds, otters, mongooses and more.

Read also: Cherrapunjee | A trek to the double-decker living root bridge

An Illustrated Keswick Walk: Walla Crag to Ashness Bridge

Ramya SriramTravel Writing, WritingLeave a Comment

Keswick walk: Walla Crag to Ashness Bridge

An illustrated account of the much-talked-about Keswick walk: the route from Walla Crag to Ashness Bridge (starting at Great Wood). For a detailed route, check out the National Trust website.

One of the hardest decisions to make as a first-timer in the Lake District is to decide which fell you’re going to take on. After much debating, I announced to my husband that we should do the Keswick walk from Walla Crag to Ashness Bridge – it’s got “stunning views”, I read out from my phone.

The woods were unexpectedly silent and I was relieved to see only one other car parked at the foot of the hill. Considering that it was a National Trust car park, I had dreaded running into scores of other hikers who might have decided to set out on the Great Wood walk on this fine spring day. But luck was on our side, and the magpie chirping at us from the trees made me feel even more welcome.

With much enthusiasm, we set out on the muddy path that begins at the car park and gently winds its way around the hill. We walked in meditative silence for the most part. It’s a gentle slope upwards, unlike the steeper Cat’s Gill path. I turned around after a few minutes, and was pleasantly surprised to see the lake — pieces of shimmering blue — peeking out at me through the trees!

The path then continues alongside a field, which opens up into a wonderful view of Derwentwater.  I could see why this was such a special Keswick walk: it provides views of some of the loveliest landscapes in the area. The path forks at the end, with the right curving along the steep Brockle Beck valley. We scrambled down to the stream, and I couldn’t resist taking a drink of the clear water, which was delicious!

We climbed back the steep slope onto the trail (I needed some shoving from the husband, and I landed on the track most inelegantly, but hey, nobody was looking). The path itself descended towards the beck after some time, making me regret my previous clumsy venture. We then crossed the footbridge to a tarmac road. We came across a pretty house that boasted of two enormous, gorgeous ponies, with manes that made me envious. We crossed another footbridge up ahead to get back to the hill. The trail then became what I thought was rather steep but didn’t want to admit aloud, as fit hikers strode past me with ease. A characteristic stony wall stayed with us on the right. I looked over and discovered two large, comfortable-looking cows in the foreground. But the backdrop was what was incredible: overcast skies looked down at the town of Keswick, nestled among fields and woods. Clouds settled on the blue-grey peaks, and the Derwentwater and Bassenthwaite lakes reflected the skies. I stopped every few minutes to look at the views to discover something new each time: the shifting shadows over the hills, the way the sun lit up the grassy patches, a lone cow here, a herd of sheep there.

At the end of the track, we crossed the stile on the right (the marked route asks you to take the left, but the two paths meet eventually). The wind got stronger, but the sun suddenly came out, making Derwentwater shine. The path was muddy and wet in places, but we clambered up to the rocky platform, the summit of Walla Crag. Just as I whipped my phone out to take a picture, it started raining – cold big drops of rain mixed with hailstones. We took in the hazy, mist-covered view and quickly moved on.  I admired the brave guy who just sat on the rocky summit in the rain, chatting away on his phone. Another hiker walked barefoot, bare-chested.

Now that the summit business was over, I had a big stupid grin pasted across my face. I burst into song as we continued the trail to Ashness Bridge, trying to skip lightly and playfully across a tiny stream, which saw me landing on my bum in the muck. I sobered up and spend the rest of the longish trail watching the sun go in and out of the clouds, highlighting the green and yellow of the hills. It had stopped raining and, to my delight, two white sailboats lazily made their way across the lake.

A few minutes later, we were greeted by the classic countryside view of sheep grazing on bright green fields. As we got closer to Ashness Bridge, I heard sounds of children playing. As one of the most photographed locations in the Lakes, the bridge was fairly crowded (there’s a direct, alternative track from the Great Wood car park). If it weren’t for so many people, it would make for a lovely place to sit and write or draw, with a beautiful view of the peaks and the lake. Even the most unromantic of people would probably feel compelled to spew some verse here.

The walk back from the bridge to the car park was not much to write home about. It was a bit strange, walking on tarmac, ambling alongside cars on the right and the peaceful blue of Derwentwater on the left. The ground felt harsh and hard after miles of walking on mud and grass.  Many hikers made their way towards the bridge, and I was thankful that we’d got out early. The car park was overflowing with vehicles getting in and out. But as we pulled out of the car park, I saw the waters shining through the leaves, and I was enraptured all over again.

Also read: A night in a lighthouse in Wales

Cherrapunjee | A trek to the double-decker living root bridge

Ramya SriramIllustration, Travel Writing, Writing6 Comments

The living root bridges of Meghalaya are one of the only such structures in the world. Here’s an illustrated account of the exhilarating trek to the double-decker bridge at Nongriat, Cherrapunjee, Meghalaya.

“Ow!” I cry, as a steel nail pricks my palm. Hurriedly withdrawing my hand from the railing, I put another foot forward on the suspension bridge, which sways from side to side. The river below me tumbles over the rocks and disappears into the Himalayan valley. The thick rainforest seems silently amused, as I gingerly make my way across.

My partner and I are an hour into the 5-km trek to the living root bridges of Cherrapunjee in northeast India. These unusual structures, found in the East Khasi hills of Meghalaya, are thought to exist nowhere else in the world. The most striking of them all, the ‘double-decker’ at Nongriat, is accessed by a steep, downhill path comprising about 3500 steps.

We were warned that there would be no toilets during the trek which, of course, meant that I wanted to use one as soon as we left Tyrna, our starting point.

Khublei,” I say to a villager, practising my newly-learnt Khasi greeting. “Is there a toilet here?”

“Just go in the forest, madam!” he replies. “Nobody can see!”

meghalaya7_small
“Just go in the forest, madam!”

The path goes through the village of Nongthymmai, fertile with bamboo, palm, banana and pineapple trees. One can see that Meghalaya is primarily an agricultural state. The houses are built on stilts, to protect against flooding during heavy rains (Cherrapunjee is the second wettest place on earth, after the nearby Mawsynram). Curious children wave to us, not unused to visitors. Some of them carry their siblings in cloth slings on their backs. Hens, puppies and cats seem to exist alongside each other here in perfect harmony.

meghalaya2_small
Crossing the suspended rope bridge

We cross the wire bridge with our bones and belongings intact. The seemingly-endless steps promise an aftermath of wobbly knees. A second rope bridge greets us, which I take on with confidence. The river below is of translucent lapis lazuli – I can even see the rocks on the riverbed. Nongriat is an unassuming village, with happy kids running about. We follow the cemented path, when suddenly my partner announces, “We’re here.”

I find myself looking up at two large tiers of tangled brown ropes that stretch across the Umshiang river. The thick, python-like roots of the Ficus elastica (Indian rubber) tree, which might have once tempted Tarzan to swing across, now form a latticed platform, connecting hill to hill. The tree itself towers above, forming a natural canopy. I venture onto on the moss-covered network of vines, which is surprisingly sturdy.

meghalaya_small
The double-decker living root bridges

These bridges are an ingenious invention by the Khasi people – they help them get across rivers that would otherwise be impassable during the merciless monsoons. Hollowed-out betel trunks are placed across the river, inside which the fig tree’s aerial roots are coaxed to grow horizontally. The roots strike the soil on the other side and grow deep inside it, strengthening the hold. It takes about 15 years for the bridge to be ready for use. With the strength to hold up to 50 people at a time, it grows stronger with age, renewing itself naturally. The bridges connect the locals to neighbouring villages, farmers to towns and children to schools. They exemplify the word ‘jugaad‘, a Hindi term that refers to finding a clever fix or solution.

An hour’s walk from Nongriat takes us to the Mawsaw root bridge, the first part of which has been replaced with steel ropes. I’m pleased at the transition underfoot as we walk across – from swaying wire to steady root. I look behind me to see a classic landscape – jade mountains surround the white river valley like sentinels. We walk on a desolate path, which (thankfully) leads to the natural swimming pools. I plunge into the cold, sparkling waters of the ‘Rainbow waterfall’, that cascades over a gigantic rock. “I’m staying here,” I declare to my partner. “You can go back.”

meghalaya6_small
Getting comfortable in the icy cold waters of Rainbow waterfall

On our return, we stop at Nongthymmai for oranges, which we eat beside a temperamental rooster. The village is strikingly clean, like many others in Meghalaya. I ask the shop owner if she knows how old the living root bridges are. “I don’t think anyone knows,” she laughs.

As I sink into a rock to rest, a man carrying a sack of betel leaves on his back walks past us. We look at him in unabashed admiration and then plod on. A girl carrying a satchel skips past us, grinning at our huffing and puffing. She is barefoot.

meghalaya5_small
Wobbly, painful knees

meghalaya4_small
How does he do it?

It is 5 pm now, and the valley is growing dark. Each of the last 500 steps feel like I’m lifting bricks tied to my feet. At the top, I gush about our experience to the taxi driver, who’s never done the trek. He looks at my flushed, excited face and says, “Maybe I will go there next time.”


Also read: Magical monsoons: The rains in India