Having spent most of my life in Oman, I had only yet, experienced the scorching summers and the mild winters of the Middle East. Autumn, a season of colour and beauty, always fascinated me and seemed a distant reality. But this October, when I went with my family to visit Southern England, my vision of this reality changed entirely. The timing was perfect as the season had just set in and the visual treats that lay ahead, captivated and amazed me, much more than I could ever imagine.
Our first taste of England started at Southampton, a cosmopolitan sea-side town from where the ill-fated and presumably ‘unsinkable’ ship, Titanic, had sailed on its maiden journey on 10th April, 1912. The woes and experiences of those who survived or were affected by the disaster, are brought to life at the Southampton Maritime Museum, which was originally a medieval wool warehouse built just after 1400 AD. It also tells the story of the port town, the people who worked there and houses impressive models of some of the world’s greatest cruise liners including the Queen Mary, portraying the luxury of transatlantic travel and the less glamorous reality of the life of the crew then.
Southampton Maritime Museum
Bombed heavily during the World War II, the remnants of the destruction still exist in certain parts of the town. However, today Southampton boasts of having one of the largest shopping complex in the country, West Quay shopping, where the best of high street brands are available. Also, with cruise liners dotting the quayside, the town lives up to its name of being the cruise city of the country.
Isle of Wight
Our next trip was to the Isle of Wight, a small island, situated just off the south coast of Britain. Just 380 sq km in area, it’s a popular holiday resort and retreat for some of the eco-friendly citizens. The island is only accessible by ferry and this crossing is supposedly one of the most expensive in the world! We sailed out from Southampton on a cold overcast day but that didn’t dampen our spirits one bit. Being rather small, one can drive around the entire island in approximately 2 hours and that’s what we did.
Isle of Wight Thatched cottage
Our first stop was The Needles Park. It is one of the islands premier visitor attraction and is situated at Alum Bay overlooking the Island’s most famous landmark, The Needles Rocks and Lighthouse. It is the most photographed aspect of the Isle of Wight. The Needles are basically a row of distinctive stacks of chalk that rise out of the sea. A lighthouse designed by Scottish civil engineer James Walker has stood at the western end of the formation since 1859.The formation takes its name from a needle-shaped pillar called Lot’s Wife that used to stand in its midst until it collapsed in a storm in 1764. The remaining rocks are all short and squat and not at all needle-like, but the name has stuck.
The Needles Park Chairlift is the best way to see the Isle of Wight?s most famous landmark which takes you for a ride in one of the 50 chairs from the top of the cliff to Alum Bay Beach and back. Unfortunately because of a storm, it wasn?t operating the day we went. It is said that the views are truly spectacular from the picturesque Needles Rocks and Lighthouse to the multi-coloured sand cliffs. Also look out for the marvellous turquoise colour of the sea.
Alum Bay is a sandy bay near the westernmost point of the Isle of Wight and is noted for its multi-coloured sand cliffs. Samples of the sand in vials and jars are still available at tourist shops. The sand is collected and preserved from natural cliff falls throughout the year and it is this actual sand which visitors use to fill their own memento.
Junior Driver track
To keep my two young boys occupied, the games in the Needles Park, did a good job. The Junior Driver track is a fun, exciting and educational drive. Children can get behind the wheel and drive an electric car or truck around a realistic purpose built roadway. They learn to steer, stop and start, whilst hopefully obeying road signs, markings and working traffic lights! A piece of advise though, make sure you have loads of kids on the track, or as my son experienced, he had no traffic at all to encounter which did get him quite bored! After finishing, each learner driver is awarded their own unique Needles ‘driving licence’ to keep and show that they have passed the test!
The Alum Bay Glass centre was an experience worth remembering. Here we got to see live demonstrations from skilled craftsmen working their magic to create stunning perfume bottles, vases, bowls and ornaments in a wide range of colours, shapes and sizes who are always creating new and different items out of glass.
Apart from the above tourist stops, we did halt at several places along the route. Some were to watch English cattle grazing. Stupid it may sound, but these beasts with patterns of black and white, reminded us of European hills & pastures. Also, pretty quaint cottages lined almost every street, a staple feature of old English movies I had watched growing up. Being part of this, at that moment, did take me to a different realm altogether! Though the melancholy of the weather did set into most of my companions on this trip, I enjoyed it and would recommend it to anyone travelling to Britain.
On the following day, we took a step back in time and headed out to Stonehenge, a World Heritage site. Composed of large prehistoric stones, set in a circular form, archaeologists are still baffled if it was used as an astronomical observatory, a religious site or something supernatural. This megalithic ruin is around a 45 minute drive from Southampton near the town of Amesbury in Wiltshire, Southern England. It is not a single structure but consists of a series of earth, timber, and stone structures. It is believed that the standing stones were erected around 2200 BC and the surrounding circular earth bank and ditch, which constitute the earliest phase of the monument, have been dated to about 3100 BC. What?s more surprising is that some of the stones were brought from around 250km away! It makes me wonder how many weeks or months it would have taken them.
The drive to Stonehenge was definitely fulfilling for me. Sights of red, brown and yellow trees filled the landscape. Fields with grazing sheep greeted us all along the way and completed my imagination of rural England. The kids enjoyed with some hands on blue berry fruit picking. I’ve heard that blueberries are one of the only few human foods that are naturally coloured blue. No wonder we all had blue smeared tongues all day long!
However, I didn’t realize that my autumnal experience was yet to begin. On our drive back from Stonehenge, we diverted on route via New Forest area. It has the largest remaining tracts of unenclosed pasture land and forests, including the largest contiguous area of un-sown vegetation in lowland Britain. Here horses and cattle freely graze and help keep the patchwork of different habitats intact. It also has pigs and deers living which tend to shy away from humans, except for one notorious pig who is said to attack walkers or cyclists. Were we glad not to meet him! It?s a fantastic place for cycling with miles of traffic free tracks. Since we didn’t have our cycles with us, we decided to play a game of good old English cricket. With just 5 players, our enthusiasm still stayed strong. With the girls against boys, no doubt, the girls won unchallenged! I may have failed to mention though that the boys team included my 3 year old and 8 year old sons!
Baker Street station
Next on the itinerary, was London. How can a trip to England ever be complete without a visit to the versatile, diverse, cosmopolitan, busy and enchanting city. Since I had only a day to spare in London, I picked out a few main attractions. Our mode of travel was the well-connected tubes – the underground city train network. This proved to be much easier as well as much cheaper. One can also catch the ‘hop-on hop-off’ tour buses that go around the main city, but with only a few places to visit, I’d advise the tubes. Also, this gave us the chance to visit Baker Street station. It was opened in 1863 and is one of stations on the world’s first underground railway line.
Madame Tussauds Wax Museum
Our first halt was at Madame Tussauds Wax Museum. After a long wait at the queue (approximately 40 minutes on a weekday) we finally managed to enter to be greeted by paparazzi, maniacally clicking away our pictures. Must say they had us successfully fooled as they were just huge stand-up cut-outs with automated flashes going off! But it did give a momentary feeling of prestige.
Mingling with movie celebrities and other well known personalities, I actually did forget for a while that these were wax models. You have to see if for yourself to appreciate the intricate detailing on the wax models as well as the outfits chosen. One of their newest attractions is Jack Sparrow aka Johnny Depp of Pirates of the Caribbean. I could have never have guessed he was all wax, till I realized he wasn’t swaying! This, along with the Ghost Rider bike excited the children immensely and not to forget, Shahrukh Khan as well. The Badshah exuded every bit of glamour & oomph as he does on screen.
One of the main attractions at the museum is the Chamber of Horrors. This part of the exhibition included victims of the French Revolution and also newly created figures of murderers and other criminals. However, my son, though initially offered to be brave and walk through it, lost all his courage on seeing bloody & disfigured figures hanging on the walls. I, too, didn’t insist as he may have kept me up at night!
We were then led onto the Spirit of London ride, which takes one on a taxi journey through the history of London, after which we were shown a short animated movie at the Stardome. This 360 degree full dome had us engrossed in a story involving around aliens fascinated with Hollywood celebrities.
Enthralled by the glamour ride we had at Madame Tussauds, we moved onto visit the Tower of London, situated on the banks of River Thames. It was founded in 1078 to protect the people from outsiders. Its primary function was that of a fortress, a prison as well as a royal palace. Though we didn’t enter, we heard of its role in execution and tortures of criminals as well as nobles.
Apparently there is a legend that if the resident ravens ever leave the Tower of London, the monarchy and entire kingdom would fall. In order, not to take any chances the royals through the years have ensured that a set of ravens is always there, their wings clipped to prevent them from flying away. The oldest raven on record has lived up to 44 years they say.
The Tower Bridge
Adjacent is a striking view of The Tower Bridge, an iconic symbol of London. It is a suspension bridge over River Thames. There is an exhibition in the bridge?s twin towers which includes photos and films detailing the build. We unfortunately couldn?t wait to see the raising of the bascules for a vessel to pass through as we had to move on to see the Queen.
But before that we stopped to see Big Ben, universally mistaken as the Clock Tower, is actually a nickname for the bell which is part of the Great Clock of Westminster. Diagonally opposite is the London Eye, or Millennium Wheel which is an observation wheel. At the time of building, it was the biggest in the world and is today, the most popular paid visitor attraction in UK. The whole journey in the wheel takes around 30 minutes and offers some breath-taking views on a clear sunny day.
Finally we made our way Buckingham palace, walking through Hyde Park a beautiful and serene green patch. It is one of the largest parks in Central London, with the Serpentine Lake running through it. I do not deny the size as it took us quite a while to cross it in reaching the palace.
Buckingham Palace is the official residence of the British monarchy. More than 50,000 people are believed to visit it every year, as guests to banquets, lunches, dinners, receptions & royal garden parties. If we go to add the number of visitors, the figures would be astronomical. It is said that the palace contain 19 state rooms, 52 principal bedrooms, 188 staff bedrooms, 92 offices, and 78 bathrooms. Today, Buckingham Palace is not only the weekday home of the Queen and Prince Philip but also the London residence of the Duke of York and the Earl and Countess of Wessex. The palace also houses the offices of the Royal Household and is the workplace of 450 people.
The palace is not the monarch’s private property; both Windsor Castle and Buckingham Palace and their art collections belong to the nation. The furnishings, paintings, fittings and other artifacts, many by Faberg?, from Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle are known collectively as the Royal Collection; owned by the nation, they can be viewed by the public.
And view I did, taking in all the beauty, workmanship and grandeur of being present in one of the world?s most famous royals abode.
As a parting shot, we stopped at Windsor Castle, on our way back to Southampton, the largest inhabited castle in the world. It is another one of the principle residences of the British monarchy and is rumoured to be the favourite of the Queen as she spends most weekends of the year here. Not to be missed is the scenic beauty around the castle. The quaint shops on the street, cobbled streets and lush foliage create a picturesque landscape. We also got to see white, majestic swans on the river bank of the Thames. Though they look pretty and mild in pictures, in reality they can be quite aggressive. Specially when it comes to food.
Alas, the week had to get over and I had to come back to the sweltering heat of Oman. The weather was on our side the whole time in England but towards the end, I did experience the unexpected and bitter cold of the country. But for someone who never missed the heat, this was a welcome experience, weather (whether) or not.
My English experience was truly fantastic, memories of which I’ll cherish forever. I did have some ‘special’ moments such as the night when I braved the cold wearing a cotton skirt, strappy sandals and no socks, or when I looked ridiculously blank when asked a question in a proper English accent or when I got French Fries for chips & crisps for chips! Confusing no doubt, but I know I’ll be back there, experiencing another season perhaps, such as spring, when the gloom of winter slips away and the onset of summer brings out a colourful display and imbibes a new hope, just like how I am now!
Author: Reena Mathias- Oman