Vignettes

Central Park looked like a big beautiful canvas as I strolled through it to the American Museum of Natural History in the Upper West Side. Dried leaves glowed in vivid tones of gold and russet. Old men read books on benches which tell stories through those small plaques. You might take a seat on one but oh do leave some space for the couple’s dog who loved hanging out there too. They are all long gone… what remains is the warmth of the thought that you share the bench with souls that might have dissolved in ether, but they too savoured the solitude, as much as you do now. Beneath those flaming bowers, bright-eyed squirrels scurried up and down wire fences, a man stooped to gather a bunch of leaves in his arms, to throw them in the air, let them rain upon him in a shower of gold as his partner waited to capture it on her camera with a bashful grin, an old man rowed his boat serenely by.

Then I found my way to the pink granite largesse of the Natural History Museum where the suggested amount for entry is $23 – but you can shell out what you want to enter it. I wanted to pay a buck and see what their reaction might be (just to be perverse) but then I rose above that notion. Those mighty quotes of Ted Roosevelt staring back at you — exalted thoughts and words, they make sure that any pettiness is put to shame. Right after, I lost my mind — to the beauty of animals carefully preserved by an American taxidermist towards the late part of the 19th century, reproductions of dinosaurs from fossils, the Mayan gods, paraphernalia from the Silk Route, hunting apparatus of the Amazon Indians, strange shrunken heads that looked like tiny balls with hair flowing from the heads, sewed up lips and head because the South American people such as the Shuar counteract violent death and the need of the soul for revenge by keeping the spirit trapped inside the heads.

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The ultra tall Barosaurus defends its young from the Allosaurus up front. An encounter that might have taken place in the western part of the US about 140 million years ago.
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An alarmed African elephant

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Early copy of the Koran retrieved from somewhere in Africa.
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Golden wares of Samarkand where caravan roads converged, bringing in exotic goods from China, India, Armenia, Persia and the Near East.
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A Mayan god
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Colossal Olmec stone head from Southern Verz Cruz and Tabasco in Mexico

On Not Meeting Demelza in Poldark Country

No, not even Ross. Rather reality crept in upon me as I took nimble steps down to ruins of tin mines perched upon the rugged cliffs of the Cornish landscape, the inky-turquoise waters of the Celtic Sea crashed dashed against granite rocks and frothed below a strong afternoon sun. Paths ribboned around the cliffs, some muddy and slithery enough to make me take a step back, and, hold the husband back too. “If you are going, leave the car keys behind,” I said into the quiet of the noon. Unfeeling? Tough luck. You have got to figure out ways of dealing with stubbornness.

So you swoon over Ross Poldark, that well-toned torso in the buff, the scarred cheek beneath the tricorn hat and the smouldering good looks, but Winston Graham’s world does not even begin to touch upon the dangers which tin miners faced every day of their lives when they went about work. You see, what I have shown photographs of, above and below, are remnants of engine houses. The miners used to travel down shafts and go into a labyrinth of subterranean tunnels that ran below the sea for miles. Ponies were also sent down those shafts to work for months below in those tunnels. As they worked on extracting metal from the seams along the coastline, the sea pounded away above their heads.

There were dreadful accidents. Men used to work within the shafts, perched upon ledges as they worked man-worked engines to deliver their fellow workers to the tunnels. When an iron cap or bolt did not work right, entire pillars of men were mangled and crushed to death. Certainly not cheery, but the realities of life and how they have changed with time. You wonder if people still lead such lives, fraught with danger, in a bid to garner their daily pieces of bread.

We spent hours charting paths up and down the cliffs, exploring the disused tin engine houses and remnants of labyrinthine structures where arsenic was solidified and cooled into crystals. Yet we were in the midst of our explorations beneath a chirpy sun and blue skies – just close your eyes and lend your imagination to the same landscape under stormy skies and a gale-swept turbulent sea. That is the terribly truth of tin mining which is now conserved in these UNESCO World Heritage Sites. There were once 3,000 tin mines strewn around the coast.

I would say give it a go. It is the real story behind Poldark’s world.

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We walked down a narrow path to the bluff. From that big boulder jutting out above the bluff is a view of Botallack mines (it has been featured in Poldark). On both sides of the path are steep falls into the rocks below. It is a little alarming as you see that path from above the bluff, but as you scramble down, you realise that the trail is not as fatal as it looks.
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Before we climb up the cliffs and go down to the Botallack tin engine houses.
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Tall and Taller.
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Making our way down to the engine houses of Botallack. In the old days they used to have ladders that would take the miners to the engine house at the very bottom of the cliffs. We had no way of going down there. 
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Dramatic views around the Botallack ruins.
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Paths that suddenly taper off, hugging cliffs and snaking around them.
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Like that…
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Levant mines
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Fragrant gorse and mine remnants sticking out into the firmament.
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The tin miners who worked at Levant in the 19th century.
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Botallack in tatters
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Pendeen Lighthouse that tin miners must have seen as they went about their rigours.
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Towanroath Engine House in St. Agnes. Adi tripped down the slopes off the charted paths, and I had to follow, till I stopped short in dismay. Running down ’em slopes carpeted with heather and prickly bushes is not a plum idea. Period.
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The 19th century Towanroath Engine House is perched right above the Celtic Sea.
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Ponies around Land’s End
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Conversations with curious listeners
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Disused tin mines at Porkellis.
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The Celtic Sea beneath a mellow sun as it starts its journey into the horizon after an full day of shining strong above us.

Which Tin Mines to Explore: Head to the tin mines of Botallack, Levant and Geevor around Land’s End and the ones along the stretch of St. Agnes. Poldark Mine is the only one that takes you underground but the mine was re-dubbing taking advantage of the novels and the telly series. Botallack is the most dramatic of the lot.

Where to Stay: Book former lighthouse keepers’ cottages at Pendeen Lighthouse through Rural Retreats (www.ruralretreats.co.uk).

What to Do: Long rambles around the tin mines. The thing to remember is this: Do not go tumbling into the granite rocks below. Some paths are dangerous. We took some of them so I would not say wuss out completely. But do take a call and keep a check upon those adventurous genes in places where you do not feel quite so sure of making it back. You also have to keep this in mind that in this part of mining country, you do not have to make an effort. Drama will come your way.

A Day at Horniman

Sparkling sunny weekends are a rarity in our part of the world. If the week shall go in a sunny, breezy mode, Friday rolls in and the clouds declare their presence, often not in a I-am-billowy-and-pretty-just-like-that way. The weekend did start on a cracking note and the sun did power its way through Sunday. So the British have declared summer. Over the last two days, men have been spotted in speedos atop caravans, women have been noted to drive in bikinis and others have been sitting in barely-there-shorts in the backyards.

On Friday, quite early in the morning I had work in London – which meant I had the whole day to myself after. I made my way to the Horniman Museum. The fact that it was free added a spring to my step. But what I had overestimated was my power to get lost. I Will get lost. No matter how many years I have been living in a country. My teenage years in Calcutta were spent regularly landing up in odd places and an irate father coming to the rescue. Once after a date, I took the wrong bus and reached another part of Calcutta quite late at night. I was invited by an old man to his terrace home – when I look back I am astounded at my calibre for silliness. I did go up to the terrace with him and make an SOS call to the parents (who could not believe their ears). As it happened, it was new year’s eve, and my uncle and his family were visiting us from London. The whole family came to get me back home. Suffice it to say that the evening is etched in my memory.

It took me two hours to get to Forest Hill from Baker’s Street by tube and overground trains (when it should have taken me all of 50 minutes). I do not know where I went wrong except that I did get on and off a few trains and stand at stations where I should not have. In the meantime, the person who was getting steadily worked up through watsapp was the husband. He had visions of massive charges on the card because of all the overground trains I was changing.

But I did reach Horniman. I have proof of meeting the in-house walrus.

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Walking beneath the cherry blossoms of Forest Hill take away the sting of goofing up.
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Beneath bowers of cherry blossoms who can be woeful for long.

Our Walrus is an unusual taxidermy specimen, it appears stretched and ‘over stuffed’ as it lacks the skin folds characteristic of a walrus in the wild. Over one hundred years ago, only a few people had ever seen a live walrus, so it is hardly surprising that ours does not look true to life.

The name Horniman is owed a great deal to by tea lovers. Today it is owned by Douwe Egberts but the founder of the eponymously named Horniman’s Tea was a trader called John Horniman. He had started the tea trading business in the small but beautiful Isle of Wight in 1826 and had also changed the concept of selling of loose leaf teas which were often adulterated with dust and hedge clippings by unscrupulous sellers (horrendous, right?). He sealed his packages of tea thus ensuring that authentic tea leaves reached the customers sans the extra ingredients. Even our much-touted philosopher of profoundness, Nietzsche, deemed Horniman’s to be his preferred brand of tea. Who likes the great outdoors (apart from the leaves) in his tea? Well, the great majority clearly gave John a thumbs up, so his company did become the largest tea trading company in the world by 1891.

The museum however was not his idea. It was his son Frederick’s brainchild.

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Portrait of Frederick John Horniman

Thanks to the country’s passion for tea, Frederick had enough moolah to indulge his passion for collecting. Everything from natural history to musical instruments and cultural artefacts. This museum of his has a sum total of about 350,000 objects. As a tea lover how could I not see what tea had wrought?

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Meet the walrus of Horniman’s. He is a celebrity, okay? He was possibly sourced from the area around Hudson Bay in Canada. Queen Victoria too had visited our tooth-some friend.
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If he looks unnaturally fat, blame it on the taxidermist. He/she overstuffed him. So there are no folds on his skin.
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Meet the three long-eared owls. I took to them. I mean, just look at them. Especially the look of the third fellow on the extreme right.
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Look at that beak of the Crowned Horn Bill. Solid as a curved piece of wood, you think?
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Iridiscence. Beetles and bugs.
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Scarlet Ibis
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A Central American beauty. 
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Merman. ‘WHAT’, did you say? In the early 18th-19th centuries, mermen were brought by sailors to Europe. They were believed to be real for centuries, inhabiting the oceans around Asia, till it was discovered that they were indeed products of man’s genius for imagination. They were found to have been the head and torso of a monkey put together with the tail of a fish. Man is a genius. Fraudulent ones, more so.
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Golden-headed Trogon
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Philosophising orang-utan. He has the stance and stick of a hermit.
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Be kind to my special friend, the red-howler monkey. He belongs in the treetops of Brazil. I am sure he thought, ‘Oh no, am I in the Blighty?’ and that priceless expression was thus frozen.

Lest you think that strange stuffed animals is all you shall get to see, there is also the wonderful park and greenery around you on a fine summer’s day.

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Horniman gardens
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Views of London’s skyline (you can just about make out the silhouette of The Shard on the horizon)
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Conservatory at the Horniman Museum
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When you leave the museum, you might just be rewarded by a Mr. Whippy.

So, the question is that if you are in London, should you or should you not head over to Horniman’s. I would say give it a go if you feel like turning into a child all over again. And do remember me if you meet the walrus and the red howler monkey.