Monday, December 26, 2011

Over Christmas: Yorkshire Madness

I’m watching the first session of the Boxing Day Test at Leeds- it’s ages since I watched cricket on TV- finishing my ice-cream, basking in the general middle-of-vacation bliss. I’d expected my English Christmas to be mostly solitary, confined to a few outings to Brighton beach and maybe one to Hove. How wrong I was.

Yorkshire has haunted my daydreams for years, and today I’ve scrambled up slippery rocks on Ilkley Moor for a spectacular view of the English countryside, to watch clouds come scudding in and settle like a thin veil on the distant hills. I wanted to see for myself the bleak, cheerless, rain-swept moors that have inspired some brilliant literature; thanks to this lovely branch of the family that I’ve just met, what once seemed like mere pipe-dreams are turning into reality. I’m deliriously happy.

Last Friday, I was met by my uncle at London Victoria and we went on to Maidenhead, where I saw a proper English house, and stayed with family I was meeting for the first time, before driving up north with them the next evening. A three-hour long drive in India would have been greeted with trepidation. Here, it is something to look forward to on the marvellous motorways where you can go full throttle without having to worry about a stray cyclist or cow. It was a treat just watching the names of places on signboards flying by, and to pretend I could make something of them in the dark: Silverstone (with a chequered flag icon beside it- I thought I was seeing some grandstands when I realised we weren’t even there yet), Sherwood Forest in Nottingham (with the trees looming in the dark), Sheffield (of which what I saw was Meadowhall, decked out for Christmas), all telling me that I was really and truly in England and that I could stop pinching myself. Three months on, you see, the incredulity is as strong as it was when I arrived.

The roads climbed uphill as we entered Leeds. December is such a cheerful month here, even if dusk sets in absurdly early. The towns are brightly dressed for Christmas and the houses which haven’t been shut down for the holidays are done up splendidly, Christmas trees all alight, a few from head to toe without looking showy. (If only some women could learn from them!) The roads are chock-a-block with cars and people; the unusually mild winter is probably bringing them out in hordes, despite the recession and consequent reticence in shopping habits. My hopes for a white Christmas have been mercilessly dashed, but I’m rather glad of the fine weather. It means we can go out for walks and I can see a bit of Yorkshire without having to be cooped up at home. I would have liked to watch snowflakes drift down softly, form white sheets on the ground and leave pretty icicles hanging off leafless branches- which is how I suppose snowfall is- but I suppose it’ll have to wait for later. It doesn’t make sense to have everything at once, after all, and what would I do without something to look forward to!

My stay at Leeds opened with a trip to a mall at York for some Christmas shopping. The Yorkshire countryside treat began on the drive to and from York, beautiful vistas opening up on either side of the road, the sun going down in a fiery blaze of colours over vast, open fields, with skies that seemed to stretch out endlessly everywhere at once. The skeletal silhouettes of trees stood out against a silky swirl of rich colours, and I knew I was going to be swept off my feet very soon. Trips to Blackburn and Birmingham were still to come; Bradford was yet to astound me with its cultural incongruity.

Leeds is a lovely city, quite a refreshing change from Brighton. The undulating roads are lined with houses that appear very bookishly English to my enchanted eyes. The sky is almost perpetually grey, and blue patches are rare. This is the kind of weather that really enthuses me, but I’m often hard-pressed to remember that over 300 days of grey weather a year isn’t exactly fun. I was caught in the rain one morning on a walk with my uncle, and I’m quite sure he didn’t enjoy the walk as much as I did. The relatively sunny south has me chuffed about the vaguest prospect of rain.

The rate at which I’m falling in love with English towns is alarming; much as I’d like to scour every inch of the country, practicality rears its ugly head. But I, for one, am going to hold on to my dreams like a limpet.

Thursday, December 15, 2011


Dusk descends on the village of Falmer by half-past four every evening. The sun slips into the horizon inconspicuously, making a brief appearance before it sets. It stays blissfully wrapped up in the clouds almost all day, peeping out occasionally like a celebrity who drives past in a car with tinted windows, offering the briefest of tantalising glimpses. The hills in the distance are rapidly enveloped in an all-encompassing blue shroud, inseparable from cloud or tree. A tinkle against the window-panes tells me that it is raining- again- and a sudden barrage of loud clicks on the glass indicates the first hailstorm of the season; tiny bits of ice, nothing dramatic, melting almost as soon as they fall on the window-ledge. The slanting lines on the clear glass disappear almost as soon as they fall, but I can rest assured I’ll never be deprived of rain here. The girl who eagerly sought opportunities back home to get drenched in the rain is easily pleased here.

It has been a little difficult to get used to the idea of little sunshine or daylight; but the romantic appeal of windy mornings, grey skies and clouds looming over rolling hills easily scores over the relentless, sticky heat of tropical coastal towns (atleast for the moment). Added to it is the possibility of snow. I look up at the sky hopefully, not knowing if the large, dismal cloud overhead will dissolve in a shower of softly-falling, ethereal flakes, or simply melt into nothingness. I scan the horizon, and any unusually-coloured cloud rouses my suspicion. Half the fun, as they say, lies in anticipating things.

The blue darkness often reminds me of the Himalayas in Sikkim, and our drive up through treacherous, narrow mountain roads into the tiny village of Lachung. The slight chill that crept over me as I saw the towering forms of the mountains press close upon us was dispelled by hot, milky tea and a simple, delicious meal; right amidst the hills that I considered intimidating, I was being treated to some of the best hospitality I’d ever experienced, by people whose smiling eyes belied the extremely hard lives they lived. Dawn put an end to any lingering doubts I might have had, as the sun rose in a riot of colour at five in the morning, lighting up the snow-capped peaks and making me realise that I was in one of the most beautiful corners of the planet. Little wonder then, a few hours later when we had to set off, I couldn’t bear to leave, and felt that I had some sort of inexplicable connection with the mountains- that I wasn‘t seeing the last of them yet. The Himalayas do that to you, bring you down on your knees in veneration, hypnotise and seduce you.

England, on the other hand, is winning me over slowly but surely (not that, of course, I had any doubts it would, thanks to the Bronte sisters). The trees at Falmer have now been stripped of every single leaf, bare arms reaching upwards, silhouetted starkly in the light cast by the streetlamps that are on almost all day. Past midnight, a single star climbs up into the sky and shines softly through the branches, sometimes accompanied by a thinly-veiled moon. It has become a ritual of sorts for me to look for them, make sure they are safely up there, before I snuggle into bed. Can I confess that I feel a little disappointed when they play truant? I still have the trees for company though, and that’s a comfort.

I‘m quite sure of what I‘ve been fearing and dreading: I’ve lost my heart to this little village, and I’m not relishing the prospect of leaving it. It is perhaps too early to worry about pangs of separation, but I sometimes hope that it’ll temper my ecstasy and make me level-headed; not that there is much hope of my being entirely practical, because you have to be born grown up not to appreciate the little delights that are thrown at you even when you’re in your most unsuspecting, indifferent state. That I live in an English village with pastures and brick houses, am buffeted by cold winds on rainy mornings when I walk to university, and am likely to have one of my wildest hopes turn into reality very soon, should be proof enough that dreams come true. It would be rather silly, then, to try and ruin my enjoyment of things with caution; I’ll only have to choose carefully what I want to wish for, and it’s a dilemma I can live with.