Sunday, October 21, 2012

UK: Harrogate :Betty's Tea Room – promoting social networking for centuries!

A typical English Tea Room

Tea is a drink closely cherished by millions across the world! Tea drinking is one of those simple experiences in life that we so often take for granted.  You enjoy the tea with your morning news paper or by the vending machine in your office – chatting with colleagues – enjoying the small well deserved break from work. However even before the intrusion of internet and social networking platforms like Orkut and Facebook, Tea rooms have been change agents in the society for years – facilitating social networking since time immemorial! Be it China, Japan, India or UK, rest of Europe and Middle East/ Africa – it has been a national pastime for many – for generations!

In India, the concept of preparing tea is a tad different than maybe rest of the world. We love to boil the tea till it can no longer colour the water brown! Add to it a some milk, a generous dose of sugar and any or all of ginger, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves or even a tad of green chilli – the tea becomes a magic potion to be devoured as a “cutting chai” (a cup of tea which is just big enough for 3 whole gulps and is a tad cheaper than a full cup of tea) across those millions of tea stalls across India. The experience of drinking tea is enriched further by having it from a cup made of mud and brick – which gives it a different, kick altogether! The tea cooked on coal or burnt wood tastes definitely different than the one cooked on gas stoves and electric cooking ranges! However the British tea is prepared differently and has been experienced differently!

The preparation of British styled tea or “English Tea” which my father so often calls it is not as complicated as the Indian chai. You have a tea pot – typically made of porcelain or silver/ stainless steel – which has the hot water and tea leaf/ tea bag romancing each other like a couple on their first honeymoon. A small pot of milk around it adds some color to the ambience in addition to the sugar cubes which promise to bring in sweetness to the experience.  Tea drinking has been a national past time in the UK for ages.

However the invention of having a tea in the afternoon was by Anna Russell, Duchess of Bedford. Since then, numerous tea rooms have been opened in the UK since the early 1700’s which serve of tea, coffee, cakes, scones and other snacks typically had in tea. It has been a social networking platform surviving for more than 300 years in England – way before the invention of computers the internet or facebook! Of course this social networking platform has typically been exploited by women more than men as the atmosphere is sedated and subdued in a tea room. The men have been exploiting the other social networking platform – predominantly operating in the evenings – Pubs! Of course that would be the topic of another blog some other day! The tea rooms also have been frequented by men – of course. If you think back at history – the breadwinner in the family were predominantly men. The women took care of the household chores, kids and other areas. A visit to the local tea room in the afternoon and enjoying a sip of tea and loads of gossip before the men got back from work seems a very logical experience for the continued evolution and sustenance of tea rooms for years. The UK is home to one of the classic tea rooms – some which survived the test of times and others which dissolved into oblivion with the advent of Starbucks, Costa Coffee or other trendy coffee joints!

Betty's Tea Room - Parliament St, Harrogate
Our local expert and friend who gives these unique insights to experience UK in a British way – Guy Bradshaw had advised us to visit Betty’s Tea Room in Harrogate. Betty’s tea room was opened in the early 1900’s and is one of the oldest and successful running tea room chain’s in the UK. It is predominantly based in Yorkshire – with branches across Harrogate, York, Northallerton, Ilkley in Yorkshire – though some of the outlets are also outside of Yorkshire. Today, more than a million customers visit Betty’s every year – that is almost 20% of the population of Norway! So on a lazy Sunday afternoon in mid September after a late lunch which got over at 4pm, we went down to Harrogate to tick off yet another things in our “to do list of things” in England before we hop back to India or yet another country! The to do item - to enjoy the weekend afternoon tea at Betty’s in Harrogate. 

There were two tea rooms of Betty’s in the spa town of Harrogate and we decided to go the one on Parliament Street – the nerve centre of Harrogate city centre. Betty’s Tea room looked pretty upmarket and chick from the exterior. We were waited to be seated by our hostess and finally we walked down one or two floors below the ground floor to our part of the tea room. As we walked down – it was amusing to see so many people enjoying their lazy Sunday evening tea’s – dressed almost like they would be on their wedding day. 

There was a piano on the ground floor and the pianist was playing tunes which could make you feel for a moment that you were not in this era – but in the Victorian era! With the music in the background and tea aroma and steam sizzling from the tea cups, the audience seemed to be in a magical trance in their own private conversations in a very public environment! After we were seated, we were treated to the menu card – rich in the varieties of tea and light snacks and refreshments like cakes, scones and others. We decided to go for the Yorkshire cream tea – to have a truly Yorkshire experience!

We spent time soaking in the ambience – the dim lightings and the surrounding walls with pictures of places in and around Yorkshire – famous and not so famous. There was a couple – an Asian lady and her British boyfriend next to ours who were looking very much like the couple who started dating a week back. The table behind us was again with a British Asian – maybe a Pakistani or Punjabi gentleman with his mom. The rest of the room was full of local Englishmen and their families enjoying the tea. The pianist did make his presence felt even two floors down to this basement – and unique it was! In between our conversations and comparing it to the experience of having tea in the tea stalls in India, my wife and I saw our table filled with a gleaming silver cake stand laden with freshly baked miniature scones, fresh cream and homemade strawberry jam. Not to miss the gleaming silver tea pot puffing magical steam in the air! 

We had ordered for two tea pots – and through those 90 minutes we were there at Betty’s – we ended up sipping at least half a litre of tea each – while enjoying the peace and quietness.  It was very relaxing to enjoy this experience!

Betty's Tea Room - from the outside

Tea Room in the village of Dent, Yorkshire Dales
The tea drinking experience at Betty’s was a tad different to the one we had in the village of Dent – in Yorkshire Dales National Park. The one at Dent was less commercial and in the rural settings and served at the ground floor of a farmer’s house which was probably multi-tasking as a farm house, tea room and Break & Breakfast all at the same time. The ambience there and the company of my sister and her family and the conversations was a different experience than the one at Betty’s.

Hopefully the tea rooms in England will definitely be there for years to come! Its traditional, historical, cultural significance and role as a social networking platform for centuries will never be undermined!

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Hope is everlasting!

During times of hardships and challenges, never given up on hope. Hope is everlasting and makes you look forward for the light at the end of the tunnel than the immediate darkness surrounding you.

About this pic:

1. This pic was taken during my trip to Frankfurt, Germany in Dec 2010. I had gone to the TCS Frankfurt office for training. On my way back, i was on a train from Frankfurt station to Frankfurt airport.

2. Saw this young man waiting for train on a cold evening. The sun was hidden from the clouds and this man has his eyes and hopes pinned far beyond on the tracks – waiting for his train to escape the chill on a wintery and snowy December evening.

This blog is being published during my train journey between London and Leeds. Heading back after a week in London back to home sweet home!

Monday, October 15, 2012

Tackle the mesh of problems with a constructive approach

Life is like this bridge with tresses - with a mesh of problems around us. If we focus too much on the problems and get worried, we are lost in the maze of problems and find no solution. If we look at the solution for each problem straight ahead and start working towards the same without worrying about the problem and the outcome or end result, we will sail past the bridge to the other side with success at our feet!

About this pic:

1.This was taken during my walk along the Trans Pennine Trail (TPT) which runs behind my house in Leeds.

2. The entire TPT is very long and runs across Yorkshire for miles. The stretch outside my house is scenic and a nice walk for 45 mins till the Thwaite Mills Museum. This pic was taken one of the few times i have been here for a walk/ jog / run this summer. I had to then stop going on this path as it was isolated and becoming unsafe with a person from my company getting mugged and hospitalized by miscreants.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

UK:York:York City Walls: 2000 years in 2 miles for 2 hours

If you happen to reside in Yorkshire county, you will definitely be tempted to go to the National Parks – Yorkshire Dales, Moors, Peak District or Lake District. You will be spoilt for choice to choose amongst the Abbey’s – Whitby Abbey, Bolton Abbey, Kirkstall Abbey etc. Or you may try to head to one of those places with a town house, with lush greenery lakes and landscapes around it – like Castle Howard, Temple Newsam or other places. But one place, which for your kind information ladies and gentlemen – you cannot afford to miss is the City of York!
York is the cultural and historical capital of Yorkshire and very much a city that makes you feel 2000 years old and an ageless romantic at the same time! York is gifted with various attractions like the timeless York Minster, the Museums – Jorvik & Railway Museum, the Clifford Tower. But one of the places you cant miss and must visit for a once in a lifetime experience is the York City Walls. One of those weekends in early May, we decided to experience the magic of this historic city by walking through the York City Walls. York is an 800 year old city in the Yorkshire county of UK. It is one of the important historic and cultural capitals of England. In AD 71, the Roman army established a fortress on the banks of the River Ouse called Eboracum. After the Romans, the Danish army conquered the city in 866, the name became rendered as Jórvík. The city name has changed from Jórvík to “York” over the years. The city has stood testimony to changes throughout the rich history.
An important point to note is that the city has been defended by walls of one form or the other since Roman times. These walls extend for 2.5 miles and enclose an area of 263 acres in between them! The walls of course have collapsed and been re-built over the years. The majority of the remaining walls those stand today, which encircle the whole of the medieval city, date from the 12th - 14th century, with some reconstruction carried out in the 19th century and later. York has more miles of intact wall than any other city in England! You start getting a glimpse of the walls from the time you walk out of the York railway station and start walking straight to your left.

A historic toll post to city of York?

 The walls are known as “York City Walls”, “Bar Walls” or “Roman Walls”.The walls still retain all four of their impressive gateways into the city, called bars, as well as 34 of their 39 interval towers. Prominent of these four bars are Bootham Bar, Monk Bar, Micklegate Bar and Walmgate Bar. These restricted traffic in medieval times, and were used to extract tolls, as well as being defensive positions in times of war.

You can start your walk from any of these bars or the other minor bars. But Meenakshi & I first visited the splendid and majestic York Minster first. After having soaked in the richness of its architecture and grandeur from outside (a service was already on inside and we did not want to intrude), we forced ourselves to finally set our eyes off the Minster and walk towards a nice medieval looking gate. As we walked towards it, we passed through a nice and quaint shopping centre.

As we passed through it, we saw the “Bootham Bar” entrance to the York City Walls.  We took the stairs up from around Bootham Bar to the York City Walls. 

One of the first views from the time we started walking along the walls was the City Art Gallery's building - with a tourist bus parked right outside it. Picture postcard -i must say!

Some of the meshed grills also provide a filtered viewing spot and maybe hold more history than this picture can reveal. The stairways at various points - meant for climbing up from one section of the city walls to another look very beautiful.


You can steal unique views of the York Minster as you walk around the City Walls of York.

Unique views of York Minster - 1

Unique views of York Minster - 2

Unique views of York Minster - 3

Long winding roads around the City Walks are surrounded by trees on both times on some stretches.

On some other stretches,  you may have the walls on one side and green grass on the other side. Can be a tad unnerving if you want to walk closer to the right edge.

While we were walking along the walls and reached a point from where suddently we couldn't see the York Walls any further and had to climb down the stairs. We felt we had finished walking on the City Walls. At this point, we just turned back to take the pic below

However better sense prevailed when we watched the signs. There is a small stretch of the walls which is not continuous only because there are swamps - small water bodies in between. It has been left as is from the centuries as it water around also served as a security feature for the city.Walk around along the swamps with them to your right and you will then reach the Red Tower. From the Red Tower, you start re-climbing back to the walls.This entire walk in between the two stretches of the York Wall would not be more than 10 minutes. Makes you really ponder over the care the ancient Romans took to retain water bodies and not spoil nature, while building these City Walls!


Red Tower

As you walk along further, you enjoy other important views - like the Wheel of York in the background - overarching over the York train station.

York Train Station and Wheel of York in the background
  Finally as you walk down, you cannot stop noticing a) York Minster and b) Tourists, Regulars and other revellers enjoying their walk through the York city walls.  
Revellers walking through the York walls, York Minster and scene around
You end up soaking 2000 years of history during this walk of 2.0 miles on the city walls! The two hours we happily invested in walking on these walls helped us capture the stunning beauty of the city of York through innumerable viewing points.
A couple enjoying a romantic walk on the York Walls
Glimpses through 2000 years of history in 2 miles for  2 hours

Friday, October 12, 2012

Keep Calm and Carry On!

The cloud of uncertainty hovering above you will definitely drift one day. This is when you will be surprised by the fact that even disparate un-resolvable issues also head towards a solution, almost by magic! Hence, during those gloomy days when the clouds loom over your mind, KEEP CALM and CARRY ON!

About this pic:

1. This pic was taken during my frequent official travels between Oslo and Stavanger, while i was in Norway from 2009-2011. The flight journey is not more than 40 minutes, but it takes 4-5 hours to drive (have never tried though!). You can steal such stunning views of the beautiful landscape of Norway even during flight!

2. Of course i had to be patient for the clouds to disappear for the beauty to be revealed! The bridges are connecting small disparate islands in and around Stavanger. It is fun to take ferry’s and go islandhopping to these islands and explore them. Read about one of such trips on this blog - Islandhopping Tau

Monday, October 08, 2012

UK: Visit to Sri Venkateswara (Balaji) Temple of Dudley, Birmingham, UK

To live a life outside of your home country, you need to make adjustments in the new country with a lot of things – on the food, culture, public holidays, festivals, social circles and anything which is familiar and yet taken for granted in the home country.

In the past few decades, Indian’s have been travelling across the globe to various countries – thanks to the opportunities around the globe for skill and talent. Because of the burgeoning population of 1.2 Billion people and the critical mass of talent who can be positioned for these opportunities, India has been “favourably disposed” to reap benefits of this human capital dividend.

What makes an Indian stick outside his home country is the availability of Indian retail stores (which aid in providing all the ingredients for cooking Indian food), Indian restaurants (which are at times owned and served by Nepali’s, Bangladeshi’s and Pakistani’s in addition to Indian’s), internet (which help you browse newspapers, watch movies, listen to songs), movie theatres (which show Bollywood or Regional Movies) and places of worship (like Hindu Temple, Gurudwara, Mosque, Churches etc), Indian associations etc. These are responsible for getting an Indian community together in a foreign nation and form a social group to create an “India like environment” abroad. One of the key binding ingredients are the places of workship. In my trips abroad – to US, Norway or UK i have always found Hindu Temples at a radius of a 15 minute drive to 2/4 hour drives – in whichever city i was – in any of these countries (maybe Norway outside of Oslo is an exception).

Though Meenakshi & I have been to the Hindu Temple in Leeds on the day of “Mahasivaratri” in 2012, we always had it on top of our lists to visit the Balaji temple at Dudlee, Birmingham. I have always had a faith favourably disposed to Lord Balaji / Lord Venkatesh over the last few years (which doesn’t take anything away from other Gods – Hanuman/ Lord Shiva / Lord Ganesh and others). I have visited Lord Balaji in Tirupati, Nerul, Pittsburg (Pennsylvania), Bridgewater (New Jersey) and also probably also paid respects to him at the Murugan temple in Oslo. We however got a chance to visit the Dudlee temple in August, where we had a rare family outing to a temple in a foreign country.

On a Saturday morning in August, Meenakshi & I drove down from Leeds to Birmingham with my parents, who were here for vacation. My sis – Anu, bro-in-law Mahesh and niece Sanju drove down to Brimingham from London. Since Birmingham was conveniently located between Leeds and London (2 hours from each city), it was a convenient place to meet and have my parents on the most comfortable , quickest and preferred way to reach London to spend time with Sis and her family.

Balaji Temple, Dudley
We agreed to reach there by around 4pm in the evening for the evening. Enroute, we experienced some very heavy rains on the way – which was threatening to almost cancel the entire trip. In spite of the obstacles, we persisted and surpassed all the heavy showers, weird sounds from the car tyre during rain (which on closer inspection did not pose to be a risk) and reached the temple a little after my sis’s family reached. Much more than simply a physical complex, it brings together a remarkably wide cross-section of Hindus into a vibrant, thriving organization, and is now recognized as one of the leading Hindu institutions in UK.

It was a wonderful experience entering the temple, almost welcomed by two stone elephants in white, with the board of the temple in full view. The parking lot was big enough to probably accommodate at least 250-300 cars at once.

Car Parking Lot outside the temple entrance

The temple is set in a 21.5 acre site, with a number of different shrines and other facilities and it has grown over a 10-year period to become the first for Lord Balaji and physically largest South Indian temple precinct in Europe.It was designed to replicate the Tirupati Venkateswara Temple in Tirupati, India, which is the second busiest and richest religious centre in the world after the Vatican.

Closeup of the main sanctum sanctorum

The main sanctum sanctorum housing Lord Balaji – has the typical layout that you see in a lot of Balaji temples. We had the main idol of Lord Balaji, surrounded by Sri Devi and Bhoo Devi. We also had small temples of Goddess Padmavati, Lord Hanuman and Lord Satyanarayana inside. The effect of incandescent sticks (called agarbatti’s in hindi), sandalwood smell of the “chandan” and flowers was creating a mystical effect in the background of the temple lamps, priests chanting soft prayers. This is what all of us praying there inside the temple would have experienced in a temple back home in India. It brought back strong memories of my own temple visits across Mumbai and India. I was really glad to have this familiarity of time with the Gods, even outside of my own country. My parents were equally impressed with the temple and it was just like visiting a temple in India. In fact, Balaji temples are known for being very crowded in India and you get very less viewing time or facetime with the main Lord. Here it was not timed and you could get nearly infinite facetime with the main Lord’s idol, which is any worshipper’s dream come true! We also did a “Archana” for the family – a special service to the god to bless the family. Post that we collected all the prasadam – “Tirupati Laddu”, which is any Indian’s favourite. You can also purchase Laddu’s – like in the Tirupati temple in India.

The temple has shrines for Lord Ganesha, Lord Murugan, Lord Saibaba and for the Navagraha’s outside the main sanctum sanctorum.

The backside of one of the smaller shrines

The food place

After the “darshan” with all the Lords and temples, we walked and went to the small makeshift cafe inside a tent, which was right inside the temple premises to satiate our hunger. The makeshift cafe could have easily been one of the millions of street food vendors we have back home in India. They were playing some old Tamil movie numbers – which were no way near chartbuster numbers, but fun to here for the theatrics in the song. As they say – the fun is in ripping apart these numbers over friendly banters and family conversations! This place is definitely one of the must visits for other worshippers as well – as we had a waiting time to give our orders and then to be served. The menu card was impressive and had the usual suspects – idli,dosa, vada, coffee and other south Indian delicacies. Very crispy onion dosa’s , sada dosa’s and other south Indian delicacies then helped stopped the rumble in the tummy and satiated our hunger! There were very few chairs in the tent, but one doesn’t mind standing to have authentic south Indian food. A small shop - Ganesh Foods outside the cafe was selling all the south Indian ingredients like masala’s, pickles, vegetables, flour and other delicacies for a quick snack. We eased the wallet for some quick purchases, which still have to be used! So much for impulsive buying!

Once we were done, we spent some time outside sipping tea and cucumber sandwiches – thanks to my sis! Once done, we switched my parent’s to the other car and drove back to Leeds.

Tasty Free Lunches

In a span of two months, we luckily had another chance to visit Balaji temple. This weekend we had been to Stone for the Stone Food Festival and to stay over at a friend`s place. Stone is located about 45 mins from the temple in Dudlee. Meenakshi & I decided to make a visit to the temple on a Sunday morning. We had a very good darshan and had the prasadam – “Tirupati Laddu”. During the weekends they also serve free food starting 12.30pm for a limited period. Food connoisseurs that we are, its not often that we get treated to a) eating in a temple b) getting south Indian food in UK. We enjoyed the wonderful rice, sambhar, potato curry and kesari sweet. I am not a sucker for sweets, but they were so magical, i had a gulp even before Meenakshi blinked an eyelid and shook her head in disbelief!

Devotees in queue after a nice darshan Sunday morning
Lunch waiting for you!
With gratitude, we then went out to the cafe to have idli’s and wada’s packed from the temple cafe to be enjoyed later in comfort! While stepping out, we saw a nice fountain with Lord Vishnu in his “sleeping pose” and Lord Lakshmi. Haven’t seen that one before ever in my life outside a temple!

Lord Vishnu and Goddess Padmavati near a fountain
As we made our way from the temple to the car parking lot, we could overhear some nice hindi songs song by kids in the local activity centre inside the temple – a weekly gathering of music learners and practitioners. In addition to music, the temple also has other activities like Matrimonial Service, Volunteering, Balaji Vedic and Art heritage school, Bharatnatyam dance classes etc – an all round exposure to various facets of the Hindu religion. Indeed glad to have temples like these outside of India, continuing to nourish our soul and spirit and serving reminders of our service to society and future generations!

Buddha statue above a small hill inside the temple. More such hills around.

Buddha statue closeup