A weekend at Cumberland Lodge

Cumberland Lodge’s history dates back to the 17th century when John Byfield bought a plot of land in the Windsor Great Park, during the time crown lands was sold at preferential prices to officers of Cromwell’s army, and built Byfield House. When monarchy was restored in 1660, the crown lands were repossessed and Byfield House became the Ranger’s home. The only woman to hold the post of Ranger, the overseer of the Great Park, was Sarah Churchill, the Duchess of Marlborough who was appointed by Queen Anne in 1702.

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The lodge’s current name comes from its famous resident, the Duke of Cumberland, who was given the rangership in 1746 as a reward for Culloden. While each of the rangers added or modified the original house, the Duke is credited with the landscaping of its surroundings. Another famous ranger was Prince Albert, who was appointed by Queen Victoria, in 1841.

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The present history of Cumberland Lodge has its roots in Amy Buller’s book ‘Darkness over Germany’, where she shared her perspectives of world war II. Buller felt that it was important to provide neutral, discussion spaces for university students to share diverse views and enable critical analysis of prevailing issues. The royal couple, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, supported Amy Buller’s initiative of starting up such a space in England and donated this country house for the cause in 1947. Initially known as St. Catherine’s foundation, it was incorporated into a charity called Cumberland Lodge in 2005, with the Queen as its patron.

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I had the privilege of staying at this historical house, in January 2015, for a residential workshop. The weekend stay at this old and beautiful house, with a lot of history surrounding it and just an hour or so away from London, was one of the highlights of my year in the UK.

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Cumberland lodge was modernized in the 1980s and opened up to non-student groups to help support the charity work. The Lodge can now be hired for conferences and weddings.

My favourite place at the lodge was the library, where the historic discussions around King Edward VIII’s abdication took place.

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The Lodge can be seen in the movie ‘The King’s Speech’ depicting scenes at Sandringham House.

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Which is your favourite travel memory of visiting a historic house?

[I am linking this to City Tripping #53 and Faraway File #14]

MummyTravels
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A morning in Fatehpur Sikri

As we went along the road to Fatehpur Sikri from Agra, our driver, Dev, pointed out the motorbikes passing us on either side. Most had women carrying a large bag on the rear seat. He said that the women were going to their parents’ home for the Bhai Dooj festival. This festival was celebrated in north India following Diwali and it was a festival where a married sister visited her brother on this day and gave him her blessings and gifts. There is an interesting folk story  about the origins of this festival. We asked Dev whether he and his sister were not celebrating the festival. He shrugged and replied, “here, people celebrate. now in modern cities, people don’t care.”

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Till we reached Jaipur later that evening, we continued seeing brightly clad women on foot, motorbikes, mini-vans carrying bags and going with either their husband and/or children.

We reached the ghost city of Fatehpur Sikri and our local guide was waiting for us at the entrance. We removed our shoes at the entrance as we were entering the mosque area, open to all public. This public area was teeming with people, both the local residents selling goods in tents set up around the courtyard as well as visiting tourists and pilgrims.

The guide told us that a very famous Sufi saint called Salim Chishti was said to have lived here in the 16th century. Emperor Akbar worried that he had no heir to the throne after several years of marriage, and hearing of the powers of the saint to grant wishes, visited him and sought his blessings. He had vowed that if he were granted his wish for a son, he would build his second capital in the area. His Hindu wife bore him a son, and one of the names he was given was Salim after the saint but was more commonly known by his other name, Jahangir. Akbar kept his promise and built the city of Fatehpur Sikri. He also had the tomb for the saint built in the mosque complex. The royal family lived for a few years in the city but abandoned it soon as water turned out to be a major problem, having to be transported all the way from Agra.

The tomb of Salim Chishti is now a famous pilgrimage point for people, irrespective of their faith. The guide said that Akbar had been personally involved in planning the tomb architecture and layout..

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Pilgrims and visitors to the tomb generally place a cloth offering over the cenotaph, sprinkle rose petals and tie threads for three wishes on the lattice windows overlooking the tomb.

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We got the cloth and bag of rose petals along with three red and yellow threads each and walked into the inner chamber. After placing our cloth over the cenotaph, the person who was taking care of the tomb said that we could place any donation, we felt like contributing for the mosque, near the cloth and it would be used for the welfare of the children of the area.

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We then walked over to the lattice windows and tied our red and yellow threads. Our guide had mentioned earlier that we should not speak about the wishes we made until they were fulfilled. I can’t even remember now what wishes I made to know whether they were fulfilled or not.

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We walked out of the inner chamber and walked around the outer chamber. The guide pointed us to a half-door on the side of the tomb. He said that in the past, women had not been allowed to enter through the same front door as men as they were considered inferior to men. Women were allowed to visit the tomb of this saint but to differentiate their status, they had to come in through the side door. The purposefully built door ensured that the women had to bend to enter which ensured a humble poise. They were also only allowed to sit in the outer chamber and not allowed to enter the inner chamber during Akbar’s time. For all his secular views and broad mindedness on unity and equality, Akbar did not treat women in an equal and non-discriminatory manner.

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We walked out into the courtyard and took a short walk around. Adjoining the mosque and the sufi saint’s tomb was the palace complex. Akbar’s palace was interesting. There were three main houses within the palace: one for each of his three main wives – his Hindu wife, Christian wife and Muslim wife. One of Akbar’s policy in unifying India was to marry a princess of different states so that he would have that particular region’s allegiance. His three main recognized wives were privileged enough to have their own quarters as opposed to the mass harem quarters. His Hindu wife, who played an important role in Emperor Akbar’s life and politics, had her living quarters built in traditional Hindu architecture with places for lamps, worship and a traditional vegetarian kitchen etc. The Christian wife’s quarters had a chapel and lots of paintings. Each house though had some mark of all the religions to demonstrate that all religions was accepted, while giving special recognition to each wife’s particular religion.

A huge courtyard adjoining the harem was where the King entertained and was entertained or had important discussions regarding state issues. The legendary musician, Tansen, considered one of the nine jewels of Emperor Akbar’s court performed for the Emperor here, while his wives watched from their specially designed windows in their respective part of the harem. The platform where Tansen performed was surrounded by water, and was said to have been filled with jasmine and surrounded by lighted lamps during his performance.

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Legend has it that fellow musicians jealous of his skill and favour that he had found in Emperor Akbar’s court tried to oust him by asking the Emperor to make him sing the Deepak Raga, which if properly sung was thought to cause all things to burn, including the singer. Tansen is said to have sung it after asking another singer to sing the raga that evoked rains simultaneously.

Across the musician’s court, the Panch Mahal or the five storey place was built for the Emperor’s pleasure where he could enjoy the moonlight and evening air. The Panchmahal opened onto a huge ludo board carved on the floor.

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Across this game board square was located the secret chamber. The chamber, where Akbar gathered his top ministers for secret, urgent consultations on state emergencies. He would sit in the middle and his ministers in each of the corners built around the center like a wheel. I can’t imagine how the consultation could have been secretive, if they had to shout out to each other across the respective corners they sat in.

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There was also a hall for private audience known as the Diwan-i-Khas, especially where representatives of different religious faiths met with the Emperor to discuss their concerns.

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This section led into the more public area, the hall of public audience and the courtyard where the public waited to meet the Emperor and state their grievances and where public hearings were held. The guide mentioned that an elephant was usually kept waiting at these hearings as the worst offenders were sentenced to trampling by an elephant.

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As we walked out of the public hearing area and towards our car, children selling knick knacks surrounded us. I always feel sad when I come across kids selling stuff at tourist sites. While I did not want to encourage child labour, we were unable to resist the plea of the kids so ended up buying a few things, hoping that the money would go towards their food.

What is the most interesting local festival that you have come across in your travels? How do you react when coming across child vendors at tourist sites?

[I am linking this post to Faraway Files #6 and Weekend Travel Inspiration]

Oregon Girl Around the World
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A walk around Durham

One reaches the historic part of Durham by crossing a bridge over River Wear. Local legend has it that a group of monks searching for a safe place to settle and rebury St. Cuthbert came across this tiny peninsula following a turn of events that involved St. Cuthbert’s bier, a monk’s dream and a milkmaid searching for her lost cow. The 11th century cathedral is the result of this settlement of monks and houses the shrine of St. Cuthbert.

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During an april weekend last year, I visited this UNESCO heritage site for a Chevening scholar conference at Durham University. I decided to stay the night in the historic part of the city at St. Chad’s College, one of the oldest and smallest colleges of Durham University, so that I could explore the city beyond the university premises. The row of townhouses that make up the college overlook the cathedral.

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The weekend of my visit coincidentally happened to be a heritage weekend due to which there were several free events and tours taking place around the old city in addition to free entry in museums. I went on the cathedral tour and the castle tour as well as explored the Museum of Archaeology at the Palace green library premises. Photography was not permitted within any of the premises. The Undercroft restaurant at the Durham cathedral was a refreshing stop for some tea in-between the tours.

The 11th century castle, whose construction was undertaken on the order of William the Conqueror, has been home to students of University College, Durham University, since 1840.

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What I enjoyed best about my stay in Durham was the early morning walk I took around parts of the historic city. With hardly anyone on the road and the morning mist swirling around me, it was easy to imagine that I was back in time and could expect to come across a medieval resident at the next turn in the path.

Let me take you on a photo tour of my special morning walk.

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I hope you enjoyed the photo tour around the cathedral!

[I am linking this post to City Tripping #52]

MummyTravels

A day trip from Rotterdam

While visiting my childhood and family friend in Rotterdam in 2010, we took a day trip to visit The Hague and Delft. While we walked around both cities a lot, I think our conversation had most of my attention that I only took a few photos. This post is a photo tour of few of the places we passed by in our walk.

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Statue in front of Noordeinde palace, The Hague

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The Binnenhof, next to Hofvijver lake, The Hague

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Inner Court and Hall of the Knights (Binnenhof), The Hague

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City Hall, Delft

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Niuwe Kerk, Delft

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Mausoleum of William of Orange inside Nieuwe Kerk

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Being introduced to poffertjes – the Dutch batter treat, Delft market square

I remember that I particularly enjoyed walking around the  narrow cobbled paths and tiny bridges over canals in the little city of Delft, despite the rain.

Which is your favourite city in the Netherlands, from your past or future planned visits?

[I am linking this post to The Weekly Postcard]

 

Travel Notes & Beyond

Highlights of Agra

Entering Agra district, we first visited Sikandara, the mausoleum of Emperor Akbar. The mausoleum was a beautiful red sandstone structure in the middle of a well-maintained lawn, which had deers roaming around the park. Emperor Akbar had started the building of his own mausoleum but it was completed by his son, Jahangir, after his death. We walked into the tomb, after removing our shoes at the entrance. It was a dark passage and we followed some other tourists going inside. The passage became darker and darker as we went further inside and we were a bit uncomfortable. We reached the inner tomb and it was pitch-dark. As we turned to leave, a loud voice within the tomb cried out ‘Allahu Akbar’. Though I reasoned out that there must be a recorded voice activated by someone stepping over some particular stone or touching a wall, the unearthly voice did startle us for a moment.

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Leaving the tomb, we walked around the premises. Emperor Akbar was renowned for his generosity and his fair-minded principles. Perhaps because of that or not, there was an atmosphere of calm and peace in the place.

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After checking in at our hotel, the local guide arranged by our tour operator arrived to take us to Agra Fort. Started by Emperor Akbar, the construction of the fort was completed by his grandson Shah Jahan. We walked through a doorway into the courtyard, where the Emperor used to hear the public’s grievances.

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We walked inside and entered the royal apartments, where according to our guide, nearly 5000 women had once resided in tiny cramped rooms. Though the living quarters were tiny, they opened onto a nice courtyard with a fountain in the middle. The courtyard had been used for growing grapes for wine. And, the dancers performed in front of the fountain, while Shah Jahan watched from his rooms at one end. Shah Jahan’s rooms had a lovely view of River Yamuna and the Taj Mahal.

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It was also in these rooms that he had been placed under house arrest by his son Aurangzeb, during the last eight years of his life. As his health was failing, he had been cared for by his eldest and favourite daughter, Jahanara. On either side of his rooms were the identical apartments of his eldest and youngest daughters and the guide pointed out that Jahanara’s apartment had been built in marble, which was her parents’ favourite choice of building material. After her father’s death, Jahanara moved to Delhi and is credited with the design of Chandni Chowk, one of the oldest markets in Old Delhi.

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We walked into the next section of the fort, which is one of the earliest surviving buildings from Emperor Akbar’s time and was the zenana for his wives. It is called Jahangir Mahal perhaps because Akbar’s son, Jahangir, also chose it as his residence without building a new set of apartments as his son, Shah Jahan, did later. Jahangir Mahal was built in red sandstone, the material of choice of Emperor Akbar. The royal apartments opened onto a courtyard with a pool in the middle. There were two sets of identical apartments on either side. One side had windows, while the other didn’t. They were supposed to be the summer and winter palaces respectively. For such a huge fort, it was amazing that the living quarters were so cramped.

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After our visit to Agra Fort, we drove to the Taj Mahal. As the Taj Mahal was a considerable distance away from the parking area, the guide arranged for a horse-cart/ tonga to take us closer. My mother especially enjoyed this tonga ride and it seems to be her favourite memory of our visit to Agra.

Passing the security gates, we entered the Taj through the Eastern Gate into a courtyard where the four gates faced each other. Each entrance was for a specific purpose in the old days, one for the Emperor and royal dignitaries, the other for public etc.

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As I approached the Northern Gate, my anticipation of a treat increased but our way was blocked by men with photo albums trying to get us to buy a photo package with them. With difficulty, we extracted ourselves and entered the gate feeling harassed. And, there we were at the famous spot where the Taj has been photographed a countless times and I had expected it to be the best highlight of our trip. It was an underwhelming moment as the crowds were quite distracting.

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As we walked closer to the lovely marble structure, I started seeing the beauty of it. The longer you looked at some face of Taj Mahal, the more appealing you were going to find it. Unfortunately, the rain clouds started gathering above and it was very windy.

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We hurried into the tomb, after wearing our shoe covers, so that we would escape the rains. Following a long queue, we walked inside the tomb which was quite dark. The guide pointed out the difference in designs of the resting places of Arjumand Banu Begum and Shah Jahan. We came out of the tomb and walked along its outer perimeter and came to the face overlooking river Yamuna. The guide pointed out the ruins of the foundations that had been laid by Shah Jahan, for his own mausoleum – the Black Taj, across the river. He had intended that his mausoleum face that of his wife’s in perfect symmetry down to the fountains. However, his son Aurangzeb refused to build it for him and instead buried him alongside his wife. While this act is considered somewhat dishonorable of his son, I think it is perfect that the couple celebrated for their love for each other be buried next to each other. We sat for a few minutes resting on the steps and then decided to turn back. The rain started pouring so we rushed back to our car.

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I think I would have loved my experience of Taj Mahal more, had I visited it earlier in the day before it became crowded as we had done with Sikandara.

Is Taj Mahal on your travel wish list? If you have visited it, what was your experience of the Taj?

[I am linking this post to Faraway Files #5Wanderful Wednesday and Weekend Travel Inspiration]

Untold Morsels

Wanderful Wednesday

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En-route to Agra

My mother and I left Delhi after breakfast. We passed by roads waking up to a fresh day. Barbers shaving heads of clients on chairs set up under trees, street food sellers cooking up breakfast on their mobile carts, locals eating by the cart before rushing off to attend to their day’s work.

At my request, the tour operator had agreed to make a detour on the way to Agra so that we could visit Mathura and Vrindavan. Both places are revered among Hindus as the place of birth of Lord Krishna and the place where he grew up. Passing Radhapuram, we came across lots of cows lazily sitting along the sides of the road. My mother was highly pleased as Krishna was said to have grown among cow herders, according to myth.

We were approaching Vrindavan when Dev, our driver, warned us to keep our doors locked. The road was blocked and we saw a small tax booth. Dev lowered his window to pay the toll fee. Immediately, people swarmed the window and started offering us their services as guide around Vrindavan. Dev responded saying that we did not understand Hindi but they switched to broken English. It was frightening, especially, when some of the more aggressive ones tried to open the doors of the car on both sides. They refused to open the gates without taking one of their guides with us. Finally, Dev shouted back at them and asked whether they were going to accept the toll fee or not and one of them accepted the money and returned a ticket and another opened the gate for us to pass. As we passed through, we saw that one of the local guides was following us on his motorbike.

Vrindavan was awash with temples for Lord Krishna and almost every place was called Krishna something and local residents seemed to depend on Krishna tourism for their living. Before stopping at a temple, which Dev referred to as the main Krishna temple, we discussed a strategy to avoid the hordes of aggressive guides and vendors swarming the place. We would be dropped right at the entrance so that we could go directly into the temple and we agreed we would be at the entrance in exactly fifteen minutes so that Dev could pick us up at the entrance again.

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The ISKCON temple was a lovely place but rather crowded that day since there was a special puja – the Govardhan puja for Krishna taking place. We queued to go in to the temple shrine area and passed a courtyard, where a section had been cordoned off and offerings of sweets shaped in lovely designs adorned the middle. We saw kids hanging around the edges of the cordoned off area, looking longingly at the sweets, which would probably be given them at the end of the puja as prasadham.

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We could not stand long in one place as there was a massive crowd making their way in and the area where people could sit was already packed so we had to keep moving with the queue and leave the puja area. We saw our driver waiting for us and quickly got into the car. At the gates which led out of Vrindavan, we were again stopped by the local guide on the motorbike, who demanded our driver to give him his name and mobile number. Our driver confidently gave his name and number, to our surprise. The local was satisfied and let us pass through. We asked Dev why he had done that and wouldn’t he be troubled thereafter by that particular guide. He smiled and replied, ‘Correct name, wrong number. He is happy, so no harm.’

Next, we went to Mathura city, to the place where Krishna was said to have been born. An ancient temple, Sri Krishna Janmabhoomi temple, is said to have been built over the prison cell where Krishna was born. However, the temple was subsequently destroyed and rebuilt several times. We were disappointed when we saw the long queue snaking its way around the temple. There must have been over thousand in the queue. We decided we did not want to stand in the queue in the blistering heat and instead would drive around the temple before continuing to Agra.

While we did not visit the oldest Krishna temple in Vrindavan nor the temple at the supposed place of Krishna’s birth in Mathura, my mother was still happy that we visited the area of so many Hindu religious stories as well as folklore. Even though the toll booth harassment at Vrindavan was not pleasant and somewhat scary.

Have you had experiences of being harassed when visiting a famous tourist or pilgrimage site? 

To be continued in Agra

[I am linking this post to Wanderful Wednesday and Weekend Travel Inspiration]
Wanderful Wednesday

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