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A good time to visit London? Now!

A good time to visit London? Now!

good-time-visit-london-now
Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament, London

London!

I saw some.

I missed some.

So, London keeps calling me back.

When am going to plan a visit again?

The answer is ‘Right Now!’

Want to know why?

Then, read on!

A good time to visit London? Now!

It was summer of 2012. My elder daughter, who was just 20 then and was doing her graduation with an offshore London School of Economics-affiliate (LSE-affiliate) college, got selected to do her summers in London. It was going to be a 6-week residential programme.

Like most Indian parents, while we were proud, we were also concerned about her first-ever solo stay in an alien town. So, after some intense family deliberations, my wife nominated me to accompany her and see if the stay and other arrangements were satisfactory.

good-time-visit-london-now
Oxford Street in Olympic Finery

Here, let me just remind you that summer of 2012 was Olympics-time in London! Though a popular phrase goes – “All roads lead to Rome”, around that time, the world had replaced ‘Rome’ with ‘London’. This little fact ensured that my trip cost was going to be through the roof.

As a travel photographer and writer, I naturally wanted to make the most of this… er…  opportunity. After all, it was going to be my first-ever visit to London!

All the same, with due consideration to the budget, I decided to keep my stay in London short. So, three nights it was. In this city packed with places of interest of all hues. But then, something is better than no something!

After settling her in, I started my brief sojourn with London. The more I saw, the more I fell in love with it. Besides the usual day-long London city sightseeing trip, I explored the city on my own too. I was truly on the move there!

good-time-visit-london-now
The Tower Bridge, as viewed from the Tower of London.

So, let’s see what all I managed

The city has 4 UNESCO World Heritage sites – The Tower of London, Kew Gardens, the site comprising Westminster Abbey, the Palace of Westminster, and St Margaret’s Church, and the historic settlement of Greenwich where the Royal Observatory marks 0° longitude, the Prime Meridian, and GMT. I managed to visit three of these, but ran out of time and had to skip Kew Gardens. A pity, really!

good-time-visit-london-now
The Royal Observatory at Greenwich

At the Tower of London, I took a Beefeater tour (Yeoman Warder tour) and visited the Crown Jewels vault and saw the Koh-I-Noor diamond. I took a Verger Tour of the Westminster Abbey and clicked a photograph (with Verger’s permission) of the first grave in the Abbey – that of Edward the Confessor. I stood astride the brass (or is it copper?) strip that marks the Prime Meridian.

good-time-visit-london-now
A Beefeater. They are the traditional custodians of the Crown Jewels.

I did a ride on the famed London Eye. I did a short cruise over Thames. I took a walk through Hyde Park and swung past Royal Albert Hall. I admired the artists and their gorgeous art near the National Gallery. I saw a unicyclist perform at the Covent Garden. I also witnessed the ceremonial change of guard at the Buckingham Palace.

good-time-visit-london-now
The Tower of London

I spent some time in Trafalgar Square; though, the pigeons I saw Amrish Puri feeding in ‘Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge’ (the biggest hit Bollywood has ever produced) had gone missing by then! I had a pint of beer at Sherlock Holmes – a pub on Northumberland Street that was established in 1736! I watched the Spain vs Italy Euro Cup finals at Buckingham Arms in Westminster area.

good-time-visit-london-now
Stonehenge, near Amesbury, Wiltshire, UK

Heck… I even managed a day trip to Salisbury and checked out Stonehenge – another UNESCO World Heritage site.

Well, I did manage a lot, but I have some regrets… regrets of not being able to do many more things.

good-time-visit-london-now
London Eye, South Bank

Let me share some of those

I missed out on visiting Madame Tussauds Wax Museum. I also did not have enough time to make it to the Museum of Brands (this one is of special interest to me as I have spent 27 years in Advertising!). Though I am an avid Hard Rock Café T-shirt collector, I could not find time to visit this iconic destination in London.

good-time-visit-london-now
Ceremonial Change of Guard, Buckingham Palace, London.

I did go past Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, but I could not see a show there. I missed out on seeing the great displays at the Tate Modern and the National Gallery. Remember that popular TV show – Crystal Maze? I was a big fan of the show. And naturally, I wanted to take on the Crystal Maze in Zone One. But, I couldn’t.

good-time-visit-london-now
A potpourri of traditional and modern at the Westminster Bridge

I also did not manage Ripley’s Believe it or Not at Piccadilly Circus. Or the London Zoo. Or the Sherlock Holmes Museum at 221b Baker Street. Or the Royal Opera House. Or even the Museum of London. Or… well, there is so much more I wanted to do in London that this list can be endless!

good-time-visit-london-now
Tomb of Edward the Confessor, Westminster Abbey

Why this post now?

I chanced upon the British Airways (BA) page recently and discovered they had unleashed some bonanzas – exclusively for their customers. BA customers enjoy special shopping discounts at multiple outlets across London (for the whole list, CLICK HERE). They are offering their lowest fares – with hotel stays thrown in! I found a return ticket with a 5-night hotel stay, breakfast included, for just Rs. 54,106!!!

They have also suggested some real cost-saving itineraries under various heads. Check these out HERE.

And, the icing on the cake – British Pound that used to hover around Rs. 100 is now at Rs. 82.

good-time-visit-london-now
Royal Albert Hall

What Next?

I feel this is too good an opportunity to let go. So, I am going to book a trip right now! Those of you who have always wanted to visit this great city but have been deterred by the high costs should also do the same. As they say, opportunity knocks but once!

good-time-visit-london-now
City view from London Eye.

Like I said – A good time to visit London? Now! Happy Travels!

 

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Travel Photography Essence of a City

Travel Photography Essence of a City

Travel Photography Essence of a CityEquipment: EOS 5D Mark III   EF24-70mm f/2.8L USM

EXIF: 25mm   f/10   1/400sec   ISO 100

Travel Photography – Essence of a City

This shot appeared as my ‘Gold Shot’ in my article on ‘Working the Scene’ (an article on Street photography) in ‘Learning’ section of Smart Photography in their October 2012 Issue.

Summing up London

I had an image of London that was mainly based on Sherlock Holmes mysteries, Shakespeare’s plays, Charles Dickens’ novels, PG Wodehouse’s humour and some 20th Century Fox movies. Additionally, even in the Eastman Color and Technicolor Bollywood movies I saw in the childhood, the Films Division documentaries shown then were mostly in B&W, and were mostly about London. So, even before my visit to London, I was determined to capture the colours of the city in B&W.

One evening, while on Westminster Bridge, I sensed that I could have a shot that could sum up London in its entirety. To me, this location offered it all. It had diverse people walking by; it had Big Ben as the backdrop; it had period lamppost depicting the history and heritage of London; the skies were cloudy with a dodgy sun – all of it, typically London. To top it, the shadows and the road markings were providing excellent leading lines to get viewers’ eye straight to the subject!

But since I was shooting against the light (a massive dynamic range challenge) and I wanted a greater depth of field to get people and the backdrop in sharp focus, I narrowed the aperture to f/10 and exposed with a clear eye on recovering dynamic range extremes of bright and dark areas in post-processing. Here is the result of that effort.

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Scotland – Scenic Speyside

Scotland – Scenic Speyside

Queen's View Approach
Queen’s View Approach

I love to travel and love to capture the sights, sounds and stories of the places I travel to. Even before I started to enjoy a drink, I had always wanted to do the Whiskey Trail in Scotland. Last summer (Summer of 2012), I finally got around to doing it. When I went around making the bookings, I realised there were 4 different trails on offer – Islay, Highlands, Lowlands and Speyside. I am partial to Speyside whiskeys, so I chose that.

Till I reached Edinburgh, my excitement was all about the various whiskeys I’ll taste. On leaving Edinburgh, our group made our first stop at a large, almost empty parking lot. We did not know what to expect. Our driver-cum-guide, Andrew, requested us to disembark.

We made our way on a narrow dirt trail in to the woods. Once we were inside the thick oak forest, despite it being morning, it became rather dark. We walked in silence for about 20 minutes, and suddenly, we hit a clearing, or what we thought was a clearing. In fact we had exited the forest and had reached a breathtakingly beautiful locale.

Jersey cows, lazily grazing in Scottish Highlands
Jersey cows, lazily grazing in Scottish Highlands

We were on the banks of a cluster of lakes (or lochs, as Scots call them). The lakes extended till distant horizons, and then faded and merged in to the sky. We stared speechlessly, for what seemed like hours. The lakes had some waterfalls, and the vegetation ranged from giant oaks to ferns of various varieties. Another prominent flora included colourful wild heather.

Andrew told us that we were just about 2 miles from a small scottish town, Pitlochry. He mentioned that the place is Queen’s View. That moment on, I had forgotten all about the whiskeys, and had fallen in love with the trail instead. The scenic landscape, the gorgeous blue skies, thick but gentle clouds, colourful wild plants, verdant green grasslands dotted with jersey and highland cows, undulating terrain and once-in-a-way sighting of agile, yet shy, red deer was to be a routine for the next 3 days – a routine we all loved.

Glenlivet Distillery, Scottish Highlands
Glenlivet Distillery, Scottish Highlands

We moved from town to town, and distillery to distillery, but the nature’s beauty continued to surprise us at every curve. Pitlochry, Grantown, Elgin, Braemer, Knockando, Tomintoul, Blairgowrie – all had their own charm. Grantown, for example, lies partly in Moray region, and partly in Highlands. It is on the banks of charming River Spey.

The architecture in these towns was colonial, marked by low-rise construction, beautifully maintained facades, and patches of green all around. The streets were clean and had sparse crowds. There seemed to be no stretching of infrastructure. Despite their miniscule sizes, these towns had their own cute main street markets complete with restaurants, open-air roadside cafes and bars, daily needs stores, and other items locals and tourists may need, to get by.

Garth Hotel (how much more Scottish you can get!) was to be my home for next couple of days. It was extremely clean and surprisingly well equipped to cater to any leisure traveller’s needs. Despite being an 18-room hotel, it had its own chef who conjoured up tasty meals at every dinner I had here.

Scotland scenic speyside
Grantown Main Street

This pleasant little hotel was on the main street, and had started business as an inn in 1850s. Unlike in India, the main street here was not crowded – in fact you’d be lucky to spot a car or bicycle pass by; and was spanking clean. Another surprise was the rich, bright carpet of greenery, which covered the entire area.

During these 3 days, we saw many castles which Scottish countryside is famous for – Drumin castle, Braemer castle, Balmoral castle and Corgarff castle, to name a few. What strikes you about these castles is their location. These are mostly away from the nearby towns and are located in splendid isolation. The castle building normally forms just about 1% of the area of the estate. The rolling green meadows and gardens leave you gaping.

Corgarff Castle
Corgarff Castle

On day 2, we entered Cairngorm National Park, which is the heart of the Whiskey trail. The park offers a lot more than we saw. It has ski slopes, wildlife preserves, museums, activities for various age groups including hiking and rafting, etc.

Cardhu Distillery, Near Archiestown, Moray, Scotland
Cardhu Distillery, Near Archiestown, Moray, Scotland

Day 3 brought us to the countryside that houses Glenlivet and many more distilleries. In a one-horse town called Tomintoul, I saw a Guinness Book of World Record holding single malt bottle. This bottle holds 105.6 litres of Tomintoul single malt, is 1.44 metres tall, and is housed in Clockhouse, a restaurant here. This little town also has a world-famous whiskey store – The Whiskey Castle. It boasts about 400 different brands of whiskeys.

Quiet town, Tomintoul
Quiet town, Tomintoul

Rivers we passed during the trail were many – Tay, Northern Esk, Southern Esk, Dee, Spey, Forth, etc. These ranged from small, gently flowing ones to monstrous, noisily gushing ones. Some passing through thick cover of forest, while the others through vast open meadowy stretches. Each, more beautiful than the other. For a small area, Scotland has about 50 rivers and about 3000 lakes. The region sure is flush with fresh water sources.

River Forth, on the outskirts of Edinburgh
River Forth, on the outskirts of Edinburgh

My interaction with Scots left me with a feeling that as a nation, they are proud of their heritage, ancestry and their country. Like Indians, Scots are also extremely hospitable. As a race, they are rather rugged looking, yet, gentle.

Those 3 days have long gone, but I still can feel the sights, sounds and stories, as if those happened just yesterday. I have made a promise to myself – of visiting Scotland again. This time, not for just 3 days, but for at least a fortnight, if not more. And, this will not be a whiskey trail tour.

7 Photography Tips for shooting Scotland Scenic Speyside:

  1. Try not shooting against the light, as the dynamic range on offer will be a severe challenge.
  2. Generally, during a normal, bright, sunny day, shooting landscapes with blues of sky and details of landscape intact can easily be managed. Just meter on the brighter, lighter greens of the grass. Also, shooting in raw format will help address the dynamic range better (maintaining details in darker areas).
  3. Typically, indoors in Scotland are rather dimly lit. You’ll need to stop up considerably to manage a decent exposure.
  4. To cut the mid-day haze (which can be very pronounced here), do use a polarising filter.
  5. Do get down on your knees while shooting the landscape. You might find yourself shooting interesting bluebells or Scottish thistle.
  6. While shooting landscapes here is a joy, do not ignore shooting the quaint little towns and villages you pass through. These offer a variety of subjects with character, ranging from tiny houses, cemeteries, local people, roadside cafes, to little streams, picnic spots along the banks of rivers or lakes (lochs), boats, etc.
  7. Most images you capture in Scotland are likely to be high-contrast. Though beautiful in full colour, these will look stunning even in B&W. Do attempt converting some during post-processing.

Note: Since this article appeared in ‘Asian Photography’, a photography magazine; hence, there are some photography tips here.

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Travelove Series 3 – Of Single Malts and a Chill-Filtered Smile!

Travelove Series 3 – Of Single Malts and a Chill-Filtered Smile!

The Whisky Castle, Tomintoul, Moray, Scotland
The Whisky Castle, Tomintoul, Moray, Scotland

Travelove Series is about the smiles I have gathered during my travels. I consciously look for Travelove during my travels.

Travelove Series 3 – Of Single Malts and a Chill-Filtered Smile!

On the last day of my Speyside Whisky Trail trip to Scotland, we visited Tomintoul – a small town in Moray. This place houses a globally famous single malt outlet – The Whisky Castle – that is run by Mike and Cathy Drury. It stocks over 500 single cask and small batch Single Malts.

Our tour guide Andrew conspiratorially asked me if I would like to taste some exotic Single Malt for free. I nodded. He then proceeded to tell me once we reach The Whisky Castle, I should strike a conversation with Mike about chill-filtered Single Malts.

Once there, I did so and realised that Mike is a sworn hater of chill-filtered Single Malts (chill-filtering is a purely cosmetic process and is all about removal of sediments in the whisky). Sure enough, he poured a shot of non-chill-filtered whisky and offered me to taste that.

Upon finishing that shot, I realised couple of other similar, yet exotic, whisky shots waited for me. At that point I exchanged a knowing smile with Andrew and added yet another interesting and indelible travel experience to my memory.

PS: I didn’t taste those whiskies for free after all as I ended up buying a rare gem from that store 🙂

Do you look for Travelove during your travels? To read more of my Travelove series, click here.

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Colours of London in Black & White

Colours of London in Black & White

My image of London was largely based on Sherlock Holmes mysteries, Shakespeare’s plays, Charles Dickens’ novels, PG Wodehouse’s humour, some 20th Century Fox movies and last but not the least, the B&W Films Division documentaries seen during my childhood in movie halls. I always regarded London as a somewhat mysterious city – a city replete with heritage and history. So, no wonder I wanted to capture colours of London in black & white. And the B&W images in this feature reflect that sentiment.

Tower Bridge proudly displaying the Olympic Rings marking London as the host city for 2012 Olympics
Tower Bridge proudly displaying the Olympic Rings marking London as the host city for 2012 Olympics

Bette Midler said, “When it’s three o’clock in New York, it’s still 1938 in London. “ I agree with her. Though the new London has what most global modern cities offer, and more; yet, the spirit of the city is still very renaissance.

Westminster Abbey
Westminster Abbey

Upon landing, as expected, I found myself in a seemingly 2-seater cab (actually, in the famous London black cabs, the bench seat is meant for 3, and there are 2 folding seats, which you don’t see at the first glance). The fare is steep, but the view along the way was fascinating. I was staying in Lancaster Gate area; so, I came across landmarks like Royal Albert Hall and Hyde Park during this drive.

Beefeater pointing out the Crown Jewels Vault
Beefeater pointing out the Crown Jewels Vault

Truly a city of plenty, London boasts of 4 World Heritage Sites: the Tower of London; Kew Gardens (Botanical Garden); the site comprising the Palace of Westminster, Westminster Abbey, and St Margaret’s Church; and the historic settlement of Greenwich (in which the Royal Observatory marks the Prime Meridian, 0° longitude, and GMT).

Royal Guard
Royal Guard

Tower of London is steeped in history. The area includes the Tower Bridge, and also houses the crown jewels in a walk-in vault, where photography is not allowed. Besides many other enviable treasures, famous Kohinoor diamond is housed there. Beefeaters are its official custodians, and you’d do well to take a beefeater tour here – they are remarkably well informed about the place.

Inside Westminster Abbey

Westminster Abbey has only one parallel – Basilica of Santa Croce, Florence, Italy. Like the Basilica, which is the resting place or memorial of illustrious Italians, Westminster Abbey is the burial or memorial place of some of the most illustrious Englishmen – from Chaucer to Shakespeare, Lord Byron to Oscar Wilde, and hundreds more.

Royal Observatory marks the prime meridien
Royal Observatory marks the prime meridien
Piccadilly Circus
Piccadilly Circus

The London Underground is the oldest underground railway network in the world. While most of London is accessible through the tube (the underground railway), to reach the Royal Observatory at Greenwich, you have to either take a cab, a bus or use the DLR (Docklands Light Railway). Everyone who visits this place is bound to have taken a picture of his feet on either sides of the 0° longitude.

The famous London Eye
The famous London Eye
St. Paul's Cathedral
St. Paul’s Cathedral

Besides, there are scores of other attractions that will interest most age groups. These include Buckingham Palace, the London Eye, Piccadilly Circus, St Paul’s Cathedral, Tower Bridge, Trafalgar Square, Madame Tussauds and The Shard. While I saw most of these, I could not visit the Shard (tallest building in the European Union as its inauguration happened on 5th July 2012, just a couple of days after I left London). While London Eye literally gives you a bird’s eye view to the cityscape of London, Shard is a taller building that may give you a better view of the city.

East London
East London
London Cityscape with Thames in the foreground
London Cityscape with Thames in the foreground

London is home to numerous museums, galleries, libraries, sporting events and other cultural institutions, including the British Museum, National Gallery, Tate Modern, British Library, over 40 West End theatres and the most revered of them all – Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre.

Can't write poetry for your beloved? Not to worry; use the poetry take-away!
Can’t write poetry for your beloved? Not to worry; use the poetry take-away!
A London-Eye Ball
A London-Eye Ball

Given the extensive shopping options it offers, though it may not seem so, but London is extremely child-friendly, and also, handicapped-friendly. Places like Trafalgar Square and Covent Garden are popular hangouts. Covent Garden also has a performer’s corner, where you can hope to catch a unicyclist keeping you spell-bound for up to an hour, or a mime artists having you in splits with his performance. You are sure to come across establishments, which have been there for centuries – e.g. Sherlock Holmes Pub, established in 1736. For its size and population, London may easily qualify as the greenest city on the globe with its vast expanse of parks and gardens.

Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament
Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament
Covent Garden
Covent Garden
Shaespeare's Globe Theatre
Shaespeare’s Globe Theatre
Though the summers are cold, this guy seemed cool
Though the summers are cold, this guy seemed cool
A Unicyclist performs at Covent Garden
A Unicyclist performs at Covent Garden

The place has it all. To do justice to the place and see what it has to offer, even a lifetime is short. But any person visiting London will do well to earmark around a week for a glimpse of the tip – the tip of the iceberg called London.

When I see these images, I feel capturing the Colours of London in Black & White was not wrong!

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