I was so unprepared for Exeter in a way that Exeter was for me. Usually, I’d read available materials on the place of my destination to familiarise myself with any particular attractions the place has to offer. But this time, it was right at the last minute that I saw on the map, where Exeter really is. And as you can see from the postcard, an afternoon after the three-day conference could hardly do justice to a place with plenty to offer.
The train journey was uneventful. It was packed with holiday makers heading for the seaside on the south west coast of England as it was a long weekend break. A beautiful day with promises of more sunshine over the weekend. Outside the window, whizzing past us were carpets of bright yellow rapeseed fields surrounding clusters of quaint villages and secluded farm houses with neat patchwork of greeneries. Flocks of sheep looked like balls of cotton dotting the green canvas with cattles grazing not too far away. While travelling, I am often reminded of what my husband once told me: If the cattles are sitting down, it’ll surely rain. Well, some were and some were up and about. I supposed they were still undecided about the weather. Once in a while when the tracks ran parallel to the motorway, I caught sight of a few Eddie Stobbards and was reminded of the game I used to play with the children while we drove around the countryside; that is to see who gets to chart the most Eddie Stobbard lorries along the way.
Less than an hour before reaching Exeter, a vision from a distance caught my eyes. A large white horse, carved on the hillside. Its the Westbury Horse, the oldest of eight in the region. This 182’ high piece of art had been restored several times since the original was carved out in honour of King Alfred’s victory over the Danes in 878.
Exeter somehow reminded me of Dover, another seaside town. The fresh smell of the sea from the English Channel, the doves flying above, the hilly slopes. At the station, my friend Ida and I met up with other friends and my Professor from our University and together we made our way to the hotel, before the registration at Crossmead Conference centre.
The Crossmead Conference Centre was simply breathtaking - formerly a Victorian Merchant's house, it stands within four acres of beautifully landscaped grounds. It is considered the "jewel in the crown" of the University's venues. Sadly, Exeter University will lose this centre very soon.
It was here that we met up with other participants who had come from as far as Malaysia, Indonesia, Germany, Hawaii and Australia. The 22nd conference of the Association of Southeast Asian Studies (UK) kickstarted with several cultural performances to whet our appetites.
The conference had brought together experts in various fields of the Malay studies as well as PhD students who presented part of their research papers for discussion.
Participants from the Malay manuscripts Panel
I was especially delighted to have the company of Dr Russell Jones, an expert on watermarks and the Malay and Islamic world. A former MCS officer, Dr Jones worked in Malaya in 1953 as an immigration officer and came back to study Malay at SOAS. His paper on the use of the Arabic tashdid in Malay script will definitely help me a lot in my transliteration of the syair that I am currently working on.
Another interesting hightlight of the three day conference was the paper presented by Dr Uli Kozok of Hawaii University who reported on his discovery of the oldest known Malay manuscript in southern Sumatera. Before this discovery, the oldest known Malay letters are said to be from the Sultan of Ternate, written in 1520 and now kept in Lisbon. This fourteenth century manuscript is said to belong to a clan which received the manuscript 700 years ago from the Maharaja of Dhamasraya.
I managed to do a bit of panel hopping (a change from bloghopping) and found some interesting papers being presented by other panels – such as those concerning sexuality. Interesting to see the similarities in themes between Vietnamese poems and Malay syairs. The Vietnamese Ca Dao – a genre of Vietnamese folk poetry consists a lot of poems about the fate of women. Here’s a few lines to ponder on:
When a man becomes rich, he can have 5 wives and 7 mistresses,
If a woman becomes rich, she just keeps her chastity and
Prays for her husband after his death…
It was especially nice that I got to meet some old friends as well – those from the BBC days and now they have the Dr already attached to their names, each specialising in their areas of expertise. Dr Annabel Gallop, an expert on Malay manuscripts, is the Head of the Indonesian and Malay Collection at the British Library and very much the force behind my returning to university. Dr Janet Cochrane is now research fellow at Leeds Metropolitan University. I certainly have a lot of catching up to do.
After the goodbyes at lunchtime, we headed off to the Exeter Quay, with its old buildings and warehouses dating back to Charles 11. Pubs, cafes and antique shops lined the cobbled road along the canal. It was here that much damage was inflicted on my wallet as I succumbed to several collections of old plates and and a tea set.
According to the leaflets that was given to us at the hotel, Exeter Quay was once an international port thriving through mainly in export of woolen cloth, but by 13th century sea craft could no longer reach Exeter by river, so a canal was constructed around 1563. This canal linked the city to the estuary again and the port trade began to prosper once more.
Then, of course you cant miss the Exeter Roman & Medieval City Wall. It runs around the the city centre. And huffing and puffing up a path leading up the wall I was afforded a bird’s eyeview of Exeter. The walls were built by the Roman legions in the 2nd century and work continued through the Dark Ages. It is really interesting to see how history is preserved in other countries. Even some old buildings right in the modern city centre blended in well with the new buildings.
The cathedral and Mol’s Coffee House
Part of the ancient Roman wall
With feet aching and hands weighed down by last minute shopping at the Quayside, we decided to have just a look at the cathedral before heading off to catch the 1700 to London. But as fate would have it, one of the participants at the conference, PhD student Rushdan who lives right in the middle of the city centre, invited us to have tea. If you must know, we have not had rice for three whole days. Even if he had not pointed out to us his house, my nose would have led us there, following the smell of ayam masak lemak and crispy fried fish. Rushdan’s wife had prepared a feast for later that night inviting other Malaysian students there. We were offered an alas perut which we (in true Malay style)politely refused, once , twice, but readily accepted after the third offer. Suffice to say, it was a very Malay experience that we had in the ancient Roman city of Exeter.