Covent Garden, paradise of kitsch
My newest favourite area in London is Covent Garden. I’ve been to London a few times, but because of circumstances (mostly visitors), I ended up seeing the same tourist spots every time – the Tower, the London Eye, Madame Tussaud’s, St Paul’s, etc. Not that these were or are boring or unimpressive even on the umpteenth viewing – far from it. I mean, listening to an organ recital at St Paul’s is wonderful. The acoustics of the great hall, the sheer volume of sound that is generated in the massive organ pipes is awesome. It sent shivers down my spine. How much more impressive it would have been a couple of hundred years ago, that clarity and strength of sound, without any of the high-tech electronics that goes into public sound systems today.
But as always, I digress. I was going to write about Covent Garden, and that is what I shall do now. A little (VERY little!) history first. The Covent Garden area is famous for theatre, the oldest one being the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane (and that about exhausts what I remember from BA Eng Lit classes oh so long ago!). The square itself used to be the country’s biggest fruit and veg market, and it (the market) was relocated only in 1973. The main building in the piazza (Italian for square, and it’s not an insulting term either! *wink*) was built in 1830 by Charles Fowler, but the high glass roof was erected in the 1870s.
My very first glimpse of the modern version of Covent Garden was electric… there are all kinds of high-street shops on the periphery of the square, all having new year’s sales at this time of year and therefore all teeming with shoppers carrying bulging multi-coloured bags. That wasn’t what took my attention, though. What attracted me like a magnet were the dozens of madly colourful little stalls selling all kinds of antiques, junk, old books and magazines, hand-made jewellery, t-shirts, scarves, and all kinds of odds and ends. And the best part was that most of the things were dirt-cheap (in UK terms, that is).
There were items from Victorian times, quite likely from the attics of old houses and homes – tiny, beautifully patterned miniature tea-sets in delicate china, little china figurines of crinolined and crimped girls and women in flowing ribboned bonnets, men with big sideburns wearing top hats and tails, adorable little dogs and foxes and hedgehogs and birds… but I must say my favourites were the little china teacups and saucers. Adorable isn’t a good enough term for them! Never have Enid Blyton’s descriptions of fairy tea parties come so close to looking like being based on reality…
There are other attractions as well – buskers, street performers, men (mostly) covered with silver paint, pretending to be statues or robots or royalty, standing absolutely still on their pedestals until someone throws them a coin. Then they suddenly come to life in a most realistic manner (considering that they’re already alive!), sometimes startling little kids. I could have watched them all day.
There was also a beautiful, wildly colourful, old-fashioned merry-go-round with horses and ponies on poles that went up and down gently to the accompaniment of old-fashioned music. Modern amusement park rides are thrilling and I mostly prefer them, but this working relic of a gentler, less speed-fixated age was definitely something to experience, allright. We didn’t have the time to go on it because of the crowds. Also, I suspect it would not have been very edifying to watch two adults elbow little kids out of the way to get onto a mechanical horse! So we stayed as admiring spectators.
And then, as the sun went down, we made our reluctant way back to the Underground, with our brains imprinted with the throbbing images of colour, life and liveliness… and with our feet imprinted with the throbbing pain of a day spent walking over relentlessly hard cobbles and tarmac. It was worth every cobble and every throb.