Orchids, Witches, Byron: Sneak Through Secret London

TOURISTS don’t see real cities. They see images, created by slick marketing people and shrewd shopkeepers. Paris, for instance, is the Eiffel tower, flashing gaudily beside overpriced restaurants and stalls festooned with “I love France” key chains. New York, of course, is the Statue of Liberty, and endless sweaty queues for a ferry to Liberty Island. And London, a photograph in front of Big Ben, a longing look though the bolted gates at Buckingham Palace and David Beckham at Madam Tussauds.

Unless, of course, you become a defiant independent traveller. It takes courage. You won’t be able to swap stories with the neighbours on how crowded Trafalgar Square is these days, or how the Champs-Elysées can be frightfully expensive, which might considerably bring down your social standing in the housing complex. (“Can you imagine, he was in New York, and he didn’t go to Macys!”) But you’ll discover a lot more. London for the locals, for instance, is a world away from the Hop-On Hop-Off tourist route.

Orchids and oysters

Languid Sunday mornings are perfect for pottering around the Columbia Street Flower Market in East London. Make your way there, past pretty houses with bright shutters and balconies lush with potted plants. Past friendly Labrador dogs out for a stroll with their owners, gardening enthusiasts excitedly discussing weed control and Londoners laden with bunches of vivid flowers.

It’s like “My Fair Lady” – except it’s the MTV version. Flower sellers holding out giant bouquets of cheery daffodils, bunches of stately white orchids and boxes crammed with potted petunias, all trying to out-shout each other, in an attempt to grab the attention of languid passing customers. Bustling cafés, handing out cups of steaming tea. And the motley crowd, swelling by the minute, includes little old ladies peering at cacti, and multi-pierced hipsters, wandering in after a raucous night, hoping to clear their heads. And maybe score a couple of beers.

This is also a deliciously unusual place to brunch. You can have a bagel in a garden café, accompanied by mugs of strong coffee. Or try oysters from a makeshift counter, where they’re piled besides traditional English kippers. Through it all a street musician provides vibrant background music. Foodies can also investigate the old barns, built like gardening sheds, covered with heavy wooden tables, creaking under the weight of local cheeses, exotic varieties of olive oils and crusty brown bread.

Magical Diagon Alley

Shockingly close to touristy Leicester square, teeming with drunk teenagers and theatre-goers bargaining for cut-price tickets, is mysterious Cecil Court. A hushed Victorian pedestrian street, it’s lined with old-fashioned stores, and reportedly inspired J.K. Rowling to create Diagon Alley in Harry Potter. Like Diagon Alley, crammed with curious shops and colourful characters, Cecil Court too has its share of magic.

With names such as “The Witch Ball” or “David Drummond Of Pleasures Of Past Times”, the shops here deal in the most delightfully eccentric goods. One dusty little store threw up shoeboxes crammed with old postcards from all over the world, including a bunch from homesick Britishers, posted in India more than half a century ago. (One, strangely enough, gushed about a snowstorm in Poona!) Then there’s the antique dealer, with a wealth of snuffboxes, Victorian charms and even a white stuffed owl that bears a startling similarity to Potter’s pet, Hedwig. Not surprisingly, this is also a meeting place for people interested in magic, most of whom head to the “Esoteric centre”, abounding in mystical books, beads and tarot readers. (London, by the way, has a significant number of wiccans and druids, many of whom are members of official groups such as the “Pagan Federation”.)

For a splash of extra colour, the road even has a turbulent past. Legend (and Wikipedia) has it that Cecil Court was razed in the early 1970s, probably by a Mrs. Colloway, who was apparently running a brandy shop and brothel there.

And, of course, if you need to stock up on Harry Potter money — galleons, sickles and knuts — you’ll find a store at Cecil Court that sells that too.

Byron’s Harrow

At Harrow On The Hill, bustling central London could be centuries away. Walk up a steep, winding path so quiet that the only thing you’ll hear besides your own breathing will be the rustling of leaves.

There’s something about Harrow On The Hill that makes people silently reflective, maybe it’s the languorous silence that wraps the hill. Or the almost intimidating Harrow School, founded in 1572, with its world famous alumni, India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, and former British Prime Ministers Winston Churchill, amongst others. (There are guided tours of Harrow, made up of a charming muddle of warm, inviting buildings, with random stairs and unexpected quiet courtyards.) Or maybe it’s the spectacular 900-year-old St. Mary’s Church.

Beloved by the poet Lord Byron, who joined Harrow as a student in 1801, St. Mary’s is the quintessential English church. Even tempestuous Byron, infamous for his many roaring love affairs, extravagant lifestyle and wild living (Lady Caroline Lamb, one of his best known ex-lovers, described him as “mad, bad and dangerous to know”), found peace here.

Soothing landscape

In the churchyard, beyond the shadowy tombstones, there’s a huge tree under which he used to sit for hours, both as a boy and an adult. It’s easy to see why. The view — green meadows, aged trees and quaint houses dappled with sunshine — is as soothing as a watercolour. Byron’s sentimental poem, “Lines Written beneath an Elm in the Churchyard of Harrow”, was composed here. A part of it is reproduced on the plaque that marks the spot now. When Byron’s beloved daughter Allegra died at the age of five, he insisted on burying her at St. Mary’s. However, today she lies in an unmarked grave and all there is to remember her by is a discreet, easy-to-overlook tombstone, tucked into a corner. And the lines from her father’s poem nearby:

How do thy branches, moaning to the blast,

Invite the bosom to recall the past,

And seem to whisper, as the gently swell,

“Take, while thou canst, a lingering, last farewell!”

One response to “Orchids, Witches, Byron: Sneak Through Secret London

  1. I wanted to thank you for this fantastic read!
    ! I definitely loved every bit of it. I have you book-marked to look at new stuff you post…

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