These are not ordinary times. I was glad, however, to have a weekend that was mostly normal. I was in Kew Gardens and Camden Market.
Nowadays, even members can’t rock up to Kew Gardens and waltz in. You must book a slot in advance. Our plan was to go to Kew on Sunday but everybody else had the same idea. The day was fully booked. Planning was now required. There was, however, a slot left for Saturday. So despite the weather forecast, we went in the afternoon.
It was, on and off, drizzly for much of the time but it was good to walk around the Gardens. The Temperate House was looking a bit more dishevelled than usual. Kew are struggling too, having had to shut down for a few months. The crowds have now returned, which bodes well for the future.
There were a few things to look out for. The grasses were especially nice (you wouldn’t think there’d be anything special about grass). I also liked the muscly eucalyptus trees. The bark on them was surreal.
To finish, we queued to get into the Kew shop, where I topped up my supply of Bergamot & Ginger soap and a bar of the newly released Sandalwood & Pink Peppercorn soap. How exciting: these days, smalls things give such pleasure.
On Sunday, it was off to Camden Market for the first time since lockdown. It was less crowded than usual, which made it more relaxing and, to me, preferable. It was pleasant to sit outside a market cafe and drink my vegan oat chai and watch the world go by. Life seemed almost normal (apart from the oat chai, which was a first!).
Every time I go to Camden Market, I say to myself that that is the last time I’m going. Over the past few years, Camden Market has been going the way of Covent Garden.
One of my favourite restaurants for years, Food for Thought, was forced to shut down a few years ago after being in Covent Garden for about twenty years. Despite being busy most of the time, the rents had risen to an unaffordable level for this small restaurant. It was replaced by Astrid & Miyu, a jewellery shop.
One of my two visits to Central London since lockdown was to the Covent Garden Apple store. Most shops were fairly empty. The only busy place was the Apple store, where people were queueing for thirty minutes to get in unless they had an appointment. For the first time, it made me think that much of Covent Garden is not a place that regular folks go to most of the time. Once it was bohemian – full of quirky shops and a popular market. Over the years, designer shops have taken over. It’s really a place for tourists. Since tourism has been decimated, there were few people around on the day I went and Covent Garden seemed lifeless.
Camden Market may be suffering from lower numbers for the same reason. The unique and bizarre stalls have given way to boutiques, tourist shops and mass-produced goods. There’s nothing wrong with that – it’s just different from what it was. And that is a pattern that repeats itself in other places. Last year, in New York, I saw that since my previous visit, gritty, hippy places like Greenwich Village had been gentrified.
Development seems to happen in this way. There’s not much demand to be an area. People, such as artists, move in. If the place becomes more popular, prices rise. The place becomes fashionable. Property developers start modernising houses and shops until the sorts of people who would once have moved into the area can’t afford to. The area becomes a hybrid of the old incumbents and the new gentrified crowd. Eventually, the prices (of housing and shops) are out of the reach of most people. This is a certain kind of progress.
Finally, after finishing at Camden Market, we walked briefly along the dark canal before getting a mostly empty bus home, which in the past would have been full.