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Covent Garden in London
Covent Garden—the former site of London's produce market and the area surrounding it—is a trendy area to shop, eat, and people watch. With restaurants and pubs (more than 1,000 eating establishments are in the area), theaters, museums, churches, and street entertainers, Covent Garden truly has something for everyone.
Mention “Covent Garden,” and the vision of Eliza Doolittle peddling her bouquets of violets (with or without the accompanying Lerner and Loewe soundtrack) is the first thing that pops into most people’s heads.
Eliza would surely recognize Covent Garden even though the familiar carts of flowers, fruits, and vegetables are gone, but she would probably agree that that her old stomping ground had undergone as complete a transformation as her own makeover under the tutelage of Professor Henry Higgins.
Like many parts of London, Covent Garden has a history as full of squalor as splendor. Covent Garden is a corruption of “Convent Garden,” its moniker during the Middle Ages when the area served as the kitchen garden for the convent of St. Peter of Westminster.
Jump to 1630 and the land (owing to King Henry VIII’s confiscation of Church property when he broke with Rome) is now owned by Francis Russell, the 4th Earl of Bedford. He hires Inigo Jones, the mostly self-taught English Renaissance architect, to design a residential square.
An Italian-style piazza and its obligatory church (St. Paul’s Church) are the results. Though much of Jones’s work has been replaced or destroyed by fire and time over the centuries, today’s Covent Garden is indebted to his vision and love of Italian architecture.
The fruit and vegetable market traces its beginning to 1670, when the 5th Earl of Bedford grants licenses for that purpose. A theater or two opens. The aromatic smell of rotten produce and the riffraff that buy and sell at the market no doubt help the aristocracy to decide the area is not for them.
As gambling houses and brothels take over the neighborhood, the area is described as “seedy” for the next 200 plus years.
Fast forward ahead to the early 1970s, when the fruit and vegetable market closes and moves to the Nine Elms district. What could have been a tragic case of “modernization” was blocked by preservationists, neighbors, and the general public.
Instead of being bulldozed over, the market was renovated and has become a much-enjoyed and -visited urban space. Jubilee Hall (built in 1904 and located on the piazza) was also saved from demolition.
Wandering around Covent Garden is great fun. Some of the attractions that you might want to explore are listed below.
Jubilee Market stalls offer antiques, general goods, and arts and crafts. Theme and merchants vary by the day of the week. Remember, it doesn’t cost anything to look.
In contrast to Covent Garden’s trendier and posher shops, Jubilee Market—with its varied stalls of sellers and merchandise—adds a certain gritty liveliness to the area.
Royal Opera House, the third theater on the Covent Garden site and the home of both the Royal Ballet and the Royal Opera, can claim a 300-year history as a classical music and dance venue.
A three-year renovation and modernization completed just before the new millennium improved and enlarged rehearsal, performance, educational, and office space.
London’s Transport Museum charts the history of the city’s bus, tram, and underground transportation system. With many hands-on and ride-on activities, it is a fun place for both children and adults. Its museum shop offers wonderful gifts, books, souvenirs, and clothing for the trainspotter in all of us.
The National Museum of Performing Arts (the Theatre Museum) and its artifacts and collections reveal the history of the performing arts in Britain from the 16th Century to the present day. Posters, paintings, costumes, set designs, and video recordings all help tell the story.
St. Paul’s Church is known as the “Actors' Church” because of its association with the nearby theaters and the thespians that trod on their boards. Several famous actors and performers have memorials in the Inigo Jones-designed Anglican church; it is the resting place for the ashes of Ellen Terry and Dame Edith Evans. Its attractive churchyard is a quiet and restful spot within the bustling cityscape.
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Website and all photos copyright © 2001–2016 Lee W. Nelson