Covent Garden has become a magnet for tourists and it’s easy to see why.
Violence and Sin
Here you can keep an eye out for arty bargains in the atmospheric market, score a culture fix from the varied museums or just sit back and watch the world go by in one of the outdoor cafes in the main piazza. Its role as likeable visitor attraction, however, is but the latest in a long line of jobs performed by the area. Once home to Eliza Doolittle – the most glamourous cockney flower girl in the history of stage, celluloid and elocution – Covent Garden started life as a convent garden attached to Westminster Cathedral.
In the 17th Century it became a fashionable address, but with the growth of the fruit, vegetable and flower market, by 1750 it had become a hotbed of violence and sin complete with duels outside brothels and taverns. As London was answer to the OK Corral, it was good entertainment when there were no hangings to attend. In 1921 the Ministry of Food condemned the Market as inadequate for the necessities of trade, but not wishing to rush these things, the market was not closed until 1974.
Nowadays there are no Nuns, flower girls, nor dashing swashbucklers and the market has moved up in the world. Cutesy little cafes and boutiques have sprung up in place of the market since it entered the new age as a shopping mall.
Antiques and bric-a-brac are also to be found in abundance though are often overpriced and you can’t move for clothes and jewellery between Tuesday and Friday. On the weekend the a craft fair throws up fun and sometimes kitsch handmade jewellery and ornaments.
Once again a chic address, architects, advertising folk and furniture designers live and work in Covent Garden alongside street performers who entertain shoppers in the 17th Century Italian Piazza designed by Inigo Jones, recorded in Samuel Pepys’s Diary as the setting for the first Punch and Judy Show.
Payment is pretty much optional for the street shows but there are plenty of ways of parting with your money in the search for culture in the area, including The London Transport Museum, which features a history of the world’s first Underground Train System and a good collection of Art Deco Posters. The Theatre Museum next door, with photos, sets and costumes, will whet your appetite for an evening at the Theatre Royal (Drury Lane) or the Royal Opera House. But keep your ears open for updates of the real life drama as bitter backbiting and financial difficulties threaten the future of The Royal Opera and Royal Ballet companies; inhabitants of the 150 year old building which replaced the last two opera houses, both destroyed by fire. Then there’s the Cabaret Mechanical Theatre which exhibits automata which you are actually encouraged to play with, and is reasonably priced at UKP1.95 for the whole deal or as much small change as you can carry for the coin operated machines in the foyer.
Food Glorious Food
Neal’s Yard, just north of the market across Long Acre, is perfect if you want to get away from McDonald’s and Pizza Hut for your pit stop. New Age cafes will feed you for around the same price range, and you can sample up to 300 varieties of yummy cheese at Paxton Whitfield and The Neal’s Yard Dairy. If you feel like splashing out a bit more try eating in elegant Edwardian style at Rules; main courses go for around UKP14.
Covent Garden is mostly pedestrianised, so there is no playing Chicken with buses and taxis, but the crowds can still be overwhelming, especially in summer or on the weekends, and St Paul’s Church courtyard, designed by Inigo Jones provides some welcome greenery and, if you are lucky, some peace and quiet.
Alternatively, if you can still stand up straight after carrying piles of designer clobber and junk shop bargains in your arms and all that cheese in your belly, you could always try out The Gardening Club which stays open too late and is too loud for the average Sunday Morning compost expert.
– Sian Arthur
Covent Garden in Brief
Where is it?
– West End. Covent Garden tube station. Charing Cross British Rail/Railtrack. Lots of buses.
What is it?
– Former fruit and veg market now the street theatre capital of town, brimming with shops, museums, pubs and restaurants.