London’s Covent Garden: Brief history guide

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Covent Garden, in the heart of London’s West End and Theatreland is an area so full of history that it must not be missed if you’re visiting London.

The beautiful architecture, the shops, the street theatre and music and the chance to spot a celebrity all combine to make this area a focal point for any London visitor.

Getting to Covent Garden

Covent Garden is easy to access by Tube or on foot. It lies just north of the Strand, one of London’s main thoroughfares and bus routes and is encircled by the Northern, Piccadilly, District and Circle Tube lines, so getting there by Tube is also straightforward.

The two most straightforward Tube stations to use when accessing Covent Garden are the Covent Garden station itself and Charing Cross.

Covent Garden Station is part of the Piccadilly line which runs into London from Heathrow; the station lies to the north of the main Market and Piazza. On exiting the station, you need to turn right down James Street to access the market, the Piazza, the Royal Opera House and St. Paul’s, the actors’ church.

From Charing Cross station, the exit for Covent Garden is well signposted and comes out onto the north side of the Strand. From there, a short walk east along the Strand will bring you to Southampton Street. Turn left here and follow Southampton Street up to the market.

It’s also possible to access Covent Garden from the South Bank of the Thames. The South Bank itself has now been extensively redeveloped and restored, so a walk through Borough Market and along the riverside to the Globe and on to the National Theatre, followed by a stroll across Waterloo Bridge towards Covent Garden would make a wonderful day out in London.

The History of Covent Garden

Covent Garden was originally the convent garden which belonged to the Benedictine Convent of St. Peter, Westminster Abbey. Edward VI granted “le Covent Garden” and “Long Acre” to John Russell, Earl of Bedford in 1556. The Earls of Bedford owned the land until 1945 and in 1962 Covent Garden Market was taken into public ownership.

In the early sixties, a plan existed to demolish the old Market buildings and redevelop the site, but fortunately, resistance from the Covent Garden Community Association managed to ensure that a different plan was put in place, which preserved the strong sense of neighbourhood and community within the area.

Literary, Artistic and Cultural Associations

The unique atmosphere of Covent Garden has always attracted writers, artists and actors to this part of London. The Theatre Royal Drury Lane and the Royal Opera House are unique in deriving their rights by direct grants from the Crown, a circumstance which dates back to the Restoration period of Charles II.

Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans had strongly disapproved of actors and the theatre in general, so reestablishing London’s theatrical tradition and marking it with the royal seal of approval was one way of celebrating the return of the Monarchy.

The history of Charles II and Nell Gwynn is inextricably linked with Drury Lane and the Covent Garden area of London, as are the histories of the painter William Hogarth and the writers such as Samuel Pepys, Jonathan Swift and Dr. Johnson who frequented the area’s many fashionable coffee houses.

Charles Dickens also spent time in Covent Garden, commenting in one of his early essays, “When I had nothing to do, I used to go to Covent Garden and stare at the pineapples.” George Bernard Shaw set the opening scene of Pygmalion (the source of the musical My Fair Lady) in the portico of St. Paul’s, the actor’s church which stands at the west end of the piazza.

Covent Garden Today

Today’s Covent Garden is home to many boutique and specialist shops, numerous bars and restaurants, a host of street performers and a wide range of events.

On 8th May, the Covent Garden May Fayre and Puppet Festival takes place in the gardens of St. Paul’s Church but musicians, mime artists and magicians are to be found there on a daily basis. If you are a keen celebrity spotter, you will often see well known actors and musicians strolling around the Piazza, whilst the well mannered British crowds (mostly) try to give them some space and avoid asking for autographs. It’s hard to tell if this is the right thing to do or not, as (generally speaking) celebrities expect to be recognized!

Covent Garden has something for everyone, history, architecture, music, shopping, street theatre and coffee. It’s glorious on a fine summer’s day, but charming even in winter; make sure to visit next time you’re in London!

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