Covent Garden, in London’s West End, is one of London’s most popular tourist areas, the large open piazza and covered market stalls are a great place to spend a few hours on a summer’s day.
The name Covent Garden is derived from ‘Convent Garden’ as the area was the garden attached to the Abbey (or Convent) of St. Peter, Westminster. The gardens covered around 40 acres of what is now the West End and were a major source of foodstuffs for the growing metropolis.
Following the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII in 1540 it was granted briefly to the Duke of Bedford, who bequeathed it to the Duke of Somerset, but it reverted to the Bedford household after the Duke of Somerset was beheaded for treason.
The 4th Earl of Bedford commissioned the design and construction of the Piazzas as we know them in the early 17th century, commissioning the architect Inigo Jones to design in the European style. As well as the market halls and the piazza, in 1633 Jones designed the church of St Paul in the south west corner of the piazza. Known as ‘the actors church’ it is on the steps of the church of St Paul that Henry Higgins first encounters Eliza Doolittle – the flower seller – in Pygmalion and My Fair Lady (the musical version of Pygmalion). The portico of the church also featured in the famous video of ‘Vienna’ by the 80’s band Ultravox.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves, the Covent Garden area remained a fruit and vegetable market until the 1970’s when the pressures of traffic to and from the market forced a relocation to ‘Nine Elms’ near Battersea in south west London.
Following the relocation of the flower market the site was redeveloped, reopening as a tourist desination in 1980. The area is the only part of central London licensed for street performers and any prospective performers must audition before they are allowed to perform.
The area has a long history of performance though, Samuel Pepys recorded (on May 9th 1662) seeing a performance of ‘Punch and Judy’ – the first record of such. The event is commemorated by the name of the pub on site – the Punch and Judy.
Around the main Piazza there are a number of well regarded shopping streets, including Long Acre (which heads north-east towards Holborn and south-west towards Leicester Square), Neal Street (which heads north-west towards Bloomsbury), which is famous for its shoe shops.
Some other places of note in Covent Garden are, of course, the Royal Opera House in the north-east corner, and the London Transport Museum in the south-east corner.