Written by Ben Cooper
At first glance, Covent Garden may look like the modern international hub of a modern international city. But look again, and you see an area which, in spite of the crowds of tourists and the heaving shops, bars, and restaurants, remains resolutely harnessed to its past.
While some areas of London have lost nearly all of their historical identity, there’s an odd symmetry between Covent Garden’s past and present-day incarnations.
A History of Commerce
The clue to the area’s roots lies in its name, whose two halves, ‘Covent’ and ‘Garden’, reflect its original use as the kitchen garden of Westminster Abbey. It has been a centre of trade and commerce since Saxon times, when the town of Lundenwic (meaning ‘marketplace’) sprung up to serve the needs of the growing city nearby. Covent Garden market, though, was, along with the church of St Paul’s (on which more a little later), part of a grand vision of the 4th Earl of Bedford for the area in the 17th century.
The fruit and veg sellers moved away in the 1970s, and Covent Garden began to shift to a more 20th century sort of trade. These days, it almost goes without saying that there’s some great shopping to be had. Some of the very richest pickings – among them Paul & Joe, Ted Baker, Agnes B, and Paul Smith’s flagship store – can be found on Floral Street as it runs westwards from the Piazza.
Stretching away from Covent Garden to the north is the Seven Dials – another fine architectural set piece designed by Thomas Neale in the 1690s. Dickens, as ever, had a couple of choice words to offer on the area in Sketches by Boz: “The stranger who finds himself in the Dials for the first time... will see enough around him to keep his curiosity awake for no inconsiderable time...”
As it was in Dickens’ times, so it is now: the Seven Dials is one of the most vibrant quarters of the West End, and certainly offers its most interesting shopping. This can run from indulgent fragrances, (Miller Harris, 14 Monmouth Street), to cheese (Neal’s Yard Dairy, 17 Shorts Gardens), quirky fashion boutiques (Fifi Wilson, 38 Monmouth Street), perhaps the densest collections of shoe shops (Neal Street) in the entire city – and pretty much everything in-between. On Shaftesbury Avenue, meanwhile, Angel’s Fancy Dress Shop stretches back six generations to 1840 and has been awarded over 30 Oscars for Costume Design!
From Banana Merchants to High-end Historical Restaurants
It doesn’t take too much of a leap of the imagination to see that in an area with such a long history of selling fruit and veg (until quite recently Long Acre thronged with banana merchants and other specialist food sellers), there would always be restaurants. Among the rent-a-seat tourist eateries are some of the classiest establishments the city has to offer.
Rules (35 Maiden Street), rather grandly declares itself to be ‘London’s oldest restaurant’; whether or not that’s the case, the guest list is prestigious (Kingsley Amis, Sir John Betjeman and anyone else worth their salt) and the menu of heavy, gamey dishes is top class. And from the oldest restaurant in London to the oldest French restaurant in London... Mon Plaisir (19-21 Monmouth Street) has been dishing up classic brasserie-style fare since the 1940s, and used to see Charles de Gaulle settle in for the night whenever he was in town.
Long before the Ivy (1-5 West Street) gained its current celebrity following, it was a restaurant for theatre-goers and actors. These days, of course, in addition to its long history it has a long waiting list, and both sister restaurant J Sheekey (28-32 St Martin’s Court) and Christopher’s (18 Wellington Street) make more than worthy, and similarly well-established, alternatives.
The first fuchsias hit the stalls of Covent Garden in the 1830s. The flower section of the market used to be to the northwest, on the street that still bears its name, Floral Street. And in keeping with the main thread of historical/modern symmetry, this colour and flamboyance finds a vivid present-day expression in the area’s theatres (and corresponding theatricality).
One of the defining moments in the area’s theatrical aspirations was the opening of John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera in 1728. Although it was initially shown in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, its enormous financial success was to lead to the building of the Theatre Royal, which would in turn become the jewel in London’s cultural crown – the Royal Opera House.
These days, despite being gutted by fires in the 19th century, the Royal Opera House boasts a striking Grade I-listed fa?ade and plenty of thoughtfully conceived modern amendments. The Royal Opera House is also home to the Royal Ballet – for whom Cuban principal dancer Carlos Acosta is the latest in a long line of greats stretching back to Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn. Just a stone’s throw from the Piazza are several of London’s other high temples of culture: the English National Opera at the Coliseum on St Martin’s Lane, the Theatre Royal on Drury Lane (where King Charles II fell in love with the orange-seller Nell Gwynn), the Lyceum, and much of the rest of the city’s ‘Theatre Land’ past and present.
Religion, Greengrocery and Theatre
But in addition to the rarefied air of high culture that clings to the place, Covent Garden is also – and has always been – defined by a knockabout and unapologetically fun feel. Predecessors of the street performers and buskers who strut their stuff in the Piazza include the country’s first re-ported glimpse of the Punch and Judy show (witnessed by Samuel Pepys), while the infamous London music hall, the Players’ Theatre, was based on King Street. As well as being a prominent landmark, Inigo Jones’ St Paul’s Church is symbolic of the way the area’s past neatly segues with its present. Known as the ‘Actors’ Church’, memorials to departed stars of stage and screen such as Charlie Chaplin, Vivien Leigh, and No?l Coward adorn the walls. Tucked away round the back, memorials to the playwright Terence Rattigan, and the actors Sir Michael Redgrave and Hattie Jacques, can be found in the church’s attractive little garden.
The church’s grand portico was the backdrop for the opening of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion – the story of a market girl that was to become, in turn, the musical My Fair Lady. Religion; greengrocery; theatre: it’s this odd triumvirate upon which the area was built – and which, to a certain degree, continues to define its identity.
Ben Cooper is Editorial Director of Travelintellingence.com
St Paul’s Church
The Royal Ballet School, which opened in 2003, is linked to the Royal Ballet across Floral Street by the Bridge of Aspiration.
The balcony of the popular Punch & Judy pub is an ideal location from which to watch the street artists perform.
Neal’s Yard is a small alley that contains a number of health food caf?s, as well as the famed Neal’s Yard Remedies.
One Aldwych is housed in an early 20th century, Parisian-style former newspaper’s offices. Rooms are techno-friendly, stylishly laid out, and spacious. There’s a classy health club, while restaurants Axis and Indigo are both elegant places for a bite.
Just when you think you’ve got it pegged as a super-stylish business hotel, though, it unleashes a bit of left-field light-heartedness, like Beano wallpaper, underwater music in the swimming pool, a screening room, or a fantastically overwrought bit of art in the lobby. Classy – but a lot more fun than you’d expect, too.