Covent Garden: A Brief History
From humble beginnings as a ‘Convent Garden’ to the thriving heart of the West End it is today, Covent Garden has a colourful history. From a bustling Saxon trading settlement to the home of the aristocracy, it developed over time into perhaps what it is best remembered for today – a lively marketplace. Covent Garden has undergone many guises over the years and true to the nature of its vibrant past, it is an area constantly evolving. Today, situated in the heart of central London and with its cobbled centre entirely pedestrianised, it is the perfect place to explore on foot. Discover a brief history below, followed by our guide for what to see and do in the area…
The history of Covent Garden dates back to the 7thcentury when it was a thriving trading settlement. At this time, it was situated on the River Thames (its shoreline being the Strand) but by the late Saxon period – possibly as a result of the threats of Viking raids – the area was left derelict and was soon used as farmland instead. After that initial settlement, the area was never empty again and as early as the 1500s, the Monks of Westminster Abbey used it as their ‘Convent Garden’ to grow vegetables. In 1536, King Henry VIII seized the land as part of the dissolution of the monasteries and proceeded to give much of it to his friends until in 1552 it came into the hands of John Russell, the first Earl of Bedford.
It was in 1630 that the 4thEarl of Bedford instructed Inigo Jones to design and build a church and create “houses and buildings fit for the habitations of gentlemen and men of ability” around the large piazza – its layout owing much to Inigo Jones’ knowledge of the formally designed and admired piazzas of Italy. The first written reference to “the new market in Covent Garden” dates from 1654 and by 1670, the stalls of market traders selling fruit and vegetables had become an established feature of the square. The Earl of Bedford recognised the potential of the site and obtained the right to hold a market there… It was as a result of this – the levying of taxes from the traders – that the Earls of Bedford made their fortunes.
However, in the 18thcentury the aristocracy slowly started to move to more fashionable new developments such as those in Soho and Mayfair, and Covent Garden developed into a more bohemian playground for artists, journalists and writers who liked to frequent its many coffee houses and taverns. Records show that in 1748, local residents complained about the nuisances of the market – “the noise, the stench and the disorderly people” – though the area retained its character of fashionable bohemianism for nearly two centuries.
In the 1800s, the 6thDuke of Bedford – in response to the rapid growth of commercial demand – obtained permission to reconstruct the flower market. The old stalls were cleared away and Charles Fowler’s neo-classical structure was erected in their place. It wasn’t long before crowds flocked to the attractive and well-managed new market and testament to Fowler’s design, this is the basis of the structure we know and love today. In 1974 that it was decided to move the fruit and vegetable market to new premises at Nine Elms in Vauxhall where it is still based, whilst the central Piazza in Covent Garden was redeveloped with the opening of restaurants, cafes, shops and market stalls.
Today, Covent Garden remains just as popular with Londoners as it ever was but is now also a destination particularly frequented by tourists. Served by the Piccadilly line since 1907, Covent Garden has become of one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world, attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors each year. Considered a must-see destination for anyone who enjoys shopping, theatre, restaurants, bars, history and culture it’s become nothing short of a hot-spot for those visiting the capital.
Covent Garden is an ever-evolving area of London but also one, thankfully, that is on the whole devoid of tacky souvenir shops, underwhelming bad chain restaurants and tourist traps. Instead, there is an abundance of independent shops, world-class restaurants and a plethora of cultural sights to see. From iconic landmarks to world-class theatre, shopping restaurants, explore our brief guide to the area below.
Speaking of London landmarks, where better place to start than Covent Garden Market itself. Once home to the world-famous fruit and vegetable market, the Apple Market continues to support market traders, offering a range of unique handmade crafts and goods throughout the week. You will also find the East Colonnade Market, usually filled with jewellery stalls, handmade soaps and the like.
One of the most popular things to do in Covent Garden is to see a show or performance, and there’s perhaps nowhere more iconic than the world-famous Royal Opera House. Home to the Royal Ballet, the Royal Opera and the ROH Orchestra, it is open from 10am during the day to the general public and to ticket holders for performances. Pre-booked guided tours are also available daily.
Also in the heart of Covent Garden is the popular London Transport Museum that explores the link between transport and the growth of modern London, its culture and society since 1800. Highlights include the iconic red London bus and the world’s first Underground steam train. Ideal for adults and children alike, interactive galleries that include a Tube driving stimulator can also be enjoyed.
Along with the central market’s hub of quirky stalls and emerging designer boutiques, Covent Garden has also become a destination for premium brands such as Apple, Burberry and Paul Smith. In fact, Paul Smith – now one of Britain’s foremost fashion designers, opened his first London shop in Covent Garden back in 1979, when the area was considered “a wilderness”. Paul Smith recently made an exclusive video for Conde Nast Traveller about his love of the area, his beloved breakfast local and why the place is so special to him, so do have a watch if of interest…
There are also many wonderful shops away from the Covent Garden Piazza just waiting to be explored, hidden away in picturesque courtyards and down bustling narrow cobbled streets. Neal’s Yard is one of the best – a courtyard bursting with colourful architecture and vibrant cafés. Outside, Neal Street is home to some of best shops in the area, and not forgetting Cecil Court – a bibliophile’s haven brimming with bookshops and stores selling antique maps and memorabilia. And while in the area, don’t miss the Seven Dials, where the streets radiating out from the central sundial are brimming with independent shops, chocolatiers and cafés.
Somewhere to eat:
And when all the exploring gets a little too much, there’s certainly no lack of places at which to eat and drink in the area with plenty of independent restaurants, cafés, pubs and bars to choose from. On the corner of Aldwych and Drury Lane sits The Delaunay – an all-day café-restaurant inspired by the grand cafes of Mittle-Europe. Serving classic European food for breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea and dinner it is also ideally positioned for enjoying a meal before or after a nearby theatre performance. The Delaunay Counter – a traditional Viennese café, sits adjacent to the restaurant and offers a selection of food and drink to eat in or take away. As The Independent puts it, “Simply walking into the Delaunay makes you feel you’ve found the perfect restaurant.”
Speaking of the theatre, there are a multitude of shows to choose from that are performed the year round in Covent Garden and the surrounding area. From West End musicals to classic plays and comedies, there is always something on to suit everyone. Some of the more famous shows include The Lion King at the Lyceum, Matilda at the Cambridge, Harry Potter at the Palace, The Woman in Black at the Fortune and just opposite The Delaunay – The Tina Turner Musical at the Aldwych.
Somewhere to rest your head:
And finally, some of London’s best hotels can be found in Covent Garden, with accommodation to suit all budgets. For those seeking a spot of luxury while in town, The Savoy is perhaps one of the most iconic. Others include St Martins Lane, The Covent Garden Hotel and ME London.
P.S. Did you know?
Covent Garden has a number of places of historical interest, some of which are mentioned above, but not least of all are the buildings commemorated with a recognisable Blue Plaque. London’s Blue Plaque scheme is run by English Heritage and honours the notable men and women who have worked or lived in the buildings they decorate.
In Covent Garden alone, three notable figures of history stand out in particular. Thomas Augustine Arne may not be recognised by name, but his patriotic song certainly lives on. A British composer in the late 18th century, Thomas Arne wrote ‘Rule, Brittania!’ and a version of ‘God Save the King’. He worked on Drury Lane and his plaque is located at 31 King Street, where he used to live.
Another notable figurehead (this time someone certainly known by his name), and a resident of Covent Garden is Charles Dickens. The English writer and social critic, responsible for creating some of the most famous fictional character and widely regarded as the greatest novelist of the Victorian period, actually has two Blue Plaques in the area…
And finally, Dame Margot Fonteyn, the legendary ballerina, lived in Flat 9, 118 Long Acre in Covent Garden, where a plaque in her name is located today. A dancer with the Royal Ballet, she was often described as one of the most elegant and greatest performers of her time and is remembered today for making ballet both fashionable and accessible.