Today Covent Garden is one of London’s busiest shopping areas however in medieval times it belonged to Westminster Abbey. The Abbey’s “convent garden” covered around 40 acres and produced fruit and vegetables for the Abbey, extra produce was sold to the public near to the Strand.
Covent Gardens famous piazza was created after the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 1530’s when the land became part of the estate of the Dukes of Bedford whose family name is Russell. Francis Russell, 4th Earl of Bedford commissioned architect Inigo Jones to develop fields and the old convent garden into buildings for residential purposes. During the early 1630’s the piazza was laid out and fine townhouses were built on all sides. The design was heavily influenced by what he’d seen whilst working in Italy and particularly the Piazza d’ Armi in Livorno.
During the Civil War in the 1640’s many of the wealthier inhabitants left the area and the once elegant piazza became dominated by large and sprawling fruit, vegetable and flower market. Gradually this would develop into London’s largest and most famous market, many of the townhouses were converted into shops, brothels, gambling dens and coffee houses.
On the west side is St Paul’s Church with it’s fine Tuscan portico, this is the only substantive part of Jones’s original construction that still exists. At the side of the church there is a gate that leads to a pretty secluded garden, the entrance into the church is also here.
St Paul’s is known as the “actors church” and its connections to the theatre began with the founding of numerous theatres in the Covent Garden area following the Restoration of Charles II. Samuel Pepys witnessed his first Punch & Judy show in England just outside of the church and describes an “Italian puppet play” in his diary entry of 9th May 1662. Every May an annual puppet festival and service takes place at the church to commemorate this historic event.
In the middle of the piazza are the former market buildings that now contain a wide variety of shops, restaurants and bars. The structure was built by Charles Fowler in 1830 to try and bring some order to the area. Eventually London’s congested traffic made transport to and from the centrally located market very difficult, in 1974 the re-named “New Covent Garden” moved out to Nine Elms in Vauxhall.
On the south side of the piazza is the London Transport Museum, an excellent place to visit for all those interested in all things transport.
At the junction of Wellington Street and Tavistock Street is the Charles Dickens Coffee House, above it is a blue plaque recalling that this was once the site of Charles Dickens magazine All The Year Round, and where the author lived in a small flat on the top floor on and off between 1859 and 1870.
Also on Wellington Street is the Lyceum Theatre. Opened in 1834 it’s where Bram Stoker, author of Dracula, worked in his day job as manager of the great 19th century actor Sir Henry Irving.
The Theatre Royal on Drury Lane is the oldest theatre in London, the current building being the fourth on the site. The original theatre was opened in 1663 and Charles II’s mistress Nell Gywn acted here. It was here in May 1800 where James Hadfield fired two shots at George III whilst the King sat in the Royal Box. The King was not hit and ordered the performance to continue. The theatre has the reputation of being the most haunted in London with “the man in grey” in his 18th century clothes being the most frequently seen.
At number 173 Drury Lane is where the first branch of Sainsburys’ supermarket was opened. Drury Lane Gardens was once the burial ground for the church of St Martin-in-the-Fields and the buildings on either side of the entrance were originally used as a mortuary and the keeper’s lodge. The graveyard is mentioned in Dickens’s Bleak House.
On Great Queen Street at number 60 is the vast Freemasons’ Hall. This serves as the headquarters of the United Grand Lodge of England and it is the main meeting place for Freemasons in London. The fine art-deco building is the third on the site and was built in 1927-33 as a memorial to Freemasons killed in WWI, although the Masons have been based in this street since 1775.
Bow Street Magistrates Court on Bow Street was founded around 1740 and originally stood where the Royal Opera House is now based. Early magistrates included Henry Fielding, Fielding founded London’s first police force, originally nicknamed “the thief takers” but later more famously known as the Bow Street Runners.
In 1879 the court and it’s police station moved across to the western side of the street, and was still in use until 2006. Famous names who stood in the courts dock included Oscar Wilde, Lord Haw Haw, Dr Crippen, Rudolf Hess, the Krays, Emmeline Pankhurst, Jonathan Aitken and Lord Archer. In Dickens’s Oliver Twist it was here in the old court building where the Artful Dodger appeared charged with theft.
Opposite the court is The Royal Opera House, founded as the Theatre Royal Covent Garden by the actor / manager John Rich in 1732. The theatre became known for its music, and many of the great European operas had their English premieres here. It was also where the country’s first piano performance was held in 1767.
Over in Floral Street, above the narrow roadway is the innovative “Bridge of Aspirations” walkway, designed by Wilkinson Eyre, it links the Royal Opera House with the Royal Ballet School.
Neals Yard was once the hub of alternative culture in Covent Garden, it was here during the 60’s and 70’s that many people associated with that scene helped organise a successful campaign against developers who had hoped to bulldoze the piazza after the market had moved to Nine Elms.
Entering St Giles High Street the atmosphere changes and the buzz of Covent Garden fades away. The area is named after the parish church of St Giles-in-the-Fields, dedicated to the patron saint of lepers. The High Street was once the main approach road to the City from the west from ancient times until the mid 19th century. In the Middle Ages St Giles was an important site for public executions, with the gallows being located near the church.
After the gallows were moved to their better known location at Tyburn Tree – near modern day Marble Arch – prisoners travelling from Newgate Prison would still stop to have a final drink in St Giles at the Bowl Inn which stood on the site of today’s Angel public house or by the Resurrection Gate, which still stands beside the church.
The church originated in the 12th century as part of a leper hospital, the current Grade I Palladian style building dates from 1733. At the time the parish of St Giles was part of a notorious slum, it was where Hogarth set his famous engraving Gin Lane.
Even today the area feels somewhat drab and unloved but things are changing, opposite the church is Central St Giles, a new colourful building designed by Italian architect Renzo Piano. It was his first building in London but he is probably more famous for his second, The Shard at London Bridge.
Denmark Street is a road that gives some sense of what much of St Giles once looked like. The street was laid out in 1687 and is today best known for its guitar shops and music publishers. In the mid twentieth century it was regarded as London’s answer to “Tin Pan Alley”. In the 50’s it was dominated by songwriters and publishers, in the 60’s many bands recorded in the small studios based here, most notably at Regent Sounds at number four where the Rolling Stones recorded their first two albums. Other famous names to have recorded here were The Kinks, Tom Jones, Manfred Mann, Bob Marley, Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Wonder. The Kinks even wrote a song entitled Denmark Street.
Mills Music Publishers based at number 20 famously turned down the chance to buy Paul Simon’s The Sound of Silence and Homeward Bound in 1965. A young Reg Dwight started out as an office boy at Mills Music in 1965, eight years later he became Elton John.
The influential music magazine The Melody Maker and New Musical Express were based here at number 19 and number 5 respectively. In 1975 The Sex Pistols lived and rehearsed in a flat above the shop at number 6 and unknown artist David Jones, later to become David Bowie lived in a camper van on the street so he could be near to the trendsetters hanging out at mod cafe La Gioconda that once occupied number 9a.
Phoenix Garden is an award winning community garden developed by volunteers on the site of a former car park, it’s open every day and offers a quiet green space amongst the noise and bustle of the city.
The area of Seven Dials was first developed in the 1690’s, the original plan only had six roads, and, similarly the column at the centre of Seven Dials only bears six sundials, although it is said that the column itself was supposed to be the seventh.
The design was intended to maximise the number of houses that could be built on the site and it was hoped the area would prove popular with the wealthier classes. This was not to be and the area became a rookery in its own right.
The column seen today is a replica as the original was removed in 1773 to stop undesirables gathering, it ended up in Weybridge in Surrey. A request was made in the 1980’s for Weybridge to return the column but they refused and so a replica was built to the original 17th century design found in the British Museum.
On Floral Street there’s a narrow alleyway – Lazenby Court – with a sign for the Lamb and Flag Public House. In this alleyway in 1679, John Dryden, the then Poet Laureate, was beaten by thugs hired by the Earl of Rochester after the Earl thought Dryden had written a derogatory piece about the aristocracy.
The pub, the oldest in the area is over 300 years old and used to be known as the Bucket of Blood because of the bare knuckle prize fights that were once held here.
The pub faces onto Garrick Street where at number 15 is the imposing building that houses the Garrick Club. This gentlemen’s club was founded in 1831 by a group of literary figures, it was named after the great 18th century actor David Garrick. Past members have included writers Anthony Trollope and J.M. Barrie, composer Edward Elgar and A.A. Milne, creator of Winnie The Pooh. On his death A.A. Milne included the Garrick as one of the beneficiaries of his will. In 1998 the Disney Corporation paid the club around $40 million for the right to continue to use Milne’s characters in its films making it one of the richest clubs in London.
Number 25 Bedford Street was the former home of French art dealers Goupil & Cie, the artist Vincent van Gough worked at their offices here in 1875 before being sent back to Paris after a fallout with the owner.
On Henrietta Street at number 10 was where Jane Austen lived while staying with her brother between 1814 and 1815. The author described the building she was staying in as “all dirt and confusion, but in a very interesting way”.
At number 38 Bedford Street are the headquarters of The Lady magazine, the oldest weekly publication aimed at women in Britain. It was founded in 1885.
The building at the junction with Maiden Lane and Chandos Place bears a blue plaque commemorating the site where Charles Dickens worked in a blacking factory as a young boy between 1824 and 1825.
Also on Maiden Lane there are blue plaques commemorating where painter J.M.W. Turner was born and the French writer and philosopher Voltaire used to live.
Number 35 houses Rules, the oldest restaurant in London. It was founded as an oyster bar by Thomas Rule in 1798 and is one of the best places in London to visit if you’re looking for some classic old fashioned British cooking.
Rules was popular with Charles Dickens, Arthur Conan Doyle, H.G. Wells and Edward VII who often entertained his married mistress Lilly Langtry here. The couple always arrived and departed through a special door leading to a private dining room that became the most celebrated table for two in London.