Covent Garden london
Today I visit an area of London called Covent Garden. First I head to an area called seven dials but if you read guide books and look on maps it is often described as part of Covent Garden.
I think for most Londoners the when they think of Covent Garden they think of the main square just down the road from Covent Garden tube station. Before I go to the main Square I visit seven dials to get some coffee from Monmouth coffee.
Seven Dials London
Seven dials is more relaxed than the main piazza area of Covent Garden. More small and independent stores in boutique size shops. The reason it is called seven dials is the sun dials at the centre of the area.
There are only six sun dials they say the seventh is the column itself. The reality is when they designed the street and built the column there was to be six streets. The sun dial instructions are on the side of the Crown pub.
Seven dials the seven streets of seven dials were first laid out in the sixteen nineties’. Seven dials was intended to be a luxury development when it was built but soon descended into one of London’s worst and most notorious slums.
It wasn’t just seven dials this whole part of London was a slum seven dials was just a small part of it. This was the iconic Dickensian slum Dickens visited himself and referenced the areas poverty in his writings often.
Neal’s Yard London
After coffee I pop into Neil’s yard one of London’s hidden gems. Neil’s yard so named after Thomas Neil, the original designer and developer of seven dials. Neil’s yard with some very colourful building here. Popular on Instagram and also plenty of places to eat and drink.
Although today the streets of Covent Garden are lined with some amazing shops stores and boutiques. This wasn’t always the case a lot of the buildings here were once small workshops or warehouses. Built after the clearance of the slums here began in the eighteen forties.
The whole area became dominated by breweries small workshops and of course the ever-developing wholesale flower market. A trend that continued for the best part of a century until the nineteen seventies when the wholesale flower market was moved. And then the retail shopping destination that we know today began to develop.
Covent Garden Underground Station
The Covent Garden underground tube station is a very short walk from the former flower market buildings and the main shopping destination today. Also the piazza is where you will see the phenomenal street performers. Covent Garden is renowned for the quality of its street performers as they have to audition to get a spot.
Shopping Covent Garden
Long Acre and Floral street are the busiest shopping streets in Covent Garden. Long Acre is home to Stanford’s. Today Stanford’s is the world’s largest and one of its oldest map and travel book stores.
Edward Stanford established Stanford’s in 1853 just down the road on Charing Cross. From 1873 this building is the print works. The retail store and the print works became combined under one roof here in 1901. Previous customers have included David Livingston, Captain Scott, Florence nightingale, Sir Ranulph Fiennes, Michael Palin and even Sherlock Holmes sent Dr Watson.
Covent Garden History
King Henry VIII between 1536 and 1541 in an act called the dissolution of monasteries disbanded catholic monasteries priors convents and friary’s. And seized all their assets he took all the land belonging to Westminster Abbey including Covent garden. Edward VI then granted Covent Garden to John Russell the first Earl of Bedford in 1552 and it remained in the Russell family until 1918.
In 1634 the Earl of Bedford commissioned renowned English architect Inigo Jones to build the Covent Garden Square we are in today. The former market building used as stores today wasn’t constructed for a further two hundred years in the 1830’s. Originally the piazza was open.
Inigo Jones is commissioned to build the church and three rows of fine town houses around this square or piazza. Although the layout and church remain the original houses became replaced. Inigo Jones introduced the classical architecture of Rome and the Italian Renaissance here to London Covent Garden.
The design is based on the Grand piazza of Livorno on the west coast of Italy although not a faithful reproduction you can see the resemblance.
Originally Covent Garden was a luxury neighbourhood. But once the aristocracy left Covent Garden for Mayfair and more fashionable neighbourhoods during the 1700’s it declined. The square here became home to coffee shops gambling dens and brothels. And the market in the square originally primarily selling fruit and veg by the 1800’s became chaotic and a wide range of goods are being sold.
So in 1813 the then owner the sixth Duke of Bedford secured an act of parliament to regulate trade here which worked and to make things even more orderly he built the market halls in the centre of the square in 1830.
The market buildings have been reconstructed and annexed over the years. And nearly became demolished completely when the flower market moved in the 1970’s. But here they remain and today the shops and stores that were once used to sell flowers and plants are today boutique shops bars and restaurants.
Covent Garden Market
Covent Garden market really flourished during the Victorian era. And developed from fruit veg and knickknacks into London’s primary wholesale flower and plant market. So successful is the market the space became inadequate by the end of 1800’s.
Today the main square the main piazza of Covent Garden is pedestrianised. However during its era as a flower market, you could drive up to and around the square and huge lorries from farms were delivering plants. It was ridiculously congested the family that owned the markets sold it in 1918 and back then they even tried to sell it to the London county council but they didn’t want to know they described it as inadequate.
A picturesque playground
The situation just worsened until the council did finally buy it and moved the market in the 1970’s. But it was a disaster, the reason for doing it had reversed from primarily benefiting the market to primarily developing the area. They planned to flatten the whole place there were petitions, counsellors resigning it was messy. Luckily the locals won and many of the buildings are preserved. The area is pedestrianised once again and today although taking many years to develop Covent Garden is once again as intended. A picturesque playground for the well healed that tourists and visitors love spending time strolling around shopping eating and drinking and visiting the theatre.
The very first showing of Punch and Judy in London was here. Hence the name of the pub Punch and Judy’s and the theatre toy store. The punch & Judy pub balcony is a fabulous place to watch the street performers.
There is a long history in Covent Garden of theatre, Opera and market. And historically that brought with it the strange mix of riches and poverty. You have the wealthy visiting the theatre Royal and Royal Opera house mingling with the market traders and children dressed in rags. Charles Dickens described the mix of rich and poor at length in Little Dorrit describing Covent Garden as “a place of past and present mystery, romance, abundance, want, beauty, ugliness, fair country gardens and foul street gutters all confused together”
The Punch and Judy pub balcony has fantastic views not only of Covent Gardens amazing Street performers but also St Paul’s church. St Pauls church originally built between 1631 and 1638. Designed by Inigo Jones the land owner wanted a modest building. He asked for a barn of church, Inigo Jones called it the handsomest barn in England.
Drury Lane was once one of London’s most fashionable streets and home to the theatre royal. There have been several Theatre Royals on this site and some of them have had entrances on Drury Lane.
Covent Garden Theatre
All theatres closed in the 1640’s during a civil war and all past times considered frivolous banned until 1660. After the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 King Charles II granted two chaps permission to form new theatre companies.
They started out in converted buildings one is called the Kings Company and the other the Dukes company. And they also had a monopoly on shows considered serious drama. All other theatres could show at the time was comedy, pantomime and singing and dancing by law.
Ultimately in 1682 the two companies merged the Kings company was in the Theatre Royal. And after several years and a number of moves the Dukes company was in what we know today as The Royal Opera house.
The current Royal Opera House became the third built on the site, the first constructed in 1732. The Current Royal Opera house first built in 1888 obviously undergoing considerable refurbishment since. Today it is home to The Royal Opera and also The Royal Ballet.
Bow Street police station and court house completed construction in 1881 but Bow Street has a much longer history for law enforcement. The first court opened in 1740 and its constables the Bow Street runners formed in 1749. The Bow Street runners became considered the first professional police force and a precursor to the Metropolitan police.
A few famous names have also appeared in court on Bow Street. Casanova appeared in court on Bow Street accused of hurting a pretty girl. Also Chilean dictator general Pinochet and famous London gangsters The Kray twins. Charles Dickens reported court cases and Oscar Wilde’s gross indecency trial famously took place here.
Freemasons hall today the headquarters of the united grand lodge of England. Also the supreme grand chapter of Royal arch mason’s of England. As well as a meeting place for many masonic lodges it has been a masonic meeting place since 1775. Historically three masonic buildings constructed to replace each other on the same site. The current one opened in 1933 built as a memorial to the 3225 Freemason’s who died on active service in WWI.
The Lamb and Flag pub
The Lamb and Flag pub on Rose street is one of London’s oldest pubs. Rose street originally constructed in 1623 it is also one of the original parts of Covent Garden. And so a timber frame building would have been here originally. The building here now in parts dates to around 1688 according to English Heritage maybe earlier. The pub say 1638 and it has also had some work done over the centuries. The brick front you see today became completely rebuilt 1950’s.
The Lamb and flag first recorded as a pub from 1772 according to the pub. And called the Lamb and Flag since 1833 making it one of Covent Gardens oldest pubs.
Bare knuckle prize fighting
Apparently, the Lamb and Flag had the nickname the bucket of blood for some time because it gained a reputation for boxing outside on the cobbles. Bare knuckle prize fighting effectively outlawed in Britain from 1882 and so sees the end of the era.
Famous drinkers included the writer Charles Dickens and also poet John Dryden famously attacked here in 1679. They have named a room after him upstairs.
For more Covent Garden check out my blog post and YouTube video visit to was the Royal Ballet perform for the Covent Garden Christmas lights event