On Sunday, September 29th, we took the Tube to Leicester Square, the starting point for Rick Steves’ West End Walk. Leicester Square is famous for its movie theatres and film premieres. One of the three theatres on the square, The Odeon, is the largest cinema in Britain. We walked right by another theatre, the Vue, on our way east on Cranbourn Street to the first stop on our walk: Covent Garden, a few blocks east of Leicester Square. We crossed Charing Cross Road, zig-zagged on Garrick and Floral Streets and turned right when we hit James Street to find that we were joining a large crowd entering and exiting a large square. We had reached the first stop on our West End Walk.
Remember Eliza Doolittle, that lovable character in the George Bernard Shaw play “Pygmalion” and the musical “My Fair Lady?” Some of the songs from that musical were my favorites during my high school years: “On the Street where You Live,'” “Show Me,” “The Rain in Spain,” and “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Your Face.” Oh, and another thing about Eliza: She worked in Covent Garden selling flowers.
Technically, Covent Garden is the name just for this square but most people call the entire neighborhood Covent Garden. Sometimes the square itself is called the Covent Garden piazza and the main building on the square is called the Covent Garden Market.
The James Street entrance was packed with tourists most of whom were forming circles around several mono-toned live statues. There was a lady blue from head to toe. And a gold man sitting on an invisible stool drinking a beer. And a silver man standing still trying his best to remain motionless. Down the square toward the shops there was more activity as various artists exhibited their acrobatic skills. According to our Rick Steves pocket tour guide London’s buskers are licensed and scheduled to perform in public places such as Tube stations and markets and squares.
Centuries ago Covent Gardens was a field belonging to the Westminster Abbey and Convent. Henry VIII snatched the field away from the church in 1540 and in 1552 Edward VI granted the land to John Russell, the first Earl of Bedford. In 1630 it was laid out as the first modern square in London. Francis Russell, the fourth Earl of Bedford, commissioned Inigo Jones to design the square after an Italian piazza and in 1631 the building of St Paul’s church began. In 1654 market traders began to set up market stalls and in 1670 the Earl of Bedford received permission to create a fruit and vegetable market. The present market building was built in 1830. The Russell family sold their interest in the square in 1913 and the property ownership has changed hands several times since then.
Over the years pubs and bars sprang up around the square (there are still about 60 pubs in the area today) and the area became to be known as a red-light district. Then in 1973 the food market moved three miles away and in 1980 the main building re-opened as a shopping mall with cafes, shops and a craft market called the Apple Market. More shops can be found in the Jubilee Hall which was built on the south side of the square in 1904, originally for the selling of flowers. That’s where Eliza worked.
There are hundreds of markets in London. Some are only open on weekends; others only one day of the weekend. But Covent Garden is open every day but Christmas and is one of the most popular markets in London. Trip Advisor rates Covent Garden Market # 35 out of 415 shopping areas and the entire Covent Garden area as # 71 of 989 Things to Do in London.
The Royal Opera House (which ranks as # 16 on those 989 Things to Do) is on the northeast corner of the square and the London Transport Museum (# 212) is on the southeast corner. St Paul’s Church (# 303), often called the Actor’s Church (there are 13 theatres in the area), stands solemnly on the west side. Behind St Paul’s there’s a nice, quiet garden with a lot of benches for those who would like to get away from all of the bustle for awhile. On nearby Maiden Lane about a block away from St Paul’s you will find Rules, London’s oldest restaurant. And not too far from Rules there’s a pub on Chandos Place called The Harp that received the National Pub of the Year award in 2010/11. Also nearby is the fourth building to be called Theatre Royal, Drury Lane (# 118). The first Drury Lane theatre was built in 1663 and was London’s first. Samuel Pepys attended some plays there before it burned down in 1672. The present theatre was built in 1812 after theatre # 3 burned down in 1809.
“My Fair Lady” debuted on Broadway in 1956 and two years later opened in London at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane with the original Broadway cast and ran for over five years. “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory the Musical” opened up earlier this year at the Drury Lane and is rated # 74 on Trip Advisor’s list. Some of the other theatres within a stone’s throw of Covent Garden: The Adelphi on Maiden Lane (The Bodyguard now playing, rated # 78 on Trip Advisor), the Lyceum on Wellington (Lion King, # 11), the Fortune on Russell Street (Woman in Black, # 318), the New London on Drury Lane (War Horse, # 5), the Peacock on Portugal Street (Blam, # 98) and the Cambridge on Earlham (Matilda the Musical, # 10).
There seems to have always been some form of entertainment going on in Covent Garden. In the 1660s Samuel Pepys reported attending a Punch and Judy puppet show there. In the 1800s some of the pubs became famous for their exhibitions of bare-knuckled boxing. Now there are three areas in the square set aside for the mimes, living statues, dancers, acrobats and other buskers to put on their 30-minute shows. The courtyard is reserved for classical music. During our visit a woman was singing an operatic aria.
Covent Garden belongs to the tourists during the day. After working hours Londoners take over and flock to the pubs and theatres.
We will continue with our West End Walk in my next posting.