When did Covent Garden first become a popular shopping destination?
Covent Garden was first built upon and given its infamous Italian piazza design in the 16th century. The open-plan square provided an ideal space for market traders and by 1654 it was a popular spot for shopping fruit, flowers, roots and herbs.
A few centuries on it had become a nuisance to local residents and unfit for purpose. So, in 1828, the 6th Duke of Bedford funded the building of the Greco-Roman style market building that stands today. The market continued to operate as a major wholesaler of fruit, vegetable and flowers until 1974 when it moved to the Nine Elms area of London due to traffic congestion in Central London.
The market building was converted into a shopping centre in 1980 but it still holds much of the market’s original charm and attracts 44 million visitors every year. There are also many stalls under the colonnades selling jewellery, crafts, art and antiques; an homage to its market origins.
When did Covent Garden first become a place for entertainers to perform?
Covent Garden has been just as famous for its entertainment as its shopping, and for just as long. Famous London diarist Samuel Pepys recorded the earliest known street performance in 1662. The performance was a marionette show featuring a character called Punch, the first known example of a Punch and Judy show. This is commemorated by the Punch and Judy pub downstairs in the Covent Garden market hall.
The piazza is still full of street performers who must audition for a slot in a dedicated space at an assigned time. From buskers to human statues and circus performers, you’ll be able to witness some of the most talented entertainers in the city every day of the year except Christmas Day.
More formal entertainment in the piazza comes courtesy of the Royal Opera House, sometimes simply referred to as “Covent Garden”, which has stood in the north east corner of the piazza since 1732. It is home to the Royal Opera and the Royal Ballet companies.
What time do shops in Covent Garden open and close?
The market hall building never formally closes, allowing the shops and market stalls to stay open as late as the many shops that surround the piazza. You should check individual store’s opening times to avoid disappointment but, in general, stores open around 10am and stay open until approximately 8pm. Larger stores are restricted by trading laws on Sundays which mean they can only operate for six consecutive hours and therefore tend to open at either 10am or 11am and close around 5pm or 6pm.
Where does the name “Covent Garden” come from?
Before Covent Garden became the bustling tourist spot it is today, or even before it was home to the UK’s first Italian-style piazza, it was an orchard belonging to the monastery at Westminster Abbey. It was, therefore, the ‘convent’s garden’. The land was traded with King Henry VIII shortly before he dissolved the monasteries, and granted to the Earls of Bedford who would develop it into a residential area, but the name of its former incarnation lived on even as it was built over.
What is the “Seven Dials” area in Covent Garden?
Shortly after the creation of the Covent Garden piazza, in the 1690s, the area to the north of it was developed by politician Thomas Neale. The unusual layout of the seven roads in a dial shape, forming triangular blocks of buildings, was a sneaky way for Neale to make more money from tenants, whose rents were based on the size of the building’s frontage instead of its interiors.
The sun dial pillar at the centre of the seven roads is still an interesting focal point in the area, though it’s a replica of the original which was removed in 1773 as it had become a meeting place for dubious characters. Nowadays the area is full of shops, hotels, cafes and the Cambridge Theatre. It is known for having an independent spirit with unique businesses you won’t easily find elsewhere.