Covent Garden: Why do people love it so?

31 October 2014

It’s the cultural heartbeat of London, but what is the history behind this unique place and what keeps attracting people hundreds of years after it all began?

Covent Garden: Why do people love it so?

There is something electric as you wander through Covent Garden – a hive of activity, a magnet for visitors - everyone loves being there to soak in the atmosphere of independent and mainstream shops, cafes, restaurants and bars. It’s the cultural heartbeat of London, but what is the history behind this unique place and what keeps attracting people hundreds of years after it all began?

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The heart of London's cultural heritage

At the heart of the West End, with its boutiques and theatres, the area exudes stylish city living that London is well-known for, whilst firmly staying true to its cultural roots.

Covent Garden originally started life as the centre of a humble Anglo-Saxon trading town called Lundenwic, in around 600AD. Although, the Covent Garden we know today owes more to Benedictine monks than it does to the Anglo-Saxons; the Benedictine monks of Westminster Abbey created an abbey garden on its site and it was from this that the neighbourhood took its name. The “garden of the Abbot and Convent of Westminster” morphed into Covent Garden by 1515, with “Covent” being an Anglo-French term equivalent to “monastery” or “convent”.

The iconic structures of the area, particularly around the famous square, tell the story of the city’s development across its 500 years of history, and it’s no coincidence that it remains to this day a name synonymous with cultural Britain.

Built in 1630, the famous square of Covent Garden was the first of its kind in London and was modelled on the piazzas of Italy, in particular the Piazza d’Arme of Livorno, Tuscany, and the Piazza San Marco in Venice. Piazzas in those days were known for the performances of its street entertainers, a tradition that very much holds over today. Strolling around the square, you’ll always find a number of charming mime and musical artists, who each audition with the site's owners for an allocated slot.

Markets and Theatres

The square’s other mainstay is its markets. The neo-classical market hall building, constructed in the centre of the square in 1830, was Covent Garden’s first permanent market structure. The growing popularity of the area saw further buildings added over time; the Floral hall, the Charter Market and the Jubilee Market. 

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The Jubilee Market, originally just a flower marker, later expanded as a fruit and vegetable market, but by the mid-twentieth century traffic congestion had become a pressing issue around Covent Garden, and the long-standing market stalls moved to a new site in the southwest of London. The Market Hall building is the only remaining structure to house Covent Garden’s markets and today, inside the Market Hall, you will find a daily craft market and also a number of cafes, pubs and boutiques.

Covent Garden’s reputation as a cultural hub was established with the opening of a number of permanent performance venues. The first of these was the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, which opened in 1663 with a performance of Beaumont and Fletcher’s The Humorous Lieutenant, ushering in a rich West End history of theatre that’s lasted more than 350 years. Rebuilt on four occasions, the theatre still operates today, making it the oldest London theatre still in use – currently opening its doors for the new musical adaption of Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

The Theatre Royal, Haymarket, located along the Strand soon followed, opening in 1720, and on the square itself, the Covent Garden Theatre – now the famous Royal Opera House – opened in 1732, built by actor-manager John Rich of the Duke’s Company.

Over time, retailers have moved into the streets surrounding the square, with many opening stores along Long Acre and around the Seven Dials to the north of the square. Covent Garden is home to a number of high-fashion boutiques, including British institutions such as Mulberry, Burberry, Paul Smith and Fred Perry. Many of the buildings have been given listed-building status, preventing extensive redevelopment that would damage the heritage of the district, so the pretty shop facades add to the village vibe of modern day Covent Garden. 

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Pub Culture

However, Covent Garden isn’t all just shopping and theatres, the district is home to over 60 pubs and bars, several of which are also located in Grade II listed buildings, including the Lamb and Flag, noted as the oldest pub in the area having been first recorded back in 1772. One of the area’s most frequented pubs is the sprawling Porterhouse pub, who make and sell their own beers, as well as selling one of the most extensive ranges of artisan beers in the city.   

In addition to its lively pub scene, Covent Garden has a number of sleek and stylish bars for the most discerning of cocktail drinkers. Despite the hotel undergoing extensive renovation, the Savoy’s iconic American bar hasn’t changed considerably and the interior exudes an air of 1930s elegance. A more eclectic drinkerie, the St Martin’s Lane Hotel’s Light bar, is designed by Phillipe Starck and is a minimalist bar without a bar (it's screened off) that attracts a very fashionable crowd. 

There’s recently been a growing trend for ‘speakeasy’ style cocktail bars around the globe and Covent Garden boasts a couple of London’s finest; BYOC (which stands for ‘bring your own cocktail’), where customers are encouraged to bring along a bottle of their favourite tipple for the resident mixologists to create their own bespoke cocktail, and Covent Garden Cocktail Club, a dark, hip little bar that’s hidden away beneath the Arts Theatre.

Being in the heart of theatre land, Covent Garden has a variety of restaurants offering pre and post-theatre dining offers. It’s also home to Rules, the oldest restaurant in the city (dating back to 1798), which is something of a London institution. Although, perhaps it's best known dining establishment is The Ivy. This iconic restaurant is notorious for how difficult it is to book a table and for the long list of A-list celebrities who have graced its tables.

With so much to offer, it’s no surprise that Covent Garden is attracting luxury property developers to the area. If you’d like to know more about Covent Garden and the stunning new investment in the area that we’ve recently launched, take a look at the our portfolio page for 12 Great Newport Street or contact one of our expert Consultants.