There are many reasons to cherish Covent Garden, not least of which is that it exists at all. The area nearly didn’t make it past 1973, when it was scheduled for ‘redevelopment’ after the fruit and veg market moved out. The GLC drew up enthusiastic plans to replace 96 historic acres with a conference centre and lots of roads. The plan was defeated by locals who believed Covent Garden could have a different sort of future, one that didn’t involve hundreds of buildings being demolished and everything getting covered in asphalt. They were eventually proved right, although nobody anticipated that Covent Garden would turn into the upmarket open-air shopping mall it has since become.
Inigo Jones might have approved of its current status, though. It was he who built an elegant Piazza on an old abbey garden in 1630, transplanting a piece of Italy to the centre of London and unwittingly creating that definitively London piece of architecture, the residential square. The area grew in significance after the Great Fire destroyed much of the City, but then decline set it. We may now see Covent Garden as the place where Eliza Doolittle met Henry Higgins, a halfway house between the posh Englishness of Mayfair and louche Frenchness of Soho, but the place got pretty debauched in the 18th century, a hive of taverns, theatres and coffee shops, all haunts for prostitutes like Peg The Seaman’s Wife, Long-Haired Mrs Spencer of Spitalfields and the delightful Fair Rosamund Sugarcunt.
The area’s drift in tone came as the market expanded and the gentry who occupied the Piazza decamped to the newer squares of Berkeley, Grosvenor and St James’s. At around the same time, Charles II reintroduced theatre to the UK, and companies gradually moved from the nearby Inns of Court into Covent Garden by way of Drury Lane. Theatres brought rowdy audiences and actresses who doubled as bawds, and were a magnet for lowlife figures. In 1722, there were 22 gambling dens, countless brothels (one pimp published an annual guide to London’s prostitutes called Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies) and street brawls were commonplace. In 1951, HV Morton argued that Covent Garden provided ‘the most accessible glimpse that remains to us of Hogarth’s London’, but post-war Britain offered nothing quite as depraved as the third plate from Hogarth’s Rake’s Progress, set in Covent Garden’s infamous Rose Tavern. Hogarth depicted the Rose as a den of sin, full of drunks, thieves and whores. The tavern specialised in women who engaged in flagellation, both giving and receiving. Pepys was a regular, although he only seems to mention the food, for which it was also famous.
Given such carnage, it is little surprise that in 1754 Henry Fielding would organise the Bow Street Runners, the progenitors of the Met, from Covent Garden, and the area slowly improved from a hotbed of crime into a straightforward slum. Throughout, the market remained central – Charles Fowler’s fine market building was erected in the 1830s and the Flower Market arrived in 1870 – so it was easy to believe that when that moved to Nine Elms, Covent Garden would wither and die.
Amazingly, though, Covent Garden survived. That is largely due to its fringe attractions, which expanded to fill the vacuum left by the market. Theatre was key – opera was now a decidedly upmarket pursuit – but by the 1980s the area also boasted decent restaurants and, on Neal Street, trendy shops like Red Or Dead and Duffer Of St George. Credit must go to Nicholas Saunders, who opened a wholefood shop in Neal’s Yard in 1976. His alternative empire slowly spread to other buildings, creating a colourful corner of the counterculture in the heart of Covent Garden even as anti-hippie punks gathered round the corner, in the Roxy on Neal Street. Neal’s Yard still has an idiosyncratic flavour – the blue plaque to ‘film-maker’ Monty Python seems well placed (Palin and co had offices here).
What Neal’s Yard illustrates is the way that amid the ubiquitous stage doors, posh shops and cobbled streets, the different parts of Covent Garden retain an individual imprint, from the bookshops of Charing Cross Road to the boutiques of Floral Street, where Paul Smith still has a rickety presence. Seven Dials is one of London’s more interesting shopping areas, while the Piazza has been transformed from a ragged craft market into a chi-chi mall. The idea is to attract Londoners as well as tourists, and the Piazza has certainly smartened up, with the central market a mecca for shoppers, serenaded by opera singers and overlooked by a fancy Apple store in one corner and refurbished London Transport Museum in another.
Covent Garden is a patchwork then, more diverse than superficially similar areas like Soho and Spitalfields and still boasting enough fascinating nooks and crannies to keep even the most experienced Londoner busy for hours, even if Hogarth and Fair Rosamund Sugarcunt might no longer recognise the streets they once adored.