Covent Garden is one of my favourite spots in London (after Kensington Palace, of course). Not only is it a gorgeous market that is so reminiscent of the past, there is so much to do and see there. I don’t think that I’ve had a trip to London yet where I didn’t stop in. I plan on spending quite a bit of time there during my trip in February (not only because I will be going to see the Royal Ballet perform Don Quixote) and have been brushing up, as I am want to do. This is a quick history of Covent Garden, including the market itself, the Royal Opera House, and the surrounding area.
The Area of Covent Garden
Covent Garden has been a meeting place of sorts for centuries, and has been used as a settlement, a garden/ farm land, and a market for near a millennium now. Although it is an artistic and sometimes upscale area now, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries it was often known as a red light district with prostitution being the big draw. Now it is known for the market, the shops lining it, and the Royal Opera House just around the corner!
The Market Itself
I think that the market itself is what draws most people in- there is a plethora of interesting and unique shops and restaurants to interest most anyone! Some shops are certainly more expensive than others, as I almost bought myself a £65 candle until I realised the price. However, there are florists and beauty shops and places to buy knick knacks and pies and cookies and pretty much anything you want. There are also several stalls in the open areas where you can buy souvenirs to your heart’s content! I like to buy a photographic print when I visit, as they are usually pretty affordable and easy to transport home in a suitcase.
The site itself has been home to a market for centuries, but the first building constructed specifically for that purpose was erected in 1830 by the sixth Duke of Bedford. This is the market that we still see today, although it has been subject to restoration work as needed. Interestingly enough, at the time it was seen as rather plain and boring- I think it is one of the more gorgeous places in London, myself! (None of the markets I visit in Canada are this beautiful…….)
The Royal Opera House
The Royal Opera House is quite possibly one of my favourite buildings on the planet. The elegant facade, the history behind it, the ballet company that lives there, it’s like everything was made specifically for me. The first theatre on the spot was built in the early 1730s but the current theatre is the third, with the facade, the lobby, and the auditorium the same used today. It is home to both the Royal Ballet and the Royal Opera, and have near constant performances between the Ballet, the Opera, and the schools! There is also an in-house orchestra that supports both companies, meaning that there is always live music.
As I said earlier, I will be viewing the Royal Ballet’s Don Quixote, which I couldn’t be more excited for. The first ballet ever performed at the Royal Opera House was Pygmalion in 1734, which is one of the first modern ballets as we know it! Previously, ballets tended to be court performances that were simply different dances, but in the 1730s, we moved to plot lines advanced by dance. My own ballet history research looks at the Royal Ballet, and they are a particularly fascinating company.
Many of the Royal Ballet and Royal Opera performances are filmed and broadcast through movie theatres, so if you are interested in seeing a performance but aren’t in London at the right time, you can still catch it on the big screen! I have seen both Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake on the screen, and with all of the behind the scenes footage, it is really worth your time and money. I haven’t seen the Royal Opera yet on screen, but I am hoping to in the next few months when I am back.
Blue and Green Plaques
Not that there isn’t enough for me to already get lost in at Covent Garden, but this time around I will be on the lookout for Blue and Green plaques. Blue plaques commemorate a historical figure who has lived or worked in that particular space, while green plaques are more for general places of interest. I’m not sure that I will have time to find quite all of them, but there are a few ballet and literary figures that are must finds for me. I love that the Westminster City Council has worked so hard to show the history of Covent Garden, and really grounds it. (I know that there are blue plaques in many places, but I feel like if I am always on the lookout for them, I will get caught up in the plaques and ignore everything else!)
Via Covent Garden
I will also be finally making my way to Neal’s Yard, just off of Covent Garden. I will admit, it came to me via Instagram (it is very Instagrammable) but the bright colours and interesting shops have grabbed me. Now that I’m on my umpteenth trip to London, I love being able to do a deep dive into a place rather than just a “highlights only” tour.
Also, if you are interested in the earlier history of the show, I would really recommend watching Harlots, from Hulu. It is a fascinating show that looks at the prositutes in Covent Garden in the late eighteenth century. It is quite graphic, as you might imagine, but they do a wonderful job of showing the realities of life as a prostitute in London. (It is based on Hallie Rubenhold’s book, Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies, which I will be purchasing once I’m there! Curse publishers for not publishing it here.)