London Lantern

Putting the Spotlight on London

Covent Garden Memories

24/06/2003, By Candice Caster

Reader Rating: 2.9 from 19928 votes


When Charles Dickens moved with his family to London at the age of ten, Covent Garden was the first place he wished to see, having read about this bustling and fascinating place, attracted to it much like Pinocchio, though a fictional character over a hundred years later, to Pleasure Island. Once the garden spot of the monks of Westminster Abbey, it was redeveloped in the 1630s by the 4th Earl of Bedford who, with the blessing of King Charles I, commissioned the architect Inigo Jones to build England’s first public square. A small market sprung up around 1649, but grew extensively when the Great Fire of London in 1666 destroyed the markets in the City. This became the famous fruit, vegetable and flower market that flourished and thrived at this location until it was moved in 1974.

Not surprisingly, tourists today still flock to Covent Garden with its multitude of shops, restaurants, pubs, theatres and museums. It has the air of a perpetual festival with its street entertainers performing their acts and vendors peddling their crafts, whatever the season or time of day. It is a place of music and merriment, laughter and lightheartedness - a place for unleashing our spirit of fun, and a respite from life’s everyday demands. There is something for everyone; a thousand people could go to Covent Garden on any given day, and a thousand different stories would emerge. This one is mine.

My husband and I arrived in Covent Garden around noon on a bright, cold Sunday in January. We had just attended a Matins service at St. Paul’s Cathedral, and we were still smiling as we recalled the sight of one small boy, during the choir’s processional, running to catch up, looking like a somewhat naughty angel with his white-skirted robe swirling around his feet. Drawn by the sound of applause rippling through a crowd, we stopped in the Piazza to watch a juggler performing amazing tricks on a unicycle. The Piazza is bound on two sides by arcades and dominated on the west side by St. Paul’s Church (not to be confused with St. Paul’s Cathedral) which has come to be known as the “actors’ church.”

St. Paul’s Church was Inigo Jones’ fulfillment of his promise to the Earl of Bedford to build “the most magnificent barn in Christendom.” Its portico serves as a scenic backdrop for the street entertainers of today, as in years past; the first Punch and Judy show was put on here over 300 years ago. In fact, the early street entertainers, who acted out religious stories and mystery plays, were actually the founders of modern European drama.

We lingered awhile before walking down Henrietta Street to Porters English Restaurant. We sat in the window over our delicious steak and chicken, and, warm and happy, watched the people outside. We were surprised to recognize two ladies entering Porters who had been on our Original London Walk tour of Canterbury the day before. Although welcomed by Porters’ staff in their customary way, I greeted the women as well - self-appointed emissary that I was for Porters that day! They were from New York State, and we chatted about our sightseeing adventures. We became convinced that Covent Garden - at least Porters, anyway - is somewhere you can go for that rarest of all sightings in London - a familiar face!

We finally roused ourselves from our contented state and ventured back outside. We headed back to the Piazza and spent the next several hours exploring the shops in Market Hall. We particularly liked the Reject China Shop, which we moseyed through and left amidst the rustling of bags packed with placemats, coasters and small china pieces. It was a gift-buying paradise in Past Times, the shop carrying items “inspired by the past,” where I gathered together a towering mountain of bath oils and soaps, unique calendars and boxes of Victorian greeting cards.

Theatre Museum

We went into some of the shops that surround the Piazza before deciding to tour the London Theatre Museum. This interesting little venue traces the history of the theatre in London from Shakespeare to the present and is packed full of theatrical memorabilia with everything from original scripts and costumes to posters, old play bills, photographs, and so forth. Like the nearby London Transport Museum, it is an excellent place for children with workshops and much else to amuse and interest them. We enjoyed the video on methods of performance recording narrated by Diana Rigg and Ian McKellen, as well as our whirl through The Wind in the Willows exhibit. We were engrossed in all there was to see as we followed the twists and turns of the subterranean corridors in this maze of a place. It was dark and cold when we came out of the museum, and we finished the afternoon with a hot drink at Starbucks.

The next morning, we set out once more for Covent Garden. We had an engagement of sorts; we had promised to go to the Apple Market to see Laurence, our “favorite” vendor. When we saw him the week before at the Bermondsey Market, he said he thought he could find, over the weekend, Royal Doulton coaching-scene porcelain pieces that I so love. He would bring them to the Apple Market (antiques the specialty on Mondays), but he said, his eyes slightly gleaming, there would be no obligation to buy on our part. Oh, no! I knew I would feel obligated to buy, if only not to hurt his feelings. He had no idea how hard it is for me to say no - or maybe he did! This could be a very expensive encounter.

Market Stalls

So it was with no small amount of trepidation that I approached Laurence’s stall that morning, like a lamb to the slaughter. Seeing us, he broke into a huge smile (or was it a lupine leer?). With a dramatic gesture, he triumphantly presented us with a porcelain tray and vase; yes, they were beautiful, and, yes, they were expensive. I slipped him (willingly, I must admit) my new Visa card (bearing on its face the Houses of Parliament and the Tower of Big Ben - I had to have that for a trip to London, didn’t I?), and the deed was done. After many hugs, the providing of phone and fax numbers and promises to keep in touch (the usual exchange of pleasantries with one to whom we have just sold our soul), we left.

We walked down Long Acre, a main artery of the Covent Garden area and formerly the home of carriage makers. We turned left on Langley to find the Café Pacifico, reputedly one of the best spots in London for Mexican food. In 1976, Café Pacifico was Europe’s first Mexican-American restaurant, and the London branch opened at this location in 1982 in what was formerly a banana warehouse that served the old fruit and vegetable market. The chicken enchiladas with lime sauce were fantastic and fortified us for an afternoon of further shopping and exploration.

Musicians in the Market

This included a spin through Marks & Spencer on Long Acre before returning to the Central Market and Jubilee Hall. We bought two oil paintings in extremely heavy frames, which precipitated a trip, by taxi, back to the hotel to drop off our, by now, numerous purchases. We had just enough time to do this before returning to Covent Garden for our scheduled tour of the Theatre Royal Drury Lane. We were thoroughly delighted with this up-close and personal (we were the only ones on the tour) look at the grande dame of London theatres, and we listened to the stories illustrating its lifespan as we bumped around backstage among the props and paraphernalia of the world of make-believe.

As Covent Garden is the heart of theatre in London, it was only fitting that we should attend a play that evening. We sat in the dress circle of the tiny Fortune Theatre and thrilled to the suspense of The Woman in Black, a spellbinding ghost story now in its 14th year. Afterwards, we walked across the street to the Pizza Paradiso where we consumed huge amounts of pizza served by an exceptionally gracious staff.

And so ends my story of Covent Garden. Pleasure seekers have been going there for hundreds of years, and we were only two more among the many. Like the others before us, we were not disappointed and, quite simply, we found what we were looking for: a few fun-filled days in a very special, unforgettable part of London.

Candice Caster

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Re: Covent Garden Memories

By James Brown 01/07/2003, (Rating: 2.9 from 18788 votes)

What fun it was to read your article! I've wandered through many of the streets and places you mentioned (though not all...yet) and as I read I found myself revisiting Covent Garden in my mind. I'm going back in September and can hardly wait! Thanks for bringing back some wonderful memories.

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Re: Covent Garden Memories

By Tanya 01/07/2003, (Rating: 2.9 from 18606 votes)

What a glorious piece! Covent Garden sounds akin to some sort of physical heaven on earth, especially for those who have a great love of theatre and fine arts. I once took a historical theatre class which touched briefly on the very interesting stories of the early street entertainers and their religious based plays and performances. It's so fascinating to learn that these events still go on even today. Your article transported me all the way to Covent Garden, and I can especially relate to your shopping expeditions!

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Re: Covent Garden Memories

By Margaret 02/07/2003, (Rating: 2.9 from 18745 votes)

I really enjoyed reading of your experiences at Covent Garden. I am planning to visit London in December and it is high on my list of places to visit, with some time spent at Porters Restaurant of course.

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Re: Covent Garden Memories

By David 04/07/2003, (Rating: 2.9 from 18611 votes)

As I am coming to London in September I have read with great interest Mrs. Caster's articles. I just wish I would have the money that she has! WOW. I don't begruge her just wish I had. S

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Re: Covent Garden Memories

By D & S DeBoer 01/08/2003, (Rating: 2.9 from 18552 votes)

Last September, we stayed about a 1/4 mile from Covent Garden. Before we left, I printed a discount coupon to Porter's Pub/Restaurant. So, we had to have at least one meal there. The young people who work there were so delightful that we made it point to stop by for lat night desert and coffee after seeing the marvelous musical the Lion King at the Lyceum Theatre. We took a pedi-cab operated by a young lady from Poland. She gave us a short tour of Covent Garden. We came back several times to look around, explore and shop.

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Re: Covent Garden Memories

By Phyllis Gross 05/08/2003, (Rating: 2.9 from 18491 votes)

I truly enjoyed reading of your January adventure in Covent Garden! Thank you Candice! You are an excellent writer. I was most delighted to read about Cafe Pacifico, I plan to seek it out. I already wrote it down. I am looking forward to eating there.

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Re: Covent Garden Memories

By Richard W. 09/08/2003, (Rating: 2.9 from 18707 votes)

A really fun article about the delightful Covent Garden (I always look for the ghost of Eliza Dolittle when I'm there, I'm sure she's about). I bought my fav little harlequin pin/tie-tack there several years ago.
Try to visit the Transport Museum in the square.
laughingsalmon@yahoo.com

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