In its early days, Covent Garden was a rustic haven where the monks of Westminster Abbey tended their farms and orchards. In 1536, it was appropriated, like much of the land around London, by Henry XVIII and used as a hunting ground. It passed eventually into the hands of the Earls of Bedford who built their family manor there in 1613.
Later, inspired by the grand open city squares of Europe, they decided to redevelop it as a classical piazza. Designed by Inigo Jones, the most gifted architect of the English renaissance, its façade was plain, its wide arcades supported by Doric pillars. In 1637, Covent Garden piazza was completed. It was the first example of classical architecture in London and the first open public square. Traders and merchants, selling fruit and vegetables were drawn to the vast open space. After the great fire of 1666 destroyed the city markets, the stalls at Covent Garden burgeoned until they covered the whole square.
In 1828 Charles Fowler began work on the Market building. A blend of Greek and Roman architecture, it was built of grey granite and yellow brick with sandstone and painted stucco dressings. It was completed in 1830. But by the end 9th century, after the demolition of nearby Hungerford Market to make way for Charing Cross Station, the market had outgrown the new buildings and had begun to overflow into the surrounding streets.
By the mid-twentieth century, it was clear that the food market could no longer remain on the Covent Garden site and in 1973 it was moved to Nine Elms. A long battle ensued to save the building from demolition and the square from re-development. Fortunately the conservationists were successful and Covent Garden was renovated and re-opened in 1978.
Today it is one of London’s hottest tourist meccas and a popular shopping spot. It is a still a market, but it is craft market where the precious, the priceless and the rare, like jewellery, handcrafts and works of art take their places beside the mundane plastic macs and umbrellas. Restaurants and cafes, as well as exotic little stalls selling ice-cream, patisserie and sweets, have replaced fruit and vegetables.
Street performers have seized the open space in the piazzas and made it their stage. There’s great entertainment of an afternoon or an evening down in Covent Garden.