Covent Garden with its pedestrianised piazza, open-air cafés, stylish shops, markets and street entertainers is a huge attraction for visitors.
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The name Covent Garden is a corruption of the 'convent garden' of the Abbey of St Paul which supplied Westminster Abbey with produce.
In the 1630s the 4th Earl of Bedford commissioned Inigo Jones, the King's Surveyor of Works, to create London's first planned residential square on the site. Jones, who was influenced by the Italian neo-Classicism of Palladio, modelled the piazza on Livorno in Italy
The fine Tuscan-style church of St Paul, with its vast portico, once looked out on to tall terraces over an arcaded, three-sided square. The square was fashionable, but as the fruit and vegetable market grew and newer, more exclusive, developments were built to the west, Covent Garden's popularity waned. Coffee houses, taverns, Turkish baths and brothels soon began to thrive in the area. Inigo Jones' fine terraces have long since vanished.
In Victorian times, Covent Garden was known for its 'gin palaces' and the area around the Seven Dials and St Giles was considered a particularly wicked and notorious place.
Nevertheless, Covent Garden remained a fashionable place for theatre and opera throughout the years. Charles II's mistress, Nell Gwyn, performed at the Theatre Royal , Dury Lane, which opened in 1663, and is the West End's oldest theatre.
The first Royal Opera House opened at Covent Garden in 1732. The present Royal Opera House was designed by E M Barry in 1858. It reopened in 1999 after £214 million redevelopment and expansion programme. The magnificent new building, which features the cast-iron and glass facade of the Floral Hall, links the Covent Garden piazza with Bow Street. It is now the home of the Royal Ballet as well as the Royal Opera.
Covent Garden's covered central market for the fruit and vegetable wholesalers was designed by Charles Fowler and completed in 1830. When the market moved out to Battersea in 1974, the building, with its glass and iron roof, provided a shell for a range of small shops and stalls selling arts, crafts, decorative items, antiques, designer clothes and books.
Stalls have also spread south into the Jubilee Hall , built in 1903. The Victorian Flower Market, in the south-west corner of the piazza, now houses the fascinating London Transport Museum .
Covent Garden, one of London's few extensive pedestrianised public spaces, is noted for its many street entertainers, continuing a long tradition - Samuel Pepys described a Punch and Judy show he'd seen under the portico of St Paul's church in 1662.
Stroll around the many interesting streets leading off the piazza. Floral Street is noted for its designer fashion, while Long Acre has more mainstream chains.
Pedestrianised Neal Street to the north is a street of former 19th century warehouses, converted into small art galleries, restaurants and shops selling everything from oriental goods to kites.
Neal's Yard, off Shorts Gardens, is an oasis with health food shops and cafés, and Denmark Street, near St Giles-in-the-Fields, is famous for its musical instrument shops.
Seven Dials is the junction of seven streets. The pillar at the centre, installed in 1989, is a copy of a 17th century monument which was removed in the 19th century because the landmark had become a notorious meeting place for criminals. The pillar incorporates six sundials, with the central spike acting as the seventh.
To the east of Covent Garden is Bow Street. Henry Fielding, the novelist and barrister, presided over the Magistrates Courts in Bow Street in the 1750s and 1760s. Horrified by the lawlessness of Georgian London, Fielding and his blind half-brother Sir John Fielding, established the Bow Street Runners. These volunteer 'thief taker's were the forerunners of today's Metropolitan Police which was founded in 1829.
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