What is it about Covent Garden that draws so many people here? How come we can look back through history and see that it seems to have had some kind of magnetic pull on visitors throughout the ages right from the fictional likes of Eliza Doolittle to the reality of modern tourism which are on the scale of those on a pilgrimage to a papal mass on some days!!?!?? Before you all start getting out your books on ley lines and what-not here are my personal musings on what brings us all to this historical shopping and theatrical mecca…
For 4 years from 2000 to 2004 I lived in Covent Garden and even though I continue to bring groups here on virtually every trip I work on which passes through London, I still have no clear answers as to how to summarize Covent Garden’s charm and drawing power which brings even though most discerning visitors to battle with the crowds who flock here daily. They come for the market; the high street and high end, designer shopping; the opera and the ballet; the theatres; the street performers; the London Transport Museum; the massive selection of food outlets to suit all tastes and budgets; the Actor’s Church; the regular special events; the souvenir shopping; and the boutique style shops to name just a few. Whatever it is that brings the individual, the Easter period must be one of the busiest times of year. I brought a group here the other day and the look on their faces when they saw the crowd was almost frightening but it didn’t stop any of them from plunging in to the throbbing masses and making the most of it all.
It’s hard for foreigners to London, to understand the relevance of being able to live in Covent Garden and when I tell the groups I work with that I used to live here, they tend to look at me rather blankly. Yet when I tell a friend who knows London their reaction is one of shock!… ‘who gets to live in Covent Garden?!?!’ Truthfully it is a very cool place to live, not least because there’s more chance of you being able to walk to work. In fact when I lived here I was studying in Victoria, and my walk to the school took me along the Strand, past Trafalgar Square, along The Mall, past Buckingham Palace and past New Scotland Yard… all major landmarks in British consciousness, and there wasn’t a day that went by when I didn’t think about how lucky I was to have a daily walk like this. I was also working at the time in Shaftesbury Avenue and had the most amazing social life in the West End but the fact was that after a few years I found it difficult to be without wide, open, green spaces nearby and at least a sense of peace and quiet available to me and so after 4 years I actually left London completely and moved to York. Living in such a central location in London means that there’s that constant background noise of the city and I loved it for all the time I was there, but it just came to the point when I craved something else.
Nonetheless, coming back to Covent Garden always brings an air of nostalgia for me as those were some of my informative years. My first visit here was in the early 1990s and I’ll never forget listening to a street musician called Terry St Clair and buying his CDs. True enough, when I came here today, he’s still here as he has been so many times when I’ve walked through the piazza in the past, and still singing the same songs which bring back so many happy memories for me, as I know they do for so many other people who have come here and heard his music in the past. Many will remember the old Covent Garden General Store which was a huge sort of ‘cabinet of curiosities & souvenirs’. The souvenir shops are still here of course, and while many shops have changed hands and even changed shape more than once since I’ve been coming here, it’s all still recognizable as it always has been as a hive of activity. The tourist buzz of course keeps it all alive during the day, and the evening brings a different kind of non-threatening reveler making the most of the few street musicians who continue to croon to open spaces while their voices echo off the outside walls of the Opera House, or the piazza.
Christmas in Covent Garden brings a really special buzz with it as the huge tree goes up and groups of carolers regularly appear to entertain shoppers and celebrate the festive period. There are themed Christmas markets and all the shops are covered with festive decorations while the interior of the piazza is always lit up with spectacular Christmas style lighting installations… worthy of a visit just to see their beauty, especially at night when everything becomes so quiet.
So whatever reasons anyone has for visiting, a former vegetable garden tended by a group of nuns has become a magnet for anyone who’s even just heard of the place, and so it should be! Whether you come here for an hour, a day or even more, there is something in Covent Garden to keep the youngest to oldest amused for however long you care to visit. For me, I’m just happy to find a cup of tea, a seat in a window and reminisce about all those wonderful times from the past while the world just drifts by!