Sunday, June 21, 2009

Covent Garden - London

The Royal Opera House is adjacent to the Piazza outside Covent Garden market. This opera house is often referred to as simply "Covent Garden." The present structure dates from 1858 and is the third building on the site. The original structure (1732) is where many of Handel's oratorios and operas were premiered.

Covent Garden Market and the adjoining Piazza, one of London's premier tourist attractions, is famous for its past as well as the current transformation into a showcase for a vibrant, modern London with attendant street performers, restaurants, shopping and entertainment venues. The market and Royal Opera House were memorably brought together in the opening of George Bernard Shaw's play, Pygmalion, where Professor Henry Higgins is waiting for a cab to take him home from the opera; he then comes across Eliza Doolittle selling flowers in the Covent Garden market. With My Fair Lady we have music to go along with the story.

The older generation of Londoners still remembers Covent Garden as the largest fruit and vegetable market in England. But its history goes all the way back to the early 13th century when "Convent Garden" (covent was the Middle English form of the modern word convent) referred to a 40-acre plot in the county of Middlesex, bordered west and east by what is now St. Martin's Lane and Drury Lane. In this quadrangle the Convent of St. Peter, Westminster, maintained a large kitchen garden throughout the Middle Ages to provide its daily food. Over the next three centuries, the monks' old "convent garden" became a major source of fruit and vegetables in London and was managed by a succession of leaseholders by grant from the Abbot of Westminster. This type of lease eventually led to property disputes throughout the kingdom, which Henry VIII solved in 1540 by the stroke of a pen, when he dissolved the monasteries and appropriated their land. In the 1630s on this land formerly belonging to Westminster Abbey, the “Convent Garden” was developed by the 4th Earl of Bedford as an experiment in Italian-style town planning, resulting in the first public square in the country.

Inigo Jones, the most important English architect of the 17th century, was commissioned by the Earl of Bedford to design the Piazza; Jones lined the square with with arcaded houses. It is thus one of the oldest squares in London. His distinctive St. Paul's Church (1638, and not to be confused with St. Paul's Cathedral) with two square and two round columns and a false center door (the true entry door is round in the back) is the only one of the original Jones buildings still standing on the Piazza. The square end columns are arcaded. Curiously, the facade that faces the Piazza is stone, while the rest of the church is red brick. It is commonly called the Actors' Church, due to its proximity to several important theatres; there are memorials to Noel Coward, Vivien Leigh, Ivor Novello and Boris Karloff.

The fruit and vegetable market in the square began in a small way in 1649, but by 1760 occupied much of the piazza. The main iron market building in the Piazza we see today was erected in 1830 by Charles Fowler. By the 1940s it was evident that the country's principal fruit and vegetable market could not remain in this very congested part of London. It was eventually relocated to Nine Elms in 1973, leaving empty market buildings and numerous vacant premises in the surrounding area.

A vigorous campaign by local residents defeated the planner’s intentions to knock down most of the buildings, and instead the Market was renovated to become the popular shopping centre and mecca for arts, crafts and theatre that it is today.

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