Bit of a summer recess but finally we’re back with the second leg of the tour of Covent Garden and its environs. Picking up where we left off at the upper end of Drury Lane we circle east and back through the densest concentration of theatreland then loop round the Royal Opera House and into the piazza itself.
To start we head down Drury Lane then turn left along Kemble Street back up Wild Street and cut through to Kingsway via Keeley Street. Double back down Kemble Street then take Kean Street to return to the bottom stretch of Drury Lane. Move straight on down Tavistock Street and into Catherine Street where there are theatres every way you look . The Duchess Theatre dates from 1929 and has the dubious honour of playing host to the world’s shortest theatrical run. On the 11th March 1930 a show called The Intimate Review opened and closed on the same night. Current production is The Play That Goes Wrong whose popularity completely eludes me – the concept is lame enough but the fact that they had to fully disclose it in the title speaks volumes about the deemed intelligence of the average West End theatregoer. It’s as if Shakespeare had called Hamlet the Play In Which Everyone Dies.
Turning westward along Exeter Street and into Wellington Street we reach the Lyceum Theatre. The Lyceum has a long and interesting history going back to the 18th century. The grand portico you see below survives from the 1834 designs of Samuel Beazley but the rest of the building was fully reconstructed in 1904. In 1939 the building was bought by the London County Council who planned to demolish it but that was put on ice due to the onset of war and in 1945 it was acquired by Matthews and Sons who converted it into the Lyceum Ballroom. During its years as a dancehall it also played host to the Miss World Contest (from 1951 to 1968) then from the late sixties onward it became one of London’s foremost pop and rock concert venues. Bob Marley and the Wailers recorded a 1975 live album at the Lyceum and during the heyday of punk all of the most successful bands played there. By 1986 however it had run its course as a live music venue and the building fell dark for ten years before being reconverted for theatrical use. In 1999 The Lion King opened and looks like it will stay here until every single living soul has succumbed to see it (may I be the last).
Keep going west on Exeter Street then turn right up Burleigh Street and head back east on Tavistock Street to Catherine Street again and switching northward pass the front entrance to the Theatre Royal Drury Lane. Four theatres have been built on this site, the first of these by the dramatist Thomas Killigrew under charter granted by Charles II in 1663. The present theatre was built in 1812 to a design of Benjamin Wyatt. In its early years it became synonymous with the success of the Shakespearean actor, Edmund Kean (after whom the nearby street is named of course). During WWII the theatre was used as the headquarters of ENSA. In the post-war period Drury Lane’s notable successes have included a five year run of My Fair Lady with Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews and Miss Saigon which ran for ten years. The Monty Python team recorded a live album here in 1974. The bust outside the theatre is of Augustus Harris who was its manager in the latter part of the 19th century and known as “the father of modern pantomime”.
Just around the corner on Russell Street is the somewhat more understated Fortune Theatre, built in 1922-24 in the Italianate style. It was the first theatre to be built in London after the end of the WW1 and since the demolition of the original Wembley Stadium is now the oldest remaining public building designed wholly using concrete as a textured and exposed façade. The theatre’s famous figurine, Terpsichore, overlooking the entrance, was sculpted by M. H. Crichton of the Bromsgrove Guild, a noted company of artisans from Worcestershire. The supernatural thriller, The Woman in Black, has been playing here since 1989 which means it must have been seen by over half a million people even though this is the second smallest theatre in the West End.
As you can see in the picture above, the theatre, rather incongruously, incorporates an entrance to the next door Crown Court Church of Scotland. The Church of Scotland has been active in London since time of James I (originally James VI of Scotland of course). It took up residence here in Covent Garden from 1719 though the present building only dates back to 1909. Rather confusingly the name of the church implies no kind of legal jurisdiction but simply references the thoroughfare on which it sits, Crown Court, which is where we turn next.
At the top of Crown Court we turn left into Broad Court which brings us out on to Bow Street right by the eponymous magistrates’ court. The original Bow Street court was established in 1740 across the road on what is now the site of the Royal Opera House. A few years later the author Henry Fielding took charge of the court in his capacity as London’s Chief Magistrate. The extant building was completed in 1881 and among the famous and infamous names to have occupied its dock are such as Oscar Wilde, Dr Crippen, the Kray twins, the Pankhurst sisters, Jeffrey Archer and General Pinochet (some dinner party that would be). However the final session at what had become the most well-known magistrates’ court in Britain (if not the world) took place in 2006. The Grade II listed building, put up for sale by its joint owners, the Greater London Magistrates’ Courts Authority and the Metropolitan Police Authority, was originally acquired by a property developer, Gerry Barrett, who had intended to turn it into a boutique hotel. His plans never came to fruition and in 2008 it was sold on to Austrian developers, the Ploberger brothers, who hoped to retain the police cells and create a World Police Museum (alongside a boutique hotel). However, having finally obtained planning permission in 2014, the brothers in turn decided to sell on just a year later – at a price tag of £75m.
That brings us on to the Royal Opera House which as already noted is across the road, occupying the whole of the north-east section of Covent Garden. This site has been occupied by three theatre buildings and has witnessed opera and ballet performances since the 1730’s. The current building (the first two were both destroyed by fire) was opened in 1858 having been built by the Lucas Brothers Company (who were also responsible for the Royal Albert Hall). At that time it was known as the Covent Garden Opera House. It was only after WW2, during which it had been used as a dancehall, that the building became the permanent home of the companies now called the The Royal Opera and the Royal Ballet. In 1997 the building closed for a thirty month major redevelopment at a cost of over £200m. The Royal Opera Company curently performs an annual repertoire of around twenty operas here amounting to 150 separate shows.
We finally head towards the piazza itself along the western stretch of Russell Street which bears a plaque commemorating the first meeting of Dr Samuel Johnson and James Boswell in 1763.
As anyone born in the 20th century should know, Covent Garden was originally London’s main fruit and vegetable market. The earliest recorded market on the site dates back to 1654, a time when the land was part of the estate of the Russell family a.k.a the Earls and then the Dukes of Bedford. It wasn’t long (1670) before the incumbent Earl of Bedford acquired a private charter from Charles II for a permanent fruit and vegetable market, permitting him and his heirs to hold a market every day except Sundays and Christmas Day. Unfortunately, the presence of the market led to the area becoming increasingly insalubrious and by the 18th century it had descended into a fully-fledged red light district attracting such notable prostitutes as (the brilliantly-named) Betty Careless. Descriptions of the prostitutes and where to find them were provided by Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies, the “essential guide and accessory for any serious gentleman of pleasure”. In 1830, in an attempt to improve the image of the area, the 6th Earl commissioned Charles Fowler to design the neo-classical market building that remains at the heart of Covent Garden today. The Floral hall and the Charter Market were added later and in 1904 the Jubilee Market for foreign flowers was created. The Covent Garden Estate passed out of the hands of the Bedfords in 1913 when the 11th Duke sold out to the first in a series of property investors. Then in 1962 the bulk of the remaining properties in the area, including the market, were sold to the newly established government-owned Covent Garden Authority for £3,925,000. By the end of the 1960s however, traffic congestion had reached such a level that the use of the square as a modern wholesale distribution market had become untenable, and significant redevelopment was planned. Following a public outcry, buildings around the square were protected in 1973, preventing redevelopment. The following year the market moved to a new site in south-west London while the square lay idle until its central building was eventually rejuvenated in 1980 as a retail mall with a bias toward independent traders and artisans. In the picture below you can just about still make out the inscription commemorating the building’s origin.
These days of course, Covent Garden is a serious tourist magnet fueled by the presence of myriad street performers and artists as well as the ubiquitous “living statues”.
In the background of a couple of the above slides you can see St Paul’s Church which was completed in 1633 having been designed by Inigo Jones. It was the first entirely new church to be built in England since the Reformation. It is also commonly referred to as “The Actors’ Church” due to its associations with the theatrical community. Since 2007 it has been home to its own in-house professional theatre company, Iris Theatre – currently staging a production of Treasure Island. Opposite the church is the Punch and Judy pub – default reunion destination for generations of students since the 1980s.
As we circle back round the north side of the square we pass the new flagship store for Brazilian footwear brand Melissa which occupies 43 King Street a.k.a Russell House, a Grade II listed building from 1716, making it the oldest survivor in the piazza. It was designed by the Baroque architect Thomas Archer as a townhouse for Lord Russell, First Lord of the Admiralty at the time. Between 1891 and 1929 it was also home to the National Sporting Club, the organisation responsible for the creation of the sport of glove boxing, under its president Hugh Cecil Lowther, the fifth earl of Lonsdale (after whom the Lonsdale belt is named). This is testified by the green plaque outside the building.
Just round the corner from here is a shrine to the modern-day religion of techno-worship in the form of the Apple Store. Been a while since I was last in here and I had forgotten just how massive it is inside.
Head away from the square up James Street, which is where the “living statues” ply their trade (see slideshow above), then veer right down Floral Street which flanks the north side of the ROH. In doing so we pass beneath the “Bridge of Aspiration” which links the Royal Ballet School to the ROH.
Emerge out onto Bow Street again and turn north to reach Long Acre where we head west past the tube station. Covent Garden station is notorious for two things – firstly for being party to the shortest distance between any two adjacent stations on the London underground network, Leicester Square is a mere 20 second journey, and secondly for the overcrowding (if you eschew the wait for a lift it’s 193 steps up the stairs to reach the surface). For both these reasons TFL go to great lengths to try to discourage anyone from using the station at all.
Moving swiftly on we duck down Langley Court on to another section of Floral Street and continue west. Loop round Rose Street, Long Acre again and Garrick Street to get back to Floral Street. At no.15 Garrick Street is the Garrick Club, founded in 1831 by a group of literary gentlemen under the patronage of the Duke of Sussex, brother of King William IV, and named after the 18th century actor, David Garrick. Today this private members’ club has around 1,300 members and anyone wishing to join has to overcome the credo “that it would be better that ten unobjectionable men should be excluded than one terrible bore should be admitted”.
Lazenby Court and the southern dog-leg of Rose Street surround the Lamb and Flag pub, one of the most historic and well-known hostelries in London. The very first mention of a pub on this site dates from 1772, when it was known as The Coopers Arms (the name changed to The Lamb & Flag in 1833). The pub acquired a reputation in the early nineteenth century for staging bare-knuckle prize fights earning it the nickname ‘The Bucket of Blood,’ and the alleyway beside the pub (see below) was the scene of an attack on the poet John Dryden in 1679 by thugs hired by John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester, with whom he had a long-standing conflict.
We return to the square along King Street then go back past the church and along the southern side of the arcade. On the building at the south-west corner you can still just about make out the lettering advertising this as the one-time premises of Butler’s Medicinal Herb warehouse.
The south-east corner of the square is occupied by the London Transport Museum (which I may or may not return to but with an hour until closing was reluctant to part with £17 on this occasion). Doubling back along Henrietta Street we pass the modern incarnation of the Jubilee Hall where general tat has now replaced the foreign flowers of yesteryear.
Arrive back at Garrick Street and complete the circle bringing today’s epic to a close. If you made it all the way here I salute you.