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Covent Garden Piazza
London WC2E 7BB
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Covent Garden is a shopping and entertainment complex in central London. The flower, fruit and vegetable market, previously associated with Covent Garden, has moved to Nine Elms, Vauxhall. The area also contains an entrance to the Royal Opera House. 'Covent Garden' is properly the area of London bounded by High Holborn, Kingsway, The Strand and Charing Cross Roads. However that phrase is commonly used to describe the open area at its centre built from the original market for which 'Covent Garden Piazza' is the proper name.
A settlement has existed in the area since the Roman times of Londinium.
Covent Garden was the name given, during the reign of King John (1199 - 1256), to a 40 acre (160,000 m²) patch in the county of Middlesex, bordered west and east by which is now St. Martin's Lane and Drury Lane, and north and south by Floral Street and a line drawn from Chandos Place, along Maiden Lane and Exeter Street to the Aldwych.
In this quadrangle the Abbey or 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 King Henry VIII solved in 1540 by the stroke of a pen when he dissolved the monasteries and appropriated their land.
King Henry VIII granted part of the land to John Russell, Baron Russell, Lord High Admiral, and later Earl of Bedford. In fulfilment of his father's dying wish, King Edward VI, bestowed the remainder of the convent garden in 1547 to his maternal uncle, Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset who began building Somerset House on the South side of The Strand the next year. When he was beheaded for treason in 1552, the land came once again into royal gift, and was awarded four months later to one of those who had contributed to Seymour's downfall. Forty acres (160,000 m²), known as "le Covent Garden" plus "the long acre", were granted by royal patent in perpetuity to the Earl of Bedford.
The modern-day Covent Garden has its roots in the early seventeenth century when land ("the Convent's Garden") was redeveloped by Francis Russell, 4th Earl of Bedford. The area was designed by Inigo Jones, the first and greatest of English Renaissance architects. He was inspired by the grand piazzas of Rome and other Italian cities and created a large open public space at the centre of the Garden.
The area rapidly became a base for market traders, and following the Great Fire of London of 1666 which destroyed 'rival' markets towards the east of the city, the market became the most important in the country. Exotic items from around the world were carried on boats up the River Thames and sold on from Covent Garden. The first mention of a Punch and Judy show in Britain was recorded by diarist Samuel Pepys who saw such a show in the square in May 1662. In 1830 a grand building reminiscent of the Roman baths such as those found in Bath was built to provide a more permanent trading centre.
By the end of the 1960s, traffic congestion in the surrounding area had reached such a level that the use of the square as a market, which required increasingly large lorries for deliveries and distribution, was becoming unsustainable. The whole area was threatened with complete redevelopment. Following a public outcry, in 1973 the Home Secretary gave dozens of buildings around the square listed building status, preventing redevelopment. The following year the market finally moved to a new site (called The New Covent Garden Market) about three miles south-west at Nine Elms. The square languished until its central building re-opened as a shopping centre and tourist attraction in 1980. Today the shops largely sell novelty items. More serious shoppers gravitate to Long Acre, which has a range of clothes shops and boutiques, and Neal Street, noted for its large number of shoe shops. London's Transport Museum and the rear entrance to the Royal Opera House are also located on the Piazza.
The marketplace and Royal Opera House were memorably brought together in the opening of George Bernard Shaw's play, Pygmalion, where Professor Higgins is waiting for a cab to take him home from the opera when he comes across Eliza Doolittle selling flowers in the market.
In a somewhat different musical tradition, Covent Garden's Neal Street was home to the famous punk club The Roxy in 1977.
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