Covent Garden is one of London’s most beautiful and famous districts, attracting Londoners and visitors alike to enjoy its restaurants, shops, theatres and elegant Piazza and streets.
But Covent Garden isn’t only a great place to enjoy a glass of Prosecco, shop for knick-knacks or watch the kooky street performers; it also has a rich and varied history, resulting in some rather unusual facts:
1. Covent Garden is the birthplace of the sandwich. John Montagu, otherwise known as the Earl of Sandwich, first ordered a slab of meat between two pieces of bread in 1762, at a society club called the Beef Steak Club at the Shakespeare’s Head Pub, thereby inventing Britain’s most popular lunchtime meal. The sandwich was invented out of necessity to keep the Earl’s fingers and playing cards clean from grease while he was gambling.
2. The “Covent” in Covent Garden is actually a misspelling of convent. The area was originally the location of the market garden for the Convent of St Peters at Westminster Abbey.
3. Covent Garden is the only district in London to have a license for street performers and entertainers. The first Punch and Judy puppet show was performed here in 1662, as noted in the diaries of Samuel Pepys.
4. Covent Garden is home to the oldest theatre in London, the Theatre Royal on Drury Lane, dating back to 1663.
5. The area was developed into a luxury shopping and entertainment district in 1632, commissioned by Francis Russell, the 4th Earl of Bedford. The architect, Inigo Jones, was heavily influenced by Italian piazzas and created the elegant shopping arcades that Covent Garden is now famous for and that influenced town planning throughout Britain.
6. Although Covent Garden is one of the most expensive areas to live or rent retail space in Britain (a £1.3 million property recently became Britain’s most expensive ex-council flat and is actually at the lower-end of the housing market in the area), it wasn’t always such a sought-after location. Covent Garden used to be one of London’s most notorious red light districts. A list of local prostitutes (commonly known as “Covent Garden Nuns” or “flower-sellers”), The List of Covent Garden Ladies, was printed in 1740 and sold over 8,000 copies.
7. The history of the area now known as Covent Garden can be traced back to the 7th century, when it was an Anglo-Saxon trading port known as Ludenwic. The settlement was believed to have been abandoned after Viking raids.
8. One of the most notorious slums of London was once located in Covent Garden. Seven-Dials, named for its signature column of six (not seven!) sundials is now a popular location for boutique shops and restaurants but the original slum was said to inspire Charles Dickens to write Nicholas Nickleby.
9. The journey from Covent Garden Tube station to Leicester Square on the Piccadilly line is the shortest trip on the whole London Underground network, covering 260 metres and taking only about 20 seconds. This blink-or-you’ll-miss-it trip costs £4.80, yet is still one of the most popular journeys with tourists visiting the city.
10. Covent Garden is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the world, attracting over 44 million visitors every year. To put that in perspective, New York’s Times Square receives about 50 million visitors a year and comes in at number 3 in the list of the world’s top attractions by visitor numbers.