Covent Garden's name originates from 1200, when the area was the kitchen garden, or 'convent garden' for Westminster Abbey. In around 1550, after the dissolution of the monasteries, the land was sold off to the Bedford family. In 1630, the then Earl of Bedford received a licence to develop the land, and commissioned new public buildings - including St Paul's Church and the Piazza - from the royal architect, Inigo Jones.

Later the area around the public market fell into disrepute, being one of the worst slums in London. The Seven Dials area was notorious for crime in the 19th century.

Slum clearance in the 50s and 60s and the relocation of the fruit-and-veg market has given Covent Garden a very different reputation these days: it's now mainly a place for entertainment, full of theatres, bars and restaurants. The old marketplace is now filled with cheesy, overpriced craft stalls and an achingly expensive and uncomfortable coffee area. Head away from there, young traveller, to Long Acre (where the tube station is) - the locus of the best shopping area in London, especially for shoes and urban casual wear. Long Acre, Neal St and the surrounding area are packed with boutiques and beautiful shoe shops, specialist bookshops, and damn fine record shops, including Rough Trade, one of the best record shops in London.

The area is also handily near the cheap hardware shops and electronic music shops of the Tottenham Court Road, and just across the road from Soho.

During my last visit to London in 1996, Covent Garden was my favorite spot to hang out.

There's a rather sweet Doc Marten store near there, for one thing. I had never seen one of those before.

There's also a rather fascinating number of bazar style outdoor shops, various resturaunts, and a number of theatres.

Not to mention some great outdoor entertainment. You never know when you're going to see some sort of busker, juggler, or varied entertainer there.

Covent Garden is the location of the Royal Opera House, home of the Royal Opera and the Royal Ballet, so when it was said that (say) Maria Callas was singing at Covent Garden in 1958 it doesn't mean that she was dressed in a gorilla costume, busking, it probably means she was actually on stage inside the opera house.

Ticket prices at Covent Garden are frighteningly high, partly because lots of rich, ignorant people are willing to shell out -- correction, have their company shell out -- for the privilege of being seen there. After a recent refurb the pricing structure was changed and it is now even more expensive unless you're rich, in which case your good seats have gone down somewhat.

There are seats along the upper sides called the Slips which used to be extremely cheap because you couldn't see all the stage, so were excellent for ballet. You could in fact easily see two-thirds of the stage at any one time. These have now been substantially bumped up in price too.

The main entrance is in Bow Street, opposite the police station, and you go in via the Floral Hall, which is a visually interesting covered structure.

The theatre was opened on 7 December 1732, the creation of John Rich, the producer who had been successful in 1728 with The Beggar's Opera. The first work performed at Covent Garden was Congreve's play The Way of the World; and the first musical work was a transfer of The Beggar's Opera. Operas premiered there included the Alcina (1735), Atalanta (1736), and Berenice (1737) of Handel; and Weber's 1826 Oberon. Mostly it was a dramatic theatre.

The first house burnt down in 1808. The second one lasted from 1809 until succumbing to fire in 1856, and on 15 May 1858 today's building opened with a performance of Les Huguenots.

The transformation to a full-time opera house happened in 1847, when it was named the Royal Italian Opera, since at that time all opera was sung in Italian. Before this date the principal opera house in London had been the King's Theatre, Haymarket (from 1837 called Her Majesty's Theatre). Covent Garden was styled the Royal Opera from 1892, and it came under Arts Council subsidy in 1946 on reopening after the War.

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