You can find the map for today’s 4.33 mile walk here. 119 days until the Congestion Zone Ends Party! Follow on Twitter for more updates.
NB: Still struggling with computer issues. Fluctuating between an iPad, a borrowed laptop, and a zombie Mac made from mine’s broken body and the hard drive of a laptop that’s been dead eight years. So bear with me if it’s a bit of a mess and a few days late!
Today I will attempt to tackle Covent Garden (or half of it, at least). It’s a big task and, to be honest, one I’ve kind of been putting off a little. It’s not that the walking was hard, it’s an immensely easy (and very enjoyable) place to wander around. It is also not a very big part of London, so I thought it would be one day of walking, done and dusted. But Covent Garden is incredibly dense and compact. I felt overwhelmed trying to walk every single street while simultaneously looking for hidden things, finding interesting new places, and watching people go about their day.
You can really tell the density of a neighbourhood by the time it takes to explore it. Without planning it (or wanting to) I found that I slowed down a lot. I only walked a mile in something like 45 minutes. It was really slow. Every square inch is full of restaurants, shops, theatres, people, pubs, and attractions. There’s so much going on and so much crammed into this little space.
The overstimulation made the walk really fun but the writing-about-it part a little intimidating. I could spend six months just trying to fully explore Covent Garden and Soho and describe it to you. Covent Garden alone has so much history that every building probably has something remarkable about it. It’s more than I can cope with in a couple of posts. So I’m going to give myself (and your eyes) a break and not go into much history of the neighbourhood. There are loads of books out there about this place if history is your bag. I’m more interested in getting a feel for the neighbourhood’s personality now.
The Big Stuff
The area I walked in today has some of London’s most famous (and most visited) attractions. I don’t like to write about big attractions because a) everyone knows about them already and b) they aren’t that different from visit to visit, so my experience will likely be similar to yours (aka boring to read about). I am breaking the rule for the following places though because they break the clichés I try to avoid. These places feel new to me every time I go.
Trafalgar square is always a lively place and it somehow has the power to always cheer me up (even after bickering with a grumpy TFL agent about his oyster card return policy). It’s probably partially to do with the likelihood of seeing a man in a kilt.
The square is usually packed with street performers, picnickers, people watchers, happy tourists, happy locals, and sometimes big blue roosters.
~ Seven Dials ~
On a sunny day, Seven Dials is always good for people watching. It feels like a pedestrian only area (perhaps to the annoyance of all the taxis trying to get through) so people meander through, milling in the road and hanging out in the middle of the roundabout. Neal’s Yard is also around the corner (from Day 31). I like to sit near the entrance there and watch people’s reactions when they see the bright colours for the first time. I’m easily amused.
~ Covent Garden Market ~
I didnt actually make it to the market today. I was just too slow. But it’s definitely one of my favourite places in London so I’m curious to see what I find there on my next walk.
The Other Stuff
If there’s one thing I haven’t done enough of in my time in London it’s go to the theatre. You can get loads of tickets dirt cheap (or free) if you just put in a little effort to find them (or have theatre-going friends who know the ropes).
Covent Garden (and Soho) make up Theatre Land – even the street signs say so – and once I am done with this project and have some time, I want to come back here and take in some more shows pronto. I decided to snap a few photos of the ones I want to see. Not unexpectedly, my anglophilia comes through loud and clear with productions like Matilda, The Mouse Trap, and Jeeves & Wooster (though Twelve Angry Men does get an honourable mention).
The theatres themselves are great too. I’ve never really stopped to look at them before but so many of them are absolutely gorgeous. All I’ve ever noticed about the Coliseum, for example, is the ball on top (probably because it has pretty lights and it’s spinning), but I’ve never looked at the building as a whole. it’s quite spectacular.
~ Pubs ~
I have also never taken a moment to really look at the pubs around here. There are some really beautiful ones. I don’t think of go pubbing in Covent Garden much because it all seems really touristy. Most of the pubs are owned by big, bland chains which make them unappealing for anything more than a cheeky pint. But the buildings themselves are pretty remarkable if you take a minute to enjoy them.
Such is my frustration with my current technological situation that I can’t be bothered to list them out with details. I’ll have to settle for telling you that my favourite was the Salisbury, which, along with having a remarkably friendly, informative and helpful staff, has one of the prettiest pub interiors I have ever seen. Apparently Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton agreed with me. They had their (second) wedding drinks here in 1962. Their photos is featured along with those of many other famous celebs who frequented the pub back in the day.
Then there’s the Lamb & Flag, yet another pub that boasts about its ties to Charles Dickens. Like a lot of pubs in the area, they rely on their history and location to draw people in (not their quality food), but if you are looking for a place for a pint and some people-watching its great.
I particularly love keeping an eye on the alleyway next to it that is always crammed with people. It’s probably always overflowing because it’s only wide enough for one and a half people to squeeze through and only tall enough for 9/10 of a person to bend under. For anyone not trying to get through themselves, it’s pretty amusing to watch.
~ Small Alleys ~
Speaking of small alleys, Covent Garden is crammed with them. A few are bland and fairly boring (and smelly), but there are some that are genuinely really fun to explore. You feel like you’ve unlocked some kind of secret when you find them. And when you wander down them you are often alone, so you get to enjoy a magical new bit of London all to yourself. I also love popping out the end of these narrow places and surprising people on the street who didn’t know there was a passage there. Maybe next time I’ll shout “Boo!” too.
Goodwin’s Court is one of my favourites. I remember the first time I saw it I was so excited just because of the fact that it existed. When you walk down it, you feel like you popped back to Victorian England for a visit (without having to step in poo on the streets).
I show this place to people as often as I can and they all have the same reaction of excitement. There’s just something so charming about it. One time I heard a tour guide say it was the inspiration for Harry Potter’s Diagon Alley and they recreated the entire street in the studio because it was too small to fit all the camera gear in. I need to watch it again to see if I can recognise it.
Cecil Court was a major culprit in the destruction of my walking pace today. It’s like there is some kind of requirement that everyone must move to a crawl here. I like two things about this place. Firstly, it’s not that hidden but it’s in a spot where people are always on their way to something else and they just don’t look over to see it (hidden in plain sight and all that). Secondly, it is full of shops that specialise in old timey things. I’m not a big antiques person or anything, but I like when a whole street is full of stuff like this because you can imagine you actually went back in time and this is just what stores sell. Or at least that’s what I do.
Another spot I found that is incongruous with all the streets around it is Carriage Hall. It’s so small my map actually doesn’t even have it. And it’s not really a street, it’s more of a courtyard. But I have become a little obsessed with finding nearly-silent places right next to London’s busiest streets, and this is a new one for the list. There’s nothing to do here apart from escape the noise and the bustle but sometimes that’s all you need.
If you like those silent spots too, you should know about St. Paul’s in Covent Garden. You’ve seen it before, even if haven’t noticed it. Its rear end is where the big street shows happen in the market. You can get into St. Paul’s from every direction (so long as you know it’s there), sit on the benches and enjoy lunch with a birdsong serenade, right smack dab in the middle of London.
The Fabulous Stuff
Another great reason for going down small alleys is that you might find something fabulous. Today I found Bageriet, a Swedish bakery hidden in the alley next to Stanford’s.
How do you know when you’ve found a real gem?
1) Did you walk past, realise you saw something amazing in the window, stop, and go back to stare at it properly?
2) Are you not the only one?
3) Are you a little nervous to go in because it looks so perfect you think it might be fake (and therefore some cruel trick)?
Bageriet has delicious pastries (I can vouch for the one with the raspberries from the picture above) and a really wonderful atmosphere. It’s only been around about a year, so now’s the time to get there and check it out before you have to fight the queue for seats and treats.
So that’s about that from Covent Garden today. Because it has a massive night life too, there are tons of other places I passed today that weren’t remotely close to being open (a lot of them are hidden too so I wouldn’t find them just walking anyway). This place is busy, it’s crammed, it’s a bit of a maze, and this post only covers half of it. There’s far too much to see here for two walks/posts to sum it up. Sadly, I’m on to new places soon so you’ll just have to get out there and find some great things here for yourself.
See you next time!
119 days until the Congestion Zone Ends Party! Follow on Twitter for more updates.