Where is it?
Bow street in Covent Garden is a short street in the heart of London’s West End, running to the east of Covent Garden piazza from Long Acre.
What’s the story?
Completed in 1677, Bow Street gets its name, like many places do, for a literal reason. It is simply shaped like a bow. The area of Covent Garden itself had since the 13th century (at least) housed a convent, with a garden, providing vegetables for Westminster Abbey. After the reformation in the 1530s, the land came under the ownership of John Russell, the Duke of Bedford, who unusually never got round to developing the site. One hundred years later, the same family got their act together and instructed architect Inigo Jones to create for them what they hoped would be the wealthiest residential district in London. He based his design on an Italian piazza. Granting a license for a vegetable market in the middle of the piazza lead to the wealthy residents moving out, and by the 18th century, what was now known as Covent Garden had become impoverished. The market carried on until the late 1970s.
Bow street was where the novelist / barrister Henry Fielding formed in the 18th century, a small force of six upstanding citizens to apprehend, serve writs and arrest criminals, gaining in the process the nickname ‘the Bow street runners’ and predating the formation of the Metropolitan Police in 1829.
How do I get there?
Covent Garden Underground station is on the corner of Long Acre and James Street, right next to Covent Garden Piazza. Please Note – The station has no escalators. Your journey to street level is either by lift or the staircase. If you choose the stairs, be aware that there are 193 of them. I once met a couple to start a private walk, outside Covent Garden Underground station where they were arriving. They took the stairs and needed a good few minutes to recuperate. Also, a top insider tip is that Leicester Square Station is only about 260 metres away, the second shortest distance between stations on the London Underground.
What’s it like now?
Covent Garden is super touristy and in essence is really a shopping and hanging out destination, but far more tasteful than nearby Leicester Square. The 1830s market buildings were kept and now mostly house high end shops and generic epidemic restaurants. Inside you’ll be entertained by string quartets and opera singers, whilst on the cobbled piazza you’ll encounter street performers and singers belting out popular songs. They all have to audition and get 30 minute slots, so they all have a good level of ability. If you’re visiting over the Christmas period, then Covent Garden always has a large Christmas tree and loads of decorations. Unless you’re visiting the Royal Opera House or passing down it en route to one of the many nearby theatres, Bow Street itself probably isn’t a street you’ll be flocking to as a destination.
Where would I stay?
I’m biased obviously (as we share the same surname) but the ‘Fielding Hotel’ is a boutique hotel situated on Broad Court about 30 seconds walk from the Royal Opera House. I’ve met a number of people who have stayed there. If you have the finances to stay at one of London’s more famous hotels, then the Waldorf Hilton (whose heyday was undoubtedly in the 1920s and 30s) is close by on Aldwych.
I’ve also picked people up for private walks who have stayed in and around the Covent Garden area in private rented apartments, which is probably a better solution if you have kids or would rather do self catering. I have to say that for visitors to London it’s a good choice of area to stay in.
What’s of interest?
There are nearly 40 theatres in London’s West End and many of them are in and around Covent Garden, including the theatre Royal Drury Lane and the Lyceum which seems to have been showing ‘The Lion King’ forever. You might also want to check out the Donmar Warehouse on Earlham Street, the artistic director of which throughout the 1990s was a young Sam Mendes.
Royal Opera House
Originally opened in 1732, and having endured a number of fires and enjoyed a £200 million refurbishment a few decades ago, the Royal Opera House is undoubtedly London’s most opulent and grandiose opera venue. You can pop in and visit their café which overlooks the piazza and keep an eye out for Yinka Shonibare’s ‘Globe Head Ballerina’ which overlooks Russell street.
Although a Masonic meeting place has occupied the site since 1775, the current vast art deco building which is home to the United Grand Lodge of England, was completed in 1933. Although largely used by members, parts of the building are actually open to visitors from Mon-Sat, offering guided tours, opportunities to learn about the architecture of the building and the history, exhibitions and a Museum of Freemasonry. It’s an incredible building and well worth having a look around if you can. Oh yes, and it’s free to visit.
Sir John Soane’s Museum
Sir John Soane was a neo-classical architect, and upon his death in 1837 had arranged that rather than passing to his son (who he disliked immensely) his house, drawings, architectural models, collection of paintings, sculptures and antiquities would be preserved and left as they were upon his death. Today, what is now the Sir John Soane’s Museum is located on the north side of Lincoln’s Inn Fields and is one of those places that the more curious you are, the more you will discover.
The London Film Museum
Although opened a decade or so ago as a general museum dedicated to the British film industry, the LFM has in recent years become a sort of James Bond ambassador, housing the largest official collection of cars used in James Bond films and rebranded themselves ‘Bond in Motion’. Obviously mostly of interest to James Bond enthusiasts.
London Transport Museum
You have to pay to visit the London Transport Museum, but it’s well worth it and with an impressive collection of buses, trams, trains and all sorts of vehicles linked with the growth of London since the 1800s. It's very interactive, so a great place for kids to explore. For this reason, maybe avoid school holidays if you can. They also have posters and artwork associated with the London Underground; always at the forefront of great design. Also, a top tip for tourists looking to pick up London souvenirs that aren’t the usual tat, pop in to the LTM shop. They’ve got an amazing array of Londony gifts.
Covent Garden Market
As mentioned, it’s a tourist hot spot, but a nice one and well worth having a mooch around the Jubilee Market, Apple Market or East Colonnade Market for handmade jewellery, paintings, prints, antiques, collectables or to stop and be entertained by one of the many street performers.
St Paul’s Church, Covent Garden
On the west side of Covent Garden piazza is St Paul’s church, known locally as ‘the actor’s church’. You might have trouble getting in, as the front door has been blocked up since the 17th century. However, it became a famous non entrance when George Bernard Shaw used it as the back drop for the opening scene of his play ‘Pygmalion’, which later became ‘My Fair Lady’ the musical. If you find your way in to the church through the back entrance you’ll notice it’s chock full of memorials to actors and people involved in the theatre industry; perhaps the most recognisable name being a certain south east Londoner, Charles Chaplin.
Neal Street and Neal’s Yard
North of Covent Garden is Neal Street, which seems to have attracted a large number of shoe shops. If you can find it, stop off at Neal’s Yard, a small colourful courtyard surrounded by converted warehouses, now trading as shops and cafes.
A specialist bookshop in maps and travel books which has been going since 1853 and until last year had been trading on Long Acre for over 100 years. It’s moved just a few hundred yards to nearby Mercer Walk.
Eating and Drinking
Not surprisingly, with so many theatres in the vicinity, there are a lot of choices for food and drink. Here are just a few suggestions.
Founded in 1798 and proud owners of the ‘oldest restaurant in London’ accolade, Rules specialises in traditional British food, with a strong meat bias. Expect a selection of pies, puddings, game, steak, venison, lamb and pork. They’ve made a huge effort to maintain a lot of original features, and it does feel like stepping back in time. Not surprisingly it’s been used as the back drop for TV dramas like Downtown Abbey and more recently the James Bond film ‘Spectre’. It is, as you might expect, a bit more pricey than your bog standard restaurant, but if you’re treating yourselves, well worth seeing if you can book a table. They’ve let me in a couple of times so can’t be that posh.
Lamb and Flag
Set back on Rose Street, the Lamb and Flag is a grade II listed 18th century pub hiding behind a 1950s façade. At one time it hosted bare knuckle boxing, garnering the nickname, ‘the bucket of blood’. It’s truly atmospheric, and if you’re looking for somewhere to eat, but think it looks too busy, do check upstairs, where there’s a whole floor set aside for dining, serving above average pub food. Not long ago we had a family gathering there and had a fantastic Sunday lunch.
I’m not a coffee aficionado, but even I know that Monmouth Coffee is a London institution, having been roasting coffee at their Monmouth Street premises since 1978. They later opened another shop in Borough Market.
Bowl Of Chalk
Bowl Of Chalk based shenanigans.