Many of the millions of tourists who wander through Covent Garden or visit the stunning Royal Opera House will have no idea that the centre of this character-filled and lively neighbourhood of shops, restaurants and theatres was only just saved from demolition in the Seventies.
Robust campaigning prevented the then Greater London Council knocking down the historic market buildings, which the authority intended to replace with roads and ugly new offices and shops. Today the restored market, with its shops, craft stalls and street performers, remains at the centre of this impressive, Italian-style piazza laid out in the 17th century by Inigo Jones.
In recognition of its past history selling fruit, vegetables and flowers, the market quaintly pays a yearly rent to its landlord of one red apple and a posy. At its height the fresh produce market, which extended into many surrounding buildings, employed more than 1,000 porters.
The imposing classical façade of St Paul’s Church completes the scene. Close to the heart of theatreland, it is known as the “actors’ church” and it is where the lives of some of Britain’s best-loved thespians are celebrated.
It is some 40 years since Covent Garden was saved from the wrecking ball and now one of its largest landlords, property company Capital & Counties (known as CapCo), has a new vision for the area, with larger shops and luxury brands making their way to King Street — fast becoming the Bond Street of Covent Garden.
Apple took a key site on the corner of the piazza and James Street, Ralph Lauren chose a period house in King Street for the first UK branch of its Rugby brand, and Richard Caring’s Caprice Holdings is opening the first London branch of all-day French brasserie Balthazar in the building which once housed the Theatre Museum.
Properties in Covent Garden: Covent Garden is for apartment lovers. The handful of period houses that remain rarely come to the market, although currently Winkworth (020 7240 3322) is offering a four-bedroom house on Mercer Street for £2.42 million.
© Barry Phillips
Covent Garden’s streets are heavily populated with shops, so many flats are above retail or restaurant premises. Jamie Gunning, of estate agents EA Shaw, says the area is a success story. “Price per square foot averages £1,250. This is still lower than prime areas such as Belgravia and Knightsbridge, but prices are 23 per cent above the previous peak in 2007 and last year they rose 17 per cent.”
The area attracts: it is popular with lawyers working in the nearby Inns of Court. The typical legal buyer is someone with a house in the country who needs a pied-à-terre during the week. Overseas buyers are also moving in, with many southeast Asians and Italians buying for student offspring studying at the LSE or King’s College. This is definitely not a family area.
Staying power: there is a lack of property for sale as people tend to hang on to their homes as investments when they no longer live there. Hannah Read, head of residential lettings at EA Shaw, says there is strong rental demand from people in the media, the City and law, and from overseas.
“Keen theatregoers who live outside London like to rent a small studio flat here. Right-to-buy flats in the council estates such as Odhams Walk, Siddons, Stirling and Martlett Courts are popular with renters. But we continue to get record rents and recently let a penthouse with two terraces in St Martin’s Lane for £2,500 a week.”
Best roads: the streets around the piazza are the most sought after.
What’s new: Central Saint Giles is a large, mixed-used development on St Giles High Street. The colourful blocks were designed by Renzo Piano and there is a piazza which features Jamie Oliver’s new Union Jack restaurant.
The most expensive properties for sale in Covent Garden are four three-bedroom penthouses on the market for £5.5 million with EA Shaw (020 7240 2255).
Galliard Homes and Frogmore developed Marconi House (020 7620 1500) into a five-star hotel and 86 flats and penthouses on the apex of the Strand and the Aldwych. A few flats remain, prices start from £665,000.
Up and coming: Jamie Gunning of EA Shaw tips the area east of Drury Lane and south of the Strand.
Schools: Covent Garden has two primary schools; St Clement Dane CofE in Drury Lane and St Joseph’s RC in Macklin Street — both are judged “good” by Ofsted. The Royal Ballet Upper School (co-ed, ages 16 to 18) is in Floral Street and is the leading school training ballet dancers.
© Ken Toner
Shops and restaurants: most of Covent Garden’s streets are full of shops and restaurants, although much of the charm of the early days is now missing as the area is dominated by youth and upmarket brands. Some of that spirit still reigns around Seven Dials, where seven roads radiate off a small piazza with its seven-faced obelisk.
The laid-back, alternative atmosphere of Neal’s Yard spawned two successful businesses - Neal’s Yard Dairy, one of London’s best cheese sellers, and Neal’s Yard Remedies, now an international natural beauty brand. Other quirky survivors are yacht chandlers Arthur Beale, and Freud, with furniture and interior accessories on the ground floor and a bar in the basement, both on Shaftesbury Avenue.
Long-established French Bistro Mon Plaisir is on Monmouth Street, while Chris Corbin and Jeremy King recently opened The Delaunay on the Aldwych, a sister brasserie to the famed Wolseley in Piccadilly, to rave reviews from the Evening Standard’s Fay Maschler.
* MORE ON THE BOROUGH OF WESTMINSTER:
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Open space: there are pocket parks around St Giles’s and St Paul’s Churches. The manicured riverside Victoria Embankment Gardens and Lincoln’s Inn Fields are a short walk away.
Leisure and the arts: swimmers enjoy the heated outdoor pool surrounded by office blocks at the council’s Oasis Leisure Centre on the corner of High Holborn and Endell Street.
The London Transport Museum is in one of the old market buildings, while West End theatres and cinemas and the South Bank are within walking distance.
Travel: Covent Garden has four Underground stations. Leicester Square, Tottenham Court Road, Holborn and Covent Garden are on either the Northern, the Central or the Piccadilly lines. All stations are in Zone 1 and an annual travel card costs £1,168.
Council: the southern section of Covent Garden is in Westminster (Conservative, with a Band D council tax for 2011/2012 of £687.62). The northern section is in Camden (Labour, Band D tax for 2011/2012 is £1,331.35).
Buying in Covent Garden
One-bedroom flat: £379,000
Two-bedroom flat: £641,000
Houses: rarely available
Renting in Covent Garden
Studio: £275 to £450 a week
One-bedroom flat: £400 to £600 a week
Two-bedroom flat: £500 to £900 a week
Three-bedroom flat: £750 to £1,500 a week
Penthouse: £1,500 to £3,500 a week)
Source: EA Shaw
Photographs: Graham Hussey