Clowns and classical music at London's Covent Garden Market

by Kevin Hughes

For centuries the site of an important market Covent Garden has been transformed into a modern, major tourist attraction where street entertainers and musicians add to the bustling market atmosphere.

Sitting on a bench, eyes closed, the enchanting melody of Ravel’s Bolero rises and falls as the smell of freshly brewed coffee competes with the heady aroma of scented candles and freshly cut flowers.
The classical musicians play faultlessly and it’s impossible for your mind not to wander as you dream of embracing a beautiful woman on a moonlit Parisian Street.
But, just as the violins reach the masterpiece’s intense crescendo and at the precise second you are to about taste the warm, tender kiss of your imaginary lover, street entertainer Sham the Bum chooses to noisily announce his arrival at Covent Garden’s Piazza.
Somehow it’s impossible not to be drawn past the candle shop, the flower sellers and the multitude of craft stalls to watch the comic antics of one of Covent Garden's best street entertainers.
Watching Sham, who bases his character on Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp, play the crowd is an anarchic lesson in slapstick on the greatest stage of all - the street.
He rapidly throws out spontaneous one line gags before somehow, with the aid of several members of his enthralled audience, climbing onto a four meter high giraffe unicycle for a daredevil display of zany and intensely funny stunts.
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Covent Garden, whether listening to classical musicians play for loose change or watching street entertainers thrill audiences with their comic routines and daring stunts or simply browsing the fantastic varied market stalls and unique shop units is a must-do London experience.
The market’s historic location can be traced back to Roman and Saxon times but it wasn’t until around 1650 that 'fruit and veg' markets were being held regularly at what is now the market's modern site.
And after the Great Fire of London destroyed many other London markets Covent Garden quickly became established as the most important fruit, vegetable and flower market in England.
But by the mid 1970’s the majority of market traders had moved out and the site was earmarked for redevelopment with plans for office blocks and a new road system. However, public outcry saw restoration work carried out and, in 1980, Covent Garden Market re-opened as a purpose built speciality shopping centre that rapidly established it self as a major tourist attraction.
Now, although modern and new, there is plenty of reminders of the markets incredible history. A few hundred years ago when the first markets were being held pineapples were considered exotic beyond belief and became a symbol of wealth and generous hospitality. The fruit was adopted as a symbol by Covent Garden architects and artists and eventually it was adopted as the market's emblem.
Look carefully as you wander around the Apple and Jubilee Markets at Covent Garden and you can see the shape of pineapples is woven into the very fabric of the building. Lights, banister ends and doorways are decorated with pineapple shapes.

Market stalls:

The Apple Market is filled with a mind-blowing variety of craft, antique, jewellery, fashion and specialist stalls.
On Mondays the Jubilee Market is crammed full of antique stalls while from Tuesday to Friday, traders sell clothing and household goods and on Saturday and Sunday the market throws open its door’s to sellers of arts and crafts and collectables.
Prices are as cheap or expensive as you want. Personally I always make a bee-line for the traditional sweet stall to stock up on sherbet lemons, chocolate limes, jelly beans, humbugs and all those other traditional sweets I remember from my long lost childhood.
It really is easy to lose yourself strolling around the multitude of market stalls and unique shop units stopping every now and again for a coffee or to be entertained by the street artists or musicians.
If you have never been, go, you won’t be disappointed.

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Covent Garden isn’t just about street entertainers and markets. The area immediately surrounding the market is also home to the English National Opera, The Royal Opera House, The Royal Ballet and London Transport Museum.
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Getting there:

Covent Garden is on London Underground’s Picadilly line and the tube station is just a few hundred yards from the market. However, Covent Garden Station gets exceptionally busy, especially at weekends. It is often easier to get off at Leicester Square, Charing Cross, Embankment or Holborn and walk. Leicester Square is the closest station and is only a five minute stroll from the market.
Parking restrictions and the congestion charge means going by car is really not an option while there is a good bus service for those that don’t like the tube with number 24 buses stopping at Leicester Square.

Eating and drinking:

Covent Garden, as you would expect of a major tourist area, has a multitude of restaurants, bars and cafes to suit all tastes and pockets. However, these are just two I have visited regularly and can recommend.

The Punch and Judy is a large pub with a balcony overlooking Covent Garden Piazza. It’s a great place to watch the street artists performing outside. The pub gets exceptionally busy however, if you can find a seat, the reasonably priced menu has scores of traditional British dishes. There's a great selection of pies and old favourites such as sausage and mash at around £5.95 and other main courses such as Thai green curry and rice at £8.95. They also sell a range of sandwiches and baguettes at around £3.75 and jacket potatoes with various fillings.
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Covent Garden Grill at Henrietta Street serves up mouth-watering steaks all cooked over a charcoal grill and at reasonably affordable prices for central London. An 8oz sirloin will set you back £15.95 while a same size fillet is £17.95. All steaks are served with a side order of your choice. Chose from chips, baked potato, salad or green vegetables. There is also a good selection of vegetarian choices including chilli and garlic marinated vegetable and haloumi kebabs served with herb and pine nut couscous and yoghurt and mint sauce at around £11.95.
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Where to stay:

Whenever I head for a weekend in London I try and book a room at the Grange Fitzrovia, Bolsover Street, W1P 7HJ. Just a short walk from Euston Station, or one stop on the tube from Euston Square to Great Portland Street, I find it ideally located.
Just across the road from Regent’s Park yet only five minutes walk from Oxford Street it means I can avoid the tube at busy times and enjoy the walk if the weather is good.
Rooms are large for a London hotel and I have always found the staff very accommodating.
Expensive at around £220 a night in the week they have some great deals for weekends and you can normally get a double room for around £100 a night.
I usually stay room only and walk the 200 meters or so to Great Portland Street Station for breakfast at the Turkish, Mezes Café. There, a really good full English breakfast will set you back a mere £6 including a piping hot mug of coffee or tea.

The Central Park Hotel, Queensborough Terrace, W2 3SS is also a great hotel in a good location. Just across the road from Hyde Park and a short distance from Marble Arch and central London both Queensway and Bayswater Road tube stations are less than five minutes walk away. Rooms cost around £125 for a double. However, book early on-line and there always deals to be had which can substantially reduce you overall bill leaving you paying less than £80 a night.
Rooms are a reasonable size, modern and clean.

Kevin Hughes

I am a retired police officer who enjoyed a second career in journalism with a weekly newspaper. I now work as a freelance journalist concentrating on politics, sport and local issues. I also do some freelance photography.

I have a passion for travel and enjoy writing about my experiences - good and bad. I have had several travel features published in regional and weekly newspapers and some magazines but I'm hardly a professional travel writer although I certainly wouldn't mind doing more!

Married for thirty plus years and with three adult children and one grandchild my wife and I now have more time to travel. I generally shy away from package holidays finding it more fun to plan where I want to go, how I want to get there and what I want to see and do when I arrive. However, for me, the most important part of any trip is the local people I meet and interact with. It is they who give me a sense of what a place is really all about.

I have been appointed by the Simonseeks editorial team as a community moderator, to review and rate guides on a regular basis.