Covent Garden market has for decades topped the list of must-see attractions for many who visit London. But it’s a far cry from the quirky place it was set out to be.
The former fruit and vegetable market reopened in the 1980s as a tourist attraction. In that decade, it became home to many independent shops, each of which introduced a different flavour to the melting pot of retail opportunities.
But that's all changing now. A Chanel opened its doors in 2012, and Dior followed suit in 2013, adding to Covent Garden’s ever-growing 'Beauty Quarter'. And it’s not just premium shops getting their brand displayed in this prized real estate. In early 2017, a Sushi Samba is due to open on the Opera Terrace.
This is a stark departure from the time when nuns would steer wheelbarrows around the square, picking up all the vegetables that had fallen off the market stalls during the day.
Kate Rich, a resident of Covent Garden for 66 years, remembers that time.
“On weekends it used to be absolutely dead. Now you get one day off and that’s Christmas day,” she says.
“It’s the crowds more than anything that get you down, not so much the shops,” she adds.
When it was first revamped as an attraction in the 80s, owner the Greater London Council carefully selected unusual, privately-owned shops. For them, it wasn’t so much about the money as creating a vibrant community of independent retailers that you wouldn’t find anywhere else.
Michal Morse, who owns The Dolls House, successfully applied for a unit in 1980, paying £4,000 per year. The rent increased steadily every three years but in 1988, the Piazza was sold privately to Guardian Royal Exchange.
Her rent shot up 50%, and Guardian Royal Exchange tried to offer her a new lease that would make her liable for repairs to the building. So she left in 1995, to be replaced by another doll’s house shop, the London Doll’s House Company.
Charlotte Stokoe, who ran the shop, told us she had to pay a service charge that eventually increased to match the amount she was paying in rent. She estimated that she was paying about £20,000 for rent and the same for service charge before she decided it was unaffordable and left in 2004.
“I think it’s all very sad. I don’t think there are any Londoners who go and shop in that market. It’s all tourist-led businesses. And you don’t go there and find anything new anymore it’s more just the usual brands that you see in Bond Street and Selfridges,” she says.
Today, although the crowds may be growing, there’s a noticeable lack of people in the units. It’s because visitors aren’t necessarily coming here to do their shopping. It's become an iconic landmark used for brand promotion, filled with a series of high-end shops with more staff than customers and bored security guards left twiddling their thumbs.
Much to the relief of residents, it seems that current landlord, Capital and Counties (CapCo), is making plans to handle the growing crowds.
Sarah-Jane Curtis, director of Covent Garden says: "Improving access around the estate and enabling the flow of people traffic is incredibly important, and we looked at this when designing the new Kings Court scheme. The scheme will create a new public courtyard and passage from King Street via Floral Street right through to Long Acre, easing congestion from the tube on James Street."
Curtis told us that Capco has reconfigured the Piazza and its surrounding areas to follow "a department store model". She described the Piazza as “a world stage for innovative retail concepts, street entertainment and great food”.
Capco’s vision for the Piazza is at the heart of the most recent changes, and it seems as though the company has been continuing what Guardian Royal Exchange started — a gradual phasing out of independent retailers to make space for more upmarket, chain outlets.
They've changed the atmosphere of the Piazza
It comes as no surprise that Capco's introduction of the high-end stores has attracted a trendier crowd, as Jo Weir, Chair of the Covent Garden Community Association has noticed.
“They’ve changed the atmosphere of the Piazza, but they’ve endeavoured to make the most of a beautiful space,” she says.
“In corporate man’s plan, it gets forgotten that people live here,” she adds.
It’s a fact many visitors fail to realise: that there is a huge community of Covent Garden residents — more than 6,000. And some of them greeted the arrival of such high-end retailers with ambivalence.
Jane Palm-Gold, who lives in Old Compton Street, says: “I remember when it opened again after being done up and there were lovely little shops. All wonderful little artisan shops.
“It was a lovely place then. It’s not like it is now, I can’t stand Chanel and all those awful shops.”
There are very few independent shops left in the square now. One of the last few remaining is Segar & Snuff Parlour, a specialist tobacco shop. Manager Robert Good told us about the day he came for an interview in 2000.
“The crowd was five deep all the way round even in January, and I ended up staying for a couple of hours soaking up the atmosphere. The place had a life of its own and that atmosphere isn’t the same as it was,” he said.
Back then, there were as many people indoors as there were outdoors. Now, groups of French school children sit outside Dior eating their sandwiches. They’ll watch the buskers and drift into the Opera House, but they’ll go elsewhere for their snow globes and fridge magnets.
One feature that Capco seems intent on preserving, is the Apple Market and its stalls of handmade or designer crafts. Darlene Stevens from After My Heart sells one-off pieces of clothing made from vintage fabrics.
“I think they’re very good at supporting young makers,” she says. “But it’s very difficult when you have all these chains, because you don’t necessarily attract the right kind of customer.”
She tells us CapCo has a panel that meets and assesses the designers before allowing them to sell in the market. Since a lot of people now see the Piazza as a source of high end fashion and beauty, promoting the designers and makers in the Apple Market is extremely important to help keep this characteristic of Covent Garden alive while everything surrounding it continues to transform.
And this transformation, some would argue, needs to continue for the market to survive.
This could mean we are likely to see more chains replacing the independent shops that once made the Piazza unique. But whether or not the changes are to the taste of those who live, work and visit the area, the Piazza will outlive us all. Whether or not it will be celebrated for its individuality in years to come is up to whoever is making the decisions.