Friday, January 7, 2011

A Tale of Two Covent Gardens

Decked-out, sanitized Covent Garden.
The opening scene of my favorite movie, My Fair Lady, is set in the flower markets of Covent Garden, where Eliza Doolittle begs Col. Pickering to "buy a flower off a poor girl."

Eliza would not recognize today's "Covent Garden." At least the one in the spot she is familiar.  From what I understand, the old Covent Garden market was converted into the glass atrium that provides the nearby Royal Opera (the place the upper class was exiting in the movie) with a lovely food and wine hall for Opera-goers to enjoy during intermission.  The "market" which is now placed in the square is full of higer-end tea, beauty, cupcake and toy shops, artists' stalls, 1-3 food stalls, and a few well-placed buskers.

Other than the antique flea market which runs on Mondays in the Jubilee Market area (other days expect to find tired touristy t-shirts and Asian-produced goods), the buskers (wonderful name for street performers, don't you think?) are always the highlight of the Market.  My favorite is in the sunken courtyard, where classical quartets or female opera singers play in the beautiful acoustic setting.  The other buskers are usually mid-range juggling acts who will do anything, even involve innocent children in their acts, to get a cheap laugh.

But the flowers at high-end shops around town, even those from the nearby Paul Thomas flower boutique near our home in Shepherd Market, still come from Covent Garden.

But not the one labeled "Covent Garden" on the tube map.

This "Covent Garden" is located by Vauxhall on the tube map in industrial South-London and denominated "New Covent Garden Markets."

I don't think Eliza would have recognized much of this Covent Garden, either.  The entrance looks like they took a page from the New Jersey Turnpike's traffic control book.  Billboards span multiple lanes of traffic, directing multiple-axle vehicles through one lane, cars through another.  Fees are charged based on the size of the vehicle.  As a pedestrian, I was able to avoid paying a fee, and was directed to the side of the multi-lane highway into the market and under the large overpass before emerging onto a scene from any number of movies where the good guys get beat up in an abandoned warehouse.

The first warehouse we wandered into appeared near empty, but I later learned that was because it was for the caterers, those who purchase the fruit and veg en masse and package them for supermarkets like Tesco,  Sainsburys, Waitrose, and Marks & Spencers (the four main supermarkets here, in order of price and quality).  They were enclaved within their own parsed-off areas of the warehouse.  They were not designed for the casual tourist such as myself and my touring friend.

Finally, I found the fruit and vegetable market.  I walked down the center aisle of a vast warehouse. Wholesalers were spread to the right and left in areas open on the backside, enabling lorries (semi-trucks) to conveniently purchase and pick up produce.  We were watched with curiousity, and I got the sneaking suspicion that tourists were not frequent in these parts.

In fact, it seemed people generally were not frequent in these parts, either because business was slow due to the economy, weather, or lateness of the hour (we got there at 8:00 a.m. although I had been told it opens at 2:00 a.m.).  This worked in our favour, as some wholesalers welcomed us taking our picture with them, and one even gave us three bags of free potatoes, as I could not fit the larger quantities for sale in my suitcase.  Had I storage capacity for produce, this would have been the Mormon food storage-hoarder's dream (we are encouraged to store three-12 months of food in the event of natural or other disaster).

We next visited the flower market.  This seemed to have more life and catered to individual buyers.  Anything a flower or decorating shop could want was there, from dozens of varieties of well-packaged flowers, to cake stands and glitter balls.  I will be back next year for my eco-friendly Rosemary Christmas tree bush (edible all winter long).  Perhaps if I go early enough, I'll get a glimpse of Ms. Doolittle.

New Covent Garden Fruit and Veg Market
Wholesaler who gave me free potatoes.
Packaged flowers at New Covent Garden Flower Market.


  1. I have visited London several times and on my recent trip in September I was interested in going to the New Covent Garden Market, but since it sounded like it wasn't very tourist-friendly I didn't go. I wish I had now. It sounds so interesting. I love the traditional Covent Garden as well, and their street performers are so fun. My husband still tells about one we saw, whose whole shtick was trying to rope off his performing area and scolding anyone who crossed his invisible borders. I just found your blog this week, and have enjoyed reading it. I'm a fellow Anglophile back here in Utah.

  2. What happened to the Mormon times article you wrote about British students and UK 'Ivy league'? I can't find it any more. I found it interesting.

  3. Asked my editor - I'll post here once it's back up...

  4. I have lived in the UK all my life, Covent Garden is one of my very fave spots in London and only today upon finding your blog have I learnt that the 'Covent Garden Flower Markets' aren't actually in Covent Garden! How funny! Thanks for the heads up!

  5. I lived on Curzon Street for 3 months while I was working on a movie. Just came home. I probably passed you on the street every day. Spent my last afternoon with a friend and Ye Grapes.

    I love your blog. Keep it up.