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Reflowering London’s Covent Garden

For almost 100 years, London's Covent Garden was the beating heart of the city. In the 1970's, however, the neighborhood took a dive-- but now, it's having a botanical renaissance.

For almost 100 years, Covent Garden WC2 in the beating heart of central London was home to a thriving flower market. Originally brought to life as the setting for George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion, and then later featured in the screen version My Fair Lady, the market stars as the backdrop for the rags-to-riches tale of flower-seller Eliza Doolittle. The film, in all its glorious detail, may well have put Covent Garden on the world map, but the area itself has its own dramatic story to tell– one that is finally changing for the better. 

In the 13th century, this small patch of fertile land close to the river Thames was originally established as the kitchen garden for Westminster Abbey, hence its nomenclature.

By 1600, Covent Garden had become a bustling fruit and vegetable market serving the whole of the fast-growing city spreading around it. Trading eventually turned to flowers and plants, but as London expanded, the area was recognized as prime central retail estate and thus became a property developers’ goldmine.

In the late 1970s, the flower market moved south of the river to a new home in Vauxhall (where it has once again just been ousted to make way for swanky homes and shops, but that’s another story). The romantic-sounding street names include my favorites: Floral Street and Floral Court, whose layout of squares and courtyards along with the original facades of the building remain, to this day, pleasingly unchanged. It was the new tenants and big brands that moved in and turned the area into a tourist mecca, which later became a place to be avoided by sensible locals, as there was scarcely a flower or green leaf in sight to remind us of its history. 

Photo: @coventgardenldn/Instagram

The changing face of the retail landscape in London, however, has caused the landlords of Covent Garden to wise up. In the 21st century, destination hot spots need to offer something different for travelers and locals alike. Why come shopping in London when you can buy the same items from the same super-brands in identically laid out stores in New York or Paris?

Small independent boutiques and artisan producers have been invited in and, best of all for flower-lovers, the area appears to be returning to its green roots.

Slowly but surely, and all for the better, Covent Garden is changing once again. Small independent boutiques and artisan producers have been invited in and, best of all for flower-lovers, the area appears to be returning to its green roots. Exit the tube station on Long Acre and you will find yourself in front of a new vertical garden: 150 square meters of building have been covered with a lush, living wall designed to bring plants up close to the pedestrians. This resulted in stunning year-round color combinations that are attracting birds and bees back to the neighborhood’s busy, urban streets.

For green-thumbed visitors wanting to get their hands dirty, the Academy of Flowers across the road in St Martin’s Courtyard is the place to go for a day’s flower-arranging. If it is planting tips and gardening ideas you are after, then Petersham Nurseries also runs courses and is the garden and flower emporium to top all others. (The nursery’s newly-opened central location brings together the allure and spirit of its Richmond roots, and here you’ll find indoor and outdoor plants stylishly curated alongside unusual homewares, antiques, and hand-crafted gifts.)

Whilst you are in the area, don’t miss the chance to pop into the Rake’s Progress pop-up running until the end of January 2018. This classy, quarterly publication features beautifully-shot images of plants, flowers, and people with accompanying words that are brought to life as a temporary installation at no.13 Floral Street.

With ever-changing floral displays, mini exhibits by photographers and artists, talks, and workshops, there is something here for every flower and plant fanatic.

Covent Garden has also become a top destination for fragrance and beauty aficionados, with more independent or small-brand perfumeries lining its streets than any other area in London.

If flowers and plants are no-go’s in your suitcases, then a scented candle or a bottle of perfume will do. Try Penhaligons for English classics, or, for something fresh and original, visit L’Atelier Cologne, Bloom Perfumery, or Miller Harris. The brand new Floral Street fragrance range is based on its namesake road.

“I connected its nostalgic floral history to the present-day obsession with all things flora to create a modern collection of fragrances, powered by flowers,” says Floral Street founder and creator Michelle Feeney, who has successfully tapped into the origins of Covent Garden and brought them full circle, albeit in delicious liquid form. At her on-site Scent School, guests can spend the day learning about the art of fragrance, the science of flowers, and the secrets of the two combined, all laid bare by industry experts. 

Retire from the hustle and bustle in one of the area’s many eateries or relax with a drink on the piazza and watch the world go by around you. From the garden courtyard of The Ivy restaurant you will have an eye on the street entertainers who have never gone away. Stay a night or two at the Covent Garden Hotel, Henrietta, or on Mercer Street if you really want to soak up the atmosphere.

This is not a place where things stand still. For a full list of details of events during your stay there is an information desk on the West Piazza, where you can pick up your very own copy of The Covent Gardener Magazine— a periodical whose very name harkens to the neighborhood’s past and what it will hopefully continue to become in the future.

Carolyn Dunster is a florist, planting designer, and author of Urban Flowers: Creating Abundance in a Small City Garden.

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