Changing London

Before the piazza – when London was Covent Garden

Watching the jugglers, fire eaters and magicians entertain tourists and Londoners alike today at Covent Garden’s elegant piazza, it is hard to imagine that once this was where people lived in simple homes and socialised in timber built halls with thatched roofs. It was a place where residents passed along muddy tracks and animals roamed free.

But this realistic image from some 1300 years ago, which makes Covent Garden out to be a rural backwater, was in fact all that there was to urban London. It was a small, yet tightly packed settlement surrounded by endless open land for as far as the eye could see.

The walled City, the centre of commerce today, lay abandoned following the decline that set in as Roman Britain faded away. It was a ghost town only by frequented by scavengers looking for treasure. So by the early 5th century the remaining inhabitants of Londinium had returned to a life of agriculture, ensuring that from their farms they could produce enough food for them and their families.

Urban life had however started to re-emerge around the Covent Garden and Strand area by the 7th century in the form of a new village and trading village called Ludenwic (meaning in old English ‘London trading town’). Improved farming techniques meant that those living in outlying areas had surplus produce to sell. So people traded here and a new harbour emerged. In the 8th Century it was described by the Venerable Bede as a “trading centre for many nations who visit it by land and sea.”

Of course, most physical traces of this Saxon town have long disappeared as the buildings were not constructed to last. And for many years archeologists were confused as to where Ludenwic was actually located.

But then in the 1980s came a break-through and in the years that followed evidence for an Anglo-Saxon settlement about 600,000 square metres, stretching from the present-day National Gallery in the west to Aldwych in the east was ‘re-discovered’.

Covent Garden in Saxon Times. There’s no Jamie Oliver restaurant or Apple store to be seen anywhere

Some amazing discoveries were made by archaeologists when the Royal Opera House was extended in the last few decades, revealing a wealth of information about Ludenwic’s inhabitants, their occupations and daily lives. We know, for example, there were specialist craftsmen that supported themselves year round. If you go down to the basement of the Opera House you can see some of their tools, along with other items like Saxon brooches from the period, displayed in a glass cabinet.

The inhabitants enjoyed a degree of sophistication, with evidence of stylish glass vessels, coins, decorative metalwork and high quality imported pottery. It was far from being the Dark Ages.

It has been suggested that Ludenwic was laid out in a grid pattern with the main streets, featuring houses and workshops, leading northwards to the Strand. Although small in area in comparison to today’s London, the settlement was at it’s height bustling.

What’s fascinating is that if you look at the archaeological records there is a fascinating story to tell about many of the modern day shops in the area. Underneath what is now Zara in Long Acre there was a mass burial pit, for example. Put all the archaeological discoveries on a map and you can see that this area definitely inhabited 1300 years ago.

Ludenwic would not last for ever. When the Viking attacks brought havoc to Britain in the 9th Century, Alfred knew he needed a town that was better defended so gradually his followers returned to the original walled Roman town. Ludenwic was abandoned and, by the 13th century, used by Westminster Abbey for use as arable land and orchards.

Unfortunately many histories on the area don’t begin until much later, in the 17th Century, when London what was arguably first square was created by the Earl of Bedford who commissioned Indigo Jones to build fine houses for wealthy tenants. It’s the last 400 years that Time Out London concentrates on in its current issue as it charts how after many years in the doldrums Covent Garden is now re-born.

The last few centuries of the area’s history are of course interesting – not least because it was seen as a prototype of how countless London estates would be laid-out around elegant squares. But we shouldn’t dismiss Covent Garden’s early years when it was all that there was to urban London.

Categories: Changing London, Westminster

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2 replies »

  1. As this is one of my favourite parts of London, where I visit regularly, I found this fascinating! I shall pull some of this information for our next visit.Firm believer that you cannot have a future if you haven’t had a past. Thanks Mark – really enjoyed this.

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