I didn’t know you but I miss you

22 April 2013
Ben Pentreath

I haven’t long to write – because soon I’m off to the station and then to the airport, to Inverness – visiting our projects up there – both the re-working of the castle and the new town of Tornagrain. Today, in the sparkling sunshine, I went for brunch with Maggie to the new ‘Balthazar’, recently opened in Covent Garden as I am sure you will know. I love Balthazar in NYC, and I’d been looking forward so much to a little patch of NYC in London. Will turned up, and a friend of his too. So far, so good.

Hmm. It didn’t have it. Not quite. Did it lack the New York air, the stylish panache of people who really know how to serve? Was it all a bit… fake?  Was it just because I’m off to Gatwick that I slightly felt as if I was at the airport already, in a giant, rather artificial eatery which had rather too many waiters who didn’t seem to know what they were doing?

And then Maggie and I stepped out in to Covent Garden and I realised how much I hate what’s happened to so much of London. You know, I’ve been trying to put my finger on what has unsettled me about the Maggie Thatcher funeral last week. It was when I looked at a photo of Churchill’s funeral in London some 50 years ago, and which has of course been rather on the mind of the commentari, that I realised what it was.

Here the cortege passes Lutyens’s extraordinary cenotaph, and I realised, staring at this photograph for rather a while, how much I loved the grimy blackness of old Whitehall, in a London that had, of course, only just seen the end of smogs and the clean air act. How white the cenotaph shines in comparison.

And here, from another newspaper, the funeral barge (I may have my facts wrong) passing down the Thames—the cranes all dipping their masts in respect. Much was made of this little detail in the papers. Would Thatcher have achieved that respect? To be honest, I don’t mind one way or the other – you can take it or leave it, as far as I’m concerned. What I was looking at was the empty skyline of London, which I once wrote about here, and the powerful dignity of a riverbank still lined with commerce and industry.

You can never turn the clock back; I realise.  And – believe me – I think I wouldn’t want to have lived in 1960s London, when being gay was a crime that could still put you in prison (just as a for instance).  I really am happy with the here and now.

But walking out in to the Covent Garden Market, I took a few photos, and I hope when you see what I’m contrasting them with in a little while, you’ll see what I mean.

Why does every bad cup of coffee in London have to be sold by Caffe Nero or some other ubiquitous chain?

It’s only when you look up that you can still see the London I love.

And so – and so on. I came home and dug out one of my favourite books, Clive Boursnell’s Covent Garden. As a young photographer arriving in London in the mid 60s, right around the time of that Churchillian funeral, Clive realised that Covent Garden market was a fragile thing whose days were passing. Over the subsequent years he took thousands of photographs of the market while it was still the centre of fruit, vegetable and flower sales in London.

I know that I’m susceptible to the nostalgia game – you’d probably expect that by now! But I’m nostalgic not for appearances, as so many people can be, as for use. I remember an old hardware shop in Dolgellau, in North Wales – that my friends Jane, Johnny and I used to know. It had been in continuous use as a hardware shop since it was built in the 19th century. Because of all its fixtures and fittings, the building had been listed – so that nothing could be changed or altered inside. But eventually Roberts Hardware went out of business, and it became a coffee shop or a Wicca centre or something equally grim. As far as I’m concerned, at that point, the building was dead, however much we preserve the cupboards.

When we look at these photos, I think we realise the difference between real, and fake, that troubled me at the very start of this blog. Of course I’m glad that the Covent Garden market buildings survived – in one of the most bitterly fought conservation battles of the 1970s.  But when their life and use and soul has been ripped out of them, sometimes I wonder if it’s worth the effort – if the buildings and the city become an empty husk, devoid of meaning?  And looking at the shopping centre that it’s become today – I really do mourn the old market all the more.

Covent Garden I didn’t know you, but I miss you.

30 comments on this post


It makes one cry. And angry

John Revillsays:

For Hardware shops look at Rickards in Ludlow and, especially, Bunners in Montgomery.


amazing pics, i was in syria in 97 and have the same memories and thoughts as you – what is happening there is a real catastrophe, we were fortunate to see this amazing country before they destroyed a large part of its people and heritage….


May as well start getting in the heritage shots of Smithfield …


Funny you should mention Flip. I remember going in there as a teenager in the 80’s. I found it eye-wateringly expensive and the atmosphere positively turgid. I came out with a iron on badge that looked like it had been made two days before. It made some of today’s Floral Street shops look like a bargain.


As someone who lives in Christchurch, New Zealand and having lost many, many of our beautiful old buildings, believe me, even if you don’t like what has been done to the buildings, it is still wonderful to have them. To look up at them and admire their architecture above the modern signage is better than not having them.

Thanks for sharing the photos especially the pics of London “before”. It’s always interesting to look at a piece of history.


Several thoughts. Not really a coherent, pointed argument. Parts of the “new” Covent Garden are better than others. Some times you can turn a corner and gasp, others you tend to cry. As for big budget consumer emporiums; in the UK these can quite often come across as a bit flimsy. Not that I have been to any particularly notable US ones; and I have been to some in Europe that come across as equally unenthusiastic and “unvalued”. As for the old Covent Garden. Some of the photos, to me anyway, betray a note of menace. All that grime and a distinct trace of wry nihilism on some of faces. I do however (I am sure you will be pleased, Ben) really like the Typography on the shop fronts. Which when, even faithfully, reproduced today; falls hollow. I do most of all feel it important to mention that London is not just Zone 1 and has some ever-changing, vibrant localities. On the downside, and it is a big one, I have lost a lot of my passion for London. Maybe it is my age?

Having been lucky enough to attend St Martins School of Art when it was in Covent Garden, I feel unapologetically nostalgic for the way it was. Longacre was full of mid-century Italian caffs, independent bookshops, the wonky floored Cornelissens, Faulkner Fine Papers and the peerless Flip, second hand clothing mecca. When St Martins moved into a banana warehouse in the 70s, there was no reason to alter this beautiful building with its elegant wood and chrome art deco lobby, stairs and offices. The warehouse space above was used for studios and the casement windows provided plenty of light. When St Martins was obliged to move out, the interior was quickly disposed of and the ground floor became an H & M. We like places like Ben Pentreath’s shop partly because there is a sense of what was there before. This is not nostalgia, this is a respect for history.

It’s important to separate the smoke-wreathed nostalgia (and these are wonderful old photographs) from the practicalities of finding a productive modern use for these buildings. It’s hard to image Covent Garden still being used as a wholesale market today, with all of the crowds and rubbish and traffic in the middle of the West End. Once the merchants close up their stalls mid morning, the market would empty out and would be empty for the rest of the day. As others have pointed out below, at least Covent Garden avoided the fate of Les Halles, which is the most profoundly depressing part of Paris. Given the prime location of Covent Garden, I don’t think it’s a terrible outcome for it to become a shopping area for tourists within the old market buildings.

For me, the big question mark is what happens to Smithfield. It’s the last of the wholesale markets left in the centre of town. I love that it’s there, in the same place it’s been for hundreds of years, and yet I expect that in my lifetime I’ll see it move out to somewhere on the edge of town.

Incidentally, there was a wonderful 3 part documentary on the BBC last year about London’s markets: Billingsgate, Smithfield and New Spitalfields. Highly recommended.


I moved into Covent Garden a year or two before the market moved out. In those days Covent Garden Area was still a village, full of small independent shops, New Row, had a Bakery, Coffe Importers, Dry Cleaners, Green Grocers etc. Goodwins Court had the wonderful old Masque Book shop, run I think by Alec Clunes, the Odhams building was still there. I could look out of my kitchen window and see the Shell clock and the illumenated sphere of the Coliseum, now blocked out by new tall buildings. I had to fight the GLC to prevent our wonderful Victorian (built 1890) tiny block of flats from being bulldozed, luckily the whole scheme was abandoned, otherwise we would have lost the Wyndhams and Garrick Theatre!! So glad that I was part of Covent Garden then!


It smelt of oranges and chrysanths or apples and hyacinths depending on when you went, and there was always an underlying whiff of the gents too. I’m embarrassed to say that we used to stop off there after parties, which sounds a bit Bertie Wooster, but you could get a good fry-up to soak up the alcohol. At least London’ s big enough to absorb a rash of fakery. I wonder if that shop in Tooting with the dentures displayed in china donkey carts is still there? It was in the nineties, though I think it featured in a Martin Parr photograph. But smaller cities suffer most. I remember Vienna when it was full of old clothes dealers, wonderful print and book shops, rather louche knicker shops that were next door to dirndl shops. It was also full of Viennese from central casting, except they were the real thing. Lots of Harry Lime lookalikes and we overheard (eavesdropped actually) a wonderful row between a sixty-something Hungarian countess and her twenty-five year old lover. All conducted in English so that no-one in the cafe would be able to understand it – very Schnizler, very alte Wien. Now the whole of Vienna inside the ring is like a bloody theme park.

I had the same reaction as Charlotte seeing the pictures of Covent Garden and thinking, actually, you were quite mistaken and posted pictures of Quincy Market in Boston. Virtually indistinguishable. It’s not so much nostalgia I want but I think it’s sad when cities all start looking alike. When I visit London, I want it to look like London — same with Vienna, Florence, New York, and all the other great cities of the world — not a corporate sponsorship.

Hitchcock’s 1972 film, Frenzy, is mainly shot at Covent Garden market and is a sort of moving version of this book. A great forgotten film and very evocative of grimy (still post war) London.

One of the things that strikes me is that what used to be purchased in those places (Covent Garden, Les Halles, Faneuil Hall) were consumables — the raw materials for food or clothing (okay and flowers — but lots of the Covent Garden vendors were wholesalers). The things that are sold there now are fully manufactured goods — clothing, electronics, cheesy aprons, cinnabon, what have you. And buying such permanent material goods is now this public, communal act, but the things are still disposable/consumable, so we have all this junk in our lives because we seem to relish the act of shopping in public. We in our cities clearly had a strong attachment to these public market spaces (and I am definitely one of the we), since we insisted on keeping them, and even though some were converted to housing or office space or what have you, we collectively wanted to keep many of them as places of commerce. But society has changed (in the west, anyway) in such a way that we’re buying the same cheap mass-market clothing (from China) and video games (probably also from China) in all these cities rather than buying potatoes and cabbages and chickens to take home and cook and be done with. So instead of some food scraps and bones left over from our shopping, we’ve got comic books and Build a Bears and George Foreman grills and Dockers khakis.


As a child I remember visiting my Dad who sang at the opera house, it was the late 70’s and early 80’s. Covent Garden was still relatively scruffy and still felt quirky. There was a second hand clothes store called Flip, independent retailers and St Martins Art School had a building on Long Acre. High rents for retailers have helped to make it feel a bit like Bluewater now, still at least it hasn’t been flattened!

Hi Ben. I noticed your comment that “It’s only when you look up that you can still see the London I love.” I wholeheartedly agree with you on this point… As a retail designer and fan of London, I despair when I see the transient monstrosities that design groups are still churning out under the guise of brand. I wonder how many of the store fronts that we see on the high street today will still be around in even ten or fifteen years? Fortunately London’s heritage does still exist, if only after the first floor.

The UK is no longer an industrial, manufacturing, engineering world leader anymore – we have become a tourist destination and as such reflect the things that visitors expect – hence all the coffee shops etc which resemble so many other cities of the world.

agree with your post. the situation isn’t unique to london. it’s evident in most cities as big box stores are slowly but surely taking over the once quaint main shopping streets. king street in charleston comes to mind. the good news is that independent stores continue to thrive: it just takes a bit more work to find them. i know i prefer to visit a city for the local flavor rather than being able to access the ubiquitous retailer of the moment. great post (the covent garden book looks amazing)


I would like to comment on the comments here. A little odd, perhaps, but worth noting. I am continually dismayed by comments that say little to nothing following blog posts in general but also those following just about anything anywhere online, no matter how trivial. It’s refreshing to see entries here that are thoughtful, sensitive, courteous, add new perspectives and are generally well written. They add further interest to your already interesting posts. As a subscriber to several design oriented blogs, I find the only comments I read on any of them, are those posted here on your blog. Thank you to all your readers who further enrich an already wonderful blog.

We do have to be thankful that Covent Garden is still there, unlike Les Halles. As someone who was in London in the 60’s’s as an art student and is still here (!) – I love London. Every time I walk across the Millenium Bridge / in the Parks / streets/ Museums/ Galleries I think how great it is, and how lucky I am to live here.


If you are missing the busy goings on and the characters of the old covent garden market, just go down to nine elms. You will find the same hub bub of colours and people. I for one am glad tho that I don’t have to go in to central London to pick up my flowers!
I see a lot of people having a nice time in your modern day photographs…..


Winnipeg’s old commercial district has similarly handsomely substantial – if much later – architecture, and is a wonderful area to wander around, looking up up up. Yes, that Winterpeg, in the middle of Canada, eh!

In total agreement in the seemingly unstoppable ‘commodification’ of our lives. I hope that having reached saturation point (have we now not?) we can but turn in another direction. Commercialism perhaps but a much more honest wholesome approach. ‘Our Norfolk’, my online county guide, remains resolutely impartial, non-commercial and ad-free. As a result, some people find this scary because they can’t work out ‘the catch’ – there isn’t one. What am I trying to sell? It is compiled to help visitors to 3 Norfolk establishments make the most of their stay. I garden too which puts food on the table. I’d like to think my guide’s helping to start to steer that turn.

A wonderful post about an eternal phenomenon. For even as we speak, there’s some corner, some district, some piece of terrain whose days are numbered; perhaps to be commemorated in prose, verse, photographs; or just memory. And so it has ever been.

The times I have lived in, from the Forties onwards, are swallowed by history. They are made into costume dramas whose designers do strenuous research, scouring the books and film prop stores for authentic paraphernalia, manners of speech. But fortunately we have the actual movies of those times, and we have memory.

There is continual loss. And there is infinite creativity to replace it.

Sheena Wardsays:

Dear Ben, hello, I am quite new to your blog, and am enjoying it very much. This post so thought-provoking …. a few of my own thoughts to share for what they are worth. I grew up in the suburbs of south London in the 60s and 70s, and remember so many things now gone. But one of the remarkable things about London is the constant change – it never stops. Somehow it just keeps on going. When London was in the grip of the new-fangled railways our dear Southwark Cathedral was almost strangled by railway bridges into the new London Bridge Station. Yet still it remains, despite the quivering and shaking of everything around it each time a train thunders in. And if you take a right turn out of Southwark Cathedral onto London Bridge Road and walk for about a minute to Borough Market, we can today see the very last few days of the old market, now swept away, and in its place clean and ordered stalls which somehow just don’t feel the same, to me at least. Walking through the market along to Bankside is an area of old warehouses, now very smart apartments, and if one keeps walking west along the river we will come to Tate Modern – in my view a magnificent use of a redundant power station. And right now, at the end of Bear Gardens an archaeological dig is taking place unearthing the Elizabethan Rose Theatre. So, we dig deep and preserve, we re-use and re-invent. And then of course, St Pancras – now a very beautifully preserved building. I do agree with you regarding the characterless shops, and for me, I just refuse to go inside them. Thank you for sharing the beautiful book on Covent Garden. May I recommend ‘The House by the Thames’ by wonderful historian Gillian Tindall, and also two little pamphlets by the Canon TP Peters (probably out of print), on Winchester Palace and Southwark’s historic chapter house. At the end of the day, I will always love London, and will always celebrate all that is wonderful about it, just as you do in your blog.


Sadly much of the atmosphere has gone – what makes London unique anymore? I was in London on Saturday, mainly window shopping, but I was disappointed how few unique shops there were. Nevermind though, I found some things to distract me browsing along Pimlico Road and renewing my acquaintance with the National Gallery. However the Underground stations (at least those with their original tiling and labyrinthine passages) still deliver a wonderful kick of nostalgia for authentic, atmospheric, and grimy old London.

Hopefully the same does not occur to Borough Market. The property development of the area is def. furthering the “gentrification” of the area with the loss of interesting shops and markets such as Bermondsey. I loved going to the area early Friday mornings in the mid 90s. Ironic how people want to move to these areas since they are/wer so vibrant and full of character while at the same time they further its death. Tough situation.

Charlotte Ksays:

Commodification–what I really don’t like is that then all these places then, worldwide, look the same. Quincy Market in Boston, also saved by being commercialized, doesn’t look that different from Covent Garden, and with some of the same shops. Doesn’t matter what city you go to in America, you will see this. At least Boston managed to save the Haymarket around the corner.


Dear Ben, the same thing applies to the Halles in Paris, once dubbed “Le Ventre de Paris”, it was destroyed and replaced by a monstrosity devoted to high-street brands. This nonsense is now being destroyed and replaced by much the same thing, only more modern… and as meaningless as an urban space.

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