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The Times Shopper

Browsing in London's 'Newest' Covent Garden

February 15, 1987|JENNIFER MERIN | Merin is a New York City free-lance writer.

Covent Garden is one of London's most colorful shopping sections, rich not only in appealing and varied merchandise but also in legend and lore.

Covent Garden attracted tourists long before Eliza Doolittle, the Covent Garden flower girl, captured the heart of Henry Higgins and won millions of American fans.

Its history predates "Pygmalion" and "My Fair Lady" by centuries. As long ago as 1200 this was Westminster Abbey's kitchen garden. Monks grew fruit and vegetables and sold what they didn't need to passers-by.

After the dissolution of the monasteries, Henry VIII gave the convent garden to the Earl of Bedford in 1552. His gardeners grew and sold produce there until 1631, when architect Inigo Jones was asked to develop the area.

The result, an Italianate piazza (London's first square), drew fashionable and titled residents to live in houses around the square.

Creates Noise and Traffic

By the early 1800s, expansion of the market had created noise, traffic and rot. Covent Garden was in decline. Architect Charles Fowler was hired to build a structure to contain the market. The building was completed in 1830, with a glass-and-iron roof added in 1870.

By the 1960s the market had again spilled into neighboring buildings, causing perpetual traffic jams and stench in central London. After the produce market moved to South London in 1974, Covent Garden went through another extensive and controversial renovation.

Evolution for Today

In 1980 the market reopened with about 40 fashionable boutiques, specialty shops and cafes grouped around two courtyards. Some of them are branches of well-known retailers, but they're open late and some are open on Sunday.

Edwina Carroll has two shops in the market. One has unusual women's clothes and accessories, including jewelry, and one-of-a-kind sweaters. The other shop has unusual children's clothes and toys.

Hobb's has women's and men's shoes designed by Marilyn Anselm and made in Italy. The shop's clothes coordinate with the footwear, including Harris tweed suits and some innovative muted paisley print pajama-like trousers.

Fisher's features cashmere sweaters and clothes of traditional design, with a wide selection of outdoor clothes for fishing and the hunt. The shop also stocks Irish tweeds.

High-Style Whistles

Clothing at Whistles is high fashion, with a balance between traditional styles and trendier looks. British and Japanese designers are in the collection, but the majority of clothes are French. Recently there has been emphasis on a Chanel-like classicism.

Strangeways is a distinctive shop featuring unusual ceramics. This is the place that first put legs on egg cups. In stock are all sorts of funny teapots and other pieces of functional pottery, handmade by droll British potters. Other strange items at Strangeways include timepieces with interesting twists.

Covent Garden Kitchen Supplies sells standard cookery and gadgets, but the selection is too complete for this shop to be labeled run-of-the-mill.

A Doll's House has cookery in miniature. The shop carries antique and new dolls' houses, and will make dolls' houses and furniture to order. In stock is a vast array of handmade antique furniture replicas, rocking horses, lamps, carpets and other tiny home accessories.

Would-Be Impresarios

Pollack's Toy Theatres sells kits for cardboard miniatures of Victorian and other theaters, ready to be assembled and stage-managed by adults or children whose imaginations have a theatrical bent. There are cardboard scene changes and characters, too. The shop also sells antique dolls and games.

Cabaret Mechanical Theatre displays handcrafts known as automata. These amazing and amusing mechanical devices, many of carved wood, are absolutely intriguing. The shop has a museum with several dozen automata.

Not to be missed is the market's branch of Culpeper, with natural beauty and health products. Several drops of Culpeper oils and essences in a bath are guaranteed to relax or boost the spirits as they smooth the skin. The soaps and shampoos are refreshing. Teas and spices, including packaged seasonings for everything from spareribs to spaghetti, are of superbly high quality.

As in the past, commerce expanded beyond the market. The piazza surrounding the market is a beehive of vendors and street performers. The area bounded by the Strand, Charing Cross Road, Shaftsbury Avenue and Drury Lane is filled with fascinating shops.

Tweeds and Checks

Floral Street has two outstanding clothing stores. Designer Paul Smith sells updated British traditional styles, using tweeds and checks, with color-coordinated accents for each new season, at his boutique at No. 43-44.

Jones (No. 13) has trendy fashions by Jean Paul Gaultier, Katharine Hamnett and others, including Joe Caseley Hayford's inventive suits, with pleated backs and eccentric zippers and unusual draped-back shirts.

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