Covent Garden: Then & Now

Covent Garden after the Rain, 1982

Covent Garden after the Rain, 1982

I took the color transparency above in Covent Garden, London, one afternoon in 1982, just after a short rain shower. Even though the buildings were against the sun and mostly in darkness, the wet cobbles reflected the sunset and created a fantastic lighting effect. It really was a case of being in the right place at the right time, and with the right equipment.

I’d actually been inside the London Transport Museum, which was immediately behind me in the photograph. While in the museum, I heard the rain on the roof, but couldn’t see it because of the building’s high windows. Soon after the rain stopped, I noticed a brilliant orange glow reflecting onto the ceiling. Thinking that this might be a great opportunity, I rushed outside, and I wasn’t disappointed. Ever since then, I’ve been glad that I impetuously cut short my visit to the museum that afternoon!

Yesterday’s pointless atrocity in London brought to mind this photo, and the terrorist threats that always hung over us, even back when I lived there in the 1980s. In those days, most of the threats came from the IRA (or people claiming to represent them), but only a very small number were real.

As a student, I worked as a Sales Assistant at Selfridges store in Oxford Street during some of the university breaks, and sometimes on Saturdays. As part of our training, we received specific instructions as to what to do if we were notified of a bomb threat, because the store received such threats almost every day! Fortunately, while I lived in London, all the threats at Selfridges were hoaxes, but there was a car bomb at Harrods during Christmas 1983, and I had worked at Harrods only the previous Christmas.

Covent Garden in 2001

Covent Garden in 2001

In 2001, I returned to Covent Garden, and took the photo above from almost the same position as the 1982 photograph, but in obviously different weather conditions. (It’s true that a further 16 years have passed since I took the “Now” photograph!)

At first, everything seemed to be just the same as it had been in 1982, and it wasn’t until I compared the two photographs that I realized what had changed.

The building that was originally Covent Garden market hall is still visible on the right, and it’s as popular a destination now as it was then.

In the earlier photograph, there’s a multi-storey building on the left with many rooms obviously lit by fluorescent strip lights. By the time of the later photograph, this building had been completely replaced. Had that happened a couple of decades earlier, it’s likely that the entire street would have been razed and replaced with examples of “modern architecture”, but fortunately lessons have been learned since then. Many modern redevelopments at least attempt to blend with the surrounding architecture.

How I Became a London Student and (Almost) Went Astray

img0020rotatedGiven my education as an engineer, you may expect that I began reading the work of H G Wells because of his science fiction writing. It’s true that, as a child, I watched several movies that were derived from Wells’ science fiction, such as “War of the Worlds”, but I never actually read any of his books.

In fact, though, I was first motivated to read Wells’ work because of his social ideas. One of the first titles I read was “In the Days of the Comet“, which is now largely forgotten, but, when published, was regarded as outrageous, and was even denounced as pornographic!

Not all of Wells’ works fall into the genre of science fiction; some are simply social novels, such as “Ann Veronica” (also now forgotten, but controversial when first published, because it advanced the cause of women’s rights). Many include autobiographical details, such as “Tono Bungay“, which he published in 1909.

A few years after reading “Tono Bungay”, I moved to London to begin my undergraduate studies in Electrical Engineering. It was only then that I picked up the book again, and realized the ominous title of the first chapter:


I recalled that Wells had indeed been a student at London’s “Normal School of Science” himself, almost a hundred years before I began studying at the same university, now renamed as Imperial College. Wells’ own studies didn’t work out as planned; he did indeed “go astray” and failed his degree. Nonetheless, his experience working on the college’s student newspaper led to his successful writing career, so the outcome was actually successful.

For my part, although I found London very distracting, and it would have been easy to have “gone astray”, I managed to get through and obtain an Honours degree. In addition, I gained vital experience in several other fields that proved useful professionally, but which I’d never anticipated, such as illustration and television.

The college building in which H G Wells studied still exists, across the road from the current Imperial College. It is now known as the Henry Cole Wing of the Victoria & Albert Museum, as shown below in my 1996 photograph.

The original Imperial College: now the Henry Cole Wing of the Victoria & Albert Museum

The original Imperial College: now the Henry Cole Wing of the Victoria & Albert Museum