Every May we have a chance to step back a few centuries when Covent Garden plays host to Punch and Judy shows from all over the country. In St Paul’s churchyard, just off the Piazza characters re-enact scenes that were performed in the late 1600’s. That was when Samuel Pepys recorded his first sighting of the duo who have their roots in the 16th-century Italian commedia dell’arte. Then they were known as Puncinella.
Punch and Judy started out as marionette puppets before becoming the glove puppets we see today. They say the show was originally aimed at adults. Nowadays it’s the children that scream and laugh at the puppet shows. But, whatever your age, a trip to the yearly extravagance is worth a visit.
I always know when the day starts. The sounds of the brass band float up from the street below. They are accompanied by stilt walkers, Pearly Kings and Queens, and a variety of Punch and Judy performers. Walking a circuit through the streets, they head to the church. It’s the rousing fanfare that kickstarts the day.
Pearly king and queen
Don’t know what a pearly king and queen is? The very first Pearly King dates back to the mid-to-late 1870’s. They say it began with Henry Croft, an orphan and street sweeper. He completely covered his suit in mother-of-pearl buttons to draw attention to himself when collecting money for orphanages and hospitals. It started a trend, which carries on today, and they continue to raise money for charity. Every London borough had a Pearly family and the hereditary title was passed down through families.
St Paul’s church
The centrepiece of the day is St Paul’s church in Bedford Street, Covent Garden. Set among the trees, shrubs and flowers the Punch and Judy Professors set up camp. Free entertainment is provided for all. If you arrive by midday you can attend the church service with Mr Punch in the pulpit. Then you have the afternoon to enjoy the puppets, music and dance performances.
St Paul’s was the first new church to be built in London after the Reformation in the 17th century to designs by architect Inigo Jones.
It’s known at the Actors’ Church. That’s because it contains memorials to famous theatrical and entertainment personalities such as Sir Charlie Chaplin, Sir Noël Coward and Vivien Leigh. Many of those buried here lost their lives in the Great Plague of London in 1665.
Joining in the fun
This is a feel good day. Families relax, take a break from speedy lives and carry on the centuries old tradition. And when those jolly, brightly coloured characters get up to on stage, the children sitting on the grass join in the fun shouting replies – ‘can you see him?’ – ‘yes we can’!
If you’re in the mood for a chilling drink, you could try the Punch and Judy pub on the West Piazza, whose balcony looks down on the front portico of the church. The pub was built in 1787 and is thought to be named after the Punch and Judy puppet performances. It’s a listed building and one of very few in the area that escaped damage in World War Two.
The timing of the day varies, but it’s usually within the first 10 days or so May. Even if you can’t make the celebrations, Covent Garden is always worth a trip. Here history and modern day collide in perfect harmony. It’s attractive, entertaining, full of shops, restaurants, street performers and much more. This is definitely a must see on any agenda.
Covent Garden is located not far from Leicester Square. If you’re travelling by public transport then the closest tube would be either Leicester Square (on the Northern and Piccadilly Line) or Covent Garden (on the Piccadilly Line). The Piazza is only a couple of minutes from both stations.